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Instructional strategies for 7 early literacy pillars

By Pati Montgomery, Founder & President, Schools Cubed

It’s time to set tremendously high expectations for early literacy. Research says that, with the right instruction, 95% of all students can be “on level” by the end of third grade. I say we can do even better—let’s get 95% of our students to read at grade level by the end of first grade. The key? Focusing on the seven pillars of early literacy instruction.

What are those pillars, and how do we teach them?

1. Alphabetic Principle

The alphabetic principle is the concept that letters and their patterns represent the sounds of spoken language. Get kids started by using games, songs, and magnetic letters to help them learn to identify and name both upper and lowercase letters. Introduce writing activities early on, so kids can practice writing the letters they’ve learned.

Note that the sequence of instruction has a huge impact on learning. For the alphabetic principle, instruction must follow a sensible sequence that introduces letters in a way that’s easy for kids to learn. Do not introduce b and d at the same time, and be sure to teach p and q weeks apart.

2. Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the different parts of oral language, such as words and syllables. As with the alphabetic principle, instructional order is key: Move from big to small, progressing from sentences to words to rhymes to syllables to, finally, onsets and rimes. Have kids divide sentences into words, find rhyming words, break words into syllables, and then segment and blend onsets and rhymes.

3. Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness that focuses on the individual sounds that make up words. Teach it after larger phonological awareness concepts have been mastered. Use clapping, tiles, chips, felt squares, and Elkonin boxes to help children identify and match initial, middle, and final sounds in words. Kids should practice blending sounds into words and manipulating phonemes by removing, adding, or substituting sounds in words. For example, turn cat into at (removal), cats (addition), and bat (substitution).

4. Phonics

Phonics builds on phonemic awareness, connecting the sounds of oral language with the letters of written language. Once again, instructional sequence is of critical importance. Start with high-utility letters (hint: These are your 1-point Scrabble letters), teach all consonants before introducing consonant blends, and introduce long vowels only after all short vowels and consonant blends.

Have kids practice reading and writing real words as soon as possible: A child who only knows a and m is ready to practice am, ma, and mama. Use decodable text that aligns with the phonetic elements being taught so kids build the habit of decoding words, rather than guessing or relying on pictures.

5. Word Recognition

Irregularly spelled words, or sight words, cannot be decoded and must be memorized. Introduce a very limited set of sight words in the early grades—I recommend no more than four per week. Explicitly teach each word’s spelling, pronunciation, and meaning. Have students practice reading and writing sight words alongside decodable words.

6. Vocabulary

Phonics, word recognition, and vocabulary should be constantly intertwined. As students learn to read and spell words, it’s important to make sure they also understand the meaning of those words. Create word-conscious classrooms that celebrate students when they use new vocabulary. Do not be afraid of using “high” vocabulary words—beef UP your vocabulary instead of dumbing it down. Give explicit instruction around the meaning of individual words and teach word-learning strategies such as structural analysis.

7. Structural Analysis

Structural analysis introduces students to prefixes, suffixes, and root words. By breaking a word into its component parts, children gain insights about it spelling and pronunciation—and can anticipate similar words. This strengthens their decoding skills, word recognition, and vocabulary. Plus, structural analysis is a fantastic way to teach literacy in a cross-disciplinary manner: Use it to bring science and social studies terms into the language arts classroom, as well leverage literacy skills in the content areas.

For all seven pillars, it’s important to remember kids will learn different skills at different rates. Some kids may master a new skill after four repetitions; some kids will need 100. Repetition is key, so make sure students have as many practice opportunities as they need to learn. With enough repetition and the right instructional sequence, you’ll see your young readers soar!

For more helpful insights on supporting strong early literacy skills, explore the new Star CBM Reading for grades K–6.

Pati Montgomery, Founder & President, Schools Cubed
Pati Montgomery, Founder & President, Schools Cubed
Pati Montgomery has dedicated more than 25 years to education, serving as a teacher, principal, district administrator, trainer, researcher, and Executive Director of the Office of Literacy at the Colorado Department of Education. Today, Pati is the founder and president of Schools Cubed, which helps low-performing schools transform into self-sustaining, high-achieving school systems, and leads coaching and professional development in the areas of school improvement and literacy.


  1. LeeAnn Needham says:

    Although I teach upper grades, I still point out, talk about, play with and apply everything here. I think it is important to be aware of these things in order to really understand language. Being i a bilingual community, we even compare English to Spanish spellings and pronunciations.

  2. Rita Platt says:

    I am forwarding this to my entire early learning team. Thanks!

  3. Katie Wiltz says:

    We have the program, Great Leaps, at my school. Every day for 30 minutes I work with a small group of students in the program. I am definitely seeing an improvement in my students’ scores and their AR scores.

