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Favorite Ways to Teach Foundational Skills in the Primary Grades: Expanding the Reach with Small-Group Work Blog Series

Early childhood learning is both predictable and unpredictable. Yes, there are “typical” stages when you observe a large enough sample of kids, and yet individual children don’t necessarily experience stages in the predicted order. Sometimes a stage may take a long time, sometimes not, and sometimes it feels like going “backwards” before moving “forward.” Every student is different. We know this, yet we also are frequently caught off guard, worried, or frazzled when students are indeed different from one another.

About three years ago, I had an experience that drove home just how challenging some of the foundational skills can be. On an especially cold October afternoon some friends and I hiked Mt. Mansfield, a peak near my home, to experience the first snow of the season and a beautiful sunset along with the fall foliage. Unfortunately, as we made our way down in the dark, I slipped on an icy patch of rock and snapped my right wrist – clean through the radius and ulna. 

What followed was a year of occupational therapy to regain control of my dominant hand. I had extensive nerve damage (as in, Dr. Strange levels of damage), and had to relearn how to do everything-from holding a fork, to writing my own name. As part of that experience, I gained an even deeper appreciation for the hard work our youngest learners are doing – learning how to grasp a pencil and control it to form straight lines and curves.

It can be hard to imagine teaching foundational skills in small groups if you’re more accustomed to teaching your whole class at once. Letting go of old practices can be stressful and worrisome, even in the best of times, much less in the midst of pandemic-teaching. However, when you consider the range of needs of the children in your classroom, it is probably clear that kids are in need of wildly different skills. The school day is too short and our time is too limited to spend it teaching content that isn’t quite right for each student. Small groups can allow you to tailor your lessons more closely to what each of your students need right now.


You can look at many resources that will list foundational skills for reading and writing: peer-reviewed research, your phonics or word study program, the Common Core State Standards, your school or district curriculum. Here, based mostly on the CCSS, are the foundation skills I’ll touch on in this post.

Within each area, there is a learning progression from the earliest stages of early childhood development, through the elementary years, and beyond. Getting familiar with typical stages of development, plus how complex and unpredictable that development can really be, is a first step toward learning how to teach young writers to be successful with foundational skills.

For example, here’s a snapshot of the Words Their Way and Developmental Spelling Assessment stages, slightly adapted.

<object class="wp-block-file__embed" data="; type="application/pdf" style="width:100%;height:310px" aria-label="Embed of Word Study Stages based on <em>Words Their Way</em> by Donald Bear et al, and <em>Developmental Spelling AssessmentWord Study Stages based on Words Their Way by Donald Bear et al, and Developmental Spelling Assessment by Kathy GanskeDownload

You can get to know your writers by assessing their knowledge of phonics and spelling using a number of tools, including analyzing samples of their work from writing workshop. An on-demand writing or drawing sample works well, as does their independent day-to-day work.

Once you know students’ approximate stages or levels in phonics and other foundational skills, you can form flexible small groups based on their strengths and next steps. It’s important to think of these groups as temporary – some students will need more time to master a new concept than others before moving on to something new.

Most teachers have a good understanding of what their students’ next steps are. It’s managing the groups, and differentiating instruction to get to each individual student’s needs that is the challenge, the million-dollar question. If there are 20-30 students in a classroom, how can I possibly teach each one of them something different? Even if I divide them into only three or four groups, how do I manage all that?

I cannot pretend to know the answer, if an answer exists. But… I can share what many teachers I work with have tried, and share the pros and cons of doing things each way. Every classroom situation is different, so only you will be able to figure out what will work best for you.


In general, most teachers have two major options for teaching foundational skills in small groups. 1) During reading or writing workshop along with one-one conferring or  2) During a separate “Word Study” time of day.

Below I will outline some of the routines that you might try outside of writing workshop. All of these types of small-group instruction can also take place inside writing workshop as well.

Workshop Model: Just like in writing workshop, in this model one phonics lesson is taught to the entire class, and then students break off to work independently or with a partner. The teacher then circulates from student to student to give tailored feedback to support what was taught in the whole class lesson. This works really well if the whole class lesson is applicable for all the kids in the class, or if the lesson itself contains many different options or choices within it. For example, the lesson might teach students how to do a word sort, but when kids go off to practice, they each have a word sort that is tailored to their own stage or level that they can work with for several days in a row. The challenge in this model is selecting whole-class lessons that will meet everyone’s needs, and the challenge of getting around to coach each student so that they aren’t reinforcing incorrect spellings or unhelpful habits.

Splitting the Class: In some schools where I work, they have opted to partner up with the teacher next door and send kids to each other for phonics instruction. One teacher might take the Early and Mid Letter Name stage groups, and the other might take the Late Letter Name and Within Word Pattern Spellers, making it possible (in theory anyway) to teach just two stages or levels in one classroom, instead of four or five. The challenge in this model is the lost transition time, the change in setting, the social challenges of mixing up classes, and the negative stigma that kids pick up on being in certain groups, emphasized by the change of classrooms. 

