In this post I recommend three instructional shifts you can make to better align your instruction to the science of reading and bring more structured literacy into your kindergarten, first, and second grade classrooms. Learn how teaching heart words, using sound walls and decodable texts can improve your reading instruction and help students learn to read.
Teaching students to read is one of the most important things we do as educators. While some of us feel well-equipped to do so, there are far too many who wish we had been better prepared for this monumental task. The good news is that today we have a wealth of information that allows us to improve our reading instruction and help students like never before. This information comes from the body of research referred to as “the science of reading.”
According to Dr. Louisa Moats, the “science of reading” is not an ideology, a philosophy, or a political agenda. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach, a program of instruction, nor a specific component of instruction. It is the emerging consensus from many related disciplines, based on literally thousands of studies conducted all across the world. These studies have revealed a great deal about how children learn to read and what goes wrong when students don’t learn. It determined that structured literacy instruction is most likely to work the best for the majority of students.
The knowledge we have gained from the science of reading can transform your instruction and change the lives of children. But with so much information out there, it can be difficult and overwhelming to try to figure out where to begin. So today I’m happy to recommend three steps you can take to better align your instruction to the science of reading and bring a structured literacy approach into your classroom.
Principles of Quality Instruction
Before diving into specific instructional activities that follow the science of reading, I want to share these essential, evidence-based features of quality instruction. Research tells us that when we follow these principles our instruction is effective and student practice is meaningful.
💕 Instruction must be explicit. In explicit instruction, the objective of the lesson is clear and the teaching is intentional. The teacher takes center stage and directly teaches concepts to students. There are opportunities for guided practice with decreasing levels of support. It follows the “I do, We do, You do” model.
💕 Instruction must be systematic. Skills taught and practiced are based on a research-based scope and sequence. Each lesson and activity builds upon itself. Students are not asked to do anything they haven’t first been taught. When instruction is systematic, nothing is left to chance.
💕 Instruction should be engaging. When students understand why they are learning what you are teaching and they are provided with the appropriate support for success, they see learning as relevant to their lives and are more engaged and motivated.
💕 Instruction is intensive. This means instruction is data-driven and focused on essential skills.
💕 Practice activities should be cumulative. Once a student moves forward with a new concept, they must continue to review the skills they already learned. In his book, A Fresh Look at Phonics, Wiley Blevins reminds us that a new skill needs to be systematically and purposefully reviewed for four to six weeks after you first introduced it.
3 Ways to Align Your Instruction to the Science of Reading Using a Structured Literacy Approach
1. Teach High Frequency Words using the Heart Word Method
In the past, most teachers taught their students high-frequency (often called sight) words through rote memorization. For many years we held the belief that if a student simply saw a word enough times they’d eventually learn it. We sent home word lists for students to study and memorize and drilled them with flashcards. While this method worked for some students, why didn’t it work for all?
Recently, reading experts and cognitive scientists have discovered that reading is NOT based on visual memory. In his book Equipped for Reading Success, Dr. David Kilpatrick explains the mental process we use to permanently store words for immediate retrieval. It is called Orthographic Mapping. It is how we take an unfamiliar word and immediately turn it into a sight word.
So what does that mean for us as teachers? It means we need to integrate high-frequency “sight words” into our phonics lessons. How do we do that? The answer is by teaching Heart Words.
Heart Words are high-frequency words that appear most often in print. They are the first words we want to anchor into our students’ memory because they appear so frequently in texts. The ability to automatically retrieve these words allows students to read fluently and successfully.
High-Frequency Words that are irregularly spelled are called “Heart Words” because some part of the word must be explicitly taught and “learned by heart”. Students will encounter these words often so they need to be able to read and spell them automatically.
In order to help all students become more successful readers, we must integrate high-frequency words into our phonics lessons and explicitly teach our students the irregular spelling patterns for Heart Words.
