* What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness refers to the manipulation of individual sounds, of which there are 44 in conventional English (and several more in the Southern US!).  A basic phonemic awareness skill is blending an onset and rime  (a rime is a vowel and any consonants that come after it, more popularly called a “word family”).  In my experience, this is a skill that most teachers emphasize and is often mastered by dyslexic students before they begin specialized instruction.  However, there are nine other skills relating to phonemic awareness;  depending upon the severity of their disorder, dyslexic students may need systematic instruction through all of these skills.  Phonemic awareness instruction is often improved by the use of visual cues (such as blocks or tapping the sounds using fingers).  Phonemic skills instruction is not phonics instruction.  Phonemic awareness is sound manipulation, whereas phonics includes the use of letter-sound associations and spelling patterns.

See the post under Reading.

* Phonics instruction

There are whole courses devoted to this topic, but you can relax.  I am going to focus on two issues: the current controversy regarding phonics instruction and the type of phonics instruction that is best suited to students with reading disabilities.  If your deductive powers are at work, you already know where I stand on this issue.

Is phonics a bad word?  In some groups, it certainly is.  The conflict over phonics instruction goes back at least to the 1950’s and has continued to this day.  The last decade has seen heightened rhetoric about what works for kids, especially after the National Reading Panel concluded that phonics was one of five key components of effective reading instruction.  And educational research has been used to substantiate both sides of the debate.  In actual practice, there are teachers who will not allow kids to sound out words, even preventing those little fingers from tapping out sounds.  Phonics instruction becomes a subversive activity, only allowed behind closed doors.    (I personally haven’t seen the other extreme, but perhaps someone in my audience has.)

Many teachers are convinced that phonics instruction rules out the use of good literature, is a skill that can only be applied to words in isolation, and is primarily taught through tedious “drill and kill” routines.  Another concern is that those assessments which are correlated to reading success (such as fluency in decoding nonsense words) are creating havoc, forcing teachers to abandon authentic assessment and instruction.

First, it is possible to use good literature to teach phonics.  And it is also true that many decodable books (see below) are lousy literature.  Use both.  Second, the whole purpose in teaching phonics is its application to authentic reading.  Good readers are fluent and don’t labor over words, so they can engage with text at more abstract levels.  Phonics helps dyslexic kids achieve that fluency through practice.  By definition, a child with a special education label is intervention-resistant.  This simply means that these kids need something more than regular instruction.  It does take practice, but that practice can be meaningful and engaging.  No question, it’s a struggle for those smart kids whose brains are hard-wired differently.  And those fluency assessments? They measure a sub-skill of reading, but one that acts as a closed door to literacy if students don’t learn the alphabetic code.

What type of phonics instruction is best for students with reading disabilities?  

Systematic. That means phonics is taught by following a scope and sequence of skills. Each child should start at the point in that sequence which is appropriate for his or her ability level.  Incidental or embedded phonics instruction occurs when a teacher selects reading material and then points out or teaches a phonics rule.  This random approach does not work effectively for kids with disabilities.

Explicit.  Phonics instruction is not learned by taping a poster of letter sounds on a wall.  Teacher instruction, modeling, and guidance in applying rules to text are all needed.  Students must be taught letter-sound associations and specific rules.  They learn a skill and practice it.  This practice often involves reading decodable texts, but other books work as well.

Early.  Dyslexic kids who receive early intervention are more likely to avoid a cycle of reading failure in which they fall farther behind their peers while their self-esteem takes major body blows.  Early intervention (that is, teaching the alphabetic code) can support ALL kids, whether or not they are at risk for reading failure.  True, many kids come to school already equipped with some phonics skills.  But those kindergarteners who aren’t even aware that words are made of individual sounds are already behind the curve.

Reading instruction shouldn’t be narrowed to a debate of “phonics” versus “meaning.”  Phonics instruction encompasses more than isolated skills and gives kids the ability to access literature.  Meaning-based instruction fosters higher level thinking but can’t occur in a letter-correspondence vacuum.  Enough said?  Want to share your perspectives?

