Friday, May 21, 2021

Phonics Instruction is Like a Little Girl Playing in Her Mom's Make-Up

So this morning I gave myself a challenge: I WILL curl my hair with my straightener.  I’d prepped for it by talking to friends and coworkers who do this regularly. I’d watched multiple YouTube videos and while I knew it wouldn't be as easy as those videos made it look, I felt ready.

Well… maybe I wasn’t as ready as I thought. The first two attempts were okay-ish, but by that third tress, I had it! The perfect wavy, not too curly look I was going for. But it went downhill after that. I finished. I used that straightener to curl my whole head of hair. About a third of my hair achieved the look I wanted. Another third had some curl to it.  And somehow about a third of my hair was still straight. No curl at all.  

I went back, taking much more time than I hoped for, curling and re-curling until most of the straight hair had at least some curl or wave to it.

Staring at the mess that was my hair, I made a quick decision and pulled it back into a ponytail which actually looked good. 

It wasn’t what I planned.  It took longer than I thought. I had to redo it multiple times. But in the end, it turned out looking good. Not great, but good.

And that’s when it struck me:

 Curling my hair with a straightener is exactly the same as how my whole group phonics instructions used to be.

With phonics instruction, I came in with a plan to try these great ideas I had seen on Pinterest. I presented to the whole group. A third of the kids got it (the third that would get it no matter how I taught it). A third had some understanding of it, but were nowhere near mastery and needed some help. And the other third needed more instruction and interventions. 

Just like I had to spend extra time trying to get some curl into those straight tresses, I had to spend extra time providing interventions for the students who didn’t yet understand the phonics concept from my whole group instruction.

And by the end of the week, most students (not all, but most) had mastered the week’s phonics skill. It took a lot of extra small group instruction for those middle students, and A LOT of intervention time for those students who struggled, but we got there. We looked pretty darn good given where we started.

But just like my hair, where I could have used a thick barreled curling iron and cut my time in half and achieved the look I wanted, I could have used a different whole group approach and cut out my need for so many interventions. In both scenarios, I was working harder not smarter. 

No matter how great whole group instruction is, interventions will probably be necessary for some students.  But (and that is an important but) small, powerful changes to whole group and small group instruction can cut the amount of intervention needed, just like my thick barreled curling iron can cut my morning routine time in half. 

Whole group phonics instruction that truly works for the whole group is essential. Adding more opportunities to respond, a structured and predictable format, and approaching new skills and review in a systematic way was life changing. 

Not only were students making bigger gains, but they also needed less interventions.  And not to sound selfish, but that meant I had less to prep for. I didn’t have to spend as much mental energy working extra with those students and worrying I was doing enough.  My whole group instruction became enough for most students. They were making MORE progress and I had MORE time and energy.  

How did I do this?  I implemented 5 main routines throughout the week:

1) New Sound Routine
2) Build it & Blend Routine
3) Skill of the Week Blending Routine
4) Regular Blending Routine
5) Multisyllable Word Routine

By shoring up phonics instruction and using proven strategies and routines, I cut the amount of interventions my students needed because they were learning the material during whole group instruction. 

I also added these routine to the beginning of my small group work to reinforce the skill of the week and target review areas for each group. And wow! Within a couple weeks, these kids were rocking it! We were loving the progress! I was loving having my time (and some sanity) back!

If you don’t have these routines in place, add them in!  It will be a life changer!

Want to learn the step-by-step process for implementing these routines?  Join the waitlist for my next online training: 5 Proven & Powerful Phonics Routines That Will Make a Bigger Impact For Your Students and Save You Time

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Why All Teachers Need to Build Phonics Routines: aka Make a Bigger Impact for Students While Saving Yourself Time

Why All Teachers Need Phonics Routines - iHeartLiteracy

Whether this is your 1st year of teaching, your 5th, or your 15th, if you don’t have set phonics routines in your reading instruction, then stop what you’re doing and implement them now!

The three biggest benefits to having set phonics routines are:

  1. They help students master phonics skills
  2. They cut down on the need for individualized interventions
  3. They save you time

So, what are phonics routines?

