I am one of those teachers who has never really had to teach phonics widely in class. That job was mostly done by those wonderful teachers in Key Stage 1 (K-1). As a Key Stage 2 (2-5) teacher, I only had occasion to teach letters and sounds to children who had missed out for some reason, or who had additional needs. As such, I was not well versed in using phonics programmes, although I had been trained in various methods and programmes until it was coming out of my ears...
All that changed dramatically four weeks ago when I started my new job. As I travelled around schools in the area assessing children's English language ability, I quickly discovered that all of them - even those who were fluent English speakers - had gaps in their phonic knowledge which meant that it was going to be difficult for them to decode and spell unfamiliar words. As such, I have spent the last four weeks giving crash courses in basic phonic to around 100 children...
It's been great! I am having a ball! But I'm also a bit frustrated. Read on to find out why.
There are lots of really worthwhile phonics programmes on the market. I don't know what you have in the US, but over here lots of schools use Jolly Phonics or Letters and Sounds. Letterland was a great scheme for introducing the alphabet and basic sounds, but not digraphs or split digraphs. Some schools use POPAT. They are all very similar. Over the last two years or so, I have been using a scheme called "Read, Write, Inc". I must admit I was sceptical at first, but having used it successfully at a number of schools. I am a convert. Don't get me wrong, I am not on commission for promoting it or anything, but I thought you might like to know what goes down well over here.
The scheme is suitable for all children, from beginners to phonics right up to those who are proficient and need practice with reading comprehension and writing. As I prefer the freedom to be creative with reading and writing in the classroom, I tend to just use RWI's phonics elements. The programme begins by introducing the first set of speed sounds - the basic 31 sounds. Interesting and colourful books support learning as the sounds are introduced. Once the children are secure with set 1 sounds, sets 2 and 3 are introduced - digraph blends such as -ay, -ee, er etc. As the children read through the books (which get progressively more difficult as they become more familiar with the groups of sounds), they encounter different ways of making the same sounds (eg -air, are etc). There are also "Green Words" and "Red Words" words which can be sounded and blended conventionally, and words which are irregular and have to be learned. The scheme is great fun and the children absolutely love it. I have seen some resources on Amazon if anyone would like to give it a go.
So I decided to give it a try with my EAL children. All of them. Even those who could speak English fluently. I found loads of fantastic resources on TPT and TN for teaching phonics, but they were all tailored to teaching phonics to children who have English as their first language. Children who start school with English as their first language know, for example, what a map is, so when they sound out and blend, they have a picture in their heads that they can associate with that word for ever and a day. Not so with EAL (ESL) children who are new to English. They do not know what the word "map" means or what a mug looks like, so they sound and blend in a totally meaningless vacuum. It falls on me to try to illuminate the poor mites, and as I don't speak Polish or Portuguese or Tagalog, I have to resort to acting. Believe me, my miming skills are second to none....! Hence my reason for being frustrated.
We all know that EAL children need visual prompts. Wouldn't life be so much easier if everything came with a picture cards..? So last night I decided enough was enough!. I sat down and started to design something to complement the RWI programme that would help my EAL children to understand what on earth it was that they were spelling out and blending. I came up with this:
It's called "Monster Match" and is based on the first 5 Set 1 sounds - M A S D and T. Top of my summer bucket list is to produce one of these for each group of Set 1 sounds, a resource for Set 2 and 3 digraphe blends, and sentence strips to reinforce learning. After introducing the sounds, children use the cards to build CVC words. Blend the sounds using the sound buttons (one sound) and dashes (digraphe blend) and say the word. Then - and this is the useful part for my EAL kids - match the word to the picture.