Effective reading instruction in the early years of school

This literature review was originally published 12 April 2017.

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Summary

Introduction

Reading is making meaning from print. It is a foundational, yet complex cognitive skill upon which other skills are built. Early success in reading is a powerful predictor of later literacy achievement which, in turn, is strongly linked with performance across a range of academic areas (Centre for Economic Performance 2016; Department of Education, Science and Training 2005).

The teaching and learning of reading has attracted the interest of scholars and researchers across many disciplines including education, psychology, linguistics and health. Since 2000, there have been major reviews of the teaching of reading in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. These reviews, along with other research, have consistently identified five key components of effective reading programs: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. These components should be taught explicitly, systematically and sequentially.

This paper summarises the research regarding why these five elements are important, as well as how they should be taught in the classroom. The paper examines each of these five elements individually in the sequence they should be taught, bearing in mind that each element is interconnected and that accomplished reading requires mastery of all of them. The final section considers how reading instruction is currently incorporated into Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programs in NSW.

The evidence identifies five key components of effective reading programs:

Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear the sounds in spoken words and understand that words are made up of sequences of sounds. Phonemic awareness teaches readers to map speech to print and understand that the letters in words are systematically represented by sounds.

Phonics

Phonics instruction connects phonemes with written letters so that the reader can transfer knowledge of sounds to the printed word. The goal of phonics instruction is to help readers quickly determine the sounds in unfamiliar written words. The most effective method of teaching phonics is synthetic phonics.

Fluency

Fluency is the ability to read quickly and naturally with accuracy and expression. Fluency contains the skill of automaticity which allows a reader to recognise words quickly

Vocabulary

Beginning readers use knowledge of words from speech to recognise words that they encounter in print. When children ‘sound out’ a word, their brain connects the pronunciation of a sequence of sounds to a word in their vocabulary. If they find a match between the word on the page and a word in they have learned through listening and speaking, and it makes sense to them, they will keep reading. If a match is not created, because the word they are reading is not found in their vocabulary, then comprehension is interrupted.

Comprehension

Comprehension is the understanding and interpretation of what is read. To be able to accurately understand written material, children need to be able to first decode what they read and then make connections between what they read and what they already know. Comprehension requires having a sufficient vocabulary.

All teachers need to be equipped with an understanding of evidence-based reading instruction and the ability to implement this in the classroom. Teaching programs should cover the five components of effective reading instruction, as well as the use of assessments to identify and implement appropriate reading strategies.

Conclusion

There is a significant amount of research that has been conducted into effective reading instruction. The evidence identifies five essential and interconnected components of effective, evidencebased reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. All these elements are essential for the early stages of literacy learning. To be most successful, these skills must be taught explicitly, sequentially and systematically.

All teachers need to be equipped with an understanding of evidence-based reading instruction and the ability to implement this in the classroom. Currently, there appear to be some discrepancies between the research as to ‘what works’, and the teaching practices that underpin many ITE programs. Teaching programs should cover the five components of effective reading instruction, as well as the use of assessments to identify and implement appropriate reading strategies

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