Reassessing the Order of Essential Skill Development in Reading Instruction

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The realities of COVID-19 mean that many districts are beginning this school year with remote instruction. Very few schools will be opening with full in-person classes, and some will attempt a hybrid instructional plan rotating small groups of students in and out.

Educators understand they need to deliver direct instruction efficiently and effectively. They are looking for digital programs that can support student learning both in the classroom and remotely. Also, teachers are expecting students to begin this year with greater skill gaps as they have been out of school for almost six months. Perhaps more than ever, they need adaptive, data-enhanced instructional tools to address the gaps, and expand their own capacity to personalize learning for each student.

It is essential that PreK–Grade 2 teachers, specifically, have the tools to support the development of research-based foundational reading skills whether they are teaching in the classroom or remotely. These skills are necessary for children to become automatic, fluent readers with strong comprehension and are the foundation for lifelong learning. 

The Science of Reading

The National Reading Panel (NRP) determined in 2000 that in order for students to become confident readers, they must master five foundational skills: phonemics, awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. All of these skills are necessary and build upon one another. The acquisition of foundational skills begins with a strong oral language base. Oral language is the basis for literacy instruction, and “competency in oral language is predictive of reading accuracy and comprehension.”

Children enter school with different levels of language and literacy skills. A child’s oral language proficiency is an indicator of their ability to begin mastering early reading skills. Each of the five following skills are necessary to learn to read:

Phonemic Awareness:  phonemes are the units of sound represented by the letters of the alphabet.  The NRP asserted that the inclusion of phonemic awareness in phonics instruction “is a key component contributing to its effectiveness in teaching children to read.”

Phonics:  phonics instruction helps readers apply their phonemic knowledge to reading and spelling by sounding out words. As they begin to read automatically, they can focus on comprehension

Fluency:  readers achieve fluency when they can recognize words immediately and comprehend their meaning. Researchers call fluency the bridge between decoding and comprehension.

Vocabulary: acquisition of vocabulary is essential to reading comprehension. There are four types of vocabulary: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Students need a rich body of word knowledge as well as specialized vocabulary to learn content area material. Once a student learns to read, vocabulary is essential to reading to learn.

Comprehension:  reading comprehension is achieved when students master phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and fluency.

Prominent reading researcher Dr. Kay MacPhee found that students responded best to direct, auditory-based instruction in each of the 44 sounds of the English language. She also discovered that the order in which the sounds are presented to children directly impacts how quickly they are able to learn to read. “Students who were able to identify phonemes rapidly were able to read more fluently because of rapid processing,” she reported. Dr. MacPhee developed a method for explicitly teaching phonemic awareness that systematically introduces more complex phonological skills until student decoding becomes effortless and students can focus on comprehension.

Research-based Instruction Supported by Highly Adaptive Technology

Dr. MacPhee took her scientifically proven concepts for teaching reading and put her research into the development of an effective technology, tailored for young children, thus creating Scholastic F.I.R.S.T. (Foundations in Reading, Sounds & Text), an Adventure on Ooka Island.

This program combines an instructionally robust teaching methodology, based on the science of reading, with highly adaptive technology to offer PreK-Grade 2 students a personalized pathway toward reading proficiency. A key differentiator of this program is that, based on the research, it begins with sounds before letter recognition. Researchers discovered that when students learn to read, the auditory part of their brain works harder than the visual.

“Temporal processing, how the brain perceives sound—indicates that students who are taught to identify sounds and letters with automaticity have a stronger literacy foundation than their peers who do not acquire these skills,” (Steinbrink, Zimmer, Lachmann, Dirichs, & Kammer, 2014).

A New Adventure in Learning to Read

Click here to watch our video testimonial. 

To be most effective, reading instruction must be begin with basic and familiar oral language. F.I.R.S.T. begins with phonemes—the single sounds that are the smallest unit of spoken language—and guides new readers through 24 levels of auditory and visual skills as they build their foundational skills. Because sounds are presented in a sequenced order, decoding becomes a manageable task for most young students. Each of the 44 phonemes is purposefully repeated and practiced among activities and levels, ensuring that students build automaticity with each sound. 

The reader experiences a set of 6,695 rigorously designed micro-actions that provide a highly personalized path to becoming a confident reader. F.I.R.S.T. has purposeful learning cycles composed of three distinct parts:

  • Guided phonological activities
  • Reading for comprehension
  • Free choice

These learning cycles teach research-based concepts while adapting to the needs of individual learners. Students practice new skills through 85 leveled readers designed to bring a non-reader to the beginning of Grade 2. The titles are grouped into Emergent (35 titles), Beginning (40 titles), and Fluent (10 titles). Vocabulary is scaffolded through the books as the complexity of the narrative and sentence structure increases.

Adaptive Platform and Reporting

F.I.R.S.T. data provides seamless support for reading development in a scalable way. When a student selects an incorrect answer, there is immediate scaffolding support through visual or auditory cues, audio instruction, or extended pacing of instruction. The platforms continuous formative assessment pinpoints the exact moment a student needs personalized, scaffolded supports to help a reader succeed. 

The specificity of the 6,695 micro-actions provides precise personalized reports that enable educators to monitor individual student progress. The reports are based on learning analytics of proficiency ranges (learning, practicing, proficient), and allow educators to identify learning gaps and mastery, to differentiate instruction or provide enrichment for specific students or groups. 

The power of teaching reading based on the science of reading cannot be overemphasized. Using a proven research-based instructional methodology and the high student engagement that technology makes possible, F.I.R.S.T. focuses on direct, auditory-based instruction in each of the 44 sounds of the English language in a specific order to help new readers gain mastery of the five foundational reading skills: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. 

Researchers have determined that competency in oral language is a strong predictor of reading accuracy and comprehension, and that principle is embedded in this program. Scholastic F.I.R.S.T. fosters literacy development in a dynamic, supportive, and engaging learning environment, with adaptive data-enhanced digital tools that result in students’ reading proficiency and a lifetime of learning.

Get Your Report Here

To learn more about the research foundation of Scholastic F.I.R.S.T., request more information, or receive access to the Scholastic F.I.R.S.T. simulator to experience the program for yourself, please complete this brief form.

About Scholastic

About Scholastic

For 100 years, Scholastic Corporation (NASDAQ: SCHL) has been encouraging the personal and intellectual growth of all children, beginning with literacy. Having earned a reputation as a trusted partner to educators and families, Scholastic is the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books, a leading provider of literacy curriculum, professional services, and classroom magazines, and a producer of educational and entertaining children's media. The Company creates and distributes bestselling books and e-books, print and technology-based learning programs for pre-K to grade 12, and other products and services that support children's learning and literacy, both in school and at home. With 15 international operations and exports to 165 countries, Scholastic makes quality, affordable books available to all children around the world through school-based book clubs and book fairs, classroom libraries, school and public libraries, retail, and online. Learn more at

Annie Galvin Teich has more than 25 years' experience in education writing and publishing. She is an edtech industry expert in content marketing and copywriting. As a regular contributor to Tech & Learning she focuses on the information needs of district decision makers.