The Big Five

There are five skills that students need to know how to do in order to read proficiently: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. On this page, we’ve provided a definition of each and how to help students develop each skill. 

Target: how to target the 5 areas of reading:

Phonemic Awareness

What it is: Phonemic awareness (under the broader term phonological awareness) is a child’s ability to hear the individual sounds in words. For example, knowing that the word /cat/ has three sounds /c/ /a/ and /t/. When a child has strong phonemic awareness, he can pull apart words into individual sounds and substitute new sounds into a word, changing “cat” to “mat” and “sat.”

  • This video provides an overview of phonemic awareness.

  • This video explains both phonological and phonemic awareness.

  • This video provides an explanation of how to teach phonemic awareness using chips to represent sounds.

  • This video provides examples of the different types of sounds, “stretchy” or sounds, like /v/ and /l/ that can be drawn out, “bouncy” or sounds that have a hard sound, like /b/ /d/ and /c/ and cannot be drawn out, long vowels, and less frequent sounds.

  • This video provides models of digraphs (two letters together, /sh/ and /ng/) and trigraphs (three sounds together, /thr/).

  • CVC or consonant-vowel-consonant words, like jog, bug, and sit, are some of the first words that students read. This Teaching Channel video shows how one teacher teaches CVC words.


What it is: Knowledge of phonics means that students understand the relationship between letters and the sounds they represent. This means recognizing letter combinations and sounds as well as word parts (prefixes, root words, and suffixes). A child with strong phonics knowledge will be able to sound out words, such as “chain” by reading the individual sounds “ch” “ai” “n” and pull apart longer words into word parts, reading “unopened” by breaking it into “un” “open” “ed.”

  • Phonics instruction teaches kids to recognize and read words (decoding) and connect those words to meaning. This overview from the Florida Center for Reading Research has an overview of phonics, how kids struggle, and how instruction addresses phonics

  • Phonics instruction should be explicit in that letter-sound relationships are taught one at a time, letter sounds are then blended into whole words, and words are practiced in decodable text or text that only has the letter sounds that students are able to read by that point.

  • This article by Scholastic explains phonics, how children might struggle with phonics and how to structure phonics instruction.


What it is: Children read fluently when they read words at a pace that is fast enough to be understood and are not stopping often to sound out words. Fluent readers also add expression to what they read, by reading punctuation (for example, when their voice rises to indicate a question mark) and dialogue. The key to developing fluency is by reading…a lot.


What it is: Vocabulary refers to the number of words that a child knows. This includes common words (often called Tier 1 words) that are used in everyday language, as well as less common (Tier 2) words that are often found in picture books and text, and content-specific words (Tier 3), such as words related to biology (cell, ecosystem, etc) are less common.

  • The Georgia Pathway to Language and Literacy has an explanation of Tier 1, 2, and 3 words and an example of how they are incorporated into a lesson.

  • This lesson from Teaching Channel shows how one teacher uses pictures to teach students new words and practice phonemic awareness.

  • This article from Colorin Colorado explains how to select words to teach English language learners.


What it is: Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading. When children have strong comprehension skills they can make sense of what they read, identify the main idea and details, retell a story or summarize and article, and know when they are not understanding and take steps, like rereading, to fix their comprehension.

  • Reading comprehension is linked to listening comprehension, and listening comprehension is developed through read aloud experiences.

  • Strong comprehenders connect what they are reading to other texts, experiences, and knowledge that they have about the world.

  • Reading comprehension involves some metacognition, or thinking about thinking. For reading, this means being aware of what they are thinking as they read and have control over their reading. For example, they may realize that while they have decoded words on the page, they don’t understand what they’re reading and need to go back to the previous page to reread a section slower.

  • Perhaps the best way to improve comprehension is by reading, a lot. There are strategies that children can do before, during, and after reading that build comprehension:

    • Activating prior knowledge

    • Answering and generating questions

    • Making and verifying predictions

    • Using mental imagery and visualization

    • Monitoring comprehension

  • This video explains how tutors can teach four reading comprehension strategies: making connections, retelling, asking questions, and making predictions.

  • This video shows the Four Square retelling strategy that can be used to retell narrative text.

  • This video shows how one teacher engages students in questioning before, during, and after reading.

Resources that Address all 5

The Student Reading Success Activity Guide from the SC Education Oversight Committee provides activities and ideas for each of the “big five” including-among other fun ideas-phonemic awareness I Spy, using blocks or chips to count the sounds in words, synonym hot potato, and word collecting.