Why Use Decodables?

Decodable books are getting a lot of attention right now. Over the last few months, I’ve had many conversations with educators discussing the characteristics of decodables, and the merits of using them in early literacy instruction. I often find that the act of writing a blog post helps me solidify my own thinking, so I thought it was about time for a post on this topic!

What is a Decodable Reader?

So what defines a Decodable Reader/Decodable text? IDA Ontario provides the following definition:

Decodable books and text contain words made of letter-sounds, and spelling and morphological patterns (e.g. prefixes & suffixes) that a student has been explicitly taught.

I particularly like this definition, because it extends beyond letter-sound (grapheme-phoneme) correspondence, and includes spelling and morphological patterns. One only has to try to spell the word “jumped” (which is a fairly common word for early writers to attempt) to realise that early literacy instruction needs to include more than just what you can “hear” in a word. 

Decodable texts follow a “scope and sequence”. The scope and sequence will carefully lay out the “scope” (the range of concepts covered in the book) and the “sequence” (the order of concepts covered in the book), and will flow from simple to complex concepts. There is no “one size fits all” Scope and Sequence, although most do start with simple CVC words containing short vowel sounds (e.g., “cat” or “run”), and move towards more complex concepts such as vowel digraphs with more than one sound correspondence (e.g., “snow” or “cow”). It is important to have the decodables you use compatible with your scope and sequence but, in my experience, it is challenging to have an exact match. Unless you purchase an entire program that includes decodables and follow it from start to finish, you will likely need to do some creative management of the texts you choose and use. I really like how UFLI Foundations has created a Decodable Text Guide where you can find books from different publishers that align with different stages of their scope and sequence. As is the case with all materials for literacy instruction, it is important to preview a decodable book before using, and check to see if there are any concepts within that might require additional student support. For a book to be truly decodable, most of the concepts in the text should have been taught. If there are too many untaught concepts, it isn’t an appropriate book to use (at that time). 

I want to add one more note regarding the progression of “simple” to “complex” in scope and sequences and book series. Many decodable readers do not introduce prefixes and suffixes until later in the scope and sequence. In our SyllaSense scope and sequence, we introduce prefixes and suffixes early on. We do this because English is a morphological language – when speaking and writing, we combine morphemes (meaning units) to form words and express our thoughts. We consider it important to expose students to these building blocks early in literacy instruction.  An added bonus to adding prefixes and suffixes early on is that it allows us to create text with more natural language structures. Children learn oral English structure well before they can read or write. By the time students start kindergarten, most are beginning to use sentences such as “I played with the blocks” to tell their parents about their day. By adding the suffixes to our text, we are able to match our written text more closely with the natural oral language structures in place when we speak.

What do Experts Recommend?

I chose to highlight recommendations from two different sources – “The Right To Read Inquiry”, completed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and “The Curriculum Evaluation ” Tool, created by The Reading League.

The Right to Read Inquiry

The Ontario Human Rights Commission released their “Right to Read Inquiry” report in the spring of 2022 . There are many thoughtful recommendations included in this report, but here are some pertaining to and related to the use of decodable books and systematic, explicit instruction:

Revise early literacy resources

30. The Ministry should work with external expert(s) to revise Ontario’s Guide to Effective Instruction in Reading (Kindergarten to Grade 3) and Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction (Grades 4 to 6) and other supplementary resources and materials to:

e. Remove all references to levelled readers and incorporate references to decodable texts in Kindergarten to Grades 1 or 2 (or in later reading interventions) and/or to practising word reading in less controlled books that are nonetheless selected to provide practice for word-reading skills for young readers, and with appropriate reading materials, other than levelled readers, in later elementary grades. Reading materials should be selected based on other criteria appropriate for developing reading competence, language and knowledge

f. Replace cueing and balanced literacy for word reading with mandatory explicit, systematic and direct instruction in foundational word-reading skills including phonemic awareness, phonics and decoding skills, and word-reading proficiency (accurate and quick word reading)

Review textbooks and supplementary classroom materials

37. School boards should stop using textbooks and classroom materials that are inconsistent with the scientific evidence, as outlined in this report. School boards should only purchase textbooks and classroom materials on the revised Ministry approved lists. School boards should replace levelled readers in Kindergarten to Grade 1 or 2, with decodable texts.

It is clear that decodable readers are highly recommended by this report, particularly for students in Kindergarten, Grade 1, extending into Grade 2, and for those requiring reading interventions at an older age.

Curriculum Evaluation Guidelines – The Reading League

Another useful document is the Reading League’s Curriculum Evaluation Guidelines, which was published in 2022. I like their clear table format, but mostly I find it useful because it clearly lays out practices that are aligned with the science of reading. In regards to teaching phonics and phonic decoding in a systematic way, the following practices are recommended by their guide:

-Phonics instruction includes cumulative review including application in reading and writing. Phonics instruction is systematic and sequential, building from simple letter-sound correspondences to complex phonic patterns (i.e., instruction begins with short vowels and consonants). 

