Academic Quarterly

Reading Expert Spring 2021

Leveraging Tier 1 Reading Instruction to Address COVID-Related Reading Losses

The pandemic and related disruptions to schooling that began last spring have undeniably had an impact on the development of students’ reading skills. Amplify recently analyzedmiddle-of-school-year DIBELS 8th Edition data collected on over 40,000 students across 1,400 schools in 41 states. The analysis revealed COVID-related reading losses particularly in kindergarten and grade 1 and disproportionately among Black and Latino students in those grades. Specifically, they found a 65–68% increase in the percentage of K–1 students at greatest risk for not learning to read. Compared to last year, twice as many Black kindergarten students were at great risk for not learning to read by midyear.

Similarly, a new study from Stanford found that student oral reading fluency (ORF) growth stalled in the spring of 2020. Although the data showed some gains in the fall of 2020, the improvement was not enough to recover the loss the students experienced the previous spring. Yearly gains in ORF were 26% lower for second graders and 33% lower for third graders. Moreover, the decrease in ORF scores was more pronounced in lower-achieving school districts. Students attending these schools are falling further behind, widening the preexisting achievement gaps.

Increases in the percentages of students reading below benchmark can easily overtax school resources. When planning for the 2021–22 school year, schools must be prepared to provide high-quality Tier 1 reading instruction, particularly in the early grades of K and 1. If teachers leverage this instruction through the use of explicit, systematic, evidence-based practices, then all students will benefit from the time spent in Tier 1. To further leverage the instruction this upcoming school year, schools should consider dedicating more time to reading instruction in the early grades. This may be accomplished through offering a jump start in summer programs, scheduling extra reading in after-school settings, or providing a double dose of reading instruction during the school day.

What Is High-Quality Tier 1 Reading Instruction?

In a recent article focused on prevention, Catts and Hogan (2021) described high-quality Tier 1 reading instruction in the early grades as code-focused instruction involving phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency. This instruction, they point out, is more effective than approaches that rely on contextual factors for word reading. High-quality Tier 1 reading instruction should be code-focused but not to the exclusion of developing language comprehension. Developing both sides of the Simple View equation is critical.

Dr. Louisa Moats, in a conversation about the science of reading and early reading instruction recorded in the spring of 2020, shared some tips regarding what to consider when evaluating programs for alignment with the Science of Reading. Dr. Moats identified the need for explicit instruction in the foundational skills for about 45 minutes daily. According to Moats, the instruction should follow a lesson routine that includes a review, explanation of the new concept, guided practice, independent practice, spelling and writing to dictation, and the opportunity to read decodable text. She goes on to point out that when examining the lesson routine, it is important to determine whether the instruction is informed by knowledge of both the speech-sound system and the orthographic system. Finally, she states that teachers should examine the scope and sequence for appropriate order and pacing of concept introduction, ensuring that one skill is built upon another.

CORE’s Teaching Reading Sourcebook, Third Edition, includes a template for the type of foundational skills instruction that Moats described. The table below outlines the steps in the Explicit Phonics Lesson Sequence from the Teaching Reading Sourcebook (p. 175). In the sections that follow, suggestions for leveraging Tier 1 instruction within each step of the sequence will be provided.

© CORE, Teaching Reading Sourcebook, 3rd  Ed., 2018, Arena Press, p. 175.

Suggestions for Leveraging Tier 1 Instruction

1. Develop Phonemic Awareness

The importance of phonemic awareness in learning to read and spell is well established in the research. Some researchers are currently questioning, however, the necessity of proceeding from developing awareness of larger and more noticeable units of speech sounds in spoken words (e.g., words, syllables, rimes) to phoneme-level instruction (instruction at the individual sound level) in grades K and 1. Susan Brady, professor emeritus at the University of Rhode Island, based on a review of research, found that this type of instructional progression is not supported by the research. Instead, Brady (2020) points out that teachers in grades K and 1 should target student mastery of phoneme awareness. Brady recommends beginning with developing awareness of external phonemes (initial and final consonants) in spoken words and then moving to awareness of internal phonemes. Phoneme awareness instruction in first grade should include the remaining consonant and vowel phonemes beyond those taught in kindergarten (e.g., diphthongs, consonant digraphs, etc.). Although it is important to first establish awareness of individual phonemes, instruction on phoneme-grapheme correspondences should follow. Linking phoneme awareness with letter-sound knowledge strengthens the application of phoneme awareness for improved reading and spelling.

