Post 9: Blending

If you have students who are just at the beginning of their reading journey, blending practice is a must. Students need to learn how to blend sounds slowly together in order to read words.

One way to practice this skill is through blending cards. To start, it is a good idea to just blend 2 sounds. When students are first trying this, it is important to make sure they have the correct sound before they start blending. Have students say each of the two sounds in isolation before they begin to blend.

If students find this hard, it is important to demonstrate first. If they still continue to struggle, blend along with them – sometimes they can do it if they hear you doing it at the same time. Drawing the sounds out (almost like singing) is important when students are learning to blend.

Once students have mastered 2 sounds, move to 3. Once 3 sounds have been mastered, you can begin to add digraphs like ‘ck’, ‘sh’, and ‘ch’, or trigraphs like ‘tch’ and ‘dge’

Things to consider:

  • only use patterns that you have taught – for instance, if students have only been taught Closed Syllables, then make sure you always use a single vowel followed by one or more consonants
  • use a combination of real words and nonsense words – practicing blending with nonsense words is particularly good for students who have memorized many sight words but don’t have the skills to decode unfamiliar words
  • when using nonsense words, only use patterns that exist in real words – here are things to avoid:
    • no English words end in j, so don’t use j at the end, use ‘dge’
    • we use ‘ck’ after a short vowel, so don’t use ‘c’ or ‘k’ by itself after a short vowel
    • we use ‘tch’ after a short vowel, so don’t use ‘ch’ after a short vowel
    • ‘y’ and ‘w’ act as vowels when they come after another vowel, so avoid putting them at the end
    • ‘r’ after a vowel changes the vowel sound, so don’t use an ‘r’ after the vowel
    • ‘c’ and ‘g’ have hard sounds and soft sounds depending on which vowel follows them – don’t use these before the vowel unless you have taught this to your students

Here is a set of beginning blending cards that you can download and use. Enjoy!

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Post 8: Closed Syllable Spelling Patterns

When teaching students about Closed Syllables, it is important to include lessons on spelling patterns. There are several related patterns that are easy for students to learn and can help their overall spelling.

‘ck’ pattern

  • in a one-syllable word, use ‘ck’ to represent the /k/ sound after a single short vowel
  • e.g., stick, rock, stack
  • note: the /k/ sound needs to come immediately after the vowel, so do not use ‘ck’ if there is another sound in between the vowel and the /k/ sound e.g., silk, ask, blink

FLOSS pattern

  • double the f, l and s in a single syllable word after a single short vowel
  • e.g., class, staff, will
  • note: the word “floss” can help students remember because it has an ‘f’, an ‘l’ and an ‘s’ in it
  • common exceptions: if, has, this, his, yes, bus

‘tch’ pattern

  • in a one-syllable word, use ‘tch’ to represent the /ch/ sound after a single short vowel
  • e.g., itch, catch, fetch
  • note: the /ch/ sound needs to come immediately after the vowel, so do not use ‘tch’ if there is another sound between the vowel and the /ch/ sound e.g., bench, lunch, inch
  • common exceptions: exceptions can be remembered with “WORM Sandwich”, which stands for the exception words “which, rich, much, such and sandwich”

‘dge’ pattern

  • in a one-syllable word, use ‘dge’ to represent the /j/ sound after a single short vowel
  • e.g., edge, ridge, fudge
  • note: the /j/ sound needs to come immediately after the vowel, so do not use ‘dge’ if there is another sound between the vowel and the /j/ sound e.g., hinge, bulge

Doubling Pattern (also knows as the 1-1-1 pattern)

Double the final consonant when you add a suffix beginning with a vowel to:

  • a 1 syllable word
  • with 1 short vowel
  • followed by only 1 consonant
  • e.g., run + ing = running, stop + ed = stopped

Students need a lot of practice with this one. One great way to practice is through games, so I’ve attached a game below. Enjoy!

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Post 7: Using Multi-Sensory Materials

If you are working with a student who is struggling to learn, retain and quickly recall letters and letter combinations, multi-sensory materials can help.

