Phonics: Introduction | Phonics: Assessment | Phonics: Sight Words

Phonics and Word Study: Instructional Activities to Develop Phonics and Spelling Skills

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Phonics and spelling are closely tied together. You can help your students solidify these concepts by teaching them in tandem rather than as two separate pieces of your language arts block. As students learn about phonics and spelling features in isolation, they need to also have opportunities to apply them to reading and writing tasks with teacher support. This section describes five instructional techniques:

Alphabet Activities

pixAlphabet knowledge is a significant predictor of future reading success. Students at the earliest stages of reading require instruction in letter names and formation among other critical pieces of early literacy instruction (i.e., phonological awareness and phonics instruction, concept of word development using connected text, vocabulary and comprehension development through read alouds, writing opportunities to practice their developing knowledge of letters and sounds).

pixThese activities can be as simple as tracking the alphabet while singing "The ABC Song". Students can use special pointers while tracking as a motivator. These pointers can be used to locate particular letters as you call them out. Children who are learning the alphabet need practice discriminating among letters and making connections between upper case letters and their lower case counterparts. Upper and lower case connections can initially be discussed through the child's name. You can have a student's name in all upper case letters and in all lower case letters for the student to match. Using names is extremely motivating. Once students can identify the letters in their first names, you can move on to their last names. Students can also learn the letters in the names of other children in their group or the letters of a family member. You should continue to teach letter recognition, naming, and formation until your children can accurately and rapidly identify all upper and lower case letters, as well as write them.

Picture and Word Sorts

pix After children have learned several letters of the alphabet, they will begin learning the sounds that letters make in words. One way to help children distinguish among sounds is by sorting objects or pictures by initial sounds. The goal of sorting is to emphasize similarities and differences among target features to help students conceptualize the categories. Two to four categories are generally sufficient.

A picture sort is a categorization task in which pictures are sorted into categories of similarities and differences. Pictures may be sorted by sound and position (e.g., the /m/ sound at the beginning of mouse versus the /s/ sound at the beginning of sun). Picture sorts are cued by headers placed at the top of each category.

pixOnce children know most letter-sound correspondences and are representing beginning and ending sounds in their spellings, they may begin to sort words as well as pictures. A word sort is a categorization task in which words are sorted into categories. Word sorting involves comparing and contrasting within and across categories. Words are sorted by sound, pattern, and position (e.g., the /ag/ sound at the end of bag that is spelled -ag). Word sorts are cued by headers placed at the top of each category.

Picture and word sorts can easily be done in group settings using pocket charts. First, explicitly introduce the sort by discussing headers and placing them in the pocket chart. The sound, pattern, and position of the target feature should be emphasized. Explicit talk should include declarative knowledge (i.e., the what), procedural knowledge (i.e., the how), and conditional knowledge (i.e., the when and why). When introducing the familiar rime ip, the teacher might say, "When you see the letters i-p, you know that these two letters together say /ip/ as in lip. So, when you see the word hip, you can take what you know h and ip and put them together to make hip."

After the sort is introduced to the group, children should have opportunities throughout the week to practice their own sorts, both with teacher guidance and independently. As children sort pictures and words, errors should not be corrected initially unless you feel that it is necessary. After the sort is completed, the students check their sorts, and you should address any errors by discussing why a decision to change the category for a particular picture or word was made. As each column is read, you should review the headers and what each word in the category has in common noting again the sound, pattern, and position. For example, after reading the words sat, hat, mat, pat, rat in the category -at as in cat, the teacher and children would discuss that each of these words ends with /at/ and has the spelling pattern -at at the end. After sorting the pictures mail, man, moon, mop, mitten in the category m- as in mouse, you should discuss that each of the pictures begins with the sound /m/ and the letter "m".

pix Picture and word sorts can be complemented with games. For example, a Bingo game is a perfect way to review and practice target features. The game board can be interspersed with pictures and letters for students learning initial sounds or pictures and words for students learning short vowel word families.

Writing Sorts

A writing sort often follows a word sort. Headers are placed on paper, and word cards are jumbled up. The words can either be seen by the students to assist them in writing their words in the appropriate columns, or they can be called out by a teacher or another student.

pix Writing sorts can be done with teacher support, in student pairs, or as independent work. Begin by picking a word from the word cards of the sort and modeling the steps described next. First, read the word aloud and determine the appropriate category thinking about the sound, pattern, and position. Think aloud by saying: "This is the word rap. Rap - cat OR rap -cap. Rap sounds like cap at the end. They both say /ap/, and they rhyme. So, I know that rap needs to go in the cap category because they both say /ap/ at the end. I can use what I know about cap to write the word rap. I know that the /ap/ at the end of cap is spelled a-p, so I can spell rap with a-p at the end. So, I should write r first since rap begins with the /r/ sound and then I should write a-p like in the word cap." After determining the appropriate category, model writing the word in the correct column as the students write the word in their own writing sorts. The students can use their word card to check their spelling of the word.

