The Wilson Reading System® (WRS) directly teaches the structure of the English language using an organized and sequential system in 12 Steps, not corresponded to school grade levels. It provides a complete curriculum for explicitly and systematically teaching decoding and encoding (spelling). From the beginning steps of the program, instruction also addresses high frequency words, fluency, vocabulary, oral expressive language development and comprehension with progressively more challenging text. Throughout the program, teachers follow a ten-part lesson plan that provides for extensive teacher-student interaction and multisensory learning methods.

Key components directly addressed in WRS are:

  • Word structure, in depth, for automatic decoding and spelling
  • Word recognition and spelling of high frequency words, including irregular words
  • Vocabulary, word understanding, and word-learning skills
  • Sentence-level text reading with ease, expression, and understanding
  • Listening comprehension with age-appropriate narrative and informational text
  • Reading comprehension with narrative and expository text of increasing levels of difficulty
  • Narrative and informational text structures
  • Organization of information for oral or written expression
  • Proofreading skills
  • Self-monitoring for word recognition accuracy and comprehension

Students are paced through the curriculum based on mastery of skills, understanding of language concepts, and the ability to apply skills and concepts to connected text with accuracy, fluency, and understanding. Along the way, they learn how to achieve and to monitor their own decoding accuracy and comprehension using a gradual release of responsibility model.

Learn more about how the Wilson Reading System addresses the following components of reading:

Word Identification Accuracy and Spelling

In WRS, word-level instruction includes all English language letter-sound correspondences, syllable patterns (single and multisyllabic), common prefixes, suffixes, Latin/Greek-base elements, and skilled practice with high frequency words—including irregular words. Furthermore, WRS word study incorporates a focus on sounds, patterns, and meaning, while systematically and concurrently developing students’ phonemic awareness, morphological awareness, and orthographic awareness skills. Word structure for both reading (decoding) and spelling (encoding) is taught simultaneously to reinforce learning.

Phonemic Awareness Linked to the Alphabetic Principle

Phonemic awareness training in WRS is closely linked with the direct teaching of the alphabetic principle (letter-sound/grapheme-phoneme correspondences). Phoneme segmentation, the ability to pull apart the sounds in a given word, is a critical phonemic awareness skill for reading and spelling success. Phonemic awareness instruction in WRS “tunes” students into the separate phonemes in a word through card manipulation and a sound tapping process.

Phonology, Including the Study of Sounds Within their Syllable Environments

WRS presents an explicit and systematic study of the English sound system in a clearly defined sequence that is distributed and cumulative. Teaching students more detail about word structure helps them to accurately apply the sounds in longer words. Syllable patterns are an important part of that instruction because a vowel sound is regulated by the syllable type. Also, spelling instruction that emphasizes syllable types assists older students with word-analysis skills. The following six syllable patterns are taught gradually, showing students how to visually recognize the type of syllable.

  1. Closed syllable (Steps 1-3)
  2. Vowel-Consonant-e syllable (Step 4)
  3. Open syllable (Step 5)
  4. Final Stable syllable (Step 6)
  5. R-controlled syllable (Step 8)
  6. Double Vowel “D” syllable (Step 9)

Morphology and the Study of Word Elements

WRS presents a morphologically based study of English that provides extensive knowledge about decoding, spelling, and the meaning of words through the study of word elements. Students are introduced gradually to word elements through step-by-step, sequential instruction (as with all aspects of the program) to build a strong understanding of the written system of English without overwhelming them with rules. Common word elements are taught which provides a basis to understand how word elements combine to form many longer words in English.

Orthography – Internalizing the Rules that Govern English

WRS explicitly teaches total word structure, not just phonics. Students move from a phonological (sound) focus to more of an orthographical (visual) focus. They also cumulatively learn to process words more quickly by using the patterns of syllables, word elements, and orthographic rules involving base words and affixes. Each orthographic rule is taught and thoroughly practiced through the manipulation of Letter-Sound Cards, Word Element Cards (prefixes, base elements, suffixes), and Syllable Cards. Multiple opportunities are provided to read words in isolation and within connected text and to spell those words in isolation and in dictated sentences.

