Tuesday, March 21, 2023

You may have heard it said that effective, evidence-based instruction should be both explicit and systematic. However, it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether or not an instructional program is really designed to deliver that type of instruction. Fortunately, curricula that align with the science of reading will include something called a “scope and sequence,” which educators and caregivers can use to gain a basic understanding of whether a curriculum provides instruction in a thorough and systematic way.

What Is a Scope and Sequence?

Every evidence-based curriculum or instructional program should be able to provide you with a clear and comprehensive scope and sequence. If no such document exists, that is a strong warning sign that the program may not align with the science of reading.

Simply put, the terms scope and sequence describe what you teach and when you teach it. When educators follow a solid scope and sequence, no assumptions are made about what students do or do not know, or what they can or cannot learn. Instead, all students are taught according to a clear and intentional plan in which skills are taught systematically and cumulatively.


The scope is the “what” of a literacy curriculum or program. It includes all the areas of learning that the curriculum will cover. A curriculum’s scope can be further described by its breadth and depth.

A curriculum’s breadth refers to the range of topics it covers. It is important that literacy instruction includes all age-appropriate skills and concepts. For example, if you were reviewing an early literacy curriculum and noticed that it included lessons about learning letter names but not developing phonemic awareness, that would tell you the curriculum was lacking in breadth. It would not equip students to read proficiently, as it would not provide a strong foundation in fundamental reading skills. As a reminder, effective literacy instruction involves explicitly teaching all skills to students, meaning students are provided with a clear understanding of what they are expected to learn and what strategies they can use to do so.

When you are examining a curriculum’s depth, you are checking to see whether students are required to meet specific developmental goals before moving on to learning new skills. This means that each skill must be taught to mastery before moving on to more complex material. When a student has reached mastery over a particular skill, they can execute that skill with 100% accuracy in a controlled instructional environment. However, this is not the final step in developing a skill. After students have mastered a given skill, it is important that they continue to practice it, so that they develop the ability to execute the skill in more difficult contexts and to perform it more fluently. When a student reaches the level at which they can execute a skill without consciously thinking about, they have achieved automaticity. Students do not have to achieve automaticity over every skill before they progress to the next. For example, a student does not have to be able to decode short vowel sounds automatically before being taught simple closed syllable words. However, a student who has not yet mastered short vowel sounds, such as /ă/, is unlikely to succeed in decoding words like “cat” or “map.” This can lead to confusion and frustration for students and educators alike. An effective reading curriculum should teach each skill with enough depth that students are supported when they progress to more complex material.


Sequence is the “when” of a curriculum, or the order in which skills are taught. A curriculum should be sequenced in a way that supports students’ learning and mastery of skills. When you are examining a curriculum’s sequence, ask yourself: does this make sense? Do the skills progress logically and build off one another? If the answer is no, the curriculum may be lacking a purposeful sequence. This can negatively impact students’ learning.

When it comes to early literacy, we can make some general assumptions informed by the science of reading about what types of sequences will meet students’ needs. For example, it is typically understood that students should be taught single vowel sounds before they are introduced to vowel teams. This makes intuitive sense, as this type of sequence allows students to apply their understanding of a simpler concept—single vowel sounds—to a more complex concept—vowel teams. We call this systematic instruction. A systematic sequence is ordered such that material progress gradually from less complex to more complex, ensuring that students have mastered the basic skills they need to understand more advanced concepts. You would not ask students to swim a complicated stroke like the butterfly before they could successfully float, and likewise, you cannot expect students to decode vowel teams like “ai” or “ay” before they understand the long /ā/ sound.

As discussed previously, it is important that students are taught to master each skill before progressing to the next, allowing them to apply foundational knowledge to higher-level learning. This is a concept we call cumulative instruction. It is important that curricula are sequenced in a way that supports cumulative instruction, so that students are able to use previously mastered concepts to support new learning. Later lessons in a sequence should include both the introduction of new material and review activities that allow for the development of previously mastered skills. Lessons should not include concepts that students have not yet been taught.

Why It Works

The importance of teaching basic reading skills with a scope and sequence is supported by years of research into the benefits of systematic instruction.

Unlike speech, reading is not a natural human process (Lyon, 1998; Liberman et al., 1989; Gough & Hillinger, 1980). For this reason, students must be explicitly and systematically taught the skills they need to become proficient readers. As described above, a clear and comprehensive scope and sequence can help ensure that classroom instruction meets these criteria. 

Furthermore, while proficient readers are able to recognize many words automatically, studies have found that they are only able to do this because of a complex neurological process that begins with a mastery of foundational alphabetic skills (Ehri, 2009). Students who lack these and other foundational decoding skills may attempt to rely on higher level skills, such as use of context clues, to compensate. This takes up a significant amount of cognitive energy, leaving students with less brainpower to devote to reading comprehension (Stanovich, 1980). Furthermore, researchers have estimated that even proficient readers are only able to accurately guess one in four unfamiliar words from context alone (Gough et al., 1981). Thus, context clues by themselves are not a sufficient means for comprehending text. These findings, along with other science of reading-based evidence, show that the ability to decode words accurately and efficiently is a vital element of effective reading (Adams, 1994; Foorman et al., 1998). And to develop this ability, students must receive systematic instruction with a logical scope and sequence, beginning with the smallest parts of language and building from there. Reading researcher Linnea Ehri (2009) divides the stages of literacy development into four phases: pre-alphabetic, partial alphabetic, full alphabetic, and consolidated alphabetic. In her work, Ehri emphasizes repeatedly that students who have achieved mastery over one stage of learning are more likely to be successful at higher levels. For example, students who can proficiently read words using phonemic segmentation and orthographic memory are better able to learn new words quickly and efficiently down the road (Ehri & Wilce, 1987; Ehri, 2009).

