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Research-Based Methods of Reading Instruction for English Language Learners, Grades K–4

by Sylvia Linan-Thompson and Sharon Vaughn

Table of Contents

Chapter 3. Phonics and Word Study

In a recent conversation, teachers of English language learners (ELLS) voiced concerns about the teaching of phonics to students in their classes who have several levels of English proficiency.

“English is so irregular, it doesn't make sense to teach students all the rules because there are so many exceptions.”

“True,” continued another teacher, “but students have to learn the relationship between letters and sounds to learn to read and spell.”

“But does it make sense,” wondered another teacher, “to teach students the rules if they don't know what many of the words mean? What concerns me is that one of the principles of English as a second language instruction is that we should teach in context to support student learning, but phonics is often taught in isolation and is very decontextualized.”

“How can we make instruction more meaningful?” asked the fourth teacher.

The above points are valid and worthy of consideration in planning phonics instruction for ELLs. In this chapter we discuss what we know about teaching phonics to English language learners and provide some activities that have been effective in schools. We describe a phonics approach to instruction that includes a range of skills from alphabetic knowledge to reading in decodable books—everything you need to know for word study.

What Is Phonics and Word Study Instruction?

Gough and Tumner (1986) identified two basic processes necessary to learn to read: learning to convert letters into recognizable words and comprehending the meaning of print. Learning to convert letters to recognizable words requires knowledge of the relationship between sounds and the letters or other symbols that represent them, then remembering the exact patterns and sequences that may represent various speech sounds (Goswami, 2006; Moats, 2000). The orthographic system of a language consists of the relationship among the visual symbols used in the writing system, the mapping of these symbols onto speech, and meaning (Seymour, 2006). As children map sounds to print, they are also accessing the words in their vocabularies. They use this knowledge to support them in identifying the word they are reading. Although there are similarities in learning to read across languages, differences in the orthography of the language lead to differences in how long it takes to learn to read and how much difficulty some children may have. In some languages, like Finnish, Italian, and Spanish, the relationship between letters or symbols and sounds is fairly consistent—that is, there are few exceptions and fewer relationships to learn. Other languages, like Kanji, English, and Danish, are not as consistent. There are many inconsistencies in English that puzzle English language learners.

Children have to learn which letters have consistent relationships and which do not, and when to apply the rules that govern them. For children learning English as a second language, understanding the relationship between letters and sounds is critical, since some of the sounds will be new to them—sounds they have not heard or spoken as meaningful units of speech. They may be applying a phoneme (sound) from their home language to a different grapheme (letter) or using letters alone or in combinations that do not exist in their home language. In addition, they lose the advantage provided by accessing their knowledge of words, since their English vocabularies may be limited.

Converting letters to recognizable print can be taught through phonics instruction and can lead to students comprehending the meaning of text. Phonics is an approach in which children are taught to decode words by using and applying their knowledge of the relationship between letters and individual sounds to read. In planning phonics instruction for ELLs, you will have to decide among several forms of phonics instruction. All the approaches include instruction in letter-sound relationships but vary in the explicitness of the instruction and how systematic the process is in determining the sequence of instruction. In synthetic approaches to instruction, students are taught the individual letter-sound relationships and then taught explicitly to blend the letters into words. Teachers who use embedded phonics teach letter-sound relationships during the reading of connected text. Embedded phonics is less explicit than synthetic phonics instruction.

An effective phonics program for English language learners uses a synthetic approach that follows a defined sequence and includes direct teaching of a set of letter-sound relationships. Each instructional set includes major sound-spelling relationships of both consonants and vowels. This sequencing arrangement provides students opportunities not only to begin to learn the relationship between letters and sounds but also to use that knowledge to begin blending these sounds to read words and to segregate the sounds to write words even before they have learned all the letter-sound correspondences. For ELLs, who are learning to read in an inconsistent orthography like English, instruction using analogy-based phonics provides children an additional strategy for reading a larger number of words as they are building their English oral language skills. In addition, the program should include books and stories that contain a large number of words that children can decode by using the letter-sound relationships they have learned and are learning. Finally, programs should provide ELLs opportunities to spell words and write their own stories with the letter-sound relationships they are learning (Blevins, 1998; Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement [CIERA], 2001; NRP, 2000; Texas Education Agency [TEA], 2000). English language learners struggling with reading acquisition who receive explicit phonics instruction as part of comprehensive literacy instruction tend to develop stronger foundational reading skills (Denton, Anthony, & Parker, 2004; Linan-Thompson & Hickman-Davis, 2002; Vaughn et al., 2006). Even students with limited English proficiency made gains in reading skills, indicating that a wide range of ELLs benefit from explicit instruction.

