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REL Central Ask A REL Response

Literacy, Early Childhood

February 2021


What essential foundational literacy skills have been shown to support successful reading in third grade?


Following an established research protocol, REL Central conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles to help answer the question. The resources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic databases, and general Internet search engines. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. We have not evaluated the quality of the references provided in this response, and we offer them only for your information. We compiled the references from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant sources may exist.

Research References

Chiang, H., Walsh, E., Shanahan, T., Gentile, C., Maccarone, A., Waits, T., Carlson, B., & Rikoon, S. (2017). An exploration of instructional practices that foster language development and comprehension: Evidence from prekindergarten through grade 3 in Title I schools (NCEE 2017–4024). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“Reading comprehension–the ability to understand the meaning of text—is a foundational ability that enables children to learn in school and throughout life. Children who struggle with reading comprehension in the third or fourth grade are at high risk for dropping out of school, with detrimental effects on their future employment, income, and participation in the social and political aspects of life. Given the modest and inconsistent effects of existing large-scale early literacy interventions, the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education commissioned this study to investigate additional types of instructional practices that hold potential promise for promoting young children’s language development and comprehension. Using an exploratory design, the study team collected extensive information about instructional practices in prekindergarten through grade 3 within Title I schools and examined the relationships between these practices and student growth in a range of language and comprehension outcomes. Findings from this study are intended to help identify potentially promising practices that ought to be studied further and evaluated on a large scale. As designed, this study makes three key contributions to the existing body of research about the relationships between instructional practices and young children’s language and comprehension growth: (1) the exploration of a wide range of instructional practices; (2) the use of student outcome measures that cover a range of language and comprehension skills; and (3) the exploration of the relationship between practices and student growth on a large scale. First, the study explores a wider range of instructional practices than those that formed the basis for recent federal early literacy programs. As discussed earlier, programs such as Reading First and Early Reading First promoted instructional practices focused on the five skill and strategy areas identified by the National Reading Panel, drawing upon substantial research that had found positive effects of these practices in smaller-scale settings. Because these programs, for the most part, did not have their intended effects when widely implemented, this study collected information on an even broader array of practices to search for those practices that might be related to student growth and could therefore be evaluated further. Beyond the practices emphasized by the expert panels, the authors considered practices that encourage students’ oral language, expose them to knowledge of the world, stimulate higher–order thinking, help them focus on the meaning of texts, and encourage their engagement in the classroom. Second, the study examines student outcome measures that cover a range of language and comprehension skills. Successful reading comprehension depends on a number of other outcomes that form a foundation for being able to understand text, including a variety of language skills and background knowledge about the social and natural world. For instance, a large synthesis of research found that language measures covering a variety of skills were much more strongly correlated with subsequent reading comprehension than measures focused narrowly on particular skills, such as vocabulary alone (National Early Literacy Panel 2008). However, many previous studies examined the effects of instructional practices on only particular outcomes that were closely aligned with the practices being considered (see Chapter IV for a detailed discussion). For example, although some studies investigated the effects of vocabulary instruction on vocabulary improvement in the early grades (see, for example, Beck and McKeown [2007] and Penno et al. [2002]), almost none determined whether the effects carried over to other aspects of language development and, ultimately, to reading comprehension. There have been exceptions in which a small number of studies (which took place concurrently with the present study) have examined the effects of early–grade language instruction on a range of outcomes and even longer-term comprehension outcomes (see, for example, Lyster et al. [2016] and Dickinson and Porche [2011]), yet most studies have generally examined a smaller set of outcomes. This study contributes to existing research by examining outcome measures that encompass diverse language skills, aspects of background knowledge, and ultimately reading comprehension. Third, the study examines relationships between practices and student growth on a large scale. The findings are based on data collected from 83 Title I schools in 9 states, in which the study team observed instructional practices in over 1,000 classrooms and administered assessments to nearly 5,000 children in the 2011–2012 school year. The size of this exploratory study is important because its findings are intended to suggest the types of early literacy practices that ought to be evaluated on a large scale. Given this study’s exploratory design, it cannot provide conclusive information about the effectiveness of instructional practices and is not meant to make recommendations for actual classroom instruction. Instead, the goal is to suggest directions for future research on practices that may promote language development and comprehension. The main body of this report presents, in brief, the study’s methods and main findings. Chapter II outlines the design of the study, the types of data collected, and the methods used to collect and analyze the data. Chapter III presents the findings for all students as well as specific groups of students. Chapter IV discusses the study’s contributions to prior research and possible avenues for future research.”

