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Systematic and explicit instructional strategies

Systematic and explicit instruction of early reading skills supports students’ development of reading comprehension and fluency. Systematic instruction refers to concepts and materials that are taught through a carefully planned scope and sequence, using decodable texts. It starts with basic concepts and progresses to more complex concepts broken down into small, manageable sections. Explicit instruction refers to teaching that is clear, direct and purposeful. 

When planning and implementing systematic and explicit instruction, educators should consider that students come to school with different prior early reading experiences. Gathering timely and ongoing assessment data is crucial in identifying a student’s progress in acquiring skills being taught. It can also help tailor classroom instruction to meet a student’s learning needs, as well as support early identification of students who may require intervention beyond classroom instruction.

The following tables provide examples of systematic and explicit instructional strategies for each early reading skill. These strategies are applicable in Kindergarten to Grade 3 classrooms and beyond.

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Phonological awareness
Phonological awareness refers to the ability to reflect on the sound structure of spoken language. This includes the ability to identify and produce words that rhyme, to hear individual syllables within a word, and to break down a word into its onset and rime. 
Examples of systematic explicit instructional strategies
The instructional focus is on segmenting and blending, two skills that carry into phonemic awareness instruction:
  • Tap or clap out the words in a sentence of one syllable words said by the teacher or a peer.
  • Tap or clap the syllables in words. Begin with two-syllable compound words (e.g., sun-shine, base-ball), and progress to multisyllabic words (e.g., ba-na-na, fam-i-ly, cal-en-dar).
  • Break them apart and then put them back together (e.g., sun-shine sunshine).
  • Explicitly teach rhyming words and generate rhyming words (e.g., top, hop, drop).


Phonemic awareness
Phonemic awareness is a subcomponent of phonological awareness. It refers to the ability to identify and manipulate the smallest unit of sound in spoken words, called phonemes. Segmenting and blending phonemes are the two most important skills contributing directly to reading development.
Examples of systematic and explicit instructional strategies

Instruction of these skills generally follows this sequence:

  • Identify phonemes:
    • What is the first sound in the word “big”? /b/
    • What is the last sound you hear in the word “big”? /g/
    • What is the middle or second sound in the word “big”? /i/
  • Segment words into phonemes:
    • Use tokens or manipulatives as a marker (e.g., coloured cubes) to represent each phoneme. Students push the markers together as they say each sound.
  • Blend phonemes:
    • Students blend individual speech sounds together to make a word (b-i˘-t = bit; l-a˘-p = lap).
  • Delete and add/insert phonemes:
    • When given a word, students isolate the sound at the beginning of the word and then delete that sound to make another word (e.g., “call” becomes “all”). This activity can also be used to focus on and delete the final sound in the word (e.g., “seam” becomes “sea”).
  • Substitute phonemes:
    • Substitute or swap sounds within words to make new words. The sound of the initial or final consonant or the medial vowel can be substituted (e.g., initial sounds: fog, dog; final sounds: bit, bin; and medial sounds: sat, set).
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Alphabet knowledge
Alphabet knowledge refers to letter names and sounds. The alphabetic principle is the idea that letters and groups of letters represent the sounds of spoken words.
Examples of systematic and explicit instructional strategies
Provide opportunities to engage in structured play with letters, including interacting with or making a tactile alphabet book. Explicitly teach grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences. Have students:
  • Form letters using multimodalities (e.g., tracing letters in sand).
  • Learn some of the correspondences between graphemes and phonemes in very familiar words (e.g., their names, words they are trying to spell through approximated spelling).
  • Print letters.

Also be sure to explicitly teach grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences.


Phonics refers to the systematic and structured teaching of grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences and how to use these to decode/read and spell words.

Phonics instruction works with phonemic awareness skills and concepts about print as students learn the relationship between the letters of written language and the individual sounds of spoken language in English. Knowing these relationships and how to sound out words leads to words becoming sight words (i.e., recognized quickly without a deliberate decoding strategy applied). 

Examples of systematic and explicit instructional strategies
When students have a grasp of several consonant and short vowel grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences, blending and segmenting can be largely practiced in the context of reading and spelling words.

Instruction of these skills generally follows this sequence:

  • Identify grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences of individual consonants (C) and short vowels (V).
  • Use blending skills to sound out single-syllable words with simple word structures:
    • VC (e.g., at); CVC (e.g, cap).
  • Use blending skills to sound out single syllable words with more complex word structures:
    • CCVC (e.g., step); CVCC (e.g., jump); CCVCC (e.g., blend); CCCVC (e.g., street).
  • Identify and use more complex graphemes to decode words: 
    • consonant digraphs (e.g., ch, th, sh)
    • word spelling patterns with silent “e” endings (e.g., line, tape, pole)
    • r-controlled vowel patterns (e.g., car, her, bird, corn, fur)
    • vowel digraphs (e.g., ea, ou, oi).


Word study
Word study builds on the foundation of phonemic awareness and phonics, and draws on morphology to further develop word reading skills. Word study helps to make orthographic patterns across words explicit. To draw students’ attention to these patterns, word study often focuses on spelling as students learn spelling patterns across words rather than individual words. Students learn about the layers of patterns in English words beyond those that may have been taught in phonics.
Examples of systematic and explicit instructional strategies

Introduce increasingly complex orthographic patterns, syllables and/or morphemes that are new or require reinforcement for reading and spelling:

  • less frequent association with c (e.g., circle) or g (e.g., giant)
  • difficult consonant blends (e.g., tr, str)
  • complex rime patterns (e.g., light, bright, might).

Focus on the pattern being taught, provide students with a set of letters, and guide readers to make as many words as possible. For example, for “bl” and “sl” blends, provide  b, l, s, I ,n, d, e, o, a, c, k , p, and t. Students can then make black, bloom, blue, blind, sleep, slack, slot, slit, etc.

Choose a commonly used suffix such as “ed”:

  • Introduce the meaning.
  • Demonstrate the change in tense with examples.
  • Introduce the different pronunciations of the “ed” suffix, and provide examples of commonly used words with different “ed” sounds at the end (e.g., ended, greeted – /ed/; played, closed, used – /d/; fished, puffed, kicked – /t/).

Teach morphemes beginning from frequently to less frequently appearing suffixes, prefixes, and roots (e.g., comfort, discomfort, comfortable, uncomfortable). Provide opportunities to practice learned prefixes, suffixes, and syllables in isolated words, text reading and spelling. Provide instruction in compensatory strategies when the primary decoding strategy does not work. For example, when typical left-to-right decoding fails for a student, break the word into syllables or smaller parts, and/or pronounce each part, from left to right, and then blend together.