In my classroom, as in every classroom everywhere, time was at a premium. There just wasn’t enough time to adequately reach every learner under my care using separate lesson plans that targeted their learning needs. Also, in my room were an unusually large number of special needs kids who were being mainstreamed. I decided to conquer what seemed to be an impossible challenge by carving out 30 minutes every morning for teaching phonics: the one skill that presents the biggest roadblock for children learning to read, thus the best use of my time!
What is Phonics? Exactly Where Reading Struggles Begin!
So many children struggle with phonics: knowledge of the structure of language and how to represent the sounds (phonemes) in words with letters (graphemes). Finding myself so short on time, I chose this one thing because I knew phonics was the skill that would impact the students the most. Little did I know as I began, the cumulative impact these 30 minutes a day would have on the students. End-of-year testing showed unbelievable gains in reading levels across the classroom.
Why Phonics for Right-Brain Learners?
Previous experience as a Title 1 program designer and director had taught me that in general, children who struggle with reading have particular processing styles that are not considered in traditional classrooms, specifically dominant visual/tactile and kinesthetic processing.
I had learned from working with these children in grades K-8 that the approach to phonics in their classrooms was diametrically opposed to the way they process new information. When I began teaching phonics in a way that was harmonious with their wiring, the students quickly made sense of word structure and were able to regain lost ground, and in many cases out-perform their classmates.
HOW we teach phonics makes all the difference for the roughly 60% of children who are right-brain dominant and who find learning to read difficult.
Learning Characteristics of Right-Brain Learners
Right-brain learners, which include visual/spatial learners and kinesthetic learners, (as well as children with dyslexia, Down Syndrome, autism, and more) have specific needs that must be met in order for them to learn with ease. I will address how these needs are met from within a whole-brain phonics approach that allows right-brain learners to thrive.
|think in pictures rather than words|
|don’t work well with symbols unless they are linked to meaning|
|learn from whole to part|
|need images, maps, graphic organizers, and other visual elements|
|rely on visual memory which is all at once and permanent|
|need to see the goal before beginning their work|
|are global processors and need to fit details into the whole|
|need relevance; a why|
|need context which shows the relationship between details|
The Link Between SnapWords® and Explicit Phonics Instruction
SnapWords® are inextricably linked to explicit phonics instruction and are designed to reach right-brain processors.
|who need the “whole” first|
|who need to attach meaning to symbols|
|who rely on visual memory|
|who are global in their view|
|SnapWords® are critical. So that is where we begin.|
SnapWords® represent over 640 words that appear most frequently in children’s texts, so it makes sense that we would be interested in teaching these words first. SnapWords® show kids very quickly what reading is. We tell them what each word says so they don’t guess. (SnapWords® are not a cueing system that helps children guess at unknown words), the image links the letters in the word together in the correct order (consider the needs of children with dyslexia), the image shows the meaning of the word, and shows students that the group of letters communicates something specific that they can understand.
All of these actions happen almost instantly as children contemplate the images of SnapWords®. That is the power of visual memory. Children who use SnapWords® snap a picture of the word intact, complete with letter symbols and meaning. Once that word is in visual memory, which happens at a glance, it is time to break it down into phonics concepts.
The body motion provided is closely tied to the word and its meaning, and for kinesthetic children who rely on body memory in learning, this body motion is key.
How to Teach Phonics in 30 minutes a Day
Student whiteboards, dry erase markers, and tube socks (for erasers).
A rug for the students to gather on right in front of you so you can monitor their progress and they can focus.
A low chair for you and an easel with dry erase surface.
A pocket chart used to display a level of SnapWords®.
Preparation for Teaching Phonics
|I assigned a number to each student in class.|
|I bought a sheet of shower board at a lumber yard and the helpful attendant cut it into rectangles for me. I wrote the kids’ numbers on the backs of the new whiteboards so they each had their own.|
|I bought dry erase markers for each of the kids and wrote kids’ numbers on the markers with a permanent marker. Later, parents began dropping by with bags of dry erase markers.|
|I bought tube socks. One per child. Again, they were numbered with permanent marker. I took them home to wash periodically.|
|Kids kept their whiteboard in their desk and stored the marker inside their tube sock.|
Each morning, I announced it was rug time and children eagerly reached for their tools and gathered on the rug.
I chose a SnapWords® level to teach and displayed those words in the pocket chart. Mine was draped over the easel to begin with. Introducing SnapWords® only took a couple of minutes. I taught a word or two a day using SnapWords® Mini-Lessons.
At this stage, you will only do the word recognition part of the lesson and the hand motion. The writing, spelling, and phonics will follow below. The phonics concept required a more in-depth activity and took the balance of our time.
Teach the Phonics Concept Found in SnapWords®
Let’s use SnapWords® List D, Level 2. The words are HIGH, LIGHT, MIGHT, RIGHT, NEED, KEEP, CLEAN, WELL, SMALL, UPON, ALWAYS. I grouped the words together by sound spelling, so the IGH words were together, the Long E words were together, and then the last four made a group of their own.
I taught the IGH words closely linked together since they share a sound spelling. We did a hand motion for IGH to help them remember. This little cartoon of IGH helps those visual learners remember the letters and their order. (The story is that I and h were going to fight, and g became the peacemaker.) Using a visual, a little story, helps right-brain learners link abstract symbols to something meaningful and provide powerful hooks for memory. The Illustrated Book of Sounds & Their Spelling Patterns does all of this for you.
