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I wish we could all take days to peek inside each other’s classrooms and learn from one another.  I’ve actually taken a personal day to travel an hour to one of my favorite teacher’s school so I could see how she teaches.  My goal anytime I go to a professional development or watch someone else teach is to try and find one thing that I can bring to my own teaching.  Today, I want to take you through the small groups that I teach in 1st-3rd grade*.  I hope that you have some “yes, I do that too” moments, and maybe one or two “I’ve GOT to try that” thoughts. 

In 2019, I was Orton Gillingham trained through Dawn Nieman.  Without ever hearing the words “Science of Reading,” she brought me deep into that world.  I will forever be grateful to her for helping change the way I teach.  Before her training, I was deeply engrained in the Fountas and Pinnell Guided Reading world.  Now when I teach small group, my lesson is a mixture of the components I’ve learned from the Orton-Gillingham approach, my LETRS training, and the ideas found in David Kilpatrick’s books.

Phonemic Awareness

I start every lesson with a phonemic awareness drill.  I use David Kilpatrick’s one-minute drills.  I’ve spoken a lot about phonemic awareness in other posts, so I will not belabor it here.  I will say, though, that 1 minute isolated drills are not enough.  Try to incorporate phonemic awareness throughout your lesson as you connect sound to symbol.

Symbol to Sound

These are the large salmon-white cards from Neimanville and I love them!

Before I was Orton-Gillingham trained, I felt I was woefully lacking any kind of daily, cumulative review.  Our lives were very much, “Let’s learn it this week, and then I expect you to remember it forever without me giving you any daily reminders.”    I was then extremely shocked when somehow they didn’t remember those skills from week to week.  Now, there are multiple parts in my lesson where we review skills previously taught.

The salmon and white cards, better known as symbol to sound, is our centering activity.  Somehow, when I bring out my salmon and white cards, the kids and I all know it’s time to get to business.  It’s an easy, quick activity, but one that is vital.  Basically, the salmon and white cards are a chance for students to review the graphemes you have taught them.  You flash the grapheme cards, and the children tell you the sound associated with that grapheme.  For example, if I showed “ai”, the children would say “a.” If I showed “igh”, they would respond with “i.”

Writing our ABCS

Our notebook after writing the alphabet and sound to symbol.

If a child cannot write their ABCs easily and without an aide, then they are not proficient with the alphabet.  Writing the ABCS is a way to warm students up for writing.  Two important considerations when doing this.  One, students should do it lowercase.  Why?  98% of the letter we write are lowercase.  I want my children to write lowercase letters correctly, quickly, and efficiently.  Another consideration is to have students write their ABCS a-m on one line, then n-z on the next.  By doing this, there are an equal number of letters on the top and bottom.  It makes it easy to see if a letter is missing.

I give my students 2 minutes to start.  Wherever they are at by the end of the 2 minutes is where they are for the day.  Once everyone has mastered the alphabet in 2 minutes, we move down to 1 minute 30 seconds, then 1 minute, and finally 30 seconds.  My goal is for my students to be able to write the alphabet in 30 seconds or less.

Sound to Symbol

Sound to symbol is the opposite of, you guessed it, symbol to sound.  Instead of us displaying graphemes to children, we give them a phoneme and they have to write down the graphemes they know that make those sounds.  You only do what you have taught up to that point.

For example, I might ask students to write down the 4 ways to make the /a/ sound.  There are more than 4 graphemes that make the /a/ sound, but we are only having students write what has been taught to that point. 

Other examples:

  1. Write the 3 ways you know to make the /i/ sound (i, i-e, igh if it had been taught to that point).
  2. Write the 2 ways you know to spell /ch/ (ch, tch).
  3. What are the 3 graphemes that make the /er/ sound? (ir, er, ur)

Heart Words

Another part of my instruction is teaching heart words.  There are many high-frequency words that can easily be decoded—I do not focus on teaching those words.  Instead, I aim to teach 3-5 high-frequency words each week that are phonetically irregular in some way.  I use the heart words approach, which you can learn more about here.

Reviewing Reading

The next component of a lesson is more review.  In a 30-minute session, I will alternate between reviewing reading and reviewing spelling.  For reviewing reading, I have cards organized by phonics skill.  My cards were from my Orton Gillingham training.  In my resources section, I will list a link to Dawn’s store, as well as another place you can find cards.  You want to have a reading review that reviews all of the skills you have taught, not just the ones from last week.

Each week (or two, if I’m going to be honest), I update my “gray decks” by taking out old skills my students have completely mastered and adding in any new skills we learned the previous weeks.  The goal is to have each child read about 15 words, but we try the best we can to get at least 7 per student!  Simply have them read the card, and then prompt every few words.

