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The Principles Behind the Units of Study in Phonics (Part 3)


In the last two weeks we’ve discussed the importance of four 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;

3) Phonics instruction benefits children when it supplements and does not replace reading and writing instruction;

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.

Check out the previous blog posts (Part 1, Part 2) if you’ve missed them, or download the sample chapter from the Guide to read about all the guiding principles.

Download a Sample Chapter from the Guide

This week we discuss the last two of the six guiding principles behind the Units of Study in Phonics series in this excerpt from A Guide to the Phonics Units of Study, Grade K–2:


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.

In his article “What Really Matters in Teaching Phonics Today,” Jim Cunningham (2017) points out that there is not necessarily a connection between what we teach and what our students learn. When teaching is dull, rote, repetitive—and he points out that phonics instruction is often all of the above—then students will be disengaged and all the teaching in the world won’t add up to a great deal of learning.

There are many ways in which these units support high levels of student engagement. First, as I’ll discuss in detail later, each unit sweeps children up into the power of a good story. Mabel, the elephant who is the class mascot in kindergarten, is found lying asleep on the cold floor. The custodian must not have realized where her bed is! Will children help to label her bed so that after this, she never sleeps on the cold floor again? Mabel likes to have other M objects with her when she sleeps. Can the children help tuck her in with lots of things that start with M? Mabel loves learning her alphabet—but do the children have other stuffed animals who may want to come to ABC School? Mabel provides the first storyline for kindergarten, and her friend Rasheed, the lion, is equally important to first-graders.

In another unit, you gather the children on the rug, and remark that somehow, they all look a little different—taller, stronger, more super—inviting the kids to remind you that they are now Super Readers. You’ll go on to reveal an important message, “You know that the job of a Super Reader, like the job of any superhero, never ends, right? Your power sticks with you all day long,” and suggest that students use their pointer power to help them write during phonics workshop. Children then acquire word-part power and use lassos, like those Wonder Woman uses, to scoop up the rimes in words. Later they are given vowel shields and work to activate their short-vowel power.

Soon after the start of first grade, children are engaged in solving the mystery of the silent E. Rasheed passes along messages from the Super Secret Detective Agency as the children investigate words with long vowels. Before long, Rasheed is given a hard hat, and he and the children learn about constructing buildings—and long words—out of smaller chunks (including vowel teams).

In second grade, children learn that a new student—Gus the dragon—will be joining the class, and the principal needs the class to commit to bringing him up to speed on all they know about phonics. He becomes a fast friend and joins them across their second-grade journey in phonics workshop, as they tackle troublemaker words, learn fascinating facts about animal (and word) parts, take word building to the next level, and collect, study, and even invent new words as word collectors.

The storyline of this curriculum will draw students into a study of phonics, but it is equally important that during phonics time, children are learning phonics in ways that are developmentally appropriate. They disperse to do a “beats walk” throughout the classroom, touching things in the room and clapping or stomping the beats in that item’s name. They use magnetic letters on top of pictures to label the objects in their picture books. They assemble high-frequency word cards and small animals to construct sentences such as, “I see the lion.” They invent better icons for their alphabet charts, replacing the keyword for B, ball, with Batman or butterfly and replacing the keyword egg with an elephant or whatever other picture they invent. When a great wind blows all the pictures from the alphabet chart, they reconstruct it, drawing on all they know about letters and sounds. They walk through the halls of their school, checking whether every syllable of every bit of environmental print contains a vowel. They help Rasheed, the first-grade mascot, edit his writing (poor Rasheed needs a lot of help with vowel teams!) and then they do similar work on their own writing. They chant and sing and pretend-write in the air and on their legs to develop automaticity with high-frequency words, and later they invent their own ways to learn those words (perhaps inventing little songs to help them remember the spelling of some words or making the words out of pipe cleaners). In second grade, partners tell each other jokes to understand how homophones work in a way that invites playfulness and humor into the classroom. Later, the children are invited to use homophones to invent their own jokes. In another unit, children examine photographs of camouflaged animals disguised by their surroundings and then do similar work to uncover disguised sounds in words like knowledge and gymnastics.

Units of Study in Phonics contain the usual collections of picture cards, word cards, nursery rhymes, and decodable texts, but our pledge to you is that if you are expected to print or scissor a teaching tool, we’ve made every effort to be sure that you reuse that tool repeatedly.

Part of this revolves around a commitment to keep children’s work as engaging as possible. Instead of channeling them to circle the number of syllables in pictures on worksheets, we’re more apt to suggest that they plop their backpacks in front of them, and work with a partner to touch each part of each child’s backpack, clapping the syllables to zipper, pocket, strap, and applesauce. Instead of asking them to fill in blanks on a worksheet, we give them a story that a fictional child has written and ask kids to work with partners to help that child fix up her draft. The good news is that these activities require you to do less duplicating, scissoring, sorting, orchestrating. Our hope is that when teaching phonics this way, your energy goes up, and your children’s energy does likewise.


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.