I’ve seen this model work reasonably well in some very small schools where the students already mix with the classroom next door on a daily basis, and the two classrooms truly operate as one learning community. However, if I’m being honest, it’s not my top recommendation because the challenges outweigh the benefits for most typical classrooms–but I’m including it here for your own consideration of the pros and cons. 

Foundational Skills Centers or Stations: 

In this model, one new “station” or “center” is introduced at a time that students can do with independence. Some examples include:

Word or Letter/Sound Sorts

Word or Letter/Sound Hunts Around the Room or in Books

Making Words with Magnetic Letters

Word Games

Typically, students work at a station for 10-15 minutes, and then rotate to a new station, and potentially even a third or fourth station depending on timing. One of the “stations” is meeting with you for an explicit lesson. As students work independently, you can meet with one group at a time to teach them in a small group.  You might also begin and end with a whole group activity, such as a phonogram drill (Alphabet Chart Routine), or Word Wall (High Frequency Word/Learned Word) activity.

The challenge with this model is that students need time to develop the level of independence and engagement it will require for you to be able to meet effectively with a group while the rest of the class continues to work at their stations. It’s also a challenge to ensure that the work students are doing at stations is correct, and not reinforcing unhelpful habits. It helps if the independent work involves familiar concepts rather than brand new learning, and even more helpful if students are working in partners that can check each other’s work and make the work more engaging.


Favorite Print Concepts Stations:

At the start of kindergarten and first grade, I highly recommend spending some time each day with the whole class studying each other’s names. There are many different Star Name routines, and I wish I could credit the original source of this instructional strategy. Personally, I first learned it about twenty years ago from Patricia Cunningham (author of Month by Month Phonics), but it has also appeared in many other published resources, including the Units of Study for Teaching Phonics (Calkins et al). Here’s one way the Star Name routine might go, and can easily become small group work for students in need of extra support with print concepts long after the beginning of the school year has come and gone.

Step 1: Phonological Awareness: Say the name (without print), clap out syllables, segment/tap out the sound, how many sounds? (Pam… p/a/m)

Step 2: Concepts About Print: Count the letters in the word, name the letters, cut the letters apart, display in pocket chart, notice who else has more letters, fewer letters, same number of letters

Step 3: Reading/Writing Using the Names: Begin a chart and/or add names to the classroom Word Wall as a way to introduce word walls and charts as tools in the classroom

Step 4: Phonics: Notice the initial sounds, ending sounds in names, compare spellings, break names into spelling patterns, use names to find letter/sounds and patterns that are being studied (This step is added later, once letter/sound phonics instruction has begun).

Stations might include:

Put Cut Apart Names Back Together (Name Puzzles) 

Sort Names By the Number of Letters

Making Names with Magnetic Letters

Match Photos of Classmates to Their Names (more challenging)

Handwriting Practice with Names (Tracing on a textured surface)

If names will be the first words that your students study, they make a powerfully meaningful connection to print concepts. 

Favorite Phonological Awareness Stations:

In addition to explicit whole class phonological awareness instruction, stations can support students further. For phonological awareness, the work students do at stations will need to be oral language and listening (adding print to the mix would turn it into phonics work).

Listening Station: Songs, Rhymes, and Word Play

Rhyming Picture or Object Sorts

Sorting Pictures or Objects by Number of Syllables

Sorting Pictures or Objects by Initial or Ending Sound

Hunting Around the Room for Objects that Begin/End With A Sound

David Kilpatrick’s One Minute phonological activities in his book Equipped for Reading Success are an easy addition to any small groups you are working with. These activities support not only hearing the sounds in words, but also manipulating the sounds, which is an important skill for learning to read and write. Additionally, you can meet with a small-group to play word games or songs that involve rhyming, syllabication, and playing around with (manipulating) sounds.

Favorite Phonics Stations

It’s important that your phonics instruction follows a well-researched sequence, introducing phonograms (sounds represented by letters, commonly referred to as letter-sounds or spelling patterns) in a systematic way, one step at a time. As you introduce each phonogram, students can practice working with familiar phonograms that they’ve already learned with partners or on their own. 

Word or Letter/Sound Sorts

Word or Letter/Sound Hunts Around the Room or in Books

Making Words with Magnetic Letters

Letter-Sound Board Games or Card Games

Labeling Objects Around the Room with Initial Sounds/Ending Sounds

Most published phonics programs include many ideas and materials for games and activities that can be converted into a center or station for independent practice and maintenance learning (after the phonogram has already been explicitly taught). The activities above can be found in Words Their Way (Bear, et al), Phonics, Spelling, and Word Study System (Fountas & Pinnell), and many other published programs.

