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Threads of Reading

by Karen Tankersley

Table of Contents

Chapter 2. Phonics and Decoding

The second thread of reading instruction involves phonics and decoding. Phonics is the ability to identify that there is a relationship between the individual sounds (phonemes) of the spoken language and the letters (graphemes) of the written language. Decoding is being able to use visual, syntactic, or semantic cues to make meaning from words and sentences. Visual cues are how the word looks, the letters themselves, and the letter combinations or groupings and their associated sounds. Syntactic cues are how the sentences are structured and how the words are ordered. Semantic cues are how the word fits into the context of the sentence as in the part of speech, the association with pictures, or the meaning cues in the sentence.

Students must learn that there are systematic and predictable relationships between letter combinations and spoken sound. While formal phonics instruction is important, it should not take up more than 25 percent of available reading instruction time. Students should be engaged in actual reading much more than they are engaged in discussing the act of reading (Allington, 2001). Phonics should be a strong component of all kindergarten and 1st grade instruction so that students build strong word attack skills as a foundation for all of their reading skills. Instruction should consist of a planned sequence of instruction taught in a systematic way. While there are many commercial phonics programs available for consideration, it is important that teachers in a school choose one consistent method or approach for phonics instruction so that everyone is continuing to reinforce the same strategies and techniques in the same manner with the students. An ordered, sequential program that examines all phonics components is one of the keys to successful student achievement in this thread.

What Should Be Taught During Phonics Instruction?

Instruction in phonics involves helping beginning readers learn how sounds are linked to letters and letter combinations in the written language. It teaches that there is a predictable pattern to much of our language. Once phonics skills are mastered, students will be able to decipher words encountered in reading and spell the various words they wish to write. When students are focusing less on decoding, they can spend more attention on making meaning from the print they are reading.

Phonics should be heavily emphasized in early grades so as to develop a solid foundation for more advanced decoding skills (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Phonics instruction is not a panacea for teaching all students to read but the majority of students can be helped to learn to read and spell more effectively with the introduction of phonics in the beginning reading stages. Older readers may well have other issues beyond decoding that interfere with efficient reading so simply providing training in phonics may not solve a struggling reader's problems.

Children should be aware of what they are learning and how knowing sound-symbol correspondences will help them become better readers. They should be taught to use phoneme letter and sound combinations as they directly manipulate words and sentences. Phoneme combinations should not be presented in isolation but should be directly applicable to a child's reading. Instruction should link prior knowledge with new learning and should be systematic, ordered, and deliberate.

Phonics instruction should be limited to one or two types of manipulation at a time to give children a chance to master the concepts presented. Juel and Roper-Schneider (1985) found that children were better able to use their phonics knowledge to improve decoding as well as comprehension when the texts they were reading contained a high percentage of words that followed the patterns introduced by the teacher. Teach either phonics concepts that will be identified as “strategies” that children can use in their general reading practice or find materials that conform to the specific patterns being presented to students. There are many commercially available “controlled” books that limit the phonic patterns presented to specific structures, so finding materials should not be a problem. In any case, students must be able to apply the skills they are learning to context. This will allow them to apply the direct instruction they have received and will cement their learning.

A suggestion for introducing phonics sounds to students is to begin by reading a story that contains a specific phonic element such as the short “a” sound in a story. An example of a story that fits this element is Angus and the Cat by Marjorie Flack (1985). Follow this by another book that reinforces the same concept of the short “a” sound such as The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (1957). This concept of short “a” introduced and applied immediately to active reading helps students develop a solid understanding of the phoneme being presented. Students should then be allowed to practice reading simple passages or books that have this same concept so that they continue to apply the new understanding in direct context. Controlled vocabulary books at their reading level are good for this purpose during the practice stage but students should not be restricted to these materials for all of their reading experiences. Pressley et al. (1998) noted that in the most effective classrooms, students not only had skill instruction provided but also were immersed in literature and writing, with “virtually every day filled with exposure to and reading of excellent literature and writing” (p. 16).