* Explode the Code

This is my personal review of an online reading program I’ve used successfully for several years: Explode the Code Online.  It’s a giant of a program, a digital version of a highly successful series of workbooks for teaching phonics published by EPS.  The online program mirrors the 8 workbooks.  Both workbooks and online program provide systematic and sequential instruction in phonics.  Here’s a screen shot of an online sample page.  ETC online

How it works:  The program will start with an automatic assessment of short vowel sounds, which also includes segmenting sounds, isolating beginning sounds, and spelling CVC words (Book 1).  However, teachers may choose whatever starting place is appropriate for the student.  Here is an overview of the content:

  • Book 1: short vowel sounds
  • Book 2: beginning and ending consonant blends
  • Book 3: long vowel sounds, consonant digraphs and trigraphs,
  • Book 4: compound words, word endings, syllable division, syllable types
  • Book 5: word families, 3-letter blends, qu, and sounds of -ed
  • Book 6: r-controlled vowels, diphthongs
  • Book 7: soft c and g, silent consonants
  • Book 8: suffixes and endings

What kids do: There are numerous responses required for each skill, including identifying correct letter-sound associations by dragging letters or typing; reading words; spelling;  matching; answering questions; practicing vocabulary; and reading sentences.  The activities themselves range from matching pictures and words to choosing one of two sentences to match a picture.  Student voices are used throughout, the graphics are animated (changing from black and white to color), and the all the individual sounds are carefully but naturally spoken, segmented, and then blended (see Cons below for one caveat on this).  After completing each lesson, students earn one of four icons for their scorecard: an airplane, a butterfly, a ladybug, or a bee.  Earning a certain number of icons (which can be adjusted by the teacher) rewards the student with the FUN button, a page of links to online games and websites.  Students may time themselves during each lesson and check their own student summaries when they log in (for the same information that teachers get below).

What teachers get:  Each student’s progress is  recorded in detail.  Serious detail.  You can generate reports that indicate how many minutes and seconds a student worked (and the actual time they were online), their accuracy rates, problem skills, comparison to California State standards, overall progress, number of lessons mastered, and number of assessments passed.  You name it, the program measures it.


  1. The abundant repetition and built-in programing ensure that students get sufficient practice before moving to a new skill
  2. It can be used to support a special needs student in the regular classroom to reinforce special education services
  3. The continual visual and auditory representation of segmenting and blending support phonological awareness
  4. This program provides a worksheet-free way to practice phonics skills
  5. Student progress is recorded in minute detail, which is excellent for EC kids as well as those in Response to Intervention
  6. A great program for English Language Learners (ELL)
  7. It is reasonably priced; seats can be swapped out if a student leaves or masters the content and all data is preserved
  8. It is easy to use for both teachers and students
  9. Students are motivated to earn the better icons (‘airplanes’ trump ‘bees’)


  1. Kids usually find the program boring, airplanes and bees aside.  The Fix: Plan on an external motivation system or get them to buy into the importance of this practice.
  2. If a kid “goofs” off and makes multiple errors, the program will continue to repeat the activities that were completed incorrectly.  The Fix: Explain what will happen if they goof off.
  3. The program does not correct for unaccented syllables.  The syllables “but” + “ton”  are pronounced correctly on their own, but the word doesn’t sound the same when combined into “button.”  The Fix:  Use this as a teaching opportunity for blending syllables.
  4. The program can be occasionally “glitchy” due to the enormous amounts of audio and graphic files.  The Fix: Buy a better computer.

My Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5


* What nonsense!

NonsensicalSilly UselessImpediment to instructionUnnecessary.  I’ve heard all these expressions, and more, to describe the use of nonsense words in teaching phonics.  A recent opinion column argued that there are enough unfamiliar words to go around, so why would teachers make up words?  An interesting volume is available through Heinemann Publishers, which decries the use of DIBELS in assessing and driving reading instruction. Anti DIBELS pdf

This is not a post about the merits or “demerits” of DIBELS for assessment; the majority of students will learn to read fairly easily without ever seeing a nonsense word.  Unless they read Dr. Seuss, of course.  I am writing to say that nonsense words play an important role  in reading instruction for kids with dyslexia and other reading disabilities.  These kids struggle with the alphabetic code.  They struggle to manipulate sounds.  They can’t read chapter books in second grade.  They feel stupid no matter how bright they are.  (Check out this article on Forward which concludes: People with dyslexia tend to be creative and out-of-the-box thinkers, the very characteristics that can mask the fact that a child is having a tough time reading.)  It is unfair to paint reading instruction for all kids with the same brush.  And that’s where nonsense words come into play.