-Segmenting and blending are taught explicitly and practised regularly, in both decoding and encoding. Explicit instruction directs students’ attention to the structure of the word; the emphasis is on phonic decoding. 

-Irregular high-frequency words are taught by drawing attention to both regular and irregular sounds once sound-spellings have been taught. 

-Opportunities to practice decoding words in isolation are provided. Instruction includes spaced practice and interleaving of skills taught (e.g., practising old and new phonics patterns in one activity, practising a learned phonics pattern in reading and spelling). 

-Phonics skills are practised by applying letter-sound knowledge in decodable texts that match the phonics elements taught, securing phonic decoding. 

-Advanced Word Study (Grades 2 and above): Instruction begins with basic letter-sound correspondences followed by increasingly more complex patterns such as syllable types, morphemes, and etymological influences (i.e., word origins). 

-Advanced Word Study (Grades 2 and above): Includes more advanced phonics skills (e.g., second sounds of c/g, digraphs, variant vowels)

I really like the fact that this list also recommends teaching “to automaticity”, and circling back to practice. A well written series of decodable books will help an educator to do this. Concepts introduced early in the series should keep showing up in later books to allow for this practice and the development of automaticity or “mastery”.

Personal Experience

There are many additional sites and documents that recommend using decodable readers, but I’d like to wrap up with my own experience. When I was teaching Kindergarten, I always had a small selection of students who did not seem to do well with levelled readers. These students often had lagging oral language and phonological awareness skills, and struggled to pick up the key high frequency words found in our levelled readers such as “look”, “here”, “come”, “said”, etc. Partway through my second year with a FDK group, I took my Associate Level Orton Gillingham training, and learned about decodable readers. This is when I started writing. I was lucky enough to work with an Early Childhood Educator who liked to draw, and together we put together a selection of early decodable books for our struggling readers. It was amazing to see the difference these books made for our students, many of whom were in their second year with us and had made little progress with reading. I spent a fair amount of time reflecting on my own practices at this time. I realised that we were spending time each day teaching and reviewing the alphabet (grapheme-phoneme correspondence), then giving students texts to read that did not match these correspondences. We were teaching that the letter <a> can represent the sound /ă/, but then we were giving students books with words like “ball” and “want” and “wake” and “car”. These words are not irregular, but they include more complex orthographic patterns that we had not yet taught. Once we moved to decodable readers, students were able to use what they had been taught about grapheme-phoneme correspondence to identify the letter sounds, blend the sounds, then read the words on the pages successfully.

Ultimately,  whether you are driven by research or by personal experience, I encourage everyone to explore the use of decodables with beginning readers. Here are a few key reminders when thinking about using decodables and teaching concepts in a systematic and explicit manner:

-You need a scope and sequence to guide the teaching of the topics and the order of instruction

-You need to make sure the materials you use are cross-referenced to this scope and sequence – any concepts in the text that have not already been taught should be addressed before reading (note – there should be very few of these)

-You need to work toward “automaticity” by cycling through and reviewing concepts that have already been taught

Some Useful Links:

UFLI Foundations: Decodable Text Guide

International Dyslexia Association of Ontario: Decodable Readers and Text Passages

Ontario Human Rights Commission: Right to Read Inquiry Report

Reading League: Curriculum Evaluation Tool

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Series Update

This post is mostly covered on our website, but I wanted to create a blog post as well for those who may not follow both. After much deliberation in the spring, we made the decision to change the structure of our series and move away from syllable types as our main organizational component. This wasn’t an easy decision, but I feel it was the right choice for us. Here is an outline of the process we went through to make this change.

To begin with, we started by gathering feedback about the series. We spoke to teachers in a variety of positions and with a variety of experience and began to document their observations. The following key strengths were noted about the series:

  • The natural language structures are a real strength of the series (e.g., saying “The hen rested in the nest” rather than “The hen did rest in the nest”)
  • The illustrations and stock photos are great and help to engage young readers
  • The books are true “stories” and allow for discussion, prediction, inference, etc, which is an important feature to keep in the series
  • Readers love the books and feel successful reading them – the focus on short vowels for the Green Series has helped many students take their first steps into decoding in a more successful way than with levelled readers
  • The inclusion of beginning prefixes and suffixes is a very important feature of the series, and provides opportunities for students to explore the morphological structure of our language
  • The books include Canadian content, which is important for Canadian students

Receiving feedback is great when the reviews are positive. It isn’t always as easy to receive suggestions for change, however onwards we forged, and collected the following key recommendations:

  • We need to include more diversity of characters and places in our photos and illustrations (note – the Green Series has already been updated with this in mind, but not the Purple)
  • Some of the Green Series books have too much repetition in phrasing (e.g., Pig is up. Hen is up. Dog is up) – this might reinforce students “guessing” the words rather than actually decoding them
  • There seems to be too big of a gap between the end of the Green Series and the beginning of the Purple – the Purple Series is quite challenging and has a lot of polysyllabic words that some students find challenging 
  • The Scope and Sequence of the Green Series could use some tweaking – some of the consonant clusters included at the beginning of the Green Series (e.g., “still” in “Get up Cat”) are quite challenging – it might be easier for students to learn digraphs first, then introduce consonant clusters in a more systematic way, starting with clusters with continuous sounds (e.g., sl, fl),  then moving to clusters with stop sounds (e.g., st, sp) 

