The Science of Early Literacy Implementation

At a glance

A structured, evidence-based approach to literacy instruction is essential, starting from students’ early years of schooling. Literacy researchers have established what students need to know and be able to do to become successful readers, and there is wide consensus on how best to effectively teach these skills (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000). This paper begins with an overview of the five steps of implementation, with particular attention to implementing evidence-based early literacy programs or other innovative instructional approaches that are new to a district. After reviewing the five steps of implementation, we provide practical evidence-based guidelines for planning and implementing early literacy programs, in both an in-person and remote learning environment, that include instruction in the essential elements of an ideal early literacy program: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, content knowledge, language skills, and writing.

STEP 1: Set Goals. No one questions the importance of ensuring that schools develop confident, skillful readers and writers. Educators and parents, the public at large, and policy makers all value this goal, and determining to act on this shared goal is the start of implementing an evidence-based early literacy program. Thus, the first step to full implementation is to Set Goals. This critical step is only the start of a process that ultimately involves moving through the five steps depicted in Figure 1.

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FIGURE 1. Model for Introducing a New Initiative into Educational Contexts

STEP 2: Plan Instruction. The second step in the cycle toward full implementation is to Plan Instruction. As they learn the new program or approach, teachers, often working with coaches or administrators, create big-picture plans for instruction. These lesson plans should be agreed upon but also flexible enough that they allow teachers to adjust as needed, so that each daily and weekly plan is appropriate for their particular students. As discussed later in the paper in Step 2, lesson plans should include time allocations for the literacy block, along with specific learning objectives, strategies to be taught, and methods for determining students’ mastery.

STEP 3: Implement. This preliminary effort to plan instruction may extend into the beginning weeks of the school year as coaches support teachers, but the next stage in the cycle is for teachers to Implement the program daily, in real time, with their students. Teachers will be expected to teach in accordance with the design of the program, that is, with fidelity. High-quality implementation is essential when adopting a new educational program or approach, but teachers also need time to learn what fidelity means and they need support from coaches and administrators. Implementation research has found that teachers may need as long as three years to fully understand a new program (Jackson et al., 2018).

STEP 4: Measure Progress. Strong evidence-based programs include provisions that allow teachers to accomplish the next step in the cycle, that is, to Measure Progress as they and their students move through the school year. Many programs include formative and summative assessments aligned to their instructional routines, and there are also numerous valid and reliable assessment measures available that are easy for teachers to use. Teachers and coaches will find data from these assessments invaluable for determining students’ accomplishments, for making grouping decisions, and for identifying when students might need more intense help.

STEP 5: Analyze and Adjust. Teachers, coaches, or school administrators may have a hunch that a program needs to be modified in some way, but hunches need data to support them if they are to bring about change. Throughout implementation of any program, it is important to collect different forms of data that measure progress and then to Analyze and Adjust according to what the data show. Although data may suggest that all students are progressing toward established goals, it is more likely that analysis will point to the need for some adjustments to their lesson plans. Adjustments may be minor—obtaining more trade books at different reading levels—or they may involve more significant changes.

Attention now shifts to how the five steps for introducing a new evidence-based educational program build on each other as actual planning and implementation roll out in schools and classrooms. Regardless of the developer, evidence-based early literacy programs should include the five essential elements as defined by the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) as well as content knowledge, language skills, and writing. Increasingly, programs also include writing because writing is a valuable tool for learning, communicating, and self-expression (Graham et al., 2012). See Table 1 for descriptions of the essential elements of a literacy program and brief summaries of their evidence base.

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Evidence-based, structured early literacy programs include long- and short-term goals for each of these essential elements as they lay out an instructional pathway toward reading achievement. Together, the short- and long-term goals and objectives for literacy instruction at each grade lay out a logical roadmap for teaching and learning. Long-term goals can be thought of as the ultimate end of a learning progression, such as students’ having a rich and varied expressive and receptive vocabulary that allows them to read grade-level texts, write to express their ideas, understand what they hear, and speak using age-appropriate words and terminology. Short-term goals build from the easiest skills and strategies to those that are more complex to ensure that students’ learning is complete. Thus, using morphology as a word-learning strategy would be one short-term goal that students need to master along the way toward the long-term goal.

Both short- and long-term goals need to be specific and actionable, and evidence-based programs also provide ways to measure that students have mastered them. See Table 2 for an example of midyear goals for Grade 2 early literacy instruction.

