By Pati Montgomery, Founder & President, Schools Cubed
It’s time to set tremendously high expectations for early literacy. Research says that, with the right instruction, 95% of all students can be “on level” by the end of third grade. I say we can do even better—let’s get 95% of our students to read at grade level by the end of first grade. The key? Focusing on the seven pillars of early literacy instruction.
What are those pillars, and how do we teach them?
The alphabetic principle is the concept that letters and their patterns represent the sounds of spoken language. Get kids started by using games, songs, and magnetic letters to help them learn to identify and name both upper and lowercase letters. Introduce writing activities early on, so kids can practice writing the letters they’ve learned.
Note that the sequence of instruction has a huge impact on learning. For the alphabetic principle, instruction must follow a sensible sequence that introduces letters in a way that’s easy for kids to learn. Do not introduce b and d at the same time, and be sure to teach p and q weeks apart.
Phonological awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the different parts of oral language, such as words and syllables. As with the alphabetic principle, instructional order is key: Move from big to small, progressing from sentences to words to rhymes to syllables to, finally, onsets and rimes. Have kids divide sentences into words, find rhyming words, break words into syllables, and then segment and blend onsets and rhymes.
Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness that focuses on the individual sounds that make up words. Teach it after larger phonological awareness concepts have been mastered. Use clapping, tiles, chips, felt squares, and Elkonin boxes to help children identify and match initial, middle, and final sounds in words. Kids should practice blending sounds into words and manipulating phonemes by removing, adding, or substituting sounds in words. For example, turn cat into at (removal), cats (addition), and bat (substitution).
Phonics builds on phonemic awareness, connecting the sounds of oral language with the letters of written language. Once again, instructional sequence is of critical importance. Start with high-utility letters (hint: These are your 1-point Scrabble letters), teach all consonants before introducing consonant blends, and introduce long vowels only after all short vowels and consonant blends.
Have kids practice reading and writing real words as soon as possible: A child who only knows a and m is ready to practice am, ma, and mama. Use decodable text that aligns with the phonetic elements being taught so kids build the habit of decoding words, rather than guessing or relying on pictures.
Irregularly spelled words, or sight words, cannot be decoded and must be memorized. Introduce a very limited set of sight words in the early grades—I recommend no more than four per week. Explicitly teach each word’s spelling, pronunciation, and meaning. Have students practice reading and writing sight words alongside decodable words.
Phonics, word recognition, and vocabulary should be constantly intertwined. As students learn to read and spell words, it’s important to make sure they also understand the meaning of those words. Create word-conscious classrooms that celebrate students when they use new vocabulary. Do not be afraid of using “high” vocabulary words—beef UP your vocabulary instead of dumbing it down. Give explicit instruction around the meaning of individual words and teach word-learning strategies such as structural analysis.
Structural analysis introduces students to prefixes, suffixes, and root words. By breaking a word into its component parts, children gain insights about it spelling and pronunciation—and can anticipate similar words. This strengthens their decoding skills, word recognition, and vocabulary. Plus, structural analysis is a fantastic way to teach literacy in a cross-disciplinary manner: Use it to bring science and social studies terms into the language arts classroom, as well leverage literacy skills in the content areas.
For all seven pillars, it’s important to remember kids will learn different skills at different rates. Some kids may master a new skill after four repetitions; some kids will need 100. Repetition is key, so make sure students have as many practice opportunities as they need to learn. With enough repetition and the right instructional sequence, you’ll see your young readers soar!
For more helpful instructional strategies—including practical approaches for motivating students, selecting engaging read-aloud texts, and leveraging data to inform instruction—watch Pati Montgomery’s on-demand webinar, Kick-Starting Early Literacy Success.
Pati Montgomery has dedicated more than 25 years to education, serving as a teacher, principal, district administrator, trainer, researcher, and Executive Director of the Office of Literacy at the Colorado Department of Education. Today, Pati is the founder and president of Schools Cubed, which helps low-performing schools transform into self-sustaining, high-achieving school systems, and leads coaching and professional development in the areas of school improvement and literacy.