Early Literacy Content Specialist Stephanie Stephens shares why foundational skills learning is critical for decoding and word recognition in Grades 3–5.
Once while I was observing a biology class, a student had an outburst. She slammed down her book, shouted at the teacher, and eventually ended up in the principal's office. When I followed up to see why she was so upset, she told me she was frustrated because her teacher assigned her work she couldn’t do.
We sat down to look over her assignment, and I noticed she would stop reading or skip over multiple words in the text, particularly multisyllabic words (e.g., laboratory, discovery). I asked her what the paragraph was about and she couldn’t give a summary of what she had read because she had skipped over so many pivotal academic vocabulary words that were necessary to the core understanding of what she was reading.
The biology-focused vocabulary words were necessary for her to understand the text and assignment, but she did not have her foundational reading skills strategies to help her to decode the words or break them apart. Her struggles with literacy meant she was struggling to learn in other content areas.
Students who do not have consistent foundational skills development for the full duration of elementary school will likely face these kinds of challenges with literacy. In fact, this is what we’re seeing across the country with over half of all fourth-grade students and two-thirds of eighth-grade students in the United States struggling to read.
I’ve been an early literacy educator for almost two decades. I’ve seen the importance of teaching foundational skills throughout elementary school grades and understand the role instructional materials play in ensuring there is a focus on phonics, word recognition, word analysis, and fluency. If we are serious about building literacy for all students, we must support teachers with quality resources and the training they deserve.
Consistent access to high-quality foundational skills learning for third, fourth, and fifth graders makes a difference for students’ future fluency and comprehension as they move through school. Coherent, quality curricula will help teachers to continue core literacy development throughout these grades.
Explicit instruction helps both teachers and students understand how to complete a task. For example, guidance in the materials for explicit instruction on decoding multisyllabic words will prompt the teacher to the necessary instruction steps and specific words to use depending on the grade and the text being read.
Explicit instruction also leaves nothing to guess for the teacher. The teacher is provided with step-by-step guidance and instructional routines on what to say to students and what students are expected to complete.
In upper elementary, explicit instruction continues to be crucial because this is the stage that students build on the skills they learned in kindergarten through second grade. When students are confident in their ability to decode and analyze simple words, they can then move on to more complex words and texts.
If a student comes into third grade without their foundational reading skills strategies, high-quality instructional materials with foundational skills can support teachers to provide scaffolds for the student to access grade-level texts. In this way, focusing on explicit instruction of foundational skills can help accelerate learning towards grade-level appropriate fluency. This skill directly supports students in accessing and comprehending grade-level texts in other disciplines.
When a student realizes they can do the assignment, they can read the text. This boost in confidence sparks deeper engagement that grows as they advance to middle school.
In upper elementary grades, a quality program will pair advanced phonics skills with word recognition. High-quality materials should highlight clear routes for teachers and explain what words to target in the core anchor text for phonics and word analysis instruction.
For instance, if a class is reading a text with multisyllabic words, foundational skills instruction may highlight these words for the teacher as practice for word analysis using morphemes (prefixes, suffixes, and root words) word chunks, and syllables. This provides students with opportunities to learn more advanced decoding and word analysis skills that will transfer to reading other texts, but also opportunities to read the grade-level anchor text.
Providing opportunities for students to practice word analysis with morphemes is critical because this skill leads directly to word recognition, or having instant retrieval of a word. With repetition, word recognition becomes automatic and students learn to rely on their ability to analyze a word using decoding, morphology, and syllable types to decode words they may not recognize.
EdReports’ review tool highlights when programs do or do not include essential foundational skills for grades 3–5 to build literacy.
|ELA Grades 3–5 Foundational Skill Expectations
Indicator 1n: Materials, questions, and tasks address grade-level foundational skills by providing explicit instruction in phonics, word analysis, and word recognition that demonstrate a research-based progression
Indicator 1o: Materials include opportunities for students to practice and apply grade-level phonics, word analysis, and word recognition skills.
Indicator 1p: Instructional opportunities are frequently built into the materials for students to practice and achieve reading fluency in order to read with purpose and understanding.
Indicators 1n–1p assist educators in evaluating if the curriculum they are considering provides explicit instruction and opportunities for students to practice grade-level phonics, word analysis, word recognition, and fluency.
Our reports provide detailed evidence about how well individual programs are aligned with college and career-ready foundational skills standards in grades K–5.
I still think about that student struggling in biology class and all the potential she had. Without literacy, she didn’t t have access to all the learning she needed to prepare for the future and fulfill that limitless potential.
And foundational skill development doesn’t just impact students in English language arts. These skills reverberate through all content areas and can have a significant impact on how students view reading and their capacity to do well in middle school and beyond.
To prioritize foundational skills in K–5, teachers need access to high-quality instructional materials and training around those materials. Quality curricula allow educators to spend time nurturing students' spark to learn and, ultimately, bring their unique identities into the classroom.