Thursday, February 16, 2017

Teaching Phonics and Word Study

Wiley Blevins' book, Teaching Phonics & Word Study in the Intermediate Grades, is a wonderful reference. The online resources that accompany the text are highly useful- including sample assessment tools, game templates and decoding skill templates. I have two previous posts here and here that I have written as I read this book. As a reference, I will definitely keep this on the shelf. It provides a detailed description of why to teach phonics and how to do it. While it focuses on the intermediate grades, it touches on the earlier grades as it does describe interventions for struggling learners.

Initial phonics instruction begins with understanding letter- sound correspondence. This is the first required step. Then it moves to using analogy to help with decoding words. For example, if a student knows that "cat" says cat, they can be taught that "bat" shares the /-at/ and thus should be read as bat. This is at the primary level with normally progressing readers. As students enter the intermediate grades they become exposed to longer words such as sedentary (bed--> sed, den--> en, Harry--> tary). This can be broken into syllables and known words can be used to help with pronunciation, decoding and ultimately comprehension. The challenges with decoding by analogy is that a) students need well developed phonemic awareness and alphabetic knowledge, b) students need a large sight word vocabulary and c) they need to know the word when they say it so that they can identify it as the correct word. When it comes to struggling readers at the high school level, some students still struggle with phonemic awareness (a small percent but they are there) and some have not mastered the alphabetic principles. Some of my students have very limited sight word vocabularies. They cannot search a big word for small words within them that are similar to words they know. Many of these students have limited vocabularies. If they are unaware of the word, they cannot tell if they have gotten it right because they do not recognize it. Unfortunately a percentage of these kids also have suppressed their curiosity about word knowledge and are not eagerly hoping to learn this newly discovered word. As such, teachers of older struggling readers need to carefully assess where the breakdown in reading occurs and provide remediation there, not in the place determined by a curriculum guide. Blevins clearly understands this concept and emphasizes it in his work.

Blevins identifies several reading intervention programs including Wilson reading, with which I am familiar. Using it as a reference, I looked at how it demonstrates good phonics instruction page number represent where in the Blevins text the component of phonics instruction is discussed.

explicit- The teacher teaches letter names, the sounds each letter stands for and reviews it. teaches blending sounds. provides opportunities to blend unknown words in context (p. 42).
readiness skills- the system always begins with level 1 where alphabetic awareness is assessed and taught so that all letters and their most common sounds are introduced- cards are used to teach and review every day. Oral blending and segmentation are taught- cards are used to teach blending and segmentation as is the motor skill of tapping. Blank cards are used to teach relating sounds to graphemes. (p. 47-9)
scope and sequence- the system is composed of 12 steps ranging from simple CVC words to multisyllabic CVC words, through the other syllable types and it includes both exceptions (ex. English words do not end in v, we add an e to the end of the word) and covers rimes and analogy instruction throughout (ex. early word families of -an and later -tion and -sion) (p. 47).
blending- Wilson uses finger tapping to represent blended sounds and to assist with counting sounds. It uses card manipulation and pointing to demonstrate blending. Blending is taught from the very beginning of the program. (p. 47)
dictation- Each Wilson lesson moves from decoding to encoding. The teaching element of the encoding portion of the lesson includes manipulating cards or magnetic letters or writing on a whiteboard to compose dictated words which are then “scooped” to demonstrate syllabication.  Dictation is one element of this as well. Students must write dictated sounds, words and then sentences. (p. 47)
word awareness- opportunities to play with words and combining word parts. Word sorts and studies are one of the 10 parts of a Wilson lesson. Wilson has students read nonsenses syllables that are later used in words. Word cards are used. They can be read and then various word sorts and games can be engaged in. Students are asked to read and write (or build with cards) words and word parts. Students engage in both reading(decoding) and writing (encoding) with the letter/digraph/morpheme cards (p. 47).
High Frequency words- Wilson has a sight word list to teach and reinforces their use through sentence and passage reading as well as dictation activities. (p. 47)
Reading connected text- Wilson has reading passages that include both high frequency words, words taught at earlier steps and novel words displaying patterns currently being taught. The controlled nature of the text means that students are not expected to read spelling/phonetic patterns they have not been taught. In fact the author of Wilson concurs with Blevins in that readers should not be asked to independently reading material beyond their independent reading level- more complex content and vocabulary can and should be introduced through listening comprehension activities. This helps develop skill in reading in general. (p. 48, 331-2)
Wilson clearly demonstrates the characteristics of a high quality, phonics intervention and is appropriate for students with phonics weaknesses.

One item that Blevins spends some time at the end of his text focusing on is reading high interest text. He quotes studies that say that the average middle schooler reads 1,000,000 words a year while the struggling one reads 10,000; good first grade readers read 1900 words a week whereas struggling readers only read 16 (p. 332). When you think about what the word deficit is, there is no wonder that students who struggle to read often have poor vocabularies. My daughter, who is a voracious high ability reader, was reading close to 10,000,000 words a year in middle school, a level she tries hard to maintain in light of her work schedule and reading light school assignments. Her junior classmates who are struggling readers cannot hope to have her vocabulary or background knowledge. Our students need access to books they are interested in at their reading level. All too often we give students reading material that does not interest them. We need to work hard to find reading material that engages them. Hi-lo publishers and librarians can be immeasurably useful in this activity. Kids need to read and be read to in order to increase their background knowledge and vocabulary. This is critical to improving their reading comprehension. We need them to read. Anything that engages them. Everything that engages them.

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