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1.3 The Components of a Comprehensive Literacy Program

Whether identified with dyslexia or not, all students who struggle with reading require careful consideration of their learning challenges and needs, and should receive specific, evidence-based intervention. Such interventions should be offered within the context of a comprehensive literacy program. To be effective, a comprehensive literacy program must have the essential structures in place and must include the most crucial instructional components.

The Structure

A comprehensive literacy program should be built using a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS), which allows students access to high-quality classroom instruction followed by interventions that increase the time and intensity of instruction. The foundation of a comprehensive literacy program is universal instruction, sometimes referred to as first-best instruction. This foundational tier of instruction requires a well-prepared teacher, an adequate block of instructional time, and the effective use of evidence-based resources and instructional strategies. All students are assessed for risk, and periodic monitoring checks are used to ensure reading growth.

Students found to be at risk, as well as those making less-than-expected progress at the Universal Tier of Instruction, should be further evaluated to determine which specific areas of reading development require intervention. Based on assessment data, students receive targeted instruction, sometimes referred to as Tier II instruction. Those providing targeted instruction need to be knowledgeable in the delivery of direct, explicit, and focused reading instruction designed to address the unique needs of each student. More frequent progress monitoring of students receiving targeted instruction is essential to ensure that the intervention is properly designed to increase reading outcomes for each student.

When a student continues to demonstrate reading difficulty despite the addition of targeted intervention, the student should be considered for more-intensive instruction. Intensive instruction, or Tier III intervention, should be offered to students requiring individualized attention and more time in learning foundational reading skills.

What has been described is the structure of a comprehensive literacy program. The essential structural elements include the following:

  • Well-prepared teachers and interventionists who are knowledgeable about the structure of the language, use effective and evidence-based instructional practices, and have ongoing access to relevant professional development.
  • Adequate instructional time, which means a literacy block of at least 90 minutes and options for intervention, which can increase this instructional time by a minimum of more than half.
  • Instructional resources and materials that are developmentally sequenced, that use research- and evidence-based instructional practices, and that address the essential components of literacy. These are further explained in “The Content,” the next part of this section.
  • An assessment system that ensures universal screening, timely progress-monitoring, diagnostic assessment when needed, and a comprehensive system of tracking all students’ reading growth.
  • Knowledgeable instructional leaders who maintain a master schedule that provides for time and staff to deliver all tiers of instruction, who offer a combination of accountability and support in the delivery of evidence-based instruction, and who manage resources effectively so they can provide adequate instructional and reading materials.
  • Opportunities for parents and families to participate in their student’s instruction through access to practice materials, timely progress reports, and opportunities to speak with their student’s teacher and share their insights into their child’s learning.

The Content

In 2000, the National Reading Panel (NRP) identified five components of comprehensive literacy instruction:


  •  Phonemic awareness — an awareness of, and the ability to, manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words;
  • Phonics — the study and use of sound/spelling correspondences and syllable patterns to help students read written words;
  • Fluency — reading text with sufficient speed, accuracy and expression to support comprehension;
  • Vocabulary — the body of words and their meanings that students must understand to comprehend text; and
  • Text comprehension — the ability to make meaning with the use of specific skills and strategies, vocabulary, background knowledge and verbal reasoning skills.

These essential content components of a comprehensive literacy program can be best explained via the graphic below. The Literacy How Reading Wheel, developed by Dr. Margie Gillis and her team at Literacy How in Connecticut, “depicts the essential components of comprehensive literacy.” The Reading Wheel represents an expansion of the basic five components based on an abundance of research since the National Reading Panel (NRP) first published its findings in 2000. The Literacy How model features these additions:

  • Oral language — Speaking and listening are used as the core of the wheel. This represents the understanding of oral language as the “foundation” of all literacy skills. As Dr. Gillis states, “Oral language is at the heart of both listening and reading comprehension.” Additonally, she reminds us that “oral language serves as a predictor for both [listening and reading comprehension].”
  • Spelling — Spelling has been added to the phonics section as a way of reminding us “of the reciprocal nature of sounding out words (decoding) and spelling words (encoding).” More current research has shown that “instruction that coordinates decoding and spelling maximizes students’ ability to reading and spell automatically.”
  • Syntax — Syntax, the way that words are arranged to create meaningful phrases and sentences, is now included. The sentence level of language “is strategically positioned as a building block between individual words and text.”
  • Written expression — Writing has been added “due to the reciprocal relationship between writtten expression and text comprehension.” Again, research provides evidence that writing about a text boosts students’ comprehension of what they read.

Oral language at the core, with Text comprehension & written expression; Phonemic Awareness; Phonics & Spelling; Syntax; Vocabulary & Morphology

Finally, “the Literacy How model expands the concept of fluency to encompass all aspects of literacy development. Fluent or automatic, performance in both discrete (e.g., word recognition) and complex (e.g., comprehension, composition) literacy skills is essential to be a proficient reader and writer.”

When a comprehensive literacy program combines the necessary structures with the essential content or literacy components that must be taught, students are likely to receive instruction designed to address the needs of all students, including those with dyslexia.

For More Information

Yellow Circle with an image of a mobile device and computer Computer-Based Information

The CDE P-3/Literacy Office has helpful resource documents that address  “Tiers of Reading Instruction – Meeting the Needs of All Students”; “Tier I Literacy Instruction – Best First Instruction”; and “Tier II and Tier III Literacy Instruction – Prevention of Reading Difficulties.” 

The Literacy How website, offers additional information about The Literacy How Reading Wheel and resource links.

The CDE Office of Learning Supports offers guidance documents titled What is MTSS in Colorado?, and MTSS and Five Essential Components both are available on the CDE Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports webpage.

The National Reading Panel’s Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction is available on the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development website.

yellow circle with white triangle inside View Videos

View the video “How the Brain Learns to Read,” featuring Dr. Stanislas Dehaene.

View the video “What is a Multi-Tier System of Support (MTSS)?”, featuring Colleen Riley.

The CDE Office of Learning Supports offers an “MTSS Overview Video” on the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) webpage.

a yellow circle with a stack of three blue booksBook and Print Resources

Reading in the Brain (2010), by Stanislas Dehaene, offers a comprehensive and scientific explanation of the “science of reading.”