Making the shift towards the Science of Reading can be overwhelming. If you are starting this on your own, without the support of your school and county, it can seem impossible. I mean, if it were really the best thing for kids, we’d all know about it by now right? I wish it were that simple. You want to do what’s right for your children, but there is no single book, curriculum, or program that has it all. So today, I’m here to tell you—you do not have to overhaul your classroom overnight. You can take small steps that will lead to a big impact. I’m going to talk about 5 things you can try: all can be implemented pretty immediately, and each one will affect your instruction. At the end, I will have a list of resources to help you with each step.
Add Phonemic Awareness
If I had to pick just one instructional practice that could immediately begin creating more proficient readers in classrooms, I’d choose phonemic awareness. It is that important. Phonemic awareness is also the easiest to add if you have the materials. Letter-sound knowledge and phonemic awareness are the two best indicators of how well a child will learn to read in the first two years of school (Adams, 1990). After that, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t important, it just isn’t as good an indicator of success. Think of it like this—if a child is in 2nd grade and doesn’t have letter sounds, you don’t just skip over letter sounds: instead, you do intensive remediation to catch them up. You know they will never become readers without letter sound knowledge. The same should be done for phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness develops typically through third grade, but struggling readers may need it through high school and into adulthood.
How do you do it? Phonemic awareness is the ability to manipulate individual sounds in a word. That can include segmenting, blending, substituting, or deleting sounds Each day, I would work for a couple minutes on a phonemic awareness task. You can work at the syllable level, the onset-rime level, or the phoneme level. The ultimate goal is automaticity with the phoneme level. This one can be tricky if you don’t have access to materials. It’s not impossible, but there’s more work involved if you have to think of your own words and manipulation activities daily.
The two best resources for phonemic awareness are Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success and Heggerty’s Phonemic Awareness curriculum. I recommend you buy directly from their websites and not on Amazon. It’s actually cheaper and you know you’re getting it from the source. There is a TPT resource from Droppin’ Knowledge with Heidi that can also get you started. I’ll link all of these in my resources below. If you do not have access to these materials, try starting with your spelling list. Can you practice adding sounds to create new words? Deleting sounds? Substituting? Use what you have in front of you! If you are on Donor’s Choose, these would be great projects you can submit as special requests!
Explicitly Teach Phonics
I chose phonemic awareness as the instructional practice I’d add first, but explicitly teaching phonics is equally important. The second step you can take toward the Science of Reading is to teach phonics explicitly and systematically. I emphasize explicitly and systematically for a reason. There are A LOT of programs that claim to teach phonics. In reality, however, the phonics skills are taught incidentally, there is no clear sequence, and students are not given the amount of time they need to practice. Word sorts alone and identifying target words in a single text are not examples of explicit phonics instruction.
What does systematic and explicit look like? Systematic starts by having a solid sequence that moves from simple skills to more complex. I have a free one that is listed in the resources. Please note, though, that there is no single correct sequence. The general progression of skills will look similar, but there is no rule saying that you have to teach ai says /a/ before oa says /o/. In general, I want you to think about teaching the skill that will give your children access to the most words while reading and writing. When you think about skills with the most utility, it can help target and focus your instruction. Explicit means you take the time to directly teach the phonics skill, like teaching students that tch says /ch/ when it comes right after a short vowel, or that r-controlled vowels distort the vowel sound preceding it.
A phonics notebook is a great tool to have when you are explicitly and systematically teaching phonics. Every time I teach a new phonics skill, we have a notepage to help guide us through the instruction. These easily fit in a composition book. We do not do any extra reading or writing on those pages except for the notepage, so that it is not muddled with extra practice. (If you do need to use extra pages for practice, try having students start at the back and move backwards for those pages.) I started by making my own notepages each week, and found out that it was exhausting! So, over the past 2 years, I have created, refined, and updated my notebooks. I have a phonics notebook on TPT with 90 different phonics notepages. You can of course make your own, but I like to think that doing the work for you will help make the transition smoother. These notepages are not independent work or centers work, but a truly no-pre, interactive notebook for teachers to guide students through a phonics skill.