We also received some wish-list items – some of which we decided to address right away, and others that we will consider in the future:

  • It would be great to have a series before the Green Series that moves a bit slower (e.g., less text on the page, no consonant clusters or digraphs) – the Green Series is a challenging starting point for some readers
  • It would be great to have multiple books at each level (e.g., more than one Book 1 in the Green Series) for students who need consolidation of a concept before moving on
  • It would be great to have books that are linked to the general themes found in the Science and Social Studies Curriculum, for instance books on living and non-living things for Grade 1 students

Ultimately, we decided to move away from using syllable types as the main structure of our series. Although we still feel syllable types are still very useful for students to learn, we’ve discovered that it doesn’t always make sense (in the context of decodable books) to cover all concepts within a syllable type before moving on to the next syllable type. For instance, some vowel teams such as <ee> are very regular and predictable and would make sense to include near the beginning of the series. Others, such as <ea>, have multiple sounds and would fit better later on in the series. Moving away from syllable types would allow us to more effectively cluster concepts from “simple” to “complex”, and we felt it will improve the overall flow of the series.

Introducing our Updated Series!

Yellow Series (10 Titles – 5 Fiction and 5 Photo)

We have written 10 new books (5 Fiction, 5 Photo) that will fall before the current Green Series. The Yellow Series starts with short <a> and short <o> and a selection of consonants. By the end of the 10 books we have introduced:

  • all short vowels and all consonants
  • consonant digraph <ck>
  • the High frequency Words “a”, “the”, and “to”
  • the “FLOSS” or “BOMP” pattern (double the final <s>, <f>, <l>, and <z> after a single short vowel, which also lends itself to a beginning exploration of orthography)
  • 2 forms of suffix <-s>:
    • suffix <-s> as third person singular present tense is very common in “book language”, particularly in early decodable texts, so it is important for students to develop an  understanding of this early in their book exploration 
    • suffix <-s> as a plural is a great introduction to how a suffix is a morpheme (meaning unit) – exploring these concepts early helps students begin to understand the concept of “base” plus “affix”, which is critically important for early readers
  • Punctuation concepts found in many Concepts of Print Assessments (period, comma, questions mark and exclamation mark)

Green Series – 10 Fiction Titles and 10 Photo Titles

The Green Series still focuses on short vowel sounds, as well as some simple suffixes and irregular words. We have tweaked the 20 books in the Green Series in the following ways:

  • Consonant digraph <th> and <sh> are introduced earlier in the series, with <ch> following a bit later in the series. Due to students sometimes confusing <sh> and <ch>, we have deliberately separated their introduction by several books. 
  • Initial clusters that are continuous sounds (e.g., <l> and <r> clusters) are the first clusters introduced, followed by final clusters (e.g., mp, st), then initial clusters with stop sounds (e.g., st, sp), which are harder to blend
  • <ng> and <nk> are introduced later in the series as the nasal <n> sometimes makes these sounds harder to pronounce and hear
  • Book 1 of the Photo Series is now lined up with Book 4 of the Fiction Series – we received feedback that the Photo Books were a little bit trickier, so we adjusted their starting point
  • We have adjusted various lines of text to remove some of the repetition found in the series and encourage students to really look at each line of text. 
  • We have tightened up our introduction to the “doubling rule” with a book that focuses on multiple examples of this concept
  • suffix <-ing> is added before suffix <-ed>

Blue Series – 10 Photo Titles

We have written 10 additional books which will fall before the current Purple Series. The Blue Series introduces:

  • Compound words
  • Long vowel sounds in open syllables (e.g., go, she)
  • <y> as long i (.e.g, shy, cry) and <y> as long e (e.g., city)
  • Soft c
  • Vowel digraphs <ee>, <ay>, <ai>
  • R-controlled vowels <er> and <or>
  • “ild”, “ind”, “old” and “ost”
  • “marker” concept: <e> following <v>

Purple Series – 10 Photo Titles

The Purple Series continues to introduce the Vowel-Consonant-e pattern. Although the majority of the story lines and text wording have stayed the same, we have made the following adjustments:

  • Updated some images with more diversity of people and places
  • Simplified language in current books (e.g., the removal of some of the more challenging polysyllabic words), and the addition of concepts now introduced in the Blue Series
  • inclusion of a smaller number of inflectional and derivational suffixes in a more controlled sequence

We are pleased to announce that our updated series is now available for purchase at www.syllasense.com!

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Post 14: Growth Mindset and the concept of “Know Better, do Better”

I wanted to take a pause and share a little bit about my experiences over the last few months. Back in February 2021, we found that more and more sales were coming in for our decodable readers. Suddenly we found ourselves in the position where we had to consider the next steps for SyllaSense Publishing. COVID -19 creates instability and uncertainty in the target market, and the cost of printing almost doubled since before the pandemic. To maintain the target price for the books we would have to print larger quantities at significant total cost. We had to make a choice – reprint the series, or run out of stock and fold the company.