Good readers rely primarily on letter-sound correspondences in words rather than context or pictures to identify words; use reliable strategies to decode words; and read words enough times so that they become automatic. Phonics instruction provides ELLs the knowledge needed to develop those same skills effectively and efficiently by providing a road map for making sense of how English works as well as effective decoding strategies. However, phonics instruction should not be the entire reading program, but rather it should be integrated into other elements of reading instruction, such as language activities, story time, and small-group tutoring to create a balanced reading program. Learning to read in languages with less-consistent orthographies like English takes longer than learning to read in languages with more consistent orthographies (Seymour, 2006). For most students, two years of phonics is sufficient; other students may require more instruction. English language learners whose initial reading instruction is in English may require more time, since they are learning both a new language and a new process. Older ELLs or those who learned to read in their home language will still need phonics instruction to learn the structure of English but may acquire the knowledge more quickly. Use assessment information to adapt phonics programs to meet the needs of individual students (NRP, 2000). Most important, starting early is key: “Early and systematic instruction in phonics seems to lead to better achievement in reading than later and less systematic instruction” (Stahl, 2001, p. 333).

Why Should I Teach Phonics and Word Study?

Imagine trying to put together a 1,000-piece puzzle without a picture for reference. You might begin using strategies such as finding all the pieces that have a straight edge to form the perimeter and then grouping pieces by color. Through trial and error, you would begin to form the picture. Children learning to read in English are faced with the same situation when they are given bits and pieces of information about English orthography, but not a systematic way of learning, applying, and practicing the spelling patterns and rules they are learning.

Children learning to read in English have to learn the letter-sound relationships among 44 speech sounds and more than 100 spellings used to represent them (Blevins, 1998; Bos & Vaughn, 2006). In addition, students have to apply this knowledge to read both known and unknown words in isolation and in context, and they need to be able to read irregular words. Although it might seem that English is too irregular to teach systematically, there are enough regularities to make a systematic approach to phonics instruction appropriate. For example, the teaching of vowels is often identified as an area for concern in teaching English language learners, but we can see from the table that the exceptions account for fewer than one-third of the words (see Figure 3.1).

Figure 3.1. Phonics Rules and the Percentage of Exceptions to Them


Percentage of Exceptions

When the letter c precedes the letters e, i, or y in a syllable, the c has the /s/ sound.


When the letter g precedes the letters e, i, or y in a syllable, the g has the /j/ sound.


When a stressed syllable ends in e, the long sound of the vowel is used and the final e is silent.


When a stressed syllable contains only one vowel and ends with a vowel, the long sound of the vowel is used.


When there is only one vowel in a stressed syllable and the vowel is followed by a consonant, the short vowel sound is used.


When a word of more than one syllable ends with the letter y, the final y has the /short i/ sound. When a word of more than one syllable ends with the letters ey, the e is silent and the y is pronounced /short i/.


When a syllable contains only the one vowel a, followed by the letters l or w, the sound for a rhymes with the vowel in saw.


When there are two adjacent vowels in a syllable, the first vowel is pronounced using the long sound and the second vowel is silent.


Sources: From Vowel Situations in a Primary Reading Vocabulary, by R. Oaks, 1950, master's thesis, Teacher's College, Temple University, Philadelphia.

From “A study of the consonant situations in a primary reading vocabulary,” by E.B. Black, 1952, Education, 72(9), p. 618–623.

Phonics and word study instruction provide an opportunity to teach children that there are systematic relationships between letters and sounds, that written words are composed of letter patterns that represent the sounds of spoken words, and that recognizing words quickly and accurately is a way of obtaining meaning from what is read. In addition, children learn that they can blend the sounds to read words and segment words into sounds to spell (Adams, 1990; Chard & Osborn, 1999; NRP, 2000).

What Elements Should I Include in My Phonics and Word Study Instruction?

We know that ELLs can learn to read in English even when their oral skills in English are not fully developed (Gunn et al., 2000; Hudelson, 1984), but this instruction is more effective if it is accompanied by development of their oral language skills (Gersten & Baker, 2003). Most important, given that it takes longer to learn to read in English than it does in most languages, reading instruction should not be withheld until children have attained oral language proficiency in English (Quiroga et al., 2002). Because the development of reading processes for ELLs is essentially the same as that for native English speakers, you can use the same instructional sequence (Edelsky, 1981a, 1981b; Hudelson, 1984). Therefore, provide instruction that includes print awareness, alphabetic knowledge, phonological and phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, decoding, irregular/high-frequency words, reading practice with decodable text, and reading fluency when children enter school. The exception would be for children who speak no English at all. Two of these elements, phonological and phonemic awareness and reading fluency, are covered in depth in Chapters 3 and 5, respectively.

