Learning to read is a complex process — as is teaching reading skills to young learners. Most of the debate about the best approach seems to center around the whole-word approach versus phonics, with the latter being the better supported.
However, according to a recent post in Education Week, that debate misses out on the bigger picture. Foundational skills for reading include more than just learning what sounds go with which letters, and glossing over (or completely ignoring) the other skills does a great disservice to our students.
According to Mesmer, a literacy professor in the education department at Virginia Tech, foundational reading skills must all work together to be effective — it’s the integration of the skills that provides an understanding of increasingly complex literacy. How can you possibly hope to process a historical event or a complex plot if you’re struggling to decode every few words? When students increase their abilities to recognize words automatically, they also free up mental energy they can use to understand complex ideas and unfamiliar vocabulary.
Phonics teaches students the relationship between visual symbols (graphemes made of letters) and speech sounds (phonemes). But to access phonics, children need more pieces of the puzzle, or the system will make no sense. Those pieces are the three other aspects of foundational skills that often get overlooked.
While students may know the letters, they don’t know, for example, that English print runs left-to-right, or that words are groups of letters separated by a space. These insights are called print concepts. In much the same way, students learn the names of the letters, but they’re not taught the alphabetic principle, that the symbols they see represent speech sounds (“cat” equals three symbols and three different sounds). Kindergarteners only learn the alphabetic principle and print concepts when they see their teacher model reading and writing. If we drill letter/sounds without also teaching print concepts and the alphabetic principle at the same time, how can we expect the students to understand the reading process and unlock its potential?
Another big misconception is that phonological awareness is synonymous with phonics. Phonological awareness is when students master the ability to orally identify and manipulate their language’s sound units, including words, syllables, and speech. This is a precursor to phonics instruction, not phonics instruction itself. In much the same way, instruction in print concepts is a precursor to phonics, priming students to take oral knowledge and apply it to the page. If students can’t see the path they’re following toward the larger goal, they can only stumble ahead blindly.
Phonics and word recognition skills include breaking down multisyllabic words into morphemes, the smallest units of meaning. However, many schools stop instruction after students can decode just single syllable words, even though multisyllabic words outnumber them 4-to-1 in advanced texts. To complete instruction in all the foundational skills, according to Mesmer , systematic instruction in morphology should be included through at least the 5th grade and even beyond.
The last foundational skill is fluency, the ability to read connected text accurately, with little conscious effort, and with proper expression (the use of volume, phrasing, smoothness, and pace to convey the meaning). Fluency enhances — and is affected by — the understanding of ideas. If students are still stuck trying to decode complex words, they’ll have little cognitive bandwidth to devote to the complex ideas they need to learn.
Educators: How do you feel about this topic? Have we included all the relevant parts to effective reading instruction? Is it too little? Too much? Please leave us your thoughts in the comments section below.
 Mesmer, Heidi Anne E. (January 23, 2020). “There Are Four Foundational Reading Skills. Why Do We Only Talk About Phonics?” Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-there-are-four-foundational-reading-skills-why-do-we-only-talk-about-phonics/2020/01.
 na. (June 2, 2010). “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.” Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/wp-content/uploads/ELA_Standards1.pdf.
 Nagy, William E., and Anderson, Richard C. (Spring, 1984). “How Many Words Are There in Printed School English?” Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 3, pp. 304-330 (27 pages). International Literacy Association Reading Research Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.2307/747823. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/747823.