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A Fresh Look at Phonics

Wiley Blevins, Ed.D. Dr. Wiley Blevins is an early reading specialist who holds an M.Ed. from Harvard. He taught elementary school in the United States and South America. Dr. Blevins is the author of best-selling titles A Fresh Look at Phonics, Phonics from A to Z, and Teaching Phonics & Word Study in the Intermediate Grades.

10 Common Causes of Failure

  1. INADEQUATE OR NON-EXISTENT REVIEW AND REPETITION CYCLE We underestimate the amount of time it takes young learners to master phonics skills. When a new skill is introduced it should be systematically and purposefully reviewed for the next 4-6 weeks. Our goal must be to teach to mastery rather than just exposure. With the fast pacing of most curriculum, a more substantial review and repetition cycle often must be added. Look at the skill you are teaching this week, then mark all the instances it is reviewed in the upcoming 4-6 weeks. Increase opportunities to practice through additional words in blending lines, dictation, and repeated readings of previously-read decodable stories.

  2. LACK OF APPLICATION TO REAL READING AND WRITING EXPERIENCES Students progress at a much faster rate in phonics when the bulk of instructional time is spent on applying the skills to authentic reading and writing experiences, rather than isolated skill-and-drill work. At least 50% of a phonics lesson should be devoted to application exercises. Evaluate the average amount of time your students spend on reading and writing during your phonics lessons.

  3. INAPPROPRIATE READING MATERIALS TO PRACTICE SKILLS The connection between what we teach and what we have young learners read has a powerful effect on their word-reading strategies (Juel and Roper-Schneider, 1985) and their phonics and spelling skills (Blevins, 2000). It also affects their motivation to read. Examine a few pages from the books you give your students to read in K-1. They should be able to sound out over 50% of these words based on the phonics skills you have taught them up to that point. If not, more controlled text will be needed until they get more phonics skills under their belts and develop a sense of comfort and control in their reading abilities. You can usually transition to more challenging text in the second half of Grade 1.

  4. INEFFECTIVE USE OF THE GRADUAL RELEASE MODEL Teachers of struggling readers often spend too much of the instructional time doing the “heavy lifting,” such as over-modeling and having students simply repeat. Whoever does the thinking in a lesson, does the learning. Students might struggle, but you are there to provide corrective feedback and support. Limit “parrot” activities to a minimum.

  5. TOO MUCH TIME LOST DURING TRANSITIONS Phonics lessons often require a lot of manipulatives and materials. Transitional times when materials are distributed or collected should be viewed as valuable instructional moments in which review skills can be addressed (e.g., sing the ABC song, do a phonemic awareness task, review sound-letter action rhymes to focus students’ attention on an instructional goal). Plan these transitions at the beginning of the week (e.g., select 3-4 great transitions per week).

  6. LIMITED TEACHER KNOWLEDGE OF RESEARCHED-BASED PHONICS ROUTINES AND LINGUISTICS Teachers with a background in phonics or linguistics are better equipped to make meaningful instructional decisions, analyze student errors, and improve the language and delivery of instruction. Also teacher attitudes toward phonics instructional materials (e.g., decodable text) and routines (e.g., sorts, word building, blending) matter. These need to be explored within grade-level teams.

  7. INAPPROPRIATE PACING OF LESSONS Teachers often spend too much time on activities they enjoy or are easier for students and less on the more challenging or “meaty” activities that increase learning. Keep lessons fast-paced and rigorous. Phonics should be fun with students active and engaged the entire lesson. The bulk of time should be devoted to “real reading and writing” experiences.

  8. NO COMPREHENSIVE OR CUMULATIVE MASTERY ASSESSMENT TOOLS Assessment of phonics skills must be done over an extended period of time to ensure mastery. Weekly assessments focusing on one skill often give “false positives.” That is, they show movement toward learning, but not mastery. If the skill isn’t worked on for subsequent weeks, learning can decay. Cumulative assessments help you determine which skills have truly been mastered.

  9. TRANSITIONING TO MULTISYLLABIC WORDS TOO LATE Most curriculum focus on one-syllable words in Grade 2, yet the stories students read at that grade are filled with more challenging, multisyllabic words. More emphasis needs to be given to transitioning to longer words at this grade (e.g., going from known to new words like can/candle and teaching the six major syllable types). Add this to your weekly lessons all year.

  10. OVERDOING IT (ESPECIALLY ISOLATED SKILL WORK) Some curriculum over-emphasize phonics (especially the isolated skill type of work), while ignoring other key aspects of early reading needs (e.g., vocabulary and background knowledge building) that are essential to long-term reading progress. Modify your reading time to provide better balance.

Wiley Blevins is a consultant for Benchmark Education.   Benchmark Education Company has had one guiding principle since its founding in 1998—providing best-practices teacher training and research-based solutions that help every student in every corner of the globe develop literacy and language skills.  Since then, BEC has become a leading educational publisher of core, supplemental, and intervention literacy and language resources.  The company’s print and instructional technology solutions are used by classrooms and learning centers around the world. 

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