Folding the company when we were just starting to get some traction in the industry felt wrong, so we dove headlong into the reprinting plan. Along the way, we decided to do some updates to the series. We reimaged 6 of the books with more inclusive characters and photos, we changed a few of the character names, and we tightened up the elements page, changing the heading of “endings” to “suffixes”. I had originally used the terms “beginnings” and “endings” on the elements page because at the time I was writing the series, I was teaching an intervention program that used these terms rather than “prefixes” and “suffixes”. After having just completed my Orton Gillingham Practicum though, and having spent a fair amount of time learning about morphology, using the term “suffixes” just felt more accurate. I felt that I had a good handle on the suffixes <-s>, <-ing> and<-ed> included in the Green Series, including their meanings and conventions for use, so it just felt like a logical plan. I was super focused on the Green Series at this time, and hadn’t really given a lot of though to how these changes would play out in the Purple Series.

Jump forward 5 months – the new books had been printed, and were selling well. I found that more and more people were now asking for lessons and resources to go along with their book purchase. All along I’d been planning on making a manual of sorts to go along with the series, but working full time, completing Orton training, tutoring, and running the company on the side had kept me so busy that I hadn’t had time. As the holidays drew to a close, I started thinking about my goals for the New Year. I really wanted to create a series of blog posts sharing instructional ideas, so I ended up starting “12 Days of SyllaSense”, where I planned to post lesson samples, book spotlights, and information on Structured Literacy for the first 12 days in January.

Here is where the “growth mindset” and “know better, do better” themes start to emerge. One of my plans was to flesh out the skeleton Scope and Sequence for the 2 series that I’ve always had posted to the website, and create an expanded version with details about each concept to teach. I started with the Green Series, which went very smoothly. I had already switched the elements page to list “suffixes” in the reprint, and I was clearly able to list the meaning of each suffix, the conventions for use, and suggestions for teaching and consolidating the concept. Yay me! I was feeling great about the process until I moved on to the Purple Series Scope and Sequence.

One of the very first “endings” that I typed into my expanded Scope and Sequence chart (note that the Purple Series has not yet been reprinted and still lists “endings” on the elements page) was <-er>. I had made the executive decision to include the suffix <-er> in the series as a single element to teach (even though I haven’t introduced r-controlled vowels yet), because it is such a useful suffix and it would increase my ability to include rich, meaningful, multisyllabic words in the text (at the time of writing I decided that a teacher could introduce it as a suffix only, and not go into where <-er> fits in the scheme of syllable types). “Great!”, I said to myself. “I know multiple meanings for the suffix <-er>. Let’s pop open that book and see which <-er> version is in the book so that I can include the details in the Scope and Sequence”. To my dismay, the first word I found including <-er> was the word “water”.

Now those of you who have completed in-depth Structured Literacy or Structured Word Inquiry training will likely have spotted the issue right away. The <-er> in the word “water” is not a suffix. It is just the grapheme <-er>. It is part of the base, and is not a meaning unit, and cannot be removed to expose a base word. It is a common “ending” to words (you might describe it as a common syllable found at the end of a word), but it is not a suffix. At the moment, this is okay because the elements page still references “endings” found in the books, however I had now just printed 1000 copies of each of the Green Series books and changed the term “ending” to “suffix”. “Hmmm”. A double “hmmm” comes when I realize that, if the <-er> is not actually a suffix, it doesn’t belong in the series at all. It is an r-controlled vowel and I haven’t introduced those yet.

I thought to myself, “That’s okay. Its just one word. Maybe the rest will be okay. Alas, this was not the case. The more I looked at what I had listed as “beginnings and endings”, the more instances I found of “endings” that were not suffixes.

Truth be told, in most cases it isn’t a deal breaker. For instance, the “ic” in “fantastic” isn’t a suffix, but it still a closed syllable, which has already been taught in the series and fair game to include. I did, however, find the words “under” and “river”. Like “water”, both of these words are problematic I also realized that I had listed “ation” and “tion” as “endings”. They are both common ending syllable, but they are not suffixes.

Now my brain was (and still is) hurting. I am, by nature, a lifelong learner. I know this about my self. I actually think it is one of my greatest strengths. The issue is that I have chosen the path of publishing books. Books can’t easily be changed when you learn something new. I also know myself well enough to know that I won’t stop my learning journey, and this will likely happen again and again. Back in the fall, my board was doing some training that required some difficult conversations. One of the key pieces of advice given to us was to try to be “okay” with feeling uncomfortable. Sometimes you can actually feel the dissonance between a new understanding and an old belief, and this is okay. It is part of the growing and learning process.

