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3 Phonics Strategies That Help Kids Retain Skills

The Science of Reading tells us that phonics instruction is extremely important for students' reading (and writing) success. But it's one thing to teach phonics lessons and another thing for students to actually retain the phonics skills that we cover. In this blog post, we'll cover 5 phonics strategies that help students retain phonics concepts and apply them to their reading and writing.

Strategy #1: Multi-Faceted Instruction

We know from decades of research that explicit and systematic instruction are important features of effective phonics instruction. Within this framework, we also need to make sure that we include different types of activities in our phonics lessons. Different activities help build students' phonics knowledge in different ways. Plus, what "clicks" for one student may not resonate with another, so variety is key.

All phonics instruction should include opportunities for students to learn patterns (for example, that "igh" can represent the long i sound), plus read words, sentences, and entire texts with the target patterns. Kindergarten students / beginners will also need to practice the individual letters of the alphabet. Students who are ready to read multisyllabic words should also be taught how to divide them and read them.

Here are some additional examples of effective phonics activities that phonics programs like From Sounds to Spelling often incorporate:

  • Word building - Students use magnetic letters or magnetic tiles to spell words with the phonics patterns they're learning. This can be a multisensory activity. And in addition to helping students learn to spell words, it also helps them read those same words.
  • Word writing - Students spell words on whiteboards, with paper and pencil, etc. This has the same benefit above with helping students learn to spell and read words. For very young students, word building is a bit easier than physically writing words, so you can start there.
  • Multisensory writing - Students write letters, letter combinations, and/or entire words in a sensory material like colored sand or shaving cream. This is a quick, engaging way to have students practice or review the phonics skills that you teach.
  • Word sorts - Students compare and contrast words. For example, they might be comparing CVC words like "mad" with CVCe words like "made." Word sorts can help students see the differences between words and also build specific word knowledge (knowledge of how specific words are spelled). Students should always read the words at least twice when completing a word sort. 
  • Word hunts - Given a list (or even an entire text), students look for words with certain spelling patterns. You can also have them hunt for the high-frequency words / sight words / irregular words you're teaching them. To make the activity fun, give students highlighters (if they are using printable passages) or let them keep a list of words on a sticky note.
  • Word games - Students need lots of practice to fully master phonics skills, so why not make it fun? From Sounds to Spelling has lots of games for students to play throughout the year. They can be used as independent practice, or even in small group.

Including different kinds of activities like the ones listed here will help deepen students' understanding of the phonics concepts that you're teaching. The variety of activities will also help keep students engaged - which also helps with mastery and retention!

Strategy #2: In-Context Practice

Some parts of a phonics lesson plan are categorized as out-of-context instruction. For example, you teach students that the letter combination "oa" can represent the long o sound, or you have students read a list of "oa" words. However, for students to truly master a skill, they also need in-context practice. This means that they are using the words in real reading and writing. (Just think of the saying, "Use it or lose it!")

Decodable texts are an important tool for giving students in-context reading practice. A decodable text is written specifically so that it includes the phonics skills that students have learned and are currently learning. (There will usually be some high-frequency words included, too.) For example, this image shows a decodable book that focuses on words with silent e. The page includes the words "dunes," "safe," "stride," and "ride" - all silent e words. The other words are skills that have already been taught in the scope and sequence (for example, the short vowels and consonant blends in "sand" and "stuck").

When students are first getting started reading decodable texts, you'll want to model how to decode words. You'll also want to consistently point out examples of the target skill in the book that students are reading (and/or have students find examples). This helps them connect the individual sounds and spelling patterns they're learning to actual reading.

Decodable texts are even valuable for students who have already learned many phonics skills. Young readers might practice reading multisyllabic words, with more advanced letter-sound correspondences, for example. 

Helping kids gain in-context phonics practice with writing tasks can be a little more challenging. During writing lessons, make sure to model and point out how you're applying spelling patterns to write words. Encourage students to do this as they are writing, and explicitly point out examples as you work with them one-on-one. 

Beyond this, it can also be helpful to create structured writing activities where students are more likely to need to use words with a target pattern. Writing about decodable texts is an example of such an activity. The decodable readers in From Sounds to Spelling always include a quick writing prompt for students to respond to. Students get to practice reading comprehension and writing, and they have an opportunity to use some of the target words from the text they read.

If you're teaching phonics skills and noticing that students aren't yet applying them to their independent writing, don't panic! Writing requires a whole lot of thought for young learners - they need to think of ideas, plan sentences, use capitalization and punctuation, as well as spell words. Children may be able to spell individual words but not spell those words correctly in their writing.

This takes time and practice (strategy #3 will help with this!). And keep in mind that learning a word is not an "all or nothing" experience. There are levels of knowledge through which kids progress as they learn words. Here's a very general list of these levels (there are certainly levels in between, too):

Level 0: Cannot read or spell the word

Level 1: Can sound out the word and correctly blend

Level 2: Can read the word instantly

Level 3: Can recognize and read the word instantly in connected text

Simultaneously, knowledge of the word's spelling is growing:

Level 0: Cannot spell the word

Level 1: Can segment and spell the word phonetically

Level 2: Can segment and spell the word correctly

Level 3: Can spell the word without segmenting

Level 4: Can spell the word fluently while writing

There are certainly more nuances and overlap than this, but the main point is that kids progress through stages when learning a word. Being able to automatically spell a word in the context of writing requires a high level of knowledge of a word, and this certainly doesn't happen overnight for most children.

Strategy #3: Frequent Review

While this is the last strategy listed here, it is probably the most important one! So many phonics programs don't include sufficient time to review skills. The reality is, even if students appear to have successfully learned a phonics skill, covering it for a few days and then moving on is not going to give you the results you're looking for. Young learners often need weeks of review to fully solidify their understanding of specific skills. That's why From Sounds to Spelling intentionally incorporates patterns and words from previous weeks to ensure that students retain what they've learned and continue to practice.

Here are some simple ways to weave review into your daily phonics lessons:

  • Keep flashcards handy - If you have a stack of cards, you can easily take them out to have students review skills as the whole class lines up for lunch or transitions between activities. This review can include practice with individual letters or letter combinations, as well as word reading.
  • Add review words / features to any type of word reading activity -​ Whether students are reading a list of words, slides with words, or words in a word sort, include some words that represent skills you've taught recently (as well as the new skill that you're working on).
  • Add review words / features to any type of word spelling activity - Again, make space for recently-taught skills. You can incorporate review words into word building or dictations. This takes intentionality to build into your lesson plans (unless you use From Sounds to Spelling!) but is super powerful and easy to implement.
  • Revisit phonics games from previous weeks - Save the games and activities that can be played again! You can incorporate these games into your literacy centers or small groups a few weeks after students first play them. It's a win-win: not only do you have a readymade activity that students already know how to do, but you're also giving them a fun way to review skills.

Rereading words, sentences, and complete texts can also fall under this category of review. Rereading helps reinforce what you're teaching, and it builds fluency. It also helps early readers and struggling readers build confidence, because they see themselves improve as they read a text again and again! Rereading words, sentences, and/or texts can be an easy independent activity. You can also send things home for rereading (although it's best to make sure that rereading also happens at school, where you can better ensure that it takes place).


Using these strategies will help you set your students up for phonics success and grow successful readers and writers!

Of course, it's much easier to implement these best practices and others when you have a phonics program that provides complete lesson plans and phonics materials to use. To grab a completely free trial of our program, click here (no credit card required).

​Happy teaching!

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