An Effective Phonics Lesson

Phonics lessons should be well ordered and sequential. They should be fast-paced, multi-modal, fun, and very focused. A good phonics program will contain instruction on phonemes, individual letters as well as blends, sound combinations, and other linguistic structures. It will also build on patterns within onsets and rimes within the words examined. (The “onset” is all letters of the word up to the vowel, and the “rime” is the vowel and letters after the vowel.) An effective phonics lesson should concentrate on linking what students already know with new information and should emphasize decoding in context rather than learning rules in isolation. Decoding must always be coupled with meaning and “sense-making,” because without comprehension, true reading has not taken place.

Teachers should begin letter introduction by presenting two letters that are very different graphically so that students can make comparisons. For example, we might introduce the letter “t” and the letter “m” because they require different mouth, teeth, lip, and tongue positions. Taking time to have students feel the difference and tying the letters to concrete experiences (like animal names and kinesthetic movements or signals) will help the students imprint the learning into their minds. Teachers can help students link words they know to these same sounds so they can develop an association with the sounds and the words. Some examples of questions (Stanovich, 1993, Stanovich & Siegel, 1994) that a teacher might ask students during instruction are:

  • Phoneme Deletion: What would be left if the “t” sound were removed from the word tug?
  • Word to Word Matching: Do hog and hat begin with the same sound?
  • Blending: What word would we have if you put together the sounds “c”, “a”, “t”?
  • Phoneme Segmentation: What sounds do you hear in the word top?
  • Phoneme Counting: How many sounds do you hear in the word lamb?
  • Deleted Phoneme: What sound do you hear in stop that is missing in top?
  • Odd Word Out: Which word starts with a different sound: sand, sack, lake, or sandwich?
  • Sound to Word Matching: Is there a /t/ sound in the word little?

Phonics concepts that should be taught directly to students include

  • Single consonants.
  • Initial consonant blends: “bl,” “br,” “cl,” “cr,” “dr,” “fl,” “fr,” “gl,” “gr,” “pl,” “pr,” “sc,” “sch,” “sk,” “sl,” “sm,” “sn,” “sp,” “spr,” “st,” “str,” “sw,” and “tr.”
  • Final consonant blends: “ld,” “lf,” “lk,” “nce,” “nk,” and “nt.”
  • Consonant digraphs (two letters that make up one sound): “ch,” “gh,” “kn,” “ph,” “sc,” “sh,” “th,” “wh,” and “wr.”
  • Long and short vowels.
  • Vowel digraphs: “ai,” “au,” “ay,” “ee,” “ea,” “oa,” “oi,” “ou,” “ow,” and “oy.”
  • “R” controlled vowel patterns: ‘“ar,” “ark,” “art,” “are,” “ear,” “ert,” “irl,” “url,” “urn,” “orn,” “ort,” and “ore.”

Phonics Programs and Systematic Instruction

Phonics concepts should be presented in a systematic, hierarchical order from easier concepts to more difficult ones as the child's skill develops. Adequate time should be allowed for the child to master one set of skills and understandings before moving on to the next group. Understanding what students have mastered and what they need to work on is vital to the instructional planning process.

There are many commercial phonics programs available for purchase that are systematic and implicit in their approach. A highly tactile and kinesthetic approach that connects known content (such as animals) to a sound and an associated kinesthetic movement to each letter of the alphabet and phoneme group may help young students build solid links in a fun and engaging way. Brain researchers uniformly assert that the more links the brain has on any given piece of learning, the more solid the concept is in our memory. This applies to beginning readers as well, so care should be taken to select a commercial phonics program that addresses as many of the learning modalities as possible. Skilled, well-trained teachers may also develop their own phonics programs to use within the context of literature shared in the classroom. In any case, the program should systematically introduce all concepts and reinforce them at strategic points for optimum retention. The following activities might help teach basic phonics concepts:

Flash Cards

Make up or purchase decks of flash cards with letters that commonly appear together such as “ay” or “ch” or “bl.” Have students quiz one another on the sounds that these letter combinations make. If possible, ask students to also give a word that contains this letter combination. This activity can also be played as a whole class or used in a learning center as a choice in the center menu.

Which Word Doesn't Belong?

Select two words that have the same initial sound and one word that does not have the same sound. Mix the order of the three words. Carefully say each word for students, emphasizing and elongating the initial sound that is heard in each word. Ask students to identify the words that have the same initial consonant sound and which word does not belong with the other two. This can also be done using the overhead projector or a pocket chart.

