By Stephanie Stephens, Early Literacy Specialist and Tricia Parker, Senior ELA Content Specialist

November 19, 2019

Reading is the foundation of all other learning. It is the gateway to gaining critical skills all students need throughout their education and adult life. High-quality, standards-aligned K-2 foundational skills materials can play a key role in supporting students from their earliest years in school.

Quality, standards-aligned materials help ensure that students receive all the components of foundational skills, reducing the chance that kids have gaps in their reading and comprehension that could impact learning in other subject areas. But what is “quality” and how does one identify it? Do core programs cover all the skills or do schools need to supplement?

We put together this short guide to accompany our foundational skills reports highlighting four ways to know if you’re using high-quality foundational skills materials in your classroom.

1. Quality Materials Include All Components of Foundational Skills

There’s a common misconception that foundational skills are only “phonics” or that phonics is the most important foundational skill. In truth, foundational skills include more components than just phonics and need to be taught as a package deal.

Unfortunately, it is common for programs to only cover a few components of foundational skills yet still claim to be “aligned to the foundational skills standards.” Take a look at your program and see if materials cover all of the following: print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics, and word recognition, and the practice in fluency.

You may be asking yourself: “But what if my program covers only two or three of these skills?” The research base is clear that missing even one skill can make it more difficult for kids to develop the proper foundation needed for acquiring literacy since the components depend on one another for mastery. For example, students will have a hard time understanding phonics if they don’t first learn print concepts or phonological awareness. Kids need all foundational skills components to become proficient readers.

2. Quality Materials Have a Research-Based Scope and Sequence

The “scope and sequence” of a foundational skills program is essentially a roadmap for educators. It allows teachers to see how the program unfolds over the course of the year and how standards are addressed in each grade level. A scope and sequence makes clear what the pacing of the materials will be—whether or not the content can really be taught in the span of a school year or whether or not there is enough content. It will also provide insights into the amount of instruction, review, and practice that is available to assure students master the content.

A strong scope and sequence is not simply developed out of thin air but is guided by the research on how kids learn to read.  The program should provide clear indications about what the research is before, during, and after the materials are taught.  

The scope and sequence offers insight into the intentionality of materials including what progressions a program is using in relation to grade-level standards. For example, when and how are sounds and letters introduced? What is the pacing of instruction and does it align with research? Are components and skills introduced in a logical way that allows students to build their foundational skills? A scope and sequence is essential to avoiding random, accidental instructional approaches.

3. Quality Materials Offer Systematic and Explicit Instruction

Having a scope and sequence is key, but it’s still necessary to ensure that the materials actually support instruction that follows the scope and sequence. In short: is there a system in place for learning? “Systematic” instruction means that there is purpose and reasoning in the content students are introduced to, when they are introduced to it, and why. If the scope and sequence is the road map, systematic instruction identifies the key stops along the way of your literacy journey.

“Explicit” instruction works within systematic instruction—at each point on the map, how will you learn what’s necessary to proceed to the next destination? With each intentional piece of content presented, materials should have modeling examples for teachers and expected outcomes for students. Through systematic, explicit instruction students will have multiple opportunities to learn and practice the skills they are building.  

4. Quality Materials Provide Aligned Assessments and Multiple Review Opportunities

Quality foundational skills materials not only offer the content necessary for students to learn to decode, but the materials should also support teachers to identify if students are actually mastering that content. Great materials have aligned assessments built in, tied directly to the expected outcomes detailed in the standards. These assessments are essential tools for teachers to evaluate where they need to reteach and what students are struggling with so that kids don’t slip through the cracks.

Connected to assessments are multiple opportunities for review. Materials should provide ways for students to be constantly reviewing what they’ve learned. Daily review opportunities are important to ensuring students master knowledge and skills and that teachers have a variety of ways to monitor progress.  

Foundational skills are the backbone of literacy. The research around how kids learn to read make it clear that reading is not “natural”—students require instruction in all the foundational skills applied with research-based practices and presented systematically with explicit instruction. To learn more about college and career-ready standards for K-2 foundational skills explore our reports and dig into our review rubric and evidence guide.