I'm so glad You're Here!

The Big Five of Literacy Instruction

Phonics and phonemic awareness and high frequency words – oh my!  There’s lots to learn about the science of reading, and these three terms are very often sprinkled into its research.  And although you hear about these three aspects a lot, there’s actually much more to it than that.  Today, we’re going to cover what I call The Big Five – five essential components of literacy that help students become well-rounded readers.

Before we head into The Big Five components of literacy, let’s define phonics, phonemic awareness, and high frequency words first.  Considering phonics and phonemic awareness are part of The Big Five, we’ll start with high frequency words.  High frequency words are exactly what you’d expect – words that occur very frequently in reading and writing.  

There are two categories of high frequency words.  The first is phonetically decodable words.  These are high frequency words that – you guessed it – can be decoded (examples include yes, him, with.)  The second type of high frequency words are ones that have irregular spellings.  These words need to be memorized and learned by heart, because we can’t phonetically decode the entire word (examples include said, come, was).  High frequency word instruction is important to reading development and can be implemented soon in the reading journey.  But when we are talking about the heart of reading – we focus on The Big Five: phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary.  Come on – let’s unpack!

What are "the Big five"?

phonics is part of the big five

Focusing on these five components of literacy truly help readers become well-rounded.  In this blog post, you’ll find definitions of each of The Big Five, why they’re important for readers, and ways you can teach them. 

1. Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness refers to the knowledge of letter sounds in spoken words and the ability to manipulate those sounds.  When students have a solid foundation of phonemic awareness, they understand that spoken words are made up of individual sounds called phonemes.  They also understand that each word is made up of a series of sounds strung together.  It’s good to remember that phonemic awareness is practiced orally and auditorily- there’s no implementation of print quite yet.  

Why it’s important:  Studies show that phonemic awareness is directly correlated to future reading success.  There’s no use in skipping phonemic awareness, as it’s an essential step to reading success.

2. Phonics

Print comes in when students learn phonics, which is our second component of The Big Five.  Phonics refers to the knowledge of letter sounds and the ability to apply that knowledge to decoding unfamiliar printed words.  The focus with phonics is on the letter-sound relationships.  This is when children begin to understand that the words they see on the page (the print) is made up of sounds.  They are literally focusing on how sounds look in writing!  Therefore, phonics is all visual and auditory,  For a select few students, phonics comes naturally.  But for the vast majority of kids, they must be taught phonics instruction explicitly.  That is, the letter and letter combinations that represent the 44 sounds/phonemes in the English language.  

Why it’s important:  Phonics is when reading comes to life – students are decoding and encoding while looking at print, and actually learning how to read.  These skills are essential for reading when they come across unfamiliar words.

3. Fluency

Fluency is another part of The Big Five and is the ability to read with speed, accuracy, expression, smoothness, and meaning.  As you can see, fluency may take a bit to master.  When students read fluently, they read at a good pace, with clarity, use inflection, and speak smoothly.  It takes a lot of work, but when students finally get there, fluency opens the doors to other literacy components as you’ll soon read about.  

Why it’s important:  When talking about fluency, the important aspects truly are endless.  First, fluency encourages students to read naturally and in a way that’s appropriate.  This is beneficial for when students read a variety of texts – from nonfiction to poetry.  Second, fluency improves on a variety of reading tools.  It helps students decode, comprehend, and gain confidence. Third, fluency bridges the gap between decoding words and comprehending.  When a child is in the early stages of reading, he or she will spend lots of time decoding all (or at least most) of the words.  But when fluency is mastered, students aren’t spending a ton of time decoding because they’re reading smoothly.  With all of this ease, students are then able to spend their time comprehending a text and reading for information and meaning – their brains aren’t working as hard to decode anymore.  That’s why fluency is the key to mastering all other literacy skills.

4. Comprehension

And speaking of other literacy skills, comprehension is up next on our list of The Big Five.  Comprehension is when students are reading for information and reading to interpret a text’s meaning.  And friends – this is why we teach our students how to read.  The reason why we take such time, care, and effort into teaching our students how to read is because we know the gift it gives them.  It gives them the gift of being informed or enjoying a book for fun or pleasure.  Comprehension swings the door wide open for them to enjoy literature, learn new things, and explore new worlds.  Fluency and comprehension (and vocabulary – which we will get to next) are all connected together so that readers can be successful at not only decoding accurately, but also reading for meaning.