Add Decodable Texts
The next small step you can take is to use decodable texts instead of leveled texts. I know, I know, I know! If you have been taught a balanced literacy approach, this doesn’t seem like a small step at all. Using leveled texts is one of the defining characteristics of balanced literacy. An entire industry has risen on the backs of leveled readers. Incorporating decodable texts may seem more like a gigantic leap than a small step. BUT we can make it small by starting with one group. When I first learned about structured literacy, I decided to start with a one-on-one student I had been working with for years. Nothing else had been working, and I thought—what did I have to lose? One day, after we head learned about open and closed syllables, we were walking through the hallway. She read the first and last name of the teacher hanging on the door, and you would’ve thought Christmas came early because she finally had access to the code.
Start with your group that keeps you up at night, the one where nothing has worked, the group that has been shuffled from grade to grade without any real progress. You know the group I’m talking about, because we all have that one group that we just. can’t. reach. So why not give it a shot? Take that phonics sequence, choose a starting point for instruction, and allow them to practice that instruction in decodable texts.
Throw Away the Cueing Cards
The penultimate step might hurt, but just rip off the Band-Aid friends. Throw away your cueing strategy cards. Lips the Fish, Tryin’ Lion, and all the other guessing strategies HAVE to go. When the shutdown happened in March, my cueing strategy posters were still hanging up. I was trying to somehow meld balanced literacy and structured literacy and was surprised that I wasn’t getting results. I share this because I know how difficult the switch is, but I can no longer deny the ineffectiveness of cueing strategies for most of our students.
I really enjoy the discourse about structured literacy and balanced literacy. I know we are all trying to do what is best for children with the knowledge we currently have. One thing I cannot and will not budge on, however, is this—cueing strategies do not help children become better readers. We cannot say we are aligned with the Science of Reading if we are still using cueing strategies. Research has suggested that the cueing strategies actually teach children the strategies that poor readers use—namely, guessing. There was research done at Stanford that suggests whole language approaches actually activate a different part of the brain than explicit phonics approaches. The explicit phonics approach activated the part of the brain used by proficient readers, while the whole language approach activated the part of the brain used by struggling readers.
When you begin to add phonemic awareness and explicit phonics instruction, I think you will find yourself relying less and less on those cueing strategy cards. You won’t need them anymore, because your children will be relying on the alphabetic principle, not guessing, to solve unknown words.
Join A Community
Finally, you need to join a community. We were taught to trust the professionals—the professors, the published authors, and those massive publishing companies. I want you to remember, however, that at the end of the day, authors and publishing companies are in the business of making money, and some professors are not up to date with the Science of Reading. Guided Reading and leveled texts are making those authors and companies millions of dollars, so shifting that much curriculum to follow the Science of Reading is not their highest priority. They will choose dollars over children. None of them will ever care about the students in front of you like you do.
There are tons of Facebook groups and Instagram accounts that you can join and follow to help you on your journey. Surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals can help alleviate some of that loneliness. The most well-known Facebook group is The Science of Reading: What I Should Have Learned in College. It has over 70k members, so when you post you will get a lot of different viewpoints that support the Science of Reading. If you are looking for a smaller community, there are state-level branches of the page!
Another great resource is the Reading League. Their mission is to “advance awareness, understanding, and use of evidence-aligned reading instruction.” They’ve hosted several webinars that were very affordable. Webinars that they have recorded are actually available forever! They are the organization that I trust most when it comes to the Science of Reading. They also host a podcast called “Teaching, Reading and Learning: The Podcast.” At the time of this article, they have created 6 episodes with big names like Tim Shanahan, Emily Hanford, and David Kilpatrick.
Friends, I know this journey isn’t easy. Just remember, you can do small things that will lead to huge impacts for your children. Now, go throw Lips the Fish into the trashcan, because you don’t need him anymore.
- Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success
- Heggerty’s Phonemic Awareness Curriculum
- Phonemic awareness activities from Droppin’ Knowledge with Heidi
Explicit Phonics Instruction
- I will always share these decodable texts from Emily Gibbons! VERY affordable, and you can print copies so that each student can highlight the target skills!
- Incorporating a sound wall is another great visual that can help students think about phoneme-grapheme correspondence instead of guessing!
- You can use phonics posters to help students access the code.
Join a Community
- Science of Reading Facebook page.
- My Facebook page!
- The Reading League’s Catalog of webinars
- The Reading League’s Website
Adams, Marilyn Jager (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, Inc.
Article that discusses the Stanford brain research: https://news.stanford.edu/news/2015/may/reading-brain-phonics-052815.html