Favorite Word Recognition (High Frequency Words) Centers or Stations

Some words in English are so common and encountered so frequently that they become words readers know on sight, automatically. In particular, high frequency words that are difficult to decode can be taught explicitly so that students can recognize them automatically, saving the mental energy for other things. Words like the, is, do, my and other high frequency words can be taught with multisensory activities and then displayed on a classroom Word Wall for quick and easy reference during reading and writing. Students can also have their own personal word walls.

Although students can decode words like me, like, and go these are often taught early on in kindergarten as Word Wall words because they are so useful to emergent and beginning writers. If you’re unfamiliar with high frequency word instruction, or word walls, here are a few links to get you started.

How to Use a Word Wall, From A Student Point of View

Word Walls & High Frequency Words 

Three Favorite Word Wall Games

Students can practice reading and writing Word Wall Words (or High Frequency Words) at centers or stations such as:

Making High Frequency Words with Magnetic Letters

High Frequency Word Hunts Around the Room or in Books

Word Wall Games 

High Frequency Word Writing (“Rainbow Writing”

Favorite Fine Motor & Letter Formation Centers or Stations

There was a time when I brushed over handwriting and keyboarding, considering them to be superficial compared to the *real* work of getting meaningful ideas on the page. I thought, So long as kids could get their ideas on the page, wasn’t that the most important thing?  It wasn’t until, because of an injury, I couldn’t get my ideas down onto a page that I understood how I had taken the physical acts of handwriting and keyboarding for granted.

Currently researchers from multiple fields are finding that writing by hand helps you learn and remember content, that cursive is actually more helpful than we may have realized, and that students who can write efficiently and fluently by hand, overall, write more and generally do better academically. (Psychology Today, October 2, 2020; The Case for Handwriting, J. Fink). Teaching students to form letters correctly and efficiently is indeed worth the time. Once a letter has been taught explicitly, students can practice familiar letters on their own at stations. Here are a few tried and true:

Multisensory Letter Formation Stations

  • Chalkboards
  • Shaving Cream Trays
  • Sand Trays
  • Sandpaper, Screens, or Other Textured Surfaces

Hand Strengthening/Fine Motor Stations

  • Putty
  • Pinching & Grasping (Race to Get All the Small Things into a Small Container)
  • Sewing
  • Cutting With Scissors


A foundation implies something strong that more can be built upon. The word foundational can also mean that it is important, or essential to the rest of something. 

I’m reminded of a house that some dear friends of mine once lived in. When they moved in, the house had recently been remodeled. It was an old house, but looked fresh and new. It had fresh new siding, painted a cheerful blue color, and a new roof. Inside the walls were bright white, and big windows let lots of sunlight in.

Unfortunately, within a few months after moving in, they discovered that the basement often flooded whenever there was a big storm. Then, during their first spring in the house the heavy Vermont snow melted, and the creek in their backyard turned into a river. The river jumped its bank, carrying tree branches, rocks, and stones, pummeling their house’s foundation, and eventually cracking it. Ultimately the foundation crumbled and the entire house collapsed.

We know that foundational skills are not all there is to reading. We want students to fall in love with reading and writing, and have interesting ideas and conversations. We want them to think deeply about what they read and write, and have genuine questions and curiosity about their work. But to do this they’ll need a sturdy foundation – of phonological awareness, phonics, fine motor skills, and more.


  • Many thanks to Candlewick Press who is sponsoring a giveaway of ten books. TWO readers will receive FIVE of these books each. The books are A Child of Books, Grow: Secrets of Our DNA, Hoop Kings 2: New Royalty, How to Have a Birthday, If You Take Away the Otter, Mi Casa Is My Home, Rain Before Rainbows, The Barn, The Stars Just Up the Street, and Walrus Song.
  • For a chance to win these five books, please leave a comment on any of this blog series’ posts by Sun., 10/31 at 6:00 a.m. EDT. Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski will use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names she will announce at the bottom of an ICYMI Post on Monday, 11/1.
    • NOTE: You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter this giveaway.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Kathleen can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Candlewick will send five picture books to each of our winners. 
  • If you are the winner of the book, Kathleen will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – SMALL GROUPS. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

7 thoughts on “Favorite Ways to Teach Foundational Skills in the Primary Grades: Expanding the Reach with Small-Group Work Blog Series

  1. Thank you so much for the reminder and clear research about the value of handwriting, especially in light of all the digital work we’ve done over the past year and a half.


  2. Thank you for these resources and ideas. The adapted WTW chart is helpful. I agree that the management of all groups is a challenge and obstacle for us sometimes. I will definitely be sharing this blog post with colleagues!


  3. I love the adapted Words Their Way chart! I think that will be such a helpful tool when working with teachers who are using a phonics program, but are lost when it comes to where kids are developmentally in spelling.
    I’d love to have a chance to win the books, too!


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