Essential Literacy Content

In the last post, we focused on five areas to consider in developing a school-wide vision for literacy: establishing literacy as a priority, creating a sense of collective responsibility for all children, ensuring evidence-based, high quality literacy instruction, establishing a balanced system of assessments, and engaging parents, families, and the community as critical partners in literacy work (Taylor, 2011; Murphy, 2010; Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators General Education Leadership Network Early Literacy Task Force, 2016). This week we will turn our attention to essential literacy content and pedagogical strategies.

With current debates about “the science of reading” versus “balanced literacy” and a reignition of the “reading wars,” it can be difficult to know what is essential content to teach in literacy. The National Reading Panel (NRP) issued a report in 2000 in response to a Congressional mandate aimed at identifying the key skills and methods necessary to help children become skilled readers. Literacy researchers have devoted considerable attention to carefully examining evidence-based practices that can be used in the classroom to improve reading instruction. (See this Put Reading First resource that provides a comprehensive overview of the NRP findings and The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research for a thorough synthesis of reading research). This research focused on five key areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Since then, Duke and Cartwright (2021), among others, have noted that the causes of reading difficulties are more complex than low word recognition and/or comprehension. To account for this, they have advocated for an “active role of reading model” that includes three research advances beyond word recognition and language comprehension. Their model includes active self-regulation (including executive functioning skills), motivation and engagement, and comprehension strategy use as all three areas impact reading and can be improved by classroom instruction. This model also acknowledges the overlap between word recognition and language comprehension and processes that bridge the two including print concepts, reading fluency, vocabulary knowledge, morphological awareness, and letter-sound-meaning flexibility. 

In this post, we focus on five key areas: phonemic awareness and phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and high level talk and writing about text. All these areas are important in developing students’ capacity as readers; however, they do not all require equal attention in all classrooms at all times for all students. 

Phonemic awareness and phonics instruction are undoubtedly essential in helping students learn to read (Ehri, 2004). Phonological awareness is most powerful when paired with teaching phonics and when teachers explicitly teach students how to apply these skills to decoding text (Duke and Block, 2012). However, there are two major challenges in this area in many classrooms. The first is that instead of providing students with opportunities to examine, manipulate, and categorize sounds, letters, spelling patterns, and morphemes within and across words, many teachers ask students to complete phonics worksheets. The students who are able to complete these worksheets successfully likely already understood the letter-sound relationship, while those who struggle, continue to struggle (Palmer and Invernizzi, 2015). As James Gee (2008) notes, “Unfortunately, schools as currently constituted, tend to be good places to practice mainstream literacy once you have its foundations, but they are not good places to acquire those foundations” (p. 88). This is especially concerning since we know from research that phonemic awareness and letter knowledge are two of the best predictors of how well students will read during the first two years of instruction (Ehri, 2004). The second challenge is time. Duke and Block (2012) found that teachers were spending more time on easier-to-master skills such as phonemic awareness and phonics than comprehension, vocabulary, and science and social studies content. Researchers have recommended shorter lessons (30 minutes) and note that these lessons do not need to be lengthy to be effective (Ehri, 2004; Duke and Block, 2012; Taylor, 2011). Rather than teaching phonics as a separate subject, “the best phonics program is one that is deliberately integrated with reading and writing instruction” (Ehri, 2004, p. 181).

In order for reading to be fluent, it must be accurate, at a reasonable rate, and demonstrate prosody (reading with expression) (Stahl, 2004). Fluency allows teachers to see how well students can decode and read automatically (accuracy) and gives indications as to how well they comprehend what they read (expression). Students need lots of time to practice reading texts at an appropriate level. However, far too often students have limited time to practice due to instructional practices such as round robin reading. Round robin reading wastes instructional time, can embarrass struggling readers who are anxious about reading in front of peers, and can hurt comprehension and fluency as students listen to reading that is too fast, too slow, or inaccurate. Some powerful alternatives to round robin reading that do develop fluency for students include repeated reading, echo reading, paired repeated reading, assisted reading, readers theater, and fluency-oriented reading instruction (Taylor, 2011, pp. 31-32). One key aspect of fluency instruction that makes it particularly effective is teacher monitoring and coaching. “Teachers’ active intervention is vital for children to improve their reading achievement” (Stahl, 2004, p. 207). In the next post, we will talk more about the importance of listening to children read.

Phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency are necessary foundations for successful reading but they are not sufficient. Reading is essentially an exercise in making meaning. Therefore, vocabulary instruction and comprehension are necessary to help students make meaning from text and to use text for authentic purposes. As with phonics worksheets, too often vocabulary is taught in isolation as “look up the list” of vocabulary words in the dictionary or do the vocabulary practice in your workbook. Research has demonstrated that our depth of word knowledge is determined by how we use words, we need to have a reason to learn new words, words are concepts that are related to other words that can have multiple uses, and we learn words through intentional instruction and incidental learnings in rich language environments (Cobb and Blachowicz, 2014, pp. 20-21). A comprehensive approach to vocabulary instruction includes fostering word consciousness, teaching individual words, providing rich and varied language experiences, and teaching word learning strategies (Cobb and Blachowicz, 2014). This approach can be summarized by a Flood, Fast, Focus approach. Flood involves creating a word-rich environment through word walls, personal word books, semantic maps of words related to the topic of study, and word play. Fast occurs when teachers provide a quick definition connected to a concept students already know. Techniques here include providing a synonym, giving an example of use, and asking students to make their own connection or provide their own synonym. Focus words are words that require deep understanding and analysis. Strategies for deep understanding include graphic organizers such as the Frayer model or a semantic map, connect known words to new words, have students keep track of new words they encounter during independent reading, and teach morphology (the meaning of word parts). 

