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Reading & the Brain: Understanding How Learners Build Foundational Literacy Skills

Reading & the Brain: Understanding How Learners Build Foundational Literacy Skills

How does the brain acquire essential reading skills? As you choose appropriate strategies to build your young learners’ reading abilities, it’s important to understand the internal command center that processes and builds these competencies. The building blocks of reading, as defined by the National Reading Panel, include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Here, we’ll take a closer look at each of these five areas to appreciate the underlying brain development that occurs and how this can affect the instructional approach you take with students.

Phonemic Awareness

Defined: The ability to hear, identify, manipulate, and substitute phonemes—the smallest units of sound that can differentiate meaning—in spoken words

The best way to think about phonemic awareness is to compare it to something that can be done in the dark. Learning to orally manipulate the approximate 41 phonemes in the English language doesn’t require being able to read printed letters. Instead, through phonemic awareness strategies, the brain is able to learn individual phonemes, then progress to join phonemes, and finally, to build words with phonemes.

As you consider this progression, it becomes obvious that, as part of developing phonemic awareness, the introduction of phonics skills must quickly follow. Research shows that teaching sounds along with letters of the alphabet helps students better understand how phonemic awareness relates to their reading and writing.


Defined: The ability to understand that there is a predictable relationship between phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (the letters that represent those sounds in written language) in order to associate written letters with the sounds of spoken language

Phonics is the crucial link between what learners hear and how they read and write. Known as “cracking the code” on reading, phonics instruction is most effective when it begins in kindergarten or first grade.

Critics of phonics instruction argue that the English language includes many irregular spellings that don’t incorporate predictable phonics patterns. However, phonics instruction does teach children a system for remembering how to read words. Once children learn, for example, that phone is spelled this way rather than foan, their brain commits the spelling to memory, which, in turn, helps them read, spell, and recognize the word instantly. Building a memory bank of letter-sound relationships through systematic and sequenced instruction is found to be an effective approach to building phonics skills.


Defined: The ability to read text accurately, quickly, and expressively, either to oneself or aloud; the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fluency scale helps represent the learning progression of this skill

Fluency is critical to building a child’s motivation to read in the first place. When the brain has to focus on what each word means, reading becomes a laborious task that prevents students from gathering meaning. Once fluency skills are developed, though, students are able to recognize words and comprehend them at the same time.

Fluency develops gradually over considerable time with the repeated, accurate sounding out of words. For young readers who regularly interact with the same texts over and over again, fluency might be mistaken for memorization. At this point, students may know what a word “looks like,, but may not have yet developed the correct neural-phonological models of the word.

As students begin to acquire words more easily, they should also practice dividing text into meaningful chunks, knowing when to pause and change intonation and tone. With regular guidance and feedback, students begin to recognize these cues during reading and develop deeper comprehension. Fluent readers practice reading consistently and can demonstrate their skills through natural reading that sounds as if they are speaking.


Defined: The growing, stored compilation of words that students understand and use in their conversation (oral vocabulary) and recognize in print (reading vocabulary)

The good news is that children are born to learn new words! Studies show there are direct links between how many words children hear spoken at home and how well they excel in 3rd grade. This is because most vocabulary is learned indirectly—meaning it is absorbed in the brain through everyday experiences in conversation, readings aloud from adults, or independent reading. For those children who don’t experience these events regularly, vocabulary often suffers.

Beginning readers use their oral vocabulary to make sense of the words they see in print. During early reading, students mentally search for a word in their vocabulary that matches the written word they see on the page. When their oral vocabulary comes up short, reading is momentarily interrupted. That new word must be learned, in both form and meaning, before it can be added to their mental vocabulary.

It goes without saying that readers cannot understand what they are reading without knowing what most of the words mean. This being the case, direct instruction of explicitly taught vocabulary, as well as word-learning strategies, can help build a flourishing vocabulary and improve reading fluency and comprehension.


Defined: The ability to understand, remember, and make meaning of what has been read—this is the purpose for reading

Comprehension puts all the pieces together to make a student become a proficient reader. Even before students are reading for themselves, they can begin practicing comprehension skills when books are read aloud to them. Predicting, inferring, making connections, and analyzing what is read are all skills that can be modeled and practiced with an adult and help prepare students to do this work independently.

Students who have mastered the technique of comprehension are both purposeful and active readers. They use metacognitive strategies to think about the purpose of what they’re reading and monitor their own understanding as they read. This allows these students to isolate and verbalize where they have a lack of understanding, which, in turn, opens doors for them to apply specific strategies to attain that understanding.

For additional information on proven approaches to teach key reading strategies in the classroom and at home, check out the full teacher’s guide, Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read, Kindergarten through Grade 3, from the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement.

Interested in learning more about Edmentum’s online solutions to support foundational literacy? Check out Reading Eggs and Reading Eggspress, our learn-to-read programs founded on these five pillars of reading and designed to help pre-K through 6th grade students develop a love for reading!

madison.michell's picture
Madison Michell

Madison Michell has been a member of the Edmentum team since 2014 and currently serves as a Marketing Manager. As a former Kindergarten and 3rd grade teacher during her time as a Teach For America corps member, she believes education truly has the power to transform lives. She is passionate about connecting educators with online programs, best practices, and research that improve teaching and learning for today's students.