Early Literacy Content Specialist Stephanie Stephens shares what two decades in the field have taught her about foundational skills learning and what students need to know at the end of fifth grade.
I wish that when I started as an upper elementary school teacher 18 years ago, I had the tools to identify what my students needed to help them achieve fluency in literacy. Our curriculum was focused solely on reading comprehension and writing.
However, I often noticed my students would struggle with oral reading fluency, and I didn't have any materials available to help them with decoding, word analysis, and word recognition. To help my students get to the goal of reading well, I needed a curriculum that included foundational skills development.
As a new teacher, I didn’t know the research about the important role foundational skills play for students in grades 3–5. But after two decades in the field, I have come to understand a few universal truths when it comes to developing literacy for all kids. I'd love to share those learnings with you:
As teachers, we are taught that grades 3–5 are about building vocabulary and making meaning. However, what is less emphasized is how much students need continued foundational skills instruction to achieve fluency during this time. This instruction is not only identified and required through the standards, it is vital for all students to continue to practice core skills to become capable readers.
When a student enters third grade, we want them to be equipped with basic decoding skills for single-syllable words. In third grade, the focus shifts to decoding multisyllabic (words with more than one syllable) words, morphology (the process of understanding how to break a word into its prefix, suffix, and root), and word recognition.
As the texts students encounter increase in complexity, returning to the core skills of phonics and word recognition helps students feel confident when they come to a challenging word or phrase because they have strategies to work through it. The standards call for this approach, and quality materials aligned to those standards continue to support foundational skills throughout elementary school.
Before I had high-quality foundational skills materials, I often searched online to find support materials. I was especially concerned that the materials I had did not provide support for students beyond second grade. Some of the online resources I found may have been aligned—but all were unvetted and took hours of work to find. Equally concerning, the resources did not necessarily fit coherently into the content I was teaching throughout the year.
As I gained more experience as a teacher and early literacy specialist, I realized what a difference quality materials could make in my instruction and how it could support foundational skills learning in grades 3–5. Quality materials provide opportunities to utilize core anchor texts to build on decoding, word recognition, and fluency skills and room to practice skills learned in previous weeks. And they provide these opportunities for students well beyond second grade.
Quality materials also include curriculum-embedded assessments that take the guesswork out of understanding student capacity and skill level with foundational principles. These assessments, designed to work coherently with the program, provide ways to see where students need foundational support and options that relate back to the relevant words in the anchor text.
Having a coherent set of materials gives teachers tools to measure outcomes and provide the appropriate scaffolds, often leading to shifts in instruction and in student growth.
As a new teacher, I had a fourth-grade student who struggled to understand the reading assignment. My first thought was; this student needs support with reading comprehension. I missed the signs of foundational skills gaps such as a lack of word attack skills and the inability to sound out a longer word or break the word into parts.
Because I didn’t know the research or have quality instructional materials, the interventions I used were not as effective as they could have been. Later, in my work with teachers as an instructional coach, I encountered many upper elementary teachers who thought similarly to me when I was starting out.
Although reading comprehension is key to literacy, if a student does not have a strong grasp on the basic tools they need to decode and analyze words, a focus on comprehension is not getting to the root of the issue.
High-quality materials and the professional development to use them well are vital for teachers and students who are experiencing reading challenges in the classroom. Aligned curricula provide the embedded assessments and explicit instruction teachers need to identify scaffolding strategies that focus on identifying foundational skills gaps and supports to address these gaps.
As teachers, we know that each student will enter our classroom with unique gifts and challenges. It is our joy and responsibility to get to know our students, incorporate their strengths in the learning process, and support them where needed.
A standards-aligned, quality program eliminates the guesswork for teachers around foundational skills so that they can focus on tailoring text choices and class tasks to match the unique needs of students.
I know from experience that supporting a student in their reading journey can be overwhelming if you’re unsure about the resources to use as support. When teachers have access to high-quality instructional materials, foundational skills development can be a bridge to literacy, taking students closer to their highest potential.
Stephanie Stephens is currently an ELA Specialist at UnboundEd.