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The Importance of Teaching Foundational Skills

Ensuring Success for K-5 Readers

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

Foundational skills encompass the knowledge and abilities necessary to support successful reading. Known to predict future reading success, proficiency in foundational skills (such as phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, phonics, and spelling) supports long-term achievement.1

Most educators consider foundational skills to include print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency. These skills often appear in state standards. However, they don’t represent all the skills and knowledge children need to become great readers. Beginning readers need a strong foundation in oral language to build vocabulary and comprehension, along with many other cognitive skills and processing abilities that predict reading success.

This chart includes a list of common terms and their definitions:

Definitions of Foundational Skills and Related Terms

Concept Definition Example
Print concepts Knowing how printed text operates and holds meaning Holding a book correctly and pointing to one written word for each spoken word
Phonological awareness Identifying and manipulating units of sound in oral language Hearing and making rhymes
Phonemic awareness Identifying and manipulating phonemes, the smallest unit of sound in oral language Segmenting to say each sound in a word
Phoneme Smallest unit of sound in oral language The /b/ in boy
Grapheme Written representation of a sound (generally written letters or letter combinations) Dog is spelled d-o-g
Alphabet knowledge Knowing letter names, sounds, and forms Recognizing the upper and lowercase forms of alphabet letters
Phonics Mapping letters and letter combinations to sounds F represents the /f/ sound
Morphology Identifying and manipulating morphemes, the smallest units of meaning in language When a word begins with the prefix re-, it often changes the meaning of the word to add “again.” Retake means to take again.
Word recognition Identifying a word (automatic, effortless, accurate recognition is the goal) Word list assessments are often telling us if a child is recognizing words automatically and accurately
Orthography Representing sounds and meanings with written letters and letter patterns /sh/ /i/ /p/ is spelled s-h-i-p
Orthographic mapping Mapping spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of a word in memory /sh/ /i/ /p/ is spelled s-h-i-p and means “boat”
Decoding Using knowledge about grapheme/phoneme correspondences to read a word Reading a word by saying each sound and blending together
Encoding Using knowledge about grapheme/phoneme correspondences to spell a word Spelling a word by saying each sound and representing with print
Fluency Reading with prosody, accuracy, and automaticity Reading like a proficient adult reader

3 Key Research Takeaways Regarding Instruction in Foundational Skills

1. Explicit and systematic is best for most foundational skills.2 Unlike oral language (which comes naturally for neurotypical individuals in a language-rich environment), for most children, foundational skills are acquired most effectively through direct instruction.

  • “Explicit” means directly instructing a student rather than allowing them to reach a conclusion. For example, instead of saying: “Bad and bike start with the same letter. What sound do we think this letter makes?” an instructor would say: “The letter B represents the sound /b/ like at the start of bike.”
  • “Systematic” means following a scope and sequence to make sure you give instruction in each and every concept. This gives all children equal access to the skills and knowledge necessary to become readers and writers.

2. Many foundational skills grow in conjunction with each other.3 For example, phonemic awareness instruction works best when paired with letters and grows reciprocally with reading, indicating that total proficiency in phonemic awareness is not a prerequisite for learning to read, but can be taught simultaneously. Combining instruction in both contextualized and decontextualized settings can be helpful.

3. Intervening does work.4 A multitude of studies show that research-based interventions in foundational skills (in addition to high quality Tier 1 instruction) improve children’s outcomes. Ideally, interventions should be differentiated and based on children’s actual needs.

As a recognized predictor of reading success, proficiency in foundational skills is absolutely essential for young readers. Strong education in oral language, phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, phonics, and spelling enables students to build reading skills and comprehension, which in turn allows them to succeed in their future studies and in life.

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1. Caravolas et al., 2019; Clayton et al; Treiman et al., 2019.
2. de Graaff et al., 2009; Falth et al., 2017; Henbest & Apel, 2017; Mesmer & Griffin, 2005; NRP, 2000; Torgerson, 2018.
3. Calfee & Normam, 1998; Ehri, 2020; Hulme & Snowling, 2015; NRP, 2000.
4. Puzio et al., 2020; Suggate, 2018.

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