Many people, when asked, “How did you learn to read?”, struggle to answer. We often forget the mechanics of reading which we ourselves went through, but when teaching across subjects, it is important to have an understanding of the processes behind how we read and the structure of how those skills tend to be developed. To help us do this, we can consider the ‘Five Pillars of Reading’.
Pillar one: Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic awareness is a specific skill, focusing on identifying and manipulating units of sound in speech. A unit of sound is called a phoneme. Units of sound (phonemes) combine to form syllables and then words. There are 44 phonemes in the English Language and acquiring phonemic awareness is the foundation for spelling and word recognition. Pillar one is the first stage of reading where, often as a baby, children begin to hear and take in individual units of sound. Students, with low or vulnerable reading development, can have gaps in their phonemic awareness, but these gaps can be closed with specific and targeted reading intervention programmes.
Pillar two: Phonics Instruction
Phonics instruction is often associated with Early Years and Key Stage 1 reading, where students in the UK tend to undergo a Systematic Synthetic Phonics Programme (SSP). Phonics instruction takes the phonemic awareness gained and teaches people how to blend sounds in speech, beginning to link sounds to their corresponding letter formations or grapheme correspondence. The aim of a phonics instruction programme is to ‘get off the programme’ meaning the individual has learned enough at this stage of reading to begin to move on and develop.
Pillar three: Fluency Instruction
Fluency instruction is when reading starts to sound and look more like what we associate reading to be. At this stage, practise is essential, and it is a vital stage for going beyond ‘learning to read’ and beginning to ‘read to learn’. Without fluency, a person is always stuck in the mechanics of reading, spending too much time decoding, so there is no working memory left for comprehension. At this point, it is important that students hear multiple examples of skilled reading being modelled aloud so they develop an understanding of emphasis, intonation, emotional expression and empathy.
Pillar four: Vocabulary Instruction
Explicit vocabulary instruction is an essential step in reading development, but a pillar that is often missed or assumed. Vocabulary is not just learned by osmosis, especially if you are not lucky enough to come from a vocabulary-rich home environment. To close the vocabulary gap, explicit vocabulary instruction across the curriculum is essential, teaching students a methodology, such as morphemic analysis, that they can use independently whenever they come across an unfamiliar academic word.
Pillar five: Comprehension Instruction
The final pillar is the ultimate aim. Once a person reaches pillar five, they are a strategic, independent reader. They are reading to question, interpret, analyse and evaluate. They are using metacognitive strategies, seamlessly, to develop deeper critical thinking. Once a person reaches this pillar, the world is their oyster!