For decades I considered myself a balanced literacy teacher. Of course I believed in phonics instruction.
Of course I taught phonics.
Or did I?
Looking back, I made some pretty big mistakes when it came to phonics instruction.
I’m sharing them here in the hopes that I can help you avoid my own mistakes!
Phonics Instruction Mistake #1: Not following a strong scope and sequence
As a balanced literacy teacher, I had a general idea of which phonics skills were important to learn.
But I believed in an embedded approach to phonics instruction.
In other words, I taught phonics as it came up in our shared reading lessons, the students’ reading of leveled books, and our spelling lessons.
When students were stuck on a word, I (sometimes) encouraged them to find chunks they knew. If the word contained a sound-spelling they hadn’t yet encountered, I simply told it to them. (“ee” makes the long e sound)
Don’t get me wrong; it’s definitely helpful to point out sound-spellings during authentic reading and writing experiences.
BUT … this should be in addition to explicit phonics lessons that follow a strong scope and sequence.
By using a scope and sequence, we can ensure that we are not leaving gaps in our students’ phonics knowledge.
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Phonics Instruction Mistake #2: Not teaching phonics explicitly and systematically
I’ll be up front and tell you that my first year of teaching first grade, I was required to use a scripted phonics program that I hated.
It was a whole class program that, quite honestly, wasn’t meeting the needs of most of my students.
Because of that bad experience, I strongly believed in an embedded (rather than sequential, systematic) phonics approach. With the school board’s blessing, I tossed that program and, with it, explicit phonics teaching.
If I could go back (ahem) years, I would give engaging phonics lessons with the following elements:
Phonics Instruction Mistake #3: Forgetting to incorporate phonemic awareness
I’ll be honest. Phonemic awareness was hardly on my radar when I was a classroom teacher.
But these days, phonemic awareness is a hot topic in reading education … and with good reason! Of all the phonological awareness skills, phonemic awareness is by far the most important.
A child’s level of phonemic awareness has direct impact on his/her reading success.
A reminder: phonemic awareness is the ability to play with individual sounds in words; specifically, isolating, blending, segmenting, and manipulating those sounds.
We used to think that we should only do phonemic awareness “in the dark,” but now we know that incorporating letters is important.
Check out this video in which I share examples of incorporating phonemic awareness with phonics. (This is lesson 8 in our membership training, Phonological and Phonemic Awareness.)
The above video is an excerpt from the Phonological & Phonemic Awareness training of our membership site, The Measured Mom Plus.
Phonics Instruction Mistake #4: Not giving students enough practice with new sound-spellings
As a balanced literacy teacher, I taught phonics within our spelling lessons. But looking back, I know that my approach was not nearly as robust as my students needed.
Most importantly, they lacked sufficient practice with new sound-spellings.
In spelling class, I taught my students to read and sort words with specific phonics patterns. But then I had them read leveled books during reading class. Since they yet didn’t know many of the sound-spellings in their leveled books, I told them to use context and the picture to help them “solve” words.
I wish I knew then what I know now.
Here’s the thing.
For kids who struggle to sound out words, they’re going to take the path of least resistance. They’re not going to use phonics to solve words if they can help it.
I wish, wish, wish that I had used quality decodable books instead leveled books with my beginning readers.
Decodable books help students actually apply their phonics knowledge.
I know, I know. A lot of decodable books are really the pits. But there are some incredible decodable book series out there, and more are published all the time.
Check out my Ultimate Guide to Decodable Books to find new favorites!
Phonics Instruction Mistake #5: Not teaching strategies for sounding out multi-syllable words
I’m embarrassed to say that the only thing I remember teaching my students about multi-syllable words was to find chunks they know.
There’s so much more we can and should do!
1-Consider teaching students to read and identify syllable types (open, closed, magic e, vowel team, r-controlled, and consonant-le). To learn more, check out Reading Rockets’ article: Six Syllable Types.
2- Consider teaching syllable division strategies. There is debate about this in the science of reading community; some believe this is just too complicated and a waste of time.
I think the opposing side has a valid argument, but I don’t think we should toss it out entirely. We should be careful not to spend too much time on this, but I believe that teaching syllable division principles is valuable. To learn more, check out Sarah’s Teaching Snippets blog post: How to Teach Syllable Division Rules.
3- If the above is too much for you, I understand. Syllable types and syllable division principles can feel overwhelming or just plain unnecessary If you’re in that camp, make sure you teach your students a non-rule based approach for sounding out multi-syllable words.
I LOVE this video from Reading Rockets. If you’re short on time, watch it on double speed. It’s worth the 7 minutes!
Phonics Instruction Mistake #6: Failing to differentiate
I love the enthusiasm I’m seeing from teachers all over the world about making their phonics instruction more explicit and systematic.
But in doing this, we have to be careful not to fall back into the old trap of thinking that teaching the same thing to everyone – all the time – is the way to go.
