March was National Reading Month, and it was a busy time, filled with library challenges, celebrity-led story times, and principals dressed in Dr. Seuss outfits reading to kindergarteners. But as the hoopla quiets, we would like to get down to basics and explain the “five pillars of reading.” We also will show you warning signs to look for if you think your child might be a struggling reader. 

With March’s annual emphasis on literacy, it’s also a good time to stress the importance of reading.  With the rise of assistive technology, the dominance of social media, and the exploding interest in artificial intelligence, the ability to read text almost seems like an almost outdated skill. It is not. 

“Reading is absolutely essential,” says Lawrence Kloth, co-founder of Reading Success Plus. “You cannot succeed in school without being able to read. On the job, you have to read emails, manuals, or job orders. Even on social media, you have to read to understand a Facebook article or a post on X (formerly Twitter). Even on Instagram or Tic Tok or YouTube, you need to read to fully get what’s going on. 

“Assistive technology is a huge, but it isn’t always available and doesn’t work in every situation. For most jobs or anything else you want to do, you still need the skill of being able to read.” 

Core concepts 

So, how can such a complicated learning process be more easily understood? And how can parents who are concerned about their child’s reading progress get a better handle on what’s going on? 

The National Reading Panel issued a comprehensive, evidence-based report on research into reading and reading instruction in 2000. This report offers insights that still guide our understanding of the process of reading and how it can best be taught. 

Most notably, the panel identified five key concepts at the core of reading instruction – its “five pillars.”  They are: 

  • Phonemic awareness: The ability to identify the different sounds that make up speech. 
  • Phonics: The ability to match sounds to letters or letter groups. 
  • Fluency: The ability to read accurately and quickly. 
  • Vocabulary: The ability to apply letter-sound correspondences to real words. 
  • Comprehension: The ability to create a mental picture that turns those words into ideas. 

If those are the pillars, what are the weaknesses that could undermine them and make the entire structure of reading shaky? Let’s look at them one at a time. 

Phonemic awareness 

This is the first step in reading, when the reader can identify the individual sounds that make up speech. 

“If someone has difficulty with phonemic awareness, they might, for example, confuse the short e sound with the short a sound,” Lawrence says. “Short vowels can be tough – they confuse the sounds because they are so similar.”  

If you see your child having this difficulty – or if you have it yourself – tutoring can help.  Reading Success Plus offers screenings that can determine the extent of the problem. It also has two programs to help develop phonemic awareness: the Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing® Program for Reading, Spelling, and Speech (LiPS), and Foundations in Sounds.  


Phonics instruction helps the developing reader understand the correspondence between written symbols and sounds.  After learning those relationships, young readers can apply them to words and “sound them out.” This decoding allows the reader to translate the written word into speech. 

How can you tell if your child has a problem with decoding? First, see if they can match sounds to the correct letters. Then, see if they can put together those sounds to correctly read a word or syllable. Also, readers who struggle with decoding often guess what a word is, based on context or sometimes just one letter they see in the word.  

Lawrence, who has dyslexia, remembers that when he was young, he thought every word that started with “pi” was piano. “Pizza, picnic, they all were piano to me,” he says. “I didn’t know how to go to each letter and sound it out and put it together, or how to divide words into syllables to make them easier to figure out.” 

At Reading Success Plus, the tool we use to tackle decoding is the Barton Reading and Spelling System, “an Orton-Gillingham (Structured Language and Literacy) influenced, simultaneously, multisensory, explicit and systematic phonics program.” Programs based on Orton-Gillingham are the only research and evidence-based programs proven to teach the struggling reader and dyslexic student to read. 

The Barton program supports all five pillars of literacy, but decoding is the skill that allows fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension to develop. 


Fluency – the ability to read quickly and accurately, and if reading aloud, with good expression – is vital in school and in the world at large. 

“If a child is taking a test in school,” Lawrence says, “there’s only a certain amount of time. If they aren’t fluent, they’re not going to do well without accommodations.  

“Beyond school, it’s the same thing. There’s only so much time, and the world is moving faster. If you aren’t reading fluently, you’re not going to keep up.” 

To determine if someone has a fluency problem, listen to that person read out loud. (Fluency also affects silent reading, but that is more difficult to discern.) 

“A clear sign would be very abrupt reading,” Lawrence says. “They’ll stop and sound out a word, then read one or two more and stop again. It’s very, very slow and very disjointed.” 

Anne Kloth, the other co-founder of Reading Success Plus, points out that some nonfluent readers might have a good grasp on the material. 

“They may know what they’re reading,” she says, “But instead of taking 10 minutes to read it, they’re taking 20, 25, 30 minutes. They’re very slow, but still seeing the thought come together.” 


Decoding takes the beginning reader only so far. It allows the reader to translate printed symbols into speech, but decoding and sounding out a word doesn’t help the reader understand the text if they had never used or heard the word before.  

The good news is that people with dyslexia generally don’t have problems with their oral vocabulary. “Their oral vocabulary can be very, very good,” Lawrence says. “Take me as an example. When I was young, my spoken vocabulary was at a pretty high level.” 

The problem for dyslexic people is the vocabulary they use when they read and write is at a lower level than when they speak.

“It might be because they don’t have the decoding skills to figure out the written word or to sound out and spell a spoken word. It might be because they don’t read enough to build up their vocabulary because reading is too difficult or too slow.”  

But whatever the reason, their reading and writing vocabulary is too weak for them to understand a piece of text. 

“Though I had a strong spoken vocabulary,” Lawrence says, “if you looked at my written work, especially when I was younger, there was a monster difference.” 

He advises parents who are worried about their child’s reading to go beyond the child’s spoken vocabulary, which could be deceivingly strong. 

“Look at the child’s written work and look at the words they use. It takes a bit of time to do this, but you will see that they are supposed to be at X level, but their writing is only at Y level. There’s an issue going on.” 


All the other reading skills build toward comprehension. Ideally, phonemic awareness develops in early childhood and preschool years, followed by decoding and sight word recognition. By second or third grade, those skills should be strong enough to build fluency. At the end of third grade, fluency typically is efficient enough to support comprehension of a longer passage. By fourth grade, reading instruction generally ends, comprehension skills are assumed, and children start “reading to learn.” 

The cause of poor comprehension may depend on a child’s disability. Some readers with autism spectrum disorder decode perfectly and read very fluently, but they cannot translate those words into a mental picture of what is going on. They master the little pieces but cannot assemble them into the whole.  For these students, remediation focuses on helping them develop that mental picture. 

However, comprehension issues among dyslexic students may stem from different issues. Nothing inherent in dyslexia keeps readers from creating those mental pictures – if anything, the high visual aptitude among these readers helps this process. Instead, the other characteristics of dyslexia – weaknesses in phonemic awareness, decoding, fluency, and vocabulary – cause comprehension problems. For dyslexic readers, the problem isn’t putting together the big picture, it’s finding all the little pieces. Remediation will focus on decoding, fluency and vocabulary. 

(For a more detailed conversation on comprehension, check out our earlier blog “Dyslexia, autism and reading.”

Take action early 

Weaknesses in any one of these five pillars would undermine a youngster’s reading ability. If you suspect your child is having a problem – or if you see these symptoms in yourself – don’t sit back.  Have a conversation with your child’s teacher or look for outside help. Reading Success Plus offers screenings and a variety of programs to help get struggling readers on track. 

Reading Success Plus has offices in Grand Rapids and Troy and offers one-on-one tutoring online or in person in reading, math and writing. You can get more information at To contact us, call 833-229-1112 or go online to