I reflected on this a bit, and I realized that these feelings are somewhat par for the course for anyone going through a learning process. For years, I (and many others) taught using a balance literacy, whole language program. I taught using Leveled Readers, encouraged students to “think about what made sense” rather than decode the words on the page, and told parents to never, ever cover the pictures when students were reading, rather to refer to the picture to help students along when they got stuck. At the time, I felt that this was an example of “best practice”, and I was actually a leader in the system, teaching others about how to teach using this method. We know what we know, and what we’ve been taught. When we learn more (which I continue to do), it can sometimes be uncomfortable, and it can take some time to rectify our previous knowledge with our new understandings. I’m doing my best to embrace this process, uncomfortable as it might be, and encourage others to do the same.

I wish I could tell you what my next steps will be with the series. Luckily for me, I have some time before the Purple Series needs to be reprinted. This will give me some time to sort it all out in my head and decide the direction I would like to take the series in the future. In the meantime, I invite you to ignore the elements page! If your focus is on morphology, please feel to use the books and focus on the words that have true bases and affixes in your teaching. If you teach “beginnings” and “endings” (common syllables found at the beginnings and endings of words), you will find multiple opportunities throughout the Purple Series to teach and practice these common patterns.

As always, thanks for joining me on the learning journey! No one ever said the journey would be easy, but it is well worthwhile!

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Post 13: Sample Lesson Plan

In this post, I have created a sample lesson plan to show how I would introduce a new concept in lesson format.

The focus of this lesson is the introduction of the grapheme <-ck>, and where it is found (after a single, short vowel, final to a base). Students need to understand that there can be multiple ways to represent the same phoneme. For instance, the phoneme /z/ can be represented by both a <z> (as in “fuzz”) and an <s> (as in “dogs”). In this lesson, you will see that the students have already been taught that the phoneme /k/ can be represented by both <c> and by <k>. We will now be adding a third way to represent /k/, and teach the students that they will use this grapheme after a single short vowel, final to a base.

I chose the text “The Hot Sun” to read at the end of this lesson because one of the characters is “Duck”, and “duck” is the keyword that I like to use for the <-ck> grapheme. This book allows for practice of the <-ck> grapheme, and consolidates “duck” as the keyword.

At the end of the lesson, you will see student materials which can be printed out. If you are working with a student in person, you can print these sheets for your student to read. If working online, I would copy the charts onto a Google Slide to present to students.

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Post 12: Online Resources for Games and Activities

Games and consolidation activities are super important for Structured Literacy. We really want to see students master a concept before moving on to the next concept. Games are a great way to provide this consolidation!

Now that we are spending so much of our time thinking about online instruction, I thought it would be a good idea to share some ideas for online games and consolidation activities. I completed a significant chunk of my 100 hour Orton Gillingham Practicum working online with students, and discovered quite a few sites that are worth exploring. Some of the sites are paid, and some are not. I’m including both in this post, and will leave it up to readers to decide if a paid site is worth exploring.

Bingo Games

Every love Bingo! I’ve found 2 sites that are great for creating bingo games.

Bingo Baker

  • Bingo Baker currently costs $24.95 for a lifetime membership
  • membership includes both PDF and online versions
  • the big bonus for this site (and what makes it worth considering purchasing), is that you can use this site to create Bingo cards with pictures as well as words or numbers
  • you can create an unlimited number of games and save the games to return and edit later

My Free Bingo Cards

  • My Free Bingo Cards is free, which is a bonus
  • the site has both downloadable PDF and online options
  • only words can be used in this site – it doesn’t have the option of uploading pictures
  • you can make an unlimited number of bingo cards, but they cannot be saved (you can download and save the PDF, or save the link in another document to be used later, but links and PDFs are not saved as part of the site)


Flippity has a wide range of activities available, including:

  • Concentration games (can use pictures)
  • Manipulatives (editable – can be words, bases + affixes, onset/rime, etc.)
  • Online interactive board game
  • Spinners

Pros of Flippity: this is a free site, and once you figure out how to use it, is great for making a range of literacy activities

Cons: this site is a bit finicky – you are supposed to be able to add pictures to many of the activities, but many saved pictures show up as a broken link. There are certain sites that seem to work better though – I found that most pictures worked from these sites :https://pixabay.com/, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page_

Word Wall

Word Wall has free accounts and a paid accounts:

Free Account:

  • a free account allows you to create 5 games (and only 5 – I thought you could create 5, delete, then create more, but you can’t, BUT – it allows to you access all public games created by others – there are a lot!!
  • if you try the free site and would like to use the games I’ve created, feel free – you can search for them under the username: lee28

Paid Account:

  • ranges from $8 – $12 per month
  • $12 allows access to all games
  • Multiple games (Pacman, balloon pop, whack-a-mole, concentration)
  • Quizzes, word searches, crosswords, matching activities, spinning wheels
  • allows you to embed pictures into games, so the site can be used for phonological awareness activities with students who are not yet fully reading

Class Tools

Class Tools is a game site that is fun for students. The paid subscription costs approximately $25 Canadian Dollars per year. The site has old arcade style games that are played on a question/answer basis. Students have to choose the correct answer in order to keep playing. This site has:

  • Pacman
  • “fling” the teacher (a version of “Angry Birds”)
  • Space Invaders
  • Pong
  • Asteroids
  • Word Shoot (and others)

It is a bit finicky to set up, and my students report that it isn’t always free of advertisements (which the paid version is supposed to be), but the students really enjoy the games and the sound effects. I’ve found it worth the $25.00. A bonus is that you can add your own avatar to the “fling the teacher” game, which students love!

