Introduction to Reading First
Martin Kozloff
David Gill
July, 2004

This paper describes the main features of Reading First: (1) the five major reading skills; (2) three kinds of curricula; (3) four kinds of assessments; (4) systematic and explicit instruction; (5) scientific validation of all aspects of instruction (the first four items in this list); and (6) reading as a school-wide endeavor. 

A Concise View of Reading:  Five Major Skills, or Big Ideas

          Reading First provides educators with a clear picture of reading.  Proficient reading consists of five major skills.  When these skills are taught in a logically progressive sequence, early skills help students to learn and use the later-taught skills—leading to accurate, rapid reading with comprehension and enjoyment.  Below are brief definitions of each of the five main skills.  Statements in italics are from the IDEA website, at

1.  Phonemic Awareness:  A person hear and manipulates sounds in words. There are about a dozen ways to hear and manipulate sounds in words.  These ways are best taught from easier to harder.  For example,
a.  Identify words that sound the same and different.  run, sit, fun
b.  Rhyme.  can, man, fan,  rrr__
c.  Count the number of words in a sentence.
     The dog sat by the cat = 6 words
d.  Count the number of sounds (phonemes) in a word. 
e. Blend sounds into words.  rrrruuuunnn
à run
f.  Segment words into sounds.  Run
à rrruuunnn
     sat = /s/a/t/ = 3  sounds
Segment words by identifying the first, last, and middle (medial)          sounds.  “What is the first sound in rrrruuuunnn?”
h.  Identify what word it would be if one sound were
removed (phoneme   deletion).   “Listen… sssaaaat.  Take out the ssss.  What word now?...
i.  Identify what a word would be if a sound were
replaced with another. “Listen…. ssssiiiit.   Take away the ssss and put in fff.  What word now?...
However, it is not necessary to teach all of these examples of phonemic awareness.  The most important are blending, segmenting, and rhyming.

Phonemic awareness helps students learn to read and do other literacy skills.  How?  A student who hears and manipulates the sounds (phonemes) in words, can more easily: (1) remember which sound goes with which letter; (2) sound out words [cat.  k/aaaa/t.]; (3) spell [How do you spell cat.  kaaaat . /k/ is c.  /a/ is a.  /t/ is t.” ]; and (4) detect and correct errors in reading and spelling.  See for more information on phonemic awareness.

2.  Alphabetic Principle:  (a) Associating sounds with letters and (b) using these sounds to decode (“recognize”) words.   Notice that the alphabetic principle (sometimes called phonics) has two skill-parts.  
a.  The student says the correct sounds in response to
single letters (m), consonant blends (st, bl), digraphs (sh, ph, th, ch, ck, tch, wh) and diphthongs (ai, ou); for example m says /m/, ck says /k/, and ai says /ae/. 
b.  When the student sees an unfamiliar word (rim) in a story book, the student uses letter-sound knowledge to sound out or decode the word—-perhaps letter by letter (“Sound it out.”) and then quickly (“Say it fast.”).
     “The bike has a bent rrrriiiimmm….rim.” 
Using the alphabetic principle (shown above), the student
knows exactly what the word says. 
     In contrast, students who are
not taught phonics in a systematic way, or who are not taught to use phonics knowledge as the first and most reliable strategy for identifying words, have to guess or “predict” what words say using “context cues,” such as pictures or what seems to fit the meaning of a sentence, as shown below.  Instead of reading “The bike has a bent rim,” the student guesses
     “The bike has a be…be..bellbelt….riri…rip.  The bike has a belt rip.”
Often, these mis-taught students never learn to read skillfully. That is why Reading First stresses systematic and explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle.  Read more at

3.  Fluency with Text: The effortless, automatic reading of words in connected text. Fluency is reading with accuracy and speed.  Fluency is important both for enjoyment and comprehension.  If a person struggles with words (guquguilquil) , the person will also struggle to figure out the meaning of sentences.  In fact, dysfluent readers spend so much time and effort trying to figure out what the separate words say, they can barely pay attention to the meaning of the sentence.  “The ju..jur….jury found her gu..quguilquil…”) In other words, they learn very little from reading.
     To help students read connected text (e.g., story passages) accurately and quickly, it is important to:
a.  Teach students to decode separate words (regular and irregular) accurately and quickly—which means (1) using knowledge of letter-sound         correspondence (
not guessing); and (2) blending the sounds into words.
b.  Teach students to self-correct.
c.  Provide practice reading words enough times that it is almost automatic; that is, the words become “sight words.”  Note:  sight words are
not words a student memorizes.  The student still knows how to decode them letter by letter.  Rather, the student has read the words so
     often that decoding takes only an instant.
d.  Provide practice reading text with which students are already accurate, encouraging them to read faster and faster without making errors
     (i.e., more words correct per minute, or wcpm).

