Every day I find myself thinking of teachers and the difficulties they will face this fall. In the best of times, educating students is a tough thing to do. In the midst of a pandemic, and with large swaths of our government and populace not effectively responding to it, the challenges seem overwhelming. Still, I know teachers everywhere are taking steps to learn how to teach online, finding ways to keep themselves and their students safe in classrooms, and getting on with the business of teaching children to read, write, and do arithmetic. With that in mind, this post offers thoughts and ideas for teaching beginning readers using foundational reading activities that can work in school and hopefully at home.
In February, my post focused on building phonological skills to an advanced level. To do this, teachers use classroom activities that move young students towards advanced phonological awareness, from large chunks of sound like syllables to the smallest bits, phonemes. This post explores ways to connect those syllables, rimes, and phonemes to the letter sequences that represent them. The end goal is to build the lexicon of words, “the brain dictionary,” that all children use to read and spell.
Segment to Spell spelling grids
Activities such as pushing and pulling pennies in and out of sound boxes (Elkonin boxes) can be used to teach students phonemic segmentation, blending, and manipulation. In Segment to Spell, these boxes are repurposed to hold the written letters and letter combinations that represent individual phonemes. In this way, students can be taught the alphabetic principle: sounds can be represented by letters, letters represent sounds.
Letter boxes (or spelling grids) help students segment the sounds of words and then spell each discrete sound with an appropriate letter or letter combination. Grid activities like Segment to Spell are typically used with the youngest readers and writers but they’re also appropriate for older students who haven’t mastered the alphabetic principal, especially regarding vowels. I used letter boxes frequently when teaching general education classrooms of third graders who were reading below grade level.
Outside of specific programs, spelling grids can be purchased as whiteboards (for writing) or magnetic boards (for manipulating magnetic letter tiles). You can also make your own write-and-erase spelling grids by printing grids on card stock and laminating them or drawing them on white boards with permanent marker. These inexpensive options could be sent home for use with remote teaching. Finally, you can go the worksheet route, giving students a printed sheet with 3 to 4 spelling grids on each side and then having them pencil in their letters.
Each box in a spelling grid represents one phoneme. Students listen to a word, segment the word into individual phonemes, and then fill in the boxes of the grid with the letter or letters that spell each sound.
Students in various stages of spelling and reading development can use spelling grids. Young ones might use three-box spelling grids to spell CVC and CVCC words such as sip, bat, rich, and lock. Older students with more advanced vocabulary and/or knowledge of spelling patterns might use the same three-box grid to spell gaff, church, and thought.
When leading a group of students through this activity, support them by telling them upfront how many boxes will be filled. For young children, use grids with a prescribed number of boxes. For example, give only three box grids when presenting three phoneme words (like pen, fit, and porch). For children who have advanced to the next level of understanding, use a single grid with five or six boxes. Allow these students to decide how many boxes they will fill to spell any given word. Reinforce that the first sound goes in the first left-hand box and that not all boxes on the grid may be filled. For example, in a five-box grid, the word chin fills just three boxes, freight uses four, and stretch uses all five. Some teachers don’t like to see empty boxes at the end of a spelling grid. Others, like myself, don’t mind.
Here’s a suggestion for a teaching routine:
Another option is for students to stretch the word and then segment by pushing up individual sounds one at a time (as if they were using invisible pennies). Each time a sound is pushed into the box, the student immediately writes the letter or letters representing the sound.
Visit my YouTube channel, Mark Weakland Literacy, to find video examples of many of these activities. bit.ly/MWLit_YouTube_Channel
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.