A note: This post is geared toward kindergarten, first, and second grade teachers, but there is much to be learned for teachers of older more experienced writers as well.
Learning to write is complicated. First, there’s learning to understand that marks on a page can hold meaning – words! There’s letter formation and handwriting – the physical part of writing. There’s planning an idea, drawing pictures, and telling stories to go with them. And, of course, there’s learning that each word is comprised of letters, and letters stand for sounds, and writers listen for all the sounds in a word, and then write down the letters that make those sounds.
It’s a lot of work to be a beginning writer. This post will be focused on learning letter-sounds (phonograms), and learning how to use them to write words.
Another note: A single blog post could never capture the complexity of teaching and learning for beginning readers and writers. Even a two-day, three-day, or five-day training could not capture it all. Even after years and years of teaching, all of us will always be learning more. Please consider this post as a prompt for learning more.
FIRST – PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS
Many beginning writers are still developing phonological and phonemic awareness. If you’re unsure of the difference, you are not alone. Here’s a very simplified explanation.
A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in language. For example, the word “cat” has three distinct phonemes: /c/ /a/ /t/. Phonemic awareness develops throughout one’s life, often through listening to and participating in speech – and is also taught explicitly in classrooms.
Imagine trying to learn that the letter S makes the /s/ sound – but to your ear /s/ sounds exactly the same as /ch/ or /sh/. The words “sip,” “chip,” and “ship” all sound the same. Children must be able to discriminate these small, discrete units of sound in order to learn the sounds each letter or group of letters can make.
Given the important role that phonemic awareness plays in learning to read and write, it’s important to include explicit teaching of phonemic awareness, especially in the beginning years. There are well-researched, teacher friendly resources for this widely available, such as Heggerty Phonemic Awareness (which is available in English and Spanish, with a lot of free resources on the website).
Phonemic awareness is the ability to understand that spoken words are made up of individual sounds called phonemes, and it’s one of the best early predictors for reading success (Heggerty).
WHAT IS A PHONOGRAM?
A phonogram is a symbol (or group of letters) that represents a sound (phoneme). Phonograms are sometimes called graphemes, and are often referred to as letter-sounds in classrooms.
The teaching of phonograms (letter-sounds) often begins in kindergarten, around October or November (after plenty of phonemic awareness instruction, meaningful read-alouds and experiences with language, and an understanding of basic concepts about print–all of which will continue even after beginning to teach phonograms).
A powerful way to teach phonograms is using this very simple, easy to teach routine called a phonogram drill (Orton Gillingham). You don’t have to call it a drill in your classroom – most teachers I work with call it the “Letter-Sounds Routine” or “Alphabet Chart Routine.”
Here’s how it works:
Introduce just one phonogram at a time, starting with hard consonants and short vowels. At first you can use cards with just one phonogram on them, instead of a chart with all of them. You’ve likely seen these charts and cards – whether it’s the F&P Phonics chart, or Fundations, Words Their Way, TCRWP, Wilson, or what-have-you. The important thing is to choose one and use the same picture clues consistently and frequently – you see why later in this post.
Once each letter-sound (phonogram) has been introduced, you can start using your alphabet linking chart to practice daily. When it comes to learning the sound for each letter, repetition is crucial.
Note: Usually long vowels and soft C and G are not introduced until much later – long vowels are usually in conjunction with the VCe spelling pattern/syllable type (commonly referred to as “magic e” or “silent e”).
There is so much more to teaching phonograms – it’s impossible to squeeze it into this post. I recommend Making Sense of Phonics: The Hows and Whys by Isabel Beck and Mark E. Beck and Shifting the Balance: Six Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates. Both books are teacher-friendly, practical resources for understanding this further.
LEARNING TO USE PHONOGRAMS (LETTER-SOUNDS) TO WRITE WORDS
How do kids go from saying “A, apple, /a/; B, ball, /b/…” to actually spelling words? Here are three lessons you could try:
- Elkonin Boxes (commonly referred to as “Sound Boxes”)
If you aren’t familiar with Elkonin boxes, here is a quick video that explains them really nicely. They were originally used for phonemic awareness instruction – they are a visual aid for segmenting sounds. As a child says the word, they can slide a counter or small object into the boxes, one for each sound they hear.
In Isabel & Mark Beck’s book Making Sense of Phonics… they also describe using the boxes… with the addition of writing the letters in the boxes as a support for both phonemic awareness (segmenting each sound without seeing the symbol) AND mapping the sounds onto the letters.
In your classroom, a teaching point might sound like this:
“Writers s-t-r-e-tch out the word to hear ALL the sounds–say each sound one at a time. They can touch each sound box to see how many sounds they need to write. Then they write a letter (or letters) for each sound. The alphabet chart can help you if you forget which letter makes the sound.”
Shifting the Balance… (Burkins and Yates explains orthographic mapping really well–there is much more to learn, more than I can squeeze into this post.
- Using the picture clues on the alphabet chart.
If you’ve been doing the phonogram routine frequently, then your students will know the keyword/pictures really well. They can get to the point where “B, ball, /b/“ rolls right off the tongue. They know that B always goes with the ball. This way, if they can’t remember what the letter B looks like – they can find the ball.
It’s hard to imagine as an adult writer – but many kids know that “B says /b/“ – but when they put their pencil down to write the letter B they cannot remember how to form the letter! Can you imagine how much work that must be? It really speaks to the importance of giving kids plenty of time.
A teaching point for writing workshop might sound like this:
“Writers, when you are writing a word, and you can’t remember what a letter looks like you can use your alphabet chart to find the letter. Just say our letter-sound routine– for example ‘B, ball, /b/’ and find the picture that goes with it! Let’s practice a few together.”
“Oh no! I know the word TOP starts with /t/, but I can’t remember what T looks like! What do I do? T, table, /t/….. Hmm.. let me look at the alphabet chart and find the table!”
- Read the alphabet chart to “warm up” for writing.
By the time students are encouraged to write letters and words to label their pictures, they should know the alphabet chart really well. A great way to get ready to write is to read the alphabet linking chart on their own. By this I mean literally going through the chart, one phonogram at a time, doing the routine you’ve taught them. “A, apple, /a/; B, ball, /b/….” They can do fun games with it, starting at Z and reading the chart backwards, skipping every other letter, using a “tiny mouse voice,” and “rumbling gorilla voice,” and more.
The teaching point for this might sound like:
“Sometimes people need to warm up before they jump right into working on their writing. You already know a few ways to warm up for writing – you can look at all our writing charts around the room, or you can talk to your partner about your story before you start writing. Today I’m going to show you how you can also read your alphabet chart to get ready to read. You can point to each letter and say the letter name, picture clue, and sound. For example ‘B, ball, /b/.’ Read the whole chart and the letter-sounds will be fresh on your mind as you write.”
I can’t emphasize enough that this post should be a jumping off point for learning more about how explicit phonics teaching can be connected to a joyful independent writing workshop for young children.
It doesn’t have to be either phonics or workshop. It doesn’t need to be one or the other, and you don’t have to wait until phonics is “finished” before children have the opportunity to tell stories, record stories in pictures – and apply their emerging understanding of how to spell words.