Why I Used to Suck at Teaching Phonics

I’m not too proud to admit it: I used to suck at teaching phonics. My less-than-effective strategies left me and my students frustrated more often than not. A lot of it came down to the typical learning curve felt by new teachers, but the more I’ve learned about literacy, the more I recognize the flaws in the old strategies I used. And I don’t think I’m alone in this, which is why I’m sharing a better way to teach phonics with you today. 

Teaching Phonics: What Doesn’t Work

When I first began teaching, I relied a lot on teaching kids to memorize words. It’s how most of us were taught, right? Memorize the weekly spelling list. Take the test. Cross your fingers and hope you can remember what those words are when you come across them in a text. Or, more commonly, forget several of the words as you start working on next week’s spelling list. 

The problem with memorization and using a whole-word-only approach is that children struggle to apply their newly memorized words in other contexts. What happens when they come across an unfamiliar word? It’s entirely possible that they’ll either skip right past it, or they may make an incorrect guess. Either way, they aren’t improving their vocabulary. 

Too often in my early days of teaching, I would introduce a set of spelling words only out of context. My students didn’t get enough opportunities to see and use those words in context.

The more experience I’ve gotten in the classroom, and the more I’ve learned through advanced studies, the better I’ve gotten at understanding how to teach phonics. 

Enough about what doesn’t work! Let’s talk about a more effective way to teach phonics. 

The Better Way to Teach Phonics

To help students build their reading skills beyond memorization, we need to give them tools they can apply when spelling, reading and writing across the curriculum and out in the “real world.” When students come across the word volcanoes in their science textbook, they need some strategies to figure out a.) what word it is, and b.) how to pronounce it. 

Phonics-based spelling and reading instruction teaches students to identify sound patterns in words. They become little word detectives, seeking out what makes words similar and different. As they investigate, compare and contrast, and identify patterns, they are making connections that can be applied in so many other contexts. 

For example, students can observe that there’s a difference in the hard g and soft g sounds. Why is g sometimes pronounced as it is in goat, and sometimes as it is in giraffe? Once they recognize some regular patterns, they can apply that rule to new words as they encounter them. 

In this example, through a variety of phonics-based word activities, students arrive at the conclusion that hard g words usually have an a, o, or u after the g. Soft g words usually have an e, i, or y following the consonant. The ability to recognize this pattern and then apply it in other contexts, with unfamiliar words, is what allows readers to know how words like gamut, gymnastics, or gastroenterologist might be pronounced. 

Of course, it’s English, and so there are always some exceptions to the rule. But without knowing the rules in the first place, it’s hard to tackle new words.

Investigating Words With Weekly Word Work

Something I realized over time in my teaching practice is that students need lots of opportunities to play with words. It’s not enough to teach them the pattern and a word list for a day and then have them assess at the end of the week. Students need repeated exposure and practice.

Another tool I use to help students with their phonics skills is our Weekly Word Work Pamphlets. Each pamphlet has students focus on spelling, grammar and vocabulary skills. Again, there’s a major emphasis on using spelling patterns, but the pamphlets have the added benefit of giving students multiple ways to interact with and use the words. 

Take a peek at what the Word Work Pamphlets include: 

  • Scope and sequence for the whole year
  • Spelling skill & words, grammar skill & explanation
  • Spelling word sort using spelling pattern/skill
  • Vocabulary practice using words from the weekly Benchmark Advance texts (Disclaimer: you do not need access to this curriculum to use this resource)
  • Two pages of grammar practice
  • Sentence writing using spelling words

These are aligned with the Benchmark Advance curriculum, but can work in any classroom. 

Digital Word Work

Whether you’re teaching in person or teaching remotely, the Digital Word Work activities offer students several more ways to interact with and identify spelling patterns. Some of the patterns include open syllables, hard vs. soft consonants, irregular plurals, and more. 

The interactive Google Slides allow students to drag and drop, self-correct, and play with their words. All of that practice helps students orthographically map the spelling and sound patterns into their long-term memory. 

Provide Practice Within Context

In addition to having my students play with and analyze words through Word Work activities, it’s also important that my students practice applying the skill in context. I want my students to be able to identify words that follow the spelling pattern and to be able to read them fluently in text.

We have a weekly word study text that comes with our reading program and that contains words that follow the week’s pattern. Sometimes the included words are questionable or there aren’t really enough, but it’s still something I spend time doing with my students. They go on “highlighter hunts” and find words that contain the special spelling pattern. Then, they sort them into a class word sort and then practice reading the text aloud with partners.

Ditch the Memorization: Phonics-Based Spelling Tests

If you’re ready to ditch the traditional weekly, memorized spelling tests but don’t have time to recreate the wheel (I hear you!), check out my Spelling Test Bundles. These are aligned to Benchmark Advance for each grade level, but they will work for any curriculum! Each set covers all of the major spelling patterns per grade level. 

These spelling tests include a full year’s worth of tests that assess the pattern more so than the actual words, focusing less on finding the correct spelling and more on choosing words that have the same vowel sound or similar syllabication. 

Related Post: Phonics-Based Spelling Assessments

Some of the types of questions include:

  • Which word has the same vowel sound as the word ___?
  • The (sound) in (word) has the same (sound) in the word –
  • Sentence writing
  • Which word has the same beginning/end sound as the word ___?

Tools to Build Foundational Reading Skills

There are so many things I wish I had known when I first started teaching phonics! I put together full phonics-based Foundational Reading Bundles to help teachers avoid some of the mistakes I made back in my early days of teaching. 

It’s not enough to just ask students to memorize words and pass spelling tests. That doesn’t set them up for success. When kids apply phonics strategies to spelling, not only are they addressing grade-level standards, they’re building a toolkit of skills to improve their spelling while reading and writing. 

Ready to overhaul your phonics teaching? Check out these bundles—they include all of the above resources, plus more! 

Want to learn more about how to develop students’ foundational reading skills?

Join our three-day email series to learn about word work tools, practice tips and assessment!

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    Foundational Reading Bundles include the following: 

    • Word Work Pamphlets: focused spelling, grammar and vocabulary practice.  
    • Hands-On Word Work:  practice pages that cover a variety of phonological and phonemic awareness skills.
    • Spelling Tests: tests to assess the spelling patterns and sounds instead of just memorization.
    • Sound Wall: a phonics-based bulletin display as an alternative to the traditional word wall
    • Digital Sound Wall: a virtual classroom bulletin board + two interactive activities per sound.
    • Digital Word Work: practice slides that cover a variety of phonics and phonemic awareness skills. 

    What phonics strategies do your students find success with? Comment below to share what works (and what doesn’t!).

    Hi! I’m Toluca from Markers and Minions, where I help teachers feel more effective and confident with high-quality resources and an awesome teacher community!

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