The Five Elements of Reading Instruction

Through decades of research into how kids learn to read, most experts have reached a consensus that there is a right way to teach reading. Now called “The Science of Reading,” these best practices are becoming more and more widespread. Lots of people associate the science of reading with phonics instruction, or teaching kids how to decode words. And while that is a big part of it, it’s far from the only part. Below are the five essential components of effective reading instruction, each one as important as the last.

Phonemic awareness

The first step in learning to read is developing the awareness that letters and letter combinations correspond to sounds. We call this foundation phonemic awareness. When students develop phonemic awareness, they are able to manipulate individual sounds in words (also known as phonemes). This lays the groundwork for instruction in phonics, the next key element.


Phonics is not synonymous with reading. While reading encompasses all of the skills involved in processing text, phonics simply refers to the decoding of words. There are lots of differing opinions around when, how, and for whom we provide explicit phonics instruction. It used to be, and in some cases still is, that phonics instruction was reserved only for those students who were deemed to “need” it based on a diagnosed or suspected reading disability. But the research that has been part of the science of reading movement claims that all students should receive explicit phonics instruction, with more intensive teaching devoted to those students who require further intervention.


Reading fluency goes beyond a child’s ability to actually sound out words. It refers to the student’s reading rate, expression, and accuracy. When a student can read text the same way he speaks, he is considered a fluent reader.

While fluency is not exactly the same thing as comprehension, there is a high correlation between the two. When students are able to read text accurately and with proper expression, it is much more likely that they will be able to make sense of it than if they read in choppy one- or two-word phrases. For the most part, the greater a child’s fluency, the stronger their comprehension skills. There are, of course, exceptions to this.


Vocabulary acquisition is another important component to reading. If students don’t actively work to expand their vocabulary as they progress, then texts will become harder for them as reading demands increase. But learning vocabulary no longer means what it used to. Gone are the days of “vocab lists” which need memorizing. There are now time-consuming, but vastly more effective ways to help students learn and retain important vocabulary words. Check out our article which describes one effective way to teach kids new words.


Finally, we all know reading is meaningless if we can’t make sense of it. Comprehension is the final component to being a good reader. There are different kinds of comprehension. The simplest type is fairly surface level, where students recall events, the order of events, or the content of a text. This is sometimes called “within the text” knowledge. There is also comprehension that goes a bit deeper, and has students drawing inferences and conclusions and thinking about the text more deeply. This is sometimes referred to as “beyond the text” knowledge. Finally, when students are able to talk “about the text,” not through the lens of content or events but through a more critical lens, exploring author’s purpose or the structure of a text, they are practicing the deepest form of comprehension, in which they actually analyze the way in which the text was written. Students who can have age-appropriate discussions about text on all three of these levels have strong comprehension skills.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Get updates to new articles, promotions and more!