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On the Podcast: Letter Lessons and First Words with Heidi Anne Mesmer

Mesmer_FrCv_PromoShot-1How does phonics effectively fit within daily classroom instruction?

Today on the podcast, we’re joined by author Heidi Anne Mesmer. In her new book, Letter Lessons and First Words,Heidi Anne provides a research-based vision of what lively, engaging phonics instruction can look like, along with practical, classroom-tested tools to make it happen in your classroom. Filled with classroom activities and easy-to-use frameworks, her book is a one-stop shop for phonics instruction.

Download a sample chapter of Letter Lessons and First Words

Nell Duke writes in her introduction to Letter Lessons and First Words, that “the stakes are high for phonics instruction.” We started by asking: “why?”


A note from the author, Heidi Anne: In the podcast, she uses the more familiar term "letter sound" to refer to grapheme/phoneme relationships. 

Below is a full transcript of this episode!

Heidi Anne: Phonics instruction is really the basis of word reading in an English alphabetic language, and children have to be able to read words to be successful readers. They have to be able to unlock and recognize those words. When we're teaching kids phonics, we're teaching them the system and specifically the alphabetic layer. Now, truthfully, we have what's called a morphophonemic language, which means that, especially in multi-syllabic words, there are additional meaning in units that are layered over kind of the straight letter sound relationship.

But, we have to make sure that we get kids to a place very early on where they can read words pretty quickly and without a lot of thought. Word reading is essentially kind of the gatekeeper to enjoying reading, reading for your own purposes and deeply comprehending. If you can't read words, then you can't do a whole lot else, and phonics is about that. If you teach phonics well, early, clearly, and systematically, then you really do set kids up to hit a very fluent way of reading sooner rather than later. When kids can read words quickly without a lot of effort, then they're going to concentrate on the comprehension.

To me, it's kind of like it's a kind of pay me now or pay me later kind of thing. If you don't do phonics instruction thoroughly and well when kids are younger, then you're going to see kids who are going to struggle into the third grade and beyond. Even kids, I used to be a third grade teacher, who will get by with memorizing words in first and second grade, and often these are pretty intelligent kids and they kind of use pictures in context. But then, they get to a point where the pictures disappear and the memory load is too high. They've got to remember too many words and then they just kind of bottom out.

Those are really the reasons why phonics instruction is really high stakes.

Brett: With all of that in mind, what do we need to teach phonics?

Heidi Anne: One thing that I will say is that you want to teach in a systematic and explicit way. Now, systematic simply means that you've got a plan. You know what you're going to teach, and you know the order that you're going to teach it in. We call that a scope and sequence. For high quality phonics instruction, you need a listing of the specific letter sounds you're going to teach and they're usually going to be grouped in categories like consonants and short vowels and diagraphs and long vowels. You need to kind of have those put in order.

That's what systematic means. Explicit means that when you teach kids, you're really clear about how the system works. For example, you would say, see this symbol and let's say you're pointing to the symbol T. You'd say this says this symbol, this letter makes this sound tuh. You're just directly telling kids. That's what the explicit part means. But one of the things, one of the misperceptions that I have seen out there about phonics instruction is that people misinterpret explicit and systematic to mean a phonics program, to mean I have to have a script that I'm reading and the kids have to have worksheets and workbooks.

We have to do a very strict routine every single time. A program is kind of like these shrink wrapped materials that everybody gets and they're all together and they're kind of just step by step how you have to do it. You really don't have to have a program per se to teach effectively. In fact, I went into What Works Clearinghouse, which the federal government uses this to evaluate products and they do so in a very rigorous way. I looked at nine of the most popular case 22 phonics programs and I actually found in What Works Clearinghouse only five of those programs had positive, or potentially positive, effects.

You can have an effective phonics program or a noneffective phonics program and you can have an effective non-program as well. The critical elements are simply that you're systematic, you're explicit and that you use a scope and sequence, that you use a listing of the content you're going to teach and kind of a sequence. That sequence intersects with the way children develop in reading and writing.