Are you already feeling motivated to begin integrating high-frequency words into your phonics lessons?? Take a look at my very own Heart Word Resource that includes teaching slides and student activities for 220 High-Frequency words. Read more detailed information in this blog post or download the FREE sample of the High-Frequency Heart Word Activities here:
2. Replace Your Word Wall with a Sound Wall
Instead of using classroom wall space to display a word wall, a list of high-frequency words under each letter in the alphabet, create a sound wall for consonants and vowels.
A sound wall is a way to organize and display the 44 different sounds (or phonemes) we hear in speech. Similar to a word wall, a sound wall is a place for students to reference when they are spelling and reading words. But UNLIKE a traditional A-Z word wall (where words are grouped by their beginning letter), a sound wall may have a sound spelling card, mouth articulation photographs, and a keyword for each grapheme(s) that represents the sound.
A classroom sound wall can be utilized throughout the day to help students make the connection between speech and print. Daily interaction and practice over time will enable your students to retrieve the information needed to read and spell accurately and automatically.
Here are a few of the main benefits of using a sound wall in the classroom:
–Sound walls are based on the science of reading! Research tells us that readers make the connection between print patterns and phonological information that is already stored in the brain in order to then make meaning of the word they’re reading (Moats, 2010). This is why explicitly teaching phonemes is necessary before you teach sound-letter correspondence.
–Sound walls approach things from the learner’s point of view. On a traditional A-Z word wall, words are categorized by the first letter. But that doesn’t make sense to someone who is just learning to spell! A student looking for the word phone will not naturally look to P. Putting the word knee under K is confusing to them! A sound wall categorizes words by their sounds which makes much more sense to the learner!
–They allow for explicit instruction of phonemes. Kids learn to talk well before they learn to read or write. This is because the human brain is hardwired for oral language, but not for reading and writing. Students need direct and explicit instruction on how to read, write, and spell. A sound wall is a tool that allows for this valuable, explicit phonics instruction.
Want to bring a sound wall into your classroom but are unsure of where to start? Take a look at this bundle that includes the complete sound wall resource to display your sound wall, PLUS explicit lesson plans and student activities! You can learn more about this amazing resource and download a FREEBIE here!
3. Use Decodable Texts Instead of Leveled Readers
As teachers, we know the ultimate goal of reading is comprehension. In order for reading comprehension to improve, decoding must improve! Evidence-based research tells us that the best way to improve decoding is through an abundance of explicit instruction and learning opportunities including the use of decodable texts.
A decodable passage is a text you use in beginning reading instruction. It is a story that is controlled based on the phonics skills you have taught your students up to that point in your scope and sequence. There is often a heavy focus on the target phonics skills for a specific week of instruction.
It is essential that there is a tight connection between what children read and what they have been taught. Application is how new skills stick. Decodable texts give students practice applying the skills that you’ve taught to real reading experiences. This connection is essential for building a faster foundation in early reading.
When students read decodable texts they focus on the letters and spellings of the words on the page. They attack words using their phonics knowledge and decoding skills. This is a much more reliable strategy than using picture clues or simply guessing an unknown word, which is often what students are encouraged to do when using leveled readers.
While initial letter and picture clues may work when students are reading simple, patterned books, they are unreliable and bad habits start. Students who rely on these strategies struggle dramatically when faced with words in isolation, texts with no pictures, or multisyllabic words. Decodable texts break students of these habits and force them to rely on their phonics skills.
Additionally, leveled readers may give teachers a false sense of reading growth. Students using leveled readers can take off fast and with relative ease because they are good at memorizing the words in these simple texts. These same students often “hit a wall” in first grade when text becomes more challenging.
Eager to give decodables a try in your classroom? Take a look at my Decodable Passages Resource with comprehension questions It includes 60 decodable passages, explicit lesson plans for each passage, activities for before, during, and after reading to strengthen phonics skills, and much MORE! Give it a try by downloading this FREE sample:
I understand that the thought of completely overhauling your reading instruction is overwhelming. Please know you don’t need to do everything at once. Instead, consider small ways that you can shift your instruction to a structured literacy approach that aligns to the science of reading! What change can you make? I hope the information and resources I’ve shared today will help you take that first step in your science of reading journey!
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