Sight Words: A Cognitive Approach

(Part 2) of High Frequency Words to Sight Words

When planning targeted sight word instruction, we need to provide students opportunities to analyze the words.  The foundation will be the phoneme-grapheme relationship of each word. However, we also need to analyze sight words in light of their semantic meaning, spelling patterns, syllable type, morphemic parts, and etymology.  When these parts are paired with the phoneme-grapheme connections, we will create meaningful learning opportunities for our students.    

So, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions when introducing a new word.  Which parts are applicable and how can you support your students with these cognitive levels of processing?

When Do We Teach Sight Words?

Linnea Ehri breaks up the evolution of word reading development into 4 phases.  When students are at the Full Alphabetic stage (when they attend to every grapheme in a word and have solid phonemic awareness skills) they are ready to learn sight words.  Students will learn the most sight words when they are in the Consolidated phase (when they are able to decode in chunks).

So, be mindful of what your students’ brains are capable of.  If we push sight word learning too early in their development, they might use compensatory strategies like memorizing the word as a visual image.  Visual memory is not reliable, and it will not help the student spell the word correctly. Instead, help your students build their phonemic awareness and letter-sound knowledge so that they are primed for effective sight word learning.

How Do I Provide Context for Words?

Many high frequency words are “function words.”  These words like been, does, and have do not carry significant meaning on their own.  So, after leading students through the expected and unexpected letter-sound correspondences, work with the word in a sentence or phrase.  Remember, part of the orthographic mapping process involves connecting the phonemes, graphemes, and meaning.  So, we need to provide contextual meaning and grammar in order for students to efficiently orthographically map the word. 

If we simply place sight words on the wall or on a flashcard, kids are not “doing” anything with them.  When we use flashcards, we encourage rote memorization.  There is no word analysis taking place.  Instead, we need to attach meaning to the abstract word and make it concrete.  By using the word in a sentence, we give students opportunities to “work” the words. Giving context to the word will help the student make sense of the word’s meaning.

**Important note here: Once your student has learned the word through pairing the phonemes to the graphemes and connecting to the meaning, he can practice them with flashcards.  We just don’t want to use flashcards as the initial teaching mechanism.

Does the Word Contain a Phonics rule/Spelling pattern?

Another consideration is analyzing a word for specific spelling patterns.  These patterns will help students grasp which parts of the word are unexpected or not “playing fair.”  For example, some may assume that has contains an unexpected part (the -s- saying /z/). But, if we teach our students that the grapheme -s- can sometimes represent the /z/ sound, then this will not be an irregular word or unexpected sound.

So, you may choose to hold off introducing some words until you teach the spelling patterns associated with it.  Or, you can describe those words as “irregular for now” or “unexpected for now.”  That leaves open the opportunity for you to teach the student the skill at a later time.

Can the Word be Rooted in Syllable Patterns?

Students need to be able to isolate and segment the phonemes in a word to orthographically map it. (A more in-depth description of this process can be found here).  So, it is understandable that shorter words may be easier for young learners to map.   The shortest high frequency words are often open syllables like the word by. An open syllable has one vowel at the end of the syllable and the vowel is long. I encourage you teach syllable types, and specifically to teach open syllables early on. 

Kindergarten and first grade students will need to read/write many of these open syllable words. Consequently, once a student knows open syllables, words like by, me, and so are no longer “irregular” or “unexpected.”  By pre-teaching syllable types, we give the students an anchor for those long vowel spellings. Download the below chart HERE for a FREE list of high frequency words by syllable type!

How Do Morphemes Inform Our Instruction of Sight Words?

Similar to teaching syllable types and spelling concepts, it can be very informative to teach the morphemic parts of a word.  Morphemes are the smallest units of language that hold meaning.  For our purposes, these include prefixes, roots/base words, and suffixes.  For example, if you teach students the three sounds of the suffix -ed (/id/, /d/, /t/), students will be able to more easily map high frequency words (like jumped). The same goes for a word like going.  Teach the student that the word is comprised of go + -ing. Then discuss how the suffix -ing affects the part of speech and meaning.

What is Etymology and How Can it Help with Sight Word Acquisition?

Etymology is the study of the history of a word.  Our language has evolved for thousands of years. During that time a word’s spelling and pronunciation changed many times over.  When scribes started to write down spoken words, they used letter-sound correspondences that mirrored pronunciations at that snapshot in time.  For some words in our current vocabulary, they retain the spelling and pronunciation of that time.  For others the spelling does not match our current pronunciation.

