Welcome back to our Science of Reading Summer Book Study, Shifting the Balance with Mr.Greg (from Kindergarten Smorgasboard) and me! This is week 3 and we are talking about reimagining the way we teach phonics.
Phonics: A Hot Topic in Education
A few years ago, the school that I was teaching Kindergarten at had a meeting to discuss phonics. Being in early childhood education for the majority of my career, I was well versed in the importance of strong phonics instruction. But I didn’t realize how charged the meeting and conversation would get! Some teachers were insistent on buying a phonics program, while others said that programs were not necessary. I remember watching and listening to the conversation, like it was a tennis match. The serves on both sides had compelling facts and legitimate questions. I agreed with some points and disagreed with others. By the end of the meeting, it was decided that our school would purchase Open Court for it’s phonics instruction. While I committed to my admin that I would unbiasedly review the curriculum and use it, I quickly found that a ‘program’ is not the end all be all. Educators need to know how students learn and then have an intentional and systematic way to teach phonics.
Teacher Understanding of the Complexities of the Alphabetic System
“One important purpose of phonics instruction is to develop the brain’s orthographic processing system, bringing letters, sounds, meaning, and context together.” pg 65. I’ve been in education since 2004 and have taken a multitude of classes and professional development, yet it wasn’t until I read this shift (chapter) that I connected how the visual system recognizes objects. The book states that our visual system is naturally good at recognizing 3-d objects, from any direction. Look at a puppy from the front, back, or side and your visual system still recognizes it as a puppy. This is called mirror invariance, but it does NOT work when we look at letters. Check this article out for more info on mirror invariance. We know that a ‘stick and ball facing toward the right’ is the letter b. Yet, when it’s reversed it is now the letter d, or flip it over and it’s a p or q. As an experienced reader, we totally recognize and understand that letters work differently, but little learners have to learn a new way of learning and storing this visual information. (pg 66) I love how this so succinctly explains how learners reverse letters or even words!! I’ve always struggled explaining to grown-ups how reversals are so common in little learners and it’s not ALWAYS Dyslexia. But with continued exposure and meaningful practice, they learn to master letters!
If you are an educator…READ THIS! ^ In order to understand the systematic approach of phonics, an educator MUST understand the way the brain recognizes letters and how it stores the information. I don’t think you have to become an expert on this issue, but I do think that there is power in information and it will only aid you in teaching and assessing phonics.
Create and/or Implement a Systematic Scope & Sequence for Phonics Instruction
The shift (chapter) describes the scope as what you will teach and the sequence as what order you will teach it. It compares a systematic scope and sequence to a thoughtful organization system in a child’s bedroom. Can you function with clutter everywhere? The answer is a hesitantly yes…but is it optimal? I think we all could agree that an organized bedroom with labeled bins and a system for cleaning up before bedtime would work best and be less stressful. The same is for systematic phonics instruction. Here are a few tips to help with making sure your phonics ‘program’ is intentional and systematic.
Analyze and/or re-evaluate the sequence in which you teach letters
As I shared earlier, little learners can easily confuse letters, based on their visual or auditory similarities. So create and follow a sequence of teaching letters, where these similar letters are not taught right after one another. As a professional development presenter, I am often asked if sequence in explicit letter phonics matters. I think after reading this, it is clear that it’s important to take this information on how the brain learns and stores information and adjust the sequence accordingly. Here is my scope and sequence of how I teach letters explicitly and in isolation.
Create and/or Develop a Purposeful Instructional Routine for Phonics
Whether you have a boxed curriculum or not, create and/or develop a purposeful routine that you can consistently maintain. I’ve observed teachers who have started the year with an intensive phonics lesson routine, but soon find out that it is not easy to maintain and soon that phonics block becomes an after thought and not a primary focus. Don’t let this happen to you. My phonics instruction was always first thing in the morning, after our morning meeting burst. I shared my explicit letter phonics instruction here on YouTube. Be consistent and make sure that you keep your instruction purposeful, whether you have to follow a program or you’ve created your own.
- Plan a dedicated time for whole-group, grade-level phonics instruction
- Plan a dedicated time for small-group, differentiated instruction. This designated time is to remediate those students who need more instruction and/or support and to extend for the students who have already mastered the grade-level skill or standard.
Plan for Purposeful Independent Practice Phonics Activities
All learners (even adults!) need opportunities to practice what they have been taught. It’s not enough to be explicitly taught a skill or concept and then be expected to regurgitate the information or master the skill. Progress and mastery take practice!!! Little learners need the chance to manipulate and work with letters, especially magnetic letters (3-D)! I have found success with Literacy Stations, which provides not only a variety of options to choose from, but includes differentiation for all learners!!
One of the last pieces to an intentional and purposeful phonics program is to make sure that you have an authentic approach to assessments. There are mandatory assessments that are often required by districts and/or school administration, but what about formative assessments to drive instruction and remediate and/or extend?
I love to have the students use white boards. I will say a word out loud and they have to write it on their white board. This is a quick and easy way to visually assess who is able to complete the task. Use a variety of previous and current phonics skills as a spiral review and assessment.
The big take-aways of this shift for me is that phonics instruction needs to be consistent, intentional and systematic. Every teacher needs to follow a scope and sequence, as well as provide a multitude of meaningful opportunities to practice taught skills. Whole and small group instruction must be planned out and be consistent. And don’t forget the authentic assessment. Now, what were YOUR takeaways from this shift? And/or what questions do you have? Comment below or find me on FB or Instagram to chat!