Phonics routines are simple procedures teachers implement that introduce sounds, blend words, and decode words.  These procedures are explicitly taught to students. They are predictable. And while the words and sounds used each day change, the overall structure of how to introduce, decode, and blend those words stays the same.


Why implement them?  

Let’s go back to those benefits and take a deeper dive into each one.

Why All Teachers Need Phonics Routines - iHeartLiteracy

1 - Phonics routines help students master phonics skills

Since these routines are predictable and easy to follow, students know exactly what is expected of them. This cuts down on redirecting and distractions because students are able to focus on the task at hand, knowing exactly what is coming next. The routines also help you keep a brisk pace which students find more engaging and gives them less “down time” time to get off task.  

More time on task and having clear expectations from routines also combines with an increase in opportunities for students to respond and continuous review that routines also provide.  As students have more chances to respond and actively participate in their learning, students master the phonics concepts in shorter amounts of time. 

Routines also offer easy opportunities to review past phonics skills which are repeatedly reinforced throughout the year.  This creates deeper and longer lasting learning - true mastery of skills.


Why All Teachers Need Phonics Routines - iHeartLiteracy

2 - Phonics routines cut down on the need for individualized intervention

With more chances to respond, more time on task, and more cyclical review, extra support is already “baked in” to the regular lesson plan. These routines can also be utilized to begin small group instruction, which again adds more opportunities to respond, practice, and review. By strengthening whole group and small group instruction with phonics routines, students begin to learn and master content quicker.  This added layer of support cuts the need for interventions for most students.  

Yes, some students may still need more than just whole group and small group instruction. That is the nature of education.  However, your total number of students who need those interventions will be reduced.  Plus, if a student isn’t making gains with the strengthened whole group and small group instruction, you as a teacher are in a much stronger position for advocating for that student to get extra help beyond what you can provide by yourself from other support structures in your school. 


Why All Teachers Need Phonics Routines - iHeartLiteracy

3 - Phonics routines save you time

Phonics routines aren’t just impactful for students’ learning.  They are also impactful for you as a teacher and as a person.  How many hours do you spend planning and prepping?  It’s probably too many to count.  And if I were a betting woman, I’d put money on the fact that you have to spend not just your work hours but also your personal time prepping for all you do in your classroom.  Am I right?

The predictability and methodical process that routines bring help you reduce the hours you spend prepping.  When you’ve got four or five effective phonics routines up your sleeve, all you need is a list of words that correspond to your phonics skill of the week plus a few review words from previous weeks and viola! You’re ready to go.


In some ways, phonics routines may sound too good to be true. But they aren’t. 

They are simple, effective systems to explicitly teach kids the skills they need to learn.  The added bonus is that you get some of your time back. Time you deserve.  If you want to spend that time binge watching Netflix, hiking up a mountainside, skiing down a slope, or even planning and prepping a different lesson, go for it!  :) You do you. 

Just know that you do not have to be working so hard on your phonics instruction. Work smarter, not harder. You can get better results and save yourself time by implementing clear phonics routines.


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Sunday, April 11, 2021

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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Top Five Tips for Teaching Short U Words

The Top Five Tips for Teaching Short U Words #phonics #teaching #kindergarten #1stgrade #2ndgrade #CVC #shortu

Over the years, I’ve had so many students (and my own child) be so determined that they are going to sound out that word by themselves with no assistance and then immediately struggle with the vowel sound. 

And what happens when I step in and verbally try to help? 

The kid feels defeated. 

They wanted to do it themselves. They wanted to take ownership of that word.  And that small /u/ sound that came out of my mouth ruined their plans. It zapped any intrinsic desire to conquer the word independently.

So, what is a teacher to do?  How can we help teach the Short U sound without destroying a kid’s love of independence and learning?

Here are my top five tips for establishing a strong phonics foundation that empowers students to take charge of their learning.

1. Utilize Sign Language

When initially teaching a new vowel sound, I always show students the corresponding ASL sign for the letter. This simple step incorporates movement and muscle memory which helps deepen the connection between the letter and the sound.  Here is the sign for the letter U:

The Top Five Tips for Teaching Short U Words

I like to make the /u/ sound while moving my hand up and pointing out that up make the /u/ sound.

