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20Q: The Importance of Explicit Literacy Instruction in Early Elementary Grades

20Q: The Importance of Explicit Literacy Instruction in Early Elementary Grades
Angela Anthony, PhD, CCC-SLP
September 15, 2022

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From the Desk of Ann Kummer

Learning to read is one of the most important “jobs” of childhood. It can be said that the earlier that a child learns to read, the more successful that he or she will likely be in many other aspects of life. This is because reading is an amazing exercise for the mind! Among other things, reading promotes early cognition, memory, reasoning, and verbal language skills. It opens the door to a world of knowledge of how things work and of people, places, and things. It stimulates imagination and creativity. It helps the child to develop focus and concentration. It also provides entertainment and helps the child to calm down and relax. It is no wonder that early reading skills are the key to academic learning and success.

So, how can we, as speech-language pathologists, promote literacy skills in young children? Fortunately, Angela Anthony, an expert in this area, will answer our questions on this topic through this 20Q article.

By way of introduction, Dr. Angela Anthony is an Associate Professor at Eastern Illinois University, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in childhood language disorders, literacy, and sign language. She also mentors student research and supervises diagnostics and treatment in the university clinic setting. Dr. Anthony previously served as a member and Coordinator of ASHA SIG 10: Issues in Higher Education and is a past president of the Illinois Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

This course is designed to guide speech-language pathologists in understanding key processes in literacy development, and to provide tools for differentiating between typical and disordered written language. In addition, brief descriptions of suggested intervention strategies and references to related resources are provided for further exploration.

Now…read on, learn, and enjoy!

Ann W. Kummer, PhD, CCC-SLP, FASHA, 2017 ASHA Honors

Contributing Editor 

Browse the complete collection of 20Q with Ann Kummer CEU articles at www.speechpathology.com/20Q

20Q: The Importance of Explicit Literacy Instruction in Early Elementary Grades

Learning Outcomes

After this course, readers will be able to: 

  • Discuss typical developmental processes and milestones in written language development.
  • List areas of deficit associated with dyslexia and other reading disabilities.
  • Describe evidence-based intervention strategies for literacy-based deficits.

Angela Anthony photo

Angela Anthony

1. When does a child really start learning to read?

From the very beginning! It is never too early to read to your child – even infants can learn about the basics of books from shared reading experiences and opportunities to physically explore age-appropriate books. By about 8 months of age, naming pictures in books will draw the child’s attention for a short time, and the child can show enjoyment in hearing stories. From 1-3 years, you will see development in abilities to name pictures, enjoyment of rhymes, understanding concepts such as turning pages, directionality of words, and front and back of the book, and the ability to listen to stories for up to 15 minutes. Children ages 3-5 will begin to recognize familiar words, pretend to read books, and say rhyming words. Between the ages of 5 and 6 years, children begin to make direct connections between spoken words and print (ASHA, 2010a). This provides the foundation for decoding individual words. Typically, children are developing decoding skills to read words from about kindergarten through third grade. By third to fourth grade, typical readers are skilled enough in decoding that they can learn new content from what they read (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2020).

2. Don’t most children learn to read on their own, just by being exposed to books?

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Children need explicit instruction on how to decode (i.e., read individual words) and comprehend (i.e., understand) what they read. This need for explicit instruction is related to the fact that reading is not an innate skill, but is an invention of human culture (Wolf, 2007). Although spoken language does develop naturally for typically developing children through exposure, “reading is an acquired act, an invention that must be learned at a conscious level” (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2020, p. 49). Although both spoken and written language rely on the foundation of phonological skills, reading requires attention to print and conversion of that written code to the relevant phonological information. The letters themselves do not carry meaning; thus beginning readers must learn how to translate these symbols into meaningful linguistic information (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2020).

3. I have heard about the “Simple View” of reading. If reading is explained by a “simple view,” why do so many children struggle to learn how to read?

The simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990) gives us the foundation for a well-known theory that is also supported by research. It tells us that both decoding and language comprehension are necessary for a child to become a successful reader. However, multiple areas and systems of the brain are involved in becoming a successful reader. Skilled readers must build new connections in their brain, use specialized areas of the brain to recognize patterns of printed information, and develop the ability to automatically connect these areas through pathways (Wolf, 2007). Technological developments have allowed researchers to identify these areas of the brain, which include connections between the frontal, temporal, and occipital lobes. We know that skilled readers develop more efficient brain pathways than less skilled readers and that individuals with dyslexia rely on a different brain pathway than skilled readers (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2020).

4. I have heard that reading instruction should be “systematic” and “code-based.” What does this mean?

The term “structured literacy” is currently used to describe explicit, systematic, and cumulative literacy instruction in the areas of phonology, sound-symbol association, syllable instruction, morphology, syntax, and semantics (IDA, 2019). Systematic means that skills should be taught in a sequential, developmental order, across multiple levels of literacy tasks (Spear-Swerling, 2018). Systematic instruction is also cumulative – including assessment and instruction that includes repetition of past skills in addition to consideration of the next skill the child is ready to learn. This can be applied by implementing a cycle of new instruction, assessing to evaluate the application of new and earlier learning, and then using assessment results to differentiate instruction – providing review and extra practice where needed and moving on to new skills when appropriate (Burkins & Yates, 2021). “Code-based” instruction includes emphasis on learning letter names, letter sounds, relationships between letter names and sounds, syllable patterns, and morphemes. Eventually, these word-level skills are used as a foundation for developing an understanding of sentence structure, paragraph structure, and overall text structure. Spear-Swerling (2018) offers a useful discussion on how systematic, code-based instruction differs from typical literacy practices often found in classrooms.

5. The early elementary children I work with are learning sight words in the classroom. Do children have to learn all words by sight? Is memorizing word lists equal to decoding?

No – there is a difference between sight words and decoding. Decoding is the code-based process described previously. Children learn to identify letter-sound connections, and then use phonological and morphological understanding to identify parts of words and sound them out. Sight words are irregular words that cannot be sounded out using letter-sound correspondence (e.g., the, is, two), and thus must be recalled from memory. These words can be problematic for children as they frequently appear in children’s books (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2020). Oftentimes, schools will use sight word lists such as the Dolch Word List; these are commonly used words at each grade level that all children should be able to read automatically. These word lists can easily be found by searching “Dolch sight word list” on the internet.

One caution – the term “sight words” is sometimes used to describe words that do follow letter-sound patterns which are automatically recognized by children who no longer need to use the decoding process to sound them out. These words would be better described as being automatically decoded using mental graphemic representations (MGRs), that is, an accurate image of the complete written word stored in memory, thus bypassing the need to decode (Wolter & Apel, 2010).

6. What if the child I am working with doesn’t “get” phonological awareness? How do I help that child?

As a first step, take a look at the hierarchy of phonological and phonemic awareness skills that children develop. In general, the phonological hierarchy starts with larger “chunks” of information (e.g., rhyming words, segmenting syllables) to smaller “chunks” of information (e.g., segmenting and blending phonemes, manipulating phonemes). Although it is appropriate to work on more than one phonological skill at a time, there is a developmental sequence of skills. Make sure that you are working at the appropriate level with the child. Schuele & Boudreau (2008) provide additional details related to the implementation of intervention, including phonological and phonemic awareness benchmarks, strategies for teaching, and instructional sequences.

If a child is receiving research-based instruction in phonological awareness and is still struggling, this could be a red flag for dyslexia or other reading disabilities. By definition, a deficit in the phonological component of language is the primary deficit in dyslexia (IDA, 2010). In addition, children with speech-sound disorders are at greater risk of reading difficulties; more severe speech-sound deficits combined with difficulties with phonological awareness skills increase the likelihood of a child having reading difficulties (Tambyraja, Farquharson, & Justice, 2020). Thus, a child who is struggling to develop phonological awareness may need to be referred for literacy-based assessments to identify or rule out potential deficits.

