Morphemes, prosody, phonological awareness… you’re not alone if an elementary ELA lesson feels a bit more like rocket science. If it were easier, our society might not face such enormous inequities in literacy. However, research shows that reading disparities can be prevented by adequately preparing teachers to provide effective instruction in the core foundational skills of early literacy.
What does effective reading instruction look like? The NRC reports that it is crucial for teachers to provide explicit instruction in the foundational skills of literacy in grades K-3. These skills are the building blocks of reading and the most crucial precursor of literacy achievement.
What are the core foundational skills in reading?
There is a robust body of research urging K-3 teachers to explicitly teach these 5 foundational skills of reading:
Phonological (Phonemic) Awareness
Phonemic awareness is the verbal manipulation of language. It is the recognition of how individual sounds combine to make syllables and words.
The English language has many spelling and sound patterns that are necessary for students to learn to decode a text.
Fluency is the ability to read a text at the correct speed and with the correct accuracy and expression (we all have students who read like robots!).
Explicitly teaching vocabulary, especially academic vocabulary, allows readers to access and comprehend more complex texts.
Comprehension strategies give meaning to the words we decode so fluently. Without comprehension, the other skills have no meaning.
Why are these skills important for students in grades K-3?
In grades K-3, reading instruction is centered on learning how to read. However, there is a huge transition to reading to learn that takes place in the upper grades.
As these older students lacking basic skills struggle to decode their word problems in math class or fail to comprehend lengthy passages in science or history, the rate at which they fall behind in school increases with each passing year. With that in mind, it is no wonder 54% of U.S. adults lack proficiency in literacy and why it is so crucial that every kid in grades K-3 receive the best reading instruction possible.
How can teachers support struggling readers in grades K-3?
Explicitly teach the core foundational skills and strategies.
Teaching explicitly may seem straightforward, but even the simplest reading skills need to be clearly modeled and paired with simple steps or a concise description of the skill, followed by guided and independent practice. Note that this is the explicit instruction of skills and strategies.
Strategy for explicit instruction:
- Direct explanation: For example, “Fluent readers read with expression. This means we use feeling in our voices.”
- Teacher modeling or “thinking aloud”: Read a passage with a lot of different emotions, anger, surprise, sadness, and happiness, explicitly pointing out how your voice changes to express these emotions. Point out how you use punctuation as a clue (exclamation points are enthusiastic, happy, or excited!)
- Guided practice: Whole group or partner practice, listening for expression
- Application: Plan a readers’ theatre
Include cumulative, meaningful practice
The foundational skills need to be revisited, built upon, and modeled in a variety of contexts over the course of a school year. New skills are taught in relation to previously mastered concepts allowing repeated practice and deeper understanding.
- Implement peer tutoring routines where students are paired and taught to work together to practice learned skills.
- Use decodable readers to practice phonics patterns in context. Allow students to revisit old decodable books from previously taught lessons in their centers, partner, or independent reading time for continued practice.
- Use a variety of reading opportunities. Incorporate repeated practice of the same text through teacher reads, echo, choral, buddy, and independent strategies. Vary a few in a single lesson and add in new methods the following days so that students read the text multiple times in a week.
Adapt and differentiate instruction to meet student needs.
Differentiating instruction doesn’t mean a teacher should have to plan 30 different lesson plans for each student in the class. The first step to tackling foundational skills is to assess the class and identify specific skills and strategies that students need to learn. This is particularly useful as students have returned to classrooms following the COVID-19 pandemic. Use the data to plan your lessons to systematically teach the skills and provide the support your struggling students need through the process.
Strategies for Teachers:
- It is recommended that when practicing skills, students have at least five out-of-context practice opportunities for every sound and spelling pattern along with in-context practice with decodable readers. Whether it is through games, activities, tasks, or computer programs, you may need to differentiate with grouping and scaffolding so that your struggling readers are supported, and the more advanced are challenged.
- Group/Center Tasks are a great way to give more explicit practice and gather data to assess individual student progress.
Engage students with rich, culturally relevant texts that value the backgrounds of all students in the class.
Ensure that students can see themselves in the texts they read. Reading should be fun, enjoyable, and personal. Also, the research clearly shows that students who read culturally relevant books read more and read better. This becomes especially important as students get older and begin to refine their tastes in books.
Strategies for Teachers:
- Take the time to dive deep into the demographics of your classroom. While representation in gender and race is extremely important, diversity is also about socio-economic status, personal experiences, culture, family structures, and beliefs.
- Choose texts with relevant background knowledge. If your American class of kindergarteners reads a book about the game of cricket, would it be easy for most of your students to understand? No, because they have never had that experience. When considering the diverse backgrounds of your students, especially ELs, always take into consideration the experiences of the students.
- Assess the tone of the text. Does it portray diverse perspectives in a positive tone that reflects students’ personal or cultural values? Or does it feature one-dimensional, stereotypical characters with a condescending tone?
What should school leaders do to improve K-3 literacy instruction and address COVID-19 skill gaps in reading?
Assess your curriculum resources and supplemental materials for standards and research-based practices
Now more than ever, teachers need quality tools to facilitate their instruction to close gaps from the pandemic. Stop using a patchwork of materials and invest in curriculums that are research-based and proven effective. Websites like edreports.org allow you to review how every curriculum on the market ranks for standards and researched-based practices.
Invest in your teachers
Create a culture of ongoing learning with strategic, job-embedded development. Your student body is guaranteed to have huge gaps in their academic skills following months of virtual learning. The better trained and supported your teachers, the better they will be at assessing, targeting, and remediating these gaps.
Initiate evidence-based learning programs
Communities and families became involved in education in a completely new way during the pandemic. By capitalizing on community involvement, schools can partner with libraries and businesses to create better learning opportunities outside of school.
Additionally, many districts have created targeted weekend, after school, summer, and holiday break programs to give students the time they need to practice and cement the skills that students need to master.
Why is professional development important and necessary for teachers to become skilled at teaching students to read at proficient and advanced levels?
If effective instruction is the remedy for struggling readers, teachers need the support and instruction from their schools to do so. Job-embedded professional development is a model that provides ongoing instruction and reflective feedback that is targeted to equip educators with the skills to address the needs of all students.
The benefits of job-embedded professional development and coaching support are three-fold:
- First, teachers are less likely to feel overwhelmed and burnt, which may lead to them leaving the profession. Teachers need to feel valued, respected, and supported by experiencing success in their classrooms.
- Secondly, teachers know that they have a guide on the side to model, demonstrate or co-teach a lesson to ensure that they learn how to apply and implement new instructional strategies.
- Lastly, job-embedded professional development and coaching support help educators achieve their professional growth goals and improve student outcomes. As teachers improve, so does their instruction and thus, student achievement.
The Center for Student Achievement Solutions would love to partner with your district or school to work elbow to elbow with your school leaders and teachers. We are collaborative and provide an extra set of eyes and ears to review student achievement assessment results, support teachers with developing lesson plans to target skill gaps and accelerate learning,
We would be honored to partner with your leaders to develop a strategy that is tailored to your team’s needs. At CSAS, all of our consultants are seasoned educational leaders, so we’ve been in your shoes! Start by scheduling a free call with one of our expert consultants so we can learn about the challenges you’re facing. From there, we can map out a custom strategy to help you achieve your goals.