Reading Routines Part 5: Phonics

by C. Elkins, OK Math and Reading Lady

Research supports the fact that explicit systematic phonics instruction is highly beneficial to students. In other words, phonics instruction should make up part of the daily reading routine . . . especially in primary classrooms. Here is Reading Rockets take on the Alphabetic Principle: “Alphabetic principle is the idea that letters and letter patterns represent the sounds of spoken language. It differs from oral language and phonemic awareness because it is introducing students to letters and incorporating what they have already learned (sounds). It is showing them that the sounds they have learned have letters and can all be put together.” Here’s some more info from RRockets on this subject: Alphabetic Principle

Phonics instruction starts with matching letters with sounds as well as naming the letter. Here is a summary I wrote regarding some  fantastic research on alphabet learning (to change from the former letter-of-the-week method): Alphabet Letter / Sounds Research

  • Some of the most significant parts of the research for me was the realization that saying the letter name results in a variety of added vowel sounds such as short e sounds /em/ = m; /ef/ = f; or sometimes a long a /kay/ = k; /jay/ = j; or sometimes long e /dee/ = d; /tee/ = t; or something all together different such as /aich/ = h; /double u/ = w.
  • Sometimes the letter name is close to the sound assigned to it, and sometimes it’s not.
  • The research provides some evidence that letter of the day instruction with 5 to 6 cycles of instruction was very beneficial. Each cycle had a different focus such as letters common in the students’ names, most frequently used letters, by the ways letters are formed, etc.

In my last post on phonemic awareness (see Reading Routines Part 4), I shared the progession from sound boxes to letter boxes and included a couple of good videos. These are very helpful with cvc words and other one syllable words. The goal in all of this is to move from letter-by-letter sounding out to continuous blending and chunking.

So what do explicit phonics instructional programs look like? Although not set in stone, there is usually a progression of skills that look similar to this:

  • Letter and sound matching
  • CVC with short vowel practice
  • CVCe with long vowel practice
  • Beginning consonant blends
  • Beginning consonant digraphs
  • Vowel pairs
  • R controlled vowels
  • Vowel diphthongs
  • Multi-syllablic words

Starting in 2nd grade, the emphasis is more on the vowel patterns (such as different ways to spell the long a sound) as well as consonant combinations, both beginning and ending (such as ck, ng, str). Grades 3 and above focus on these as well, but improve and apply to multi-syllablic words. Most textbooks have a daily phonics lessons to help you keep your instructional explicit and systematic.

These are at the core of all phonics instructional programs:

  • Connecting phonics instruction to weekly spelling patterns and learning centers helps students practice a specific set of words and apply the skill to other similar words.
  • Moving away from sounding out words letter-by-letter to try continuous blending and chunking (by looking for common parts or patterns)
  • Using knowledge of one syllable words to apply to multi-syllablic words
  • Relating known words to new words (often called an Analogy Strategy). Here is an example I used with a 5th grader recently who was trying to read the word “wren” in a portion of text. Obviously this bird species is not well known, and the context didn’t help her with the pronunciation.  I just simply wrote the word “write” on my little white board because I was positive she knew it – and she recognized it immediately. Then I said, “Use what you know about this word (write) to help with the word in your text.” She was able to make the analogy quickly! I didn’t have to go into a phonics lesson on how to pronounce words with wr, etc.

Your phonics instruction is strengthened via fix-it strategies which are embedded in your day-to-day teaching situations (guided reading, etc.). Here is a link to my fix-it-strategies post: Decoding fix-it-strategies

  • I really LOVE the “Flip the Sound” strategy and have found it so helpful with all age groups. Without the need to lecture a student about the phonics rule they should follow. If a word doesn’t makes sense, I might advise the student to flip the sound and try again.  This applies mostly to vowels, but can apply to the consonants with multiple sounds (c, g, w, y or b/d confusion). Click on the link for a 1-page parent guide (from Daily CAFE) for help with this strategy at home.: Flip the sound

Your routine phonics instruction is strengthened via learning station (independent or small group) activities which allows students to practice and review: Some ideas . . .

  • Letter box practice:  Pictures accompanied by sound boxes in which students use letter tiles, stamps, or writing to indicate the correct letters to make the sounds. The freebies I mentioned in the previous post on phonemic awareness would work well.
  • Word family (onset/rime) practice: How many words can you make with __at, __us, __ike, __ate . . .
  • Word sorting practice:  Use word cards to sort by various features (vowel sounds, blends, beginning sounds, ending sounds, syllables, etc.)
  • Prepared games
  • Here’s a blogger I follow who has a LOT of really good free phonics related stuff, especially for younger learners. You may have to subscribe to get to see her free stuff, but it’s really good in my opinion: https://thisreadingmama.com/

Finally, with all of the above mentioned, we cannot over-rely on phonics as a fix-it-strategy. Telling a student to “sound it out” is often not the best prompt for a student. Sometimes prompts concerning the meaning and structure of the text are just as, or more important and relevant.  Check out my posts on Reading Fix-it-strategies (parts 1 – 4). Use the search box or click “Reading Strategies” in the categories list.

What phonics routines do you use? Feel free to share!

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Alphabet Letter and Sounds Research

by C. Elkins, OK Math and Reading Lady

I was browsing through some research on reading and came across this article about instructional practices concerning alphabet letters and sounds. Click here for a pdf of this article: Enhancing alphabet knowledge instruction: Research implications and practical strategies for early childhood educators.

This article discusses the concept of letter-0f-the-week instruction vs. another researched method. I know many KG teachers who implement the letter-of-the-week method with great success. During most of my teaching career, I know this was a pretty common method – even my own children learned this way. However, as research became more prevalent and relied upon to make instructional decisions, this method of teaching one letter a week came under fire. I kept hearing this, but never read any research which supported it, refuted it (or advised what to do instead) until seeing this article. So please have an open mind KG and 1st grade teachers. I like this quote by Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Here is a summary of the article:

  1. The letter-of-the week method is largely based on tradition rather than research.
  2. With a letter per week, it takes 26 weeks of school (often until March) to complete the cycle, which disadvantages at-risk students.
  3. Many students don’t need a whole week to learn a letter.
  4. With 26 weeks for one complete instructional cycle of the alphabet, this only leaves 10 weeks to review the letters, sounds, and symbols.

The research suggested the following 6 cycles of alphabet learning (meaning each cycle is completed in 26-30 days) and repeated with a different focus for up to 5 more times throughout the year. With each cycle,  the order and reason in which letters are presented is varied. So students experience 6 different opportunities (instead of one) to focus on unique features of the letters to learn the letter name, sound, how to write it, and locate it in text.

1st 26 days: By frequency of initial letters in students’ names. Determine the letters used most often in your students’ names and start with those first. Example:  You have several students whose name begins with M, L, and K. So begin with those letters with your daily instruction. This is very motivating for students and helps with name recognition. Continue reading