5. Vocabulary

Vocabulary is last on our list, but most certainly not least.  Vocabulary is simply having the knowledge of the meaning of words.  And, as you could guess, a decent vocabulary plays a huge role in a reader’s ability to comprehend a text.  The more words you know, the more you can interpret the text and decipher its meaning, theme, or purpose. Vocabulary also allows students to learn new words that will help them further their understanding of a variety of topics and text structures. A good vocabulary also helps students express themselves verbally and encourages good writing.

How to Teach "the Big five" in one lesson

the big five of literacy

All this chit chat about what The Big Five is made of and their importance – let’s get onto actually teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary and what it looks like in the classroom.  I’ve got great news for you: The Big Five can be taught in any setting: small group, whole group, and independent work.  It isn’t a “one size fits all” situation here – any setting can be a chance to hone in on these skills.  

When first starting out, it’s always a good idea to sample a lesson in a small group. This provides a safe, intimate space for students to learn something new, as well as gives the teacher a chance to try it out without involving the entire class.  This allows space for learning from mistakes with few repercussions.  Let’s take you through a sample lesson you can try in your own classroom!


Sample Lesson with The Big Five

  • 2 minutes – Phonemic Awareness verbal warm up
    • Teacher: “My word is at.  Add a /b/ to the beginning.”
    • Students: “Bat!”
    • Teacher:  “My word is bat.  Change the /b/ to a /m/.”
    • Students: “Mat!”
    • Teacher: “My word is mat.  Remove the /m/.”
    • Students: “At!”
    • Continue adding, deleting and substituting letters.
  • 3 minutes – Phonics word work
    • Using letter tiles, have students form a word.
    • Then, using mini erasers, pom poms, or other manipulatives, have students place them over a vowel or a specific letter sound you’re focusing on.
    • You can also have students do word chaining
      • Teacher: “Make the word nap.”
      • Students make the word nap with magnetic tiles
      • Teacher: “Great.  Now change that word to say snap.”
      • Students place an s in front of nap.
      • Teacher:  “Well done.  Now change the word to say snack.”
      • Students change the p to a ck 
      • Teacher:  “Now, place a pom pom over the vowel and the digraph.”
      • Students place a pom pom over the a and the ck.  Or, rather, if you’re working on beginning blends, a pom pom could be placed over the sn.
  • 5 minutes – Fluency reading passage
    • During this activity, the focus can be on decoding words accurately.  
    • Snag any one of my amazing fluency passages for this portion of the lesson (and for the comprehension and vocabulary portions, too). There’s an array of levels to choose from to best fit the specific needs of your students.  Choose from bundles to specific grade levels!
    • Before beginning, it’s always a good idea to model good fluency for your students during a read aloud.
  • 3 minutes – Comprehension from passages
    • Comprehension questions come with any of the fluency passages you choose
    • Answer these verbal and written questions about the text and discuss them as a small group – yet another reason why these fluency passages give you all you need!
  • 2 minutes – Vocabulary
    • Again – fluency passages to the rescue!  Another great aspect of these fluency passages is that they also work on comprehension and vocabulary.
    • With this portion of the lesson, have students branch off into partners who read the same fluency story and go over unknown words they encountered while reading their fluency passages.
    • Partners work together to figure out an unknown word’s meaning.
    • Check out my Vocabulary Graphic Organizer in my Free Resource Library that will also be useful in this portion of the lesson.
  • Bonus: Reading Intervention Mats
    • This part can be an alternative to the sample lesson above and is for your earliest readers.
    • These Reading Intervention Mats focus on all (yes – ALL!) of The Big Five components of literacy.
    • Each mat takes you through phonetic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary – all at an appropriate pace for your littlest readers.
    • Grab the bundle and choose from an array of phonics skills!


All of these literacy components that are a part of The Big Five focus on making readers more skilled and more seasoned. As we know, reading is nuanced and complex and has many moving parts.  These components remind us that the goal is to create well-rounded readers – not just readers who are talented in one area.  We must never forget that the goal of teaching students how to read is not how to read words on the page – but rather, how to become readers who read for information, meaning, and most of all – fun!

Picture of Aylin Claahsen

Aylin Claahsen

Providing resources and support to engage all readers.

Leave a Reply

Hi, I'm Aylin!

I’m so happy you’re here! I’m a certified reading specialist who loves talking all things literacy. I have a huge passion for providing resources and support to engage all readers!


Join the List

fluency passages freebie

Fluency Freebies!

Sign up for our newsletter and receive a set of fluency passages to help you incorporate fluency into your routine.

Recent Posts