     e.  Work on fluency (accurate and fast) at all levels of text---(1) saying sounds fast; (2) blending sounds into words fast (phonemic
     awareness); (3) reading words fast; (4) reading word lists fast; (5) reading sentences (starting with two words) fast; (6) reading paragraphs
     fast; (7) reading larger chunks fast.
Read more about fluency here.

4.  Vocabulary: Say the meaning of (receptive vocabulary) and using (expressive vocabulary) words to acquire and convey meaning.  The three reading skills above—(1) phonemic awareness, (2) the alphabetic principle (letter-sound correspondence and the strategy for sounding out or decoding words), and (3) fluency—have to do with the mechanics of reading.  The last two skills—vocabulary and comprehension—have to do with making sense of the written word. 
Vocabulary and comprehension cannot be taken for granted.  Students need to be taught how to get and express the meaning of words and passages.  This is especially important for students of low socioeconomic status.  These students are read to less often, hear fewer vocabulary words, and therefore understand and use far fewer words than children born to working class or professional class families. 
     Following are some of the more important methods of vocabulary instruction.
Read storybooks to children.
2.  Provide
direct instruction of new vocabulary words by selecting important words in a story; giving explanations, or definitions of the words; and giving students many chances to discuss and use the new words.
3.  Teach older students to use
morphemic analysis (analysis of word parts) to determine meaning.  For example, “Bisect.  Bi means two.           Sect means divide.  So, bisect means divide into two parts.”
4.  Teach
contextual analysis--inferring the meaning of a word from the context in which it occurs.  The fan’s oscillations cooled everyone in the room…Sometimes fans move back and forth.  If everyone was cooled, it probably means the fan blew on everyone.  So, oscillate probably means to move back and forth.”
You can find more on vocabulary here.

5.  Comprehension: The complex cognitive process involving the intentional interaction between reader and text to convey meaning. In other words, sentences don’t tell you what they mean.  You have to interact with the text—for example, asking questions, checking to see if the text gives answers, rereading, connecting one sentence with a later sentence to get the flow of the argument or the flow of events in time.  These comprehension strategies are learned best when they are taught explicitly.  This kind of instruction includes the following.
1.  Set
comprehension objectives; for example, students will answer specific literal (who, what, when), inferential (why), and evaluative (can you think of a better way…?) questions.
2.  Focus on
main ideas in a story or informational text.
Preteach vocabulary words important for comprehending the material.
4.  Read (with students) the material in
manageable chunks, and ask        literal, inferential, and evaluative questions on each chunk.
5.  Use a
KWL strategy: have students think about and discuss what I know;        what I want to know; and what I learned.
You can learn more about comprehension here.

A Comprehensive Set of Curriculum Materials
          No set of curriculum materials (program) is adequate for teaching all five main reading skills to all beginning readers.  A set of materials will have one or more of the following weaknesses.

1.  The scope and sequence (what is taught and in what order) does not adequately cover all five skills. For example, there is too little instruction on phonemic awareness, or some of the skills are taught in the wrong order.

2.  The materials are designed for the average student, and do not provide the sort of instruction needed by students (1) who enter with (for example) a small vocabulary, or little phonemic awareness, or little knowledge of letter-sound correspondence; or (2) students with specific difficulties learning to read.  For example, a student knows how to sound out words, but the student needs five seconds to do it.  As a result, the student can’t keep pace as the teacher points to words on the board and asks the class to read each one quickly.

Therefore, a comprehensive reading curriculum will have more than one set of materials.  Reading First recommends three kinds of curriculum materials, or what is sometimes called the “three-tier model”--which you can read about at the following websites.

Here are the three kinds of programs.