Brett: You talk about curiosity and inquiry being an important part of phonics instruction. Why is that?

Heidi Anne: Well, I think one of the things that has happened sometimes in kind of the history of US phonics and probably true in in other English speaking countries as well has been reducing phonics instruction to a very kind of dry, rote, boring approach where kids are not very active, they're not engaged, and they're really just very passive. That's really not the way phonics instruction should happen. It really should be exciting and engaging to kids. It should be about discovering how things work. For example, in a young... you think of a pre-kindergarten or kindergarten room, it's about discovering what my name looks like.

It's the joy of walking into my classroom and signing in and knowing that my name, Jayden, starts right there and I can find it and it's mine and it belongs to me. Phonics instruction is kind of the ah-ha that happens when a child will, and any experienced first grade teacher knows this too, sound out the parts of a word, but not yet put it together and then they put it together. They'll do something like this. They'll go have a word like maybe dog and they'll go d-, do-,-og, dog! You can hear the excitement in their voice. For kids, it's really about unlocking words, reading a word, using their own knowledge.

Without a teacher telling you, without memorizing the whole line, relying on a run, it's really exciting for a young child. That's big kid stuff. Here's a word. My teacher didn't tell it to me. There's no picture to help me. But based on my own knowledge, I can put those sounds together, red, and I know what it says. It's really powerful and empowering for kids to be able to do that. I think adults have lost sight of that. I think we've made it as if that's not exciting to kids, that it's not truly powerful to them when it really is. Also, phonics instruction should build interest for kids and how words work.

It should be about how things are similar. Here's an example. A lot of times when people are teaching a silent E pattern, which is there's a constant between a vowel and a silent E. Like the word let's say note, N-O-T-E. There's the O and then the silent E at the end kind of signals that that O was going to make a long vowel sound or say its own name. A lot of times when people are teaching phonics, they'll teach kids that kind of particular pattern. I'm not really keen on rules because rules can be broken and that's not really a great paradigm for thinking about phonics.

But, we'll go back to the long vowel, silent E. They'll teach a bunch of those OTE words, and then they'll come to a word that doesn't match that pattern. Let's say the word done. We come across, done. The O in done does not say O. We don't say done. Oh boy, kids, this is a rule breaker. Just doesn't follow the rules. Let's all just throw our hands up. English is a mass. We can't stand it. Wait a minute. Are there other words that have that have that uh sound with the silent E at the end? Wait a minute. What about above and love? What about none and one.

What about some? What about come? Wait. Look at that. Actually, this is just an alternative and it works really with the O pattern. It's kind of building curiosity. I guess as I'm talking about kind of curiosity, I want to also talk about something that I think a lot of really good teachers do already, but it's fallen out of the discussion of phonics. That is what I call inductive tension. Inductive tension is when a teacher doesn't give kids an answer. The teacher will provide information and ask the children, what's going on here?

Just to give you a little example, I was working with some kindergartners and we were working with their names actually. I took some of the names, the ones that actually were really useful for this, and I grouped them together. I put words like Jayden and Jamie and John together, and then I put Kai and Karen together and I had some others. I didn't tell the kids I'm grouping these by beginning consonant. I just grouped them and I asked the children to try to tell me how I put them together. Now as an adult, you're thinking, well that's pretty obvious.

But for a youngster who is really trying to wrap their head around how all this works, it actually takes them a few minutes. There was a lot of excitement when they figured out all these words begin with J. But then we kind of took it a little further and we said wait, and they all have the juh sound. That's the kind of thing we want going on with phonics instruction. We want kids to be excited.

Brett: You write that your goal with this book is to free teachers up from figuring out the tedious parts of teaching phonics and be able to concentrate on the engaging parts. Can you say a little bit more about that?

