What Are the Five Pillars of Reading?

Five Pillars of Reading, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension

What Are the Five Pillars of Reading?

The National Reading Panel, using decades of research has identified five critical areas of reading instruction:

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

How can we teach all students to read accurately, rapidly, and with comprehension by the end of third grade? We can use the five essential components of reading instruction, known as the Five Pillars of Reading! 

Five Pillars of Reading Phonemic Awareness

What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to focus on and manipulate individual phonemes in spoken words. In linguistics, a phoneme is the smallest unit of speech that distinguishes one word element from another. All words are made up of a sequence of individual sounds called phonemes. Phonemic awareness is a subset of the broader category of phonological awareness, which is one’s conscious awareness of and ability to “play with” the sound structures in oral language.

Good readers are remarkable at manipulating the sounds in words with automaticity. This is what Dr. David Kilpatrick calls “phoneme proficiency.” When students get skilled and automatic with phoneme manipulation, it allows them to do two things remarkably well:

  • Teach themselves new words; and
  • Anchor words into their sight word memory (orthographic lexicon) for effortless retrieval

Did you know, that there are six layers of phonemic awareness: phoneme isolation, blending, segmenting, addition, deletion, and substitution? Did you also know, that you can improve your students’ ability to read unfamiliar words without showing them a single printed letter? Read our blog, "The Six Layers of Phonemic Awareness: Improve Students’ Reading Using Their Ears."

Five Pillars of Reading Phonics

What Is Phonics?

Phonics is the study of the systematic relationship between the sounds we hear in words and the letters that spell them, or to say it more technically, the systematic relationships between phonemes and graphemes. Phonics teaches the alphabetic principle, which is the relationships between letters, and spoken language sounds. When children understand the alphabetic principle, they understand that spoken words are composed of individual sounds and that letters represent those sounds. Reading development is dependent on an understanding of the alphabetic principle. This “understanding” allows children to apply these sound-spelling relationships to both familiar and unfamiliar words. It’s crucial for orthographic mapping and word-level fluency.

Understanding phonics allows students to "decode." Decoding is the act of sounding out words using phonics and the ability to apply knowledge of letter-sound relationships, and letter patterns so that you can correctly pronounce written words. Successful decoding occurs when a student uses phonics concepts to accurately read a word.

Did you know, that the sound /k/ can be spelled as c, k, ck, or ch? That’s phonics! Phonics includes concepts such as phonemes, graphemes, short & long vowel sounds, segmenting and blending phonemes, the six syllables types including closed and open syllables, digraphs, trigraphs, 2-sound blends, vowel-consonant-e (VCE),  syllabication, and so much more. Educators, to learn more about phonics and the alphabetic principle, join us on a complimentary seat for our Science of Reading Virtual Workshop.>>

Five Pillars of Reading Fluency

What Is Fluency?

Fluency is the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression. When students cannot recognize words accurately and automatically, fluency suffers, and in turn, reading comprehension is often compromised. Fluent readers read with automaticity, without struggling to decode each word. When students read with 98% accuracy their fluency and confidence increase. This results in higher reading engagement and better comprehension. 

Did you know, that learning to decode and read accurately is essential to reading fluently? Once a student learns to decode and has a strong foundation in phonemic awareness and phonics, they can begin to practice fluency? Then once a student can decode, they can build words into their sight word memory and store them for accurate and effortless recognition. This is called orthographic mapping. The subskills that drive efficient orthographic mapping are phoneme proficiency, automatic phoneme-grapheme recognition, and frequent and distributed practice. 

Five Pillars of Reading Vocabulary

What Is Vocabulary?

Reading Vocabulary is all the words that a student needs to recognize and understand when reading, and it is a part of a complex cognitive process of acquisition. There are three types of vocabulary words:

  • Tier 1 Vocabulary Words - These are basic words that are used by most students in everyday conversation like cat, dog, chair, teacher, etc...
  • Tier 2 Vocabulary Words - These are more complex contextual words that students encounter in text and that often need direct instruction like adequate, adjacent, ambiguous, and assimilate.
  • Tier 3 Vocabulary Words - These are genre, subject, or domain-specific, low-frequency words. For example, in mathematics, words like numerator, quadrilateral, quartile, rhombus, and trapezoid are Tier 3 words.  

Did you know, that reading comprehension is reliant on knowing 98% of the words in the text? Limited vocabulary plays a huge role in poor reading comprehension. Unfortunately, 64% of students are locked into a cycle of reading failure. Building a strong vocabulary is an essential component of ensuring reading comprehension, as well as verbal and auditory fluency.

Five Pillars of Reading, comprehension

What Is Comprehension?

Comprehension is the understanding and interpretation of what is read. It is a complex neurological process that allows readers to understand what they are reading. There are five types of comprehension:

  • Lexical comprehension is the understanding of key vocabulary in the text.
  • Literal comprehension is finding meaning as you read the text by asking questions like who, what, where, and when
  • Interpretative comprehension is inferring meaning in the text by asking what if, why, and how questions. 
  • Applied comprehension is relating the text to a student's existing opinion or knowledge, and then asking them to support their opinions logically. 
  • Affective comprehension is the ability to understand the various aspects of the plot, motive, and characters in the story. 

Comprehension is the whole point of reading, but without the solid foundations of instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and vocabulary it is incredibly difficult to achieve strong comprehension. 

Did you know, that to be able to accurately comprehend written material, students must first be able to decode what they read, understand the vocabulary of what they are reading, and then make connections and think critically about what they have read.

Systematic and Explicit Reading Instruction

What is Systematic and Explicit Instruction?

According to The National Reading Panel, the most reliably effective approach to teaching the following five elements is by using systematic and explicit instruction.

Systematic Instruction - Skills and concepts are taught in a planned, logically progressive sequence. For example, certain sounds (those that are easier to learn or those used more often in the words students will read) are taught before other sounds. Lessons focus on clearly defined objectives and there are multiple practice opportunities to help students, master, retain, and apply their new skills. Additionally, assessments are used to progress and monitor skill acquisition.

Explicit instruction - The teacher states clearly what is being taught and models effectively how it is used by a skilled reader. Explicit instruction ensures students clearly know objectives and expected outcomes. 

Research Articles 

Kilpatrick, D. A. (2016). Equipped for reading success: A comprehensive, step-by-step program for developing phonemic awareness and fluent word recognition. Syracuse: Casey & Kirsch. https://www.equippedforreadingsuccess.com/

National Reading Panel. A Closer Look at the Five Essential Components of Effective Reading Instruction: A Review of Scientifically Based Reading Research for Teachers. US Dept of Ed, 2004 Learning Point Associates, 2004   https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED512569.pdf


Bring the Science of Reading to Life in the Classroom

Explore our engaging foundational reading approach. Avoid special education referrals, and jumpstart student outcomes across the curriculum.

  • Professional Development - FREE for educators! Join us on a complimentary seat at one of our Science of Reading Virtual Workshops
  • Diagnose - FREE assessments (K-12) identify decoding issues contributing to your students' comprehension weaknesses
  • Group - FREE! Use our secure student data management interface for grouping K-12 students for instruction
  • Teach - Explore our lessons, Launchpad (PK), Countdown (K), Blast (1st), HD Word (2nd-12th)

Go to top