          1.  Core curriculum.  A core reading program should: (1) cover virtually all five main reading skills; (2) be designed so that it will be useful for almost all beginning readers; and (3) be well-designed, in terms of sequencing of skills, practice, and building simpler skills into more complex wholes, to name a few features.  The University of Oregon’s website states:

A core reading program is the primary instructional tool that teachers use to teach children to learn to read and ensure they reach reading levels that meet or exceed grade-level standards. A core program should address the instructional needs of the majority of students in a respective school or district…Adoption of a core does not imply that other materials and strategies are not used to provide a rich, comprehensive program of instruction. The core program, however, should serve as the primary reading program for the school and the expectation is that all teachers within and between the primary grades will use the core program as the base of reading instruction. Such programs may or may not be commercial textbook series…Teaching reading is far more complex than most professionals and laypersons realize. The demands of the phonologic, alphabetic, semantic, and syntactic systems of written language require a careful schedule and sequence of prioritized objectives, explicit strategies, and scaffolds that support students' initial learning and transfer of knowledge and skills to other contexts. The requirements of curriculum construction and instructional design that effectively move children through the "learning to read" stage to the "reading to learn" stage are simply too important to leave to the judgment of individuals. The better the core addresses instructional priorities, the less teachers will need to supplement and modify instruction for the majority of learners.  []

Criteria for evaluating core reading programs, and reviews of many core programs, can be found here.

          2.  Supplementary Curricula.  Supplementary curricula or programs are used to in two ways.  First, they fill gaps in a core reading program.  For example, a core program may have too little instruction on rhyming (one aspect of phonemic awareness), or it may have too few storybooks connected to its instruction on decoding and vocabulary.  Therefore, a school or district would purchase or create materials to give the additional instruction.
          Second, a core program may not provide the amount of
highly focused instruction some students need on certain skills.  For example, some students enter school with a vocabulary so small that they don’t know what the stories are about.  Therefore, a school or district might use a supplementary program for accelerating these students’ vocabulary development. 
Caution.  It is important to select core and supplementary materials that are compatible, or at least to train teachers to make them compatible.  For example, a core program might tell teachers properly and exactly how to correct errors when students misread words in connected text.  For example, the word is “made” but a student reads “mad.”  He m….mmm…mad the....”

Teacher.  “That word is made.  What word?”
Student.  made.” 
Teacher.  “Spell made.”
Student.  m a d e”
Teacher.  “What word?”
Student.  made.”
Teacher.  “Yes, made.  Please start the sentence again, Joey.”

However, the supplementary materials might not tell teachers how to correct reading errors, or may suggest a different method (format).  This will confuse students.  So, the school either has to use core and supplemental materials that correct errors the same way, or the school has to decide that teachers will apply to all supplementary materials the error correction format used in the core program.

          3. Intervention Curricula.  Intervention programs are designed to meet the needs of students with so little background knowledge or so much difficulty learning to read that they need specially designed instruction and special, additional time for instruction.  For example, diagnostic assessment may show that some kindergartners are falling behind, perhaps because their phonemic awareness skills are still so weak.  Or, some third graders struggle to comprehend text because they are still weak on basic comprehension skills.  In both cases, students would get extra time for interventions, using materials that focus on their skill weaknesses.
Caution.  As before, it is important that core and intervention materials are compatible; e.g., both teach the same comprehension strategies.  In addition, teachers must ensure that what students learn during intervention instruction is transferred to general (core) reading instruction.  For example, teachers must ensure that students are taught to use their new phonemic awareness and comprehension skills when they are with the rest of the class reading storybooks in the core materials.  Otherwise, intervention instruction will have no benefits.

          You can read more about supplementary and intervention programs at the following websites.

Four Kinds of Assessments
One of the basic ideas in Reading First is that instruction should be a rational process.  Teachers need solid information on the skills students bring and do not bring to reading instruction, on the progress they are making during instruction, and how much progress they made during the year.  Without this information, teachers can’t successfully: (1) assign students to proper reading groups and to properly trained teachers; (2) decide if the core program is adequate or if students need supplemental or intervention instruction (and on exactly which skills); or (3) decide at the end of the year if students are ready to move to the next year/level of a core program.  Therefore, Reading First advocates four kinds of assessments.  Each has a different function.
Screening Assessment.  Screening assessment is done when students enter a beginning reading program or at the start of the year.  The function is to determine whether a student has the entry skills (e.g., knowledge of the alphabet, phonemic awareness, and vocabulary) that are likely to make instruction in the core program alone adequate, or whether the student has specific skill deficits and learning difficulties that require supplemental and/or intervention instruction.
Progress Monitoring.  Progress is monitored on skills worked on.  These assessments might be done, for example, every month to see if or how students’ skill at decoding (sounding out) words is improving or if or how much fluency (measured as words correct per minute, wcpm) is increasing.  Again, this information would be used to make instructional decisions.  Perhaps a student should be moved to a reading group that is progressing more quickly.  Or a student might get extra practice at decoding so the student reads connected text more accurately and quickly.  Or, a student’s progress may be so slow that intervention instruction is called for.  However, before that is done, more information is needed—supplied by diagnostic assessment, discussed later.
          Progress monitoring also says something about the
quality of a curriculum and/or the quality of instruction delivered by teachers.  For example,