Heidi Anne: Well, I think especially, if you're new to the beginning reading grade. If you're just coming into pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first, second grade, or if you're a brand new teacher, phonics is very intimidating. In fact, when I interact with secondary teachers, that is like the thing that scares them. What I've kind of done in this book is I've laid out a scope and sequence. I've laid out units. There are three units in the book. One is called Letter Lessons. Of course, in Letter Lessons, you're teaching kids their letter sounds and then at the end building some high frequency words.

First Words, which is mostly teaching kids short vowels through word families and then adding on to that constant blends and constant diagraphs. Then the last unit is Beyond First Words. I've organized all that content and then within each of those units, which most take 24 to 27 weeks, the content has been already organized. Also, I have an assessment that really takes about five minutes for a child that indicates the big unit that the child should be in. Are they ready to read first words or are they still working on their letters?

Then also will help pinpoint specific place within that larger unit. It's not really a program because once you figured the content that you need to teach the kids, you can do the fun stuff. It's almost just freeing to not have to worry about the scope and sequence. You plug in at the scope and sequence and then you can take it wherever you want. There's so many wonderful activities out there that you can do all kinds of lively, fun things for kids.

Brett: With that in mind, you sort of mentioned that people get nervous about phonics and things like that. How do we approach phonics without getting overwhelmed?

Heidi Anne: I mentioned you need to have a scope and sequence. I also think that it's good to have a picture in your mind of what a phonics lesson should look like. What would you do in a phonics lesson of 20 to 30 minutes with a small group or what you would do with a whole group? Whole group sometimes is necessary. Usually, it's better to work with young children in small groups because they are easier to teach and they respond a little bit better. In fact, there's research that actually shows us that small groups in one study were more effective than even individualized instruction.

There's some kind of synergy going on or kids are kind of learning from each other. To kind of get back to the lesson framework. My lesson framework has a review section where kids would review words or letters. Then, there's a really important part called hear it, so it's review it, hear it and then decode it, spell it, read it. Hear it is phonemic awareness and phonemic awareness is essentially done orally or kids listen. Sometimes people use pictures, but phonemic awareness is about manipulating sounds or hearing sounds orally. I was observing in some classrooms a couple of weeks ago and I really have found this phonemic awareness to be falling out of phonics instruction.

That's really too bad because when you practice hearing sounds. For example, let's say you're trying to teach the beginning sound puh, P. Before you go and show the kid the letter and you start doing all that, you would first see if they can hear the sounds. You might put an array of pictures down on the table and you could say, here we have a pig, a pale and a truck. Which of these start puh, puh? Which of these start like pink? Then, the kids have to think about the sounds and they have to actually physically feel the sound. You would do a hear it, then you would do a decode it.

You would ha practice sounding words out just in isolation, analyzing them by themselves. Then you would take all the word cards away and do a spell it where the kids practice spelling a pattern. For example, if you're teaching the word families, like the ig family, you would have the children spell those words without any cards in front of them. That's really revealing because you can see what's really sticking. Sometimes kids can read words or they seem like they know, but they'll go to write a word like pig and they'll write pgi, which means they're not really paying attention.

After doing spell it, we do read it where we use books, depending on the level. We will use captional, predictable books with kids who are really just learning initial consonants. Then when kids are moving into first words, we'll use some text with some level of decodablity so that they can really apply what they're using. Then when kids kind of get in the Beyond First Words unit where they're really starting to work on learning long vowel patterns, we can use lots of different things. We can use little rhymes or jingles. I also have a list of literature that has long vowel patterns and I have a list of all the words you find in there.

Books, like Sheep in a Jeep, which are really popular and fun. The secret to not getting overwhelmed is to have a scope and sequence, to have a kind of basic lesson template and to kind of play around with that basic recipe as you can.

Brett: Many teachers out there who have a phonics or program, what can they get from your book?