One example is the word have.  Many assume that this is a “rule breaker” word because the silent e is not making the -a- have a long vowel sound.  But there are 8 jobs of a silent e, and it is not always to make a preceding vowel long.  In the case of have, we can blame the silent e on the scribes mentioned above!  When they first started writing down words, they used the same character for the letter -u- as they did for the letter -v-.  So, to help the reader differentiate between which letter they read, scribes assigned a silent e to the end of words that ending in the /v/ sound. Teaching historical tidbits like this helps students conceptualize the word and reframe it into something that makes sense!  If you really want to dive deep with etymology, check out the amazing History of English podcast.

For a FREE version of the template below, click here.

I hope that you will consider these questions as you teach your students how to read and spell high frequency words.  In Part 3 of this blog post, I will discuss activities and games to reinforce the orthographic mapping of sight words.  So, stay tuned for Part 3 and I hope that your students enjoy “working” these words with you!

Sight words: A Template for Teaching

Part 1: How to Teach High Frequency Words & Irregular Words to become Sight Words

There is a lot of discussion about sight words and high frequency words.  I want to briefly go over these terms because there is a lot of confusion between the terms used in research and the same terms used in practice.

Sight words– any words read automatically.  These can be regular words or irregular words.

Decodable– You use phonic decoding skills to sound out the letter-sound correspondences.

High Frequency Words– these are words that are frequently found in text. They can be sight words, irregular, regular and/or decodable!

Regular words– follow reliable letter-sound correspondences like big.

Irregular words– have one or more letter-sound correspondences that do not follow the expected pattern.  For example, the /u/ sound of the <o> in from.

Orthographic Mapping and Sight Words

Orthographic mapping is the cognitive process by which we connect the individual speech sounds (phonemes) in a word’s pronunciation to the letters (graphemes) in the spellings of that word.  It also instantly connects the pronunciation to the word’s meaning.  This process is applied when words are read AND spelled, and it is this connection-forming process that secures spellings in memory.  It enables students to read words by sight and to spell them.  This is the most substantiated theory in how we memorize words for automatic retrieval.  It is backed by decades of research, and you can read more about it in detail in my previous blog post on orthographic mapping

Knowledge of the phoneme-grapheme system is what glues it all together.  The meaning also helps secure the spelling and pronunciation. So, we need to analyze the relationship between the sounds and letters to master this phoneme-grapheme connection. If we do this over and over, the word will get orthographically mapped.  Some students require only 1-4 exposures, and others may need a hundred exposures.

The goal is for ALL words to be orthographically mapped so that we can read them automatically.  Specifically, we want all words (high frequency words, irregular words, regular words, etc.) to become SIGHT WORDS!

A Template for Teaching Regular Words

For many students (and especially students who struggle with reading and spelling), using flashcards to learn HFWs will be a futile an inefficient task. To orthographically map, we need to first start with the phonemes (speech sounds), match the individual phonemes to the letters (graphemes) that represent each sound, analyze all the graphemes in a word, and use the word in context.

I recommend using Elkonin boxes for ALL words.  You can follow the steps below to directly teach ANY word to become a sight word!  You can:

-Draw a simple Elkonin box on any surface

-Download this FREE Sight Word Template

-Check out my Sight Words: Orthographic Mapping of High Frequency Words (a 440-page orthographic mapping resource of all Pre-K through 2nd grade Dolch sight words).

With any Elkonin box you use, place manipulatives for each phoneme on the top row and on the bottom row, write the graphemes that represent each phoneme. Remember that each GRAPHEME goes in a box, not each letter.  

  1. Teacher says the word aloud.
  2. Student repeats the word.
  3. Student taps out each PHONEME in the word.
  4. Student places a marker or draws a dot in a gray box for each PHONEME.
  5. Student writes the graphemes below each phoneme box to spell the word.
  6. Student reads the word aloud three times.
  7. Student uses the word in a sentence (orally or written).

A Template for Teaching Irregular Words

Our brain maps irregular words the same way we map regular words, so our approach is very similar! I think it is kid-friendly to say that the irregular part is “not playing fair” or is “not expected.”  Sometimes if we describe a word as “tricky” kids will immediately shut down.  So, let’s keep them engaged with the language we use to describe these words.  We are going to give them strategies to work with the fair parts and the unfair parts!

Often it is the vowels that account for the irregular or “unfair” parts of words.  So, use the consonants as “anchors” for decoding.  Only a handful of words (like of) contain all irregular phoneme-grapheme correspondences.  So, encourage your students to find the anchoring sounds that DO play fair to help them decode and map the words. 