How much time you spend on each of these elements will depend on the age, level, English proficiency, and previous reading experience of your students. As children participate in phonics and word study activities, their understanding of the conventions that govern spoken and written language will increase. These elements do not have to be taught sequentially, and the rate at which students acquire these skills will vary. In general, however, kindergarten students benefit from instruction that teaches prerequisite skills for strong word recognition, the communicative function of print, alphabetic knowledge, phonemic awareness, and the alphabetic principle (Chard, Simmons, and Kame'enui, 1998). Most students who have had effective phonics instruction can read quickly and easily and have an effective decoding strategy for reading unknown words. English language learners will also need to develop their oral language skills as they are acquiring reading skills.

For each of the crucial elements, a brief description and characteristics of effective programs are provided.

Print Awareness

Students who understand that written language is related to oral language and that printed language carries messages have print awareness. They also know that the structures of written language are different from spoken language and know the difference between words and nonwords (Blevins, 1998; Reutzel & Cooter, 1999; TEA, 2000). This awareness of the forms and functions of printed language is a reliable predictor of future reading achievement.

Children develop print awareness when they have opportunities to hear books and participate in read-aloud activities. To help students develop print awareness, you can reinforce the forms and functions of print found in classroom signs, labels, posters, calendars, etc.; teach and reinforce print conventions, such as print directionality, word boundaries, capital letters, and end punctuation; and teach and reinforce book awareness and book handling. These activities will be critical for students who come from home languages that use right-to-left or up-and-down directionality in reading, such as Hebrew or some Asian languages. You can also allow children to practice what they are learning by listening to and participating in the reading of predictable and patterned stories and books, and you can provide opportunities to practice with predictable and patterned books (Reutzel & Cooter, 1999; TEA, 2000). These activities help ELLs not only develop print awareness but also gain knowledge of English vocabulary. However, students will be less likely to be able to use context and picture clues if they are in the beginning stages of English development. Use books and stories that have illustrations that are highly correlated to the story to explicitly build vocabulary.

Alphabetic Knowledge

The goal of instruction that develops alphabet knowledge is to get children to recognize and name letters quickly and accurately (Adams, 1990). Knowledge of letter names is strongly related to children's ability to remember the forms of written words, to treat words as sequences of letters, and to develop the alphabetic principle: the association of letters with their corresponding sounds. Alphabetic knowledge progresses from letter names to letter shapes (the form) to letter sounds. Learning letter names and sounds seems straightforward; however, children whose home language is logographic will also be learning a new alphabet system, while children from other alphabetic languages may only be learning new names and sounds for letters they have seen before. You may need to provide more explicit instruction and more opportunities to practice those sounds and letters that have no equivalent in children's home language, since they may have difficulty hearing and pronouncing them. Their inability to pronounce some sounds does not necessarily indicate lack of knowledge. While you want to support children in pronouncing the sounds correctly by demonstrating how to position the mouth, teeth, and tongue, be careful not to turn the lesson into a speech lesson or to stop instruction of new letters until they master one that is difficult to pronounce. Figure 3.2 provides an example of some of the sounds that may be difficult for children from some language groups.

Figure 3.2. Sounds That Are Difficult for ELLs

Spanish: b, d, dg, h, j, m, n, ng, r, sh, t, th, v, w, y, z, s-clusters, end clusters

Chinese: b, ch, d, dg, f, j, l, m, n, ng, long o, sh, th, v, z, l-clusters, r-clusters

Vietnamese: long a, long e, k, l, ng, p, r, sh, s, y, l-clusters, r-clusters

Korean: b, l, long o, ow, p, r, sh, t, th, l-clusters, r-clusters

Source: From The ESL Book of Lists, by J. Kress, 1993, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Children who do not know letter names and sounds, whether due to lack of instruction or because they are just learning English, need planned instruction that provides many opportunities to see, play with, and compare letters. Some children can learn several letters each week, while others may only learn one. Include games, songs, and other activities that help children identify and name letters, provide activities in which children learn uppercase and lowercase forms of letters, and point out differences and similarities among the letters. In addition, plan writing activities that encourage children to practice making the letters they are learning and provide them opportunities to experiment with and manipulate letters to make words and messages (Blevins, 1998; TEA, 2000).