Here’s one way to do it. I make my own multi-sensory boards out of fluorescent light covers (they come in 2 foot by 4 foot sheets – you can buy them at Home Depot or Lowes for around $15 per sheet). Using a hot knife, you cut the sheet into 5 inch by 9 inch rectangles. I then cover the edges with coloured duct tape for safety, and for student appeal. Here’s what they look like:

It’s easy to use these boards to help students learn letters. First, print out a copy of the alphabet cards at the bottom of this post (alternatively, you can write your own letters large on recipe cards). Because the boards are transparent, students can see the letters through the boards when they are placed behind. Have the student do the following simultaneously:

  • trace the letter
  • say the letter name, a key word associated with that letter, then the sound

The most important part is that it is simultaneous. If a student traces a letter while they are saying it, while they are seeing it, and while they are hearing themselves say it, they are using multiple sensory pathways to the brain at the same time. If you have a set of alphabet associations that are used at school, you can use those keywords for learning letters (e.g. “a” “apple”). Otherwise, students can come up with their own keyword for each letter. If you child loves snails, they might pick “snail” as a key word to remember the sound for the letter “s”, etc. A key word is a good idea for students who have a hard time remembering the sounds alone.

This technique can also be used with letter combinations as well (e.g., vowel teams, prefixes/suffixes, etc.) Students say the name of the letters, a key word, then, the sound(s) made by the combination.

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Post 6: Consolidation Activities

Once you have introduced a type of syllable, it is important to give students an opportunity to consolidate their understanding. The below activities can be done with any syllable types, but for demonstration purposes, we’ll focus on Closed Syllable examples.

Word Making

Students can build closed words using given letters. (magnetic letters, tiles, scrabble tiles, etc.) Challenge them to make as many words as they can and record them on a white board. Keep in mind that they are trying to make words that only have the short vowel sounds. Students can make single or multi-syllable words

Word Sorting

Students can sort words. For example, students can sort Closed Syllable (pat, snap, man, etc.) vs not Closed Syllable (make, feet, play). Depending on the age and stage of your students, you can either give them pre-made sorts to complete, or students can create their own sorts. To being with, it is usually a good idea to sort with just one concept (e.g., Closed Syllable vs Vowel Team).

Word Webs

  1. Word Webs:

Children can use a word web to make different kinds of associations. Use a common closed syllable spelling pattern in the middle such as “an” or “ack”, and see how many words they can create around the web. Student at a beginning level can just substitute first letter to create new words. Students with a deeper understanding can create multi-syllable words.


Students can play Bingo to practice Closed Syllable words. The game can either be provided for them, or students can make their own bingo game. Here is a free site that works well: Students can generate a list of their own words, type them into the website, then print them in PDF format. This activity also allows for multiple entry points. Students can do single syllable words, multi-syllable words, or words with prefixes and/or suffixes.

Game Boards

There are many different games that can be played with Closed Syllables. The link below provides different game boards that can be printed and used. Students who are at the beginning stages of reading can work on reading or spelling one-syllable words. Students who are more advanced can read or spell multi-syllable words. Simply make your own card deck to go along side of the game. Students choose a card from the deck and either have to read it or spell it correctly in order to move forward.

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Post 5. Closed Syllable Introduction

The first syllable type that I like to introduce is Closed Syllables. Before you introduce Closed Syllables, it is important that your students understand what a syllable is, what vowels are, and have knowledge of short and long vowel sounds. I usually prepare a “Short Vowel” chart with them first, giving a keyword for each short vowel sound.

Reading unknown words is tricky. Often the most tricky part is the vowels, because we know that vowels make more than 1 sound. Explain to students that there are some patterns that you can learn that can help you tell if a vowel is likely to have a long or a short sound.

Closed Syllables are syllables with only one vowel. After the vowel, there is one or more consonant. It doesn’t matter what comes before the vowel, only what comes after it. Think of it as the consonants being the guards that follow the king around to protect it. Create a Closed Syllable anchor chart that describes the vowel location in the syllable:

On the chart, write an example of a Closed Syllable word, for example, “cat”. Ask students the following 3 questions:

  • How many vowels are there? (one)
  • What comes after the vowel? (the consonant ‘t’)
  • Does the vowel make its short sound? (yes)

Do several more examples with different words. Ask the same questions to help students see the pattern. Once it seems like they have a good idea of the concept, give them 30 seconds to look around the room or go on a room walk. See if they can find Closed Syllables around the room. For ease of understanding at the beginning, ask them to only look for 1 syllable words. Although you can find multi-syllable words where all syllables are closed (e.g., mistrust, catfish, standing, unintended), this can be confusing until students have fully grasped the concept.