Clarke, B. L., Knoche, L. L., Abbott, M. I., Sheridan, S. M., Carta, J. J., & Sjuts, T. S. (2014). Preschool multi-tier prevention-intervention model for language and early literacy (Pre-3T): Development summary and implementation guide (CYFS Working Paper 2014-3). Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“The primary objective of this development study was to develop and pilot a three-tiered prevention model (universal, targeted, individualized) in early education for children at risk of reading difficulties. The aims of this study were to: (1) Define and develop a Pre-3T model to address the early literacy and language needs of young children in Head Start/public preschool programs; (2) Implement a Pre-3T model in collaborating preschool programs and collect social validity and individual child data for testing its feasibility and for refining the model; and (3) Improve the Pre-3T model based on results of pilot testing and develop materials necessary for implementing the model in preschool programs. This [sic] objectives of this study were to develop and field-test a comprehensive model for early childhood that incorporated a hierarchy of research-based language and literacy supports guided by progress monitoring to prevent reading delays in early childhood. It represented a collaborative effort among research teams at the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families, and School (CYFS) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Juniper Garden’s Children’s Project (JGCP) at the University of Kansas. The purpose of this document is to provide a summary of the process by which the Pre-3T model was developed and a description of the final product and procedures used for implementation. This document includes a description of the developed model organized by the foundational framework, definitional components, and iterative development process. These sections are followed by detailed implementation guides that operationalize how the Pre-3T model designed through this study is implemented in practice.”

Folsom, J. S., Smith, K. G., Burk, K., & Oakley, N. (2017). Educator outcomes associated with implementation of Mississippi’s K–3 early literacy professional development initiative (REL 2017–270). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“Substantial research points to the importance of developing strong early literacy skills. However, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, between 2007 and 2013, no more than 55 percent of Mississippi grade 4 students were reading at or above the proficiency level that demonstrates solid academic performance for the grade assessed. This was of serious concern to educators and policymakers in Mississippi. Thus, in April 2013, Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act was signed into law with the goal of having every student read at or above grade level by the end of grade 3. In response to the act, in January of 2014 the Mississippi Department of Education began providing early literacy professional development to all K–3 educators using the Language Essentials for Teaching Reading and Spelling program. Participants received the professional development content across eight modules split into two phases. Each phase included six weeks of online coursework and three days of face-to-face workshops. Typically, educators completed one phase per academic year. Content ranged from learning the foundations of language and reading to teaching comprehension strategies and writing instruction.”

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016–4008). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“The goal of this practice guide is to offer educators specific, evidence-based recommendations for teaching foundational reading skills to students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. This guide is a companion to the existing practice guide, ‘Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade,’ and as a set, these guides offer recommendations for preparing students to be successful readers. Both guides recommend some practices that can and should be implemented beginning in kindergarten, and both guides also suggest some instructional practices that can be implemented after students have mastered early reading skills. This guide synthesizes the best available research on foundational reading skills and shares practices that are supported by evidence. It is intended to be practical and easy for teachers to use. The guide includes many examples in each recommendation to demonstrate the concepts discussed. This guide provides teachers, reading coaches, principals, and other educators with instructional recommendations that can be implemented in conjunction with existing standards or curricula and does not recommend a particular curriculum. Teachers can use the guide when planning instruction to support the development of foundational reading skills among students in grades K–3 and in diverse contexts. Professional-development providers, program developers, and researchers can also use this guide. Professional-development providers can use the guide to implement evidence-based instruction and align instruction with state standards or to prompt teacher discussion in professional learning communities. Program developers can use the guide to create more effective early-reading curricula and interventions. Finally, researchers may find opportunities to test the effectiveness of various approaches to foundational reading education and explore gaps or variations in the reading-instruction literature.”

