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Powerful Phonics Instruction Across the Day by Kimberly Fox

It seems like all eyes are on phonics these days! We know our students need more of it: more automaticity, more flexibility, more practice. But even as our students need more, the reality is, the amount of time we have hasn’t changed. So, how do we get more phonics instruction in? The great thing about phonics is that it’s in EVERYTHING: reading, writing, singing. Our job is to make it loud for our students and for ourselves and find ways to bring it into structures we already have in place in our classroom.

Step one is to check to see what your students know about phonics, particularly if we suspect that they are somewhere very different from where our grade-level curriculum expects them to be. Perhaps you have 3rd graders who seem to have trouble decoding single-syllable words but we’re not sure where the breakdown lies. Or maybe you’ve got kindergarteners still struggling to write their name. We need data to plan ahead! My favorite assessments for phonics are straightforward. First, determine what students know about letter-sounds, including both letter recognition and letter-sound correspondence. When kids know most letter-sounds (around 20 or more), we can assess reading words.I recommend asking students to read word lists starting with CVC words, then increasingly difficult phonics skills. This will provide information about what skills kids use automatically and where they would benefit from more instruction. If you've assessed students' skills in isolated decoding and you want to know more about how they apply their phonics knowledge in continuous text. You can ask them to read an assessment text with specific phonics skills highlighted. Here is a great resource for free decodable texts to use for this type of assessment. This data will help you plan whole class instruction as well as small group work to meet kids where they are!

Once you have a sense of where a large chunk of your students are, you can look at your whole class phonics instruction. Regardless of what curriculum you use, purposeful phonics instruction typically includes the following:

  • Opportunities to develop phonological awareness, specifically phonemic awareness. As you are teaching vowel teams, for example, you want kids working to hear sounds in the words, then work to attach letters to the sounds. Kids can hear the word keep and think, keep: /k/-/ē/-/p/. 3 sounds with a long vowel sound in the middle. THEN, they can work to build the word with the phonics knowledge that that /ē/ can be made with the vowel team EE.

  • Building and manipulating words with magnetic letters or even whiteboards allows kids to see how their phonics skills work in action. You might have kids build the word WITH on their board, then change it to WISH, then HUSH, asking as kids work to say the words aloud and having them focus on what sounds and letters stay the same and which ones change.

  • Consider small groupings during part of your phonics block and reading if you have students working on a large range of skills. Kids can meet with peers working on the same skills to do the following: picture or word sorts, read decodable texts, make and break words with magnetic letters. This option is a great way to support kids in their specific skill work when it feels very different from what the whole-class curriculum is working on. Below is an example of how these groupings might look:

Phonics instruction at its best gets kids building: adding on, taking apart, thinking and talking as they work Whether kids are working whole-class or in a small group, the goal is always to get kids building, taking apart, studying, noticing, and questioning how letters and sounds work. Like a kid with a bin of magnatiles, we want them doing this big work with excitement and curiosity!

To maximize phonics instruction, you can look outside your phonics block to other times of the day. Here are a few ways we can plan to add a dose of phonics into structures we already have in place in our classrooms:

Transitions: Much of our day is spent moving from one space to another, one activity to the next. We can use that transition time to sneak in a bit more phonics work all day long! Quick verbal activities can work to support phonics as well as the transition itself by getting kids on the same page and ready for the next part of the day! Perhaps a lot of your kids need support differentiating between long and short vowel sounds. In the 45 seconds you have before the class leaves for lunch, say a word (bike, hat, cheese, duck) and have them whisper the vowel sound they hear. You might play a quick game, like I Spy, saying word parts segmented and have the kids blend them together, “I spy with my little eye, a /r/-/ŭ/-/g/.” Or, use rhyming words: “I spy with my little eye, something that rhymes with MORE (door). Additionally, you might keep a stack of words (or pictures!) with relevant phonics skills on index cards near the door and have kids read the words, generate rhyming words, or even create sentences using the words as they leave or enter the classroom. Additionally, there are a ton of songs you probably already know or use in your classroom to support phonological awareness and phonics, like “Apples and Bananas” as well as name songs like “Hickety Pickety Bumble Bee.”

