Understanding the Phonics Skills Continuum
Part of my current job is to help teachers know how to help their struggling readers. After evaluating their phonological and phonics skills, I recommend instruction that be helpful. In doing this, I’ve created a sort of continuum of skills that children need to progress through. Scattered throughout the information are hyperlinks that take you to various sites that have activities or information on that particular skill. Below you will find my take on this continuum of skills.
1. Begin with individual letters, but give vowels extra attention.
Start with short vowel sounds. Teach the long vowel sounds later (see below) To assist a child to associate the correct sound with a letter (specifically vowels), it often helps to associate a story and action to the correct sound. This website has links to stories/songs about each vowel, as well as posters that go along with the stories. The action for each vowel should be linked to the poster. These are free to download! Here are some other activities that you can do to help the student hear the short vowel sound and connect it to the correct letter. The ones related to vowel sounds start on p. 36. Both of the links above are going to help the student associate the correct sound with the correct letter.
I would recommend working with reading and spelling CVC (consonant vowel consonant). words first, then working with words that have a blend or digraph at the beginning or end of the word. Here is a website that has lots of games to help with this skill, and here is a word list that gives examples of words that fit in each category. Here is another link from FCRR that has tons of activities to help practice reading and spelling one-syllable words. Here is a set of activities that will help the student work with words in word patterns.
Students also need to understand when a vowel is short or long. This includes simply hearing the vowel and determining if it is short or long (says its name). To help a student with this, do some auditory activities where he hears a word, isolates the vowel sound, and just tells you if it is short or long. Another option would be to sort picture cards into long vowel or short vowel containers. Here is a link to a “teacherspayteachers” activity that is free to download.
This Reading Mama has tons of fantastic, FREE resources for teachers to use to help their students learn these skills. Just keep scrolling down the page and you’ll see TONS of short vowel activities. Later, you can revisit this site for long vowel activities as well.
2. Teach the concept of open and closed syllables.
The “closed syllable” is the easiest and most basic syllable type. A closed syllable is one where the vowel is “closed” off by a consonant. These are words such as big, fed, and sack. An open syllable is when there is no consonant after the vowel. These are found in words like no, she, my (English words do not end in “i”, so the vowel y makes the long i sound). Understanding closed syllables later allows students to break up words such as fan-tas-tic (notice there are 3 closed syllables). Knowing open syllables helps a student read words like na-tion. Here is a link that gives ideas about how to teach closed syllable. Here is a video of a multisensory activity that you can do to help students understand about open and closed syllables.
Sight words need to be taught throughout this entire sequence. Students need to be fluent with reading and spelling them. This is no easy task, and your dyslexic student needs lots of repetition and multisensory instruction to learn these words. Visit this page to learn more about sight words.
3. Teach long vowel patterns.
Students need to understand how to make vowels long, either through the silent e, an open syllable, or a vowel team. Here are some activities from Florida Center of Reading Research (FCRR) that will help them reach these “short vowel vs. long vowel” goals. Here is another file from FCRR that has TONS of activities to help develop other (more advanced) vowel teams/variants skills than the one above. I would recommend giving direct, explicit instruction of 2 vowel teams at a time (ex: ow, ou), and then working with words that have those 2 vowel teams. Then slowly move forward with 2 new vowel teams. If you want, you can choose vowel teams that sound the same, but are spelled differently. For example- oi and oy. Part of your learning can be listing words that have the /oi/ sound, and then working to find the reason some words have oi vs oy (they are almost always determined by the placement of the vowel team in the word or syllable). Here is a video giving an example of how it works with “ai” and “ay.”
Don’t forget to visit websites like This Reading Mama for more ideas and printable activities.
4. Teach syllable patterns.
As you are working with long vowel patterns and vowel teams, it would be beneficial to teach your student the skills to read and spell multisyllabic words. Often the problem when reading and spelling these words stems from a lack of understanding about the rules of syllable division. A natural reader doesn’t typically need explicit instruction in these rules, but a reader who is still struggling in the upper grades would definitely benefit from direct instruction on these skills. SyllableDivisionRules gives information for you about the different types of syllables and the rules to break syllables. I already mentioned teaching closed and open syllables in the paragraph above. Once they understand open and closed syllables, they are ready to decode multi-syllabic words. Here is a file called Greedy Captain rules that allows students to think about vowels as the captains of the word and practice dividing different types of syllables. Here is a packet of activities from FCRR that will help him understand the phonics skills behind reading and spelling multisyllabic words. These skills can be taught in conjunction with the vowel teams above. Here is a lesson plan to help students learn to apply these skills to spelling multisyllabic words.
Practice Reading AND Spelling. Learning where to break words for decoding is extremely difficult for a struggling reader. That is why you have to specifically teach and practice these skills. When spelling multisyllabic words, it is important to have students say the word in syllables and then spell it that way. Here is a lesson plan that helps describe how to teach this way. Here is an article about the different syllable types. Many students struggle with the last syllable type: final stable syllables of –le. Here is a free set of posters from Teachers Pay Teachers. Here is a blog post that reviews the different syllable types and where to divide words. This is the hardest part for a struggling reader. Finally, here is the FCRR set of activities that you can use to practice reading multisyllabic words, as well as categorizing them based on syllable types.
While working with all of these phonics skills, students will still need explicit instruction on adding suffixes to words and the rules regarding them (ed, ing, s, es, ies, etc). Here is a great site on teacher pay teacher where you can download (FREE) posters for the different suffix rules.
5. Teach morphemic structure.
Finally, students will need instruction on morphemic structures, which include prefixes, base words or root words, and suffixes. Teaching morphology is a paper that reviews instruction on morphology and gives lots of examples of how to make it multisensory. Here is an article that discusses 7 ways to teach Greek and Latin roots. This link has activities to help you teach morphemic structure in a multisensory way. Here is the FCRR page that has tons of activities to practice the various morphemic units. You do not have to wait until upper grades to teach morphemic structure. You can learn more about morphemic structure on the “English isn’t really crazy” page.