The Secret to Successful Early Reading Instruction

Savvas Insights Team

It is well known among educators that a student’s ability to read proficiently by the end of third grade is an indicator of whether or not that student will be successful in subsequent grades. In fact, the National Research Council states, “A person who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by that time is unlikely to graduate from high school.” This is why the materials you choose for reading instruction in those early years are critical. But how do you know what to look for in an effective reading curriculum?

23% of third graders with below -basic reading skills do not graduate high school by age 19.“Explicit instruction is probably the secret sauce of achieving success in teaching reading,” said Dr. Sharon Vaughn, author and literacy expert. “Not only do the teachers need to be explicit in terms of the instruction, but students need to have opportunities to practice. Practice is the critical feature of getting better at anything, and certainly getting better at reading.”

We talked to Sharon recently to find out what elements to look for in an effective core or supplemental reading curriculum, what elements not to look for, and what steps should ideally be in place to ensure that students will be reading at or above grade level by the end of the third grade.

Foundational Skills and the Science of Reading

Research gathered over the past 40 years has provided tremendous insights into the process of learning to read. This evidence-based body of knowledge is referred to as the Science of Reading.

The Science of Reading indicates that students need explicit instruction in the following critical elements of reading, or foundational skills: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. In order for young learners to be successful readers, Sharon says educators must leverage those foundational skills to get students reading words quickly, so by the end of first grade, students should be reading connected text or shorter sentences.

The Five Critical Elements of Reading

  • Phonics: A set of rules that specify the relationship between letters in the spelling of words and the sounds of spoken language.
  • Phonemic Awareness: Different from phonics, phonemic awareness focuses on the individual sounds of a spoken language.
  • Fluency: Reading with fluency requires readers to both comprehend and process text simultaneously so they can focus on deeper levels of meaning.
  • Vocabulary: Vocabulary comprehension allows students to interpret and understand content across a vast array of content areas and topics.
  • Reading Comprehension: Reading comprehension is the key that unlocks additional learning and skills so that students are able to read increasingly more complex texts, which increases capacity for future learning.

Sharon emphasized that, while it’s important for students in grades K-1 to know what words mean, they first need to know how to read the words by being able to sound them out. “They really have to get this mapping of the phonology to the orthography,” she said, referring to how early readers develop awareness of the sounds in words and how students recognize that each letter in the alphabet represents a sound. “Then, once we get them there, we can really start taking advantage of fluency, their knowledge of words, and vocabulary.”

When students are reading connected text of about 40 or 50 words correctly, they move on to fluency. “As students get older, we start to leverage and build vocabulary knowledge, text discourse knowledge, and listening comprehension at a higher level than reading comprehension so we can prepare them for these more advanced schedules.”

Systematic and Explicit Instruction with a LOT of Student Practice

The Science of Reading has established that when those foundational skills are delivered in a systematic and explicit manner, the result is reading proficiency. But while it’s important teachers stay diligent in the explicitness of their instruction, they also need to find ways to transition the work they’re doing over to the students so they’re doing most of the work through practice.

“Explicit instruction is probably the secret sauce of achieving success in teaching reading.”

“If you were going to workout at the gym and you had a trainer and the trainer was doing all of the work, all the lifting of the weights, or was continually modeling, you would think, ‘I'm not getting that practice. I'm not the one building the muscles here,’” Sharon said. She emphasizes that if teachers are doing all the work of the instruction and in the practice, or if they're doing all of the work in the reading, this denies the student the opportunity to do that heavy lifting, which is necessary for becoming a better reader.

elementary ages students reading a book together on the floor of the library

Teachers should transition from demonstrating the work to the students doing the work as quickly as possible. Practice is necessary for students to become better readers, so it’s crucial that transition occurs early on.

What Should Not Be Present in Early Reading Instruction

When planning your early reading instruction, it’s just as important to know what not to do. Sharon cautions educators against letting students practice guessing words when learning to read.

“Practice is the critical feature of getting better at anything, and certainly getting better at reading.”

“The reason guessing does not contribute to students reading words is that they are not using the tools of the alphabetic principle to show them how to recover. For example, if a student is reading a word like dad in a sentence and the student guesses the word father, one could argue that father and dad mean the same thing, but that works in a very limited way.”

elementary ages students reading a book together at a desk

Students can get confused if they are guessing words most of the time and they risk becoming weaker readers. “In order to become a strong reader, you want to take out the guessing and bring in the knowledge of the ways in which the sounds of our language map to print.”

Whether you choose the Science of Reading or another strategy to teach reading, research shows that the vast majority of learners benefit from organized, systematic, and explicit instruction of those foundational skills. While you’re considering resources to help deliver effective reading instruction, use this article as a guide to ensure you’re making the right choice for your students.

If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of the Science of Reading, explore core and supplemental programs, or take a deeper dive into the elements of successful reading instruction, view our Research Brief.

4 Key Steps to Help Ensure Students Read at or Above Grade Level by the End of Third Grade

Sharon recommends that educators put these steps in place to ensure their students have a better chance of reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade:

  • Use a Strong Core Reading Program: This is the essence of success. If you have a solid core reading program and teachers have a lot of knowledge about the Science of Reading, the science of learning, and the craft of teaching, they can bring that program to life in the classroom. It will make a difference and the number of kids who fall behind will be reduced.
  • Monitor Progress Frequently: Constantly monitoring student progress through diagnostic assessments or formative assessments is key to ensuring students stay on a path to success. This way, teachers immediately know when students are falling behind, and they can quickly intervene. This will prevent students from getting so far behind that access to that core program is unavailable to them.
  • Have Supplemental Instruction at the Ready: Even with the most dedicated teacher using the highest quality resources, there will be students who fall behind, so it's important for the schools to have supplemental resources at the ready. When students get that far behind we need to have in place an intervention program that provides access to both supplementing and supplanting (to the extent needed) the skills students need in order to catch up or get as close to grade level as possible.
  • Create a Coordinated System of Communication: If teachers have a coordinated system of communication with each other, both within grade levels and across grade levels, it can greatly strengthen the instruction and benefit the whole school community. A coordinated system means that teachers are aware of what other teachers are doing, how they're proceeding, and how students are doing so that there's this feeling that: “We're all in this together. We're all solving the reading challenges together so that all students are successful.”

By laying the foundation with these four steps and ensuring your reading curriculum includes those elements for successful instruction, educators can put students on a path to proficiency that will lead them through the grades and beyond.

Sharon Vaughan

About The Author

Sharon Vaughn, Ph.D.

Dr. Vaughn is the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education and executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on several research initiatives (Institute for Education Sciences, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and U.S. Department of Education) investigating effective interventions for students with reading difficulties and students who are English language learners.


  • 1. Balfanz, R., L. Herzog, & D. Mac Iver. “Preventing student disengagement and keeping students on the graduation path in urban middle-grades schools: Early identification and effective interventions,” Educational Psychologist 42, no. 4 (2007): 223-235.