Comprehension is vitally important for students to become skilled readers and to engage in what Duke (2020) has termed “compreaction” - the combination of comprehension and action. Compreaction allows students to do something with the meaning they have constructed from the text they’ve read (Duke, Ward, Pearson, 2021). For example, a student might read an informational science text to better understand how food is grown and then begin a garden, or a student might read a fantasy novel and deepen their imaginative play. Comprehension can also be powerfully influenced by skillful teachers, even when children whose home environments have not promoted reading (Duke, Pearson, Strachan, Billman, 2011). Key strategies for teaching comprehension supported by research include setting purposes for reading; previewing and predicting; activating prior knowledge; monitoring, clarifying, and fixing; visualizing and creating visual representations; drawing inferences; self-questioning and thinking aloud; and summarizing and retelling (Duke, Pearson, Strachan, Billman, 2011). Additional strategies work particularly well for specific genres (story elements for narrative text and searching and skimming for informational text). Researchers recommend teachers teach these strategies using a gradual release of responsibility approach. The teacher would first explicitly describe the strategy and when and how it is used. The teacher would then model the strategy while thinking aloud. Then the teacher and students collaboratively engage in the strategy followed by guided practice, and ultimately, students are able to independently use the strategy during independent reading. In the next post, we will talk about structures that help support this gradual release of responsibility for literacy instruction.

The  final essential is high level talk and writing about text. Although this essential is not one of the five typically focused on for reading instruction, there is strong research support for collaborative discussions about text and the integration of reading and writing. Both high level talk and writing support students’ comprehension when they are asked challenging questions (Taylor, 2011). Participating in these discussions and integrating writing also encourage students to develop metacognition about their own reading. Far too often teachers fall into an IRE  pattern when asking students questions. The teacher initiates a question (I), one student responds (R), and the teacher evaluates the response (E). In these patterns, students talk to display what they already know (or don’t know). In this pattern, teachers treat learning as remembering and learners as “rememberers” (Nystrand, 1997, p. 91). By contrast, in dialogic classrooms, teachers ask high-level, probing questions and several students respond, building on one another’s ideas (uptake), and co-constructing new knowledge. In facilitating these discussions, teachers treat learning as reflection and validate students as thinkers. We will take up writing in more detail in the next blog post. Some central ideas to keep in mind in high-level writing instruction are purpose and authenticity. Students need opportunities to write for authentic purposes and audiences. Rather than just writing for a grade, students write for a communicative purpose, and ideally, receive a response from the reader (the teacher), not merely an evaluation of the mechanics and structure of the writing. In this way, writing is also dialogic.

As we have seen, there is strong research support and consensus around these five essential elements of literacy instruction: phonemic awareness and phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and high-level talk and writing about text. In the next post, we will focus on structures and pedagogical strategies that support these essentials and lead to the development of skilled readers and writers. 

Below are photos of Amy Black explicitly teaching 1st graders how to retell a story using the five finger rule. 



Cobb, C., & Z., B. C. L. (2014). No more "look up the list" Vocabulary instruction. Heinemann. 

Duke, N. K., & Block, M. K. (2012). Improving Reading in the Primary Grades. The Future of Children, 22(2), 55–72.

Duke, N. K., & Cartwright, K. B. (2021). The Science of Reading Progresses: Communicating Advances Beyond the Simple View of Reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25–S44.

Duke, N., Pearson, D., Strachan, S., & Billman, A. (2011). Essential elements of fostering and teaching reading comprehension. What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction, 51–93. 

Duke, N. K., Ward, A. E., & Pearson, P. D. (2021). The Science of Reading Comprehension Instruction. The Reading Teacher, 74(6), 663–672.

Gee, J. P. (2008). Social Linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. Routledge. 

McCardle, P. D., & Chhabra, V. (2004). Teaching phonemic awareness and phonics. In The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research. essay, P.H. Brookes Pub. 

McCardle, P.D. & Chhabra, V. (2004). What do we know about fluency? Findings of the National Reading Panel. In The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research. essay, P.H. Brookes Pub.

Nystrand, M. (1997). Opening dialogue : understanding the dynamics of language and learning in the English classroom. Teachers College Press.

Palmer, J. L., & Invernizzi, M. (2015). No more phonics and spelling worksheets. Heinemann. 

Taylor, B.M. (2011). Catching schools: An action guide to school-wide reading improvement. Heinemann.