Effective Foundational Literacy Skill Instruction & PBL, Part 1

January 18, 2017

Alix Horton, NTN Director of Literacy

Elementary teachers, especially early elementary teachers, and secondary teachers who work with striving readers and writers who may need early literacy skill support have a real challenge on their hands- even more so, perhaps, if they’re also working hard to address deeper learning skills via Project Based Learning. I’ll try to give a few ideas for doing both in this little mini-series.

Since this is just a blog post series (and not a book!), in part 1, I’ll focus on a few basic, but important, principles and part 2 will give you a few ideas for maintaining those principles AND doing Project Based Learning.

First, I should probably note that I define foundational literacy skills as the skills students need to correctly and smoothly read the words on the page, including phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, phonics, spelling, and fluency.


Principle: Sequence and differentiate.

Phonics is most effectively taught in a systematic and thoughtfully sequenced way. This ensures that students receive instruction within their Zone of Proximal Development and don’t miss learning key skills that support the development of later skills. Research on children’s misspellings showed that the internalization of phoneme-grapheme correspondences is developmental and follows a particular sequence of what might be termed spelling stages. As a result, instruction should be differentiated and based on a student’s stage of development. There is less research on effective instruction in decoding of multisyllabic words and sequence appears to be less important. That said, it should still be differentiated to meet children’s needs- you don’t want to teach your 7th graders who can already decode longer words lessons they don’t need, after all.

Principle: Use a variety of techniques to develop foundational skills, especially phonics.

Research has shown that a variety of techniques can be used to develop students’ phonics skills. Analytic phonics (asking students to analyze phonemes in words they’ve already been taught to say), synthetic phonics (teaching students individual phonemes and how to blend them to say words), analogy phonics (teaching students to pronounce new words using known words, e.g. using the rime in a known word to pronounce a new word with the same rime), and teaching phonics through spelling (teaching students how to segment words and determine what letters apply) have all been shown to be effective. There’s some research to suggest that using multiple methods may be most effective, especially for struggling readers.

Principle: Teach other literacy skills too, not just foundational skills.

Too often, we narrow the curriculum to focus exclusively on foundational literacy skill instruction at the early elementary level. At the secondary level, reading interventions for striving learners sometimes address, for example, only phonics skills. This kind of narrow instruction isn’t effective. Students need to build their oral language skills and comprehension skills as well. Otherwise, early elementary students might founder as the comprehension level of text increases. Secondary students need to be able to navigate the very complex texts necessary for college and career success. Foundational literacy skills are essential building blocks, but they’re not sufficient for student success.

Principle: Connect skill development to meaningful reading and writing.

This is a continuation of the principle above, but the focus here is on asking students to use their literacy skills to learn and communicate. Students need to see that reading and writing has a communicative purpose and that texts matter. This builds motivation and student agency and helps them see why foundational literacy instruction matters. It also apprentices them into long, meaningful, literacy filled lives. And this is where PBL really, really rocks. More on that next time.


Cunningham, P.M. (2015). Best practices in teaching phonological awareness and phonics. In Best Practices in Literacy Instruction.

Lonigan, and Shanahan, T. (2016). The role of early oral language in literacy development. In Language Magazine.

Schlagal, B. Best practices in spelling and handwriting. In Best Practices in Writing Instruction.

Stahl, K.A.D. (2013). Reading to learn from the beginning: Comprehension instruction in the primary grades.  In Best Practices in Early Literacy Instruction.

This blog originally appeared on Literacy for Living.

This blog is part of our Top NTN Resources of 2017 list. You can view the entire list here.

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