For those reading disabled students who must learn phonics systematically and sequentially, nonsense words allow them to practice phonics skills on words they have not already memorized.  These pseudo-words, as they are also described, allow intervention-resistant students to get the extensive practice they require.  Without the use of these words for both practice and monitoring progress of their skill acquisition, these kids may not get adequate instruction.   Refer to Sally Shaywitz’s terrific book, “Overcoming Dyslexia” or read her online discussion with folks from Reading Rockets for more details.

Let’s not undermine effective instruction for struggling readers by tossing nonsense words under the DIBELS bus.

* Third POINT

Ah, a flow chart seemed like an excellent idea at the time.  And I think it would be effective if sorting out a student’s writing difficulties were as simple as following a recipe.  Here’s a sample of how my remediation for this particular student might look (taking into account my own approach to problem-solving, which is both linear and whimsical):flow chart

So scrap the flow chart idea on this blog.

Here’s what really happened. I decided to tackle four major issues at once and add components of other weaknesses as they best fit [refer to Write Away post]. First, we worked on graphomotor/visual perceptual problems. My eager student loved the mechanical pencils (and I gave her time to explore the intricacies of lead with me). Since the poor kid’s hand was no longer aching from writing, her classroom teacher was all for it. (Note: She had zero keyboarding skills and there was no way to add that to her life at present, although I recommended it as a summer opportunity).  I spent a little time each session teaching my willing writer to form the most problematic letters correctly. This was a student who processed information quickly and tuned out at a similar rate, so she hadn’t seen exactly how her kindergarten teacher formed each letter. The end result was that all her letters were formed from the bottom up, a feat I openly admired. I let her teach me how to make a few of those and I introduced her to a couple of new friends: the margin and the line.  After dictation of words that required use of the problematic letters, she had better habits (and I saw some glaring weaknesses in basic phonics).

The second issue we addressed was spelling.  After taking an inventory of required words for her grade level, I added those words, 5-8 at a time at first, to my account on Spelling City, where she could play cool games using her words. Once she started making some progress in this area, I let her practice through online games and left this issue until we could address phonics skills.

The third difficulty we addressed was her use of simple, repetitive sentences with minimal detail.   This was a kid who could talk your ears off with complex ideas and details, so I knew we were good to go.  I taught her “old fashioned” grammar, with each part of speech color-coded (based on Jane Fell Greene’s Language! program).  She was able to “write” using colored foam squares, with the goal of making her sentences more colorful and complex.  It’s a great strategy for writing because no pencil (or keyboard) is required! She learned the parts of speech quickly; I kept visual cues available to her as a reference and we played multiple bingo games and filled in cloze sentences related to her interests, adding new parts of speech every session.  The next step was to edit other students’ work for these features, using rubrics from Writing A-Z, and from there, to write her own sentences and edit those.  Eventually she dictated a 200+ word “how to” paper (using dictation because our focus was complexity, not spelling or handwriting).  You may have noticed that I added the use of rubrics and checklists into this phase of instruction.  This had been another area of weakness for her, so regular practice in editing other kids’ work was less threatening.  Who knows?  She may become an editor herself with that keen eye of hers.

The fourth area of remediation was complex (hence the flow chart burn out): phonological awareness, phonetic analysis, and syllable rules.  Her phonological skills were super, so we started up the ladders of phonics and syllabication.  She did not know short or long vowel sounds, which are near the bottom rungs for phonics instruction.  I linked syllable types to her phonics instruction, so she now identifies all six syllable types and only needs vowel diphthongs to top off her phonics skills.  I suspect your eyes are glazing over, as I know my husband’s would be, so this is a good stopping place.  I’ll save the details of this fourth area for later.  You’re welcome.