If you’ve been a teacher for a single day, you know how vastly different our students’ abilities are, especially when it comes to early reading skills.
Personally, I think that our students in kindergarten and first grade are best served by small group phonics lessons. To form these groups, we assess students’ phonics knowledge (check out my free phonics assessment – coming soon!) and group them accordingly.
In these small groups, we teach phonics systematically, sequentially, and explicitly.
If you’d like to know more about what those small group lessons could look like, stay tuned! It’s coming later in our phonics series.
Check our the rest of our phonics series!
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Thank you Anna for laying out all of this information so clearly in one place. As you know (I think), I have been following the Science of Reading facebook group for years and LOVE that group for the wealth of information it provides, but it can be overwhelming to sort through thousands of posts, and I love the way you sift through teaching strategies, explanations, and pros and cons of various theories to make sense of everything and give me tips that I can directly apply to my reading intervention groups. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you so much, Stephanie! Your comment was a day brightener for sure! I love my work and am so glad it’s helpful. 🙂
I think it is important to note that phonemic awareness is only “done in the dark” or as others refer to it as “it can be done with your eyes closed.” A phoneme, unit of sound, is orally produced. Everything that is practiced through phonemic awareness is not related to written letters at all and will be done “in the dark” such as breaking words into individual sounds and manipulating and changing them. Some educators do not understand this and confuse phonemic awareness with the alphabetic principle which is a written symbol (a letter in the English alphabet) that represents a spoken sound. So reading instruction involves both being able to hear phonemes (sounds) in words and using written symbols to represent the sound. Therefore we teach a phoneme (sound) and a graphemes (letter or letter combinations) as phonic instructions. But phonemic awareness instruction doesn’t include graphemes or letters at all. Many confuse these ideas and wrongly combine them together. I think making this clearer in your post could continue to educate many on this topic:).
I absolutely agree Rebecca. It is when children have an understanding/awareness of phonemes that transferring that knowledge to graphemes is easy – hence the Phoneme – Grapheme Correspondence or PGC.
I think the slide is what is a bit confusing to me because it says “Building Phonemic Awareness with Letters” because they are two different things. It just a common misunderstanding when it comes to reading instruction to get them intertwined. They are definitely related and needed in reading instruction but are separate pieces.
I respectfully disagree. Timothy Shanahan lays it out here: https://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-literacy/letters-phonemic-awareness-instruction-or-reciprocal-nature-learning-read
Actually this is a huge topic right now in the current science of reading discussion, and everything I’ve read recently on the topic has said that even though we’ve always done “phonemic awareness in the dark,” doesn’t mean we should. Many researchers have found that phonemic awareness instruction is most effective when combined with letters – even in preschool, as shown in the video. I definitely believe that doing oral phonemic awareness exercises is still valuable, particularly as a scaffold before students are ready to do this with letters. But we are still building phonemic awareness when we add letters to the mix. If you’d like me to share some articles, I can hunt down the links. Please send me an email – hello(at)themeasuredmom(dot)com if you’d like them.
I think the “with” in your slide is the point of confusion for me. You can of course have both phonics instruction (alphabetic principle, orthographic mapping, letter sounds recognition, etc.) and phonological awareness in the same lesson, but they are two separate pieces of a reading puzzle. My point is phonemic awareness is a very specific piece of an overarching umbrella term phonological awareness. It has been studied in linguistics for years. The term phoneme can only be based on a sound (auditory only by definition) therefore it can only be done with your eyes closed. See this link for a visual picture. https://cdn.education.ne.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Nebraska-Session-1-Phonological-Awareness-and-Phonics-2.pdf
Letters are visual and phonemes are oral (sounds) If you are mixing them together it would be a grapheme or phonics instruction. Phonemic awareness (phoneme manipulation) will always only be an auditory skill. If say you are teaching “phonemic awareness” and including a visual representation of a letter that is not phonemic awareness. It is phoneme-grapheme lesson or orthographic mapping or some other phonics lesson. This is where I see the most confusion with educators. Phonological instruction (which phonemic awareness fall under) and phonics absolutely should be taught together for solid reading instruction but they have different definitions and therefore are separated by what is auditory only (phonological) and what combines symbol and sound (phonics).
Here are some references.
I believe I left this video in response to another comment, but here it is again… I’m getting a little lost with the web of comments. 🙂 https://youtu.be/RaScDsD1kIU
I just want to clarify that phonemic awareness is by definition an auditory-only skill. (http://reading.uoregon.edu/big_ideas/pa/pa_what.php). Phonological awareness is an umbrella category for manipulating sounds. Phonemic awareness is a subcategory of this. (https://cdn.education.ne.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Nebraska-Session-1-Phonological-Awareness-and-Phonics-2.pdf) Slides 14 and 15 of this have great diagrams to define these terms. So you can’t just add letters (visual symbol of a representation of a sound) and call it “phonemic awareness.” There is a lot of research on this. Therein lies the confusion with educators who are teaching reading to young children. A literacy lesson can definitely include both phonological (oral) components and phonics (visual and oral) but they are not one and the same. A lesson that includes letters and sounds such as orthographic mapping or grapheme-phoneme instruction may strengthen an auditory connection and boost phonemic awareness but fundamentally is not a “phonological awareness lesson” by definition because there is a visual piece to it. I am not asserting in any way that phonemic awareness, phonics, the alphabetic principle, or any other reading principle should be taught in isolation. Any educator knows these principles come together in every form possible to teach children to read. What I am trying to do is clarify a very common misconception among reading educators is that there is a fundamental difference between phonological awareness (the umbrella category under which phonemic awareness falls) and phonics.