7. What is morphological awareness?

Morphemes are the smallest units of words that convey meaning (Owens, Metz, & Haas, 2007). Kamhi & Catts (2012) define morphological awareness as the “explicit ability to consider the morphemic structure of words, how word spellings change as the result of adding a morpheme(s) to a base word, and the relationship between morphologically related words” (p. 228). So, morphological awareness draws attention to these units of meaning and helps children apply this information to their attempts to decode and comprehend text. For example, if I know that the morpheme “-ed” indicates past tense, I can identify words that indicate something already happened. If I look at the word “jumped” and use my morphological knowledge, I can break the word into “jump” and “ed” which can help with both my decoding (looking at smaller segments of the word without having to sound out each individual phoneme) and I can attach meaning to the root word “jump” and to the morpheme “ed” to know that the action happened in the past.

Thus, like phonological awareness, morphological awareness provides a foundation of knowledge for children to apply to word-level reading skills (Nelson, 2010). Growing evidence also suggests that morphological awareness intervention may be beneficial for children with language impairment (e.g., McLeod & Apel, 2015).

8. What about spelling? Is there a systematic way to teach children how to spell?

Yes! There are developmental sequences in spelling acquisition, and intervention approaches that follow this sequence. Ideas about developmental spelling were first documented in the early 1970’s in the work of Charles Read (1971, 1975) and Carol Chomsky (1971) and soon after in the work of Edmund Henderson and his colleagues (Beers & Henderson, 1977; Henderson & Beers, 1980). Since that time, extensive work has been done to support the developmental model and to create approaches to teaching and intervention based on this knowledge. One example is Words Their Way (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2012), which provides assessment and intervention strategies focused on the layers of English orthography (i.e., alphabet, pattern, and meaning) and the integration of phonics, spelling, and reading instruction. Their approach includes five spelling stages: emergent, letter name, within word, syllables and affixes, and derivational relations. Their approach to intervention, word study, integrates the alphabet, pattern, and meaning layers of orthography to help learners develop knowledge of generalizations in English spelling as well as specific knowledge about word patterns. Another explicit and integrated approach to word study is presented in SPELL-Links to Reading and Writing (Wasowicz, J., Apel, K., Masterson, J. J., & Whitney, A., 2015). SPELL-Links is based on the connectionist model, which is expanded to include the integration of five linguistic properties: phonological awareness, orthographic knowledge, mental orthographic images of words, semantic knowledge and morphological knowledge and awareness. These linguistic properties are the foundation for the lessons in each spelling pattern.

9. How is spoken language comprehension related to reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension begins with listening comprehension – the ability to understand spoken language. Understanding spoken language requires connections of three processing systems in the brain, including phonological processing (i.e., listening for speech sounds), meaning processing (i.e., attaching meaning to chunks of phonological information), and context processing (i.e., connecting to background knowledge). These systems are also used in reading comprehension (Burkins & Yates, 2021). The key difference between listening and reading comprehension is the modality in which the child accesses the information. That is, spoken language is accessed through the auditory system, while written language is accessed through the visual system. When a child sees a word on the page, a skilled reader connects the print letters to the corresponding phonological and meaning information (Kamhi & Catts, 2012).  As speech-language pathologists, this means that we can play a unique role in supporting children at risk for reading disabilities, given our extensive training in spoken language development, as well as prevention, identification, assessment, and intervention of spoken and written language disorders (ASHA, 2001).

10. What is my role as the SLP related to literacy, and how does it differ from what other professionals do?

The ASHA Practice Portal document on written language disorders includes the following statement: “Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) play a critical and direct role in the development of literacy in children and adolescents and in the diagnosis, assessment, and treatment of written language disorders, including dyslexia” (ASHA, n.d.a.). The SLP’s training includes knowledge about spoken language, which is the foundation of written language development. Thus, SLPs should be involved in preventative activities, such as collaborating with classroom teachers to provide lessons for all children in early literacy skills, such as print knowledge, phonological and phonemic awareness, narrative, and vocabulary (Justice & Kaderavek, 2004; Kaderavek & Justice, 2004; Terrell & Watson, 2018). The SLP’s role continues throughout the school-age years, focused on services for students with communication disorders when the disorder has an impact on the educational success of the student. Collaboration with teachers continues to be important to support linguistic elements of the curriculum for students with disabilities and those at risk for failure (ASHA, 2010b).

