The National Reading Panel

In 1997, the United States Congress asked Dr. G. Reid Lyon, Chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, to appoint a fourteen-member panel of experts to determine the effectiveness of various approaches to reading instruction.  The criteria for the selection of individuals for the panel included the ability to be completely objective as the panel researched and evaluated over 100,000 different reading programs and methodologies.  To ensure objectivity, no member of the panel could have any investment, financial or otherwise, with any reading methodology or program.  The National Reading Panel Report condensed several decades of scientific research that shows effective reading instruction addresses five critical areas labeled as the five pillars of reading:

  1. Phonological Awareness

  2. Phonics

  3. Fluency

  4. Vocabulary

  5. Comprehension



Phonological Awareness vs. Phonics

Phonological awareness (or phonemic awareness) is the awareness that words are composed of sequences or strings of individual sounds called phonemes.  Students with phonemic awareness skills can identify, not only, the sequence of sounds within words, but also, can manipulate this sequence to create new words. Phonemic awareness is the most highly researched aspect of reading because, in order to read, students must accurately map the corresponding sound to a sequence of letters.


Phonemes are the smallest parts of sound in a spoken word.  For example, the word, “at,” has two sounds or phonemes, / ă / / t /.  The word, “dog,” has three phonemes, / d / / ŏ / / g /.   The word, “box,” has three letters, but it has four phonemes, / b / / ŏ / / k / / s /.  As evidenced by the word, “box,” phonemes are completely separate entities from the symbols that we call letters of the alphabet, or graphemes.  A grapheme is the smallest part of written language that represents a phoneme in the spelling of a word.  A grapheme may be just one letter, such as “t” or “d” or several letters, such as “aw” or “eigh”.  Graphemes represent the phonemes in written language.  Students must have the ability to identify and visually image the number, order, and identity of sounds and letters within words.  These abilities underlie accurate word attack, word recognition, reading fluency, and spelling.  Children who have phonemic awareness skills are likely to have an easier time learning to read and spell than children who have few or none of these skills.  Weakness in these functions causes individuals to add, omit, substitute, and reverse sounds and letters within words while reading and spelling.


The five key skills that serve as the foundation of phonemic awareness are:


  1. Phoneme Replication– the ability to repeat a sound that they hear

  2. Blending– the ability to join phonemes together to create a word

  3. Segmenting– the ability to break a word into its individual phonemes

  4. Manipulation – the ability to move, delete, or replace a phoneme, creating a new word

  5. Rhyming – the ability to find words with the same rhyme[1]





Phonics is the study of the predictable relationship between the phonemes or sounds in our language and the graphemes or letters that we use to represent these sounds.  The purpose of phonics instruction is to teach children the sound-symbol relationships and how to use those relationships to read words.  To achieve this, phonics instruction must be explicit and systematic.  It is explicit in that sound-symbol relationships are directly taught.  Students are told, for example, that the letter, “s,” stands for the / s / sound; however, when the letter, “s,” sits between two vowels or follows a voiced sound, the letter, “s,” says / z /.  It is systematic in that it follows a scope and sequence that allows children to form and read words early on.  The skills taught are constantly reviewed and applied to real reading.





Fluency is the ability to read text accurately and quickly with expression.  Embedded in this is the notion of reading with proper pitch and cadence as is dictated by punctuation.  Fluency is aided by the rapid recognition of high frequency words and the usage of meaning, structure, and visual cues to self-correct.




Vocabulary is important for comprehension.  Readers can’t understand what they read without knowing what most words mean.  The most profitable and enduring manner through which to strengthen vocabulary skills is to teach students to use word structure to determine meaning.  In the English language, our word structure is affected by other linguistic influences, and these linguistic influences come in the form of how we construct the words that compose our spoken and written language.


The three main linguistic models of word construction that constitute the English language are Latinate Word Construction (55%), Anglo-Saxon Word Construction (25%), and Greek Word Construction (11%).  In order to successfully master our language, students must receive adequate exposure to the components of each of these three linguistic influences.  This includes the foundational roots of Latinate word construction and the combining forms (roots) of Greek word construction.




Good readers have a purpose for reading, and monitor their reading to make sure it makes sense.  They connect ideas in the text with what they already know.  This is called activation of prior knowledge.  Students should be reminded that everything that they have seen, experienced, heard, felt, or tasted has a role in the interpretation of text.  When new ideas conflict with previously held information, good readers should make additions, subtractions, or revisions to the old information.  Additionally, good readers demonstrate the ability to identify and utilize:

  1. Main Idea – the central message of the passage

  2. Supporting Details – statements used to promote the main idea

  3. Clarifying Devices – methods and tools that the author uses to express thoughts

  4. Drawing Conclusions – the ability to make accurate assessments based upon the material read

  5. Inference – the ability to “read between the lines” to determine what the author is saying without having been expressly informed

  6. Vocabulary in Context – understanding the meaning of new words based upon the surrounding text




[1] The onset is the beginning of the word, usually consisting of consonants.  The rhyme (rime) is the rest of the word without the initial consonant structure (single consonant, consonant digraph, or consonant blend).  For example, in the word, “rest,” the consonant “r” is the onset.  The remaining letters in the word, “est,” is the rhyme.  Words that end with the phonemes / ĕ / / s / / t / rhyme with “rest” (e.g., test, guest, blessed, etc.).

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Cardinal Reading Strategies

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