Reading & Literacy Opinion

There Are Four Foundational Reading Skills. Why Do We Only Talk About Phonics?

We must teach the integrated set of foundational skills completely
By Heidi Anne E. Mesmer — January 23, 2020 6 min read
21Mesmer vs SireAnko Getty

Here’s the good news: Most educators have gotten the message that K-5 students need to learn the foundational reading skills outlined in the common core and other college and career-ready standards: print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency. The bad news? The foundational skills instruction that students receive is too often incomplete and ineffective. Districts are “checking” the foundational skills box but are using practices of questionable quality and not addressing all of the foundational skills. It’s not enough to just do foundational skills. They must be taught completely—yet efficiently—with quality materials to build capacity for comprehending lengthy, advanced literary, and informational texts.

Literacy is livelihood. If you can’t read words, many aspects of your life will be impacted. Take this question on a cosmetology licensing exam: “Which of the following refers to the deepest layer of epidermis—stratum spinosum, stratum granulosum, stratum germinativum, stratum lucidum?” It requires understanding complex Latin vocabulary as well as decoding multisyllabic words.

That’s why foundational reading skills must work together—it is the integration of the skills that provide an entry point to complex literacy. As students increase in their abilities to automatically recognize words, they also increase in the amounts of mental energy they can devote to understanding complex ideas and vocabulary. No one can concentrate on Newton’s laws, plot development, or electrical circuits if they are struggling to decode every fifth word.

A common misconception is that “foundational skills” only means “phonics.” The truth is that the four areas are an integrated gestalt, greater than the sum of their parts. Often emphasized in K-2, phonics is teaching students the correspondence between visual symbols (graphemes made of letters) and speech sounds (phonemes). But to access phonics, children must have certain insights, or the system will make no sense.

Students often learn letters but don’t know, for example, that print runs left-to-right or that words are groups of letters separated by space—insights called print concepts. Similarly, students learn letter names but do not understand the alphabetic principle—that symbols represent speech sounds (“cat” equals 3 symbols, 3 sounds). Kindergarteners learn the alphabetic principle and print concepts when their teachers model reading and writing. We are putting the cart before the horse if we drill letter/sounds without also teaching print concepts and the alphabetic principle.

That's why foundational reading skills must work together—it is the integration of the skills that provide an entry point to complex literacy.

Some educators think phonological awareness is synonymous with phonics, but this is another misconception. In fact, when I recently observed foundational skills lessons in more than 10 K-2 classrooms, I only saw one phonological awareness lesson. Phonological awareness is the ability to orally identify and manipulate the sound units of language such as words, syllables, and speech. Research tells us that if students do not consciously attend to and distinguish these units, they are unlikely to benefit from phonics. Similarly, instruction in print concepts primes students to learn phonics. Can you imagine going to a job where you learn all about the different types of buttons, threads, fabrics, and zippers but no one tells you that you are manufacturing jeans? Yet that’s often how reading instruction can feel for children.

Phonics and word recognition skills include analyzing multisyllabic words into morphemes, the smallest meaning units (e.g., pre-treat-ing). Many schools stop instruction after students can decode single syllable words, but multisyllabic words outnumber single syllable words 4-to-1 in advanced texts. To complete foundational skills instruction, we need systematic instruction in morphology through the 5th grade and beyond.

The last foundational skill, fluency, closes the deal. It is the ability to read connected text automatically (with little conscious effort), accurately, and with proper expression using volume, phrasing, smoothness, and pace to convey the meaning. Addressed in 1st through 5th grade, fluency enhances—and is affected by—meaning making. Without requisite fluency, students will have little cognitive energy to devote to complex ideas.

It can be exhausting to hear about research-based this and research-based that—but there are well-established findings regarding foundational skills instruction. Simply put: Foundational skills cannot be separated. Print concepts and phonological awareness support phonics instruction, morphological instruction extends students’ word recognition, and fluency automatizes word reading. Here are truths educators should focus on:

1. Systematic instruction is effective. It is driven by a scope and sequence, a guide specifying the content to be taught and its order. Let one scope and sequence drive instruction. I often see districts using two to three foundational skills plans, an overkill approach that is bound to confuse students.

2. Students need to learn all the foundational skills. I see approaches that heavily emphasize just one or two skills, such as phonics, but completely miss others. These skills are complementary and need to be consistently taught, in response to development, through grade 5.

3. Instructional language should be explicit. Teachers should clearly and directly tell students the grapheme/phoneme relationships, word roots, or syllable patterns being taught. I recently tested more than 150 kindergarteners who knew about 90 percent of their letter/sounds but could not decode simple words. Most young children must be taught explicitly how to decode words.

4. Solid foundational skills instruction is assessment-guided and responsive. All students do not need the same thing. In a 2014 study, one researcher found that entering kindergarteners ranged from knowing zero letter names to knowing all of them. Teachers must use simple diagnostic assessments that inform cumulative review and instruction and often must use small group instruction.

5. Instructional materials must be aligned to the standards. A recent analysis from the RAND Corporation found that only 7 percent of elementary school teachers used at least one high-quality English/language arts material. Thoroughly vet materials to ensure full coverage of all foundational skills. EdReports.org provides a rigorously developed tool that give leaders a road map. (I recently sat on an advisory panel for the organization’s inaugural review of Foundational Skills curriculum.) With focused planning even small or underresourced districts can find research-based, standards-aligned materials.

Moreover, all four foundational skills deserve our full attention as they provide an entry point to complex literacy. Decisionmakers must fully understand what the foundational skills are and apply the robust research that informs best practices. These foundational reading skills are truly foundational—an essential ingredient but not the full recipe. Comprehension and writing instruction, which requires a wide range of instructional targets such as vocabulary and world knowledge, the focus of the other standards, round out the complete recipe. Millions of students are looking to their schools to provide them with the essential knowledge they need to succeed in college and career—it is imperative that we get these skills right.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 2020 edition of Education Week as Phonics Is Just One Part of a Whole

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