How to Teach Phonics Step-by-Step
What does phonics mean? You will be teaching the kids to hear the sounds in words and write the sounds they hear using letters. This is phonics. And using a hands-on approach is multisensory, it is constructivist, it completes the cycle of seeing, saying, and doing, and it creates an important circular link between reading and writing. What children write and then read, they remember.
Step One: Write the Target Sound Spelling
On my whiteboard, I wrote a column of about 5 IGHs using a colored marker (not black). I told the students IGH says (long) I, so anytime they saw that combination of letters, they would just say (long) I. Color-coding is a powerful visual tool that in an instant shows right-brain learners the structure of words and the patterns that run throughout our language.
The kids also made a column of IGH’s on their whiteboards just like mine.
Step Two: Add Letters to Make Words
For the first IGH, I asked, “What would happen if I put an h-h-h in front of IGH?” Using my black marker, I wrote an H in front of IGH. (Say the sound of H not the letter name). We sounded it out. “H - I”. Four letters, but only two sounds. The students also wrote an H in front of the first IGH and as they wrote the H, they said “h-h” and then pointed to IGH when they said “I”. We don’t use letter names during this activity because 1. Words are made of sounds and 2. We want children to rely heavily on their ability to hear sounds in words rather than memorizing spellings of words.
On the next IGH, I added an L-L in the front and a T-T on the back. We sounded the word out together. “L - I -T.” Then the students replicated this on their own whiteboard, sounding as they wrote each symbol. The point was to rely on HEARING the sound their mouth was making and writing the symbol that was the picture of the sound.
Step Three: Teach Related Words
We continued in this manner until we had done about five words together. SnapWords® Mini-Lessons provides an extensive list of related words for you: “nigh, sigh, thigh, night, light, might, right, sight, tight, blight, bright, flight, fright, plight, slight.” The reason we teach many words that share a sound spelling at the same time is that right-brain learners learn by noticing patterns, and they need to see the relationships that exist in groups of words. It is as though they are making their own phonics rule visually that helps them remember the phonics concept.
How to teach phonics rules for right-brained learners. HOW we teach phonics rules makes all the difference. Rather than memorizing the rules, we empower visual and kinesthetic, right-brained learners to learn visually by showing a whole array of words that share the same sound spelling.
Step Four: Students Practice Sounding & Writing
After doing five words together, just say the next word, sound it out together, then have the children write the word on their whiteboards as they say each sound. You no longer need to write the words yourself.
Continue until you have sounded together, and the students have sounded and written the words on their whiteboards. Constantly do a visual scan of whiteboards to notice any problem areas. If there is a word written incorrectly, correct it by sounding it together and having the child write the symbol that represents each sound. Do not ever say letter names or spell the word traditionally. You want to just say the exact sounds they hear.
Follow This Lesson with Phonics Practice
On the day following, I would go over the same ground, but this time, children will be more independent.
Say, “We’re going play QuickDraw with IGH words. Here’s how we play:"
- I will say a word
- We will sound it out together (segment the words into distinct sounds)
- I will say, “Sound and write,” and you will repeat the sounds you hear in the word as you write their letters on your whiteboard.
- Say, “Boards up,” and do a rapid visual scan, then say, “Ready?” When you say, “ready,” this prompts the children to have eyes on you and marker ready to write.
- Say, “The word is ___________.”
- Say, “Sound with me.” Sound the word out together.
- Say, “Sound and write.” Some children need to be reminded that they need to say the sounds they are writing aloud. This is a simple but crucial piece because if they focus on writing what they hear, they will most often write correctly.
- NOTE: when segmenting a word, make sure to segment blends also. We don't teach blends as separate spellings because the letters in a blend each make their own distinct sound. For example: The word is SLIGHT. You would sound it out (segment it) like this: S-L-IGH-T.
After teaching the IGH words, teach the Long E words next using the same procedure we outlined above. SnapWords® Mini-Lessons will be your guide!
When you are finished with this level of words, move the plain words to your word wall and choose another SnapWords® level.
The Impact of Teaching Right-Brain Phonics
If we can agree that phonics instruction is paramount, the only decision we need to make is HOW we will teach phonics.
Most people who are serious about and knowledgeable about teaching reading agree that teaching phonics is the most critical skill to teach. Phonics IS teaching reading. Without phonics, the task of unlocking the groups of symbols and extracting meaning from them is going to remain out of reach for over half of our students. It doesn't have to be that way. We should never become comfortable with the reality that roughly 60% of our children are falling behind and failing to read.
If we can agree that phonics instruction is paramount, the only issue left to consider is HOW we will teach phonics. The content will be the same, but the approach will have to be changed if we are going to offer equity in education to the 60% who are currently failing to thrive.
Teaching phonics in a way that reaches the 60% and offers them the opportunity to learn to read with ease should be everyone's priority.
The best thing is that the changes are not hard, they are not complicated, they don't require special training, and the design is done for you.
My 30-Minute Phonics Challenge
Please set aside a week during which you try this routine, and I will provide the SnapWords® and the Mini-Lessons! Experience the difference it will make. That 30 minutes can take the place of other activities that benefit kids far less.
Of course, in one week you will not see the results you will achieve if you were to do this for a whole year, but you will for sure be able to gauge the children’s engagement with the process!
For related printable, ready-to-use activities that review the sight words and phonics taught in SnapWords® List D, go to Beyond Sight Words Activities D and find over 200 activities that you can use for whole class, small group, independent or partner practice, or for homework.