The best thing about teaching students this sign is that it becomes a simple, nonverbal signal for students.

If a student is struggling to sound out a word, subtly holding up the sign gives a silent prompt which allows the student the scaffolding he needs to continue while also maintaining confidence and building independent reading skills.

One of my favorite things to see is when students start signaling themselves as they read.  They come to a word, stumble on the vowel sound, flash themselves the signal, decode, and continue on their independent and empowered way.

2. Anchor the Concept

Have you ever noticed how much kids’ eyes move around when they are quickly searching for an answer they don’t know?  Rather than having students stare at their shoes or wildly scan the room from side to side, give their eyes something to settle on – another nonverbal prompt. 

I like to have one main location in my room (mine is on the side of my whiteboard) where I put a poster of the week’s phonics skill. After the week is over I add the poster to a bulletin board so students can always reference it later. But for the week at hand, the week we are covering that Short U sound, this is the poster prominently displayed on my whiteboard:

The Top Five Tips for Teaching Short U Words - Phonics Poster

I explicitly teach students at the beginning of our phonics lesson that this is our poster for our unit and that we can reference it when we need help with that Short U sound. I model how I can read the words on the poster and how the “u” is in a different color so it stands out. I also model how seeing the sun reminds me of the Short U sound.  As the week progresses, I make sure to reference back to the poster, modeling how when I need help, I can look to that anchor.

If you’d like this Short U poster (and 19 other phonics skill posters), you can grab them for free here: Free Phonics Posters.

3. Examples! Examples! Examples!

Repetition is key.

You’ve probably heard various numbers, but there is a general idea (based on multiple studies) that kids need repetition to learn new words. Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan quotes research that show an average student needs around ten repetitions with a word to learn it. 

That’s 10 for an average student. 

Your kids who struggle even just a little bit will need more than ten. And the students who struggle a lot…

Repetition matters.

4. Make It Fun

Repetition is boring!

If you’re doing the same thing with the same words every day or multiple times within the same lesson, kids will zone out. You’ll lose them. That love of independent learning will be extinguished.
So, what can you do?

Sneak in the repetition like a ninja.

Read the words. Write the words. Use manipulatives to create the words. Play games with the words.  Illustrate the words. The possibilities are endless!

But, the time it takes to create those possibilities so repetition is fun and exciting is also endless. It takes hours to make all that productive fun for just one phonics skill!

The Top Five Tips for Teaching Short U Words - Word Work and ActivitiesDon’t worry – I’ve got you covered.

I have over 100 phonics skill packs ready to go for you. The Short U ones are right here:

-CVC Short U Word Work
-uck Word Work
-ug Word Work
-ump Word Work
-un Word Work
-unk Word Work

These packs each include 30 different word work activities that start at the foundational level and build to mastering Short U skills.

Kids get a range of fun activities including cutting & gluing, tracing, stamping, word sorting, illustrating, coloring, story writing, and more. Students also get to solve word puzzles, complete word searches, and play I have… Who has… with Short U words. This is all the repetition those kids need in one place.

Best of all? It’s low prep!

If you want to check out the other packs that are available, use this Free Word Work Guide with clickable links.

5. Turn the Tables

Students who have that independent, I-want-to-do-it-myself (aka stubborn) attitude towards learning love nothing more than the power and control of being in charge. Harness that tenacious mind and let the student become the teacher.  

When students know that they get to be the teacher for a concept, it inspires them to take control of their learning.  They need to know that Short U sound well enough to teach it to you and the rest of the class.

So ask them, what part of the Short U sound do they want to teach everyone? The ASL sign for Short U? How to use the anchor poster effectively? How to decode Short U words? How to manipulate the sounds in the word sun so that it becomes fun?

Putting teaching in the hands of students creates instant empowerment.

The Top Five Tips for Teaching Short U Words #phonics #teaching #kindergarten #1stgrade #2ndgrade #CVC #shortu

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