Applying Research to Improve Reading Instruction

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Reading is the most critical skill a student can master, and the importance of effective reading instruction in the classroom cannot be overstated. Let's look at what the research says and how we can implement best practices with our own students.

Reading: A Foundation of Learning

The most important skill a child will learn in school is reading. The ability to read is necessary for learning new information and is used in all other content areas. In other words, when children can't read, they are limited in their access to learning in all other subjects. Teachers have the opportunity to empower their students by implementing the best strategies for reading instruction to maximize learning. The discussion of the best practices in reading instruction begins with the National Reading Panel.

National Reading Panel

The National Reading Panel was given the task of reviewing literature to find the most effective methods for teaching children to read. After extensive review, the panel published its findings in 2000. The most critical components of reading instruction include phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Let's look at what these five elements mean and some ideas of how to teach them. Keep in mind, the examples listed in this section are just a few of the many ways these skills can be taught. It is up to you as the teacher to determine which strategies will be appropriate for your students.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness instruction includes teaching children that spoken words are made up of phonemes. The fundamental skill of breaking up words into smaller parts leads to learning how to read and spell.

  • Clapping out syllables
  • Manipulating words by dropping beginning or ending sounds, separating sounds, interchanging sounds to make new words. For example, the word c-a-t can become a new word when we switch 'c' with 'b'. Now say the new word 'b-a-t'.


Phonics teaches the relationship between written letters and their sounds. With phonics instruction, children also practice blending sounds and rhyming.

  • Matching letter sounds to letter symbols
  • Pairing rhyming words


Vocabulary instruction teaches students how to read and understand words. Pre-teaching vocabulary words and practice using words in context provide more exposure to words and their meanings.

  • Match words to definitions
  • Represent new words in pictures or visuals
  • Writing words in sentences


Fluency is the ability to read accurately and at a quick pace with appropriate feeling and emphasis. Fluency includes reading at a comfortable, flowing speed which results in better understanding. The panel noted that reading aloud is particularly important to assess fluency.

  • Oral reading practice
  • Timed reading tests


Comprehension means understanding what is being read. Once a child is able to read words, understand vocabulary, and read at a quick pace, teachers need to make sure they understand what they read. This can be taught and practiced in a variety of ways.

  • Group discussions
  • Answering comprehension questions
  • Summarizing main events
  • Book reports that include role play, visuals, or written work

Further Research

Since the National Reading Panel published its findings, extensive reading research has continued and more strategies and techniques have been found effective.


How do teachers know if children are learning to become good readers? It is not enough to teach lesson plans and give out assignments, children must be assessed along the way. Proper reading assessments provide teachers with detailed data on how many words a child can read, what words they understand, how fast they're reading, and whether they understand. Through ongoing assessment, teachers can see if they need to make changes to optimize their instruction.

Explicit Instruction

Students benefit from explicit instruction in a variety of content areas, including reading. Teaching explicitly includes stating a clear objective and rationale, modeling, providing examples and non-examples, and guided and independent practice. When teachers write lesson plans with these components, they build in a level of support to help teach the skill. As the student understands a concept, teachers fade their prompts and support until the students can do it on their own.

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