The big picture: similarities and differences
Essentials is a complete course in how English spelling works and why our words are written the way they are. It is designed for any student age 8 to adult who wants to develop stronger reading or spelling skills or learn more about how English spelling works.
Foundations is a playful, age-appropriate way to introduce many of these same concepts to young children, particularly ages 4-7, with an emphasis on reading. Although Essentials goes much deeper and further with the concepts, the biggest difference between the two is the age for which each curriculum is designed.
This means that Foundations is not a prerequisite for Essentials. Both programs can be used with a beginning reader, a struggling reader, or a strong reader. Both will be helpful for a struggling speller and for a proficient speller who wants to learn more. Both teach the 75 basic phonograms used commonly in English words and equip students to apply them for reading and spelling.
Essentials goes deeper with these concepts, applies them on a more advanced level, focuses more on spelling mastery, and incorporates more grammar and vocabulary, but it teaches all of the phonograms and rules introduced in Foundations.
So in most cases, the age of the student should be the determining factor. More about this in a moment. For those who want more information, keep reading for a detailed Foundations and Essentials comparison chart and some commonly asked questions about placement.
How old is the student?
Age 9 to adult
Students age 9 and above should start with Essentials. This includes struggling readers, strong readers who struggle with spelling, and proficient readers and spellers who want to learn more about how written English works and to strengthen their spelling mastery. The three levels of application in each lesson allow you to customize the level of challenge for the student, as well as reteach the curriculum multiple times with more advanced concepts for greater mastery.
For struggling readers or spellers, ten optional Pre-Lessons are provided to help you strengthen foundational skills before starting Unit 1. These lessons teach many of the same concepts in Foundations A in a style appropriate for older students. Older struggling readers do not need to complete Foundations before starting Essentials; instead, they should start with the Essentials Pre-Lessons.
The one exception would be an older learner whose developmental age is 8 or under. In this case, if the playful lessons in Foundations would be more enjoyable for the student, then Foundations is the better choice. Otherwise, begin with Essentials.
Since Essentials teaches all the phonograms and rules needed to understand the spelling of about 98% of the words in our language — from the most basic to the most advanced — it is a powerful tool for increasing the reading and spelling skills of any student, as well as for equipping both children and adults with a deep understanding of how written English works.
Age 7 and 8
While most seven-year-old children will be happier in the playful, active Foundations lessons, and most eight-year-olds will find Essentials a better fit, with this age range there is an overlap: either curriculum will work. Depending on the personality, attention span, and learning style of the student, one or the other might be a better fit.
Note that for a seven or eight-year-old starting Foundations, it will often be appropriate to skip level A and move fairly quickly through level B, slowing down upon reaching the longer and more advanced lessons in levels C and D. When previewing lesson samples to think through which curriculum is the right fit, be sure to look at lessons from Foundations A-D to get a good sense of the full scope of this curriculum. When considering Essentials for this age, anticipate a slower pace through the lessons, breaking them into smaller chunks as needed for the attention span of the student and spending plenty of time playing the games.
Age 6 and under
Young children should start with Foundations, whether already reading or just beginning to learn about letters.
The right pace, and the focus for mastery as you apply the concepts, will depend on the child's prior knowledge. Children already comfortable reading can focus on using the phonograms and rules for spelling. In reading, they may quickly begin to notice and apply the phonograms they have learned in more advanced words. These children will begin to master spelling while continuing to strengthen reading skills. Emerging readers should focus on using the phonograms for reading. They will learn and apply many spelling concepts that lay the groundwork for future spelling mastery, but the primary goal of these activities is building reading skills.
The concepts taught in Foundations equip children with powerful tools for reading and spelling throughout life, in lessons that are playful, active, and fun. Gaining an accurate understanding of why English words are spelled the way they are is helpful to young children at any reading level.
For some early readers, skipping Foundations A and beginning at level B may be appropriate; see Help Me Choose to learn more.
Foundations and Essentials: Comparison Chart
|Designed for||Ages 4 through 7||Ages 8 to adult|
Complete language arts for ages 4-7. Includes phonics, reading, handwriting, and spelling.
Introduces students to all the tools they need to sound out 98% of English words and develops the skills they need to apply these tools for reading and spelling.
Complete course in how English spelling works. Includes reading, spelling, grammar, vocabulary.
Teaches all the tools needed to understand the spelling of 98% of English words, including deeper and more complete coverage of the concepts taught in Foundations. Incorporates spelling, grammar, vocabulary development, and sentence-level composition rules.
|Phonograms and Rules Taught||
75 Basic Phonograms
19 Spelling Rules
6 Advanced Phonograms
75 Basic Phonograms
31 Spelling Rules
46 Advanced Phonograms
Developing reading fluency. Equipping students to sound out any word.
