Welcome back, friends! If you’ve been on this Science of Reading journey with me this far, you’ve got an understanding of what the research says and the components of the Science of Reading. You’re probably itching to put some of these practices into action in your classroom!
But where do we begin?! There is so much information out there; it can be overwhelming at times.
Let’s start with some small, yet mighty, shifts that we can start to make today. We’ll discuss intentional mindset and language shifts around our literacy practices. I hope that these shifts will fit right in with the great things that you are already doing in your classroom. As we get more comfortable with these practices, we’ll make way for bigger changes in our teaching, learning, and communities.
Intentional Language Shifts
One of the first shifts that I made was to transition my language away from the three-cueing system and towards phonetic (and “words on the page”) cueing when working with readers in my classroom.
What We’ve Been Saying
Traditionally, when a student gets stuck on a word, many of us have been trained to ask our students:
- Does it look right?
- Does it sound right?
- Does it make sense?
- Can you look at the picture and figure it out?
And we’ve been trained to analyze whether our students’ mistakes were based on:
- Meaning (like saying pony instead of horse)
- Syntax (putting in another work that could fit in the sentence)
- Visual cues (like saying another word that starts with the same letter)
The Science of Reading tells us is that these practices take our students away from looking at the word and using their phonics skills to solve the word. It may not seem to make a huge difference for a kindergartener or first grader. What’s the big deal if they say kitty instead of cat? However, reinforcing these strategies does not help our students as they move into more complex texts and books without picture clues.
Often, when I read with young students and they get to a tricky word, they immediately look away from the word. They look to me, at the picture, or out the window. The clues they need to solve that word are not in any of those places. The clues are in the letters on the page.
What We Can Say Instead
Shifting my language to help my students bring their attention back to the page to the phonics skills that we’ve worked on has been a simple change with a huge impact! Some of my go-to prompts for this are:
- “Let’s look at the word”
- “Can you point to the word that you’re stuck on?”
- “Let’s tap out the sounds in the word”
As with any mindset and language shift, it doesn’t happen overnight. After years of saying things and teaching reading a certain way, I couldn’t just flip a switch and change. Over time, and with some helpful sticky note reminders for myself, I’ve been able to shift my language to be more in line with the Science of Reading.
Intentional Shifts in Practice: Word Walls
Beyond the mindset and language shifts, there are many places within and beyond our literacy block where we can implement aspects of the Science of Reading. Let’s look at a few of those areas.
From Sight to Sound
If you use a Word Wall in your classroom, consider opting for a sound wall instead. Sound walls support explicit, systematic phonics instruction. The visuals that a sound wall provides give students the tools to solve and spell so many different types of words. The set-up of a sound wall supports a variety of learners.
A word wall:
- is a list of grade-level sight words or high-frequency words that we expect our students to know and refer to
- goes from print to speech (the words are posted and students need to be able to read the words in order for the word wall to be helpful)
However, a sound wall:
- is organized by sound and the way we articulate sound
- goes from speech to print (students begin with the sounds to build the words)
- includes a picture of what a mouth looks like when making that sound
- reinforces spelling skills, and orthographic mapping (when a reader quickly groups the sounds of a word together to read the word almost automatically)
- shows multiple words that include each sound
We know that students learn sounds before they learn full words. With a sound wall, they can see that one sound can be made in various ways.
Rethinking Sight Words
Maybe you’re thinking that the Sound Wall makes sense, but wondering how this affects sight words instruction. I hear you, friend. The Science of Reading does impact how we teach what we’ve typically referred to as sight words.
Our goal here is to support our students’ orthographic mapping skills. So instead of memorizing hundreds of words, we want to support our students being able to quickly and efficiently put together the sounds in the words. Many of the words on our “sight word” lists can actually be read using the phonics patterns that we teach our students. As we teach and practice these phonics skills, our students will be able to read many of these high-frequency words. We call these words “flash words” since we are giving our students the tools that they need to read these words in a “flash.”
Of course, there are words that simply cannot be read using these phonics skills (English can be sneaky!). This smaller set of words (like said, come, and have), known as heart words, have letters that make irregular sounds. Students can use their letter-sound skills to read parts of these words. They will need to learn and commit these irregular parts of the words to memory (or “heart”). The list of heart words to commit to memory is MUCH smaller than our whole list of sight words for the year making it much more manageable for our students.
If we’re teaching phonics effectively, our students will be able to read many high-frequency words in a flash using the skills and patterns that we teach. And eventually, we won’t have too many heart words.
