The Importance of Teaching Foundational Skills

Taking a Science of Reading-Aligned Approach

Dr Julia Lindsey Bio Image

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

Foundational skills encompass the knowledge and abilities necessary to support successful reading. While many educators consider foundational skills like phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, phonics, and spelling to be the sole skills predicting future literacy success, they are not representative of all the skills and knowledge necessary for reading proficiency.

In fact, as explained by the 5 Pillars of Literacy, a simplified visual model of the core components for early literacy instruction, proficient reading involves many more skills, such as fluency, vocabulary (with an emphasis on morphology), and knowledge building, which ultimately help students to develop reading comprehension.

Take a look at this chart for a list of common terms, important foundational skills, and their definitions:

Definitions of Foundational Skills and Related Terms

Print conceptsKnowing how printed text operates and holds meaningHolding a book correctly and pointing to one written word for each spoken word
Phonological awarenessIdentifying and manipulating units of sound in oral languageHearing and making rhymes
Phonemic awarenessIdentifying and manipulating phonemes, the smallest unit of sound in oral languageSegmenting to say each sound in a word
PhonemeSmallest unit of sound in oral languageThe /b/ in boy
GraphemeWritten representation of a sound (generally written letters or letter combinations)Dog is spelled d-o-g
Alphabet knowledgeKnowing letter names, sounds, and formsRecognizing the upper and lowercase forms of alphabet letters
PhonicsMapping letters and letter combinations to soundsF represents the /f/ sound
MorphologyIdentifying and manipulating morphemes, the smallest units of meaning in languageWhen a word begins with the prefix re-, it often changes the meaning of the word to add “again.” Retake means to take again.
Word recognitionIdentifying 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
OrthographyRepresenting sounds and meanings with written letters and letter patterns/sh/ /i/ /p/ is spelled s-h-i-p
Orthographic mappingMapping spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of a word in memory/sh/ /i/ /p/ is spelled s-h-i-p and means “boat”
DecodingUsing knowledge about grapheme/phoneme correspondences to read a wordReading a word by saying each sound and blending together
EncodingUsing knowledge about grapheme/phoneme correspondences to spell a wordSpelling a word by saying each sound and representing with print
FluencyReading with prosody, accuracy, and automaticityReading like a proficient adult reader

3 Key Tips for Science of Reading-Aligned Foundational Skills Instruction

1. According to the Science of Reading research, delivering explicit, systematic instruction is best for most foundational skills.² Unlike oral language, which comes naturally for neurotypical individuals in a language-rich environment, foundational skills are acquired most effectively through direct instruction for most children.

  • “Explicit” means directly instructing a student rather than allowing them to reach a conclusion on their own. 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 the instruction follows a sequential order. A research-informed scope and sequence will ensure you deliver instruction for each and every concept, from simple to complex. This gives all children equal access to the skills and knowledge necessary to become readers and writers.
  • Science of Reading-aligned” means that everything from lesson plans to independent practice activities are aligned with Science of Reading research. Specifically, this refers to taking an explicit, systematic, and, cumulative approach to reading instruction to yield greater academic results, including multimodal practice opportunities and access to developmentally appropriate texts. In addition, this element involves regular assessments to inform and differentiate instruction.

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 Science of Reading-aligned interventions in foundational skills, in addition to high-quality Tier 1 instruction, improve children’s outcomes. Ideally, interventions should be differentiated and based on their actual needs.

As a recognized predictor of reading success, proficiency in foundational skills is absolutely essential for young readers. A 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.

Strengthen Foundational Skills With the Science of Reading

Learn more about our Science of Reading-aligned foundational skills solution, Foundations A-Z, to see how you can grow foundational skills in your classroom, school, or district.



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.


Science of Reading

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