Heidi Anne: Right. As I mentioned, you can be effective with teaching phonics through a program or without a program. The basic criteria is systematic and explicit using a scope and sequence. One of the things that I find is that a lot of teachers, even those who are teaching a program, don't have what I call teaching techniques. There's certain things that you're going to have to do when you teach phonics regardless of the program. For example, you need to teach children how to sound out a word. I was just recently in kindergarten and I did a study. I collected beginning sounds knowledge.

I had kids almost at ceiling, nearly 100%, but those kids still could not sound out words. You have to teach kids how to sound out words, but nobody really tells you how to do that in a program very well. I have a video where I show myself showing a teaching technique for sounding out a word. Here's another one. A lot of programs will use a Elkonin boxes, which are sound boxes for phonemic segmentation, but there's some pitfalls. I have a lot of situations where I tell you how to do a word sort, how to do Elkonin boxes. I provide language about how you would phrase things.

I have a whole section on what I call word prompting, which is when a child gets to a word in a book and they either don't know what to say or they say the wrong thing. What do you do? I have a whole kind of approach to word prompting. I have another little recipe for what I call "how to read a book with a child." You do a book walk and you read it with some support, you have them read it by themselves. Then, you go back and praise and practice. This is all supported by videos that, so that's kind of part of what I'm offering. The other thing that I will say that I'm offering is I find that the programs don't give people knowledge about the letter sound categories in English.

I have a really very simple chapter that talks to you about what is the constant, what is the vowel, talks to you about how do we make consonants. Consonants are made by constricting or partially blocking the flow of air through our vocal tract. Valves are made by opening the vocal track. Well, we probably all knew that intuitively, but knowing that explicitly really helps you. I give people labels like R-controlled vowels and consonant diagraphs.

The other thing that I do in the book, and I haven't seen this in any other programs, and this is really useful with long vowels, is I looked at the research that told us how predictable certain patterns are within single syllable words. Let me give you an example. When you go to teach the long A pattern, a-y, I researched and found out that in single syllable words, a-y says that A sound about 95% of the time. I've denotated that throughout the book. Every time you come to a pattern, you know if it's really, really predictable or if it's not.

This is really just useful information to have. I think really what I'm giving people is an understanding of the big picture. There's certainly an assessment and there are units, but there's an understanding of the big picture. I think the comparison I would make with phonics instruction programs, things that people aren't getting off Teacher Pay Teachers is that it's like they're making macaroni and cheese and they're just reading off the back of the box. What I'm trying to do is really teach them how to cook so that they can modify that recipe, so that they understand how to make that bechamel sauce, so that they understand they can put extra butter here and more salt there, so that they really understand how it all works.

Then, they can use any program that they want effectively. My experience with instruction of phonics in particular is that really it's the teacher's knowledge that will render anything that's being used effective or ineffective. If the teacher doesn't have high quality knowledge, you can give them the best program in the world and they will mess it up. If they have a lot of understanding and knowledge, you can give them a really bad program or you can give them minimal materials and they will still make it work because teaching is fundamentally a skill that is executed by professionals.

You have to understand what you're doing, so that's what makes me really excited about the book and the videos are just a treasure. They make me laugh all the time. They're real kids doing real kid things, and you can see the places where I'm challenged as a teacher myself. I like that part of it as well.

Learn more about Letter Lessons and First Words at Heinemann.com

Download a sample chapter of Letter Lessons and First Words

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Heidi Anne E. Mesmer, PhD, is a Professor in Literacy in the School of Education at Virginia Tech.  A former classroom teacher, she works extensively with teachers, schools, and young readers, directing numerous school-based initiatives to improve reading instruction. Heidi Anne studies beginning reading instruction and text difficulty and her work has been published in The Reading Teacher, Reading Research Quarterly, The Educational Researcher, Elementary School Journal, and Early Childhood Research Quarterly. She is the author of Tools for Matching Readers to Texts, Reading Interventions in Primary Grades, and Teaching Skills for Complex Texts.

Follow Heidi Anne on Twitter @haemesmer 

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Phonics, Letter Lessons and First Words, Heidi Anne Mesmer

Date Published: 07/25/19

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