Irvin, P. S., Alonzo, J., Nese, J. F. T., & Tindal, G. (2013). Learning to read: Kindergarten readiness growth in reading skills (Research Brief 4). National Center on Assessment and Accountability for Special Education. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Much of the research on curriculum-based measurement (CBM) in reading has focused on oral reading fluency (ORF). However, ORF is only one of five critical reading skill areas in the wider construct of reading that includes foundational skills such as phonological awareness and phonics. In this research brief, we address the construct of readiness in learning to read entering Kindergarten, and then redirect the findings to the results from learning to read over both Kindergarten and Grade 1. Our results suggest that ‘readiness’ may be defined more by social-behavioral indicators than by more strictly academic skills, and that while students enter Kindergarten with low levels of early literacy performance, on average, they appear to learn at dramatic rates.”

Maryland State Department of Education. (2019). Ready for kindergarten: Maryland’s early childhood comprehensive assessment system (2018–2019 Kindergarten Readiness Assessment Technical Report). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“Based on the 2018–2019 Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA) results, nearly half (47%) of all entering kindergarten children in Maryland displayed the foundational skills indicating they are fully ready for kindergarten. A third (33%) are approaching readiness. Twenty percent of children are assessed with emerging readiness skills. The school readiness results for the 2018–2019 school year show a continued increase from the administration of the KRA in 2017–2018 with 45 percent being assessed as fully ready. This technical report presents information on: (1) School Readiness Results for School Year 2018–19; (2) New KRA Legislation and Weighting; (3) Weighting for State Level Results; (4) Local School Systems Administrating KRA on all Students (Census Administration) versus Representative Sampling; (5) School Readiness Based on Demographic Categories; (6) Reporting and Interpreting of KRA results; (7) What the KRA Results Represent; (8) Availability of the 2018–19 School Readiness Report; (9) Background of Maryland’s School Readiness Initiative; (10) Maryland’s Assessment System of Measuring School Readiness; (11) Alignment of KRA Standards with the Maryland College and Career-Ready Standards; (12) KRA Item Types; (13) Administration of the KRA; (14) Use of Data and Accountability; (15) Accessibility for Special Populations; (16) Teacher Professional Development; (17) Validity and Reliability Data; (18) Measurement of the Internal Consistency of the KRA–Cronbach’s Alpha; (19) KRA Item Reduction and Standard Setting; and (20) Standard Setting Validation.”

Piasta, S. B., Farley, K. S., Phillips, B. M., Anthony, J. L., & Bowles, R. P. (2018). Assessment of young children’s letter-sound knowledge: Initial validity evidence for letter-sound short forms. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 43(4), 249–255 Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“The Letter-Sound Short Forms (LSSFs) were designed to meet criteria for effective progress monitoring tools by exhibiting strong psychometrics, offering multiple equivalent forms, and being brief and easy to administer and score. The present study expands available psychometric information for the LSSFs by providing an initial examination of their validity in assessing young children’s emerging letter-sound knowledge. In a sample of 998 preschool-aged children, the LSSFs were sensitive to change over time, showed strong concurrent validity with established letter-sound knowledge and related emergent literacy measures, and demonstrated predictive validity with emergent literacy measures. The LSSFs also predicted kindergarten readiness scores available for a subsample of children. These findings have implications for using the LSSFs to monitor children’s alphabet knowledge acquisition and to support differentiated early alphabet instruction.”

