Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Big Five: Essential to Supporting Your Struggling Readers

Back when Response to Intervention (RTI) was a new buzzword in Education and our staff was getting initial PD on what RTI is and what we would be expected to do, I vividly remember asking “will there be training provided for HOW to deliver these research-based intervention strategies?” Not sure about your college program, but I was not trained to teach kids how to read. I taught myself strategies to get by to support my 3rd graders with what they needed to become successful readers. I once had a student that moved from another country and spoke very little English. I found myself spending hours on the internet trying to learn how to teach someone their letters, letter sounds, and how to blend. 

Fast forward a few years - I am in a different role as an instructional coach. I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend many amazing PDs on reading. I’m happy to say that since that distant memory, our staff has been trained and now have tools in their belts to support struggling readers. Despite this,  I’m sure that there are many educators out there who are in the same boat I once was, so today I’d like to share with you a bit of what I’ve learned over the years. 


One big thing I learned was The Big Five, which was identified by the National Institute of Health and the National Reading Panel in a 2000 report. The Big Five refers to Phonological Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension. Together, these are the necessary components of quality, comprehensive reading instruction. A child who is competent in each of these aspects will likely be a good reader. 


So what is each of these components about, anyway? Rather than tackling the components alphabetically, let’s discuss The Big Five in terms of chronological order - starting with the component that appears first in a reader.

Phonemic Awareness involves listening. It is the ability to notice, think about, and work with individual sounds (phonemes) that make up words. 

Phonemic awareness develops in children between the ages of two and three. Imagine how much language a child hears in the first few years of life. ALL of this language goes into his or her development as a reader, and it all starts with phonemic awareness. 


This important building block involves listening and manipulating sounds. Although there are twenty-six letters in the alphabet, there are a total of forty phonemes (sounds) and two hundred fifty spellings (/f/, /ph/, /gh/). Sometimes it’s a bit tricky.


Some of the other components of phonemic awareness include hearing rhymes, producing rhymes, identifying initial, middle, and end sounds, blending sounds, and orally segmenting and blending words. 


The next component of The Big Five is phonics. So what is the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness? In short, phonemic awareness focuses more on hearing sounds while phonics targets the relationships between letters and sounds. 


In phonics, the reader will learn about consonants and vowels (and their sounds). Further, phonics includes vowel blends (diphthongs) like -oi- as in coin and consonant digraphs such as /th/ and /sh/. Consonant blends like /dr/ and /st/ are also part of phonics.

These terms can often be confusing for upper-grade teachers, so to break it down for you Consonant blends are when two sounds are blended together, each of those sounds can be heard in the blend. Consonant digraphs are when two consonants are together and they make only one sound. Typically, this sound is changed and you cannot hear their original sounds.


Here is a great visual for you from Malia over at Playdough to Plato.  She has this as a FREEBIE over on her blog. Click here to check it out.

Reading should sound like speaking. Many teachers use this simple explanation to describe fluency to their students. 


Fluency is the ability to read text accurately, quickly, and with proper expression. Fluency is the bridge from learning to read to reading to learn.

When a reader is fluent, he or she is bound to better comprehend the text. The reason for this is that when a reader is fluent, he or she can focus on the meaning of words rather than decoding every single one. Thus, comprehension improves.


Vocabulary is the key to comprehension. The more words a reader knows and understands, the more he or she will be able to read, thereby learning more new words. An insufficient vocabulary can slow down comprehension significantly. Parents and teachers can build vocabulary in children by talking with them and reading aloud.


The definition of comprehension is ‘intentional thinking during which meaning is constructed during interactions between text and reader’. The ultimate goal of reading comprehension is not possible without the other four components. 


Reading comprehension involves many factors, including background knowledge, vocabulary, working memory, and exposure to language. A good reader is always asking questions internally (‘why did the character do that?’ or ‘who is this new character?’) and makes connections to the text.


Seeing the light bulb go on in the mind of a reader, when he or she is just figuring it out, is the ultimate gift for a teacher. After breaking down the reading process into its building blocks, it’s no wonder that it also seems like a miracle! 


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Click here to check out my next post in the series: How to determine reading interventions for your struggling readers.

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