Letter Bingo

Make bingo cards with initial letter sounds. Show students pictures and say the name of the object. Ask students to think about what letter the picture begins with and to cover that letter on their bingo card. Play continues until a student has a “bingo” according to the regular rules of the game. When a child believes that he has a bingo, the letters are read back by both their letter name as well as at least one way that the letter is pronounced. Check the called words and verify the bingo.

Stretch and Snap

Students need to develop an understanding of how to break down a word into its component sounds, but this is often not enough for them to recognize the word. In order to recognize a word, students need to make the association between the sounds and how they fit together to form a word. Teach students to s—tr—e—t—ch a word out by its sounds and then to snap the word back together to aide them in oral recognition of the word. Frequent practice of this technique will help students identify words that stump them while reading.

Same or Different

Give each student two cards, one with the word same written on it and one with the word different. Then say two words such as pair and pain or pen and pen to the students. After each word pair, ask students to hold up the card that corresponds to whether the words are the same or different from each other. Keep a watchful eye for students who often do not display the correct card. They may need more intensive phonics work on sound discrimination.

Reading Log

Ask students to keep a reading log of how they solved problems in decoding while reading. Have the students write down precisely where they encountered the problem. They should also record the strategy that they used to approach the word and how it worked. Examine these logs and help students think about which strategies were most successful. Reflecting on successes will help students identify the strategies that work so they can use them again in more independent situations. This strategy works better for older readers.

Word Maker

Divide paper or plastic plates into several segments with a permanent marker. Write various word-ending phonograms into the divided segments of the paper plate. Place beginning parts of words on clothespins. Ask students to match beginning parts of a word with endings to create a word by attaching the clothespin to the paper plate. Place the answers on the back of the plate so the students can easily check their accuracy by themselves. This activity makes a good “center” activity for young students.

Missing Letter

Using laminated letter cards, place letters on the chalkboard tray with a blank card indicating a missing letter in some location of the word. Show students a concrete object and provide the name of the object. Ask students to come to the front of the class and select the correct letter card that will spell the word of the object shown. This can also be done on the overhead by leaving a line for the missing letter. Students can come to the overhead and write the missing letter into the space.

Blending Letters

Primary students can work together to form words. Make laminated letter cards with at least three of each letter and six of more common letters and vowels. Punch holes in the top of each card and put string through the holes so that students can wear their letters around their necks. Give a small group of students several letter cards and ask them to make a word to show to the rest of the class by organizing themselves in the proper order. For a more advanced version, ask the class if anyone has a letter that can change the word to become a new word. If so, the new child comes up to replace the letter that is no longer needed. The word is again sounded out so that all students can see and hear the word that has been made. In more sophisticated versions of the game, blends or digraphs can also be introduced into the letter card set and letters can be added to change the word into a longer word. For example, the name Stan can be changed to stand with the addition of the letter d.


Play hangman with students. Hints such as the beginning letter or the ending letter of the word can also be given to assist students in guessing the missing letters of the mystery word. Take this a step further by showing on the overhead or whiteboard sentences with one or two missing “mystery words.” Cover the mystery word with sticky notes for each letter or leave blanks in the sentence indicating the number of letters of the word. Write in the letters identified as students “guess” the missing letters of the mystery word. This game not only helps students examine the letter patterns of the word but also encourages them to use context clues to identify words that might fit into the sentence.

Word Hopscotch

Place initial letters and pattern blends on the floor in a grid format using colored masking tape or book tape. Ask students to hop through the board by jumping from letter to letter and saying the word that has been created with the jump sequence that is selected. For example, put the letters “h,” “t,” “p” in the first row, “a,” “o,” “i,” in the second row and “t,” “p,” “m” in the third row.

Rhyme and Syllabification

Understanding the concepts of rhyme and syllabification is important to a beginning reader. Students need to develop an understanding of the concepts of word and rhyme, as well as the ability to rhyme words, segment syllables, and hear the onset and rimes in words (Treiman & Zukowski, 1991). Once they have mastered these skills, students can then learn to separate words into individual phonemes and also to blend phonemes back into real words. These skills are also foundational skills for building solid reading abilities in young students.