Additional Resources

Kosanovich, M., Lee, L., & Foorman, B. (2020). A first grade teacher’s guide to supporting family involvement in foundational reading skills (REL 2021–042). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“Learning to read begins at home through everyday parent–child interactions, long before children attend school. Parents’ continuing support of literacy development throughout elementary school positively affects their children’s reading ability. Many recent efforts to motivate parents to be involved in their child’s literacy development involve informing parents about how to incorporate literacy development into daily routines, such as labeling food items at the grocery store or conversing while folding laundry. Teacher leadership and communication are critical–the more teachers encourage and assist parents, the more likely parents are to become involved in the education of their children. If teachers encourage and guide parents, parents may prioritize time to work with their child, even though they have many other responsibilities. To assist in helping families support literacy, the Georgia Department of Education partnered with the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast to create a suite of grade-specific Teacher’s Guides that certified teachers can use with families to encourage and facilitate literacy support for children in the home. This guide serves as a companion to the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) Educator’s Practice Guide ‘Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade’ for teachers and administrators.”

Templeton, S. (2015). Building foundational and vocabulary knowledge in the Common Core, K–8: Developmentally-grounded instruction about words. Language and Literacy Spectrum, 25, 7–17. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“How young children’s and older students’ knowledge of words develops–their structure, their meanings, how they work in context–is reflected in the Common Core English Language Arts expectations. Meeting these expectations for each learner requires that we teach in a developmentally-responsive manner. This includes our being familiar with the nature of the English spelling system, determining what each learner knows about the system, and then providing instruction that stretches but does not frustrate learning. There is a reciprocal relationship between reading and spelling words and understanding how this relationship develops over time is the key to developmentally-responsive decoding and encoding instruction, as well as to developing every learner’s vocabulary.”

What Works Clearinghouse. (2018). Tips for supporting reading skills at home. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“This document provides the following four tips for supporting reading skills for children ages K–3 at home: (1) Have conversations before, during, and after reading together; (2) Help children learn how to break sentences; (3) Help children sound out words smoothly; and (4) Model reading fluently by practicing reading out loud with your child. These tips help parents and caregivers carry out the recommended practices described in the Institute of Education Sciences Educator’s practice guide, ‘Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade. Educator’s Practice Guide. NCEE 2016–4008’ (ED566956). Each tip highlights evidence-based practices from classroom settings that could also help parents or caregivers develop their children’s reading at home. A panel of experts developed and authored the practice guide. This document is intended to be a companion to the practice guide. Step by step, it details and explains each of the four tips, providing sample questions, definitions, reminders, and which skills each tip is helping to build. A list of references can be found in the ‘Educator’s Practice Guide’ (ED566956).”

Additional Resources to Consult

American Library Association, United for Libraries:

From the website:

“Early literacy (reading and writing) does not mean early reading instruction or teaching babies to read; it is the natural development of skills through the enjoyment of books, the importance of positive interactions between babies and parents, and the critical role of literacy-rich experiences.”

Counsel of Chief State School Officers:

From the website:

“The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, the Bureau of Indian Education and the five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions.”

K–2 Assessments: An update on state adoption and implementation. (2019). Retrieved from

From the Introduction:

“In ACT’s 2016 report State Adoption and Implementation of K–2 Assessments, 35 states had some form of state assessment in grades K–2 (primarily assessing reading) and that a little more than half of those states (n=18) allowed districts to choose their assessment from a state-approved list.”

Every Child Ready to Read:

From the website:

“Every Child Ready to Read @ your library is a parent education initiative. Traditionally, early literacy programs at libraries have focused on children. Storytimes and other programs might model strategies that parents can use to develop early literacy skills, but parent education is not typically the primary intent.

The Public Library Association (PLA) and Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) concluded that public libraries could have an even greater impact on early literacy through an approach that focused on educating parents and caregivers. If the primary adults in a child’s life can learn more about the importance of early literacy and how to nurture pre-reading skills at home, the effect of library efforts can be multiplied many times.

Teaching parents and other caregivers how to support the early literacy development of their children is the basis of Every Child Ready to Read @ your library. When the first edition of ECRR was introduced in 2004, the focus on educating parents and caregivers was a significantly different approach for many libraries; one that certainly has proven its value.”

New America:

From the website:

“We are dedicated to renewing the promise of America by continuing the quest to realize our nation’s highest ideals, honestly confronting the challenges caused by rapid technological and social change, and seizing the opportunities those changes create.”