1.  Some teachers use the core program exactly as instructed.  However, if many students make too little progress, this suggests weaknesses in the core program.  The core then might be reevaluated with the following documents.

2.  Students in Ms. Black’s class make excellent progress in the core program, but students in Ms. Winter’s class do not.  This suggests that Ms. Winter may not be using the core properly.  For example, Ms. Winter may not correct errors, or she may go to the next lesson before students master skills in the present one.  In this case, Ms. Winter’s teaching must be assessed.  The inventory, here, shows how to assess teachers’ reading instruction.

          Diagnostic Assessment.  Screening assessment may show that a student has little knowledge of phonemic awareness.  Does this mean the student is not read to and talked with enough at home, or does it mean the student can’t easily hear the differences between one word and another?  Likewise, progress monitoring may show that a student is not picking up skill at sounding out words.  Does this mean the student’s knowledge of letter-sound relationships (s says /s/) is weak (and therefore the student can’t say and blend the separate sounds in many words), or could it be the student knows letter-sound relationships but has a hard time retrieving and then using this knowledge quickly enough to keep up with the pace of instruction?  Clearly, making the right instructional decision requires answers to these questions, which are supplied by diagnostic assessment.
Outcome Assessment.  Outcome assessment determines how much students have learned at the end of a semester or year.  This information is used to evaluate: (1) the quality of the core, supplemental, and intervention materials; (2) the quality of instruction; (3) student motivation, attention, and participation; and (4) students’ specific reading difficulties—leading to decisions about curricula (keep, change, modify), instruction (ways to improve and how to assist teachers), and classroom management.
          Assessment instruments should: (1) provide
valid information (information on the skills that need to be measured); (2) be appropriate for students’ age and grade level; (3) be reliable (different users would get about the same data with the same students); (4) be relatively easy to use; and (5) provide objective information (e.g., 100 correct words per minute) rather than impressions (“Sally reads pretty accurately and quickly”).  Therefore, it’s wise to select instruments with a solid track record.  Sources below describe and evaluate many assessment instruments.

Systematic and Explicit Instruction

          The most respected scientific research in education and psychology shows clearly that instruction yields higher and faster achievement in more students (with and without learning difficulties) when instruction is systematic and explicit.  Here are some resources you might examine.

But what does systematic and explicit mean?

          Systematic means that:

1.  Instruction is given in a planned, logically progressive sequence of things to be taught.  For example, certain letter-sounds (a, s, i, m, r) are taught before other letter-sounds (b, n, y, sh) because they are easier to learn and are used more often.

2.  Instruction is guided and assessed with clearly defined objectives for everything taught.  Objectives are stated in terms of what students will do.

          Good objective.  Students are given two minutes to read the assigned passage from “The bear and the hare.” They read the passage at a rate of at least 100 words correct per minute.”

          Poor objective.  Students read story books quickly and get most words right.

3.  Instruction is focused precisely on the thing (knowledge unit) to be learned, as specified by the objective.  For example, if students are to read a passage at 100 wcpm, then that is exactly what the teacher focuses on during the ten minute fluency exercise during lessons.  She does not work on fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension at the same time.

4.  Instruction provides planned practice to strengthen all of the skills worked on.

5.  Instruction provides planned work on new examples (e.g., words, text) to foster application or generalization of previously taught knowledge.

6.  Instruction includes assessments designed and used in a timely fashion to monitor the different phases of instruction, or mastery: acquisition, fluency, generalization, retention, and independence.

       Explicit means that:

1.  The teacher reveals in an obvious and clear way to students the knowledge she is trying to communicate.  She does this through demonstrations (modeling) and running commentary to students.  For example,

     “I’ll show you how to sound out this word.  [man is written on the board.] Listen.  I do NOT stop between the sounds.  [Teacher touches under each letter as she says the sound.]  mmmmaaaannn.  Now, I’ll say it fast.  [Teacher slides her finger under the word.] man.”

