January 12, 2023

What is the key to developing “on level” young readers?

It’s time to re-think our expectations for early literacy. Research shows that with the right type of instruction, 95% of all students should be “on level” by the end of the third grade. But I say we can do even better. Let’s up that goal and strive to have 95% of our students reading at grade level by the end of first grade.

What’s the key to this tremendously high expectation?

Focusing on the 7 pillars of early literacy instruction and understanding how to teach early literacy so that children will learn. In this blog, I’ll take a look at each of the 7 pillars of early literacy instruction and provide early literacy teaching strategies for incorporating these pillars into your classroom.

What are the strategies for developing early literacy?

The strategies for developing early literacy are known as the 7 pillars of early literacy instruction and include:

  1. Alphabetic principle
  2. Phonological awareness
  3. Phonemic awareness
  4. Phonics
  5. Word recognition
  6. Vocabulary
  7. Structural analysis

When students are taught these early literacy pillars in the correct order, they will have the foundation they need for early success in reading.

The 7 pillars of early literacy instruction

#1: Alphabetic principle

The alphabetic principle is the concept that letters and their patterns represent the sounds of spoken language.

Children’s reading development is completely dependent upon their understanding of this critical principle. They must grasp that there are predictable relationships between sounds and letters— relationships they will later learn to apply to both familiar and unfamiliar words—to enable them to begin to read with fluency.

Early literacy teaching strategies for helping students master the alphabetic principle include activities such as:

  • Reading ABC books
  • Pointing out letters in their environment
  • Playing alphabet games
  • Singing ABC songs and chants
  • Providing the opportunity for students to play with letter shapes, like magnetic letters
  • Identifying and naming both uppercase and lowercase letters
  • Introducing writing activities early on, to give students plenty of practice writing the letters they’ve learned

Note that the sequence of instruction has a significant impact on learning. For the alphabetic principle, instruction must follow a sensible sequence that introduces letters in a way that’s easy for students to learn. For example, do not introduce “b” and “d” at the same time, and be sure to teach “p” and “q” several weeks apart.

#2: Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the different parts of oral language, such as words and syllables. It is important to note that phonological awareness is an auditory concept that does not involve the printed word.

The five levels of phonological awareness are:

  1. Rhyming and alliteration
  2. Sentence segmentation
  3. Syllables
  4. Onsets and rimes
  5. Phonemic awareness

Early literacy strategies for teaching phonological awareness include:

  • Having students divide sentences into words
  • Reading rhyming books and having children find the rhyming words
  • Clapping out words into syllables
  • Practicing alliteration
  • Segmenting and blending onsets and rimes
  • Singing songs, chants, and nursery rhymes

 As with the alphabetic principle, the order of instruction is key.

#3: Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness that focuses on the individual sounds that make up words. Teach phonemic awareness only after the larger phonological awareness concepts have been mastered.

Just like with phonological awareness, the skills that are involved in phonemic awareness are 100% auditory.

Instructional strategies for literacy in the pillar of phonemic awareness can include:

  1. Using clapping, tiles, chips, felt squares, and Elkonin boxes to help children identify and match initial, middle, and final sounds in words.
  2. Verbally practicing blending sounds into words.
  3. Manipulating phonemes by removing, adding, or substituting the sounds in words. For example, help the child turn “cat” into “at” (removal), “cats” (addition), and “bat” (substitution).

#4: Phonics

The concept of phonics builds on phonemic awareness, which involves connecting the sounds of oral language with the letters of written language.

Once again, the instructional sequence of phonics is of the utmost importance and should be done in the following order:

  1. Start with the high-utility letters: A, E, I, O, U, L, N, S, T, and R (Hint: These are your 1-point Scrabble letters).
  2. Teach the consonants before you introduce the consonant blends.
  3. Introduce long vowels only after the student has mastered all short vowels and consonant blends.

And remember, students don’t have to know every phonetic sound to begin reading and writing. For instance, a child who only knows the letters “a” and “m” is ready to practice the words “am,” “ma,” and “mama.”

Also, focus on using decodable texts that align with the phonetic elements being taught. This way, students build the habit of decoding words, rather than constantly guessing or relying on picture clues.

#5: Word recognition

Irregularly spelled words, also known as sight words, cannot be decoded and must be memorized. For these words, teachers must explicitly teach each word’s:

  • Spelling
  • Pronunciation
  • Meaning

Teachers should also have students practice reading and writing sight words alongside phonetically decodable words.

Be sure to only introduce a very limited set of sight words in the early grades. I recommend no more than four per week.

Some early literacy teaching strategies for helping students master the pillar of word recognition include:

  • Having them read (and reread) books containing their sights words
  • Helping them to focus on the structure of irregularly spelled words
  • Teaching them to use context clues

#6: Vocabulary

The instruction of phonics, word recognition, and vocabulary should be constantly intertwined. As students learn to read and spell words, it is important to make sure they also understand the meanings of those words.

Some early literacy teaching strategies for helping to grow students’ vocabularies include:

  1. Creating word-conscious classrooms that celebrate students when they use new vocabulary words.
  2. Not being afraid of using more complex words. Beef up the vocabulary you use with your students instead of “dumbing it down.”
  3. Providing plenty of explicit instruction around the meaning of individual words.
  4. Teaching word-learning strategies, such as structural analysis.

#7: Structural analysis

Structural analysis is a decoding strategy that introduces students to the parts of words, including:

  • Prefixes
  • Suffixes
  • Root words

By breaking a word into its component parts, your students gain valuable insights about the word’s spelling and pronunciation—and can then anticipate similar multisyllabic words they will encounter in the future.

Structural analysis strengthens students’ skills in these areas:

  • Decoding
  • Word recognition
  • Vocabulary

It is also a fantastic way to teach literacy in a cross-disciplinary manner.

You can incorporate early literacy strategies for the pillar of structural analysis by:

  • Engaging your students in active reading
  • Teaching them how to utilize context clues when they meet an unfamiliar word

You can also use structural analysis to bring science and social studies terms into the language arts classroom, as well as to leverage literacy skills in the content areas.

Why repetition is crucial to the success of the 7 pillars of early literacy instruction

For each of the 7 pillars of early literacy, it’s important to remember that students will learn different skills at different rates. Some students may master a new skill after four repetitions, while other students will need 100.

Repetition is the key to success, so make sure students have as many practice opportunities as they need in order to learn each pillar. With enough repetition and the right instructional sequence, you’ll see your young readers soar!

Discover Lalilo from Renaissance, which provides K–2 learners with fun, differentiated practice on phonemic awareness, phonics, word recognition, vocabulary, and more.