When students return to the carpet, take suggestions and record them on the board. For each given word, ask the 3 questions. If it is in fact a Closed Syllable, write it on the chart. If it is not, put it on a sticky note around the outside of the chart. Don’t be afraid to say things like “Hmmm, that one doesn’t seem to work.” It is a good idea to start a “wonder wall” for words that don’t seem to fit or make students wonder. 

For teacher information, here are the key patterns that don’t work. Don’t tell the students this yet – it is important that they discover these as they explore the concept.

  1. When the vowel is followed by an “r”, it is not a Closed Syllable. These syllables are R-controlled (e.g., ar, er, ir, ur, or), not closed
  2. When the vowel is followed by a ‘w’ or a ‘y’, it is not a closed syllable. Both ‘w’ and ‘y’ act as vowels when they follow another vowel. These syllables are “vowel teams”.
  3. Wild, old words are words that don’t fit the pattern. In the past, they were pronounced differently. When the pronunciation changed, the spelling didn’t. These are the word families -ind (kind), -ild (child), -olt (bolt), -ost (most), and -old (gold). They can truly be considered “irregular” words.

At the beginning of a concept, don’t worry about defining why a word doesn’t work, just sort which words fit the pattern and which words don’t. As students explore the pattern, they will begin to make their own hypothesis about words that don’t fit. As a final task for this lesson, challenge the students to create a sticky note pile up. Their task until the next lesson is to try to find as many Closed Syllables as they can. If they find a Closed Syllable word, write it on a sticky note and put it on the anchor chart. If they find a word that should be a Closed Syllable but isn’t, write it in red and put the sticky on the anchor chart. For older students, you can drop the tantalizing hint that there are 3 consonants that don’t work with this pattern – see if they can find them!

Here is an example of the sorts of sticky note pile ups that you may see:

The next day, ask students if they see any words that do not fit the Closed Syllable pattern. Remind them that in a Closed Syllable, the vowel will make its short sound. Let’s say a student notices “play”, and says that it isn’t a Closed Syllable. Ask the student why they think it is not a Closed Syllable. Hopefully the student will be able to point out that it is the long vowel sound for ‘a’ that can be heard in the word “play”. At this point, I usually acknowledge that the student is correct, and “wonder” why that might be. In most instances, students realize that ‘y’ sometimes acts like a vowel, so it is actually 2 vowels in the word, not 1. I then “wonder” if this is the case for all instances where the pattern is vowel-y. Students will quickly realized that “they”, “boy”, and “toy” also don’t work, consolidating the hypothesis that the pattern vowel-y is not a Closed Syllable. I then note the exception on the anchor chart, and move on to other word types. I repeat this activity, asking students to find other words that don’t work. R-controlled vowels (ar, er, ir, ur, and or) are usually quickly detected by students. The vowel teams ‘ow’, ‘ew’, ‘aw’ are often more difficult for students to see. You may have to intentionally ask students what they think of the word such as “snow” to get them thinking about the vowel-w vowel team.

Once this activity is completed, you’ll have a gauge of the level of understanding of your students. If the students grasp the Closed Syllable concept, move on to consolidation activities such as sorting, bingo, etc. (see next post). If more practice is needed, repeat the sticky note activity.

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Post 4: Syllable Types

A syllable is a word, or part of a word, with 1 vowel sound. A simple trick to help students understand and count syllables is to put your hand under your jaw. Due to the fact that each syllable has a vowel sound, your jaw will drop for each syllable in a word.

The type of syllable affects the sound the vowel(s) make(s). Here are the main types of syllables that you can teach to help with decoding and spelling.