Alphabetic Understanding

Alphabetic principle refers to the systematic relationship between phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (letters). In particular, English language learners need to know that in English

  • Some letters represent more than one sound
  • Different letters can represent the same sound
  • Sounds can be represented by a single letter or combinations of letters

To help children understand the alphabetic principle, include the following practices in your teaching:

  1. Teach letter-sound correspondences explicitly and in isolation initially; then provide multiple opportunities daily to practice using this new knowledge to read and write.
  2. Provide practice opportunities with new letter-sound relationships as well as previously taught relationships.
  3. Give your ELLs opportunities to apply their knowledge of letter-sound relationships to the reading of phonetically spelled words that are familiar in meaning (TEA, 2000).
  4. Provide additional practice in the sounds that are not part of a student's home language.
Remember, effective instruction in the alphabetic principle requires that teachers plan and sequence instruction to avoid teaching words that have a similar look or sound, since they might be confusing for ELLs. Once you start phonics and word study instruction, some students will begin to make connections between letters and sounds on their own. However, many of your students will need even more explicit instruction to learn all the letter-sounds correspondences they will need to know.

Decoding and Reading Practice with Decodable Text

Decoding is the understanding of how to read letter or letter patterns in a word to determine the word and its meaning. English language learners who can decode words have a strategy for reading unknown words. Furthermore, once children have developed this understanding and can apply it to read words, they can begin to read words rapidly, automatically, and effortlessly. This will allow them to focus on getting meaning from what they are reading (NRP, 2000; TEA, 2000). For ELLs, the level of their knowledge of English will impact meaning. Many children will learn to decode but will not be able to gain meaning from text until they have sufficient vocabulary. Chapters 5 and 6 provide many activities for building children's vocabulary and comprehension.

Initially, provide opportunities to work with word families, spelling patterns, and onsets and rimes. The use of analogy-based phonics will be useful at this point. Once students are familiar with letter-sound correspondences, teach students to use that knowledge to read unknown words. In analogy-based phonics, students use their knowledge of a word they know—for example, night—to read similar words, such as light or plight.

As students become more sophisticated readers, they will need more advanced decoding strategies that focus on the structure of words. This knowledge provides ELLs a strategy for segmenting multisyllable words into decodable parts and for determining the meaning of the word (Henry, 1997). In particular, teaching affixes shows children that there are word parts that are common across words. This will help them with reading, spelling, and accessing meaning because it highlights the regularities in the language. Learning to analyze the structure of words provides students knowledge of letter combinations, derivatives. and affixes.

Instruction should include the meaning of word parts, such as the following:

  • Inflectional ending—a meaningful word part (morpheme), such as -ed or -es, that indicates tense, number, person, or gender when added to a base word
  • Prefix—a word part, such as pre-, in-, or un-, at the beginning of a base word
  • Suffix—a word part, such as -ful or -ly, at the end of a base word
When teaching structural analysis, teach the meanings along with recognition and model how to look for word parts. Teaching students to use structural analysis will increase the number of words they can decode easily. Consider the following. The most common affixes in the primary grades are re-, un-, con-, -ness, -ful, and -ion. The prefixes un-, re-, in-, im-, ir-, il-, and dis- are used in 58 percent of all prefixed words. Three inflectional endings, -s/-es, -ed, and -ing are found in 65 percent of words that have inflectional endings and suffixes (White, Sowell, & Yanagihara, 1989). In addition, many prefixes and inflectional endings are common across languages.

Effective programs provide students opportunities to use their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences to practice decoding words in isolation and in text and teach students the meaning of unknown words to provide context for their reading. Instruction in the meaning of words should not be time-consuming when the focus of instruction is phonics, but should rather be a quick introduction with a picture or other visual or easy definitions—just enough to give the students context. More in-depth vocabulary instruction can take place in a preview or review session. The use of decodable text lets teachers model how to blend and segment sounds, sound out words when unknown, and use onset-rimes or word chunks to decode words.

Reading decodable text should include discussions about the text to promote comprehension and reinforce the idea that the purpose of reading is to get meaning (TEA, 2000). While decodable books offer students opportunities to expand their new skills in decoding, gradually introduce them to books and stories that are less controlled to extend both their reading skills and exposure to new vocabulary.

Irregular Words

Not all words can be read completely using a decoding strategy. Irregular words are less phonetically regular, that is, some or all the letters in the word do not represent their most commonly used sound. Irregular words may be the most difficult for English language learners, because students have to learn these words by sight and in many cases the words will not be a part of either their receptive or expressive vocabularies.

These elements are important components in beginning reading instruction, whether students are just learning to read or have just immigrated to the United States and are learning to read in English. Systematically teaching children the structure of English beginning with letter-sound correspondences through the reading of connected text gives students a framework for making sense of English orthography. Daily, integrated lessons that include explicit introduction of letter-sound relationships and provide opportunities to blend the sounds to read words, to build words, to read decodable texts, and to practice spelling words will enhance students' beginning reading experience (Blevins, 1998).