While classroom teachers take on the role of Tier 1 instruction in reading and writing, specialized literacy professionals can provide individualized support to teachers and students to address the needs of students with literacy difficulties. The International Literacy Association (2015) published a research brief that describes and distinguishes the roles of school-based literacy professionals, including reading/literacy specialists, literacy coaches, and literacy coordinators/supervisors. The SLP may collaborate with some or all of these professionals in providing literacy intervention. Roles may vary by setting or even by district or individual school, depending on which professionals are available (ASHA, n.d.a).

11. Does it matter if a child has a diagnosis of dyslexia or if they have a different type of reading disability?

Yes. Shaywitz & Shaywitz (2020) emphasize that a specific diagnosis of dyslexia is important for a child to receive appropriate intervention. If we simply list strengths and weaknesses in a child’s literacy skills, we are doing a disservice to the child and his or her family. It is also important that the child understand that dyslexia causes their brain to work differently and that there are ways to improve reading skills.

Differential diagnosis is also important to help clinicians and teachers understand what patterns of strengths and weaknesses are present, and what should be targeted in intervention. Kamhi & Catts (2012) present four subtypes of poor readers based on the simple view of reading. Children with dyslexia will present with good listening comprehension, but poor word recognition. Inversely, children with a specific comprehension deficit will have poor listening comprehension in the presence of good word recognition. In this model, children who have poor skills in both word recognition and listening comprehension are described as having a mixed reading disability. Children who have good word recognition and listening comprehension may still have reading difficulties, though these difficulties would not be explained by the simple view.

Systematic and explicit instruction is appropriate for any child with a reading disability; however, the interventionist needs a clear understanding of where the child’s strengths and weaknesses lie in order to determine appropriate goals and objectives.

12. When a child is diagnosed with dyslexia, will they only have difficulty with decoding? The simple view states that they have good comprehension.

The primary deficit area in dyslexia is in the phonological system. Difficulties with awareness of speech sounds is most closely related to difficulties in word recognition, poor spelling, and poor decoding (IDA, 2008). It is important to note that the simple view categorization of dyslexia is based on good listening comprehension (Kamhi & Catts, 2012). Deficits in reading comprehension are not a primary consequence of dyslexia, however, when a child struggles to decode words, they will use more cognitive energy, and have less ability to focus on reading comprehension. Therefore, difficulties in reading comprehension may be a secondary consequence of dyslexia (IDA, 2008). However, individuals with dyslexia who are very bright often have excellent vocabulary and reasoning skills, combined with strong world knowledge, which aids in comprehension of connected text despite any difficulties with decoding of individual words. In fact, comprehension performance can be equal to that of typical readers (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2020).

13. Recently, I hear more people referencing the “science of reading”. Haven’t we been studying reading for decades? What is so new about the current science?

Yes, we do have decades of research on effective reading instruction, however that research has unfortunately not been consistently applied in curriculum design or in classroom implementation. The definition of the “science of reading” published by The Reading League (2021) states “the science of reading has culminated in a preponderance of evidence to inform how proficient reading and writing develop; why some have difficulty; and how we can most effectively assess and teach, and therefore, improve student outcomes through prevention of and intervention for reading difficulties” (p. 6). This cumulative evidence includes knowledge of how reading is processed in the brain, how skilled reading develops, as well as instructional practices that are effective for key skill areas related to literacy. The Reading League is a nonprofit organization with the goal of promoting knowledge about the existing evidence in reading instruction through training, teaching resources, and the publication of articles supporting the science of reading. Many states have established local chapters of the organization. More information can be found at thereadingleague.org.

14. I have a child on my caseload with auditory processing deficits. Could this impact their ability to learn to read?

Yes. When we look at processing skills, there is a continuum of skills that start with auditory information that is processed in the brain through the phonological system. This is where linguistic information is first processed as meaningful, and transitions from auditory processing to language processing. Given that we know that phonological processing is a foundation for literacy skills, an auditory processing deficit could in turn impact literacy. Any auditory deficit (i.e., hearing loss or auditory processing difficulties) could negatively impact phonological processing and therefore literacy skills (Richard, 2017).