Children also learn a huge amount about how spelling works and build spelling skills, laying a strong foundation for a lifetime of spelling success. They also learn to write lowercase and uppercase letters and learn basic vocabulary and grammar concepts.
However, all these components work together toward the main goal: developing strong reading skills.
Mastering how English spelling works. Learning the rules that explain why 98% of English words are spelled the way they are and how to apply them for spelling and reading.
Students think analytically about spelling, practice spelling, and build spelling mastery. They also learn how the parts of words shape meaning and spelling, and how words work within sentences.
For developing readers, these concepts provide the skills needed to sound out any word and to build reading fluency and comprehension.
Foundations lessons include dozens of playful games and activities appropriate for young children. Many are high-energy games that involve running, tossing, and other active play. The games provide fun ways for students to build mastery and fluency with the phonograms, handwriting, and decoding high-frequency words.
Essentials units also include many games. Some are more active, while others involve more strategy. Essentials games are appropriate for older students.
Foundations includes lots of reading practice and comprehension, beginning in A and increasing through the levels as students master more and more of the phonograms. By level D, fluency and comprehension are the primary focus.
Reading practice includes high-frequency word games, workbook reading activities, and Foundations readers, as well as 13 children's fiction books in level D.
Available in The Essentials Reader, an optional phonics-controlled reading comprehension supplement. For strong readers, use The Essentials Reader or a literature curriculum of your choice. For struggling readers, we recommend using The Essentials Reader. The Essentials Reader Set includes comprehension, composition, and extension activities using the reader texts.
Essentials teaches the tools students need to read successfully and includes activities that strengthen reading fluency. It does not include literature.
Included. Minor focus.
Introduces beginning grammar and composition concepts (what is a noun, what is a sentence, capitalization)
Introduces children to morphology (the concept that parts of words have meaning and we can put different parts together to create new meanings)
Includes simple dictation exercises starting in level C.
Included. Major component of each unit.
In the second half of each unit, students explore, practice, and use their spelling words while learning grammar, vocabulary, and sentence-level composition concepts.
Grammar instruction includes parts of speech, comma rules, sentence types, verb tenses, and more. Vocabulary instruction includes several hundred roots, prefixes, and suffixes.
Dictation is used in each unit; this challenging spelling activity supports students in the transition from spelling individual words to writing words correctly in sentences.
While you can use prior levels of Foundations to review after a break or to revisit a concept, the curriculum as a whole is not designed to be cycled through multiple times.
After progressing through the levels sequentially, move to Essentials to review the concepts taught in Foundations, learn new ones, and apply them on a deeper level.
Each Essentials unit contains three levels of application and practice, allowing you to customize the level of challenge and use the curriculum multiple times with the same student.
After completing Essentials using level A or B, repeat again at a more advanced level. Students review the foundational tools for greater mastery and apply them to more advanced words and concepts.
Handwriting instruction is incorporated into the lessons as a kinesthetic component to learning the phonograms, focused on large-motor practice.
Students learn the lowercase letters in level A and the uppercase letters in level B in your choice of cursive or manuscript. In levels C and D, students continue handwriting practice with whichever style they have learned.
Available separately in the Rhythm of Handwriting, designed to accompany Essentials or serve as a stand-alone handwriting curriculum.
The Essentials Pre-Lessons include a suggested schedule for incorporating Rhythm of Handwriting instruction.
|Time to complete||
Typically, 2-3 years to complete all 4 levels.
Children starting Foundations at 7 often move more quickly.
Each level contains 40 lessons and 8 review lessons. Lessons may be completed in one day or divided over multiple days depending on the age and attention span of the child.
Lessons increase in length and difficulty over the four levels as students mature and as more and more reading time is introduced.
Typically 1-2 years (Units 1-30, once through).
Repeating a second time, you may find that you move more quickly.
In an intensive remediation, spending several hours per day, older students may complete Essentials in two to four months.
Each of the 30 units is divided into five "Parts," each of which takes 30-60 minutes. These sections can be completed in a day, but depending on the student and your schedule a slower or faster pace may be more effective. See Scheduling Tips for Essentials for more info.
Other common questions
If my older student reads at a kindergarten level, should we still start with Essentials, or do we need to do Foundations?
You should start with Essentials! Everything taught in Foundations is also taught in Essentials, in a style more developmentally appropriate for older students (age 8 and up). The only exception to this is handwriting, which is included in Foundations but not Essentials. If an older student needs handwriting instruction, we recommend using the Rhythm of Handwriting while completing the Essentials Pre-Lessons.
If my five-year-old is an advanced reader, should I skip to Essentials?
