Next up in my Introduction to the Science of Reading series, we’re looking at our phonics lessons. More specifically, our systematic and explicit phonics lessons. During the last several weeks we’ve been diving into the bottom strands of Scarborough’s Rope focusing on word recognition. I talked about the need for systematic and sequential phonics instruction in my last post. In this one, I’m not focusing on what phonics skills you should be teaching. Most of us are bound to the sequences set forth by our district curriculum map or reading programs. There’s also not research to support one scope and sequence over another. If you’re not following one, however, you should be. Rather, today I’m focusing on the key components of your phonics lessons. What’s missing from your core curriculum? How can you supplement to ensure you’re meeting students’ needs and providing the kind of explicit instruction that will reach all students? Or, how can you plan your own? These phonics lessons will continue to focus on the bottom strands but will incorporate a few key pieces of language comprehension.
Each component gives a range of recommended time. This is due to variances of student needs depending on their phase of reading development. Students moving from the full to consolidated phase have different needs than those still at a pre-alphabetic phase, for example. These timings are built around a 30 minute lesson. However, it can be adjusted across two days of 20 minute lessons. I include a free lesson plan template at the end and include lesson plan pages for both formats.
Typically, this phonics lesson sequence should guide our small group instruction in K-2 settings as students are developing foundational reading skills. Beyond that, students still in need of phonics instruction benefit from this lesson format as they learn and practice new phonics skills. This lesson sequence could also be used for whole class instruction. I, personally, condense some of the application time with whole class instruction as it can be difficult to gauge students’ abilities and participation. Rather, I use that time to incorporate extra practice within my small group instruction, as needed. At the end of the day, it’s most important that your phonics lessons are responsive to student need.
#1: Phonemic Awareness (2-4 minutes)
While phonemic awareness is best built with hands-on work with letters, I also think quick oral practice is very beneficial, especially for students that struggle to develop phonemic awareness skills. This introductory time should be short- about 2 – 4 minutes. If you are teaching a new sound-spelling correspondence in today’s phonics lesson, it’s the perfect time to incorporate that sound within the lesson, especially focusing on articulation. I talk all about phonemic awareness in a separate post but I wanted to share some tips I’ve found helpful for this time in my lesson.
- Make things concrete- use tapping, arm movements, blocks, counters, or another classroom tool to represent each sound.
- Focus on segmenting & blending- research shows these two skills are the most impactful for our reading instruction. But this is also a great time to incorporate some rhyming, or initial/final sound deletion. Target this to what your students need practice with based on your assessment data.
#2: Review Previous Lesson(s) (3-5 minutes)
Continued review is imperative for student mastery of skills. Rather than continue with one skill until students have reached mastery, we should continue to introduce new concepts while practicing recent ones as well. Before beginning a new skill, spend a few minutes, 3-5, reviewing a skill that’s recently been taught. For students in the partial alphabetic phase, I almost exclusively do a word reading drill as our review. This ensures students are getting intentional support with blending while also practicing previously learned phonics skills. As students develop, I incorporate a variety of activities to support this practice. Some of my favorite ways to review include:
- Fluency grids
- Previously read decodable texts- this is fantastic for building fluency
- Word dictation
- Blending lines
- Roll & Read
I have a whole post dedicated to Decoding Activities where I walk through each of these and how they work within my small groups, including a video of the word reading drill mentioned above. Because this time is so short, and I want to ensure students are successful while reading these words, I don’t incorporate games frequently. With that said, I do build in review days as our schedule fits them and I almost exclusively use games as the bulk of our time on those days.
For these activities, and the ones for the current phonics skill, we always circle back to understanding the word. It’s important that students connect the pronunciation to a word in their vocabulary. If the word is unknown, give a quick definition. The word meaning shouldn’t be belabored, but to promote orthographic mapping, we want to connect the visual, auditory, and meaning of the word.
