Are you shopping for a good phonics program? Want to supplement your current reading program? Here is a blueprint and guide to what in my experience are the best features to look for in a good phonics reading program:
1. One Letter at a Time
Short-vowel sounds are the very foundation of our English language. They can be difficult to learn and are best taught first, one at a time, in isolation. Focusing on only one sound at a time develops reading accuracy and prevents guessing.
(Beneficial for everyone—especially ELL, LD, or hearing-challenged students.)
2. Illustrated Letters
Every letter should be illustrated with pictures of objects beginning with the sound. At first many children are unable to hear these sounds within a word. Multiple illustrations add a depth of perspective that is similar in effect to a 3-D hologram, and depict the subtle variations of each sound.
(Multiple pictures beginning with each sound also develop and strengthen phonemic awareness.)
3. Large Letters
Even with proper glasses students often struggle with smaller letters when first learning how to read. It’s easier for everyone to learn from large letters initially. This feature is especially useful to beginners, LD learners, or those with vision challenges.
(Once reading is well-established it is much easier to read finer print!)
4. Phonemic Awarenes
Phonemic awareness is a precursor to phonics but should never be confused with phonics. Teach phonemic awareness with letters at the same time for maximum efficiency. “Phonemic awareness instruction is most effective when it is kept simple and when it includes letters.” ~Timothy Shanahan, Director, University of Illinois Center for Literacy
(Phonemic awareness teaches only sounds. Phonics teaches both letters and sounds.)
A multisensory approach ensures success for everyone, regardless of their learning mode. How students learn may be different—but what they learn should be the same. Everyone should be able to decode long words by syllables whatever their learning mode. A multisensory method has the synergistic effect of addressing the strongest mode while reinforcing the weakest.
(After all, visual learners still must hear the word, and auditory learners still must see the word!)
6. Blend Consonants With Vowels
When teaching consonants, blending them with a vowel instead of teaching them in isolations eliminated the extra “uh” sound heard in voiced consonants, such as “d-uh” when trying to say the sound of “d.” This strategy begins to develop smooth eye-tracking skills and prevents choppy reading. Students read “di-g” not “duh-i-g,” or “ca-t” not “cuh-a-t,” etc.
(Reading two-letter syllables before reading whole words will also remediate and prevent reversals.)
7. Build Words ASAP
Building words as letters are learned provides concrete exemplars for what can otherwise be confusing and abstract rules and sounds. It prevents the “reading-without-understanding” syndrome sometimes seen when all phonograms are learned first, prior to reading a whole word.
(Memory experts have long known it is easier to remember something new if you can connect it to something already known!)
8. Build Sentences Gradually
Blend letters into syllables, then gradually build words, two-word phrases, and finally sentences of slowly increasing complexity. It’s too big a leap for many students to move directly from reading words to reading complete sentences. Graduated reading practice jump-starts reading for everyone, especially for dyslexics.
(Just because we’ve learned all the piano notes does not mean we are ready to play a sonata!)
9. Teach Spelling With Reading
Reading and spelling enhance one another and are best taught as an integrated unit. Learning how to read and spell in systematic patterns develops clear, analytical thinking which spills over into other disciplines, such as math. Spelling today is taught randomly—what if we had to learn math randomly, 12 x 7, 6 x 9, 8 x 4, 5 x 11, etc.?
(When we learn how to read and spell by pattern math scores frequently improve without tutoring!)
10. Only One Spelling at a Time
Teach only one spelling of a phoneme at a time, beginning with the simplest spelling. It’s more difficult to teach and learn multiple spellings of a phoneme all at once, such as all seven spellings of /A/.
(Don’t you remember names better when you meet people only one at a time instead of being introduced to a whole roomful of people at once?)
11. 100% Decodable Practice
Early practice readings should only be comprised of sounds and rules already learned. The left brain acquires knowledge in small, sequential parts (letter sounds, math). The right brain acquires knowledge by seeing the whole picture (sight words, illustrations). Activity in one hemisphere actually suppresses activity of the mirror-image area on the other side!
(Once decoding is automatic we are able to see the whole word at once~the gestalt.)
12. Add Sight Words Gradually
After the mechanics of reading are established, sight words can gradually be introduced, a few at a time, such as “I” and “a” Example: “I had a fat cat.” Limited reading skills should be reasonably fluent before sight words are introduced.
(Our attention is limited to being able to focus on only one thing at a time. It cannot be directed to identifying letters at the same time that we are trying to comprehend the meaning of what we are reading!)
13. Teach Sight Words by Pattern
Words learned in patterns are grouped and filed in one “folder” in your brain and quickly retrieved. Words learned randomly are filed in separate “folders,” and take more time to retrieve. Example: sight words “could, would, should” are best taught with other /oo/ words such as “took, book, look,” etc.
(Having to learn words randomly results in slow and laborious reading, and children seldom read for pleasure.)
14. Include ALL Spelling Rules
Linguistic awareness eases learning and develops logical, analytical thinking. Example: “Why are some words spelled -able and others -ible, as in appeasable, horrible, etc.?” It’s so much easier knowing one rule for many words than it is learning each word individually!
(Critical thinking sharpens, and spelling improves dramatically!)