The rate at which children move through the stages described above will depend on their age, knowledge of the reading process, and level of English proficiency. Older students with limited English proficiency may need only minimal instruction in the elements that are different from those in their home language. Younger students will need instruction similar to that which is provided to English monolingual children.

How Can I Teach Phonics and Word Study?

By emphasizing all of the processes that contribute to growth in reading, teachers will have the best chance of making every child a reader. (NRP, 2000, p. 2–92)

In this section, we focus on the sequence of instruction and provide guidelines for integrating the four subprocesses essential in teaching phonics and word study to beginning readers: letter-sound knowledge or alphabetic understanding; regular word reading; irregular word reading; and reading in decodable text.

Instructional Factors

Letter-sound knowledge helps English language learners understand that individual letters or clusters of letters that make up words represent the separate sounds of spoken language. Students who have alphabetic understanding know that to read a word they must first identify the most common sound of each letter and then blend the sounds together to form the word. Figure 3.3 provides the most frequent spellings of the 44 sounds of English and a key word to guide pronunciation. Remember, teach the most common sound for each letter first, and highlight to the extent possible the similarities or differences between students' home language and English when appropriate.

Figure 3.3. Guide to Pronunciation of English Sounds


Key Word

Most Frequent Spelling

Other Spellings



i (66%)




t (97%)

tt, ed



p (96%)




n (97%)

nn, kn, gn



s (73%)

c, ss



a (96%)



l (91%)




d (98%)

dd, ed



f (78%)

ff, ph, lf



h (98%)




g (88%)

gg, gh



o (79%)



c (73%)

cc, k, ck, lk, q



m (94%)




r (97%)

rr, wr



b (97%)




e (91%)

ea, e_e



y (44%)




g (88%)

j, dg



u (86%)

o, ou



w (92%)



v (99.5%)

f (of)



z (23%)

zz, s



th (100%)



ch (55%)




sh (26%)

ti, ssi, s, si, sci



si (49%)

s, ss, z



wh (100%)



n (41%)




oi (62%)




ou (56%)



oo (38%)

u, o, ou, u_e, ew, ue


oo (31%)

u, ou, o, ould



a (45%)

a_e, ai, ay, ea



e (70%)

y, ea, ee, ie, e_e, ey, i, ei



i_e (37%)

i, igh, y, ie, y_e



o (73%)

o_e, ow, oa, oe


u (69%)

u_e, ew, ue


th (100%)



er (40%)

ir, ur



a (89%)

/ /


a (24%)

e, i, o, u



a (29%)

are, air

Source: Adapted from Phonics from A to Z: A Practical Guide, by W. Blevins, 1998, New York: Scholastic Professional Books.

In introducing letters, a combination of a vowel and a few consonants allows ELLs to form a number of words. These combinations might include /m/, /s/, /a/, and /t/, so students can form words even if they only know a few letter-sound correspondences. In addition, teach new learners sounds that are easier to articulate first. Continuous sounds such as /m/ and /s/ are easy to articulate and hear because the sound can be held without distortion. Stop sounds such as /p/ and /b/ are easily distorted when the sound is held. Use your judgment and knowledge of students' ability. If a student is experiencing great difficulty remembering the letter-sound associations, limit the number of lettersound relationships taught and focus on correspondences that are easier to pronounce. However, if the difficulty is in pronunciation, give the student more explicit instruction on how to pronounce the word, focusing on how to form the sound, but keep the instruction moving.

In addition, separate confusing letter-sound associations during initial instruction and be sure your students are comfortable with the first one before teaching the second. Characteristics that might cause confusion are visual similarity and auditory similarity. Visually similar letters can differ in the vertical direction of their extension (b/p, d/q), their left-right orientation (b/d, p/q), or their top-bottom orientation (w/m, u/n) (Blevins, 1998). Auditorily similar sounds can also cause some student difficulty. For example, some students may have difficulty hearing the differences among /b/, /p/, and /d/. In addition, students may confuse the sound of letters if the sound of a letter in English is similar to the sound of a different letter in another language. For example, the /long e/ sound in English is the same as the sound for i in Spanish. While it would be difficult to know all the letter-sound correspondences for all the language groups represented in your class, if you notice that students from the same language group are having similar problems with particular letter-sound correspondences, it would be worth investigating the source of confusion by asking an adult speaker of the language.

A basic lesson to introduce letter-sound correspondences to ELLs once they are familiar with the names and forms follows:

  1. Present the letter and tell students the sound. Hold up a letter card. Say, “This letter is m. The sound for m is /mmm/.”
  2. Ask students to tell you the name and then the sound. Be sure they know the difference between the name and the sound.
  3. Ask students to write the letter as they say the sound.