Pink Cat Games

Pink Cat Games also has “Paid” and “Free” accounts

Free Account:

  • Allows you to search pre-made games
  • Allows you to play a small selection of games for free (see below example)

Paid Account:

  • $40 US for a year’s subscription
  • Allows access to full range of games

One of the key bonuses is that, like Word Wall, you can embed pictures into the games. This allows you to make games that are book for Phonological Awareness and don’t require a student to be fully reading to play.

Below is a PDF containing the links to various games I have created, mostly on Word Wall. As I continue to create, I’ll add links to other sites as well. Enjoy!

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Post 11: Lesson Planning Template

I’ve recently had a lot of colleagues reach out and request ideas for planning structured literacy lessons. There are many ways to organize lessons in a structured way. As mentioned in the introduction of this blog, structured literacy lessons include many components, including phonology (speech sounds), orthography (writing system/spelling conventions), syntax (structure of sentences), and morphology (meaning of words/word elements).

Throughout my Orton Gillingham training and practicum, I developed a lesson plan template that works for me. Although the components of the lessons were (and continue to be) consistent, it’s important to find a flow that works for you. Attached below is a template that I use when tutoring, where my lessons are approximately 60 minutes long. I acknowledge that an hour-long lesson with a small group in a classroom isn’t realistic. If you are using a template such as mine, I would recommend planning out the flow of instruction, then breaking the lesson into logical chunks to complete over several days.

Here are the core components that I include in my lesson, with a brief description of each one.

Phonemic Awareness

I always like to start my lesson with a Phonemic Awareness activity. It is really important to make sure your focus for Phonemic Awareness is linked to your current lesson objective, or a review of a previous concept that was noted to need consolidation. I tend to do this section orally, as there are plenty of opportunities in the remaining lesson to link phonemes (sounds) with graphemes (letter and letter combinations).

Visual Drill

When shown a phonogram card, students say the letter name(s) while simultaneously tracing/forming the letter (this can be done on a multisensory board, in the air, or on any textured surface). Students then give all associated phonemes in order of most common to least common. Keywords are taught and repeated until the phonic is known automatically. Students can also state any patterns they have been taught when presented with a phonogram (e.g., use <-ck> after a single, short vowel).

Auditory Drill (both oral and written)

In the Auditory Drill, the teacher says a phonogram, then the student repeats the phonogram. The student then orally gives the name of the letter/letter combinations that can represent that phonogram. I tend to do this activity orally after the Visual Drill, and again, later in the lesson, in written form as a warm-up before the Word Dictation section. To change it up, I sometimes have students find the letter tile/tiles to represent a phonogram rather than have them write it.

Syllable Work/Word Structure Work/Grammar

In this section of my lesson, I teach/consolidate larger, more structural concepts. I might review syllable types and have students do a word sort. I might use a word matrix to build words using a base + affixes. I might review a grammar concept such as nouns, verbs or adjectives. These overall foundational concepts are an important part of a structured literacy program and help students understand the framework within which phonology/orthography exists.


At this point in the lesson, I have the students practice blending with know phonograms. Please see my post on blending for a more detailed description of what this can look like.

Review Words to Read

In this section, students are presented with a selection of words to read. I tend to use a masking card to allow students to only see one row of words at a time. If a student comes to a word they do not know, they use a strategy:

  • in beginning lessons, I have students first say a phoneme for each letter, then blend and read
  • once students are solid with consonant sounds, I have them just say the vowel sound, then blend
  • once students are solid with vowel and consonant sounds but are learning word pattern such as syllable types, I may ask them what they notice about the structure of the word (e.g., it is the pattern vowel-consonant-e), then read the word

Only known concepts should be included in the Review Words section.

Irregular Words

Students need to be introduced to irregular words. Irregular words are words that are not phonemically regular. That being said, many so called “irregular words” can be explained by delving into morphology. When words are related in meaning, they are related in spelling. This knowledge can lead us on a path of inquiry to become “word detectives”, and find out why words are spelled the way they are. Some examples of this can be found in my “Scope and Sequence” section, where I have suggested tips for helping students understand the spelling of some of these “irregular words”.

The process for introducing irregular words is the following:

  • teacher presents the new irregular word and asks student if they can read the word
  • teacher and student discuss the meaning of the word, including its grammatical function
  • teacher and student examine the word, and discuss related words (if applicable)
  • map the part(s) of the word that are expected (phonemically regular), and the parts of the word that are unexpected (phonemically irregular) – where possible, find other related words to help explain the “irregular” component
  • student reads word, builds word with tiles or letters, then writes the word for additional practice

New Concept and New Words to Read

Introducing a new concept depends on the level of your student. Ideally, you want to try to elicit a response based on your student’s current knowledge. We don’t wants students to guess, we want them to draw on their current understanding to make a reasonable hypothesis about a new concept.

