What does it mean for reading instruction to be evidence based? The terms evidence based, research based, and scientifically based are often used by educators and publishers. They all have slightly different meanings. Evidence-based reading instruction is instruction that is based on rigorous experimental research that is repeatedly conducted in actual classrooms.
As educators, you and your team want to know if your investments in a particular product (such as a core reading program) or practice (such as explicit vocabulary instruction) will pay off. Will it be effective for your students? Answering this question can be difficult, however. How do you and your team determine the practices that are evidence based and those that are not?
There are many resources that can guide you and your team in answering this question. For example, the What Works Clearinghouse provides publications on various literacy topics. The site also includes a tool to “Find What Works” on many educational topics. Also, many core reading programs will describe the primary research conducted about their program. You and your team can review this primary research. When doing so, you can decide if the research indicates how effective the core reading program is. If no research is referenced, it is possible that no research has been done on that particular core reading program. More information about reviewing and evaluating core reading programs and instructional practices can be found in the To Learn More section at the end of Part 2.
The five components of reading instruction
Regardless of the program your campus uses, evidence-based reading instruction includes explicit teaching of these five critical components: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. These five components are interrelated. Instruction in one area builds on others, supporting students’ abilities to read. Phonological awareness and phonics instruction support students’ ability to decode, or sound out, new words. Knowing what words mean (vocabulary) is necessary for comprehension, the ultimate goal of reading. Decoding and comprehension are linked together through fluency, the ability to read with ease. The connections among these five components are seen in the puzzle graphic below.
(Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts at The University of Texas at Austin, 2013b)
Next, you will find a summary of each of these five components of reading instruction.
Phonological awareness (PA) means having an understanding of each of the skills on this continuum, from simple to complex:
(Adapted from Children’s Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, 2007)
Phonological awareness includes the understanding that spoken language is divided into smaller parts. It is also the knowledge of how those pieces can be manipulated. For example, sentences can be broken into words, words into syllables, and syllables into phonemes (sounds).
Because letters represent sounds (phonemes), phonological awareness creates a foundation for decoding skills. Sometimes phonological awareness is confused with phonics, but the important thing to remember is that phonological awareness is an oral skill.
Students should master phonological awareness by the end of first grade. However, students in grade 2 and above who are struggling with reading might benefit from targeted intervention instruction in phonological awareness skills. It is critical to use data to determine what specific skills students need to work on. More information about phonological awareness instruction, including specific strategies for phonological awareness instruction in kindergarten through grade 5, can be found on the Phonological Awareness component card, one of five cards from Effective Reading Instruction (Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts, 2013a). The others are linked below as well.
Phonics instruction enables students to understand the relationships between written letters (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes). Sometimes educators refer to knowledge about phonics as graphophonemic knowledge. While phonological awareness is an oral skill, understanding phonics relates to reading written language.
With systematic and explicit phonics instruction, students learn to use sound-letter relationships to recognize words quickly and accurately. As this process becomes automatic, students experience less difficulty with reading comprehension. In other words, being able to automatically recognize words allows students to focus their cognitive energy on comprehension.
Phonics instruction also supports writing skills. A strong understanding of phonics supports students’ spelling and their ability to write with ease. More information about phonics instruction, including specific strategies for instruction, can be found on the Phonics component card.
It is also important to consider the differences between English and the native languages of English learners. For example, Spanish words have a one-to-one phonetic correspondence. In other words, most Spanish sounds have one graphophonemic, or spelling, representation. On the other hand, most sounds in English are represented by several graphophonemic representations. In different words, for example, the /f/ sound is represented by the letter f or groups of letters such as ph or gh in English. English learners need to learn how the English language works, including the sound and spelling systems. It is helpful for teachers to be knowledgeable about the languages students speak at home to be able to point out similarities and differences between English and their students’ native languages.
Oral reading fluency is the ability to read text with ease, accuracy, and proper expression and intonation. Fluency develops with repeated practice reading and the modeling of fluent reading. When students read with fluency, they can focus their attention on comprehending text rather than on decoding. Increased fluency also assists students in reading increasingly longer texts. It is important to remember that fluency is not mutually exclusive of other reading skills. Fluency is a skill that develops over time as a result and synthesis of multiple related skills.
The basic components of fluency
- Accuracy – being able to decode words correctly
- Rate – how quickly a student can read words
- Prosody – reading with correct intonation and expression
- Chunking – being able to break text into meaningful phrases or statements
More information about fluency instruction, including specific strategies for phonics instruction, can be found on the Fluency component card.
Vocabulary knowledge refers to understanding the meaning and use of words in speaking, listening, and print. Print vocabulary knowledge enables students to understand the meaning of words they read.
Academic vocabulary refers to the key concepts and words used in academic discussions, both written and spoken. A firm grasp of academic vocabulary is necessary to acquire deeper understandings of content. In turn, academic vocabulary enables students to communicate these understandings to others. Because of this, vocabulary instruction should go beyond providing students with definitions of words (Gottlieb, Carnuccio, Ernst-Slavit, Katz, & Snow, 2006). Academic vocabulary instruction should help students understand the complexities of words and how to use them in various situations.
“It gives students the empowerment they need to be successful in academic settings. With academic language instruction, students will more likely succeed and go on to higher education.” (Reading Rockets, n.d.)
More information about effective academic vocabulary instruction can be found in Lesson SBI 2—Teaching academic language and on the Vocabulary component card.
Comprehension is reading text and understanding what is read. Vocabulary knowledge is essential for comprehension, as is fluency. Reading comprehension can be developed through a variety of activities including explicit instruction in comprehension strategies. It is common to assume that upper elementary students already know how to read; however, many of these students may especially benefit from comprehension instruction. More information about comprehension instruction, along with specific strategies for students in kindergarten through grade 5, can be found on the Comprehension component card.
Teaching students how to read with comprehension and fluency is not an easy task. However, it is one of the most important skills that students obtain in school. Increasingly, we live in a society that requires its members to be effective readers. Today, reading skills are an essential part of almost all jobs. Your staff can empower students by teaching them evidence-based comprehension strategies and developing their reading skills.
Interrelated language skills
“Nobody but a reader ever became a writer.” – Richard Peck
The five components of reading instruction also connect to students’ writing, speaking, and listening skills. Effective readers are more likely to be effective writers, speakers, and listeners. Each of these skills requires knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structure. In academic tasks, they also require reasoning, critical thinking, and drawing on background knowledge. Finally, each of these sets of skills draws on the effective use of strategies that are outlined in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and should be explicitly taught and purposefully practiced in class. Because these skills are interconnected, there are powerful advantages to integrating instruction in reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
The integration of reading and writing instruction does not, however, preclude the need to provide struggling students with support that is targeted to their specific needs. These students should receive both instruction that integrates the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) and support in particular areas of need within any of those skills, such as reading or writing.
TO LEARN MORE: To learn more about the five components of evidence-based reading instruction, you and your staff may find these resources helpful:
The “Red Book Series” is comprised of foundational information about reading instruction. You can download each book:
Red Book Series, Book 1: Beginning Reading Instruction
Red Book Series, Book 2: Comprehension Instruction
Red Book Series, Book 3: Guidelines for Examining Phonics & Word Recognition
Red Book Series, Book 4: Research-Based Content Area Reading Instruction
Red Book Series, Book 5: Promoting Vocabulary Development
The report “A Focus on Fluency” also contains a detailed explanation of the five components of effective reading instruction