If students at the beginning of 1st grade still do not know any letter names or only know a few, or if you are teaching older students who are new to English, teach letter names and letter sounds simultaneously. In particular, with older ELLs, move the introduction of letter-sound correspondences at a quicker pace so students can apply them to the texts they are reading.

Once children know three or four lettersound associations, begin regular word-reading and word-building activities. For example, if students have learned the letter-sound correspondences for i, t, p, n, and s, they can begin to apply this knowledge to read words such as it, in, pit, pin, sit, sip, and tip. Teaching them the short sound for a can more than double the number of words they can read and write. Older students who know how to read in their home language may not need explicit instruction in word reading. It is more likely that they will need opportunities to apply the lettersound correspondences they are learning in context.

After students have learned enough lettersound correspondences to form words, integrate regular word reading into the lesson. A basic regular word-reading lesson to teach students to blend the sounds follows:

  1. Sound out words without stopping between sounds. If you use words with letters that have continuous sounds at the beginning of the word, like sit, this step will be easier.
  2. After students have sounded out the word, ask them to read it quickly. For example, present the word sit. Students say each sound without stopping, ssssiiit, then say the whole word quickly: sit.
  3. Transition students from sounding out words aloud to sounding out words silently before saying them quickly.

General guidelines for planning and teaching regular word reading follow:

  • During initial instruction, first choose words that are short vowel–consonant words and consonant–short vowel–consonant words: it to sit and pit; in to pin and tin; at to sat and pat. Then go on to patterns that include blends and digraphs: CCVC (stop), CVCC (mast), CVC silent e (bike), CCVCC (truck).
  • Progress from simple to more complex sound spellings.
    • Teach consonant sounds (/b/, /m/, /s/) before blends (br, cl, sn) or digraphs (sh, ch).
    • Teach short vowel sounds, then long vowel sounds followed by variant vowels (ea, oa) and diphthongs (oi, oy).
  • Select words that have stop sounds at the end of the word.
  • Select words that represent vocabulary familiar to the children and that they are likely to encounter in their reading (Blevins, 1998; Chard & Osborn, 1999).
  • Clarify or review the meanings of all words used in the lesson.

Students who are taught to apply their letter-sound knowledge and are given opportunities to practice using them will be able to read and write sentences even before they learn all the letter-sound correspondences. This procedure not only allows ELLs to practice the skills they are learning in isolation and in context, but it also introduces the elements of English gradually and systematically so they can internalize the structure of English.

As not all words can be completely sounded out, include instruction in irregular word reading, because about a fourth of the most frequently used words in children's writing and texts are irregular (Moats, 2000). The list includes words such as the, to, was, do, they, you, and is. Since students cannot apply their knowledge of letter-sound relationships to these words, they will have to learn them as whole words. Guidelines for selecting and teaching irregular words follow:

  • Select and teach words that appear frequently in stories and informational texts.
  • Teach students the meanings of the words, as they are not likely to encounter them in either their receptive or expressive vocabularies.
  • Determine the number of words taught in each lesson based on the abilities of the student.
  • Teach new irregular words before they appear in a story. Discuss the word and any special features and point out parts of the word that are regular.
  • Review previously taught words on a daily basis.
  • Provide students with opportunities to use these words in their reading and writing activities (Blevins, 1998; Chard & Osborn, 1999).

Learning letter-sound relationships in isolation is necessary but not enough for English language learners. They also need to apply their knowledge to reading text. Provide students with opportunities to practice reading connected text. Begin with decodable text and gradually move to less-controlled text as students' ability and confidence grow. Because most decodable texts contain irregular words, be sure to teach those in advance if students do not know them. After reading as a group, give students opportunities to reread the text.

Several activities to teach these elements are provided in the instructional activities section of this chapter.

Progress Monitoring

Monitoring student progress will help you plan instruction and alert you if a student is falling behind. You can then use the information to group students for instruction and to modify the pace of instruction based on the level of students in each group. You can monitor student progress in each area informally. To assess the acquisition of letter-sound relationships, you can maintain a list of letter-sound associations that have been taught and mastered. About every two weeks, ask your ELLs to identify the sounds of letters or to give the letter name of the sound provided. You can also give students a letter dictation. You provide a letter name or sound, and they write the corresponding letter.