Practical Application

For Educators

Unfortunately, there is no science of reading seal-of-approval that gets applied to scopes and sequences. This means that it is left up to educators, administrators, and caregivers to determine the validity of individual curricula. Fortunately, most of what makes a good scope and sequence ultimately boils down to common sense. For example, it is best not to teach similar letters at the same time (Shanahan, 2014). Simultaneous teaching of letters that represent similar sounds, such as “c” and “k,” and letters that look alike, such as “m” and “n,” may cause confusion.

In addition, it can be beneficial to consider the practical application of the lessons being taught, like when teaching something also unlocks other learning opportunities. For example, it is typically in the students’ best interests to teach a combination of consonants and vowels that allow for the creation of simple consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words as quickly as possible. Additionally, short vowel sounds are more common than long vowel sounds in the kinds of words that make up most early reading texts (Shanahan, 2014; Adams, 1990). Therefore, it usually makes sense to teach students short vowel sounds early on, along with a handful of simple consonants, as it will provide them more opportunities to practice encoding and decoding words in the texts they are reading.

The exact order in which skills are introduced in a sequence will vary from program to program, and that is okay. What is important is that the overall structure of the scope and sequence is complete, logical, and systematic in nature.

When considering a new curriculum or instructional program, educators and administrators should first review the scope and sequence. If no such documentation exists, that is a good sign that the program might not be evidence-based. If a scope and sequence is provided, educators should review it to make sure that no important skills are being left out, and that the skills taught are being introduced in a logical order.

The concept of scope and sequence can also be applied to instruction at the upper grade levels. While most students have moved beyond learning foundational literacy skills at this point, skills and concepts should still be taught in a cumulative and systematic way. Ideally, the systematic design of a curriculum will fit into a larger cross-curricular and cross-grade level instructional plan. 

Decodable Readers

Decodable readers are an example of a tangible tool that you will often find being used to help carry out an early literacy scope and sequence. These texts (often in the form of short books or booklets) are designed to be used within a specific scope and sequence. Some are aligned to specific curricula, and others are labeled with the syllable types used within the book. This allows educators to expose readers to texts that contain only the syllable types they have been explicitly taught to decode. As students progress, they are provided with readers that feature increasingly complex words and structures, all of which have been explicitly taught. This is an example of both cumulative and systematic instruction.

Furthermore, decodable readers can be an excellent way to hold students accountable for their learning. Students cannot be expected to successfully comprehend, decode, or spell words that require an understanding of concepts, skills, or strategies that they have not been explicitly taught. Because the text of decodable readers is limited only to structures that students have been explicitly taught, they can be an excellent tool for formatively monitoring students’ progress and mastery of certain skills.

Finally, students who use decodable readers are more likely to use the decoding strategies they have been taught in the classroom and are therefore more likely to read with accuracy (Cheatham & Allor 2012). This can increase students’ confidence and self-efficacy when it comes to reading. To learn more about decodable readers and their place in early literacy instruction, see our previous blog post, “The Role of Decodable Readers in Phonics Instruction.”

For Caregivers

Scope and sequence outlines can also be useful for caregivers. If your children’s school is using an evidence-based curriculum, it should be able to provide you with an outline of the program’s scope and sequence. Taking a look at the scope and sequence being used by your child’s teacher can help you structure at-home practice in a way that directly supports classroom instruction. For example, if your student is learning about -ch and -sh digraphs in the classroom, you might consider supplementing that with an activity like Spell the Word at home.


In the words of reading researcher Dr. Louisa Moats, “Teaching reading is rocket science.” And it’s true; learning to read is an incredibly complex process. Fortunately, if reading is rocket science, scopes and sequences are the blueprints that empower educators, administrators, and caregivers to keep their students on track and lifting off toward reading proficiency.

Supplemental Materials for Teachers

What is Scope and Sequence?

This infographic provides a brief summary of what to look for in a scope and sequence for literacy instruction.


Adams, M. J. (1994). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. MIT Press. (Original work published 1990).

Cheatham, J. P., & Allor, J. H. (2012). The influence of decodability in early reading text on reading achievement: a review of the evidence. Reading and Writing, 25, 2223–2246. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-011-9355-2

Ehri, L. C. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory, findings, and issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9, 167–188. https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532799xssr0902_4

Ehri, L., & Wilce, L. (1987). Cipher versus cue reading: An experiment in decoding acquisition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 3–13. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.79.1.3

Foorman, B., Francis, D. J., Fletcher, J. M., Schatschneider, C., & Mehta, P. (1998). The role of instruction in learning to read: Preventing reading failure in at-risk children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 37–55. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.90.1.37

Gough, P. B. & Hillinger, M. L. (1980). Learning to read: An unnatural act. Bulletin of the Orton Society, 30, 179–196. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23769975

Gough, P. B., Alford, J. A. Jnr., & Holley-Wilcox, P. (1981). Words and contexts. In O. J. L. Tzeng and H. Singer (eds.). Perception of print: Reading research in experimental psychology. Erlbaum Associates.

Liberman, I. Y, Shankweiler, D., & Liberman, A. M. (1989). The alphabetic principle and learning to read. In D. Shankweiler & I. Y. Liberman (Eds.), Phonology and reading disability: Solving the reading puzzle (pp. 1–33). University of Michigan Press.

Lyon, R. G. (1998). Why reading is not a natural process. Educational Leadership, 55. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/why-reading-is-not-a-natural-process

Shanahan, T. (2014). What is the proper sequence to teach reading skills?  Reading Rockets. https://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-on-literacy/what-proper-sequence-teach-reading-skills

Stanovich, K. E. (1980). Toward an interactive-compensatory model of individual differences in the development of reading fluency. Reading Research Quarterly, 15https://doi.org/10.2307/747348