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The Guiding Principles Behind the Units of Study in Phonics (Part 2)


Last week on the Heinemann blog we discussed the importance of two of the principles that informed the groundbreaking Units of Study in Phonics:

1) Phonics instruction must be transferred to reading and writing;

2) Phonics instruction benefits children when it follows a research-based sequence.

This week we dive into two more of the guiding principles of the Units of Study in Phonics series in this excerpt from A Guide to the Phonics Units of Study, Grade K–2. Watch for next week’s blog for descriptions of the last two principles, or download the sample chapter from the Guide to read about them all.

Download a Sample Chapter from the Guide

3) Phonics Instruction Benefits Children When It Supplements and Does Not Replace Reading and Writing Instruction

In a recent article titled “What Really Matters in Teaching Phonics Today: Laying a Foundation for Reading,” James Cunningham (2017) overviews the history of phonics in the United States over the past two decades. He points out that in 1997, an initiative of Congress created Reading First (and the larger policies imbued in No Child Left Behind), which brought systematic phonics front and center in schools across the country. As Cunningham reports, the official federal evaluation of this well-funded and large-scale initiative to teach reading through systematic phonics programs found “no consistent pattern of effects over time in the impact estimates for reading instruction in grade one or in reading comprehension in any grade” (Cunningham 2017; Gamse et al. 2008). Sixty-seven percent of the children who grew up entirely under the regime of systematic phonics scored below proficient levels of reading (Cunningham 2017, 7), leading Tucker to conclude that the adoption of a systematic phonics curriculum led to “almost no improvement in student performance” (Tucker 2014).

In his article summarizing this history, Jim Cunningham questions what went wrong and what one can conclude. He writes, “Is phonics/decoding truly foundational?” (2017, 7). He answers:

Yes, but it is not the building. That is the right lesson to learn from the disappointing results of Reading First (7) . . . The lack of success for Reading First was not because it taught phonemic awareness and phonics/decoding, but because it neglected to teach reading and writing at the same time. This error has been corrected in the college and career readiness standards where reading foundations, reading, writing, and vocabulary are all to be taught in parallel starting in kindergarten. However, the dual challenges this change presents to school and district leadership today are 1. that teachers have less time to teach phonics than during Reading First and 2. that the phonics taught must transfer to reading and writing. (9)

Specifically, Jim Cunningham suggests that phonics needs to be contained within twenty minutes a day—a recommendation that one also finds in New York State’s newest iteration of the Common Core State Standards (15).

Even if you quibble with that recommendation, increasing the time allotment by as much as 25%, it still remains true that phonics instruction needs to be lean and efficient. Every minute you spend teaching phonics (or preparing phonics materials to use in your lessons) is less time spent teaching other things.

You will see that Units of Study in Phonics recommends twenty minutes for explicit phonics instruction, with time outside of phonics workshop for small-group instruction in phonics. We also recommend that during transitional moments in your day, you revisit phonics and high-frequency words through a song, a chant, a game. In the Units of Study in Phonics books, each session (or day) contains some optional extensions, most of which can be taught as your class lines up for lunch or packs up to go home. Those are good times to play “I Spy” with high-frequency words or to sing the alphabet to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

4) Children Benefit From Being Taught Not Only Item Knowledge (Such As Blends and Digraphs), but Also the Strategies and Purposes That Allow Them to Draw on That Item Knowledge As They Read and Write

Readers, will you pause for a moment to list every blend, digraph, and trigraph that exists in the English language? Then, will you make a list of the R-controlled vowel sounds? While you are at it, will you take a moment to record all the six different syllable types?

How’d you do? Chances are that this exercise wasn’t easy for you. The significant thing, however, is that you probably had no trouble reading the previous paragraph, even though the words in it contained blends and digraphs (tr, bl, ph, th, and wh to name a few) and several R-controlled vowels (in record and different, for starters). The paragraph also contains examples of both open and closed syllables (mo-ment, for example), as well as consonant -le syllables (syllable has one!). My point is that although item knowledge of phonics can be helpful, people rely on a variety of strategies as well as item knowledge to read and write.

In Units of Study in Phonics, children are taught the most high-utility phonics, and they are taught to use what they know to be problem solvers, word scientists, super-power readers, and writers. The content that is taught in phonics is a mix of item knowledge and skills and strategies.

Marie Clay has pointed out that, “Almost nobody considering the young child learning beginning mathematics is going to think in terms of how many arithmetical items he knows. Almost everybody will be thinking, ‘What mathematical operations can he carry out?’” She suggests a similar shift in thinking needs to occur in literacy (1979, 13).

When you teach blends, for example, the important thing is for youngsters to understand that two consonants are blended together. Sometimes one of those letters—often the second letter (such as L or R)—is hard to hear, so careful listening helps. You’ll want to teach children blends that come at the start of words, as well as blends that come at the ends of words, such as -nd in band and -nk in sink. As words get longer, those blends can sometimes almost seem hidden within the word. Readers need to work carefully across the word to recognize those parts, keeping them together as they segment the sounds to decode. Writers need to work just as carefully, listening for those blended sounds to spell multisyllabic words. But it is not necessary for you to teach every possible blend, nor to assess whether a child masters every possible blend. As Pat Cunningham writes in Phonics They Use, “There are systems and patterns to the way letters in English represent sounds. Our instruction should point out these patterns. Children who see a new word and ask themselves how that new word is like the other words they know can discover many patterns on their own” (2016, 41).

Imagine that you pull alongside a child and note that he has spelled blue like this: bue. You could think,“Oh my goodness, this child needs me to reteach the blend unit,” and you could proceed to review all of the blends. Alternatively, you can think, “This child needs to learn to reread honestly, accurately, actually seeing what he has written. If he rereads bue, he’ll see that he left out one of the letters in the initial blend.” He will be more likely to see this if you have taught him that when blending, a letter (usually the second letter) sometimes gets lost, and therefore it is important to listen for those hard-to-hear sounds.

The point, of course, isn’t only about blends—it is about the content of your phonics curriculum. Item knowledge is important, but it is equally important for youngsters to know how, when, and why they can use that knowledge. It helps to let kids in on the rationale that informs your teaching. Instead of drawing children into a sorting activity by saying simply, “I have a really fun sort for you to do,” it helps to explain that just as grown-ups sometimes do push-ups to get stronger muscles, readers also need stronger muscles—and the muscles that especially matter to readers are ear muscles. One way to develop stronger ear muscles is for readers to sort picture cards based on small differences between, for example, a word that begins with a single consonant and a similarly spelled word that begins with a blend.

Watch for next week’s blog for descriptions of the last two principles:

5) Children benefit most from phonics work that is engaging. Phonics need not be taught through worksheets but can instead Involve singing, pretending, inventing, talking, writing, and spelling;

6) All our teaching, and especially our teaching of something as foundational as phonics, must be flexible enough and have scope enough to support all the members of a learning community.

To download a sample chapter from the Guide and read about all the guiding principles behind the Units of Study in Phonics, click here.

Download a Sample Chapter from the Guide

Topics: Units of Study, Lucy Calkins, TCRWP, Teachers College, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Phonics, Units of Study Phonics

Date Published: 09/05/19

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