Monitor regular and irregular words separately, but use the same process for each type of word. Monitor word reading in isolation by asking students to read a set of words that have been taught. The goal is for students to read the words automatically. In most instances, that will be within three seconds. You can also keep a record of the words students miss repeatedly while reading connected text. Progress monitoring will also help you get a sense of how students are doing in terms of learning and applying the structure of English orthography in their reading and writing. Research with English language learners representing various language groups demonstrates that progress-monitoring measures in basic phonics skills such as letter naming and regular and irregular word reading are valid predictors of later reading ability. These measures let you know what students know and do not know but do not necessarily indicate that the student will have trouble learning. How they respond to well-thought-out instruction will be a better indicator of how well they are able to learn.

What Are Some Useful Phonics and Word Study Activities?

Basic Lesson in Letter-Sound Knowledge: Fish for Letters

Objective. Given a letter, students will identify the letter name and sound.

Materials. Multiple copies of letters students have learned on cards, fishbowl

Sequence. Introduce one vowel and three to four consonants initially. As students master letters, add new letters.

  1. After reviewing letters learned, tell students that they will pick a card from the fish bowl and say the name and sound.
  2. Model for the students. Pick a card, show it to the students, and say the letter name and then the sound.
  3. Ask students to take a turn.
  4. If students give the incorrect name or sound, provide it. Ask all students to repeat and have student return card to the bowl.
  5. If the student gives the correct name and sound, he or she keeps the card.
  6. Continue until all cards are gone.

Scaffold. Give only letter names or sounds.

Regular Word Reading: Read the Word (Phoneme Level)

Objective. Given a regular word, students will read the word.

Materials. Word cards


  • VC: in, at, am, it, up, ox
  • CVC: mat, hop, cut, sit, pin, can, ten, get, not, cup, cut, tap, red, him, cob, run, gum, ham, mad, hid, dip, box, bug, big
  • CCVC: stop, flap, snap, trip
  • CVCC: mast, jump, bunk, fall, hand, will, bend, rock, told, dash, back, duck
  • CVC silent e: bike, take, joke, made, time, more, cape, kite, five, name
  • CCVCC: truck, sport, blast, small
    1. Tell students they will be reading new words.
    2. Tell students that when shown a word card, they will first sound out each lettersound correspondence and then read the word quickly.
    3. Show students a word card. Model saying each sound continuously as you point to each letter, for example, iiiinnnn.
    4. After sounding out the word, read the word fast: in.
    5. Show a word and ask the students to say each sound. Make sure each sound is correct. If a student makes an error, review the correct letter-sound correspondence and repeat.
    6. After students have sounded out the word, ask them to read the word fast. If a student reads the word incorrectly, ask him or her to sound it out and then read the word fast.
    7. Review the meaning of the word. Ask if anyone knows what the word means. If no one gives a definition, give a quick definition using a picture, gesture, synonym, or short description.
    8. Continue with the remaining word cards.

Scaffolds. (1) Review the individual lettersound correspondences for the letters used to form the words. (2) Students point to each sound as it is pronounced and sweep their fingers under the word when they read it fast. (3) Students use letter tiles and pull down each letter tile as they say the sound and then sweep their finger under the tiles when they say the word fast.

Regular Word Reading: Read the Word (Onset-Rime Level)

Objective. The student will identify a particular word pattern given a group of words (see Figure 3.4).

Figure 3.4. Most Common Rimes













































































Source: From Essential Reading Strategies for the Struggling Reader: Activities for an Accelerated Reading Program–Expanded Edition by the University of Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts, 2001, Austin, TX: Texas Education Agency.

Materials. Blank index cards, marker


  • VC: in, at, am, it, up, ox
  • CVC: mat, hop, cut, sit, pin, can, ten, get, not, cup, cut, tap, red, him, cob, run, gum, ham, mad, hid, dip, box, bug, big
  • CCVC: stop, flap, snap, trip
  • CVCC: mast, jump, bunk, fall, hand, will, bend, rock, told, dash, back, duck
  • CVC silent e: bike, take, joke, made, time, more, cape, kite, five, name
  • CCVCC: truck, sport, blast, small
    1. Tell students that many English words contain a group of letters that look and sound the same. Explain that learning to read this group of letters or the pattern of the word will help them read other words.
    2. Introduce the pattern for the lesson. “Today we will learn the ending pattern -ap. The sounds are /a/ /p/. When you blend them together, they say /ap/.”
    3. Ask students to tell you other words with the ending pattern /ap/.
    4. Write student contributions on the index cards, one word per card.
    5. If students give a nonsense word, acknowledge that the pattern is correct but that it is not a real word in English. Write the word.
    6. When students cannot provide any more words, ask students to read the word cards. Have them segment the word at the onset-rime level. Then blend them together to read the word.
    7. Review all the cards again; this time ask student to read the entire word when it is shown.
    8. Review the meaning of all the words.