After modeling 2 to 3 words, have the students think through the process with your support. When they have written all of the words from their sort, they should read each column and verbalize what is the same about each category: sound, pattern, position. For example, after reading the words tap, rap, lap, map, nap in the category -ap as in cap, you would discuss that each of these words ends with /ap/ and has the spelling pattern -ap at the end.

Blending and Segmenting Activities

pix The goal of manipulation is to segment and blend words at the level of the phoneme (e.g., /c/ /a/ /t/ - cat). If it is difficult in the beginning, then segment and blend at the level of the onset and rime (e.g., /c/ /at/ - cat). Elkonin-type boxes can be used to keep the rime together either for additional support or for emphasizing the rime. For example,

c at

You should explicitly talk about the sounds in words emphasizing each sound. The number of sounds in words can be discussed. This discussion is especially beneficial when segmenting words with digraphs and blends. For example, when segmenting the word chip, you should note that chip has four letters but only three sounds. Words should be blended back together after segmentation. Elkonin boxes can be used here to further emphasize the digraph. For example,

ch i p

You should begin the manipulation activity by saying the word aloud for the children. Verbalize each sound in the word while supporting the children in finding the letter tiles needed for each sound. Next, segment each sound in the word chorally with the students while pushing the corresponding letter tile. Blend the sounds together chorally to make the whole word. You should talk explicitly about how many sounds the word has and the corresponding letters for each sound. The word's connection to the target features of phonics/spelling instruction can also be explicitly discussed. For example, after pushing and saying chip, discuss the category ch- as in the word chin. Continue with the next word following the same procedure.

Analogy Books

pix The goal of an analogy book is to emphasize the utility of using what you know to read and spell other words with similar parts. For example, if you know the -at rime as in cat, then you know how to read and spell hat, mat, sat, and pat. While doing analogy-based work, teachers should explicitly talk about the similarities of the words. The sound, pattern, and position of the target feature of phonics/spelling instruction should be emphasized. Students can review their analogy books and refer to them when reading or spelling unknown words.

You should begin by discussing the example word that you are using to set up your analogy work. For example, while working with the -at word family, you would discuss an example word (cat) and the feature that you are targeting. The analogy book page provided in this section begins with the line: "If I know ______, then I know..."After writing the example word in the blank, direct the children to write words with the target feature that you provide for them. After the students write each word, discuss what the word has in common with the example word (e.g., the /at/ at the end of cat spelled with a-t). After the page is completed, have the children discuss again the similarities of each word (i.e., the sound, pattern, and position). The students can segment and blend words before or after they are written for additional practice.

Word Hunts

The goal of a word hunt is for students to apply what they are learning in isolation by finding additional examples of target phonics features in connected text. Students return to texts they have previously read to hunt for words that follow the same target features examined during their teacher-directed lessons. These words are then recorded in the appropriate categories.

You should begin by previewing the text in order to identify pages with words that exemplify the target features or ensure that ample examples are found within the particular text. The texts used should be either at the students' independent level or a text that they have previously read. Model "hunting" for words by reading a sentence to the children (making sure that a word exemplifying the target features is involved) and directing the children to listen for a particular feature. After the children identify the word, explicitly talk about the word's category match. Read the word again and determine the appropriate category thinking about the sound, pattern, and position. Then write the word in the appropriate category allowing the students to refer to the word as necessary.

Continue with the same procedure sentence by sentence to provide support. As children become more comfortable with the procedure, you can proceed page by page as the students read and hunt on their own. Reviewing word hunts is a crucial step in this procedure. You should have the students read each column after they are finished and verbalize what is the same about each category: sound, pattern, position. For example, after reading the words make, shape, ate, take, game in the category a_e as in cake, you would discuss that each of these words ends include a long a sound and has the spelling pattern a_e.

Please feel free to download and use any of the activities and information that we have provided. You may contact the Reading First office at the University of Virginia if you have any questions.

Phonics: Introduction | Phonics: Assessment | Phonics: Sight Words
Pictorial Case Study: Phonics for the Beginning Reader
Pictorial Case Study: Phonics for the Instructional Reader
Pictorial Case Study: Phonics for the Emergent Reader

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