  1. Teacher says the word aloud.
  2. Student repeats the word.
  3. Student taps out each PHONEME in the word.
  4. Student places a marker or draws a dot in a gray box for each PHONEME.
  5. Teacher leads the student to each “anchoring” phoneme-grapheme correspondence first.  Student writes the anchoring graphemes below those phoneme boxes.  Student underlines those graphemes.
  6. Next, the teacher leads the student to the irregular/unexpected phoneme-grapheme correspondence.  Student writes the grapheme below that phoneme box.  Student highlights or puts a heart around the irregular grapheme.
  7. Student reads the word aloud three times.
  8. Student uses the word in a sentence (orally or written).

**NOTE: The teacher may choose to introduce each grapheme in left-to-right order instead of the anchoring graphemes first.

Sight Word Instruction with Elkonin Boxes

Some people use hearts to remind themselves that one part of the spelling needs to be learned “by heart.”  Although there is no magic or research behind the heart, it can still be a wonderful visual reminder!  You can highlight the irregular part, circle it, heart it, etc.  Just choose one and be consistent.  The point is to use a visual cue to bring the student’s attention to the irregular part of the word.

What is Next?

We want our students to connect speech to print and to isolate the irregular part of the word. If you are a classroom teacher, do you see how you can shift your instruction with these simple steps?? It only takes a few minutes, and the reward is so worth it!

I hope that you will follow my blog and stay tuned for Part 2 of this Sight Word post: How to go beyond the sound-symbol relationship to orthographically map those high frequency words without clear meanings (like does, been, and for)!!

For pre-printed, NO PREP sight word templates, check out my Sight Words: Orthographic Mapping of High Frequency Words

Assessment to Instruction

You finished your classroom Structured Literacy assessments?  So, now what??  First of all, pat yourself on the back for completing the assessments.  That information will be invaluable in guiding your instruction!  But how do you organize all that data, so you know where to go next?  I recommend you synthesize all the data into one Assessment to Instruction Form.

Structured Literacy Assessment Components

As the science of reading tells us, there is more to reading than just phonics (although that is a crucial element!).  We also need to explicitly teach and assess all areas of:

Phonemic awareness

Decoding

Language comprehension

Writing

Spelling. 

In an earlier blog post on Assessing Reading, I outlined all the important parts of a comprehensive Structured Literacy Assessment.  Whether you use one comprehensive assessment like my Structured Literacy Assessment to address all those areas, or you gather data from several assessments, you need ONE place to compile all the data.  I created this FREE Assessment to Instruction Form to help you do just that! 

Assessment to Instruction Form

How to Use the Assessment to Instruction Form

  1. Create a copy of the form for each child you want to track for intervention. I recommend printing the resource double-sided.  No need to use up more paper than we need!
  2. After assessing your student, fill in the boxes with errors your student made on his assessments. You may choose to write in examples of errors, percentages, anecdotal notes, or whatever you like!
  3. You may not end up filling in each box, and that is okay!  This resource is meant to be adaptable to fit YOUR needs and the needs of YOUR students. 
  4. If your student did well in an area, you can leave it blank, add a check mark, or perhaps a smiley face. 🙂
  5. Once you have filled in the boxes, you will be able to quickly glance through and plan which areas to address in your intervention instruction.

I hope this Assessment to Instruction Form helps you organize your assessment data and saves you valuable time.  Thank you for all your work assessing and teaching your students.  I can’t wait to hear about their growth!

Assessing Reading

It is the beginning of the school year, and we are eager to see how our students read and what skills we need to teach them.  How do we accomplish both?  We do so with a comprehensive reading assessment that covers all skills needed for reading. 

Science of Reading and a Reading Assessment

               The science of reading tells us that BOTH language comprehension AND decoding are needed for effective and efficient reading comprehension (the ultimate goal of reading). Looking at Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope, we see that the Language comprehension skills (including Background knowledge, Vocabulary, Language structures, Verbal reasoning, and Literacy knowledge) work in tandem with the Word recognition skills (Phonological awareness, Decoding, and Sight recognition) to create skilled readers who can comprehend the texts that they read.

Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope

Especially for English language learners and for students with poor vocabulary skills, these upper strands of the reading rope must be assessed and taught. Supporting students’ background knowledge is also a crucial step in ensuring that they comprehend the texts they read.