#3: Introduce the Phonics Skill (3-5 minutes)
When introducing the new phonics skill in your phonics lesson, instruction should be clear, explicit, and succinct. Display the new sound-spelling correspondence on the board or with letter/sound cards and provide the sound represented by the letter(s). Students should repeat with reinforcement of correct articulation. Gestures can be helpful for tricky sounds. For example, /ch/ and /j/ or short vowel sounds are commonly confused.
I like to focus on the sound represented by the letters, so I start my instruction with the sound. “Today, we’re going to practice one way to represent the /ai/ sound ‘ay’. ‘Ay’ is used at the end of the word to represent the long a sound /ai/. When we make the sound /ai/, remember our chin drops. Say it with me /ai/. It’s a continuous sound /ai/. Let’s practice reading words that have ‘ay’ represent the sound /ai/.
#4 Guided Practice (5 minutes)
Students need to immediately apply the new phonics skill while reading words. I like to do a modified word reading drill as the basis of this practice. Depending on the phonics skill, I keep it stationary as other sounds in the word are swapped. For example, if “ai” is the word of the day, I will change the initial or final sound(s) of the word keeping “ai” in place. I find that by changing only one sound, students are cued into placement changes and have greater success. It’s important that during this time, students receive immediate corrective feedback as they apply the new skill.
If students are proficient with blending, I often incorporate fluency grids for our current phonics skill. I like to use fluency because they repeat the same set of words across the page. This ensures that the word reading isn’t too difficult. I also like that it’s a quick practice, and once we’ve done it as guided practice, it’s able to be incorporated as our skill review in the next few days.
#5 Independent, Supported Practice (5 minutes)
Students should read words with the target phonics skill within phrases, sentences, and in a variety of activities. This is a great time for students within small groups to work together- each taking turns reading and being the support. This allows you to listen in as fewer students are practicing at one time. It also gives students an opportunity to truly listen for the expected phonics sound- reinforcing their own use.
I like to utilize my blending lines for this practice. Because blending lines include words with minimal contrast, they promote orthographic mapping of the target phonics skill. The minimal contrast words have one small variation between them within the set. I also like the connected sentences to give further application with text reading.
Another great tool for supported practice is word sorting. With this activity, students are given cards with words with the intended phonics skill on them and sort them into categories. Sorts can be closed- where you provide instruction on how to sort the words. Or, it can be open– where students sort and then give information on how they decided to organize the words. Open sorts are more difficult than closed. Sorts can also be focused on sound or on spelling. By sorting, students cue into the differences between words. When first introducing CVCe words, I love to do sorts between long and short vowels. When working with vowel teams, I also think they’re a great tool to reinforce different spellings of the same sound.
#6 Dictation & Word Building (5 minutes)
I am a firm believer that the strongest way to build our readers is by developing their spelling. This time is carved out for dictating letters, words, phrases, and sentences for students to write using the current pattern and those that have already been taught. I even, sometimes, take some time from word reading to use with word building because I think it’s so beneficial. This is a great time to also practice high-frequency words that have already been taught, giving continued, interleaven practice.
I like to use a variety of tools for word building. It helps keep students engaged when they’re not doing the same thing every day and it helps give students’ multisensory practice in a variety of ways. Here are some ways to practice writing words beyond just paper and dry erase boards. With that said, I think there’s been a move away from manuscript paper and that’s done a disservice. It’s so important that we teach and practice proper letter formation and manuscript paper helps embed that practice day in and day out.
- shaving cream- I especially like this for letter practice; I continue with commonly confused letters with students that need extra practice (i.e. b/d or short vowels)
- table writing with dry erase boards
- letter tiles
- Play-Doh base with pencil eraser writing
- paint baggies
- sand trays
- dry erase index cards– I especially like these for multi-syllable words since one card per syllable can be used
By writing words through dictation, students apply both phonics and phonemic awareness skills. Word chains help students develop advanced phoneme manipulation skills and are my favorite way to practice word building. Some ways to practice with your current phonics skills include:
- word sorts (this is especially helpful with vowels)
- phoneme-grapheme mapping
- word chains
- phrases & sentences
Where word sorts in supported practice above were pre-printed, these word sorts are not. Instead, students are focused on connecting sounds and spelling to write the words themselves. I like to use these in the same manner as word reading- to cue in to spelling based on sound placement in the word or other patterns.