High Frequency Word Instruction

High frequency words are words that appear most often in written text. In each of the 12 Steps of the program, there are high frequency words to be memorized if not yet mastered. Many high frequency words are irregular words that have one or more parts that do not follow the expected spelling patterns of English. However, some are phonetically regular words that are taught in later Steps of WRS.

Prior to beginning instruction in each new Step, students’ reading and spelling mastery of the upcoming high frequency words is pretested. Students maintain a high frequency word dictionary in their Student Notebooks which they can use as a reference until mastery of the word is achieved. Since high frequency words are so common, automatically being able to read and spell them helps tremendously with fluent reading and writing.

Pseudo (Nonsense) Word Instruction

Pseudowords, or nonsense words, are used to help solidify students’ knowledge of sound and syllable structure. These words have no meaning, but conform to English spelling patterns and rules. Nonsense words are used to practice the application of newly taught sound-symbol relationships or syllable patterns, as well as help teachers evaluate these abilities. Additionally, the automaticity of reading and spelling one-syllable nonsense words will assist students with multisyllabic word proficiency.

An Integrated and Systematic Study of Phonology, Morphology, and Orthography

WRS instruction incrementally interweaves phonology, morphology, and orthography, thus systematically teaching students the rules that govern English written language.

Steps 1-6 of the program provide consistent patterns to establish a solid foundation of word knowledge, including the first four syllable types, multisyllabic words, and an introduction to morphology with the study of word elements, prefixes, Latin-bases, and suffixes with unchanging base words.

Steps 7-12 teach more complex concepts including spelling options, advanced spelling rules, sound options, contractions, r-controlled syllables, double vowel “D” syllables, other advanced language structure concepts, and continued work with morphology focusing on more advanced study of word elements, including Greek combining forms and suffixes with changing base words.

Back to Top


WRS directly teaches students the meaning of selected words that correspond to the current substep, and provides word-learning strategies that are helpful when reading or listening to connected text. Explicit instruction to build vocabulary is integrated throughout a lesson, with targeted vocabulary words repeatedly woven into subsequent lessons for reinforcement.

Words that appear in the WRS materials are controlled, meaning they include only the word structure that is the current focus of instruction or has been previously taught. These words have been carefully considered to comprise core and general academic vocabulary words key for students’ academic success. Teachers select vocabulary words from provided wordlists to appropriately tailor instruction based on students’ vocabulary knowledge and determination of what words are most important for students to know.

WRS categorizes words according to the following levels of difficulty:

  • Level AB: Core vocabulary for all WRS students. Most are drawn from the TextProject’s WordZone™ for 4,000 Simple Word Families (Hiebert, 2012), which represents 90% of the words most frequently used in written text. The Level AB designation also includes three kinds of academic words: general academic, morphologically complex, and subject area academic.
  • Level A: Everyday words used in oral language for younger students in grades 2-5 and those with limited vocabulary skills.
  • Level B: Advanced vocabulary for grades 6-12 and adults, and young students with advanced vocabulary skills.

Direct Instruction of Targeted Vocabulary

Words selected for explicit vocabulary instruction are targeted throughout WRS lessons so students experience them in different contexts. Students develop an alphabetized vocabulary section in their Wilson Reading System® Student Portfolio, which will grow as they progress through the WRS Steps. The vocabulary words are then targeted in decoding and spelling activities during Parts 2, 7, and 8 of the lesson plan. A review of previously taught vocabulary words is included in all lessons by discussing them in Word Card activities (Part 3 of the lesson).

Word Learning Strategies Within Connected Text

In WRS, vocabulary is also taught through embedded discussion with connected text during Block 3 (Parts 9 and 10 of the lesson plan). Since students are unable to access written text on their own, teachers provide vocabulary instruction by reading grade-level enriched text to students and by providing opportunities for structured and purposeful oral discourse, which requires students to listen and speak with understanding. As students have the ability, teachers provide non-controlled text for students to read with scaffolded support.