Closed Syllable

  • a syllable where a single vowel is followed by 1 or more consonant(s), the vowel will make its short sound
  • e.g, cat, flip, hush, stop, stuck
  • it doesn’t matter what comes before the vowel, it’s what comes after the vowel that matters
  • exceptions are the wild, old words: ‘ild’ as in ‘wild’, ‘old’ as in ‘cold’, ‘olt’ as in ‘colt’, ‘ind’ as in ‘kind’

Open Syllable

  • a syllable with a single vowel at the end, the vowel will make its long sound
  • e.g., go, he, my (the y acts as the vowel), or multi-syllabic words like ta-ble (‘ta’ is an open syllable)
  • exceptions – to, do

Vowel – Consonant – e (Magic e)

  • the vowel says its name and the ‘e’ stays silent
  • e.g., cake, here, mile, home, cube
  • exceptions – when the consonant is a ‘v’ (English words don’t end in ‘v’, so words like ‘give’ and ‘live’ have the ‘e’ added on for that reason teach students to be flexible when they see ‘ve’
  • other common exceptions – come/some, there/where, were

Vowel Teams

  • two or more letters work together in a syllable to make 1 sound
  • e.g, eat, street, boat, day, snow (‘y’ and ‘w’ act like vowels when they follow another vowel)
  • occasionally, ‘gh’ words with a vowel to form a vowel team (-igh, augh, ough)

R-controlled vowels

  • when an ‘r’ follows one or more vowels, the ‘r’ controls the vowel sound
  • e.g, ‘ar’ in far, ‘er’ in her, ‘ir’ in first and ‘ur’ in hurt, ‘ear’ in early
  • ‘ar’ and ‘or’ are usually easy to distinguish, but ‘er’, ‘ir’ and ‘ur’ sound exactly the same


  • the “consonant-le” becomes its own syllable
  • e.g., table (‘ble’ is its own syllable), little (‘tle’ is its own syllable), gurgle (‘gle’ is its own syllable), etc.

Other – Stable Final syllables

It is also important to introduces ‘Stable Final Syllables’. These suffixes are stable (consistent spelling) and are only found at the end of words. Students need to be taught them as a unit to be heard and spelled.

  • ion, ion, ian, ure, ial, ure, age, ial, etc.,

If you are new to Structured Literacy and are looking for an entry point, learning and teaching about Syllable Types can be a great place to start. Consider teaching Syllable Types as a part of your Word Study program. As students begin to learn about the patterns inherent in our language, they become pattern detectives and begin to seek more patterns as they read and write. If you are new to Syllable Types, start with “closed syllables”. Don’t be afraid to created a “wonder wall” for words you are not sure about. Pattern hunting can be contagious for students and educators alike, and can cause a powerful shift in the way we view our language and the way we approach word solving when reading and writing.

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Post 3: All About Vowels

It is important that readers know about vowels and how vowels are different from consonants. Merriam-Webster gives the following definition of a vowel:

  • one of a class of speech sounds in the articulation of which the oral part of the breath channel is not blocked and is not constricted enough to cause audible friction;

It also simplifies this definition for students:

  • a speech sound produced without obstruction in the mouth

The best way I’ve found to explain vowels is through singing. Because vowel sounds have uninterrupted air flow, they are great for singing. I start by singing several notes in a row using the short vowel sound ‘o’ (written as ŏ). Students join in and try to pay attention to their air flow and how their mouths are feeling. Point out that the sound only stops when you run out of air. It’s fun to try this with all the different vowel sounds. Students should pair up and look at the shape of their partner’s mouth. It’s good for students to start thinking about and feeling how their mouth shape changes with the different vowel sounds.

Next, we look at consonants. I usually ask a student to pick any consonant. We then make the sound, and try to figure out what is happening with our mouths and our throats as we make the sounds. With most letters, students can tell what is stopping the air flow. Sometimes it’s the teeth, sometimes the tongue, and sometimes the throat. The letters ‘n’ and ‘m’ are also lots of fun because they are ‘nasal’ letters – the air comes out the nose. The students love making the ‘m’ sound and then plugging their nose, which promptly stops the air from coming out. Again in partners, we choose different consonants, play with the sounds, and watch each other’s mouths as they switch from consonant to consonant.