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With short- and long-term goals in place, teachers plan instruction for their students. The first factors that should determine their lesson planning are the time allocated to the literacy block and the materials and resources available to them and their students. The recommended minimum number of minutes to be spent in K–2 classrooms on the daily practice of foundational reading skills, such as phonemic awareness and phonics, is 45 minutes (Shaywitz et al., 1999), but a longer literacy block is needed to build students’ fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension and to also give students opportunities to engage in the pleasures of reading and writing. The literacy block in early elementary classrooms is a busy time, and it should be protected from unnecessary interruptions.

Research (NICHD, 2000) recommends a daily literacy block that includes a minimum of 90 minutes devoted to reading instruction and knowledge building, but some researchers recommend far longer (2–3 hours) if writing instruction is included (Graham et al., 2012). See Table 3 for the recommended time allocations for implementing the science-based elements of an early literacy program.

WF1301307 Table3

The recommended time allocations for the K–2 literacy block serve as guides as teachers prepare detailed short- and long-term plans for the instruction they will offer and the practice opportunities their students will have. Plans should reflect teachers’ understanding of both evidence-based principles of early literacy instruction and knowledge of their students’ learning needs. Four overarching principles guide evidence-based early literacy instruction:1

  1. Systematic: Instruction proceeds in a logical order from the easiest skills, strategies, and concepts to those that are most difficult.
  2. Cumulative: Each step teachers present builds on students’ previous learning.
  3. Explicit: Skills, strategies, and concepts are taught directly so that students clearly grasp what they need to know and be able to do.
  4. Diagnostic: Many opportunities for formal and informal assessments are built into daily activities, and teachers use resulting information to individualize instruction.

The short- and long-term goals and objectives for reading instruction at each grade essentially lay out a logical, cumulative roadmap for teaching and learning. By explicitly and systematically teaching the skills, strategies, and concepts encompassed in this roadmap, teachers help their students toward the goal of reading on grade level. The diagnostic nature of instruction allows teachers to identify skills students may not have fully mastered or misconceptions they are forming about how reading and writing “works” and to integrate this knowledge into their lesson planning and thereby enhance their ability to meet everyone’s needs.

Detailed lesson plans are essential, and they can take many forms, depending on the program being taught or the requirements of the school or district. The level of detail in the lesson plans will also differ according to their scope, that is, whether the plan covers a day, a week, or a month. Lesson plans will likely differ somewhat from teacher to teacher, for example, to reflect the level of differentiation needed for striving readers or for those reading above grade level. The materials available will also influence lesson planning. For example, if tablets and high-quality educational software are available, teachers can use them to help differentiate instruction. Having a well-resourced classroom library also contributes to the effectiveness of students’ independent reading time.

Daily lesson plans should start with a review of previously taught strategies, skills, or content to ensure that students are ready for the day’s instruction. Effective plans usually include some of these common features:

  • Review of previously taught skills, strategies, or content; reteaching as needed
  • Development of background knowledge and vocabulary needed to understand key strategies, skills, and concepts
  • Explicit instruction of new material in which the teacher discusses the purpose of the strategy, models using the strategy, and checks that students can independently describe the strategy. This approach can also be used to determine what students may already know about content that will be taught in new lessons and vocabulary needed to discuss it
  • Guided practice of new material during which students have multiple opportunities to practice using the strategy with feedback from the teacher
  • Independent practice of new material in the context that students will use the strategy on their own, with the teacher providing feedback as needed. This helps students integrate the strategy with skills they have already mastered.
  • Formative assessment to assess students’ mastery of the objectives of instruction

The actual number of minutes in a school’s literacy block and the needs of students will determine how teachers divide up the time devoted to reading and writing and how they plan instruction within each block of time.

Teachers’ knowledge of how young students learn should also guide them: students benefit from exposure to multiple examples and non-examples for strategies and skills; they need to know how to use these strategies, as well as how to use them in different settings (such as narrative and informational texts); students respond well when teachers scaffold instruction to help students understand what is being taught; and students benefit from many opportunities to practice new skills and strategies in groups and independently. See Table 4 for a sample lesson plan for teaching vowel teams to second grade learners.

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Additionally, all materials and selected texts should include characters of diverse backgrounds and reflect various cultures to provide opportunities for all children to see themselves. Culturally responsive teaching refers to practices and approaches that support culturally and linguistically diverse students who are often marginalized in schools to build their confidence and competency to achieve academic success (Darling-Hammond & Cook-Harvey, 2018). The practice of creating a culturally responsive environment begins with noticing one’s own biases and building relational trust with students by honoring their stories and listening to their emotions (National Equity Project, 2020). Educators should strive to create a classroom environment that fosters appreciation and respect for all people and cultures.