For example, if I was introducing the phonogram <oy>, I would first present the keyword “boy”, which is a reasonably high frequency word. I would then ask the student to read the word if they can. Once read, I would underline the phonogram <oy>, and ask the student to identify the phoneme represented by the phonogram. If working with a very beginning student, I would read the keyword for them rather than have them attempt the word and read it incorrectly. I would then make a phonogram card for the concept, and write the keyword on the back.

Students then read a new word list, comprised of multiple examples of the new concepts. First start with single syllable words, then move on to polysyllabic words. Here is a sample word list that you might want to use for the phonogram <oy>:


Phrases and Sentences to Read

Students are first presented with phrases to read. In my Orton Gillingham training, I was taught to present different types of phrases for students to read. In early lessons, we presented noun phrases, verb phrases, and prepositional phrases. Students would practice reading each phrase, using a masking card if needed to see only one phrase at a time. If errors are made, students are stopped right away – if possible, attempt to elicit the correct response from student. Again, try not to tell the student what they did wrong, rather try to help them to use their own knowledge to correct their own mistake. Sometimes they may need a prompt in the form of a question to jog their memory. Sometimes they may need a full concept review. If full concept reviews are needed too often, however, you may need to readjust your pace and spend more time consolidating before you move on to a new concept.

Sentence reading follows the same procedure. If phrases and sentences are choppy or have little phrasing, have students reread for fluency. As in all components of the lesson, phrases and sentences should only contain taught concepts.

Word Dictation

The Word Dictation section of the lesson is where students practice writing words containing the newly taught concept, and review previously taught concepts. I follow this procedure:

  • teacher says the word, student repeats the word
  • if the student knows how to spell the word, student orally spells word first – if correct, student then writes the word and says each grapheme aloud as they write
  • if student does not know how to spell the word, student segments the phonemes, then states the grapheme for each phoneme heard
  • student then writes the word and says each grapheme aloud as they write
  • when finished writing, student reads word aloud and checks for errors
  • if word is more complex (i.e., compound, polysyllabic or base + affix), student identifies each syllable and/or affix and completes above process, one syllable at a time

Dictated Phrases/Sentences

The writing procedure for dictated phrases/sentences is similar, but a bit more independent. First, I dictate the phrase/sentence, then the student needs to repeat the phrase/sentence until it is held in memory. This part is crucial – the goal is to have the student retain the phase/sentence throughout the writing process. The student then writes the phrase/sentence independently, implementing the same strategies as used above in Word Dictation. When finished, the student reads back all phrases/sentences, then uses an editing checklist to review their work.

I’ve attached a version of a C.H.O.P.S. editing checklist that I created. It has multiple versions included (ax chopping, vegetable chopping, and karate chopping). Each version has a strip version that can be used as a bookmark, and a “table tent” version that can be folded and placed on a table where students are working.

Reading of Connected Text (controlled)

The final lesson section is where students put it all together and read a connected text. The text should be controlled (only include concepts previously taught), particularly in very beginning lessons. As the student progresses, a small number of challenge words (multisyllabic words, words with unusual pronunciation, or content words) can be added in, but they should always be reviewed before reading. It is important to always direct students back to the concepts they know and have them problem solve as much as possible if they make an error. Again, try to avoid “telling” students the correct word, rather have them draw on their experience and known concepts to realize and correct their mistake. Review of concepts after an error is corrected is recommended. Texts should be re-read if choppy, and comprehension questions or discussions should always follow reading.

Lesson Plan Template

Here is a google form of my lesson plan template. Please feel free to adjust and use in a way that works best for your students.

Lesson Plan Template

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Post 10: Scope and Sequence Ideas

One key feature of Structured Literacy is the idea of developing a Scope and Sequence of instruction. Although it is important to be thoughtful about the order of introduction of concepts, I have learned (through my Orton Gillingham training and through my general teaching experience) that there is no “one size fits all” Scope and Sequence. Moving from simple to complex makes sense in most cases, but there may be occasions when a student or group of students make a keen observation that is worth investigating, even though it might involve a concept that you hadn’t planned on introducing yet. It is always a balance between planning a logical sequence, while still meeting the needs, interests and observations of your students.

When planning a Scope and Sequence in Ontario, we have the additional difficulty of having to work with a language curriculum that contains little-to-no specific differentiation of skills taught from year-to-year. This makes it extra challenging for teachers who are trying to introduce concepts in a more systematic way. Luckily, there are some example Scope and Sequence outlines that we can refer to when doing our own planning. Different provinces, different countries, and different instructional programs have released ideas for a logical sequence of concepts to teach, moving from simple to complex. If you have purchased (or your school has purchased) a set program, there will obviously be a sequence to follow with materials to support that sequence. If you are working on your own to gather materials, you may find the following documents useful when laying out a plan for your year.

National Curriculum – England

The National Curriculum document from England has a very succinct appendix section that outlines English concepts to be taught by each year. It is well worth having on hand if you are looking for a concrete scope and sequence to get you started. It has an appendix for spelling and one for vocabulary, grammar and punctuation.

