* Blogging A-Z wrap up and more

checkered-flags-309794_640Thanks to Nerd in the Brain, I discovered that I should leave some feedback on April’s Blogging A-Z challenge.  I loved every post of it, probably because I was in one of my favorite modes: catch up!  I started late and enjoyed the challenge of catching up and even finishing a day early.

The challenge of catching up is one reason I love special education.  It’s a challenge worth taking.  This summer I face two major challenges: bringing two students to grade level and beyond, one in reading and one in math.  Both are twice exceptional students.  Both have known more than their share of heartache and failure.  These kids and their families are committed and motivated to the task that lies ahead.  It’s a daunting one, in many ways, but I am confident that together, we can finish well.

I will share my experiences as we use this summer “break” to reach a knowledge-appropriate finish line, with renewed confidence for the upcoming school year.

* Students who are “stuck” at CVC levels

progressWondering how to help students who are “stuck” at the consonant-vowel-consonant level of decoding? Here are some suggestions:

  • Make sure you are addressing any phonological weaknesses.
  • Create your own stories using the student’s interests; research suggests we remember what’s more interesting to us.
  • Provide associations for word families to improve recall.  The -at family could be popular (“where it’s AT!”) and the -ot family could be the bossy one (“You ought to do this!”).  Have students create images to accompany the stories.
  • Consult with your school psychologist.  Does a formal evaluation suggest that this student will need more time than most?  Is there a related language issue?  Cognitive impairment?
  • Make sure your student understands the rules for CVC syllables. Film your student “teaching” that rule and share with other kids.
  • Consider moving to easy open syllables.
  • Provide online practice with a program like Explode the Code.
  • Provide extra encouragement, because this has got to be frustrating for the student. Create a digital portfolio, including videos of the student reading successfully.  Graph every little skill that led to your student’s current accomplishments (letter names, consonant sounds, vowel sounds. blending two sounds, etc.).

* Why teach phonological awareness?

question-mark-460864_640I’ve been asked why we should teach phonological awareness.  Instruction in these skills is considered one of the five key components of effective reading instruction for all kids.  In my experience, children will learn many of these skills before they come to school if reading aloud and “playing” with words are a routine part of their interactions with adults.  What does playing with words and sounds look like?  Kids listen to and create rhymes, make new words by changing sounds, and watch someone pointing to each word as they read are a story.   Many children’s books use alliteration, which also helps kids isolate beginning sounds if this literary feature is emphasized during reading.  By the time many middle- and upper-class kids enter kindergarten, they have made important strides in both phonological and phonemic awareness.  Poor kids typically don’t have those advantages.  More formal instruction is usually provided in kindergarten, primarily in blending beginning sounds with rimes (or “word families”) and rhyming.  Systematic instruction in this skill will benefit all kids and level the playing field for kids who haven’t had this early exposure. For kids who are at risk for developing reading disabilities, earlier instruction in this area is also vitally important.

* KizPhonics

KizPhonics advertises itself as a Pre-K to 2nd grade site for teaching phonics, but I’ve been using it with a few third and fourth graders who have weak phonics skills.  This site is HUGE, with online and printable resources, as well as phonics programs with books and CDs that are available to purchase.


If you are uncertain about a scope and sequence for teaching phonics, this site is for you.  The lessons and materials are leveled by grade: pre-kindergarten, kindergarten levels 1 and level 2, first grade levels 1 and 2, and second grade levels 1 and 2.  There are assessments for each level, scoring sheets, progress report sheets, and certificates for students.  A subscription to KizPhonics also includes lesson plans for teaching each level, with pacing guides and links to resources on the site.  To give you an idea of the numerous resources, for each specific letter-sound association in English (including digraphs), there are paper and online books, worksheets, videos, games, songs, PowerPoint presentations, and practice activities.  The skills start with letter identification and advance through r-controlled vowels and vowel diphthongs such as au and oi.  The site has been updated in recent months with online team board games and phonics songs that accompany worksheets.  Listening activities are also coordinated with worksheets.  Despite its phonics emphasis, KizPhonics provides materials for teaching sight words though board games, online matching games, and more.  An entire section is dedicated to teaching formation of upper and lower case letters, where kids watch a video and then use a mouse to trace the lines.  KizPhonics also sells an app (The Monkey Sentence Game), although there is a free “lite” version available.  It’s an impressive website that is easily navigated though a simple menu system.  The prices are VERY reasonable for a site with this much fire power.