15. Where do I start with intervention for a child with literacy difficulties?

The answer depends on the child’s age and ability level. Target areas range from emergent level skills such as rhyming, beginning sound awareness, drawing attention to print in the environment, and encouraging children to explore writing materials to early and later school-age skills such as decoding, fluency, comprehension, and writing processes and products. ASHA (n.d.b.) outlines specific skills in the emergent, early elementary, and later elementary and beyond stages in the Practice Portal document titled “Written Language Disorders: Intervention Target Areas,” found here: https://www.asha.org/practice-portal/clinical-topics/written-language-disorders/intervention-target-areas/.

16. Can I provide intervention effectively in a group? Is classroom instruction still effective for struggling readers?

The key to intervention for literacy disorders is that it is individualized. If you are able to work with a small group of children who have similar literacy levels, you can target similar goals with all participants. However, Tier 1 classroom instruction alone will not be enough to help a student remediate literacy deficits. We know that intervention must be more intensive than typical instruction (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2020).

Many schools use a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) as a framework for identifying students who need additional supports in academic, social, emotional, and behavioral skills. This involves screening and progress monitoring at Tier 1 and using data-based decision-making to identify students who may need additional supports at Tier 2 or Tier 3 (Center on Multi-Tiered System of Supports, 2022). Of note in specific relationship to literacy intervention, Shaywitz & Shaywitz (2020) caution that RTI (an earlier form of MTSS) was designed “to serve students with relatively mild learning problems. However, currently, RTI is being used to serve children who are often severely dyslexic and who, after typically six weeks or so of instruction, are funneled back into their regular classrooms, unremediated and, sadly, destined to fail” (p. 291). Thus, it is important to be aware of the severity of a child’s deficits related to literacy and ensure that they are getting the appropriate intensity of services to meet their needs.

17. Is nonfiction harder to learn to read than fiction?

Harder vs. easier is not a good comparison; fiction and nonfiction are different. They have different text structure, different purposes, and different content. What is important is that children are exposed to both fiction and nonfiction, beginning in the emergent stage of literacy learning. Historically, nonfiction was not commonly found in early elementary classrooms (Duke & Bennett-Armistead, 2003). Today there are numerous nonfiction trade books found on the library and bookstore shelves or found in a quick search of any online bookseller, even for preschool and early elementary readers.

Why is early exposure to nonfiction, and specifically informational text, important? Once children move into fourth grade and beyond, they are expected to “read to learn” – and a large portion of that text will be informational. If we wait to expose children to this genre, they will have to work even harder to learn from text in the middle and upper elementary grades. This genre also exposes children to a different set of vocabulary and is found widely in functional daily life (Duke & Bennett-Armistead, 2003).

18. I know that the children I work with are aware of their deficits, but should I be talking about dyslexia? How would I explain the impacts of the neurological differences associated with dyslexia?

It is important for children to understand that dyslexia is due to a difference in their brain function, and that they can learn skills and use accommodations to be successful. In the second edition of Overcoming Dyslexia, Shaywitz and Shaywitz (2020) share numerous stories of individuals of all ages who were relieved to learn of their diagnosis of dyslexia, as it allowed them to develop an action plan for intervention. Structured literacy intervention can remove the “mystery” of the code for individuals who struggle. For children, solving the mystery can also help parents and teachers gain confidence that they are meeting the child’s learning needs.

19. There seem to be a lot of moving pieces when it comes to the development of skilled reading and writing and how this all relates to spoken language. Can you provide some “big picture” perspective of how oral language and written language are connected?

A visual model is often helpful to understand the “big picture” of a complex topic. One of the most commonly cited representations of the necessary elements of skilled reading development is Scarborough’s Reading Rope (Scarborough, 2001). It uses the visual of the strands of a rope twisted together, including the language comprehension strands of background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge, and the word recognition strands of phonological awareness, decoding, and sight word recognition. Subsequently, the language comprehension and word recognition strands are twisted together to generate skilled reading.