  4. Jody Steinhaus says:

    As a teacher who has taught first grade for 28 years, I appreciate reading and reviewing the components of a quality reading program. It is a skill that is built on other skills. It’s so much easier for children who are able to scaffold these skills to achieve reading success. Thank you for the great article for professional development.

    • Liana Ferrer says:

      I agree that it is important to look at and evaluate your program so that you can maximize its use.

  5. Dvawn Maza says:

    Thank you for defining and giving the differences in these domains!

  6. Virginia Wiedenfeld says:

    I will be sharing this with article with our preschool and kinder teachers! I liked how it was organized, based on sequential knowledge.

  7. Barbara Ziz says:

    I am sharing this information with the teachers at my school I feel that it is so important to include all of these strategies for students to become successful readers!

  8. Lisa Capon says:

    Great article. I will share with my Primary Grade teachers

  9. Thonisha Davis says:

    We use a program called Failure Free Reading.

  10. Jason says:

    Sometimes it is good to get back to basics and reiterate foundations of reading.

  11. Katy says:

    Currently I am teaching Second grade, but hoping to be in TK or K soon. Thank you for the reminders of where to start to build a solid foundation.

  12. Renee Graham says:

    Early Childhood Education is the key! Forwarding to my team!

  13. Cathy Kelley says:

    Great suggestions!

  14. Andrea says:

    This is great information that I am going to share with my 3rd and 4th grade team. Parents also could benefit from this information as well.

  15. Angela Domond says:

    The vocabulary and structural analysis plays a big role in my ELA class as I teach fourth grade and phonics is no longer part of the curriculum. Earlier this week to my students couldn’t find “predawn” in the dictionary and I asked them what “pre” and they knew it meant before. So they analyzed it to mean before dawn. However, I further had them look up the word dawn as the base word and they realized it means before the sun rises.

  16. Lorrie Raymond says:

    Wonderful Information for student achievement !!

  17. Laura says:

    This is a great reminder to the importance of all 7 pillars in my weekly instruction. Thanks!

  18. Cathy Seale says:

    This connects to what we are really focusing on in our district. Helping our teachers truly understand the components to beginning reading. I have shared this article with our learning teams so that they can see the importance of each component. Helping kids have goals that they can work toward really empowers them to be leaders of their own learning! Isn’t that our true goal?

  19. Amber AuBain says:

    Even though I teach middle school, this is a great reminder of of important instructional strategies to use to with struggling readers!

  20. shonda Hill says:

    This is interesting as I have taught pre-k through grade 2 and I can attest to watching this process happen.

  21. Patricia Hodges says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article. All of the teachers in Mississippi have been or are going through the LTRS training. We have all been introduced to the importance of these pillars. I have strong programs of phonemic awareness, phonics, sight word recognition, etc. woven into my curriculum. We practice these every day.

  22. Alecia Walkuski says:

    Although I teach upper grades, these foundational principles are important to know.

  23. Ami Edwards says:

    I thought this was good information.

  24. Carly says:

    Great information. Sharing!

  25. Lauren Thrasher says:

    Great article! I will be sharing this with teachers I coach.

  26. Veronica Gonzalez says:

    Article is great and informative, I will share with my team.

  27. Sandra Cunningham says:

    Thanks for sharing! I sharing this with some 4-5th grade teachers who need to know this!

  28. Ms. Young says:

    We use the RR star. Since I teach 4th, I don’t focus on phonemic awareness etc. However, I do have one student who is a non-reader. I work with him doing Florida Research center tools.

  29. P R says:

    I teach the upper intermediate grades. However, every teacher should be familiar with the foundational reading skills.

  30. Teresa says:

    Great read!

  31. Missy says:

    Great article!!

  32. Kelsie Haggard says:

    This is great!

  33. s. bellomo says:

    I think building the foundation from a young age will allow students to become readers at an earlier age. It is important to continue to emphasize the basics to support our students’ reading success!

  34. Virginia Travis says:

    I will share this with my second grade teachers in our team! The information is great!

  35. JoAnn E Mayfield says:

    These are the foundation to reading. If we lay a firm foundation, then it is easier to build further reading skills on them.

  36. Lynn Humphrey says:

    Great information!!! Thank you for sharing!

  37. Laura Q-T says:

    Great information I will share with my colleagues.

  38. Marilou Dela Cruz says:

    We really need to return to basic in teaching reading especially to non native speakers. It will really help them to learn how to read and write (spell) words.

  39. Nicole Erwin says:

    Our primary just adopted SuperKids

  40. Terri says:

    Wonderful article. Building that foundation is crucial to future reading success.

  41. Amy says:

    This is great! I love reading that the order matters!

  42. dalina says:

    Good article

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