No, start with Foundations (potentially with level B if the child can already write lowercase letters comfortably and knows all the sounds of A-Z). Foundations is a wonderful curriculum for early readers, who usually love learning more about words, letters, sounds, and how our language works. While the style of the lessons is playful, they teach powerful, fascinating concepts about English spelling that many adults were never taught.
Early readers will often find some of the reading practice activities too easy; challenge them by adjusting the activity so that they hear the word and write it rather than seeing it and reading it. This allows them to practice the same phonograms on a higher level. Then encourage the child to do lots of reading with books of his or her choice; you'll find that children quickly begin applying the phonograms and rules they are learning to more advanced words.
You may also find it works well to move quite quickly, especially through level B, with an early reader. This is fine. Let the child's interests, attention span, and mastery of the phonograms and spelling rules determine the pace. Increase the focus on learning to use the tools for spelling, and feel free to challenge the student to try spelling the words in the reading games instead of reading them. This is a more challenging way of practicing the same tools.
Is there any reason to do Essentials if we've already completed all four levels of Foundations?
Yes! Here are the main ones:
1) Depth of mastery. In Essentials, students review all the concepts they have learned in Foundations, and they begin to apply them on a much deeper level and with a much greater focus on spelling mastery. These are concepts that will support students in reading and spelling throughout life, so it is very beneficial to keep working on them! Even in Unit 1, when children are reviewing phonograms and concepts they learned in Foundations, they will begin using them in a more advanced way.
2) New spelling concepts In addition to working on a deeper and more analytical level with the phonograms and rules taught in Foundations and providing much more spelling practice, Essentials also introduces the remaining spelling rules and advanced phonograms.
3) It's the best way to learn spelling! After learning linguistically accurate phonograms and spelling rules in Foundations, it could feel pretty dull (and feel inefficient) to use a curriculum that teaches 'spelling' by having the child memorize lists of words, without asking why or applying rules. With Essentials, children take the powerful tools they've learned and put them to work, getting even better at using them for spelling.
4) Integrated language arts. Essentials incorporates spelling instruction with grammar, vocabulary, and basic composition. Students practice their spelling words as they work on parts of speech, roots, suffixes, and more. It's a great way to cover all your language arts instruction in one nicely integrated package. You may find that in addition to avoiding confusing gaps or unnecessary overlaps, you also save time and money!
5) You already have the supplements. Since Essentials uses most of the same supplements you have from Foundations, there are only a few things you need to buy to continue. If you teach Essentials multiple times, all you'll need to repurchase when you repeat it is the workbooks.
Can you tell me more about other differences between the two programs besides the target age?
While the core concepts are the same, there are many differences. For example:
- Foundations teaches all 75 basic phonograms, teaches all the spelling rules needed for decoding, and a few of the more common advanced phonograms.
Essentials teaches all 75 basic phonograms, all 31 spelling rules, and 46 advanced phonograms.
- In Foundations, the top priority in working with the phonograms and spelling rules is on developing reading fluency. Children learn a huge amount about how spelling works, which lays a strong foundation for a lifetime of spelling success, and they learn about the spelling of many words. However, spelling mastery is not the main focus yet.
In Essentials, a major focus of the units is on developing spelling mastery. Students learn far more spelling concepts, spend much more time thinking analytically about spelling, and do much more spelling practice. (For a developing reader using Essentials, these same activities help support reading fluency while helping the student develop stronger spelling skills. Mastery of the individual spelling words should be a lower priority for these students than learning all the phonograms, spelling rules, and how they work, and being comfortable using these tools to read and write. For proficient readers, though, the main focus is strengthening spelling skills and knowledge.)
- Foundations includes lots of reading practice that is carefully controlled to match concepts students have learned. This includes reading fluency games, reading activities in the workbooks, and the Foundations readers.
Essentials teaches tools that equip students to read and includes activities that support the development of fluency, but a small percentage of the practice focuses exclusively on reading. The optional The Essentials Reader provides phonics-controlled, engaging reading practice for older struggling readers that is carefully controlled to match the concepts they are learning in Essentials.
- Foundations introduce small amounts of grammar, basic composition, and morphology (understanding that parts of words have meaning and that these parts can combine to create new meanings) in ways that are developmentally appropriate for young children.
In Essentials, grammar, composition, and morphology are major sections of each unit, through which students more deeply explore, practice, and use the spelling words they have learned.
- The Foundations lessons are designed to be gone through once, in order (typically this takes 2-3 years for the four levels).
Essentials has three different levels of application and practice within each unit, allowing you to repeat it multiple times to review the phonograms and rules for deeper mastery while applying them to learn more advanced spelling words and new morphology concepts.
To find out more about Foundations, check out:
- Complete Foundations page - details about each level, sample lessons, what's in a lesson, scope and sequence
- Foundations for Schools info page
- Foundations for Homeschoolers info page
- Complete Sets