From crawling to walking: Ranking states on birth–3rd grade policies that support strong readers. (2015). Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“Only about one-third of children attending school in the United States can read proficiently at fourth grade, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as ‘the nation’s report card.’ If that is not dismaying enough, consider the outcomes for our most vulnerable students. For fourth graders from low-income families, the proportion of students reading on grade level plummets to less than 20 percent. Less than 10 percent of dual-language learners (DLLs) are meeting expectations. These children have difficulty understanding the more complex material covered in school at this age, and the ramifications can be serious.”

What Works Clearinghouse:

From the website:

“The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) reviews the existing research on different programs, products, practices, and policies in education. Our goal is to provide educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions. We focus on the results from high-quality research to answer the question ‘What works in education?’”

Ladders to Literacy. What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report. (2013). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“‘Ladders to Literacy’ is a supplemental early literacy curriculum composed of 60 activities designed to develop children’s print/book awareness, metalinguistic awareness, and oral language skills. The ‘Ladders to Literacy’ activities can be implemented in a variety of early childhood settings and adapted for children with special needs. Although a ‘Ladders to Literacy’ curriculum is also available for kindergarten students, this intervention report focuses on the preschool ‘Ladders to Literacy’ supplemental early literacy curriculum. The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) identified two studies of ‘Ladders to Literacy’ that both fall within the scope of the Early Childhood Education topic area and meet WWC evidence standards. One study meets WWC evidence standards without reservations and one study meets WWC evidence standards with reservations, and together, they included 139 children in 26 preschool classrooms in southern New Hampshire. The WWC considers the extent of evidence for ‘Ladders to Literacy’ on the school readiness of preschool children to be small for four outcome domains–oral language, print knowledge, phonological processing, and math. There were no studies that meet standards in early reading and writing, and cognition, so WWC does not report on the effectiveness of ‘Ladders to Literacy’ for those domains in this intervention report.”

Phonological awareness training. (2012). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“‘Phonological awareness, or the ability to detect or manipulate the sounds in words independent of meaning, has been identified as a key early literacy skill and precursor to reading. For the purposes of this review, ‘phonological awareness training’ refers to any practice targeting young children’s phonological awareness abilities. ‘Phonological awareness training’ can involve various activities that focus on teaching children to identify, detect, delete, segment, or blend segments of spoken words (i.e., words, syllables, onsets and rimes, phonemes) or to identify, detect, or produce rhyme or alliteration. ‘Phonological awareness training’ can occur in both regular and special education classrooms. Various curricula are available to support this training. Two hundred twenty-five studies reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) investigated the effects of ‘phonological awareness training’ on children with learning disabilities in early education settings. Four studies (O’Connor, Jenkins, Leicester, & Slocum, 1993; Sweat, 2003; Tyler, Lewis, Haskill, & Tolbert, 2003; Tyler, Gillon, Macrae, & Johnson, 2011) are randomized controlled trials that meet WWC evidence standards without reservations. Those four studies are summarized in this report. The remaining 221 studies do not meet either WWC eligibility screens or evidence standards. Four additional studies were reviewed against the pilot Single-Case Design standards. One study met the pilot Single-Case Design standards without reservations, no studies met the pilot Single-Case Design standards with reservations, and three did not meet pilot Single-Case Design standards. Studies reviewed against pilot Single-Case Design standards are listed in Appendix E and do not contribute to the intervention’s rating of effectiveness.”


Keywords and Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “beginning reading”
  • “emergent literacy”
  • “foundational literacy skills”
  • “language skills”
  • “reading instruction”
  • “reading skills”
  • “reading strategies”

Databases and Resources

REL Central searched ERIC for relevant references. ERIC is a free online library, sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences, of over 1.6 million citations of education research. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and Google.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching for and reviewing references, REL Central considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: The search and review included references published between 2011 and 2021.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority was given to ERIC, followed by Google Scholar and Google.
  • Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were used in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types, such as randomized controlled trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive analyses, and literature reviews; and (b) target population and sample.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Central Region (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Central at Marzano Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Central under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0005, administered by Marzano Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.