When adults read, they do not refer to a set of rules—so simply having students learn a specific set of phonics rules does not necessarily translate into improved reading ability. Adult readers recognize new words by comparing the patterns in unknown words to spelling patterns in words they already know (Adams, 1990). Adults often look for prefixes, suffixes, or root words that they recognize to assist in the decoding process. Fluent readers often separate unknown words into two types of patterns, onsets and rimes. The “onset” is all letters of the word up to the vowel, and the “rime” is the vowel and letters after the vowel. Effective decoders analyze patterns in new words to assist in word recognition as they read. Phonics instruction helps children develop this strategy. Children need to learn to recognize word parts and letter groups. They must make a connection between the letter groups they see with the pronunciations they know for those onsets and rimes. They must then be able to recombine the sounds into a word that they can recognize from their listening and speaking vocabulary. For older readers who seem to be having difficulty with decoding, linking rhyme patterns to unlocking the identity of words can be the missing link they need to improve their decoding skills.

Helping students learn to process rhyme patterns is not difficult. Nearly 500 words can be derived from only 37 rime patterns (Wylie and Durrell, 1970). These rime segments should be taught to children to help improve their reading and writing vocabulary because they lend themselves to so many words in the child's vocabulary. The 37 common rimes are ack, ain, ake, ale, all, ame, an, ank, ap, ash, at, ate, aw, ay, eat, ell, est, ice, ick, ide, ight, ill, in, ine, ing, ink, ip, ir, ock, oke, op, or, ore, uck, ug, ump, and unk. Once students understand how to use the concepts of onset and rime to unlock the pronunciation of a word, they can then be taught to use context clues to make meaning out of the sentence they are reading. For example, if the child knows the word pain and applies the same “ain” pronunciation to the word drain, then context can be used to read the sentence, “The plumber unclogged the drain and let the water flow out of the sink.” Using rimes guide word meaning is helpful to both comprehension and decoding (Cunningham, 1991). Whenever working at this level, we must be sure to continue linking the sounds to the actual meaning of words themselves so that comprehension is the final result of any segmenting or sounding out of word parts. While decoding is important, the goal is comprehension of what is being read, not just the decoding of the words. Without this link, some children become excellent “word callers” but have no comprehension of the text that they have just read.

The optimum time for a heavy emphasis on phonics instruction is during the kindergarten and 1st grade years so that children develop solid word attack skills from the beginning of their introduction to reading. Children who do not receive this instruction during the optimum time frame may miss out on key elements and understandings and may need remediation later on. Remediation for older readers however, is much more complex than when students are just beginning to learn how to read and different strategies will need to be applied than simply learning phonics concepts. Some ways to reinforce the understanding of rhyme and syllabification are:

Word Tic Tac Toe

Teach students a twist on the familiar game of tic tac toe by using words that contain two featured sounds instead of “x” and “o”. Each player selects a different sound to use during play. At each turn, students must write a word that has the targeted sound in an empty space on the board. The first student to write three words in a row that follow the given criteria is the winner just as in the traditional game.

Word Lists

Ask students to work in teams or with partners to develop lists of words that sound the same at the beginning, middle, or end, as directed. Give a time limit and see how many words are written within this time frame. Early primary teachers can do this as a class with the teacher writing the words on the chalkboard or on poster paper as students brainstorm.

Trait Analysis

Have students examine a given passage for examples of several specific traits that have been identified for the students. For example: Find all of the words with the short “i” sound or the long “o” sound. Have students highlight the different words if possible and then prepare a graph to show how many words contained each trait that was analyzed. Words can also be placed on Venn diagrams to show their commonalities.

Detective Teams

To work with the hard and soft sounds of letters like “c” and “g,” divide students into “detective teams” of three or four players. Each player is given either the soft or hard sound and asked to brainstorm as many words as possible that begin with this sound. At the end of a short time period, lists are compared. Make a list of the words under each sound to see how many unique words the students have been able to find during the given time. Students should list all of the rhyming words they find that match the ending given.

Blending Letters

To help students understand the concept of blending letters to form a word, display a large play slide on a pocket chart or on the wall. Use sticky notes with the individual phonemes and display them from top to bottom on the slide. Show students how the letters slide down the slide together as a group to form the blended word at the bottom of the slide (Johns & Lenski, 2001). Ask students to blend new words with letter tiles and their own paper slides at their desks.