               Both parts of the reading rope are equally as important, and each deserves a deep dive into the skills we need to assess.  In this post, we are going to examine the lower parts of the rope for Word Recognition.  These skills include Phonological awareness, Decoding (Alphabetic principle & Letter-sound correspondences), and Sight recognition. For years I gathered multiple assessments pieces to make sure I assessed all skills for phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition. But it was not organized, nor was it streamlined. So, I finally created my own, Structured Literacy Comprehensive Assessment to have an affordable and complete reading assessment for my students. I go into more detail about that resource and other independent assessment options below.

When Should I do a Reading Assessment?

  • Initial screenings for all students at the beginning of the year
  • Progress monitoring 2-3 times a year.  You will want to assess struggling readers more often.
  • Use comprehensive assessments that lend themselves to screening and progress monitoring throughout the year

Materials Needed for Assessment:

  • Pencils
  • Blank notebook paper
  • Chips/puff balls (or some other type of manipulatives you have on hand)
  • Teacher Observation sheet for informal assessment of pencil grip, posture, repetition, needed redirection, vocabulary (oral) vs written vocabulary, understanding of directions, etc. You can download a Teacher Observation form here for FREE!
Informal Assessment Observation Form

Phonological Awareness

               Reading involves moving from speech to print.  The core of reading is the phonemic piece (individual sounds) and not the larger phonological awareness pieces.  (You can read more about the difference here).  Don’t spend too much time on rhyming, for example, with older students.  We need to move into the phonemic awareness stage as soon as possible and assess how our students blend, segment, and manipulate phonemes within words. It is the phonemic piece of reading that most often accounts for why students struggle to read.

               Assess all students’ phonemic awareness (PA) in grades Kindergarten through second grade.  For those whose PA skills are automatic, they will not require explicit PA instruction.  But for those who are not automatic, explicitly teach and practice those targeted PA skills with PA drills and games.

               There are many assessments out there that assess Phonological Awareness skills.  A few that I recommend are:

  1. Structured Literacy Phonics Assessment Phonological Awareness, Reading, Spelling
  • Great for a wide range of ages
  • Includes a Pre and Post assessment of all skills
  • Rhyming
  • Sentence, syllable, and phoneme segmentation
  • Phoneme manipulation in all parts of a word
  • Purchase online here

2. Assessing Reading Multiple Measures Revised 2nd Edition 2018 (Core Literacy Training Series). 

3. The PAST revised by David Kilpatrick

  • Great for first grade and older
  • Phoneme manipulation in all parts of a word
  • Includes 4 versions to use throughout the year
  • FREE online here

Decoding

               Both alphabetic knowledge and letter-sound correspondences should be assessed as part of the decoding process. Ultimately, students’ mastery of letter-sound correspondences helps determine whether they can read words or not. I encourage you to use both real and nonsense words to accurately assess a student’s decoding ability.

               Two phonics assessments I recommend:

  1. Structured Literacy Phonics Assessment Phonological Awareness, Reading, Spelling
  • Great for a wide range of ages
  • Includes a Pre and Post assessment of all skills
  • Letter naming, letter writing, letter sounds, word reading, nonsense word reading, spelling, oral reading/fluency, and comprehension
  • Purchase online here

Assessing Reading Multiple Measures Revised 2nd Edition 2018 (Core Literacy Training Series)

  • Great for a wide range of ages
  • Letter naming, letter sounds, word reading, and oral reading
  • Purchase online here

Sight Word Recognition

               Thanks to scientific studies of the brain, we now know that we put words into our long-term, “sight word” vocabulary in the same manner regardless of whether they are phonetically regular or irregular.  Automatic recognition of high frequency words (HFW) aid in fluency, decoding, and comprehension.  So, it is important to assess which HFWs the student knows. This will tell you which words you still need to teach (try this FREE HFW resource!), which HFW words to preview prior to oral reading, and which ones the student should be held accountable for reading correctly in connected text.

               Consider the results of your Sight Word reading assessments in combination with the Decoding assessments and Phonological Awareness Assessments.  When looking at all areas of Word Recognition, you will better be able to pinpoint the causes of a student’s underlying reading struggles.

               Two High Frequency Word Assessments I recommend are:

  • High frequency words divided by Dolch grade level lists

Word Ladders

Research studies over the last 40 years tell us that the strongest reading results come from phonemic awareness paired with systematic phonics. Phonemic awareness is the awareness of the individual speech sounds in spoken words. For example, the word cat has three phonemes: /k/ /a/ t/. The word eight has two phonemes: /ā/ /t/. If we change the first sound in eight to /ĭ/, we get the word it. These are examples of phonemic awareness tasks.