With their daily lesson plan in place and their weekly and longer-term goals to guide them, teachers implement their plans in the classroom. No matter how well-planned instruction is and no matter how experienced teachers are, the best early elementary classrooms are always dynamic, and sometimes hectic places, especially during the literacy block where students are engaging in many different learning activities. As a guide and reminder of what should happen in each lesson, teachers can use a checklist to ensure they meet the criteria for evidence-based instruction. By reviewing a checklist at the end of the literacy block (or at the end of the day), teachers can evaluate their own effectiveness, as well as the responsiveness of their students, so that they can adjust their lesson plans if needed, ensuring that all students learn. See Table 5 for a sample Early Literacy Lesson Implementation Checklist.

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* Note. When using a “think aloud” with students, the teacher explains what an “expert” reader knows and is able to do in applying a skill or understanding a concept. For example, in helping students read the word “unforgettable,” the teacher might say, “First I’ll look for a word that I can recognize…I see ‘forget.’ Then I’ll look at the other word parts and see what they mean.”

Experienced teachers can often discuss students’ progress with high levels of accuracy, especially if they take seriously the charge that their instruction should contain a diagnostic component. Teachers’ knowledge of students’ accomplishments and needs should not be underestimated, but this knowledge becomes even more valuable when teachers also use formative and summative assessments as a routine part of their instruction. Some formative assessment approaches are built into the instructional process; for example, teachers who listen carefully to students’ oral reading are engaging in a form of formative assessment because they are listening to how students use the strategies and skills they have been learning.

Formative assessments provide teachers with valuable tools to use to supplement and enhance what they observe when interacting with students in small and large groups, when watching their students at work independently or with others, and when analyzing students’ work products. Most programs recommend using them throughout the year, sometimes as often as weekly. Many formative assessments provide benchmarks against which to compare students’ progress at a given point against a determined set of standards (e.g., a scope and sequence) to help teachers check up on how students are progressing toward established short- and long-term goals. Other formative assessments provide more specific diagnostic information, such as specific skills that have been mastered and skills that still need to be developed.

Data from formative assessments are invaluable because they help teachers determine instructional groups for the literacy block, allowing them to differentiate reading instruction according to students’ learning. According to the National Reading Panel, students learn best in carefully constituted small groups, even more so than if taught one-on-one (NICHD, 2000). Grouping should be a dynamic, flexible practice, with instruction determined by student need and students’ entry into and exit from specific groups determined by their progress.

Although some formative assessments are relatively standardized, other approaches can easily be built into instruction, such as a series of open-ended questions a teacher would ask orally at the end of a small group lesson. See Table 6 for a description of some common informal and formal approaches for gathering formative assessment data on students’ early literacy progress.

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Summative assessments are used less frequently, usually at the end point in a learning continuum, such as the end of a unit, reporting period, or school year. These assessments measure what students have learned overall against norm- or criterion-referenced performance levels that rigorous research has found to be the most important contributors to overall reading proficiency.

In early literacy, summative assessments measure mastery of more skills and strategies than formative assessments. They ask students to apply their skills and strategies under somewhat controlled conditions, that is, independently, rather than in a small group or with a partner. Although some summative assessments are tests in the traditional sense of the term, early literacy summative assessments can take many forms. For example, a teacher might read a story to a group of students and ask them to create graphic organizers to demonstrate their comprehension. Similarly, approaches such as Spelling Inventories that are often used as formative assessments can be made to cover a broader range of skills and strategies and be used for summative purposes.

Some widely used assessments and the elements of a structured literacy program that they measure are included in Table 7. Some of these assessments focus on a small subset of skills; others are broader in their scope; some are computer delivered; and others are available only in print format. Some digital programs include a dashboard of students’ scores that help teachers keep track of their students’ progress as a reference for planning and grouping decisions.

WF1301307 Table7 v2

Although they differ from formative assessments in their purpose and time of administration, summative assessments also play a diagnostic role. Their data allow teachers to fine-tune their grouping decisions, judge the rate of learning of students in their classes, and potentially determine those students who would benefit from additional instruction through a Tier 2 intervention. In some cases, summative assessment data can be part of the information used to recommend more extensive testing of young learners, for example, to identify learning disabilities early in students’ school lives so that they get assistance before they experience greater risk for failure.

Data collected from both formative and summative assessments allow teachers to analyze students’ progress on an ongoing basis and to adjust their short-term goals and lesson plans.

