Teaching Kids How to Read – Understanding the 3 Pillars of Reading

As a first grade teacher, one of the major jobs I’m tasked with is teaching students how to read.

But my years of college did not prepare me well enough for this daunting, magical assignment.

So how is it that I can take kids from mastering letter sounds to reading 69 complex words in a minute?

The simple answer: I now understand the 3 pillars of reading.

Being in the classroom, learning from great colleagues, and attending good trainings has taught me so many things that I wish I knew as a brand new teacher.

  • There is a progression of steps that readers need to master.
  • How to identify where my struggling students are in this progression and how to help them. I’ve learned to identify when my students are ready for harder skills.
  • The ultimate goal of reading if to gain information from texts.

All of this because I understand the 3 fundamental pillars of reading and how they work together to build kids up to be successful readers.

In this post, I’ll explain each of these 3 fundamental pillars of reading and hopefully it’ll help you have more confidence to build successful readers, too!

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What is accuracy?

As children learn how to read, the very first pillar that needs to be established is reading with accuracy.

Accuracy: reading without making mistakes

It doesn’t matter if you read 150 words a minute if only half of those words were correct.

So how do we get kids to read with accuracy?

There is a continuum of steps students need to master in order to decode (decipher) written language.

But it may surprise you that the first step of this continuum doesn’t actually involve any written letters.

Reading actually begins with phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness deals being able to work with individual sounds in words in the broader scope of phonological awareness.

This includes rhyming, saying letter sounds, breaking up words into it’s sounds (segmentation), blending sounds to make words, and changing the sounds in words. All of these tasks are done orally.

Once students master these phonemic skills, you can move on to phonics.

Phonics: associating sounds to written letters and words

This is where you’d introduce letters, decodable words, irregular words, and sight words.

Decodable words: words that can be sounded out; ex. c-a-t -> “cat”

Irregular words: words that don’t follow learned sound patterns; ex. “the” or “wait” (if they haven’t learned the “ai” sound spelling)

Sight words: decodable or irregular words that appear frequently in texts and should be recognized at first sight

It also includes harder tasks like reading words with inflectional endings, multiple sound spellings, as well as reading multisyllabic words.

Inflectional endings: suffixes such as -ing, -ed, -s, -es

Multiple sound spellings: ex. i_e, igh, ie, y all say the long i sound

Multisyllabic words: words with two or more syllables

A good reading curriculum should introduce new sound spellings, words, and skills while providing an ample amount of practice for students.

Building accuracy with decodable words is done through mastery of sound spellings and repeated practice of using those sound spellings to read words.

Contrary to decodable words, irregular words and many sight words are only learned through memorization.

One tried and true method of helping kids memorize such words is the use of 5×5 grids. In a 5×5 grid, a group of 5 words is repeated to fill all 25 boxes in varying order. A student would then practice reading through the grid until they’ve mastered those 5 words.

I’ve created 6 packets for the first 150 Fry High Frequency Words. My students take home these packets throughout the year as part of their homework. By the end of 1st grade, each child will have worked their way through the 6 packets and mastered 150 sight words.

If you’d like more information about the phonemic awareness and phonics continuum, Pearson has a great resource called The Word Study Continuum – Systematic Phonics and Spelling, Grades K-3. It outlines the different steps in the progression and when they should be taught.

Fry Fluency Words Fluency Packets


What is fluency?

As your students grow in their reading accuracy, they’ll also grow in their reading fluency.

Fluency: reading with automaticity

When you think about fluency, I want you to imagine a peaceful stream in a calm forest.

This is what you want your students to sound like when they read.

In order to read fluently, students must be accurate.

When students read, you don’t want them to have to stop and sound out each word or to make multiple errors and have to go back and fix them.

This would lead to choppy, disjointed reading.

Imagine white water rapids. Not good.

So if the ultimate goal of reading is to gain information from texts, a student must read fluently in order gain that information.

So how do you build reading fluency?

The simple answer: practice, practice, practice!

A child’s reading fluency will naturally improve as they spend time reading texts.

This includes time in decodable texts, partner reading, choral reading, and echo reading.

It does not, however, include timed reading. Timed readings should be used to measure a child’s growth, not as a means of practice. If used regularly for practice, can lead them to “speed read” and make careless mistakes.

The reason why I call my sight word homework “Fluency Packets” is because my students need to know those words in order to read them fluently in texts. Mastering those words will help them read with automaticity.

The University of Oregon has great information about beginning reading skills. Here a link to their page about fluency.

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Why is comprehension so important?

We have finally reached the ultimate goal of reading! All of your hard work teaching kids to read accurately and fluently has all been for this.

When students can read accurately and at a good rate they are more able to pull out meaning from the text.

Once students reach the 3rd grade, the focus is changed from learning how to read to reading to learn.

This means that comprehension is the main focus of most of a child’s educational career.

How do you teach kids to comprehend what they’re reading?

The simple answer: model, practice, repeat.

Believe it or not, the building blocks of good comprehension start way before a child is able to read by themself.

My son is only 11-months-old but I am able to model good comprehensions skills for him when I’m reading to him.

In your classroom, teaching comprehension also begins with good modeling.

Every time you read something to your students, whether it’s a simple sentence or a long story, you can point out how you are pulling information out of the text.

I know Kate liked the ice cream because she said, “Yum!”

The passage said that fish and frogs are similar because they both swim.

I can see in the picture that Jake is happy that it stopped raining.

You also need to provide lots and lots of opportunities for your students to practice.

Look through the story to find out who likes dogs best.

Where in the story does it show how Mark was able to solve the problem?

Why did they have to cancel their picnic?

Your students will no doubt try to answer from memory. There will be many times when they probably can answer correctly without even needing to look back at the story.

However, it’s important to teach them the skill of looking for answers in texts so they know what to do when they can’t recall from memory.

Now that you know the 3 pillars of reading, you can better help your students become successful readers!

So which area do you need to focus on with your students? Leave a note in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

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Words to Live By 

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119:105


  1. Jenna says:

    Great post, Michele! My child was an early reader. He was reading without anyone else when he completed prekindergarten.

    He went through about fourteen days in kindergarten before the school educated us that since he was reading so easily, they needed to propel him to initially grade.

    How could we do this? As others have stated, I read to my kid as often as possible. Books are constantly present in our home.

    My significant other and I both love reading and composing, so we read to him continually, including books that outlined the letters of the letter set, so he took in his letters and how they functioned.

    But most importantly I definitely think that every parent needs to check out “TeachYourChild2ReadQuickly.com” if you’re serious about giving your children a head start in life.

    Good luck!

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