Developing Strong Readers at CIS

By Chris Sayers, Lower School Director, and Sarah Primmer, Learning Coach


Children naturally learn to speak without being taught, but reading needs to be explicitly instructed. They have to learn how to connect what they see with what they say. How did you learn to read when you were a child? The answer might depend on when you attended school, as methods of reading instruction have changed in recent decades.

Phonics-based instruction, in which students are taught to identify letters and their sounds, helps student decode words they do not know. This was a common teaching method in the 70s and 80s. The whole language approach that emerged in the 90s encouraged immersion in books. The thought was if children were surrounded by books they loved, they would pour over them, naturally pick up words and teach themselves how to decode sounds.

Studies in the early 2000’s showed the importance of teaching phonics in the reading process, and educators began using both approaches in the classroom. This balanced literacy approach most closely describes reading instruction at CIS.

How do we learn to read?

Reading is the combination of phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. At CIS, we believe that all students benefit from explicit reading instruction. We combine what we know about reading research, the power of a growth mindset, and our passion for teaching to help all students reach their potential.

Even before preschool age, children are demonstrating phonological awareness when they hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) in words. Students at CIS will practice phonological awareness in their Fundations literacy curriculum, segmenting sounds in words and multisyllabic words into syllables. It is an important skill to master to become efficient and accurate readers and spellers.

In order to read and spell a word, the child must know individual letters and their sounds (phonics) as well as how those sounds work together in different syllables types. Students learn the sounds and structure of our language using direct instruction and apply their knowledge to segment sounds in order to read and spell words.  

A strategy used to help students with decoding is “tapping.” This requires them to use their thumb and fingers to segment and blend each sound they hear in a word or syllable. For example, cat = /c/, /a/, /t/ gets three taps and drive= /d/, /r/, /i/, /v/ gets four taps.  Science tells us that touching fingers when saying sounds strengthens the connection between the brain and the word. It is part of the multisensory approach used in the Fundations program we adopted at CIS three years ago.

Vocabulary instruction is crucial to understanding a text. The ultimate goal of vocabulary instruction, within the context of reading instruction, is to help students learn the meanings of many words in order to improve reading comprehension. Multiple exposures to unfamiliar words is important to helping students understand how to use a word in different contexts. At CIS, students are provided with opportunities to identify unknown words and analyze their word structure (root, suffix, prefix) as well as use contextual clues to infer meaning.

Fluency is the bridge between decoding and comprehension. Fluency is not only the reading rate, but also the rhythm, intonation, and expression with which a person reads. When reading aloud, we want the words to flow naturally as if we are talking. Beginning readers often sound choppy and punctuation is given little consideration. Learning to read phrases, pausing at commas and stopping at periods is modeled and taught. Expression is also modeled and adds an important dynamic that makes a book come to life. Following along with a finger while reading is a great strategy to help early readers begin increasing their fluency. It is another multisensory aspect of the Fundations reading program implemented at CIS.

The rate at which a student reads is kept track of as rate and fluency walk hand in hand. A reader’s fluency rate references the number of words she reads within a certain amount of time. If too much time and energy is spent decoding words, students lose the meaning of what they are reading. Keep in mind a fast reading rate does not correlate to higher comprehension or advancement in a reading level. Readers are telling themselves the story and need appropriate pacing in order to listen to their reading voice.

Reading comprehension is defined as the ability to understand and get meaning from spoken and written language and is the ultimate goal in learning to read. The goal of comprehension instruction is to teach children specific strategies to use for understanding text as they are reading. Some examples include creating a mental image when they read, asking questions, making predictions, using what they already know to make connections. Good readers notice when they don’t understand something and seek answers to their questions. Teachers provide opportunities for comprehension throughout the day directly taught through teacher modeling, guided practice, supported application, and independent practice.

Reading instruction at CIS

Our experienced educators believe the most important tool to put in a child’s reading toolbox comes from the systematic teaching of phonics and word structures. Our faculty has thoughtfully studied evidence-based programs. Through training, collaboration, and study, we are offering a solid program that supports all readers at every grade level.

Look for upcoming posts in this “Strong Readers” series:

“How is my child supported at CIS when reading is a struggle?” by Sarah Primmer

“How is my child’s experience enriched at CIS when reading is a strength?” by Dawn Brown


Emily Hanford “Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?”/New York Times, October 26, 2018.

Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading (The MIT Press, 2004)

Florida Center for Reading Research

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