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Understanding the Pillars of Literacy and Saxon Phonics

Understanding the Pillars of Literacy and Saxon Phonics

Editor's note: This post is an excerpt from the report, "Saxon Phonics and Spelling: Research Evidence Base." It's been lightly adapted for format. All research citations can be accessed in the linked full report.

The 5 Pillars of Literacy—also known as the Big 5—have remained widely accepted by researchers and educators as core elements of effective reading instruction since the National Reading Panel’s report was first published in 2000. 

Saxon® Phonics and Spelling primarily focuses on teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency while building children’s decoding skills. As children begin to establish a solid foundation in their early literacy skills, Saxon also incorporates the development of vocabulary and comprehension skills. Read on to dive deeper into each of the pillars that have informed the development of Saxon Phonics and Spelling.

The Pillars of Literacy


Effective reading instruction in the early grades focuses on helping students understand the role that phonemic awareness plays in learning to read and write. Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to identify and manipulate individual speech sounds in oral language (NICHD, 2000). A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a given language that can be recognized as being distinct from other sounds in the language. For example, the word cap has three phonemes (/k/, /a/, /p/), and the word clasp has five phonemes (/k/, /l/, /a/, /s/, /p/). Phonemic awareness is essential to reading because hearing the individual sounds in words is key to matching them with the letters when learning to decode. The importance of phonemic awareness in learning to read has been well documented. The National Reading Panel reviewed decades of reading research and concluded that phonemic awareness and letter knowledge are the two best indicators of how well children will learn to read during the first two years of instruction. Recent research also shows that phonemic awareness is an essential precursor to reading, and that listening to and using language helps many, though not all, students gain this awareness prior to entering school (Brady, Braze, & Fowler, 2011).


Effective reading instruction in the early grades focuses on helping students learn letter-sound correspondences. After learning to hear the sounds of speech, the next step for students is to learn phonics—the relationship between written letters (called graphemes) and the individual sounds they represent (phonemes). As these understandings fall into place, students begin to decode. Initially, they may recognize familiar words by sight, but gradually they should apply what they know about letter-sound correspondences to decode words as they read and to encode words as they write. Research has indicated that explicit and systematic instruction in phonics is a key element of effective reading programs, and an estimated 60 percent of early readers require explicit and systematic phonics instruction in order to learn to read (NICHD, 2000). The National Reading Panel reviewed 38 research studies and concluded that explicit and systematic phonics instruction—that is, instruction that was based on a clearly defined plan and sequence and that was directly taught to students—was more effective at helping children learn to read than responsive phonics instruction—individualized phonics mini-lessons provided if and when children need them—or no phonics instruction at all (NICHD, 2000). In addition to teaching phonics skills explicitly with detailed explanations, modeling, and practice, effective reading teachers also include instruction in syllable structure, which can help guide pronunciation of a written word, and morphology (knowledge of word parts like roots and affixes), which can also provide reliable information about pronunciation and meaning. Mastering advanced decoding skills like syllable structure and morphology can facilitate reading multisyllabic words. Effective reading instruction helps students master sound-symbol associations in two directions: visual to auditory (reading), and auditory to visual (spelling). Reading requires segmenting of whole words into the individual sounds, while spelling involves the blending of sounds and letters into whole words. As such, learning to spell reinforces learning to read; spelling and reading are the productive and receptive sides of the same coin. Effective reading instruction in the early grades is often modeled on the Orton-Gillingham method of systematic, cumulative, explicit, and multisensory reading instruction. Dr. Samuel T. Orton and Anna Gillingham’s pioneering scientific research in systematic phonics instruction demonstrated the importance of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic elements to what they termed the language triangle. Their studies spanned more than twenty years and drew on the fields of neurology, speech pathology, educational psychology, and public school teaching (Gillingham & Stillman, 1956). Research also shows that teaching students to read by using decodable and strictly controlled text is highly effective for beginning reading success. Using controlled, high-frequency text provides practice with the words found in most beginning reading materials through third grade (Adams, 1990). 


An important ability underlying surface literacy learning and contributing to deeper literacy learning is fluency, or the ability to read connected text smoothly and easily (Denton et al., 2013). Fluency is a reading skill that acts as a bridge between decoding and comprehension (NICHD, 2000). When students’ word identification becomes fast and accurate, they have freed up some “cognitive space” to draw on their broader knowledge of language and to comprehend what they are reading. The three key elements of fluency are accuracy (pronouncing the words in a text correctly), rate (being accurate and reading at an appropriate speed to support comprehension), and prosody (reading with appropriate phrasing, intonation, and expression). Accuracy monitoring and self-correction are also key skills that connect fluency with comprehension, as good readers pay attention to whether what they are reading makes sense and apply strategies to make corrections as needed.

In order to become a fluent reader, readers must master lower-level reading skills to the point of automaticity. Cognitive science research has demonstrated the importance of automaticity to expertise. Anderson’s theory explains the development of expertise through three stages: cognitive, associative, and autonomous (Anderson, 1983). During the cognitive stage, learners rehearse and memorize facts related to a particular domain or skill that guide them in problem solving. During the associative stage, learners detect errors and misunderstandings through continual practice and feedback. During the autonomous stage, learners have practiced a skill to the extent that it becomes automated, so the amount of working memory needed to perform the skill is reduced. At this point, the learner has developed expertise.

Strong readers are those who have developed expertise and automaticity in word identification. When readers are able to recognize letters and words effortlessly, they can devote their attention to making sense of what they read (Laberge & Samuels, 1984). When word identification becomes automatic, readers have freed up some “cognitive space” to draw on their broader knowledge of language in order to comprehend what they are reading (Baker et al., 2017). Strong readers pay attention to whether what they are reading makes sense and apply strategies to make corrections as needed.