I also really like to use word chains in my phonics lessons to build advanced phonemic awareness skills. I find this to be especially helpful in working with the inner sound/letter within bends. For example, changing sack to snack. Dyslexic Logic has great resource lists for word chaining on their website.
#7 Connected Text Reading (5-10 minutes)
Applying phonics skills to reading texts is more difficult than reading in isolation. It’s imperative that we give continued practice reading decodable texts within our small groups in order to support students in the transition to text reading and build their oral reading fluency.
Decodable text reading should begin with an introduction to any high-frequency or other non-decodable words present in the text. With that said, the text should have a high decodability, research doesn’t give us a percentage, with sound-spelling correspondences that have already been taught. Finding additional decodable texts that match the scope and sequence of your program can be incredibly difficult. If you are using an outside text, and aren’t sure of its decodability for students, pre-read the text and give any non-decodable words to students. This will also help ensure that there’s not too many unknown words. This is also a great opportunity to introduce and practice irregular high frequency words. I talk all about “heart words” in their own post.
Because this text is decodable, after the introduction of non-decodable words, students should read the text independently. I like to stagger start my students. I tap the table in front of them to begin whisper reading alternating around the table. This helps to ensure students aren’t overhearing their table partner read the same words. Once students have begun, I lean in to hear students’ reading to give corrective feedback as needed. After reading, we do a quick comprehension conversation. It’s important that there’s a comprehension piece to reinforce the expectation that students understand what they’re reading and aren’t just word calling. This isn’t in-depth; rather a quick summary or a couple questions. Our deep comprehension work takes place outside of our phonics groups.
I also like to use decodable sentences with students. While decodable books are an important tool, I’m able to carefully construct decodable sentences matching our scope and sequence to expand the number of connected texts we use since it’s tough to find decodables.
Phonics Lesson Plan Template
As mentioned above, I have a free phonics lesson plan template available for you to try out. Two different versions are included: a 30 minute group, or a 20 minute group stretched across 2 days. Both include the same components but I have the two-day version breaking things apart into each day. Both are designed for quick and easy planning! With checkboxes with suggested strategies, and open space for your specific notes, you save time writing down your specifics.
Click here to download both versions of the phonics lesson plan printable to start using with your students today!
Further Reading on Phonics Instruction
Deconstructing the Rope: Decoding with Louisa Moats on Science of Reading the Podcast Season 3 Episode 3
A 2020 Perspective on Research Findings on Alphabetics: Implications for Instruction Expanded Version by Dr. Susan Brady posted on The Reading League website
What Teachers Need to Know and Do to Teach Letter-Sounds, Phonemic Awareness, Word Reading, and Phonics by Dr. Linnea Ehri in The Reading Teacher Vol. 76 No. 1
Systematic and Explicit phonics Instruction video course from Cox Campus
Phonics and Decoding from The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Explicit Systematic Phonics from Scholastic Best Practices
Lesson Structure: What Components Lead to Foundational Skills Mastery by Margie B. Gillis hosted on Collaborative Classroom
The Relation Between Alphabetic Basics, Word Recognition and Reading by Marilyn Jager Adams
Further Information on the Science of Reading
I am sharing helpful information on the Science of Reading throughout this blog series. Each post has a different focus and includes links to relevant posts of my own, from time to time. The topics have been carefully chosen to include the background information needed to understand the science and help you learn more about some of the large, underlying research in the field. The first three up in the series include The National Reading Panel’s 5 Pillars of Reading, the Simple View of Reading, and Scarborough’s Rope.
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