  • The site has a massive number of resources available, all of which can be easily accessed.
  • The materials are interesting enough for older students with delays in phonics skills.  The monkey sentence game and online board games (with automated dice rolling) are highly engaging.
  • All the voices are “real” and easy to understand.
  • Both beginning and experienced teachers can make use of this site due to the great organization of materials.  Each section has pointers for teachers, which would be helpful for newbies.
  • The graphics are eye-catching and interesting.
  • The assessments are good and match the skills being taught.
  • The price is unbeatable.


  • The phonics songs are a bit cheesy but hey, they set each song to a different melody and beat.  FIX:  Try to imagine how you could do better!
  • Every game and feature is marked by grade level, so older kids could feel self-conscious.  FIX: Turn the computer away or block the screen while you load the activity.
  • Every activity is also clearly marked to indicate what skill is being practiced.  The more astute kids can figure out what words they should look for by referring to the name of the activity.  FIX:  Turn the computer away or block the screen while you load the activity.

My rating:  5 out of 5 stars

* 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.

* Blocks used in phonological awareness

I’ve had a question about what I use to assist students in visualizing the manipulation of sounds.  When I do my initial assessment, I use small wooden blocks.  Nothing fancy, just blocks like these which probably came from my son’s toy collection.


During actual instruction, I teach kids to use their fingers for blending and segmenting.  They touch their thumb to each successive finger (starting with the index finger) for each sound.  (You model it on YOUR left hand so the sounds are presented in a left-to-right sequence).  If kids want to use this strategy unobtrusively in their regular classroom, I teach them to tap single fingers in order on their lap (or on the edge of their desk).

* Spelling City

Spelling City may have started off as a township, but it’s quite a metropolis now.   When I first started using this site years ago, it offered lists, assessments, and games for spelling and language arts.   It has been updated to include vocabulary and writing. The site is still located under its original name but has expanded its official title to Vocabulary Spelling City.  To access a greater variety of activities and lessons, as well as the newer writing and vocabulary sections, you must purchase the premium membership (instead of free), which is quite worth the reasonable price.  One of Spelling City’s earliest and most popular games was Hang Mouse and you’ll see that cat and mouse now featured in a number of games.

Spelling City

How it works:  Spelling City offers practice and assessments in writing, spelling, reading, and vocabulary, including access to thirty games.   Teachers and parents may sign up for free, publish their lists, and link spelling and vocabulary activities for students to use.  Kids may also access published lists for free by searching for their teacher or a specific list.  The number of word lists available now is enormous, ranging from geography and math to Latin and state capitals.  There are numerous video lessons for students, enrichment activities, and lesson plans for teachers.  Word lists are correlated to state standards.  Spelling City has a mobile app and is linked to its sister site in the UK.  My descriptions below refer to premium membership benefits, although there’s a lot to be had for free.

What kids do:  Students log in with their user ID and password.  Their assignments will be posted at the top of the page, showing how many activities are needed to complete that assignment.  Depending upon how the teacher has set up the tasks, kids may pick and choose from the activities or follow a prescribed order.  They play both timed and untimed games, may save their scores, and even compare scores to other students in their class.  They are praised after successful responses and applauded by members of Spelling City (a lively group) for completion of an activity.  Students receive immediate feedback for both practice and “real” spelling/ vocabulary tests.   One premium game with the “ew” factor is called Splat-N-Spell!  A short animation precedes the game itself, in which the populace of Spelling City is upset about a roach invasion (who wouldn’t be?).  A Spelling City officer encourages the students to rid the city of those pests (and demonstrates by squishing a roach under his foot, with green “juice” oozing out).  Another popular game is Aim-2-Spell, a point and shoot game with marbles.  A favorite vocabulary game, Word-O-Rama, spoofs a TV game show.  It’s hosted by a suave penguin; the audience cheers and provides encouragement to the contestant as the points build up.  Students may practice their skills in writing by using words in sentences and paragraphs, completing cloze sentences, and creating simple “word videos” for practice.