During this exercise, I also take the opportunity to introduce ‘voiced’ and ‘unvoiced’ letters. Have students place their hands gently over their throats. When making a letter that is ‘voiced’, students will be able to feel their voice box vibrating. All vowels are ‘voiced’, so they are great letters to start with. It’s important that students learn to pronounce ‘unvoiced’ letters properly, using only air and mouth position. For instance, the letter ‘t’ should not be pronounced as ‘tuh’ – having your hand on your throat is a great way to check to make sure you are saying the sounds properly. They should use air only to make ‘unvoiced’ sounds, no vocal cord vibration. The following letters should be unvoiced:

  • c, f, h, k, p, s, t, x, sh, and ch

This video talks a little more about voiced vs unvoiced consonants:

It’s important for students to understand about vowels for several reasons. Firstly, every syllable has a vowel sound. If students understand this, it can help them with their spelling. If they are writing a word with three syllables, then they need to make sure that they have at least 3 vowels written down. An understanding of the mouth formation made when pronouncing vowels can help this process. Because vowel sounds are unobstructed, the mouth naturally opens and the jaw drops every time a vowel sound is made. Students can put their hand palm down under their chin, and feel when their jaw drops, which will happen once for every syllable in a word. The following video demonstrates this process:

A second reason why an understanding of vowels is important has to do with recognizing syllable types. The 6 main syllable types are defined by the location of the vowel in the syllable and what letters come after the vowel. Students need to be able to quickly identify which letters are vowels, and how the vowel sound changes based on where the vowel sits and what letters follow it.

In the next few posts, I’ll delve into the different syllable types and strategies for teaching them.

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Post 2: Beyond running records – how to determine the next steps for your struggling reader

So you have a struggling reader. Our normal first “go-to” is to complete a running record using an instructional text. A careful running record analysis can give you a lot of clues as to where and how a student is struggling. One strategy you might try is to write all the miscues on a piece of paper and look at them in isolation, away from the text.

What if your student made the following miscues:

blog words

You might justifiably draw the conclusion that your student needs some work on long vowel sounds and the patterns that indicate the sound will be long (e.g. “magic e” or vowel team). To be fair, a running record analysis is rarely this clear cut. Often students are using context and structural cues to make an educated guess on a specific word. Students become extremely good at using these cues, and this strategy might mask the fact that they don’t actually understand some aspects of the written code.

Although I always recommend a running record as a first step, I also recommend some additional measures that look more specifically at the patterns in English in isolation, in high frequency words, and in low frequency words.

To begin with, I give a Sound Assessment (see attached). This has a list of individual letters, and some common letter combinations such as vowel teams (ai), digraphs (ch)  and common prefixes (tion). In my experience, some students who have excelled in whole language learning actually do quite poorly on this measure. Their brains have figured out the code without ever breaking down language into its individual building blocks. They have learned the word “out”, so they can read “sprouted”. This does not mean that they can necessarily tell you the sound that “ou” makes. For learners who thrive in whole language, not knowing the “ou” sound isn’t a big deal, because they know words such as “out” and “sound”, so they can read and spell related words. For learners who are struggling with the code, the Sound Assessment gives us an insight into which building blocks they are comfortable with, and which need some targeted instruction.

Next, I give a High Frequency Word List (also see attached). I developed this list by examining words found in common, highly used levelled books that I have used with students over my years of teaching. In my experience, even struggling readers pick up these words due to massive exposure. These words are a mix of regular decodable words that follow patterns that can be taught (e.g. help, here, go, down, little, over) and irregular words that are not decodable and just need to be remembered (e.g. said, where, have, once, answer). A student’s knowledge of these words can often mask an underlying gap in his/her underlying knowledge of the English code. Many students do exceptionally well on this list, but still are not progressing with their reading skills.

The next step is to administer a Low Frequency Word List (also attached). This list is often where I gather the most information about a student’s reading skills. When I administer these measures, I’m always hoping to gather an understanding of what a student does when an unknown word is encountered. I’ve organized this list into “syllable types”, which I will go into more in subsequent posts. (For a brief overview of syllable types, check out the Syllable Types document attached.) This organization scheme allows me to see at a glance if a student understands and uses any common patterns in the English Language. For example, a student might be able to read the first 8 words which all contain a single, short vowel sound (closed syllable). They then might move onto the next words and continue to use a short vowel sound. “Pike” may become “pick”, and “fame” may become “fam”. This would be a clear indication that the student does not understand that the pattern “vowel-consonant-e” indicates a long vowel sound. By looking through the student responses, you can determine gaps in understanding and plan instruction accordingly.