Intentional Shifts in Practice: Book Bins
You’ve surely heard views about what kids should be reading during independent reading time, what they should be be “allowed” to put in their book boxes, and how to set up a classroom library. We can support students developing a love of reading by choosing books that interest them and making sure that our students have opportunities to read books that they can decode. The two are not mutually exclusive and there are benefits to both.
Book Bins and Book Shopping
The Science of Reading tells us that kids should be practicing fluency with decodable books that they CAN read. We know when our students are sitting with their book bins during independent reading, that time is not always productive- either because they do not have books that interest them or they do not have books that they can read.
Some of my teacher friends, despite being encouraged otherwise, have made the shift away from leveled libraries and organized their classroom libraries another way. They’ve allowed children to shop for books by interest and passion. And they have made sure that they give every student a few books right at their level.
To complement this, we can make sure that our guided reading lessons use decodable books. Our students have the opportunity to practice the phonics skills that we explicitly work on in class and in a small group. After our small group lessons, students add these decodable books to their book boxes. This way, we know they are practicing phonics skills that have learned, rather than relying on picture clues and memorization of a pattern, when independent reading.
Other times, we can pull a variety of decodable books focusing on a particular skill or including words we know that students have practiced. Students can “book shop” from these books to ensure they have a few just-right books in their book box.
Are my students ONLY reading decodable books during independent reading? No. Are my students “allowed” to explore picture books, nonfiction, chapter books, and other books that are interesting to them even if they’re not at their level? Of course! We can find that balance to support ALL of the readers in our classroom.
Defending this Approach
Teachers have an answer when asked by administrators how they can be sure their students have books at the right level to read during independent reading time. “Students book shop for some of their books by interest from the classroom library and then I make sure that each student has a number of books in that they can definitely read using the phonics skills that they are currently working on.” This response, hopefully, reassures concerned colleagues and administrators that students have access to plenty of books at their just-right level.
Science of Reading Throughout the Whole Day
Ok, you’re with me on these shifts so far, but maybe you’ve still got some questions. Like, how can I possibly fit all of these Science of Reading-aligned components into my literacy block? This was one of my greatest concerns, too. But, friend, I have you covered! There are so many quick and easy places in our day that we can fit in literacy practice.
Science, Social Studies, Social Emotional Learning, and Math
One area of opportunity: our science, social studies, and social-emotional learning curriculum. These content areas offer great opportunities for highlighting those vocabulary and content knowledge skills. Whether through read alouds, key vocabulary, or anchor charts. Rather than brushing over these skills, I explicitly teach them. How are we learning the vocabulary? What kinds of conversations are we having about these topics? How are we sharing our learning? By reframing our instruction with this lense in mind, it’s easy to center the conversation in a way that supports literacy development.
Knowing how vocabulary and content knowledge impacts reading, we can be intentional about how we introduce, discuss, and practice vocabulary and content. This extends beyond science and social studies and reaches into our morning meetings, our character education or social-emotional learning, and into our specials like gym, music, and art. So many experiences and parts of our school day impact our students’ background knowledge and language skills.
We are supporting our students’ language, vocabulary, and background knowledge skills when we:
- facilitate rich classroom discussions
- choose a variety of books to read aloud
- talk explicitly about grammar or academic vocabulary in authentic situations
- ask our students to summarize, predict, and make connections about their learning
- encourage students to write about their learning
Science of Reading During Morning Meeting
Morning Meeting is another great place to incorporate the components of the Science of Reading.
Phonics Skills During Morning Meeting
I love introducing our Phonics Poem of the week during Morning Meeting. Together, we highlight phonics patterns and practice reading fluently using these patterns. We also include phonics practice in our group activities or games. The morning message is another great place to practice the phonics skills that we’ve been working on.
Vocabulary and Background Knowledge During Morning Meeting
Our group share or greeting can include vocabulary or background knowledge. We can include these words and information in our Morning Message. We may do a read-aloud during the morning meeting to focus on an upcoming season, holiday, weather pattern, or event. All of these give us opportunities to practice using content vocabulary and discuss our learning together as a class.
Knowing our Students and School Community
Knowing our students, their families, caregivers, and backgrounds can bring even more insight into content and vocabulary that would be important for us to explicitly teach in our classroom. Some things that commonly show up in books or math word problems may be unfamiliar to some of our students. We can build lessons and topics into our day to support our students and prepare them to understand that reading that comes their way.
I hope this gives you some ideas of shifts you can make in your practices to align your teaching with the Science of Reading. If you’re struggling because you are screaming “YES!” to all of these things, but have to work within the parameters of your prescribed curriculum (for now), stay tuned for part 4!