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Building Foundational Skills for Improved Literacy

Reading is an important life skill. However, a surprising amount of today's students read below the required proficiency of their respective grade levels. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2019 about two-thirds of students from public schools across the nation read below their grade proficiency levels.

Why is this? The National Council on Teacher Quality suggests literacy gaps start in early childhood. Countless children do not establish the early foundational skills necessary for reading development, and these literacy gaps follow them throughout life.

What Are Foundational Reading Skills?

Foundational reading skills set up children for success as they learn more advanced skills. According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the four primary reading foundational skills are defined as follows:

  1. Print concepts: Before students can read, they must understand how words and phrases appear on a page. For example, it's important to understand that words and sentences are formed by reading from top to bottom and left to right.
  2. Phonological awareness: Students must understand spoken words, syllables and sounds.
  3. Phonics and word recognition: Students should also be able to understand the relationships between letters and sounds to form spoken words. Learning to recognize words quickly and accurately helps students obtain meaning from what they read.
  4. Fluency: Students need to be able to read a variety of texts so that it becomes easier, more accurate and more expressive. This enables them to identify a wider variety of unfamiliar words and understand a wider variety of texts over time.

Approaches to Closing the Literacy Gap.

Many reading programs focus on one or two major foundational skills while largely ignoring others. Offering well-rounded reading education that emphasizes all foundational skills in tandem with each other allows students to recognize the connections between these skills. For example, if a student doesn't have a solid understanding of letter sounds, they are unlikely to be able to make connections between those sounds to create words.

One reason some programs might ignore key foundational skills is a lack of differentiation between skills. For example, literacy professor Heidi Anne E. Mesmer reflects, "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."

Students cannot be expected to blend sounds and recognize words when they do not know the different sounds made by letters and syllables. Educators must ensure all foundational skills are covered. Assuming teaching one skill will result in reading proficiency is detrimental to student success.

To address already existing literacy gaps, educators should rely more on assessment and intervention. Students classified as "poor decoders," or readers who have trouble recognizing words, have greater difficulty developing fluency and comprehension.

Researchers Tenaha O'Reilly and Zuowei Wang believe the first step in breaking the cycle of poor decoding is to properly assess students who have difficulty with reading comprehension to determine whether word recognition is at the heart of the problem.

O'Reilly and Wang also suggest educators emphasize persistence with teaching foundational reading skills. Poor decoders tend to spend less time trying to decode unfamiliar words and give up easily. Practice really does make perfect when it comes to reading, and students must be persuaded to take their time when trying to recognize unfamiliar words.

In general, educators who teach foundational skills in early childhood should consider whether they are establishing the groundwork for their students to succeed later. This means making sure they are not conflating foundational skills or ignoring key aspects of early childhood literacy. Educators dealing with students who are already lacking in key areas should look for ways to assess, intervene and support students before it's too late.

Learn more about The University of Texas at Arlington's Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction – Literacy Studies program.


Common Core State Standards Initiative: Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

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

Educational Testing Service: The Critical Role Decoding Plays in Reading Comprehension

National Center for Education Statistics: The Nation's Report Card: 2019 Reading Nation Grade 4 Snapshot Report

National Council on Teacher Quality: Teacher Prep Review Program Performance in Early Reading Instruction

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