Components of literacy

Literacy is a complex skill. There are many different parts that students must learn to do.

The overall goal is to understand what you read and express your thoughts in writing. 

School instruction focuses on skills to support these 3 parts:

Image of a student Reading, then Understanding then Expressing Understanding

These are the main components:

  • Phonics and Decoding: making sounds from letters 
  • Fluency: reading smoothly and accurately
  • Vocabulary: knowing what words mean
  • Comprehension: understanding what you read
  • Writing: expressing your thoughts in text

These components are all needed and they all work together. Each one will help students develop the others. Some students may have a hard time with one or more components, and there are strategies to help. 

Learn more:

See this explanation: How Does Reading Work?  (Click to open it in a new window.) 

Click on the boxes below to learn more. We'll tell you more about practicing at home in a later page.

Phonics is understanding how letters represent sounds. Decoding is using that knowledge to "sound out" words.

Children should learn these skills in the early grades, starting in Kindergarten. By 3rd grade they should be able to sound out most words that are not too complex. If a child is struggling with this by 3rd grade, they will need some help.

You will also hear that it's important to learn "sight words". This means that a child can see a word and know what it is without sounding out the letters. This is important but should not be the only way they learn to read. Research has shown that kids who learn phonics and decoding are more successful readers. (Louisiana schools do teach this, but many around the country do not. Some schools use a "whole language" approach, which is not as effective.)

Why are these important?

These are foundational skills for literacy. Everything else a child learns builds from the ability to connect letters to sounds and sound out unfamiliar words.

How to practice?

Listen to your child read out loud. Read aloud with them so they hear you sound out words. Note the kinds of words they have trouble sounding out and practice these. Practice with nonsense words.

Click on this page from Reading Rockets to learn more about decoding and phonics. (It will open in a new tab.)

Fluency is the ability to read smoothly and accurately, with expression.

Think of it as how a good reader reads out loud. They can read each word without stopping to sound it out. They read about as fast as you might tell the story. Their voice sounds natural and shows the right expression for what the words are saying.

Here's a way to remember what it includes: Great Readers A.R.E. Fluent.

  • A: Accuracy - reading the words correctly
  • R: Rate - not too fast, not too slow
  • E: Expression - reading like you would talk, not like a robot!

Why is it important?

Fluency helps with comprehension. It also makes reading more fun and less stressful. 

How to practice it?

Read out loud together with your child. Or read a sentence first and then have them read it. They can learn from how you use your voice. 

Click on this page from Reading Rockets to learn more about fluency(It will open in a new tab.)

Vocabulary means the words a person knows. 

Children learn new words as they learn to talk. They also learn how to recognize words when they learn to read. The more words a child knows and understands, the easier it is to improve their reading and understand what they read. 

Why is it important?

If a child knows more words, it helps them with fluency and comprehension. If they know the word "night" for example, they won't have to stop and sound it out. That lets them read through the rest of the sentence smoothly and understand the whole thought.

How to practice it?

Talking more and reading more both help build vocabulary! Talk about the meaning of new words as your child sees them in books or hears them in conversation. Have your child read several different books or articles about the same topic. This helps them build a vocabulary about this topic.

Writing is putting ideas into words in print. 

This is how we express our thoughts, tell stories, make an argument and simply communicate. It's also the traditional way for students to show what they have learned in school through tests and assessments.

Writing is a complex skill that gets more complex with each grade. Once they know how to write, students are expected to learn to write in an organized way, use more advanced grammar, include evidence and many other advanced skills.

Background knowledge is also important!

If a child is familiar with a topic, it helps them to read and understand. If they don't know basic facts about what they're reading, it's much harder. This is why it's helpful to know what they're reading about, to read different books about the same topic, and to discuss these topics together.

See the next section to learn more about how to help your child practice the different components of literacy. They may need more practice in the ones that are most challenging for them, but all components are important. Improving any one of them will help improve the others! 

Here is a more detailed list of the components of literacy:

  • Foundational Skills
  • Academic language
  • Academic vocabulary
  • Fluency
  • Complex text
  • Close reading
  • Volume of reading
  • Evidence-based writing


These components all need to be taught together and each one will help students develop the others. For example, a focus on learning academic vocabulary can help students read more complex text. But closely reading complex text can also help to build their academic vocabulary.

Sources: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), LDOE, Reading Rockets