Foundational Skills in K–5 by Jan Hasbrouck, Ph.D. Educational Consultant and Researcher

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Dr. Jan Hasbrouck is a leading reading specialist and education consultant, and provides professional development to Alaskan educators through the Alaska Staff Development Network

Researchers have made extraordinary progress in understanding what “reading” really is. Numerous complex brain processes involved in the act of reading have been identified, along with many individual component skills that must be learned and used automatically and efficiently by a reader. At this point, compelling evidence from a convergence of reading research indicates that close to 95% of all students can achieve literacy levels at or approaching grade level. These statistics include students with dyslexia and other students with learning and cognitive disabilities.

Foundation Skills

Current widely-adopted standards identify four essential prerequisite foundational skills for reading: Print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency.

Print Awareness occurs in the initial stage of literacy in which emergent readers begin to connect the language they understand and are learning to speak to letters and words. Print awareness involves an understanding that print has different functions depending on the context in which it appears: a menu a book can tell story; a sign, a card or letter for example. Print awareness includes understanding that print is organized in a particular way—for example, left to right and top to bottom.

Phonological Awareness is the general appreciation of the sounds of speech being distinct from their meaning. The finer-grained ability to notice, identify, and ultimately manipulate the separate sequence of sounds in spoken words is called phonemic awareness. These skills involve only auditory processes. Scientific evidence now confirms that having difficulty discriminating the sounds of spoken language is the primary cause of most reading difficulties, including dyslexia. The good news is that this difficulty can often be corrected or significantly improved with intensive and targeted intervention.

Phonics is the knowledge of which letters symbolize the sounds of a spoken word (phonemes) in a printed word, and then using that knowledge to sound out or decode words. Phonics involves a reader using both auditory and visual processes, or auditory and tactile for students who are blind or visually impaired.  Students who have acquired strong phonics skills are more skillful and confident readers because they can more effectively figure out new or unfamiliar words that they encounter. Foundation skills also include the essential ability to instantaneously recognize words, including irregularly spelled and high frequency words.

Reading fluency has been defined as reasonably accurate reading at an appropriate rate with suitable expression* that leads to accurate and deep comprehension and motivation to read (Hasbrouck & Glaser, 2012; 2019). There is a common misconception among educators that fluency is the same as rate or speed, and that having students learn to read as fast as possible will increase their reading proficiency. This is a mistaken notion. Fluency needs to be understood as a complex skill in which accuracy plays a foundational role, along with rate. Students need to learn to use a rate of reading that is appropriate to the task at hand, but not to “speed read.” Reading too fast can be as detrimental to skillful reading as reading too slowly.  Fluent reading is a sign that a reader is reading with automaticity, which is the ability to do a task without having to think about it at a conscious level. When words are read “automatically”, the brain can attend to the meaning of the text being read.

Introduction and Intervention for Foundation Skills

Unlike learning to speak, which occurs naturally and organically in most cases, learning to read is not “natural.” Written language is a relatively new phenomenon in human development and our brains must be taught how to turn the intrinsically meaningless symbols of print into something meaningful—and potentially memorable, useful, and enjoyable. In order for students to master the essential  foundational skills for reading, effective instruction must be provided, skillfully differentiated to meet the varied needs of students.

An expanded version of this blog was previously published as a White Paper for McGraw Hill Education