5 Must-Haves for Foundational Skills Instruction

Empowering Educators With the Science of Reading

Dr Julia Lindsey Bio Image

By Dr. Julia Lindsey, Ph.D., Literacy Expert, Consultant, and Author

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 Science of Reading research.

1. Explicit, Systematic, and Science of Reading-Aligned

Since the National Reading Panel’s report in 2000, you’ve probably heard how much we need to teach explicit and systematic phonics¹. These principles are critical to 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. 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 the instruction follows a sequential order. A scope and sequence informed by research will guarantee the integration of all components of each foundational skill across every elementary grade level, following a logical developmental progression. If your school doesn’t use a consistent scope and sequence across each grade level, check in with teachers in adjacent grades to ensure consistent, Science of Reading-aligned instruction.

2. Appropriately Paced and Differentiated

A 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 reading.²
  • 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 readers.³
  • Setting reasonable fluency goals for children, emphasizing reading for accuracy and expression over reading for speed, because fluency takes several years to develop, and is essential for reading comprehension.

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. Providing frequent practice opportunities is an essential component of guided instruction and independent practice time in the classroom.

4. Use Routines That Work

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

  • Is the content explicitly introduced?
  • Is your current routine aligned with Science of Reading research? If not, take a look at this explanation of how Science of Reading-aligned instruction can maximize instructional time and academic impact.
  • 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!

Find out How Learning A-Z Supports Foundational Skills

Learn more about our foundational literacy solution based on the Science of Reading, Foundations A-Z.



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


Science of Reading

Science of Reading-aligned instruction helps educators strengthen foundational literacy skills and boost reading proficiency for all students.
A Cambium Learning Group Brand

A Cambium Learning® Group Brand