A final piece of information that is invaluable is a phonological awareness screen (also attached). I like to use the PASS (Phonological Awareness Skills Screener), as it gives a wide range of information including rhyming, segmenting sounds and syllables, blending sounds and syllables, and phoneme manipulation. Although we sometimes think of phonological awareness instruction as a focus for kindergarten, it is important to understand that good phonological awareness is essential for reading. The correlation is so strong that phonological awareness can be used as a predictor of reading success even before a student begins to learn to read. The good news is that phonological awareness can be taught. Just like the Low Frequency Word Assessment, the results of the PASS can be used to inform and plan instruction.

The combination of these assessments (Letter and Sound Combinations, High Frequency Word List, Low Frequency Word List, and PASS) gives a wealth of information about the gaps that might be responsibility for a student’s lack of progression in decoding skills. In my next few posts, I will suggest ways to organize instruction in order to help students begin to recognize the patterns inherent in the English Language.

Sound Assessment

Sound Assessment Record

High Frequency Word List

High Frequency Word List Record

Low Frequency Word List

Low Frequency Word List Record

Syllable Types Overview

PASS – Phonological Awareness Skills Screener

Why Phonological Awareness is Important for Reading and Writing – Reading Rockets

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Post 1: Unpacking Practices: Whole Language, Phonics Instruction, and Balanced Literacy Defined

Whole Language Instruction

So how can we define “whole language instruction”? It turns out, that’s more easily said than done.

Wikipedia describes it as a “literacy philosophy” which emphasizes that children should focus on “meaning and strategy” instruction. Teachers strive to help children develop a knowledge of the graphophonic, syntactic, semantic aspects of language (commonly referred to as “msv” – meaning, structure and visual).  Whole Language Instruction can also been thought of as a “constructivist” method. Constructivist Philosophy holds that knowledge develops out of an individual’s effort to construct meaning out of experience. Students who thrive on whole language instruction figure out how to read by being exposed to meaning-rich, engaging texts. They use what they know (background knowledge), their understanding of how we speak (syntactic knowledge), and their understanding of letters and sounds (graphophonic knowledge) to construct their own  understanding of the English Language.

What does this actually look like in the classroom? Here, I can only speak from my own experience and observations – forgive me if I simplify the process a bit. Teachers who use Whole Language Instruction use Guided Reading instruction and Leveled Readers to teach children to read. At the very beginning (usually in Kindergarten), students start with short, meaningful texts created with meaningful high frequency words. Students use the pictures and some letters and sounds to work their way through books. Because natural language structures are used, students can rely on what would make sense and what the pictures indicate to fill in the words they don’t know how  to read. Once students have developed a small sight word vocabulary from multiple exposures to certain high frequency words, they begin to notice patterns in words, either independently or with teacher guidance. For example if a student can read the word “look”, then they can figure out “cook”. The “ook” part is the same. Students learn to manipulate words – take them apart and put new sounds at the front. They know that “stay” and “play” look the same, and they sound the same. They may not be able to explicitly tell you that “ay” says the long “a” sound, but they can figure out new words by using the words or parts of words they already know. As more and more high frequency words are introduced, a  “self-extending” system is created. The more students read meaningful texts, the more words students are exposed to. The more words students are exposed to, the more new words they can figure out by recognizing parts, by thinking about what they already know, and/or by making an educated prediction based on what would make sense.

Leveled Readers are the main resources used to support Whole Language Instruction. Leveled books traditionally are meaning driven. They are written with high frequency words and natural language structures. They have very purposeful pictures that provide clues to the reader as they read. There are several different leveling systems, but the most common are the PM system, which levels books from Level 1 – Level 30, and the Fountas and Pinnell Text Level Gradient Scale, which goes from A  – Z.

