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Academic Spotlight: Teaching Phonics Remotely

By Maggie Johnson

Last week we shared our approach to keeping older students deeply engaged with great texts at home. At the same time, we know that broad “code knowledge”–the understanding of how to decode written language and read it aloud fluently–must take center-stage in the early grades.

This means that as our upper elementary and middle school teachers orient their instruction around reading to learn, our Pre-K through second grade teachers must make certain that our youngest students continue to learn to read.

Specifically, our early elementary teachers have swiftly adapted their explicit, daily reading skills instruction to remote teaching, grounding themselves in three key themes:

  1. It starts with routines
  2. Expert modeling is essential
  3. Varied practice builds mastery and memory

Below is a deep dive into how our teachers have worked to ensure their reading lessons are maximally impactful for students, with instructional examples from several of our classrooms.

It starts with routines: In the clip below, you’ll see how Pre-K4 teacher Kelia Maul-Vera gives clear directions for how students will interact with her virtual lessons, leveraging a classroom routine for identifying letter sounds that she had previously taught. She reminds her students, “this is just like the activity we do in the classroom. Listen closely with your ear. Tell me what sound you hear. Remember the first sound I say. Raise your hand when you’re ready to play.”  With that, students are primed to follow along and chime in when Kelia cues them, just as they normally would in the classroom.

But Kelia doesn’t rely only on routines she’s previously taught. Watch how Kelia rolls out a new procedure her students will use for blending— that is, building words by stringing together individual sounds. Notice her strategic use of repetition and how she prompts students to mimic her movements in order to help build muscle memory for the procedure. We love her co-teacher, Robo Jr. too!

These routines allow Kelia to get right to the good stuff in every lesson—rigorous skills instruction.

Expert modeling is essential: Our teachers place a premium on clear and accurate modeling, which is as challenging as it is critical. As this helpful tutorial points out, letter sounds and phonemes don’t have a 1-1 correspondence, and inexperienced phonics teachers sometimes conflate them.

Watch how Kindergarten teacher Shameika Freeman teaches double letter consonant sounds and spellings with incredibly deliberate and precise articulation, providing a set of examples to make sure it sticks with students.

No doubt, Shameika has put in the advanced practice required to achieve this level of clarity.

Principal Molly Smith reflects on the importance of such studied intentionality: “It is critical to learn how to make pure sounds. Phonics teachers have to carefully guard against drawing out sounds which often results in adding a vowel to short sounds. For example: instead of making the quick, clear ‘b’ sound, inexperienced teachers might say something like ‘buh’… this really confuses students later on when they begin to integrate sounds together.”

Here’s another example from Leslie Ciancuillo who is introducing two “tricky words” to her kindergarteners. In her classroom, tricky words are those that are in some way irregular and cannot be read correctly with blending because these words break phonetic rules. Students must begin to recognize them by sight.

Leslie’s clarion pronunciation and carefully measured pace make it easy for students to follow along, even at a distance. And while we know this benefits all of our fledgling readers, it is our struggling readers who stand to gain the most. Research shows that the vast majority of students with reading disabilities have trouble with accurate and fluent word recognition stemming from phonological processing. They need early, systematic and explicit instruction in phonology, sound-symbol association, and syllabic rules.

Varied practice builds mastery and memory: As Molly notes, “it is critical to create clear pathways in students’ brains through repeated practice.”

Below are links to some examples of how Shameika and Leslie have ensured that students get meaningful at-bats with the skills they’ve explicitly modeled and how they sometimes incorporate other skills they are working toward, like letter strokes.

Notice that the next assignment is “adult-facing.” Leslie has provided families with a manageable and targeted way of reinforcing her skills instruction.

Not only do our teachers ensure students practice skills in bite-sizes, they scale toward more complex, integrated practice as students’ gain mastery. We believe that mixed retrieval practice is necessary for building long-term memory of code knowledge.

Molly adds: “It is critical to structure learning with the awareness that phonics in isolation is pointless. Students need opportunities to push sounds together and pull them apart. This is when phonics instruction becomes more complex, but with consistent practice and a teacher’s focus on refining students’ ability to blend sounds and break down words, they can learn to be very independent!”  

This is one reason why we love and use Core Knowledge’s reading curriculum across all of our schools. Not only does it provide a coherent scope and sequence of reading skills, each lesson is paired with “decodable readers” that students can read aloud to apply newly acquired skills in the context of a narrative. You can download a free version of their materials here.

We’ve also been thrilled to pilot a second more intensive program, Whole Phonics, innovated by reading specialist Jill Lauren. Early results have been nothing short of transformative for our most struggling, reluctant readers.

A final thought on technology. While we are decidedly cautious about our reliance on digital tools during this period of school closure, we’ve found Loom to be best in class for recording software. It’s straightforward design is easy to master quickly and allows teachers to simultaneously record their screens and themselves. They’ve also made this tool free for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

Having taught himself to read, Fredrick Douglass said once that learning this code for language would set a person “forever free.” We continue to be inspired as we watch our teachers press forward undeterred to that aim, every day shrinking the distance between themselves and their young, faithful readers.

Maggie Johnson is Vice President of Academics at Partnership Schools