Back to Top

Automaticity and Fluency

Students with emerging decoding skills need sufficient reading practice to develop fluent reading of text. Once readers achieve fluency, they can focus their attention and working memory on comprehension and making connections to their background knowledge, instead of putting all their effort into decoding. WRS focuses on fluency practice of connected text through scaffolded silent reading and guided oral reading of both controlled decodable text and non-controlled readable text. Repeated reading, including echo and choral reading, is used to develop prosody for understanding.

For additional fluency practice, the Wilson Fluency®/Basic Kit (aligned with WRS 3rd Edition) is a supplemental program designed to provide explicit fluency instruction and reading practice to develop the application of skills with connected text.

Integrated Fluency Instruction Throughout the Lesson Plan

The use of controlled decodable texts beginning at Step 1 of instruction provides students the opportunity to practice integrating all aspects of reading (accuracy, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension). These texts offer students substantial practice applying specific word-attack skills within context to develop accuracy, break the habit of guessing, and establish the goal of reading for comprehension.

WRS is unique in that few other sources of texts are limited to taught word structure with age-appropriate vocabulary and themes, especially for older students. WRS controlled decodable text is limited to phonetically controlled words with taught patterns and high frequency words that students have memorized for reading and spelling. The WRS controlled text includes extensive wordlists, sentences, and stories containing only the elements of word structure that have been taught. Controlled decodable text helps students to achieve word-reading accuracy while integrating fluency instruction.

Word Automaticity

WRS students have multiple opportunities to develop quick and automatic word recognition of both phonetically controlled and high frequency words. Automaticity of word reading is developed by using phonetically controlled Word Cards and High Frequency Word Cards as flashcards (Part 3 of the lesson) and with lists of phonetically controlled words (Part 4 of the lesson). Students’ progress is charted to determine if they are decoding the phonetically controlled words with accuracy first and then with automaticity, before moving on to the next substep.

Prosody/Phrasing of Text

To help students achieve fluent reading, teachers focus on expression, including prosody, and the meaning of text rather than speed. A penciling technique is used to scoop the sentences (Part 5) and passages (Part 9) into meaningful phrases in order to read with prosody. Scooping provides a graphical representation of phrasing for meaning that offers fluency and comprehension support. A gradual release of responsibility model (I do it, We do it, You do it) is used so that students eventually can phrase sentences and passages independently.

Back to Top


Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading instruction. While the other components of reading instruction help one to develop comprehension, specific instruction is also important to improve comprehension skill. Comprehension skills and strategies are specifically addressed in Parts 5, 9, and 10 of the WRS daily lesson plan.

Listening Comprehension/Discourse Processing

WRS teachers select enriched/authentic texts, both fiction and non-fiction, well above students’ independent reading levels for reading aloud to students. This exposes students to advanced vocabulary, complex syntactic structure, and substantially more background knowledge. It also provides students with an opportunity to employ comprehension strategies with a variety of texts.

WRS teachers help students establish a coherent mental model of the text through Wilson’s process called Comprehension S.O.S.™ (an abbreviation for Stop-Orient-Scaffold/Support). This strategy guides students to create an image or movie in their minds about the text passage they are reading. It incorporates periodic discussion, modeling of thinking, and retelling of the story using mental imagery in order to help students establish a deep understanding of content.

Independent Silent Reading: Narrative and Informational Texts

WRS instruction aims for students to independently read (silently) grade-level text with sufficient fluency for understanding. Independent comprehension skills are developed using both controlled text (Part 9) and non-controlled authentic text (Part 10) through a gradual release of responsibility model. Students learn to apply Comprehension S.O.S.™ strategies on their own while reading silently. Students then retell the passage, while the teacher monitors their understanding, asks questions, and pulls the text apart to clarify student comprehension.

As students become more and more proficient in word-level reading, they are moved toward the application of ALL of their skills (decoding, fluency, and comprehension) with both narrative and informational grade-level text.

Back to Top