As a first-grade teacher, I thought I knew how to teach reading—I’ve even received accolades for my pedagogy. During guided reading I would pull small groups of kids based on ability, spending 15–20 minutes with each. We would read through our story of the week by taking a picture walk to help us understand the story. If students were stuck on a word, I would cue them to sound it out and look at the picture.
It wasn’t until I started to dig deeper into the science behind how people learn to read that I began to reflect on how I had been teaching reading in my classroom. Reading is not a natural process, but one that must be taught explicitly and systematically. Further, as Natalie Wexler discusses in The Knowledge Gap, reading is a human right: Teaching all students to read is an issue of both equity and social justice.
I realized that a shift in my practice was vital if I wanted to reach all of my students—and this is how I made that shift.
Daily phonemic awareness: Phonemic awareness, the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken language, is crucial in the development of early readers. I began spending around 10 minutes a day with the whole group explicitly focusing on individual phonemes in words. Some of the oral activities we engaged in were segmenting (say the sounds in cat), identifying (where do you hear /a/ in the word cat?), substituting (change /c/ to /p/ in the word cat—what do you get?), deleting (say cat without /c/—what is left?), and adding (add /s/ to cat). Hand movements were incorporated during these activities. For example, swing your bat to blend /s//t//o//p/.
This approach is multisensory, fast-paced, and engaging. During small groups, I incorporated visual activities that supported phonemic awareness, such as word ladders for manipulating phonemes, elkonin boxes, magnetic chips and wands for segmenting sounds in words, and Slinkys for segmenting and blending individual phonemes in words. For instance, students would hold a Slinky in their hands and then pull it out for each individual sound, closing it again to blend sounds together and to say the whole word.
Application, application, application: I began scrutinizing my time spent on learning. I was so surprised at how little time my kids had to practice the skills introduced. I adopted an “I Do, We Do, You Do” gradual release structure. Every student needed the opportunity to hear, say, read, and spell.
Using that model, I realized that traditional centers such as independent reading and word work needed to be revamped. For example, rather than having kids choose books at random, I had them read the phonics passages we had been reading during small groups. The kids felt successful because the passages were familiar. I also saw an increase in fluency and accuracy scores on my Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessments, which we use to monitor early literacy skills. For word work, I had students work with sounds in words, either by manipulating phonemes through word ladders or by sorting by the number of phonemes in a word.
As students developed phonemic awareness, opportunities for application popped up everywhere. For example, a student named Charlie questioned why his name was alphabetized under C, with come and Carly, but it said /ch/. This made so much sense to me. For kids to truly understand the sound (phoneme) letter (grapheme) relation, words should be sorted by sound. I replaced my alphabetical word wall with a sound wall and never looked back. Now when I introduce sounds, we discuss articulation and our tongue and lip placement. The sound wall is a focal point in our room that supports kids as they are learning their sounds.
Mindfully choosing what students read: Students need material that contains words, sentences, and paragraphs that they can actually read. I became more intentional in the reading material I provided my kids. I began using decodable texts. These are books that follow a progression of phonics patterns. I tried my best to find books and/or passages that matched the skill(s) I had introduced. I saw my kids’ confidence increase because they were successful at reading. For a teacher, this is the best feeling.
At the same time, representation matters. Kids need to see themselves in the materials being used in the classroom to develop deep connections. For me, I gave all students access to high-quality texts, regardless of their reading ability. Through multiple readings of passages from the text, I was amazed at my students’ ability to explain and retain words, both orally and in writing, and even to use them in everyday conversations.
After we read Monica Brown’s Waiting for the Biblioburro, a student exclaimed, “Mrs. Hanifan, you inspired my mom to create her own fry bread!” The students had learned the word inspired from the text and began to use it in their own lives. I now use a critical lens when I’m selecting books for my students to engage with. I question who is represented or missing in the text, what is the focused content, and how is the text written.
Swapping sight word memorization for heart words: Many people, myself included, believed that rote memorization with flash cards was the way kids built their high-frequency word knowledge. However, most of these words can be sounded out phonetically and should be taught explicitly. This promotes orthographic mapping, the process whereby words are stored in memory. The “heart” reminds us that this part of the word needs to be learned “by heart.”
Before I began teaching the heart word method, I reviewed my scope and sequence and compiled all of the high-frequency words introduced. I then sorted them phonetically. This way, I could teach them explicitly as part of my whole and small group lessons. The kids are excited and notice heart words everywhere. This method has helped them remember how to read and spell a word when they hear it orally or see it in print.
Teaching reading explicitly and systematically has transformed the practice in my classroom and set all of my students up for success.