2. Introduce Sound/Spelling

Sound-symbol or sound/spelling cards are a powerful reference point for helping students learn the connections between phonemes and graphemes. Moats points out that these cards should be organized by first highlighting the sound (e.g., through the use of a keyword) and then by showing the ways the sound can be spelled. This emphasis on the connection of speech to print versus print to speech is a subtle but important distinction according to Moats. Students bring knowledge from spoken language to the school setting. Educators can leverage that knowledge of spoken language to help students map sounds to print in order to read.

The use of sound walls as an alternative to traditional word walls allows teachers to further leverage instruction. Clearly posted Sound Walls that organize the sound-symbol cards by consonants and vowels (and many times are further organized based on the manner of articulation) are a means to review the 44 speech sounds and the options for spelling each of those sounds. Through a teacher’s daily reference to the Sound Wall, students develop automaticity in accessing sounds and know how to match spellings to each sound. Dr. Mary Dahlgren writes extensively on Sounds Walls. For more information on how to set up and use a Sound Wall, see Dr. Dahlgren’s blogs: You Don’t Have To Be a Linguist to Use a Sound Wall and Implementing a Sound Wall: Because We Need to Distinguish Between Sounds and Letters. Also listen to her podcast, Retire Your Word Wall: How Sound Walls Support the Science of Reading.

3. Blend Words

Explicit and systematic instruction and practice in sounding out and reading words is a critical component of the daily Tier 1 foundational skills routine. How do teachers leverage phonic decoding instruction? Recent research by Gonzalez-Frey and Ehri (2020) found that connected phonation (i.e., holding out each sound without pauses) is more effective than segmented phonation (i.e., pausing after each sound) for teaching beginning readers to decode unfamiliar words. The researchers reported that students in the connected phonation condition seemed to have a better concept of how to bring separate phonemes in a word together when blending to read a whole word. These findings suggest that Tier 1 instruction could be made more effective by implementing the connected phonation procedure. This is an easy enhancement to make to most core reading programs. According to the study, teachers should first teach students to decode CVC words with continuant consonants until they master the procedure and then progress to decoding words with stop consonants. For more information on the study, see CORE’s on-demand webinar Teaching Beginning Readers to Decode Unfamiliar Words: Connected Phonation Is More Effective than Segmented Phonation.

4. Build Automatic Word Recognition

To promote automatic word recognition, Tier 1 instruction should provide students repeated opportunities to develop automaticity at the subword and word levels. Teachers can add short activities daily that provide practice opportunities to support and reinforce previously taught skills. The activities should be designed around specific skills that promote reading fluency and aligned with the content of the foundational skills lessons. Some examples from the Teaching Reading Sourcebook include the following:

  • Print four or five previously introduced single consonants on the board, organizing them in four lines of letters repeated in random order. Ask students to say the sound as you touch under each letter. Teachers can keep track of the time it takes the group to say all the sounds. Then teachers can ask students to repeat the task, challenging them to read at a faster pace.
  • Present a list of five or six words with sound/spelling associations that have been taught and mastered. Touch the first word. Move your finger under each sound as you model how to subvocalize when sounding out the word. For the remaining words, ask students to (silently) sound out as you run your finger under each sound and then read the word.
  • Present a list of five or six words that contain previously taught sounds. Ask students to read words in the list, providing a three-second pause before each word. When all words are read correctly, ask students to read them again in a different order with a two-second pause.