Yes, I am definitely in agreement that these are different. I have explained that many times on this website, in videos, and in my courses. But just because you are adding letters doesn’t mean that there is no longer a phonemic awareness piece. Children are still working with individual phonemes as they isolate, segment, and blend.
It feels a bit like we’re splitting hairs. We agree- phonological awareness (and phonemic awareness, a component of it) and phonics are not the same. By definition, phonemic awareness is oral, and phonics is visual. But when we add phonics we aren’t suddenly negating the phonemic awareness instruction that’s taking place. What do you think of this video? https://youtu.be/RaScDsD1kIU
Sorry, I thought my first comment got deleted and didn’t post so I rewrote it. I usually don’t respond to things like (I’m really an introvert,) but I do feel that this is a problem in reading instruction that needs to be clarified. I know that you have a platform that can teach many educators which is why I’m taking the time to comment and explain.
I would say the video is an awesome phonics lesson! In the video, the student knew his letters and sounds, understood the alphabetic principle, and has some understanding of phonemic awareness. So what the instructor was doing was using on grapheme-phoneme mapping. Brain science shows that input is received in different ways for auditory (temporal lobe of the brain) versus visual processing (occipital lobe). Because the instructor had alphabet letters and sounds, the instruction given was as an auditory and visual processing activity (phonics). Which is the key difference. Now if at any time during the lesson the board was turned around or taken away so that there was not a visual cueing system and the student segmented the word, then it would be explicit phonemic awareness instruction (auditory input only to the brain.)
If I walk into a teacher’s classroom and the learning target posted is “phonemic awareness -sound segmentation” and then a teacher has the students get out whiteboards or magnet alphabet letters and trays, I cringe. That is a great phonics lesson but the focus is not on phonemic awareness unless at some point all visual cues are taken away and students are able to segment orally (auditory processing only). The problem with combining visual and auditory input in early childhood education is that many poor readers often only rely on visual cues so setting up young children to learn phonemic awareness in combination with a visual cueing system (teaching together with letters) can be problematic. If, like in the video, the student has phonemic awareness, knows the alphabetic principle, has letter-sound knowledge then it is perfectly acceptable to have pieces of both in good instruction. So to clarify my point the video example that you shared, which is a great video of a reading instructional strategy based on phonics instruction (combination of visual and auditory), is what teachers think they are doing to explicitly teach phonemic awareness then it is actually based on this misconception and not what phonemic awareness instruction actually is.
From observing the video and looking to gather data points on whether or not this student has phonemic awareness, an instructor could wrongly assume he has phonemic awareness based on the skills he performed, but since there was a visual cueing system the brain could be processing it only through the occipital lobe. It is only when that visual piece is taken away can one evaluate the true auditory-only phonemic awareness skill.
Here’s an article that explains more. I know the source may seem biased since it is published on a paid phonemic awareness curriculum website, but if you do research and get back to the linguistic side of what phonemic awareness is this author is spot on with the difference between phonemic awareness versus and phonics.
I’m a huge fan of Heggerty and think their program is fabulous; but even Heggerty reps will tell you (as they told me) that it’s just a starting point. In fact, I believe that with the revision of their program coming this summer there WILL be optional activities that include letters for some levels.
I’m not sure about your statement here, but I will definitely look into it: “The problem with combining visual and auditory input in early childhood education is that many poor readers often only rely on visual cues so setting up young children to learn phonemic awareness in combination with a visual cueing system (teaching together with letters) can be problematic.” I’m not sure about this, but I appreciate you challenging me on this.
Overall, I disagree that you can’t combine phonemic awareness and phonic and still be building phonemic awareness – based on everything that I’ve read and studied. I suggest joining the “Science of Reading: What I Should Have Learned in College” Facebook group and post your thoughts on this. You will get a lot of articles and professionals (including the professor who created that YouTube video) weighing in. I’m signing off on this for now. 🙂
Just curious why you did not instruct this child to write his letter /s/ from top to bottom ? I’ve always felt it is important for a child to be consistent in writing their letters to become fast and efficient writers. It is easier to pull than push. His /s/ likely would have been written correctly if he had started at the top.
He was very little and it wasn’t my focus at the time. Rest assured, he is forming letters correctly now. 🙂