What are the Five Pillars of Reading?

The five pillars of reading are what make up the fundamentals of reading. They are core skills that, consciously or unconsciously, we all master when we learn to read. These five pillars have been developed based on a wealth of research and evidence from the science of reading. We’re here to break them down for you and explain how they came into being and why they are important. We also suggest some handy teaching ideas to make things easier for you and the children you teach.

What is the science of reading?

The science of reading is a vast body of scientific research demonstrating the best methods of teaching children to read. It draws on numerous scientific disciplines, including developmental psychology, educational psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and more. The research that makes up the science of reading has taken place over many years worldwide, with hundreds of millions of dollars poured into these studies.

As a result, the science of reading can show us exactly how humans learn to read and which parts of the brain we use when learning to read. It can also show us the most effective methods of helping children transition from saying words to reading them.

The five pillars of reading came out of this research. They have been identified by the science of reading as the essential skills we need to develop to become confident readers.

The five pillars of reading are:

  • Phonemic awareness
  • Phonics
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension
  • Fluency

Phonemic awareness

The first of the five pillars of reading is phonemic awareness. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound that come together to form letters, sounds, and words. Phonemic awareness is hearing these phonemes and knowing how to use them.

It doesn’t mean that you have to understand the phonemic chart, which tracks all these different phonemes, each given another Greek designation and organized by how they’re said. It just means that you can identify and manipulate individual sounds in speech.

It’s important, as it helps clarity in speech and helps teach that words can be broken down into parts. In addition, it’s a good indicator of later success in reading.

Ways to help develop phonemic awareness

You can help children to display and develop their phonemic awareness by challenging them to break down individual words into their component sounds. For example, you could put a selection of word cards in front of them and ask them to locate the ones that begin with the same sound. If they manage this correctly, you could extend them further by asking them to isolate and say the last sound in the word.


Phonics is the pillar that makes a real shift toward reading. It is where children learn the relationship between these phonemes and graphemes we’ve been talking about. Graphemes are the letters that represent those individual sounds – it might be a single letter, a duo of letters, or even three letters.

These help children to sound out words. It is a really important skill, as it can help children read words they don’t automatically recognize.

Ways to build phonics skills

You can introduce many fun activities in the classroom to help children develop their phonics skills. For example, you could hand out lyrics sheets to popular songs or nursery rhymes they know by heart to provide a model of how the sounds appear on paper as graphemes. You could also organize a treasure hunt to look for letters – when children find them, they can see if they can say the sound!


Vocabulary is the body of words that you have at your disposal. Otherwise known as a lexicon, the more words you know, the larger your vocabulary. Aiming to grow your vocabulary can make you a better communicator and give you access to a broader range of texts. For example, this is particularly important in young children, whose vocabulary grows at a much quicker rate than an adult’s.

Ways to help children build their vocabulary

Children grow their vocabulary naturally as they are repeatedly exposed to new words. It might be through reading, but it is often just through hearing people talk. It might be in person, on the radio, or television, contributing to vocabulary growth. When children are reading, you might want to equip them with a dictionary so that they can look up words that they don’t understand as they go. You could even encourage them to write out their glossary of new words, which they can keep adding, to build up a great bank of interesting vocabulary.

A mix of natural vocabulary growth – listening and reading – and artificial vocabulary growth is key to helping children develop their best lexicon.


Comprehension is closely linked to vocabulary but goes a step further. While vocabulary refers to a child’s ability to understand individual words, comprehension is their ability to understand them when they come together in a text. Individual words might take on slightly different meanings depending on the context, and subtle nuances in a text might go undetected. The higher a child’s reading comprehension level is, the better their ability to infer meaning that isn’t made explicit, make connections, and analyze a text.

Ways to help develop reading comprehension

A great way to help develop comprehension skills is to discuss texts before and after reading them. Before reading a text, consult with children about what they might expect. They could base this on the title, the front cover, and any existing knowledge to form predictions of what they might find inside. Next, read the text together and then discuss these afterward. How accurate were the predictions? What happened? Who was the main character? How did it end? Questions like these and more can help children to sit and absorb what they read rather than just rushing onto the next activity. It, in turn, can help improve comprehension skills.


Fluency is the ability to read as we speak, with the correct pace and intonation. Unfortunately, many children struggle with fluency and get stuck on individual words, slowing them down and disrupting the flow. It can affect comprehension, as children will be so focused on singular words or phrases that they won’t absorb the broader context. It can also negatively affect their enjoyment of reading, as they begin to see it as an arduous task and will be so frustrated over individual words that they won’t have time to enjoy the story. On the other hand, building fluency helps children become more able and confident readers, so it’s important to get it right.

Ways to help children build reading fluency

Guided reading tasks are great for building fluency, as children can hear you model how a text should sound before giving it a go themselves. Reading one-to-one or in smaller groups is also important, as children who struggle with fluency might feel embarrassed reading out loud in front of the whole class. A small group allows them to practice their reading skills without the added pressure of public speaking.

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