According to the U.S. Department of Education's Reading First initiative, reading programs for students in kindergarten through Grade 3 must include instruction in five key areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency/oral reading skills, vocabulary and comprehension. As students progress through the grades, foundational skills such as phonemic awareness and phonics become secondary to fluency and comprehension ability. However, a well-rounded reader must understand all five aspects of reading.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to manipulate sounds within spoken words. For example, students should be able to replace the sound "t" in the word "mat" to create a new word, perhaps changing the "t" to "d" to create "mad." In phonemic awareness, unlike phonics, print is not involved. Oral substitution or manipulation of sounds is all that is required.
Phonics refers to the relationship between letters and spoken sounds. Sound-symbol correspondence is often used to describe a student's ability to understand the phonetic principals and the sounds represented by oral and written letters. Students should be able to orally state as well as write the sound made by a letter or group of letters. This differs from phonemic awareness in that a student must understand the letter or group of letters that make up sounds to write them correctly.
Fluency refers to a student's ability to read a piece accurately and rapidly with appropriate expression and phrasing. Fluent readers spend little time decoding, which lets them focus on deriving meaning from the text. Fluent reading should sound like conversational speech.
Vocabulary development is the understanding and knowledge of words. As students increase in ability, vocabulary concepts such as synonyms, antonyms, homophones and figurative language should be addressed. Definitions as well as how to use vocabulary in context are key. This is an important piece of the puzzle because without vocabulary knowledge, students will struggle to understand and derive meaning from what they read. Vocabulary instruction should be addressed in four mediums: reading, writing, speaking and listening.
Comprehension is the process by which a student derives meaning from a text. It is a comprehensive skill which involves using vocabulary knowledge, text structure, and sequence and literal as well as inferential understanding. Reading programs that meet U.S. Department of Education criteria must teach these strategies through scientifically based and researched instructional techniques. Such a program must also include assessments to diagnose areas of need and to assess the summative knowledge of the students. High quality, ongoing professional development is also a key requirement for a comprehensive reading program.