January 5, 2024

The Five Pillars of Reading: Transforming Literacy with the Science of Reading

By Transcend
Concourse Village Elementary School

In education, few things are as fundamental as the ability to read.

Educators have long debated the most effective way to teach young people how to read. For decades, a key part of this debate was between structured phonics instruction and a more “whole language” approach. The whole language approach encouraged learners to use context and visual clues to decipher unfamiliar words, providing a contrast to “sounding them out” with a structured dissection of words through phonics.

Now, schools and educators are embracing a long-standing body of research cumulatively referred to as the “science of reading,” which highlights the importance of explicit and repeated phonics instruction.

Through the lens of the science of reading, we have a revolutionary opportunity to transform understanding into action, and potential into achievement. Read on to discover more about the science of reading and the five pillars of reading instruction—including examples of implementation from partners on the Innovative Models Exchange.

What Is the Science of Reading?

The science of reading is an evidence-based pedagogy rooted in learning science, a cross-disciplinary area of research that combines psychology, education, cognitive sciences, neo-science, and other disciplines to explain how a person learns.

Pedagogy and instruction based on the science of reading takes a structured approach to helping students become skilled, fluent readers based on the understanding that reading comprehension is the product of two components: word recognition and language comprehension. In other words, children need to be able to sound out a word and decipher the meaning of the word to understand what they’ve read.

A large recent cultural shift toward the science of reading has led to more educators introducing explicit and dedicated phonics instruction in early grades to build and solidify foundational literacy skills.

What Are the Five Pillars of Reading Instruction?

Research further identifies five pillars of reading schools can focus on to help children learn to read:

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Text Comprehension

Phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency are skills that help readers learn word recognition skills, while vocabulary and text comprehension contribute to language comprehension development. These components build on each other to help readers establish foundational skills they need to comprehend the text they’re engaging with.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the pillar of reading focusing on understanding that spoken words are made up of separate units of sound blended together when words are pronounced. Once’s Early-Reading tutoring model builds phonemic awareness through daily one-on-one tutoring where students are introduced to a new phoneme in a visual and auditory manner. From there, learners practice blending and segmenting, rhyming, and word reading. All the while, students build meaningful relationships with staff.

“Having on-site staff who are already on the school payroll facilitate tutoring has a number of benefits. First, tutoring costs fall dramatically when you leverage people already in the building rather than outsourcing that work to people who do not work at the school,” says Once CEO Matt Pasternack. “Second, the tutors can build meaningful, lasting relationships with students that can persist long after the year of Once instruction, since the tutors remain in the building with students and encounter them year after year. Third, by upskilling existing on-site staff through Once, we help districts enhance their para-to-teacher pipeline, which is often a key teacher recruitment source for districts.”


Phonics refers to the breakdown of written words into letters and sounds, which allows readers to decode words as they read. In Ignite! Reading’s virtual tutoring model, students meet daily with an instructor who takes them through a lesson that focuses on word recognition. The lessons start with basic alphabet knowledge and work their way up to multisyllabic decoding.

“Online tutoring gives schools the capacity to deliver differentiated instruction to every student one-to-one so that all students receive the precise instruction and volume of practice they require,” says Ignite! Reading Co-founder and CEO Jessica Sliwerski. “It strengthens MTSS because every student is receiving support matched to their skills and levels of need.”


Fluency refers to the ability to read text accurately, quickly, and with proper expression. This pillar of reading applies not only to individual words but also to connected text such as sentences, paragraphs, and full passages of a story or article. Research shows that as reading fluency improves, students spend less of their working memory on figuring out individual words—freeing up more space to focus on understanding the overall meaning of what they read.

To that end, Literacy Architects’ Literacy Masterminds uses a variety of research-based techniques to improve fluency to help students work towards this goal including modeling reading, choral reading, echo reading, and more.


The explicit integration of vocabulary instruction helps build students’ recognition of words. In the Success For All Tutoring model, learners practice vocabulary words and demonstrate mastery by choosing the correct word in a sentence where the word has been removed. The Groves Literacy model uses a structured 30-minute daily lesson that blends visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic components to build vocabulary. Students might use magnetic boards and alphabet tiles to build words. Each lesson roughly follows the same format that touches on different aspects of the science of reading.

Text Comprehension

Comprehension happens when readers move beyond merely identifying letters and words to piecing them together to unlock meanings and grasp the knowledge contained in text. Comprehension is the last of the five pillars of reading and the final goal of literacy instruction—where black-and-white sentences are translated into colorful understanding.

AIM Institute for Learning & Research’s Integrated Literacy Model teaches every component of the science of reading, and takes an interdisciplinary approach to reach comprehension. Interactive Humanities is a highly scholastic, arts-based approach that develops literacy skills across academic disciplines, including civics, geography, history, and literature. Students are immersed in a time period, wearing costumes as they discover historical events, learn key vocabulary, and participate in art projects. This helps students build background knowledge that can help inform key literacy practices.

Explore the Science Of Reading Models

The Innovative Models Exchange has several models that feature the five pillars of reading and the science of reading:


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