Another, more recent representation is Wasowicz’s (2021) Language Literacy Network. This model also visually represents the receptive and expressive components of language comprehension and language expression, as well as the underlying linguistic skills that are necessary to recognize and produce printed words, as well as the integration of these components that results in skilled reading and writing. This model can be accessed directly at https://learningbydesign.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/TLLN_11x8.5.pdf.

20. I work with children with severe communication deficits, many of whom are nonverbal. Is it appropriate to focus on literacy with these children?

By all means, yes! Kaderavek & Rabidoux (2004) outlined the “Interactive to Independent” model for developing literacy goals for children with severe communication deficits. Their model expands the traditional views of what it means to be literate to include more socially mediated practices such as participating in storybook reading, storytelling, and drawing. The model integrates three theoretical foundations including the social interaction model, the participation model, and the situated pragmatics model. The resulting interactive to independent model includes interactive contexts with a more knowledgeable peer, removal of barriers that limit access to social interaction, and approaches that include participation in naturalistic contexts. The five levels of the model outline a modified progression from emergent to conventional literacy on a continuum from interactive activities to independent activities. Emergent literacy goals include building attention and responsiveness during interactive literacy activities (Level I), to developing turn-taking within those activities across a variety of contexts (Level II). The transition to more conventional literacy occurs at Level III, when the focus is on making connections to written forms, still with support from a communication partner. At Level IV, the use of these more conventional written language forms is targeted with support. The ultimate goal is some level of independence in conventional literacy, with support provided as needed for new tasks or contexts (Level V). Kaderavek & Rabidoux (2004) also provide two case studies in their article as examples of how the model may be applied.


The author would like to thank the first-year graduate students in CDS 5210 Language and Literacy at Eastern Illinois University in the summer of 2022 for their suggested questions to use in this article.


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Anthony, A. (2022). 20Q: The importance of explicit literacy instruction in early elementary grades. SpeechPathology.com. Article 20526. Available at www.speechpathology.com

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angela anthony

Angela Anthony, PhD, CCC-SLP

Dr. Angela Anthony is an Associate Professor at Eastern Illinois University, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in childhood language disorders, literacy, and sign language. She also mentors student research and supervises diagnostics and treatment in the university clinic setting. Dr. Anthony previously served as a member and Coordinator of ASHA SIG 10: Issues in Higher Education and is a past president of the Illinois Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

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Course: #10310Level: Introductory1 Hour
The definition of childhood trauma, the experiences that constitute trauma in a student’s life, and the concept of trauma-informed intervention are described in this course. Practical, hands-on suggestions are provided for strategies that support students with communication disorders who have experienced trauma, and activities to improve their social and executive function skills.

20Q: Grammar and Syntax for School-Age Learners
Presented by Monica Gordon Pershey, EdD, CCC-SLP
Course: #10324Level: Intermediate1 Hour
This course discusses why it is important for SLPs to diagnose and intervene to help school-age children and adolescents who struggle with grammar and syntax. Information on the development of grammar and syntax, procedures for assessment, academic challenges for students with grammar/syntax impairments, and curriculum-based interventions are provided.

Reading Comprehension and the SLP: Foundational Understanding
Presented by Angie Neal, MS, CCC-SLP
Course: #10763Level: Intermediate1 Hour
This is Part 1 of a two-part series. This course provides SLPs with foundational knowledge needed to directly address and collaboratively support reading comprehension across all grade levels. Models of language and reading comprehension, comprehension processes vs. products, instruction in comprehension skills vs. strategies, factors in reading comprehension difficulties, and connections to general education are discussed.

Reading Comprehension and the SLP: Contributions of Language
Presented by Angie Neal, MS, CCC-SLP
Course: #10764Level: Intermediate1 Hour
This is Part 2 of a two-part series. The connections between reading comprehension and areas of language such as vocabulary, morphosyntax and social communication are described in this course. Implications for intervention/instruction and collaboration with educators are also discussed.

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