Rhyming Pairs

Make a deck of “Rhyming Pairs” on three-by-five-inch cards and distribute to students in the class. Each student must locate the person who has a word that rhymes with the word on his or her own card. Have each student pair locate two additional items in the room that rhyme with the words on their cards. Each partner group should share their four rhyming words with the class.

Word Baseball

Divide the class into two teams. Display a card with a high-frequency word on it. If the student can read the word, he or she goes to “first base.” If the child can give a rhyming word, he or she goes to “second base,” and if the child can give another word that has the same initial sound as the given word, the student goes to third base. If the student can give a word that contains the same vowel sound as the given word it is a “homerun.” If the student misses reading the word, it is an “out” for the team. If the child misses any other level, he or she remains “on base.” The game can be played for as many innings as desired.

Magnetic Board

Provide students with a magnetic board and plastic magnetic letters to use as manipulatives. Help students get a better feel for spelling patterns and syllable combinations by asking students to make given words on the magnetic board with the letters. Students can even make sentences on the magnetic board if enough letters are available.

Word Bank

Give students a set of words that have many rhyming word matches. Then give the students a set of words to categorize under each rhyme set. A game that can be played with this word bank is to give a sentence with a missing word. The children look at the word bank words and select the missing word to write on their paper or on an overhead transparency.

Go Fish

Write sight words (two of each word) on a deck of three-by-five-inch cards and deal 5 or 6 cards to each player. Students have to ask for the mate to their card by describing it phonetically. For example, to match a card with the word “bee” the student might say, “Do you have a card that has a long ‘e’ sound and rhymes with tree?” If the player being asked does not have such a card, he or she responds with “Go fish!” and the child takes a card from the deck.

Sorting by Patterns

Give students a stack of word cards with high-frequency words written on them. Ask students to sort the cards by patterns such as words with long “a,” words with short “a,” “r” controlled vowels, words ending in the same suffix, and so forth. This helps students recognize patterns and categorize the sounds they hear in words.

Rhyming Couplets

Show children a rhyming couplet and then let them work in small groups to write additional couplets to go with the original rhyme provided. Ask students to be creative in adding stanzas that help make the rhyme a funny poem at the end.

Word Ladders

Ask the students to make a “word ladder” as long as possible by changing the next word in line by just one letter. For example, the word given might be fat. Students would first change the “t” to “r” to make the word far. They could then change the “f” to “t” to make the word tar. Students are encouraged to build as long a word ladder as possible in a given amount of time.

In with the In Crowd

Give students a list of three or four words that are in the group and another list of words that are out of the group based on a common feature. As you give new words, the students must decide if the word is “in” or “out” based on what they think the criteria of the grouping might be. The word is added to the proper column and play continues with a new word. When students can identify the special feature of the “in group,” the game ends. A bit of competition can be added between teacher and student by only allowing students to make a specific number of guesses. If the correct answer is determined prior to the guess limit, the students win the game. If no answer is given by the end of the clues, the teacher wins. The students will enjoy challenging you in this manner. Categories can be anything you want to feature, including words with silent “e,” palindromes, one-syllable words, compound words, and prepositions. Students can also teach this game to their families to play at home. This game promotes analysis and causes students to deeply examine common features of words.

Patterns Are Important to Decoding

Patterns are also helpful ways of learning to decode words. Two patterns that should be introduced to students are:

  • Onset: the initial part of the word that precedes the vowel. For example, in the word top, the “t” would be the onset. In the word snake, the “sn” would be the onset.
  • Rime: the vowel and the letters that follow in a word. For example, in the word batch, the “atch” would be the rime and would form the basis for different rhymes such as snatch, match, hatch, and catch.

When students learn the rime patterns, it can help unlock the pronunciation of many more words that contain the same rime pattern. It is also helpful to have students in 2nd and 3rd grades examine syllabification rules. These rules, while not necessarily helpful for reading, will assist the students in their writing. Some rules that students might find helpful are:

  • When a syllable ends in a vowel, the vowel is long, as in ivy.
  • When a syllable ends in a consonant, the vowel is short, as in apple.
  • Divide a word between two like consonants, as in lit-tle.
  • Divide a word between two unlike consonants, as in sen-tence.
  • When a consonant comes between two vowels, divide after the first vowel, as in mu-sic.
  • Prefixes, suffixes, and inflectional endings are always syllables.