National Curriculum – English Programmes

New Jersey Tiered System of Supports

The New Jersey Tiered System of Supports has a nicely laid out sample Scope and Sequence that is adapted from The Fairleigh Dickenson Center for Dyslexia Studies. It has a good introduction that talks about how to use the Scope and Sequence and reviews the importance of “mastery” of a concept before moving in. It discusses how you can spend time on syllabication/syllable types, affixes and spelling generalizations while students are consolidating a taught phonogram.


S.P.I.R.E. Program

The S.P.I.R.E. Program also has a published Scope and Sequence that is available online. It is only an order of concepts, not a description. S.P.I.R.E is a complete program though, so you can also purchase an Instruction Manual, Student Readers, and Decodable Books to follow their set Scope and Sequence. I’ve included their outline here, as I’ve found it a logical and useful document when thinking about next steps for my own students.


New Brunswick Companion Documents

I’ve just recently discovered these documents, and feel that there is a lot of good information in them. They don’t necessarily always recommend an order of instruction, but have a good overview of concepts to be taught and strategies for teaching. There are 6 companion documents:

SyllaSense Decodable Readers

We’ve just released our new Scope and Sequence for SyllaSense! We decided to make it multifaceted, and moved beyond Grapheme-Phoneme Correspondence. After much deliberation, we grouped our concepts into 5 categories:

  • Grapheme/Phoneme Correspondence
  • Orthographic Conventions (Patterns
  • and Generalizations)
  • Morphology
  • Punctuation/Text Features
  • High Frequency Words

We’ve created and attached 3 different formats – a plain table, a booklet, and an 11 x 17 spread.

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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
  • 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’ directly after a short vowel
    • ‘y’ and ‘w’ act as vowels when they come after another vowel, so avoid putting them at the end (I’ve not included them in the cards below for this reason)
    • ‘r’ after a vowel changes the vowel sound, so don’t use an ‘r’ directly after a 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: Short Vowel Spelling Patterns

When teaching students about short vowels and closed syllables, it is important to include lessons on related spelling patterns. There are several 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, final to a base
  • 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

Online Bingo Game -“ck” practice – myfreebingocards.com

Wordwall Game – “ck” or “ke”

Wordwall Game – “ck” crossword puzzle

Wordwall Game – “ck” balloon pop

B.O.M.P. Pattern (Buzz Off Miss Pill)

  • double the <z>, <f>, <s> and <l> in a single syllable word after a single short vowel, final to the base
  • e.g., class, staff, will
  • note: the phrase “Buzz Off Miss Pill” can help students remember because each word contains one of the end letters to double (<z>, <f>, <s>, and <l>)
  • common exceptions: if, has, this, his, yes, bus

B.O.M.P. Online Bingo – myfreebingocards.com

B.O.M.P. Word Search – Word Wall

B.O.M.P. True or False – Word Wall

‘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 Bingo – myfreebingocards.com

Word Wall Game – “ch” or “-tch”

Word Wall Game – “-tch” Concentration

‘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

Word Wall Game – Crossword Puzzle -dge

Word Wall Game – Concentration -dge

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 corresponding phonemes, 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.

Here is a YouTube video I made showing how to make the multisensory boards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkxLcFV97mA

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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: https://myfreebingocards.com/bingo-card-generator 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. https://www.mes-english.com/games/boardgames.php

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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.

Syllable types were first classified by Noah Webster in 1806 in an attempt to regularize English spelling in his dictionary. It is important to realize though, that not all words fall neatly into the 6 syllable types. Many words in our English vocabulary have actually come from different languages, and are not necessarily consistent with syllable types. Also, multisyllable words in English often have the “schwa” vowel sound for unstressed syllables (e.g., the first and last <a> in “banana” are “schwa”) which also isn’t consistent with syllable types. A study of morphology often goes further in helping students read and spell unknown multisyllable words.

All this being said, I have found the teaching of syllable types to be very useful for students, especially for beginning readers working on single syllable words. As students begin to learn about the patterns found in our language, they become pattern detectives and begin to seek more patterns as they read and write. I also feel that syllable types are useful for educators to understand, and can help organize and structure our early instruction.

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., in, cat, flip, hush, stop, stuck, patch
  • it doesn’t matter what comes before the vowel, it’s what comes after the vowel that matters
  • some exceptions are the wild, old words: ‘ild’ as in ‘wild’, ‘old’ as in ‘cold’, ‘olt’ as in ‘colt’, ‘ind’ as in ‘kind’, ‘ost’ as in ‘most’

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)
  • ‘gh’ can work 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.

  • tion, cial, ture, sion

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. 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. In the meantime, I’ve attached a few beginning games that can help students identify some of the common graphemes that represent vowel sounds. These are beginning games, and only cover <a>, <e>, <i>, <o>, <u>.  I introduce vowel teams, and “sometimes <y> and <w>” at a later point in lesson series. 

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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 some 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.

I recommend using 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

PAST – Phonological Awareness Screening Test

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

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