Phonics is the first step towards reading. And great reading skills will lead students anywhere they want to go. All teachers know that phonics and reading are important. Unfortunately many end up teaching phonics with rigid programs that focus heavily on writing with a pencil and reading – skills that can still be developmentally challenging for young learners. There are also older learners who have not yet mastered phonics. These students have often been failed by a cookie-cutter system that doesn’t allow them to learn at their own pace or address individual difficulties.
How can I teach effectively?
Creativity and individualization when implementing phonics programs can enhance the learning experience for students – setting them up for success in reading.
Involve the Senses
Teachers can help students improve their retention by teaching with the senses. Apart from the kinesthetic benefits of manipulating objects and creating muscle memory, students are also more likely to be interested in the subject matter when more senses are included. Some great ways to involve the senses while teaching phonics are:
A popular Montessori material, sound pouches can be made using cloth bags, drawers or boxes. Each pouch has the letter (or sound) printed on it. Inside are several objects (3-6 objects is appropriate) that start with that letter sound. It takes a bit of care when creating these pouches, especially with vowels such as “a” should include objects like “apple, ant, alligator” that use the typical letter sound and not “airplane” which is a variant of that sound. Students say the letter sound and name each object. Later, students can practice sorting objects from several sound pouches to identify the starting letter symbol or grapheme.
Another great Montessori material, sounds are learned by tracing a sandpaper outline of each letter. After learning each sound while tracing the letter, games can also be played. The teacher or an older student can ask for a letter by making its sound, and the learner gives it to the teacher. In my experience, making it into a fun game where you make up personas with funny accents visiting their letter shop creates a fun and effective learning experience.
Pipe Cleaners and Play Dough
Students can practice making different letters using play dough or pipe cleaners to improve memory of the graphemes.
As they say, practice makes perfect. Centers are a great way to allow for differentiation in your teaching. Use the following center-friendly activities:
Forming words with a moveable alphabet is great for students to practice letter sounds. Separating forming words from handwriting is important for the development of both, as young learners still struggle with fine motor skills. Students can either think of their own words or use pictures of simple 3 letter CVC (consonant vowel consonant) words when writing using a moveable alphabet. This is a great activity to encourage for beginners, as students may find it easier to form words than to read. Reading is a different process which involves decoding graphemes and interpreting them in sounds, while when forming words students hear the phonemes and produce graphemes.
Matching Pictures and Words
Creating sets of images and words is a great way for students to practice independently. You can create leveled sets of cards starting with CVC words, each set focusing on a different vowel sound, and work up to diagraphs and then mixed sets. These can be converted into memory games, etc. to add interest. Be sure to include a control so that students can check their own work.
If you have a set of leveled phonics books, centers is a great way to use them. Even workbooks are often useful in a center format as students can move at their own pace.
How can I monitor phonics progress?
When a lot of center work or differentiated level work is used, teachers may feel worried about keeping track of student progress. However, with some good organization, teachers can keep on top of it:
Make Sound Cards
A page in a binder or index card is made for each student where the teacher keeps track of which letter sounds the student is learning.or has mastered. Involving students as part of the tracking progress can be exciting. One year I had my pre-K students color in a box around each letter sound they mastered. It was excellent motivation.
Check Worksheets and Workbooks
Although these don’t need to be used on a daily basis, checking through a students’ worksheets and workbooks regularly helps teachers keep track of progress.
How can I help struggling older students?
Some older students still struggle to decode new words, even into the high school years. This is a cue to get some additional phonics practice. For teachers pressured to cover academic content, there are some techniques that will help your students without robbing all your class time:
Including a word of the day can be a great way to increase student awareness of new words and practice their decoding skills. The vocabulary word can be featured on the board with the definition. A mention of the word can be made at the start of class. When a student uses one of the vocabulary words during a class discussion, it could earn extra points.
Use Spelling Lists
Tried and true; the use of spelling lists to focus on diagraphs and vowel combinations that students seem to struggle with can improve their phonetic awareness. There are a lot of tic-tac-toe spelling games out there, challenging students to fit all of their spelling words in a square inch, jump-rope their words or write them in rainbow letters.
Graded reading practice can help students a lot. Incorporate a bit of independent reading time into class, even if it’s only about ten minutes. Keep track of students’ levels and make sure they’re reading at a level appropriate for them.
Follow your students and see where they take you. Allow students to move at their own pace as much as possible so that the sounds really sink in before moving on. Try to make your phonics work relevant and exciting for them by including fun themes such as dinosaurs (always a winner!) or the ocean. Remember to involve their senses as much as possible and change up your stations so that the work continues to be appropriate for the students in your care. By being creative and patient with your students, you’ll be able to teach truly excellent phonics and reading skills; setting your students up for success.