Manipulating Words

Students also need to study words and how words fit together. Some specific patterns that should be taught include compound words, contractions, plurals, prefixes, affixes, root words, suffixes, homophones, homographs, and alliteration patterns in words that start with the same sounds. There are many activities that can help students look at words and the manipulation of words, including the following ideas.

Sentence Construction

Assist students in creating several sentences that are written on the board or placed on sentence strips and displayed in a pocket chart. Make a second set of the same sentences and cut these into individual words. For primary students, punch holes in the top of the card and put a string through the holes so each child can wear a word. Visitor clip-on badges also work well for older students. Ask students to find other students in the room who have words that fit into their sentence. When they have located all of the pieces of their sentence and matched their words to the original sentence, the students should indicate that they are ready for an adult to check their work. This is a fun way for students to notice word order as well as the characteristics of a sentence. A more advanced version of this activity would place the punctuation for the sentence on cards as well and ask students to find the punctuation that applies to their sentence and add the person to their sentence group.

Little Words

Encourage children to examine words and identify the “little words” they find inside of larger words. Students should be encouraged to find words inside of words to make them more aware of how letter groups work together to make one sound.

Prefixes and Suffixes

Teach children in 3rd grade and higher to recognize prefixes and suffixes to help unlock word meanings. For example, if students know that the prefix “dis” means not, it will help them unlock the meanings of words such as disbelief or disappear, and many others. Have students find lists of words that contain the targeted prefix and show how the prefix helps to make the meaning of the base word change. Show students how adding or removing prefixes can help unlock the meaning of many words they come across in their reading.

Identifying Words

Write sight words on flash cards. Play a game with a small group of students by seeing who can recognize and “win” the card the quickest. This strategy helps develop fluency as well as sight-word recognition because speed is involved. Be sure readers are fairly evenly matched, however, so the competitive aspect of the game does not become the focal point of the activity. Cards can also be displayed to individual students in a small group in round-robin fashion. The student is asked to identify the word or to “pass” the card on to the next student if he cannot identify it. The student identifying the word collects the card. Again, be sure students are fairly matched in ability so the focus is on reading the word, not on “winning” cards or competing against other students.

Matching Words

Make a matching card game by making two cards of each sight word. Deal seven cards to each player and then have students take turns drawing cards from each other and making matches. As the match is made, the player who made the match must read the matching words out loud. If the player cannot read the words, the cards are put in a special “discard pile,” not in the player's card collection. The player with the most card matches at the end of the deck can be the “winner” for a touch of competition to the game, if desired.

Sentence Assembly

Ask students to create a complete sentence (or several sentences for older students). Cut the sentence into individual words and ask the student to reassemble the words in the correct order. For multiple sentences, ask students to find all of the additional sentences that can be made from the available words. This is a particularly helpful strategy for non-English speakers who need to learn the syntax of the English language.


Cut comic strips from the newspaper or cut old picture books apart. Mix the frames and have students put the story back into proper order using the syntactical cues and story events. A “wordless story” can also be used, and students can be asked to write the narratives for each frame. Have students explain their thinking on why they ordered the story frames as they did.

Compound Words

Ask groups of students to find compound words that fit into various categories such as people, things, places, and times. See which group can think of the most compound words. A more advanced version of this activity would be to have students also develop riddles around the compound words.

Word Dominoes

Create compound-word dominoes by writing a word on the top and a word on the bottom of three-by-five-inch cards. Students play dominoes with the word cards by matching words that can make a compound word.

Flash Cards for Compound Words

Younger children can examine compound words by making compound word flash cards. Students begin by folding a piece of paper so that there are two flaps coming together evenly on the top. The student then prints a compound word on the interior of a paper, and writes each separate word on one side of the flap to visually break apart the two words by lifting the flaps. Students can illustrate the compound word on the bottom part of the flash card as well as the meanings of the individual words when they stand independently to show how the meaning changes. The visual representation helps students to understand that words can have different meanings when combined and that longer words are sometimes made up of smaller words.