Phonics Instruction

Teaching reading through phonics is often seen as a bottom up approach. Students are taught that language is made of sounds. These sounds are represented by letters and letter combinations. Students are taught those letters and sounds, taught how to blend sounds slowly to make words, and taught the patterns inherent in the English Language (e.g. “vce” pattern – the vowel makes its long sound and the final e is silent).

Phonics instruction can be systematic or non-systematic. In Systematic Phonics, there is a scope and sequence to instruction. Key concepts are taught in a logical order that has been preplanned. New concepts build on known concepts, until a student can read a wide range of complex words. Decodable texts are often used as a key component of Systematic Phonics Instruction. Decodable texts are controlled texts that only include the letters and letter combinations that have been taught until that point. They provide students with ample opportunities to practice blending and reading words. In Non-Systematic Phonics, there is no scope and sequence to instruction. Sometimes referred to as “embedded” phonics,  teachers provide “mini-lessons” when a phonics concept comes up in a text. For instance, a student may struggle to read the word “play”. The teacher might provide a mini-lesson on the “ay” combination, then provide isolated practice with that concept. It may then be referred to and pointed out if it crops up again in a subsequent text.

There are some words in the English Language that do not fit any patterns. When teaching reading through phonics, these words are usually taught in isolation as “irregular” words. There is a great deal of controversy over the percentage of words in the English Language that are actually irregular. When trying to find a research article to reference for this piece, I found stats that ranged from 50 percent irregular to 2 percent irregular. When it comes down to it, it seems to  depend on what your definition of “regular” is. If you consider words “regular” if and only if they can be accurately spelled by sound-symbol correspondence alone, you are probably going to be sitting at the 50 percent mark. If you include common spelling patterns as “regular” (e.g. “ight” makes the same sound in light, bright, flight, copyright, etc), then  your percentage of “regular” words will be much, much higher. However you define them, irregular words need to be considered in a phonics program. They need to be taught and practiced as any other concept would be.

Balanced Literacy

Balanced Literacy can be considered a framework for literacy instruction. It includes elements from both Whole Language Instruction and Phonics Instruction. Balanced Literacy involves the theory of gradual release – skills are modelled, shared, guided, then completed independently. Mini-lessons (taught to the whole group or to a smaller group) are used to teach specific concepts throughout the literacy block.

In reading, the components of the Balanced Literacy program are:

  • Modelled reading (read aloud): The teacher reads a story, an article, a poem, at passage, etc. aloud to students. The teacher may model comprehension strategies and/or decoding strategies as he/she reads
  • Shared reading: The teacher and the students read a text together. The focus can be on vocabulary development, comprehension, decoding skills, fluency, or another strategy of teacher choice.
  • Guided reading: Students are grouped according to reading level or strategy focus. Students read their own books, with the teacher present to support with challenging words or comprehension strategies.
  • Independent reading: Students read their own books independently.

Writing includes:

  • Modelled writing: The teacher composes and writes a text as a demonstration.
  • Shared writing: The teacher and students work together to compose a text. The teacher holds the pen and does all the recording.
  • Interactive writing: In interactive writing, the pen is shared. The teacher may write some, and students may be chosen to write specific parts as guided by the teacher.
  • Guided writing: Students are placed in small group. Students do the writing with guidance from the teacher.
  • Independent writing: Students write their own ideas down independently.

Balanced Literacy also includes a word study component. In word study, students learn about letters and sounds, letter combinations, spelling patterns, prefixes/roots/suffixes and word etymology. Topics are chosen according to student need, to help drive a student’s progress in either reading or writing.


Here are a few interesting articles and websites that are worth checking out:

Reading Rockets has a great phonics introduction page with many links and resources:

Put Reading First is a summary of reading research completed by the National Reading Panel in 2000:

An article on Whole Language Instruction from the Language Arts Journal of Michigan:

Balanced Literacy Diet is a website from OISE that gives a framework for understanding and teaching reading. It recommends differentiated instruction depending on the age and development stage of students:

This article, published in Phi Delta Kappa, outlines the history of the so called “reading wars”:

The article in reading rockets talks about how phonetic the English language is:

This site outlines patterns found in Dolch Sight Word lists that can help students learn to sound out these high frequency words:



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