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How to teach reading: The K-12 guide


From the big picture to the nitty-gritty, we’ll examine how to teach reading. Take a look and learn more about how to bolster reading literacy.



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From road signs to restaurant menus—from our favorite books to the webpage in front of you—the act of reading is diffused throughout our daily lives in innumerable ways.

For emerging essayists, budding creators, and young readers first studying their ABCs, the ability to read well is continuously shaped, reinforced, and expanded by dedicated teachers.

How to teach reading is an immense topic, and volumes of every kind are filled to the brim with good and not-so-good advice about what works. We’ll take a look at how children gain reading literacy and hone related skills as they grow and learn.

What is reading literacy?

At its simplest, reading literacy refers to an individual’s ability to review, interpret, and understand alphanumeric text. To expound on that a little further, reading literacy has distinct components that extend beyond teaching kids how to sound out words, read fluently, and summarize a paragraph.

A useful definition for the term comes from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), a wide-ranging research project related to the reading opportunities and proficiencies of children studying at the fourth grade level. Data is collected every five years, and in one PIRLS framework, reading literacy was defined as:

“The ability to understand and use those written language forms required by society and/or valued by the individual. Young readers can construct meaning from a variety of texts. They read to learn, to participate in communities of readers, and for enjoyment.”

Previously, the term “literacy” might have been sufficient on its own to describe this competency, even in its more expansive form. However, as the notion of 21st-century learning has gained prominence, the existence of complementary forms of literacy—including technology, information, and media literacy—may demand that reading literacy be viewed as a distinct skill in its own right.

Why literacy skills—especially comprehension—are important for lifelong success

Establishing a strong foundation in literacy skills during a child’s elementary school years enables later success in middle school, high school, and whatever may come next.

Even in a world where video and audio content are increasingly prevalent in our daily lives, the ability to read can serve as a keystone in a life of rich complexity and ever-expanding opportunity. Once children have learned how to read, they become able to use their newfound abilities to excel in even more subjects.

Conversely, when students struggle to read early on—and don’t get the help they need—it becomes increasingly difficult for them to catch up as time goes on, and the consequences can be life-changing.

[READ: “More than just reading: Why low literacy has a lasting impact”]

A quick recap: The recent history of reading instruction

The very existence of a literacy crisis in our midst indicates we need to carefully consider what reading strategies we use as well as how we teach our students.

[READ: “Raising reading fluency to improve K-12 literacy”]

As civil rights groups, disability advocates, and other organizations have pointed out, too many children are still not getting the instructional support they need. And today, a robust conversation has emerged about the relative merits of different literacy instructional strategies.

The emergence of balanced literacy

Vigorous debate about pedagogy is nothing new in the world of education. Journalist Emily Hanford, in her influential reporting on literacy instruction, has described a heated dialogue dating back to the 19th century about the importance of phonics instruction compared to independent reading and whole-language instruction.

She argues that this debate settled into a kind of stasis with the widespread adoption of balanced literacy approaches in the 2000s. Advocates for balanced literacy, Hanford says, concede that phonics instruction does have a place in the curriculum, but many experts doubt these techniques go far enough.

A growing push for more phonics instruction

At the center of the argument in favor of what’s become known as the science of reading, we find a steadfast commitment to robust and explicit instruction in phonics. In an article from The New York Times about advocacy efforts surrounding the science of reading, boosters claimed that improved phonics instruction could help raise literacy rates.

At the same time, many noted that a simple shift in mindset would not be a panacea. Finding the right structured literacy curriculum, giving it the time and resources it takes to work, and sustaining targeted efforts to meet all students’ needs throughout their entire K-12 journeys are all crucial elements for enduring success.

[READ: “Balanced literacy vs. the science of reading: A discussion”]

How to teach reading today

With a renewed sense of urgency and a powerful drive to make sure every child has the support they need to gain strong literacy skills, today’s administrators and educators are reexamining their approaches to reading instruction. We’ll take a look at key developmental milestones, useful teaching strategies, and essential considerations to keep in mind.

[READ: In-class activities for building literacy in the early grades”]

The building blocks: Constituent reading skills

When everything comes together, literacy can seem like a breeze. But to get to this point, reading teachers must provide targeted support to help students acquire numerous interconnected skill sets integral to the reading process. Writing for the Northwest Evaluation Association about how to teach students using the science of reading, Dr. Cindy Jiban expounds on the importance of several unique underlying skills. Specifically, she mentions:

  • Phonological awareness: Every child should be able to gain an understanding of the individual sounds that make up words and syllables.
  • Phonics and word recognition: Direct phonics instruction should be employed to help students practice spelling out and reading sounds, leading to the ability to identify and write words.
  • Fluency: Beyond the level of individual words, students need practice in reading out loud so they can develop reading fluency, or the ability to read passages smoothly and expressively.
  • Vocabulary and oral language comprehension: These comprehension skills include making inferences about the meaning of words and applying acquired knowledge about prefixes, suffixes, and roots to unfamiliar vocabulary.
  • Text comprehension: Reading comprehension doesn’t have to wait until students become fluent readers on their own—teachers can help them develop metacognitive comprehension skills while reading out loud.