Such a data-driven evaluation process enables teachers to identify students who are progressing, those who need some reteaching in order to progress, and those who may be at risk for reading difficulties. Changes that a teacher might make include:

  • Reteaching, for example, explaining a decoding strategy (e.g., the CVC vs. the CVCe pattern) to a small group of students for a second time, using different examples or more manipulatives to allow them to “catch up” to their peers.
  • Regrouping, that is, reconstituting membership in groups so that students who are struggling receive instruction that helps them overcome misconceptions about skills (e.g., review “irregular” spelling patterns) or relearn what they have misunderstood.
    • Regrouping may also be necessary because some students need additional challenges, such as opportunities to read more advanced books.
  • Providing additional practice, for example assigning work with a computer-adaptive digital program that adjusts the presentation of exercises to individual’s instructional needs or assigning students with lower oral reading fluency (ORF) to listen to tapes of familiar stories while following along with the printed text or to work as a “reading partner” with a peer with stronger ORF skills.
  • Providing additional instruction, for example, students’ hesitant or disfluent oral reading often suggests they are not comprehending what they read; instruction to enrich students’ vocabularies often provides a boost to slower readers’ comprehension abilities and to that of all students in a class (see Lovett et al., 2017).
    • Explicit instruction on synonyms or creation of “word walls” expands the vocabularies of all students.
  • Changing instructional material, for example, introducing new ways to practice skills, such as partner reading, working on a tablet, or completing a graphic organizer rather than answering comprehension questions; assigning reluctant readers informational rather than narrative books during independent reading; or having students write imaginative stories rather than personal narratives.
  • Teaching metacognitive skills, for example, teaching students to monitor themselves as they read, to ask themselves if what they are reading or writing makes sense, or to annotate their reading with sticky notes of questions they want to ask.

The process of data analysis should also encourage teachers to study the patterns of students’ results on assessments to identify those areas where their own instructional approaches might need to be improved or even changed. This may be especially true as teachers learn to implement a new program or approach, one that requires them to perform previously unfamiliar instructional roles, such as using a blended learning program that requires young learners to work independently on tablets or integrating writing into their early literacy instruction. Asking for additional coaching, professional development, or resources should not be considered a sign of weakness; rather, doing so shows that teachers are working toward professional growth and high-quality implementation of the new program.

The usage of technology within the literacy classrooms has become widespread and paramount. Blended teaching and learning combines online delivery of educational content with the best features of classroom interaction and live instruction to personalize learning, allow thoughtful reflection, and differentiate instruction from student to student across a diverse group of learners (Watson, 2008). A blended teaching and learning model can be implemented within an in-person school setting but can be leveraged for remote learning as well.

The remote learning environment consists of the effective use of both synchronous and asynchronous activities, which requires alignment with the goal of the learning activity (Boettcher, 2011). Synchronous learning occurs when students and teachers are participating in a discussion or activity at the same time, either in person or remotely. Remote synchronous interactions are often supported by technology, including the use of internet resources and applications. This includes “face-to-face” instruction in real-time (e.g., Zoom® meetings) and online chat sessions. Synchronous activities may be used to establish connection and community, deliver new content, brainstorm, share discussions, etc.

Asynchronous learning occurs when students work alone, or with the help of a family member, on learning resources curated by a teacher or a program. Asynchronous learning can happen on the learner’s own schedule. Examples include using Computer-Assisted Learning (CAL) programs, assignments posted online, pre-recorded instructional videos (e.g., YouTube®), and discussion forums. Asynchronous activities may be better suited for activities that require additional practice, deep thinking, planning, or writing, or when allowing students flexibility with their time.


  • Live content mini-lessons
  • Lesson follow-up (debrief a lesson or expert video)
  • Assignment check-in (Q&A, clarity, technical issues)
  • Online discussions, debates, brainstorming, etc.
  • Teacher read-alouds
  • Live reactions


  • Teacher-recorded content mini-lessons
  • Tasks assigned on an internal or external website or platform
  • Online practice (phonics skills, high-frequency words, vocabulary, etc.)
  • Expert videos or tutorials (view and respond)
  • Recorded reactions
  • Digital games
  • Digital book reading (eBooks, audiobooks, online libraries)


  • Choice boards/menu tasks
  • Assignments that can be done offline and submitted via email, free app, or hard copy (workbooks, handouts)
  • Handwriting practice and writing assignments
  • Open-ended prompts such as:
    • Read a book and . . .
    • Make your own . . .
    • Practice by . . .
    • Use materials you have to . . .
  • Independent book reading
  • Multisensory activities

For a new initiative—including introduction of new educational programs or approaches—to be truly successful requires local efforts to build capacity, communication, and commitment. This can be a long-term process. In their review of studies of educational programs introduced into districts, Jackson and colleagues (2018) found that districts that build strong teams and focus continually on implementation can expect 80 percent successful use of effective practices within three years.