For many teachers, fluency means primarily the ability to read orally, at a natural pace, and with expression. However, this definition, while accurate, is limited. Fluency is so much more and is intricately linked to reading comprehension because strong readers demonstrate silent reading fluency as they recognize words and their meaning automatically and can attend primarily to making sense out of what they read (NICHD, 2000). Students may not read quickly; they may have to go back to reread sections or to look up the meanings of some words. Students’ ability to read longer text and increase their time reading and rereading passages demonstrate their reading stamina, that is, perseverance and flexible application of the strategies needed to comprehend what the author is communicating (Trainin, Hiebert, & Wilson, 2015).

Effective reading teachers model fluent reading when they read aloud, especially as they pause for punctuation or change their voice to show expressiveness. Teachers demonstrate prosody in their oral reading and can explicitly explain what they are doing as they read by asking how the change in inflection changes the meaning implied by the words on the page. As teachers help students to become fluent readers, they need to reassure them that fluency means reading with comprehension, not merely saying the words as quickly as possible. Teachers model this distinction in their oral reading by pausing to question the meaning of words, the implications of word choice, or other aspects of the texts they are reading.


Vocabulary knowledge includes knowing the meanings of words and phrases and also their relationships to other words and phrases (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, words from the same category). Because written vocabulary tends to use different types of words than oral vocabulary, knowledge of written vocabulary must be gained through a combination of explicit instruction and reading new words in context. Additionally, because the brain stores words in conceptually related networks, multiple exposures to a word are important to building vocabulary; each time a word is read and its meaning is accessed in the brain, the exposure enriches the entire network. It is not just the breadth of a student’s vocabulary knowledge, but also the depth of that knowledge that supports reading comprehension (NICHD, 2000). Research has shown that from third grade on, vocabulary knowledge is a stronger predictor of academic achievement than decoding skill (Biemiller, 2012). Vocabulary knowledge refers to more than words and their definitions; it also refers to one’s ability to understand language in different ways and to use language well. Students need to become flexible word users—able to understand and use rich, full vocabulary to describe, explain, ask, critique, make requests, show emotions, and do a myriad of other things. They need to be able to understand connotative and denotative meanings; idioms, metaphors, synonyms, and antonyms; and the meanings of words that are implied by body language, tone of voice, and other means (Biemiller, 2012). As students move through elementary school, they must enrich their oral speaking, listening, reading, and writing vocabularies. Effective direct instruction in vocabulary should include explicitly teaching some vocabulary (for example, as a pre-reading activity) and teaching specific vocabulary-learning strategies, including use of print and digital dictionaries and online thesauri (Graves, 2000). Strategies include learning words for comparing and contrasting, classifying, and creating metaphors and analogies—and so much more. To complement direct instruction, teachers also need to fill their classrooms with activities that develop “word consciousness” and the sorts of language play that encourages students to challenge themselves and others to learn new words and to think deeply about language (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2014; Graves, 2000; McKeown, Beck, & Sandora, 2012).


Comprehension is the ability to make sense of what you read (NICHD, 2000). According to the Simple View of Reading, reading comprehension is the product of word recognition and language comprehension (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). Comprehension is the ultimate goal of learning to read, and even beginning readers benefit from instruction that introduces them to a variety of strategies to help them understand different kinds of texts and their text structures (Duke, 2000). Research on effective reading instruction has shown that part of beginning comprehension instruction is teacher modeling of the comprehension strategies that mature readers use automatically (Duke & Pearson, 2002). The daily read-aloud period is an ideal means for this instruction—so long as teachers remember that merely reading aloud isn’t enough. Students need to be actively involved in asking and answering questions, making predictions, or explaining characters’ motivations or other actions in what they are hearing. Researchers have found positive relationships between students’ reading growth and the extent to which they have engaged in “analytic talk” during the back-and-forth with teachers during read alouds (McGee & Schickendanz, 2007). This makes sense because the listening comprehension of young learners far surpasses their emerging reading comprehension skills. Of course, this kind of instruction is most effective when teachers have access to high-quality children’s literature in a variety of genres and representing different cultural backgrounds and experiences. It is especially important that students experience high-quality informational books in addition to narrative literature representing different cultural backgrounds and experiences (Duke, 2000). One of the great advantages of introducing students to reading comprehension skills by giving them opportunities to read on their own in books at the right level is that the experience reinforces that the students themselves do indeed have the capacity to become successful readers (Sisk, Burgoyne, Sun, Butler, & Macnamara, 2018). 

About Saxon Phonics and Spelling 

Saxon Phonics and Spelling K-2 primarily focuses on the decoding component of the Simple View of Reading. It is aligned with the phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency pillars identified by the National Reading Panel as essential elements of effective reading instruction (NICHD, 2000). However, it also incorporates the development of the vocabulary knowledge and comprehension pillars as the students establish a solid foundation in their early literacy skills.

Saxon Phonics and Spelling is a supplemental series for grades K–2 that explicitly teaches phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency in a way that is supported by scientific research and proven effective by years of classroom success. Saxon’s approach to teaching phonics and spelling concepts is based on solid foundational research in cognitive science and best practices in literacy instruction. It has been found to be consistently effective for children of varying ability levels and socioeconomic backgrounds.


Access the report, Saxon Phonics and Spelling: Research Evidence Base, to see how the product aligns to the research and read the complete research reference details.

Topics: Literacy Instruction, Reading, Reading Instruction, Skills, Comprehension, Decoding, Foundations, Growth, Literacy, Phonics, Primary Grades, Reading Essentials, Spelling, vocabulary development, Reading fluency, K-2, Saxon Phonics

Date Published: 01/02/24

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