In 2010, in my 7th year of teaching, I found myself in a tricky predicament. Teaching K-2nd grade students, I’d always infused a bit of regular phonics instruction into my classroom. A worksheet here, a phonics game there. A sprinkling, if you will. But in 2010, working at a Harlem charter school, we had 150 first grade students set to receive one full hour of systematic phonics instruction every day for the entire year. I was tasked with providing instruction to a group of 12 students with the most severe reading difficulties in the grade, many of whom had additional attention-related issues that impacted their learning. I knew I had to change the game. I knew that if I wanted these students to make reading gains, I had to make this hour the most engaging hour of their day. But teaching phonics? How could that be done?
Fast forward to 2016 when I was serving as Principal of a K-8 Brooklyn charter school: we were implementing the Core Knowledge Skills program, for an hour a day for all K-2nd grade students. We had noticed gaps in phonics and decoding skills in our 3rd to 8th grade students, and decided that a more systematic approach to teaching these foundational reading skills in the younger grades was necessary. How were we going to show teachers that phonics instruction could be fun to teach? And even more importantly, how were we going to keep 180 four- to seven-year- olds engaged and interested as they learned the difference between a short and long “o” sound and how to recognize a digraph?
The answer, I found, as both a teacher and a school leader, was incorporating specific strategies to make phonics time exciting and fun for little ones! Over the years, I’ve noticed a collection of strategies that can transform phonics, regardless of the program, into the most engaging part of the school day. Here’s a list of some of the best I’ve seen:
- Call & Response – In a Silly Voice! – In many phonics programs, call and response is a key component to practice the sounds. A fun and engaging twist is to use different “voices” when you do this – so that you sound silly, and students get to sound silly, too. Because let’s face it –students love silly! A few of my favorites are a Robot Voice, a Baby Voice, and an Opera Voice, but coming up with them is half the fun!
- Guess the Covered Word/Sound/Letter – This game comes from the book series Month-By-Month Phonics, which I find to be a great resource overall! The basic premise of the game is to cover up portions of the word and have students guess what is covered by using their phonics knowledge and “clues.” For example, if you are trying to work on digraphs, you can cover the word “shock” and then reveal the “sh” sound only. Allow students to guess a few words that start with “sh,” writing them on the chart. Then reveal the “ck” sound and have them check their list and revise with only the words that fit both the beginning and ending sound. This game is really fun, highly effective, and can be adapted to many different phonics concepts.
- Give It Some Rhythm– Many things in phonics have to be repeated or done with a tight routine to maximize time. Many times you can liven these things up by adding some rhythm to what you are saying, in a predictable way. For example, when asking students to use chalkboards or wipe boards, you can say “Say it, Say it, Tap it, Tap it, Write it, Write it, Show it, Show it” and put a little rhythm to the work.
- Making Words – In all the program I’ve seen, I’ve noticed that giving kids their own manipulatives to make words and sounds is much more engaging than just having them sit and listen to the teacher. The more you can do this, through the use of letter cards, magnet boards, or stickers, the better!
- Segment It with Ritual – Typically, phonics instruction incorporates many short activities. This is great for the attention spans of the little ones, and you can add to the fun by starting each section with a ritual – a cheer, a clap, one line of a song, or even just a drum roll as you reveal the sound or focus of the day.
To see additional enhancements, download Achieve the Core’s Effective Enhancements for Foundational Skills Instruction document. You can also find more foundational skills resources here.