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5 Must-Haves for Foundational Skills Instruction

By Julia Lindsey, Doctoral Candidate, Educational Studies, University of Michigan School of Education

Foundational skills instruction helps students become the most successful readers they can be. Because reading remains one of the most-studied cognitive phenomena, teachers can be confident relying upon these five crucial must-haves for foundational skills instruction in elementary school, grounded in research and best practices.

1. Explicit and Systematic

Since the 2000 National Reading Panel, you’ve probably heard how much we need to teach explicit and systematic phonics1. These principles are critical to all of our foundational reading instruction, but what do they actually mean?

Explicit instruction means telling students exactly what they need to know. Though there are clear benefits to exploratory learning (as in science experiments), it’s not the most optimal type of instruction for foundational skills instruction. Instead, use clear, concise language followed by plenty of repetition and practice. For example: “I can hear the final sound of ‘cat’ by saying each sound I hear and identifying the final sound. /c/ /a/ /t/. The last sound I said was /t/. The final sound in ‘cat’ is /t/. The letter that makes the /t/ sound is t.”

Explicit instruction gives each student an equal opportunity to learn any concept. Because foundational skills are so critical to future reading success, all of your students deserve to be taught information in the clearest (most explicit) way.

Systematic instruction means following a scope and sequence that includes all components of each foundational skill across the elementary grades in a reasonable developmental trajectory. If your school doesn’t use a consistent curriculum across grades, check in with teachers in adjacent grades to ensure a consistent curriculum.

2. Appropriately Paced and Differentiated

Scope and sequence must be appropriately paced and provide opportunities for differentiation. Pacing considerations may include:

  • Introducing all letters and most common sounds of the alphabet within the first two months of kindergarten, because this rapid introduction helps children start decoding words sooner and supports end-of-year reading2
  • Focusing on phonemic awareness (isolating sounds, blending and segmenting sounds, and manipulating sounds) in kindergarten and first grade to help children more effectively become proficient readers3
  • Messaging reasonable fluency goals to children, emphasizing reading for meaning over reading for speed, because fluency takes several years to develop and ultimately comprehension is key

3. Practice, Practice, Practice

Give students lots of time to practice new skills and review previously learned content each day. Students are proven to do best when foundational skills instruction is packed with frequent practice opportunities. Try to have more children talking than the teacher talks during your foundational skills lessons, so students get plenty of practice applying what they’re learning.

4. Use Routines That Work

Need to make sure your routines work? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the content explicitly introduced?
  • Is most of the cognitive work on students?
  • Am I asking students to listen, say, read, or write?
  • Will my students be silent, or will they be talking, listening, and practicing foundational skills? (If children do foundational skills work silently, they may not be doing the cognitive work of connecting sounds to letters.)

Routines that work can be recognized in classrooms where students are consistently listening for sounds or words, saying sounds and words, reading words and sentences, and writing letters, words, and sentences.

5. Read and Write With Foundational Skills in Mind

Throughout the day, children are reading and writing a lot. Even if it’s just a word problem in math or a written note during a science experiment, children read and write throughout the day. Whenever possible, find ways to integrate foundational skills into contextualized reading and writing opportunities. Each time you do this, you’re helping students transfer these skills into real-world contexts and empowering them to become better readers, writers, and communicators, essential skills for succeeding in life!

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1. de Graaff et al., 2009; Henbest & Apel, 2017; National Reading Panel, 2000; Torgerson, 2018
2. Jones et al., 2013; Sunde et al., 2019
3. Yeh, 2003

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