Phonics involves connecting the graphemes (letters) in written words to the phonemes (sounds) these letters represent. Reading words in an alphabetic language like English requires a phonetic approach. This phonics approach requires phonemic awareness skills like blending, segmenting, isolating, and manipulating to access the words in our language. Phonics instruction should be explicit and systematic. It should follow a logical scope and sequence of skills from simple to complex. This Structured Literacy approach helps ALL students and follows the science of reading.

Connecting Phonemic Awareness and Phonics?

But phonemic awareness and phonics should not be practiced in isolation. So, how do we connect phonemic awareness and phonics? There are many activities to connect the two, but today we will discuss the power of word ladders (sometimes referred to as word chains). This simple tool requires phonemic awareness skills such as segmenting, isolating, manipulating, and blending in order to change the word one phoneme at a time.

Word Ladders with Phonemes

Word ladders can utilize letters or just sounds. If your students are not yet ready to manipulate at the grapheme-level, you can use puff balls or disks to have them create word ladders. For example, watch this video in which a student manipulates the PHONEMES in words dictated by the teacher.

You can also see this in the pictures below as step-by-step directions:

  1. Teacher dictates the word mask. The student repeats it and taps a puff ball for each phoneme. In this word there are four phonemes: /m/ /a/ /s/ /k/.

2. Teacher says, “If that is mask, show me mast.” Student repeats the word, taps the puff balls again and isolates which phoneme needs to be manipulated. In this case, the student knows it is the last phoneme (from /k/ to /t/).

3. The student switches out the puff ball representing the /k/ sound for a new one representing the /t/ sound. She then taps each puff ball again as she says each sound. Lastly, she uses her finger to blend the sounds together.

**Once a puff ball is “subbed out,” it returns to the top with no given sound. It can then be substituted on the next word for any sound.

Word Ladders with Graphemes

Word ladders use the same approach as the above phonemic awareness manipulation activity. However word ladders require students to change the spelling of a word (with graphemes!) by one phoneme at a time. Spelling and reading words in this manner helps students master the letter-sound correspondences. It also teaches students to attend to all letter-sounds in a left-to-right manner. No more guessing at the first letter or using picture clues to figure out the word. Students will be attuned to all the phonemes and graphemes in the words they encounter.

You can watch this video to see how a student writes the word ladders AND how she builds up a word with just puff balls!

When creating or using Word Ladders, it is important to follow a systematic approach. You will first want to assess your students to isolate their needs. Start with the simpler skills first and progress to the more complex skills.

  1. The simplest task is to change the same phoneme throughout the activity. This is a great place to start with students. The beginning phoneme is usually the easiest to manipulate.

2. The next step would be to change the final sounds and medial sounds (with three phonemes). Below is an example of manipulating all three (but still only one phoneme at at time).

3. Next you can move to building words from one phoneme and then taking phonemes/graphemes away. These addition and deletion skills require higher-level phonemic awareness.

4. The most complex step is to work with words that have more phonemes. This gives the students opportunities to manipulate more phonemes. You can also use words with long vowel spellings so that students have to attend to more sophisticated spelling changes.

When used as part of a Structured Literacy approach, word ladders can be an engaging and worthwhile activity for your students!

Student Examples:

Orthographic Mapping

The Process of Orthographic Mapping: What is it and why is it so important?

“The mental process we use to store words for immediate, effortless retrieval.”

David Kilpatrick

Orthographic mapping is a behind-the-scenes, cognitive task in which students store words in their long-term memory. It’s not a skill or form of curriculum. It’s a process.

The process of orthographic mapping builds our sight word vocabularies. This is the pool of words from which we can immediately recognize for automatic word reading. This is the same process for phonically “regular” or “irregular” words so that we do not have to spend mental energy sounding out words.

What Skills Are Needed for Orthographic Mapping?

While orthographic mapping in and of itself is a process and not a skill, it does require two main skills in order to occur. These are phonemic proficiency and letter-sound knowledge.

Orthographic mapping requires the ability to connect the phonemes (or the sounds) in spoken words to the graphemes (or letters) in written words. In order to make those connections, one must have phonemic proficiency AND he must have mastered the letter-sound correspondences.

What Does the Process of Orthographic Mapping Look Like?

Orthographic Mapping Process by Orton Gillingham Mama

When we orthographically map, we take what we already know about a word (which is usually the meaning and the pronunciation) and connect the individual phonemes (sounds) to the graphemes (letters) that represent the sounds in the word. When we do this, the phonemes, graphemes, and word meaning are inextricably linked! We can store the word as a sight word for automatic retrieval. We no longer need to decode these words one sound at a time. This is how we become fluent readers.