2.  The teacher ensures student attention to important features of an example or demonstration.  “Look [points to the word ate] here is a vowel, then a consonant, and then an e at the end [name].  So, we do NOT say the e at the end.”

Here is an example of instruction that is not explicit.  It is implicit—or buried in the teacher’s talk. 

          The teacher holds up a big book that has a paragraph from a story.  She        reads the words slowly. Occasionally she points to the letter r and says rrr.  She expects that this will be enough for students to get the connection between the letter and the sound.  Of course, many students do not get it.

In contrast, explicit instruction would have the teacher hold up the big book and say,

“New sound. This sound (points to the letter r in ran) is rrr.  Say it with         me… And this sound (points to r in car) is rrr.  Say it with me… And this sound (points to r in barn) is rrr.  Let’s see if you remember our new sound.  What sound is this?  (points to r in ran)… What sound is this?  (points to r in barn)… What sound is this?  (points to r in car)…. Now I’ll           read the story.  (Teacher points to each r as she reads and has students say rrr and then read the whole word.)

As you can imagine, this explicit instruction of letter-sound correspondence is more likely to teach most students quickly.

Scientific Validation

          This is one of the most important contributions of Reading First.  Every curriculum or program, every teaching method (e.g., how to correct errors), and every assessment instrument must be:

1.  Valid (does what it is supposed to do) and reliable (works much the same way in the hands of different people).

2.  Based on scientific research.  For example, the sequence for teaching phonemic awareness (beginning with identifying words that sound alike vs. different, and ending with replacing a phoneme and saying the new word) in a core program must be based on solid scientific research that says this is an effective sequence.

3.  Field tested to ensure that it is valid and reliable and effective before it is used.

Teachers will be more confident, and certainly will be more effective, if all of their teaching methods and materials are known to work.  The following websites have more information on scientific validation.


Reading is a School-wide Endeavor

          If teachers in different grade levels and classes use different curricula, different assessments, different rules for interpreting assessment data and for making instructional decisions, and different teaching methods, their students are not likely to benefit as much from reading instruction as they would if reading were a coordinated school-wide activity.  Therefore, schools need to:

1.  Develop a school mission that stresses the importance of reading, sets high but realistic achievement goals for each year, and assumes primary responsibility for students’ achievement. 

2.  Examine different curricula and assessment instruments (using materials at the websites listed above), and select the ones that have been shown to be most effective.

3.  Select the right teachers for the right jobs.  It is essential that the best teachers teach students in the early stages of reading and teach students who are behind or who need interventions.

4.  Select specialists to coordinate testing, collect assessment information, order curricula, obtain outside consultation and training, and provide technical assistance to teachers.

5.  Have principals and other administrators who know the five reading skills; know what explicit and systematic instruction looks like; know what effective reading instruction looks like; know what to ask job applicants to ensure that they get skilled teachers; know the criteria that define adequate curricula; and have the strength to require teachers to use curricula faithfully and to improve their teaching as needed.

6.  Provide professional development on all aspects of Reading First, as well as timely ongoing assistance.

Here is the website for an instrument that lays out the skills teachers need.  It can also be used as a guide for assessment, professional development, and ongoing assistance.


Addition materials on school-wide implementation include the following.


Let’s Summarize

          The six features of Reading First discussed above amount to an integrated approach to reading.

1.  There are five main reading skills:  phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle (letter-sound correspondence and using this knowledge to decode words), fluency (accuracy and speed), vocabulary, and comprehension.

2.  Three kinds of curricula ensure that virtually all children learn to read: core programs, supplementary programs, and intervention programs—with placement determined by assessment information.

3.       There are four kinds of assessments: screening, diagnostic, progress monitoring, and outcome.  These provide information used to make decisions about students’ curriculum and instructional needs, the quality of curricula used, and the quality of instruction.

4.  The wisest course is to teach all skills systematically (in a planned, logical sequence) and explicitly (the teacher clearly demonstrates knowledge).

5.  All of the above are based on the rules and procedures of scientific research to ensure validity, reliability, and effectiveness.

6.  All of the above are part of a coordinated, school-wide effort that includes clear mission, strong leadership, assignments based on expertise, and professional development.