To build capacity, teachers and other staff must participate in professional learning that fully informs them about anticipated changes in practice or routines, helps them understand new guidelines for implementation, and supports them as they begin implementation. It is also important that teachers understand the measures that will be used to gauge that goals have been met. Professional learning cannot be “one shot,” large-group meetings at the beginning of the school year; it must be ongoing, embedded in educators’ professional development plan, and ideally include support from school-based and district coaches.

Successful professional learning about a new program or approach will reassure teachers that their professional knowledge and expertise will be the foundation of the innovation’s success. They may be asked to make adaptations to their teaching practice (for example, assigning children more work on individual tablets), but doing so will ultimately benefit students and enhance teachers’ abilities to meet every student’s needs. Additionally, the professional learning teachers receive should involve digging into new curriculum materials and planning the practicalities of how they will begin the school year, how they will allocate the time in their literacy block, and how they will measure their students’ progress.

Open communication is essential, and teachers need to know right from the start whom they can contact if they need help. Some research (Salinger et al., 2010) suggests that implementation is enhanced when someone plays an intermediary role. This person can “serve as a conduit of information, expectations, guidelines and general ‘know how’ back and forth from central offices to principals’ offices to classrooms” (Salinger et al., 2010, p. 8). For example, if individuals serving this role notice that teachers in a school seem to need additional professional learning opportunities, they can bring this message forward; alternately, teachers themselves may ask an intermediary to help expedite problems when a school’s technology infrastructure impedes use of a blended program. Quickly resolving the issues that are inevitable as a new program is implemented contributes to its acceptance and successful use.

Equally important, open communication about what seems to not be working in a new program can lead to adjustments in goals or expectations. For example, a program may not include adequate accommodations for students with disabilities or those who are learning English. Discussions between teachers and their coaches or other intermediaries about such issues can result in adjustments that can improve the new program’s likelihood for success with all students.

Communication to parents is also important so that they understand the new program or approach that is being introduced, its value for their children, and the ways in which they can support its implementation, for example by reading with their children every day.

Community building comes from efforts to gain buy-in to new program ideas and builds commitment to successful implementation. Analysis from assessment data plays an important role in deciding if the goals of a program are being met and may indicate aspects of a program that need to be adjusted. But user experiences, that is, the attitudes and reactions of the teachers responsible for implementing a program and ensuring students’ success, are also important. Asking for input and ideas from teachers about how a program is working for them and their students can build an implementation community of individuals who share responsibility for delivering the best quality evidence-based instruction possible. So long as teachers know that there will be no reprisals for voicing their opinions, it can be beneficial to ask them to participate in informal focus groups or to complete surveys, yielding invaluable information about implementation and potentially changes that are needed. Resulting changes will help create a local definition of fidelity to a program model that honors the intent of the program developers and enables teachers and administrators to meet the goals they have set for their teaching and their students’ learning.

1. For more information, see and Big Ideas in Beginning Reading,

Boettcher, J. (2011). Ten best practices for teaching online. Quick guide for new online faculty. Designing for Learning.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Cook-Harvey, C. M. (2018). Educating the whole child: Improving school climate to support student success. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE

Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olson, C., D’Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., & Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide (NCEE 2012-4058). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Jackson, K. R., Fixsen, D., & Ward, C. (2018). Four domains for rapid school improvement: An implementation framework. National Implementation Research Network University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Lovett, M. W., Frijters, J. C., Wolf, M., Steinbach, K. A., Sevcik, R. A., & Morris, R. D. (2017). Early intervention for children at risk for reading disabilities: The impact of grade at intervention and individual differences on intervention outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(7), 889–914.

National Equity Project. (2020, February). Liberatory design: Mindsets and modes to design for equity. Retrieved from https://nationalequityproject....

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel—Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Salinger, T., Moorthy, S., Toplitz, M., Jones, W., & Rosenthal, E. (2010). Implementation matters: Systems for success. A descriptive study of READ 180 in urban middle schools. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

Shaywitz, S. E., Fletcher, J. M., Holahan, J. M., Shneider, A. E., Marchione, K. E., Stuebing, K., Francis, D. J., Pugh, K. R., & Shaywitz, B. A. (1999). Persistence of dyslexia: The Connecticut Longitudinal Study at adolescence. Pediatrics, 104(6), 1351–9.

Watson, J. (2008). Blended learning: The convergence of online and face-to-face education. Promising practices in online learning. North American Council for Online Learning.

Authors & Contributors

Terry Salinger, PhD
Senior Fellow at American Institutes of Research

Francie Alexander, MA
Senior Vice President at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Amy Endo, PhD
Education Research Director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Renee Behring, EdM
Education Research Director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Jill Ordynans, PhD
Literacy Consultant

Grant Atkins, PhD
Education Research Director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt