I failed the second grade—or as Ralph, until then my best friend, stated “Peewee (an endearing name given to me by grandmother), flunked!” My parents presented, to friends and family, the process in a more humane light: “Ashley was retained for academic reasons.”  Those academic reasons were pretty clear.  I couldn’t read and I couldn’t spell.

I have learned to do both of these, although I’m not bragging about my spelling.  I’ve spent my educational career investigating why I and children like me, have been challenged by the reading and spelling process.  My research and experiences as a first-grade teacher, reading specialist, and university professor have led me to two conclusions. One, for many children the inability to learn phonics early creates significant academic hardship as they move through their schooling and, two, the degree to which educators can make the sound/symbol connection real to children significantly impacts the success they will have to learn to use phonics.  The following three strategies go a long way toward making the sound/symbol relationship real.

Strategy One: Connecting the sound/symbol relationship to powerful words

Ash and granddaughters

To be blunt, sounds are surprisingly abstract concepts, especially for the beginning reader.  Skateboards are real, iPads are real, Ilsa from Frozen is real—well, real enough. Now, isolate
the short /e/ sound in the word echo.  What in the world are we dealing with here? Certainly nothing very real.  What to do?  Do you have an Eddie, Ed, or Edwina in your class?  Make one
of them your short e expert.  Names and the personalities behind them are very real to young students.  When a child finds attaching the short /e/ sound to the printed “e” challenging, send them in Edwina’s direction.  She’ll help with the sound and the chances are excellent that from then on the short /e/ will be much less abstract.  When you run out of children’s names, toy animals are great substitutes.  A stuffed zebra named Zippy makes the /z/ sound especially real.

Strategy Two: Connecting phonics to real books

Once students understand sound/symbol relationships, the next step is to guide them to understand that these relationships are in interesting and entertaining books.  Imagine teaching the /p/ sound.  Penny (don’t you dare call me Penelope!) is your class “p” expert and students head her way her when needed.  Now, chase down a copy of Kevin Henkes’ Lilly’s Purple, Plastic Purse and read it to the class.  A great but not necessary step is to make a purple purse out of construction paper. Have students find objects in the classroom that start with the /p/ sound and place them in the purse.  A pencil, a piece of paper, a pen,  and a paperclip will all do nicely.  It will be the rare student who forgets the “p” sound/symbol connection after meeting Lilly and her purse.

 Strategy Three: Reading books that clearly feature learned sound/symbol relationships

Students now are well on their way to having the phonic process nicely under control.  The final strategy for making the process real is to have students read books that clearly and consistently feature the sound/symbol relationships being taught.  Targeted Phonics developed by Teacher Created Material is an excellent resource.  Let’s make believe our old friend the silent “e” (or magic, fairy, or bossy “e” if you prefer—and who wouldn’t?) is being taught to help students better deal with the long /a/sound.  Place students in the Targeted Phonics storybook Late Kate and guide them through it.  They will quickly see the silent “e” rule works for them.  This final step clearly shows students that not only do they know sound/symbol connections but also they can read real books—fun books—because they know these connections.

Phonics can be a challenging, abstract process for young learners.  Powerful words, real books, and real reading are three easy and important strategies for creating students who understand and successfully use phonic skills.

Your Turn

Do you have a special picture book that clearly features a letter and its corresponding sound? Please share it with other professionals.