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Wait… What?? The 5 Pillars of Literacy

Blog 5 Pillars of Literacy TeacherMood

Hey teacher friend! Today we’re diving back into the Wait… What?? blog series all about the Science of Reading. Some think that “Science of Reading” is just a trending buzzword in education that will pass like any new fad. But, it is not a trend, nor is it a fad. It is solid, evidence-based research about how the brain actually learns to be an efficient reader. With this in mind, today’s topic is the 5 Pillars of Literacy.

Shockingly, there are many educators in the field who didn’t receive proper training in college. Believe it or not, many of us did not learn effective strategies and methods to teach students to read. I’d never even heard of the 5 Pillars of Literacy until quite a good ways into my teaching career. We learned methods that “understood” reading from the outside looking in, instead of from the inside looking out, which is the way the brain really works. Now that educators know this, we will do better! So you may be asking now…

What are the five pillars of literacy?

As noted in their report, “Teaching Children to Read,” the National Reading Panel (2000) identified five critical components at the heart of every effective reading program. These are often referred to as the Pillars of Reading, or the Pillars of Literacy. 

To that end, the five Pillars of Literacy are:

  1. Phonemic awareness – the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words
  2. Phonics – the relationship between letters and sounds
  3. Fluency – the ability to read with accuracy, speed, and expression
  4. Vocabulary – knowing the meanings of words
  5. Comprehension – understanding what is being read 
5 pillars of literacy

Without a doubt, the five pillars of literacy are essential components that students must master in order to become proficient readers. In other words, if a student is lacking in any one of the areas of literacy, their reading will be more labored than it has to be. Let’s dig in and get a little more information about these pillars. 

The Phonemic Awareness Pillar

Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. Children who have strong phonemic awareness skills can easily identify rhyming words and syllables. Indeed, phonemics awareness helps students learn how to read and write more efficiently even though no written language is used to develop the skill. Think of it this way – any work you do in developing phonemic awareness can be done in the dark. With that being said, phonemic awareness does not involve graphemes, morphemes, or anything at all to do with printed letters.

Did you know that many students who struggle to read, actually have a deficit with their phonemic awareness? For them, this pillar is not strong, so all other pillars are impacted.

phonemic awareness pillar of literacy

The Phonics Pillar

Phonics, on the other hand, involves the relationship between sounds and the printed letters that represent those sounds. Learning phonics allows individuals to decode words and encode, or spell, words correctly. For development of this skill, both the printed letters and their sounds are key components. Take for example, students will learn the sound-spelling correspondences for consonant blends, consonant digraphs, and vowel digraphs.  To ensure students develop mastery of the foundational phonics skills they need, make sure to use fun and effective phonics activities in your instructional routine! (Fun Fact: There are 44 sounds in the English language.)

phonics pillar of literacy

The Fluency Pillar

Fluency is the ability to read text accurately, quickly, and with expression. Therefore, students who have developed fluent reading skills can read aloud with ease and comprehend what they are reading. There are many ways to practice and assess fluency, but some of the most commonly used assessments come from Acadience, DIBELS and AimsWeb oral reading fluency measures. Additionally, learning high-frequency words is an important aspect of developing reading fluency.

fluency pillar of literacy

The Vocabulary Pillar

Vocabulary refers to the words that students can not only understand, but also use in their writing and speaking. Explicit vocabulary instruction is especially important for elementary teachers. There has been research into the impact of vocabulary from the time children are born. To that end, research shows that students coming from poverty enter school with an enormous disadvantage.

The Word Gap

In particular, children from homes with a higher socioeconomic status heard 30 million more words by the age of four than those students coming from homes with a lower socioeconomic status. To put it plainly, children from poverty hear fewer words from birth to 4. Their opportunity for observational learning in this area of literacy development is far less than their more affluency age-level peers.

Explicit instruction by teachers will, of course, help children overcome this deficit. Students receiving explicit vocabulary instruction will undoubtedly learn new words faster and use them accurately in context. Specifically, a robust vocabulary allows students to communicate more effectively and also to comprehend more complex concepts and texts.

vocabulary pillar of literacy

The Comprehension Pillar

Finally, reading comprehension is the ability to understand and interpret written text. Comprehension involves using background knowledge, vocabulary, and critical thinking skills to understand the meaning of a text. As an elementary teacher, it’s important to teach students strategies to improve their comprehension skills such as predicting, summarizing, questioning, and visualizing. However, strategy instruction isn’t all there is to teaching reading comprehension. Likewise, it’s important to provide students with diverse texts and opportunities to practice their comprehension skills through discussion and written responses.

comprehension pillar of literacy

Summing up the Science

In conclusion, teachers should use instructional strategies that support the 5 pillars of reading – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension – to teach young students to read. These pillars provide a comprehensive framework for developing strong reading skills. By focusing on these five areas, teachers can help students build a solid foundation for reading success. In the same way, teachers will be providing what’s needed for students’ academic achievement and lifelong learning.

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    2 Responses

    1. This is a great article! I am currently taking a course in the state of Wisconsin all on literacy. This sums up everything that we have learned so far. Literacy is such an important element in our teaching.

    2. Shae,
      Thank you for sharing information about the Science of Reading. I too, have been hearing this concept of reading being shared around more and wanted to take a deeper dive myself by learning more about it. Even though in undergraduate classes you learn the different components of reading, it is much different implementing them in the classroom and to ensure that you are covering all areas. The part that I struggle with is having to supplement because my current curriculum does not cover all components. Thank you again for reminding readers of the different parts of reading and how essential they are to a student’s success.

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