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The Five Critical Components for Successful Lower School Readers

By Nan Remington, Head of Lower School
Learning to read in Graland’s Lower School is a multifaceted approach that involves the integration of various components working together. From decoding individual sounds to constructing meaning from text, being a proficient reader is a complex cognitive process. Understanding the foundational elements of reading is essential for educators, parents, and learners alike.

There are five critical components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary, which, when developed and practiced, help Lower School students comprehend all kinds of texts fully:


Phonemic Awareness: Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds (or phonemes) in spoken words. It’s a crucial precursor to phonics and reading fluency. Activities that develop phonemic awareness include segmenting words into individual sounds, blending sounds to form words, and manipulating sounds to create new words.

Example: A teacher might ask students to identify the individual sounds in the word “cat” (/k/-/ă/-/t/) or segment the word “shop” into its component sounds (/sh/-/ŏ/-/p/).

Phonics: Phonics involves understanding the relationship between letters (graphemes) and the sounds (phonemes) they represent. It provides the foundational skills necessary for decoding words and spelling. Phonics instruction typically begins with teaching letter-sound correspondences and progresses to more complex phonetic patterns and word structures.

Example: Students learn that the letter “b” represents the sound /b/ as in “bat,” and the letter combination “igh” represents the long “i” sound as in “night.”

Fluency: Fluency encompasses the ability to read text accurately, smoothly, and with expression. Fluent readers can decode words effortlessly, maintain appropriate pacing, and comprehend the text simultaneously. Fluent reading enhances comprehension by freeing cognitive resources for higher-order thinking processes.
Example: A fluent reader reads a passage aloud with appropriate intonation, phrasing, and rhythm, conveying the intended meaning effectively.

Comprehension: Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading. It involves actively constructing meaning from the text by connecting prior knowledge, making inferences, and monitoring understanding. Proficient readers engage in a variety of strategies to comprehend text, such as predicting, summarizing, questioning, and visualizing.

Example: After reading a story, a reader might summarize the main events and infer. 

Vocabulary: Vocabulary refers to the words that a person understands and uses. It plays a critical role in comprehension, as readers must recognize and understand words to make sense of the text. Effective vocabulary instruction involves teaching both the meanings of words and strategies for figuring out unfamiliar words in context.

Example: A teacher introduces new vocabulary words like “magnificent” and “perplexed” before reading a story, providing definitions, and discussing how the words might be used in context.

In recent years, there has been much discussion and debate about the science of reading. At Graland, we feel students need a balance of direct instruction in decoding and fluency skills, along with exposure to rich discussions around text to build vocabulary and comprehension. While each component is distinct, they are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Phonemic awareness lays the groundwork for phonics instruction, which in turn supports fluency development. Fluency, in conjunction with comprehension strategies, enables readers to extract meaning from text efficiently. Additionally, vocabulary knowledge enhances fluency and comprehension by facilitating word recognition and understanding.

Last fall, Lower School teachers implemented a phonics program called Really Great Reading, a research-based approach that has proven effective in improving phonemic awareness, phonics, and decoding skills and provides greater alignment of phonics skills between grade levels. The skills and tools students learn with phonics go hand-in-hand with the other reading skills students learn in the classroom.

Educational leaders and researchers caution that highlighting one reading component over another has proven ineffective. Susan Engel, senior lecturer of developmental psychology and founding director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College, and Catherine Snow, a linguist and professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, encourage “deep reading comprehension,” which includes making inferences about a text and connecting new information from a text with relevant background knowledge. As Engel and Snow contend, “Phonics are undoubtedly a building block of reading, but (some) schools are preoccupied with this method. We must help kids gather information and teach them the tools for expanding their knowledge.”

Other reading skills, such as guided discussions about literacy where teachers ask students to speculate on why David, the main character in the book “No David!” does naughty and rambunctious things or infer why the tree is happy or sad in the “Giving Tree,” allow students to gather information and engage in the text in more profound, more meaningful ways. These methods help create young students who can read and read well.
Effective reading instruction involves a balanced approach that addresses all components in a systematic and integrated manner. At all levels, scaffolded support, explicit instruction, and ample practice opportunities are essential elements of literacy instruction.

For parents and teachers, understanding the critical components of reading is essential for fostering literacy skills in learners of all ages. Phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary work together to unlock the world of reading. By providing targeted instruction and meaningful practice in each component, educators and families can empower students to become proficient and confident readers. 
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Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1927, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.