Reading is an important life skill. However, a surprising amount of today’s students read below the required proficiency of their respective grade levels. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2019, about two-thirds of students from public schools across the nation read below their grade proficiency levels. In addition, “in 2022, fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores declined for most states/jurisdictions compared to 2019.”

While a number of factors contribute to this reality, one major factor is the discrepancies in literacy education for early childhood learners. The National Council on Teacher Quality suggests literacy gaps start in early childhood. Countless children do not establish the early foundational skills necessary for reading development, and these literacy gaps follow them throughout life.

In programs like the online Master of Arts (M.A.) in Reading program from Eastern Michigan University (EMU), teachers further develop their understanding of best practices for improving students’ foundational reading skills and literacy outcomes.

What Are Foundational Reading Skills?

Foundational reading skills prepare children for success as they learn more advanced skills. According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the following topics are the four primary reading foundational skills:

  1. Print concepts: Before students can read, they must understand how words and phrases appear on a page. For example, it’s essential to realize that words and sentences are formed by reading from top to bottom and left to right.
  2. Phonological awareness: Students must understand spoken words, syllables and sounds.
  3. Phonics and word recognition: Students should also be able to understand the relationships between letters and sounds to form spoken words. Learning to recognize words quickly and accurately helps students obtain meaning from what they read.
  4. Fluency: Students need to experience various texts to make reading easier, more accurate and more expressive. This enables them to identify unfamiliar words and understand a wider variety of texts over time.

Approaches to Closing the Literacy Gap

Many reading programs focus on one or two major foundational skills while ignoring others. Offering well-rounded reading education that emphasizes all foundational skills in tandem with each other allows students to recognize the connections between these skills. For example, if students don’t have a solid understanding of letter sounds, they are unlikely to make connections between those sounds to create words.

One reason some programs might ignore key foundational skills is a lack of differentiation between skills. For example, literacy professor Heidi Anne E. Mesmer reflects, “Some educators think phonological awareness is synonymous with phonics, but this is another misconception. In fact, when I recently observed foundational skills lessons in more than 10 K-2 classrooms, I only saw one phonological awareness lesson.”

Students cannot be expected to blend sounds and recognize words when they do not know the different sounds made by letters and syllables. Educators must ensure all foundational skills are covered. Assuming teaching one skill will result in reading proficiency is detrimental to student success.

Assess, Intervene and Persist

To address already existing literacy gaps, educators should rely more on assessment and intervention. For example, students classified as “poor decoders,” or readers who have trouble recognizing words, have greater difficulty developing fluency and comprehension.

Researchers Tenaha O’Reilly and Zuowei Wang believe the first step in breaking the cycle of poor decoding is to properly assess students who have difficulty with reading comprehension to determine whether word recognition is at the heart of the problem.

O’Reilly and Wang also suggest educators emphasize persistence in teaching foundational reading skills. Poor decoders tend to spend less time trying to decode unfamiliar words and give up easily. Practice is key, and students must be persuaded to take their time when trying to recognize unfamiliar words.

In general, educators who teach foundational skills in early childhood should consider whether they are establishing the groundwork for their students to succeed later. This means ensuring they do not conflate foundational skills or ignore key aspects of early childhood literacy. Educators dealing with students already struggling in key areas should look for ways to evaluate, intervene and support students before it’s too late.

Graduates of EMU’s online M.S. in Curriculum & Instruction – Reading program can pursue careers dedicated to meeting students’ literacy needs and instilling an appreciation of reading and learning.

Learn more about Eastern Michigan University’s online M.A. in Reading program.