Skilled Readers DO NOT…

Skilled readers do not use visual memory to remember words. Brain scans show us that we use a different part of the brain for word reading. Other brain scans show us that word recognition is faster than processing a picture of the same written word.

Dehaene, Reading in the Brain

Once we have orthographically mapped words, we recognize them in any font, shape, color, or size. That is because we have mapped the specific letter sequence to the individual sounds, not a visual image of the word. We could not have memorized the global word shape of all different fonts and letter shapes nor sounded them all out.

Words are not read as visual images

Which Instructional Approaches DO NOT support Orthographic Mapping?

When we over-rely on pattern books, we set up young readers to use contextual guessing or to rely on pictures. Contextual guessing, looking at a picture, or skipping a word not only do not help our struggling readers store the unknown word in memory, but it actually hinders them from learning the word. If they guess or skip the word, then they are not actually attending to the familiar sequence of letters in the word.
Each time we encourage a decoding strategy other than attending to ALL the sounds left to right, we are robbing the student of the opportunity to orthographically map the word.

So, either by our instruction or without strong foundational skills, these students are left to guess and use context clues to figure out unknown words.

Studies show that skilled readers DO NOT USE CONTEXT to read. So why would we teach that as a decoding strategy?

Context CAN help once a student decodes a word. Context can help with comprehension, as a checking method for decoding, or to help with accent/stress. But we should not encourage context guessing as a strategy.

-And as we discussed before, encouraging learning words by their shape is not efficient or effective. So, learning high frequency words on flashcards or sticky notes may not likely be an efficient use of time.

How Do we Teach the Skills for Orthographic Mapping?

  1. Make sure that letter-sound correspondences are secure. We should explicitly teach these and give students opportunities to practice them.
  2. Teach and practice phonemic awareness skills through the manipulation level to allow for orthographic mapping to occur.
  3. Decoding and word study– this entails EXPLICIT INSTRUCTION in letter-sound correspondence, spelling patterns, spelling rules, syllable types, morphology, etc. Once those have been explicitly taught in a systematic manner, you can practice playing with sounds in words first and then exposing the student to the letters.

Phonics alone is not enough. Phonemic awareness alone is not enough. And word study alone is not enough. But we should explicitly teach all three of these components. Some students need a lot of practice with these skills, and some require only a little.

Phonemic Awareness and its Role in Orthographic Mapping

Levels of Phonemic Awareness by Orton Gillingham Mama

Phonic decoding (sounding out words) requires the bottom level of these phonemic awareness skills ( isolation, blending and segmenting).

-If we only teach the bottom set of skills, this will help students phonically decodesound out words. However, we need to teach the higher-level phonemic awareness skills to automaticity in order for students to orthographically map the words to REMEMBER WORDS for future, automatic retrieval! So, by itself, phonic decoding is not enough to produce a sight word vocabulary. But phonic decoding provides the OPPORTUNITIES needed for words to be added to our sight word vocabulary.

If students are allowed the time to practice phonemic awareness skills to mastery (through explicit, systematic instruction), then taught the word-reading skills alongside those, and given ample opportunities to practice these skills in decodable, controlled texts, they will build their phonemic proficiency AND their sight word vocabulary!

Do not teach phonemic awareness solely in isolation. THE GOAL OF PHONEMIC PROFICIENCY IS AUTOMATIC WORD READING. NOT PHONEMIC PROFICIENCY!

Activities to Support Orthographic Mapping

In Preschool and Kindergarten:

  1. Read Nursery rhymes that bring the student’s attention to similar word parts like rhyming. As we expose children to these parts of oral language, this sets the stage for the phoneme-level skills needed for reading and spelling.
  2. You can practice phoneme-level awareness with stories using alliteration.
  3. Students should practice matching beginning sounds with pictures and objects.
  4. Students should practice the phonological skills alongside learning letters. Teach letter-sound knowledge through explicit instruction.
  5. As their skills grow, weave in appropriate phonemic awareness skills like segmenting and blending to simple words or pictures. Students can begin to blend simple words once they have learned only a few consonants and short vowels.
Kindergarten Skills for Orthographic Mapping by Orton Gillingham Mama
Letter Identification by Orton Gillingham Mama

In Late Kindergarten and 1st Grade:

  1. Move away from the larger phonological awareness units like rhyming and focus on the phoneme-level skills like segmenting and blending individual sounds.
  2. Explicitly show students how the graphemes work together in a left to right manner. This needs to include a logically-ordered scope and sequence that moves from simple to complex.
  3. Use decodable texts.
Activities for Orthographic Mapping by Orton Gillingham Mama

In 2nd and 3rd Grade:

  1. Assess and practice the higher level phonemic awareness skills. Many students will still require a lot of practice with phonemic awareness, and some will need very little.
  2. Teach syllable types, phoneme blending, decodable reading with a specific skill, sorting activities, word chaining, look-alike words, and nonsense words. All of these bring the student’s attention to the sounds and specific letter sequence in words.
Activities to promote Orthographic Mapping by Orton Gillingham Mama

Do I Need to Change My Current Curriculum?

Some curricula innately promote the skills needed for orthographic mapping better than others. However, you can easily weave in activities to any curriculum to help improve your students’ sight word vocabularies. Even small changes can make a huge difference!

Language at the Speed of Sight

Language at the Speed of Sight

Mark Seidenberg’s 2017 book, Language at the Speed of Light explains how human brains learn to read and how educational instructional practices can support this complex process. By highlighting the decades of the science of reading, Seidenberg explains the gap between the science and current educational practices.  He also offers suggestions for how teachers can change their instruction to most efficiently and effectively teach students to read.

The Importance of Speech

By nature, humans seek out data. We are constantly updating our “data systems” based on what we see and experience. As we learn letter-sound correspondences and how orthography relates to semantics and meaning, we update the data about these connections. Well-timed, explicit instruction in these areas accelerates the acquisition of reading and the related data connections.

The science of reading tells us that skilled readers mentally activate the phonological code. They can easily isolate and manipulate individual speech sounds. These skilled readers rely on the phonological code and do not have to resort to guessing or using context clues. It is poor readers (with poor phonemic awareness) that have to rely on context. When we encourage students to use context clues, we are teaching them the reading habits of poor readers.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

Instead of focusing on teaching reading, recent educational approaches focus on developing literacy. Educators have falsely assumed that the basic skills of reading are easy to acquire while reading comprehension is hard. The science tells us the exact opposite. Time spent on explicitly teaching the foundational skills (phonemic awareness, phonics, letter sound knowledge, etc.) improves reading comprehension. Once word reading is efficient, efforts can focus on supporting language comprehension and building prior knowledge.

The Disconnect: The Science of Reading

A hurdle for teachers of reading comes from the gap between the science of reading and practice. As Seidenberg said:

“Education as a discipline values observation and hard-earned classroom experience, setting up a conflict with science’s emphasis on understanding that supersedes personal experience.”

-Seidenberg 2017

Educators have used experience and anecdotal evidence to support and guide their theories. Many pendulum swings in education have been based in these experience-guided theories. Seidenberg uses the 3-cueing system as an example. He says:

“The 3-cueing approach is a microcosm of the culture of education. It didn’t develop because teachers lack integrity, commitment, motivation, sincerity, or intelligence. It developed because they were poorly trained and advised. They didn’t know the relevant science or had been convinced it was irrelevant.”

We should teach educators the science of reading and basic, cognitive principles. From there they can better inform their instruction. We must be willing to shift away from what we think we know to being willing to learn what we don’t know. Let’s be critical thinkers for the sake of our students!

Think Like a Scientist

There are too many “wars” happening right now.  Political wars, reading wars, vaccine wars, and actual wars.  We are divided into groups with whom we agree on topics that are important and relevant to us.  But how many of us act like a scientist and actually read the data, research, polls, and first-hand accounts from the stake holders?  Do we, on the other hand, revel being in an echo chamber that simply supports what we already believe in?  What if, instead of spending time justifying our own opinions, we shift to recognizing our own biases and consider that our beliefs might not be consistent with current research?  

What Would that Look Like? 

We need to be critical thinkers. We need to gather the most significant resources and research to find out what is actually true.  Humility is a central tenant of critical thinking and one that I speak about in my previous post “I Love Being Wrong.”  If you are not willing to change your perspective based on collective knowledge, you are not thinking critically.  You are not looking for new information. You are trying to defend and persuade others to believe what you believe in.  

Science is not definitive because it is ever evolving.  But the collective science should be our guiding principle.  What if based in that science we were to be brave and ask important questions about our own beliefs and the beliefs of others?  We would need to be nimble and discerning like a scientist.

So, consider the following:

Consensus does not equal truth. 