Example prompts:

When reading the word “flute,” ask “Why is there an e on the end?”

When reading the word “grin,” ask “What is the blend you see in that word?”

When reading the word “chain,” ask “Why is the /a/ sound spelled with an ai?”

An example of sound-symbol mapping.  Each box = 1 sound.

Reviewing Spelling

We can’t forget to review both the reading and spelling of new words.  Poor spelling comes from not being taught how to spell in the first place, but can also happen when we don’t give children time to practice and internalize the skills we have taught them.  You can take the words you had in your deck for review reading and use those, or come up with new ones.  I got tired of googling words each week, so I made my own.

 This is a great time to use the practice of phoneme-grapheme mapping (Grace, 2007), where you help students map one sound to the symbol that represents the sound.  I always make students repeat the word and say the sounds as they are spelling. The important thing to remember is that 1 box = 1 sound, no matter how many letters are in that sound. This helps students to recognize graphemes.

Introducing a New Skill/Practicing a New Skill

Phonics notebook pages

To introduce a new skill, I start by connecting phonemic awareness and phonics.  If possible, you want to start with just the sounds and have students pay attention to the target phoneme(s) you are addressing.  For example, If I am teaching about ch vs. tch, I would have students say and tap several words with those sounds.

After we discuss the sounds, it is time to explicitly teach students the rule.  To continue with my ch vs tch example, I would teach them that we use the “long spelling right after short vowel.”  We then need to spend time practicing.

I always use a phonics notebook to help practice our new skills.  It is a quick, efficient record of what had been taught.  After we complete our notepage, we will move on to reading and writing words and sentences with those patterns.

I want you to remember this when you are teaching a new skill:  it’s okay to follow a routine and not spend hours creating elaborate lessons around a rule.  Explicitly explain the rule, and then give them opportunities to hear and see that word in multiple contexts. You do not need children to create elaborate crafts or projects. Many of the crafts I see are heavy on the craft side, but extraordinarily light when it comes to practice phonics skills.

An example of a decodable text from Emily Gibbons at The Literacy nest.

Reading Connected Text

You always want to make sure that whatever skill you are teaching, they have time to work with that skill in a text.  This is why decodables are so important.  Before, when I was living in the guided reading/balanced literacy world, I would teach a phonics skill and then flip over to our leveled text where they might have 2-3 words that follow the pattern I’ve taught.  How were they ever supposed to learn a new skill like this? Now, I give them decodable texts that include tons of examples of the skill they have learned.

Before we read the text, if it is one that I have printed (I do this a lot, especially in Covid times), we highlight words with the target grapheme (ex: if we are studying r-controlled vowels, we highlight all the r-controlled vowels.)  Then, we read only the highlighted words.  Finally, we read the text itself.  Children should have high success with the text.  The decodable should be full of words they already know.  The words that were highlighted should be one of the only unfamiliar ones, and by practicing those beforehand, we have taken most of the cognitive load away from them. My favorite printable decodables are from Emily Gibbons at The Literacy Nest. Hers are truly decodable and affordable. 

Final Thoughts

This lesson was, to say the least, hefty.  Just know that you will do all of the right things, and you will still have lessons where you forget things.  No amount of planning can ever prepare us for real life.  I mess up all the time, I forget things, I’ve instructed wrong and had to go back and say “Sorry guys, what I told you yesterday wasn’t quite right.”  We are always striving to be better, but I hope you will give yourself grace and acknowledge that what you are right now is good enough.  I hope that, through this blog post, you can find at least one practice you can implement tomorrow.  If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

*This is an approximation. I always base my instruction on my students’ instructional needs.


  1. Free lesson plan template. You must force copy.
  2. Salmon/white cards and other materials from Dawn Nieman at Niemanville.
  3. Another option for a gray deck from The Multisensory Classroom.
  4. Sound-symbol mapping sheets.
  5. Orton-Gillingham interactive notebook.
  6. Decodable texts from The Literacy Nest.


Grace, Kathryn (2007). Phonics and spelling through phoneme-grapheme mapping. Voyager Sopris West.


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Savannah Campbell

Savannah Campbell

Savannah Campbell is a K-5 reading specialist. She has taught her entire 12-year teaching career at the school she went to as a child. She holds two master’s degrees in education from the College of William and Mary. Savannah is both Orton-Gillingham and LETRS trained. Her greatest hope in life is to allow all children to live the life they want by helping them to become literate individuals.

Savannah Campbell

Savannah Campbell

Savannah Campbell is a K-5 reading specialist. She has taught her entire 12-year teaching career at the school she went to as a child. She holds two master’s degrees in education from the College of William and Mary. Savannah is both Orton-Gillingham and LETRS trained. Her greatest hope in life is to allow all children to live the life they want by helping them to become literate individuals.

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