The latest “Ah Ha!” Moment

May 6, 2016

Have you ever tried to teach a class of 31 first graders to read?  I remember my first year teaching first grade and, after earning my Masters in Education, a degree in English and Rhetoric, I felt completely under prepared.  I felt like I had been prepared to teach students about literature circles, but NOT how to teach someone who doesn’t know how to read…to read.

Well, first things first- teach them the letters and sounds of the alphabet, right?  But first, relearn that consonant sounds aren’t followed by the “-uh” sounds.  “B” is not pronounced “B-uh”.  We spent so much time in the beginning of the year learning the specific sounds associated with each letter only to turn it all on its head when I placed actual text in their hands.

Then, as you do that, simultaneously teach them all those RULES- “i” before “e” except after “c” when sounding like… AAAHHH!.  Who can REMEMBER all those rules!?     I was always saying things like “Oh, wait, I know I just literally told you that “ch” says /ch/ like in “choo choo”, but here, in “school” the “sch” says /sk/.”

We did Haggerty for Phonemic Awareness every day, I had my Debbie Diller centers, then Daily 5, the magnetic word wall- the whole sha-bang.  Don’t get me wrong, my students learned how to read, but it always felt like sounding out words was a bit of a struggle and not a little painstaking.

Then lightning struck.   In my ESL class, my professor made a bold statement and the room went silent.

Professor:  “All classrooms should get rid of the alphabet”.

Us:  (some in our heads and some out loud) WHAT!?  Get rid of the alpha…?  That is CRAZY TALK!  But HOW?  WHY?

We just stared at her and she stared at us.

Professor:  “You have never heard that?  You all still have alphabets posted in your room?”

Then she explained the “44 sounds of English”.  Apparently the REST of the world knows about this and are keeping it a big secret (just like the metric system).  Here in the Midwest, I had never heard of it.  It was a LIFE changer for me.  You see, I have two preschoolers who are on the cusp of reading.  Ellie, at 4, is just starting to sound out words and blend them together.   Despite my years of experience working with early readers, it brings the challenge to a new level when it is your own child!

If you haven’t heard of it, here is how it works.  First, forget all those rules that you teach the kids.  Those have been proven to work only a little over half the time.  Second, forget having your word wall arranged by letter.  Your new word wall will be arranged by sound.  For me, the best example is why this works is with the /f/ sound.  Think about how many different ways that there are to spell /f/.  /f/ – f, ff, ph, -ough – WHY does “ough” say “f”?  (I also find this fascinating but won’t get into it.  You can hear more about it on this episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class  or this TED Ed video about the evolution of language.)

Your word wall headings would be SOUND focused, not LETTER focused.  Students learn specific spellings for the different sounds.  You would have a heading for short /a/ – a (apple, lamb), but also a heading for LONG a  – a, ai_, a_e, _ay .  For me this was a HUGE shift in thinking, but made complete sense.  My professor said that of course, they learn the sounds of the letters, and you can have a letter center, but the sounds of each letter are no longer the focus.  It might look something like this board in this link (except I would have made mine with the students and also include word examples…yes, it would take up A LOT of space).

Here is what a typical reading session might sound like for the word “cough” with traditional alphabet sound teaching.

Student:  “/c/ /o/ /u/ /g/ /h/…co-u-gah-huh.”  Looks up quizzically.

Me:  “Do you want coaching or time?”

Student: “Time”. (hunches down again over the word).  Now applies “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking” rule.  “/c/ /long o/ gah- huh

You get the picture.  Now, if I had had a sound word wall, they could have looked up, seen that -ough said /f/ and gotten the word a lot faster, improving their fluency and comprehension of the text.

Here is link to the Sound Spelling Cards Chart with all the different sounds and their spellings.


Have you heard of this?  Do you use this in your classroom?  I would love your thoughts!


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