Rather than preaching your beliefs to others, try to understand theirs. Ask yourself and others, “How do you know?”

Rather than attacking someone on the other side of an issue, reexamine your own perspective.

Don’t be so quick to accept what you see on social media, and don’t use those “facts” to denigrate someone else.

Don’t be afraid to stand up and call out misinformation but do your part to first be informed about the research.

Consider that discussions of “pendulum swings” derive from anecdotal evidence and/or old research studies.  Science is not a pendulum. As researchers learn more, we should be actively open to their results (especially when they go against what we previously thought has true). This requires looking for reasons we might be wrong instead of reasons we might be right.

Try to listen more to ideas that are hard instead of beliefs that sound familiar. 

Think like a scientist. Value curiosity over conviction.  

Reading in the Brain

If you are curious about what happens in the brain when humans read, this is the book for you! I am not qualified to write a true book review (nor am I attempting to), but I hope to summarize some of the main topics in the book. What happens in the brain when we are reading is no longer a mystery. We all have precious extra time outside of work and family, so I hope this can be the first of many book “glimpses” to help you prioritize your next nightstand book of choice.

From Letters to Language

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a self-proclaimed word nerd. So, it should be no surprise that I enjoyed every inch of this book. Stanislas Dehaene explains in detail how visual information comes in through the eyes, gets sorted into different parts of the brain and affects how we learn to read. He also explains how we have adapted our reading and writing to pre-existing brain parts.  While we are wired for language, we are not wired for reading.  However, parts of brain and neurons have also adapted to the letters and languages we have created. This is true across all languages even ones with pictorial aspects like Chinese.

All visual information comes in through the eyes, but our brain processes specifically just letters and words through an area in the brain he refers to as the letterbox area. This part of the brain activates in brain scans for written words and not for spoken words.  This complex brain processing bounds sequences of letters together so that it can easily decode and access meaning. All of this happens in less than 1/5th of a second. Dehaene proposes that during our schooling, the brain rewires itself. Our brain’s neurons go through neuronal recycling when adapting to cultural changes like letters. So, word recognition occurs in the brain area where the neurons are most efficient for reading. Pretty fascinating, right?

Stages of Reading

When learning to read, children go through three stages of reading: the pictorial stage, the phonological stage, and the orthographic stage. Dehaene goes into great detail explaining the stages and how they can inform our instruction. In order to read well, children must be explicitly and systematically taught grapheme-phoneme instruction.  The automaticity of reading leads to the best performance in sentence and text comprehension.

The Dyslexic Brain

In dyslexic students, the anatomy of the brain is disorganized (specifically in the temporal lobe).  Using brain scans, Dehaene explains exactly what happens in the brains of those with dyslexia. Would you like to know why so many dyslexic students mix up b and d? Read this book to find out how our innate symmetry in relation to the world around us affects how we view letters.  Are you curious what Dehaene says about multisensory instruction like Orton Gillingham for students with dyslexia? Does it really help?

This book is not intended to be a teaching tool per se. But understanding reading in the brain will absolutely help shape and direct your instruction. Don’t be afraid to put on your science hat and learn the research behind how our brain works. Dehaene presents the information in a way that all of us can comprehend. Enjoy!

I Love Being Wrong

For some people, saying the words, “I am wrong,” might be incredibly difficult. But for me, saying or thinking the words excite me. I am energized by learning something that contradicts what I previously thought.  Is that odd to admit?

As organizational psychologist, Adam Grant said in his podcast and in his new book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What you Don’t Know,

“In a changing world, you have to be willing and able to change your mind. Otherwise, your expertise can fail, your opinions get out of date, and your ideas fall flat.”

Adam Grant

In a recent meta-analysis of 81 studies, past experience rarely affects future performance. What matters is past performance and current motivation and ability. I have found that some people do not admit they are wrong because they think it is a sign of failure.  I feel like a failure if I rest on my laurels and refuse to seek out new information.  Instead, I prefer to go out of my way to read research and listen to podcasts that do not necessarily support my thinking. It can be uncomfortable.  But how am I to learn if I only surround myself with information that already supports my thinking?

No matter how new information informs my current thinking, those ideas are not my identity.  My identity is one of constant learning and rethinking and not one of already knowing.  I value curiosity and humility over conviction.

We are in a time of stark polarization in politics, education, climate…you name it and there are two opposing sides.  But what if we focused our energy on being open to learning instead of proving our points?  What if we all delighted in being wrong?  If nothing else, wouldn’t that make us all slightly less wrong than we were before? 😊