What teachers get:  First, teachers set up groups/classes and assign students to them.  You can use the Spelling City generated user names and passwords (all pretty simple) or create your own.  Apart from the ready-made lists, which are also linked to some popular children’s trade books, teachers can create their own lists for virtually any subject.  As you create the lists, the program offers a choice of definitions and a key sentence for that word.  You may change either or both the definition and sentence, according to your students’ needs.  Lists can be unpublished so that they are only visible to the assigned students.  After lists are created, you assign them to groups or individual students.  You choose the number and sequence of activities.  I always begin with practice activities, such as Teach Me or Flashcards.  There’s a practice assessment available as well.  I always conclude assignments with an actual assessment of that skill.  Teachers may check on student progress for both accuracy rates and the number of activities completed per assignment.  In the teacher resources area, there are available videos for students to watch (such as rules for dividing words into syllables), enrichment activities, and numerous links to other sites.  There’s a complete section of printables, including one for almost every game so that a group or class could play the games offline (but who would supply the roaches and gore?).  There are customizable certificates and handwriting pages, as well.


  1.  Spelling City’s customizable features are top-notch.  You can customize lists, assignments, order of activities, and due dates.
  2. There’s no limit to the number of lists you may create. They can be easily grouped in categories and edited.
  3. You can create review lists based upon student accuracy rates to provide additional practice with vocabulary, phonics rules, etc.
  4. You can quickly check on student progress.
  5. This site can be used across multiple subject areas.
  6. There are optional 1 minute videos for teachers in each section (lists, assignments, students, etc.) to give you a quick overview for using that feature.  There are also helpful FAQ sections.
  7. The audio features are excellent.  Real voices are used so students can clearly understand the directions and words.
  8. The student activities are truly engaging.  Once you know a student’s favorites, it’s easy to include those in their assignments.
  9. The variety and quality of games is amazing.  Students are rarely bored with this site.  (You may find yourself playing for fun.)
  10. For regular education classes, you do not need to reinvent the spelling wheel; the vast number of available lists should suffice.
  11. Games can be played in full screen mode at the click of a button.
  12. The teacher resources area is a real time-saver, full of excellent tips, links, and printables.
  13. The site has links to a couple of donor organizations if you want to solicit funds for classroom purchase.  There are also recommendations for fund-raisers.


  1. Occasionally I will enter a sentence for which Spelling City has no sound files.  It’s rare, but instead of hearing the sentence, a nice lady tells you that the sound file is missing “and we’re working on it!”  Fix:  Consider using the Spelling City sentence or swap that word out.  Or wait for it to be fixed.
  2. Hmmm…. I can’t think of anything!
  3. Hmmm…. I can’t think of anything!

My rating:  5  out of 5 stars.

* 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?

* Phonological and phonemic awareness, part 1

Phonological awareness sounds like knowing where you put your cell phone.  In fact, it’s a foundational skill in reading, albeit more easily acquired by typical learners.  For the child with reading disabilities, phonological skills must be taught systematically because dyslexia is a language-based disorder (see the International Dyslexia Association website for more information).

Phonological awareness is a broad category that includes identifying and manipulating spoken language, from words to syllables to phonemes (individual sounds).  At the sentence level, students distinguish between words in a phrase or sentence.  “She borrows my pencil” has four words (not six, when a student may be confusing syllables with discreet words).  At the word level, students identify whether words are the same or different and recognize and produce rhyme.  At the syllable level, students blend syllables (starting with compound words and progressing to multi-syllabic words), segment syllables (the same progression of complexity as blending), and delete syllables (same progression of complexity).

That leads us to phonemic awareness, which 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.