For additional activities to build fluency at the subword and word levels, see the Florida Center for Reading Research’s Student Center Activities:

5. Apply to Decodable Text

Wiley Blevins, in a recent article in the November/December 2020 issue of Principal Magazine published by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, identifies seven features to look for in phonics instruction. One of those seven key features is the opportunity for students to read connected decodable texts. Blevins makes the case that decodable texts are an essential part of each day’s phonics lessons. He states that decodable texts are so important because they have the largest impact on accelerating mastery of phonics skills. Leveled texts, according to Blevins, often don’t contain enough decodable words to bring all students to mastery. Providing decodable text is a brief but critical intervening step between students’ acquisition of phonics knowledge and their ability to read authentic text. To leverage Tier 1 instruction, teachers can ensure that emerging readers have daily practice reading decodable text. With some core programs, teachers may need to supplement with additional outside sources of decodable text that align to the scope and sequence of the phonics instruction.

Sources for additional decodable text:

6. Word Work for Decoding and Encoding

Encoding (i.e., spelling) is the final component of an explicit phonics lesson sequence. When implemented correctly, spelling instruction can be leveraged to strengthen and reinforce emerging phonics skills. Spelling of words, whether regular or irregular, is not a rote memorization task. It is the integration of multiple language systems: phonology, orthography, and morphology. Asking students to say the sounds of the word as they write the corresponding letters will promote the activation and integration of these systems. All words, including irregular words, are stored via orthographic mapping—and this has implications for instruction (Kilpatrick 2015). According to Kilpatrick (2015), when readers encounter new irregular words, they create a phonological framework based on the regular letter-phoneme correspondences in the word and then make a mental note of the irregular element. The regular letter-sound correspondences act as the phonological framework for building the orthographic sequence in long-term memory. The bottom line is that teachers need to direct student attention to the phonological framework within regular and irregular words as this is the basis for efficiently storing words. Tier 1 instruction in kindergarten and grade 1 should include daily spelling instruction and guided practice focused on making these sound-symbol connections.

Summary of Instructional Practices to Enhance Tier 1 Reading Instruction in Grades K and 1

Educators are facing another very challenging year in terms of ensuring that all students meet grade-level reading benchmarks. Based on recent data, students who will be entering grades 1 and 2 in the 2021–22 school year are particularly at risk for reading difficulties after experiencing a disrupted school year that fell at a time of important early reading development. Educators’ best plan of attack for addressing this increase in the number of students at risk is to ensure that Tier 1 reading instruction is as strong as possible in the early grades. Specifically, the following practices are recommended as a means of leveraging foundational skills instruction in grades K and 1. Teachers working with the group of students entering second grade in the upcoming school year will likely have to address gaps in students’ knowledge and will need to incorporate many of these practices as well:

  • Target student mastery of phoneme awareness.
  • Introduce sound-symbol cards organized from speech to print.
  • Set up a sound wall (instead of a word wall).
  • Implement the connected phonation procedure when teaching phonic decoding.
  • Provide students repeated opportunities to develop automaticity at the subword and word levels.
  • Select decodable texts and provide daily practice to accelerate mastery of phonics skills.
  • Include guided spelling to help students transfer growing reading skills to writing, focusing on the phonological framework in all words.

See CORE’s Teaching Reading Sourcebook, Third Edition, for complete examples of foundational skills lessons that follow the explicit phonics lesson sequence.


Blevins, W. (2020, November/December). A fresh look at phonics: Make instruction active and engaging to turn students into skilled readers. Principal Magazine, 100 (2), 16–19.

Brady, S. (2020, September/October). A 2020 perspective on research findings on alphabetics (phoneme awareness and phonics): Implications for instruction. The Reading League Journal, 1 (3), 20–28.

Catts, H., & Hogan, T. (2021, January/February). Dyslexia: An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of diagnosis and treatment. The Reading League Journal, 2 (1), 6–13.

Gonzalez-Frey, S., & Ehri, L. C. (2020). Connected phonation is more effective than segmented phonation for teaching beginning readers to decode unfamiliar words. Scientific Studies of Reading, 1–14.

Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties.

Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.


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