Cloze Passages

Cloze passages where key words are omitted and students have to fill in the blanks are a good way to help readers develop the ability to predict what words might make sense in a sentence. Take a passage and eliminate fairly predictable words. Students must use context clues to try to fill in the blanks with words that makes sense in the story. This helps students develop their skills in predicting and anticipating meaning while reading. Any guess that makes sense in the context of the sentence is acceptable even if it not the word from the original passage.

Missing Punctuation

Being able to examine and correctly place punctuation in writing is an essential skill to decoding. In this activity, write a short poem or passage on the board or chart paper and then ask students to help fill in the missing punctuation so the passage can be properly read. This activity helps students understand phrasing and sentence construction. The activity can even be used for older children with the introduction of complex and compound-complex sentences and more advanced forms of punctuation such as colons and semicolons. Students should be asked to explain why the various punctuations are correct in the given position and why other forms of punctuation would not be correct. In some cases, more than one interpretation might be possible. Ask students to describe the differences in meaning reflective of the different positions of the punctuation.


Understanding the organization of a piece of writing is one of the keys to learning to decode effectively. Students should be able to identify the introduction, body, and conclusion in a passage of nonfiction. They should be able to identify the lead, development, rising action, conflict, plot climax, and resolution in fictional material. Have students examine various pieces of writing and identify the key elements.


Use classroom word walls to make a game of “Jeopardy.” Students are placed into teams and can guess the words on the basis of the clues just like on the television version of the Jeopardy game. For example, the clue for the word book might say, “something one can read.” Points are given just as in the real game with the higher points given for harder clues. The game can be played by individuals or teams. When the team version is played, students on each team may discuss the answer but only the designated spokesperson can give the answer for the group.


Students need to understand how nouns play an important part in a story. Ask students to write a short story in a rebus format. Students can either draw pictures or use stickers to replace key nouns in the story. Older students can create rebus stories for young children who have not learned to read. The younger children can assist the reader by supplying the noun that fits the picture in the story.

How Can Miscue Analysis Help in Phonics Instruction?

A quick way to assess what students know and do not know is to administer an “oral reading record” or “running record” (Clay, 1972) to the student and carefully mark all of the mistakes or hesitations made on the record. This enables you to analyze where the student is making mistakes. Error analysis enables you to determine if students lack skills in areas such as identifying syllables or phonemes in a word, recognizing initial consonant sounds, or various other error patterns. Observation of an oral reading performance can also determine if the student can differentiate between similarly spelled words and has pronunciation strategies for unfamiliar words. Analysis of these strengths and weaknesses can provide specific direction for working with the student to improve reading performance.

Goodman and Burke (1972) found that a child's omissions, substitutions, additions, and self-corrections in oral reading help teachers assess the extent that the child is monitoring for meaning and attending to spelling and sound-symbol correspondences while reading. Miscues that do not change the meaning of the sentence show that students are using anticipation skills to “make sense” of what they are reading. Miscues that change the meaning tell us that the child is not making solid comprehension links.

Cunningham (1991) suggests that errors that do no change the meaning of the sentence are, in fact, a sign of good reading development. A substitution of the word can't for cannot indicates that the child is reading ahead and anticipating the words that make sense in the passage. This is the goal of our instruction. When we correct the child for this miscue, it merely teaches the child to slow down and fixate more on the individual words rather than reading for intended meaning. This can cause the child to become a word-by-word reader even when the child transfers this skill to silent reading. When a student makes a miscue that does change the meaning of the sentence, we might stop the child by saying something like, “I missed that part. Can you reread that part to me again?” so the fixation is less on the individual words and more on the concept of making sense of print. If too many interruptions are made, it will discourage children from self-correcting and learning to self-monitor their reading. The power of miscue analysis is that we can see firsthand what readers know and what they do not know. This knowledge then guides the activities that we will select to shape the learning of both the individual and the class.

Phonics as a Foundational Thread

Phonics instruction helps beginning readers understand the relationship between letters and sounds, and letters and words. Phonics is most effective when introduced early in the reading development process. According to Put Reading First (Armbuster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001), “Phonics instruction teaches children the relationships between the letters (graphemes) of written language and the individual sounds (phonemes) of spoken language.” This foundational thread helps students understand that there are systematic and predictable relationships between letters, their sounds, and the words they make. A strong grounding in phonics early in the reading process provides students with one more strong foundational thread in the tapestry of effective reading.


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