There was a time in education when “differentiation” was the end goal, in and of itself. We were asked to show how each day’s lesson included a high, middle, and low track. The more skilled students wrote sentences, the less skilled circled the right answer. The 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, has been a game changer, pointing out that differentiation is not a goal, but one possible means to the goal. Among other things, this unanimous decision signaled that IEPs need to be crafted to enable each child to make significant progress, appropriate to his or her circumstances. The court decision reminds us that it is not lawful to “be satisfied with de minimis progress” for some children. The goal must be to offer opportunities for all children to engage in successful and ambitious learning.

The principles of Universal Design for Learning make it clear that providing access for all kids is what matters most. The goal of “supporting all learners” cannot mean shuttling kids into opposite corners of the room, providing one group with invitations to engage in work that calls for thinking and imagination while simultaneously channeling another group to work on repetitive, low-level, test-like drills, or to work with a teacher providing such intense “scaffolding” that the child rarely has an opportunity to work with indepen­dence. Slotting learners into ability tracks is not apt to give all learners access to the best possible education, if for no other reason than that all of us benefit when we are part of a supportive, rich learning community.

The goal is to give each child an education that is aligned to that child’s particular, individual ways of representing knowledge and of engaging with texts, and that takes each child the distance. The workshop environment itself is designed to provide learners with the mix of choice and high expectation that provides the flexibility, responsive teaching, inclusivity, and rigor that each learner needs. At its best, the simple, consistent structure of a reading, writing, or phonics workshop allows you to be alert to the variations in your students’ needs. Because there is time every day for students to work with each other, you can observe as children work in partnerships and “rug clubs” and make the adaptations that can allow each learner to be successful.

Your bottom-line assumption needs to be that it is important to provide students with many ways to express what they know. Although most of your students will be able to make good use of whiteboards to explore ways in which letter combinations work, some students will benefit more from doing the same work with tiles or magnetic letters fastened to magnetic boards. And, to sustain effort, many students will benefit from the invitation to work collaboratively. You can provide options for physical action by allowing kids to work on the meeting area rug or a low-to-the-floor table. Although all your students will be encour­aged to apply what they learn during phonics to their work with paper and pens during writing time, some will benefit from working on an iPad or with voice-activated technology.

The most important way in which the Units of Study in Phonics support all learners is by building in flexibility and choice. Because children are often applying what they learn in phonics to their reading and their writing, and because that reading and writing work will by definition be at the learner’s just-right level, much of the work that students do during phonics time will already be adjusted so that each child can work within his or her zone of proximal development. If students are asked to take a book from their book baggie and to look through that book for examples of something you just taught, one child will be looking through a level D book, another, a level H book, yet another, a level M. And if you ask children to reread their writing, checking over their use of blends and digraphs, some children will be rereading writing booklets in which they’ve written only labels onto drawings, while others will be rereading paragraphs in six-page booklets.

Other invitations issued during phonics work time also invite learners to work at the level that is right for that child. “Take one of these words that you know well and try adding endings to it—see what new words you can create. Here is a list of possible endings, although you can also think of your own.” One child turns play into playing, while another turns play into a whole collection of words including playground and playmate. Another day, you’ll ask students to sort word cards into jars. Some students will have words and pictures on those cards, while others will rely on pictures only. For children who do this work easily, you’ll say, “You’ll see we have included some blank cards. If you have time, make up your own words to add to your collection.” Children also receive support from each other because you will have strategically assigned them to partnerships and “rug clubs” that can provide that support. On another day, students will push themselves to deepen their understanding of vocabulary, building upon their own knowledge. They build “word explosions” by writing a word they know well, then around it adding words that are associated with that word—synonyms, antonyms, and categories, such as places and things related to that word—to gain a richer understanding of how words are related to each other. One child begins by writing happiness, then surrounds that word with joy, laughter, sadness, friends, games, ice cream, puppies, playground, and so on. Students draw upon what they already know to discover connections and meaning.

On the other hand, it remains true that these Units of Study in Phonics are designed to sweep your whole class up into super-engaging and deeply collaborative studies of letters and sounds. There is a way in which this work is whole class. We understand this represents a trade-off. It means you will not maintain parallel ability-based tracks. There are some advantages to that sort of old-fashioned differentiation. In the end, however, we decided our priority is to help you lead a super-engaging study of phonics, one that will gather all learners together and help them join in a shared study. For those of you who know our writing curriculum, think about the power and beauty that comes from children engaging in a shared unit on Small Moment stories. For those who know our reading curriculum, think of the high energy in your classroom created by their shared work in the Word Detectives or Super Powers units. Our goal has been to tap into that sort of energy when teaching phonics, while creating a phonics program that provides the same scope and same levels of engagement as our best K–2 writing and reading units.

Meanwhile, we know that responsive small-group instruction will be utterly crucial, allowing you to provide precursor instruction to the kids who need that, and allowing you to also make sure that your whole-class teaching has traction with all children. A separate book, Small Groups to Support Phonics, will help you lead those groups. You will do that during the writing workshop, the reading workshop, choice time, and other stolen moments throughout your day.


Download a sample chapter from the Guide to read about all the guiding principles behind the Units of Study in Phonics.

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: 09/11/19

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