[READ: “How does reading aloud help students to develop literacy skills?]

Strategies for effective reading instruction

The strategies that teachers employ to help ensure every child has what it takes to develop reading literacy will vary from one district to the next. Once an effective curriculum is decided upon and adequate training is provided, educators will need to remain persistent in their efforts to help students with decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Here are just a couple of important strategies to try out:

  • Explicit phonics instruction: A Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) phonics and decoding resource underscores the importance of direct instruction in phonics to help students understand how letters correspond to the sounds that make up words. Essentially, this capability allows students to process written text into familiar spoken language. Systematic strategies to teach phonics help students build the knowledge they need, lesson after lesson, to gain vital skills. The DESE resource also recommends teachers use a gradual release of responsibility from the educator to the child. Interactive methods—including manipulating letter tiles or similar objects—can be particularly helpful too.
  • Comprehension strategies: In a Scholastic article geared toward parents who are looking for ways to help their children improve reading comprehension at home, the authors emphasize the importance of promoting fluency through reading—and rereading—aloud. Providing materials that tap into students’ prior knowledge can be helpful as well. Likewise, students and adults can make predictions about a text, discuss what’s happening in the text while they read together, and take time to reflect on the main idea or other important concepts after finishing a passage.

For additional targeted instructional strategies tailored to building comprehension, fluency, phonics, phonological awareness, print awareness, spelling, vocabulary, and writing, take a look at this index of classroom strategies from Reading Rockets, a free resource created by public broadcasting service WETA.

Meet students’ diverse needs and validate their unique perspectives

Of course, every child deserves comprehensive support to develop robust literacy skills. Since every student is different, teaching methods have to be flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of student needs.

[READ: “Responsive strategies for the teaching of literacy”]

Support for students who have learning disabilities

In an article for American Educator, a publication from the American Federation of Teachers, the authors identify several strategies for teaching students who face reading problems. The writers focus on wider systemic remedies that could help bolster opportunities, and they provide some immediately actionable advice too.

Many of these suggestions require significant collaboration between administrators and teachers. The researchers recommend that educators:

  • Maximize intentional instructional time.
  • Provide individualized support tailored to students’ needs, such as one-minute lessons.
  • Work with learners one on one or in small groups. 
  • Provide a diverse range of texts for reading practice.
  • Use feedback alongside explicit instruction.

Additional research on reading comprehension strategies for students who have learning disabilities zeroes in on even more tactics that can be useful for helping struggling learners to develop their reading ability. The author emphasizes the importance of:

  • Providing explicit instruction.
  • Activating prior knowledge.
  • Facilitating an understanding of themes.
  • Establishing literature circles with defined roles.
  • Encouraging students to use graphic organizers.

[READ: “10 student-directed learning exercises to try with Paper™”]

Culturally relevant texts for all students

As avid readers of every age and background know, engaging with a work of literature that speaks to our lived experiences and the kinds of background knowledge we already possess can be particularly powerful. Texts that help us see the world from a different point of view are also important windows into new worlds, but this fact shouldn’t take away from the importance of ensuring that every child in the classroom can see their cultural experiences and personal interests represented in the available texts too.

An Iowa Reading Research Center article on culturally relevant texts outlines strategies that can be used to help make sure schools provide students with the books they want and need. One important piece of advice? Be careful about making assumptions: Survey students to find out what’s most important to them!

Activities in early childhood education that set the stage for reading literacy

Even before children begin their K-12 journeys, family members and preschool teachers can help young learners gain a love of language and literacy.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children outlines several everyday activities to promote literacy in early childhood, including:

  • Having rich conversations together.
  • Reading old favorites and new texts out loud.
  • Exploring the sounds of spoken language.
  • Connecting letters to sounds.
  • Playing with alphabet blocks and similar toys.
  • Making stories and books a part of active and imaginative play.
  • Fostering an environment where diverse texts are easy to find.
  • Keeping writing materials close at hand.
  • Talking through the reading process.

Help emerging readers develop core skills and promote deep engagement

Literacy is a gateway to lifelong potential—a foundational skill that makes an infinite variety of potential pathways suddenly possible. But that doesn’t mean it’s a given for our students. Dedicated administrators need to make sure their districts have the right curricula and support systems in place to ensure every child has what they need to build reading literacy skills.

When students have access to the support they need, they take the first step toward fulfilling their own ambitions. Find out how Paper helped students achieve their learning goals in one California district.

Download the guide

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