The “Big 5” Reading Components
Reading is arguably the most critical life skill and is the gateway to all subsequent learning. Yet, it is not innate. Reading must be taught explicitly. The science of reading is clear that students must learn foundational skills to become effective life-long readers. While there is little disagreement among literacy experts that a foundational, scaffolded approach to reading is best, too often schools will “check that box” after touching on, rather than fully teaching each fundamental reading component.
The essential reading components, often referred to as “The Big 5”, include phonics, phonological awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. These 5 must be taught together, systematically and explicitly, to properly plant the seeds for incremental growth towards lifelong literacy. Scaffolding these elements in sequence helps students to master each one and to become independent, self-regulating learners and problem solvers. Once students are proficient in phonics and phonological awareness, a teacher can begin to shift the instructional focus to fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. By repeatedly reviewing the skills previously learned, a student will continue to expand his/her knowledge and perform at a higher level each time that familiar topic is encountered (spiral learning). Evidence supporting the benefits of instruction in “The Big 5” continues to accumulate each year with more research and data. Ensuring mastery at each step along the way helps to build capacity in every learner to succeed as they advance from one grade to the next and encounter more lengthy, complicated material.
Comprehensive and accurate assessment is critical to monitor progress and to provide appropriate individualized instruction and remediation. Assessment of phonological awareness can begin in the emergent (pre-reading) stages of reading, as early as age three. Reading readiness is a process. Therefore, effective appraisal of reading ability and progress should follow in stages for each component. While instruction of all five components should always be present, teaching and assessment should primarily focus on the foundational components- phonological awareness, phonics and decoding- in the earlier years before moving the focus to comprehension, fluency and vocabulary. Proficiency in the primary components establishes a necessary foundation for building skills in the latter three.
A universal screening tool must be objective and scientifically based to not only measure reading ability, but to detect difficulties or disabilities. Ideally, these tools should provide an “inside look” at what a reader is seeing and how the brain is processing the words on the page. This insight is invaluable to creating a specific reading plan for each child.
After being properly assessed, an educator (or parent) can construct a road map to properly guide and support each reader. Once a child has achieved age-appropriate competency with phonics and phonological awareness, the reading plan should continue to review those concepts, while shifting more of the instructional focus to vocabulary, fluency and comprehension at the targeted level. It is critical that all 5 components continue to be taught together. There are many free resources available online for both teachers and parents to meet these goals.
Children must learn to read before they can read to learn in other subjects. Starting with the Big 5 components of reading builds a solid foundation upon which to improve skills continuously and incrementally with age.