Writing Workshop: This time in our day has a ton of opportunities for deliberate practice of phonics skills. As kids are writing words, from labeling their pictures to writing sentences, they are working to record the sounds in words they hear. Invented spelling is a perfect way to develop phonemic awareness as “comfort with invented spelling creates both the skill and will to participate in composition while children are building their proficiency,” (Walpole and McKenna 45). The practice of saying a word to hear its sounds, slowly, clapping the syllables, then writing letters to represent these sounds starts with kids approximating. Then, as they develop more complex phonics skills, the way they represent the sounds becomes more conventional. Think of the kid writing the word WAIT as WAT, then later WATE, then through years of deliberate phonics instruction and practice, they can represent the sounds of /w/-/ā/-/t/ with the letters WAIT. If you notice kids not using the phonics skills they are practicing during phonics instruction, coach them to use the strategies and charts from phonics to make their writing easier to read. You might say, “I see you wrote this word, BAK. I hear you saying BAKE. Remember how in phonics, we learned that silent e makes the vowels in the middle long? Try that here!” Be sure kids have phonics charts handy in their folders, from letter sounds to vowel teams! And remember, the goal is not perfect spelling. The goal is to get kids writing letters for the sounds they hear in order to write about the topics that are important to them!

Interactive Writing: When we write together, we can have kids write based on the phonics skills they are working on with a direct impact on a writing piece. You might write within your writing genre - a narrative about a shared classroom experience, an information text about a topic you are studying together, or something else entirely: a sign to solve a challenging problem in your classroom, a letter to a principal, parents, or another class. Pick something to write together, then have kids write only the parts of words that are relevant to their phonics development: consonants, medial short vowels, blends, digraphs, silent e words, vowel teams, endings, you name it! You write the rest of the words or even the parts of words. Perhaps your class is working on blends, so you work together to write a sign, sharing the pen only on those parts 0f words: Please close the door. It is freezing outside! The writing piece doesn’t have to be long, but it is a fantastic way to get kids to see their phonics skills directly contributing to a writing piece that is being read.

Reading Workshop: During reading, we can think about materials in kids’ baggies. Decodable texts allow them to practice their phonics skills in the context of a book. Word cards with words containing specific phonics skills can also be added alongside texts. As kids get older and writing during reading becomes more efficient, kids might record words with a particular phonics skill on a post-it, collecting words to share with a partner, perhaps words with endings or vowel teams. As we are meeting with kids in small groups, we can work to add in a bit of phonics practice (whiteboards, magnetic letters, etc) before kids read a text. We can listen to hear how kids are internalizing phonics strategies into their reading or if further direct instruction is needed.

Choice Time: Play is inherently engaging for students. We’ve all seen them work through a challenging block structure problem in ways that show their tenacity, their problem-solving, and supporting phonics transfer during play meets kids where they are in spaces they feel comfortable. As kids work to construct a building in the block center or run a restaurant from the dramatic play area, we can share writing tools and ask how they might use these tools to add to their narratives. Perhaps a sign would help people know what the building is all about or a menu might help customers know what they can order. Then, as kids write for their various purposes, encourage the same strategies we use during writing and phonics. A chart can help support independence. Below is an image from my own classroom, in which students were building a subway station and needed a sign to tell riders that no trains were moving on a particular track. I simply brought post-its and pens to the block center and encouraged kids to say the word and stretch it, then write letters for the sounds they heard.

Phonics development can be hard for many of our students: the rules, the exceptions, the different ways of spelling seemingly similar sounds. Kids benefit from lots and lots of opportunities to practice reading, writing, and playing with their phonics skills to develop automaticity. Most importantly, phonics will always be the avenue in which kids become proficient readers and writers. As teachers, we can work to make sure phonics exists in our classroom with intention during isolated phonics instruction and also across subject areas. Reading Workshop, Writing Workshop, those two minutes before you just know the fire drill will go off, are all opportunities to sneak in a bit more phonics practice. This way, phonics instruction isn’t simply about letters and sounds, existing in some bubble, it’s everything we do all day long!

Mckenna, Sharon and McKenna, Michael C. How to Plan Differentiated Reading Instruction. The Guilford Press, 2017.

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