Source. Adapted from Essential Reading Strategies for the Struggling Reader: Activities for an Accelerated Reading Program–Expanded Edition, by University of Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts, 2001, Austin, TX: Author.

Regular Word Reading: Building Words

Objective. Students will practice reading words containing rime patterns.

Materials. A set of cards of previously studied onsets and a set of cards with previously studied rime patterns

Sequence. Onsets: single letter, blends (bl, fl, sn, st), digraphs (gr, br)


  • VC: -an, -ap, -at, -aw, -in, -ip, -ir, -op, -or, -ug, -it, -et, -ot, -up, -ut
  • VCV: -ake, -ale, -ame, -ate, -ice, -ide, -ine, -ore, -oke, -ade, -ike, -ime
  • VVC: -ail, -ain, -eat, -eek, -een, -oot, -eed, -eep, -ait, -eet, -eem, -oop
  • VCC: -ack, -ank, -ash, -ell, -est, -ick, -ill, -ing, -ink, -ock, -unk, -ump, -uck
    1. Review the onset and rime cards.
    2. Place the two sets of cards face down in the middle of the table.
    3. Explain to the students that they will pick the top card from each pile, put them together, and read the word.
    4. Model the activity.
    5. Ask each student to take a turn. If all students can do the activity, have students take turns picking cards and reading the words. After the word is read, the student identifies it as a real or made-up word.

Scaffolds. (1) Limit the number of rimes used—either rimes with the same vowels or the set of rimes. (2) Limit the number of onsets used. (3) Ask all students to read each word formed.

Regular Word Reading: Changing Word

Objective. Students will practice reading previously taught regular words.

Materials. Chart paper or chalkboard with a ladder drawn on it, marker or chalk

Sequence. Change only the onset, change only letters in the rime, change letters in both the onset and rime

  1. Tell students they will be making new words by changing one letter at a time.
  2. On the bottom rung, write a word with a pattern they have learned.
  3. Model how you will change one letter to form a new word. Ask students to read the word.
  4. Ask a student to change one letter to make a new word. Move up the ladder.
  5. Students will continue providing new words until they reach the top rung.
  6. Ask students to review the meanings of the words on their board.

Variation. Accept both real and nonsense words.

Challenge. Impose a time limit to read the word.

Irregular Word Reading: What's the Word?

Objective. Students will learn irregular words

Materials. Word cards (three to five per lesson), pocket chart, notebook with each page marked with one letter of the alphabet, pencils

Sequence. Begin with most common irregular words

  1. Tell students they will be learning some words that do not follow the letter-sound correspondences they have been learning, so they have to learn these words as a whole.
  2. Show students the first word card and read the word. Ask students to repeat the word in unison.
  3. Spell the word as you point to each letter and then ask the students to spell the word in unison.
  4. Ask the students to read the word again. Then students write it in their notebooks on the appropriate page. Monitor to make sure they spell the words correctly.
  5. Ask students if anyone knows the meaning of the word. If no one knows the meaning of the word, provide a quick definition.
  6. Ask students to make a quick note in their notebooks to help them remember the meaning. Students may want to write the meaning in their home language.
  7. Place the word card in the pocket chart.
  8. Follow steps 2–7 with the other words.
  9. Review the words taught. Point to each word in the pocket chart and ask the students to read it in unison. Then ask individual students to read the word and provide the meaning.

Variation. Use words that will appear in text that students will be reading.

Analogy-Based Phonics: What Do I Already Know?

Objective. Students will use analogy to sound out unknown words.

Materials. Words with patterns students know written on cards (three to four per student)

Sequence. CVC words with rime patterns that are decodable (bat), CCVC words with rime patterns that are decodable (stop), CVCC words with rime patterns that are decodable (bump), words with irregular rimes (night)

  1. Tell students they will be reading new words using what they know about spelling patterns to help them sound out the words.
  2. Review the clue word (night) by showing the students the word card and asking, “What is our clue word?”
  3. After students respond, ask, “What are the letters in night?”
  4. After students respond, underline the -ight and tell students that the new words they will be reading also end in -ight.
  5. Ask students to repeat the ending.
  6. Ask students to read the words as you present them one at a time. Remind them to sound out the initial sound or sounds and then use what they know about the ending to read the word.
  7. Ask students to tell you the strategy they used to read the new words.
  8. Review the meanings of the new words in the lesson.

Scaffolds. (1) Begin with simple rimes and syllable patterns such as -VC and new words that have a one-letter onset. (2) Use new words with onsets that are blends or digraphs. (3) Use rimes and word-spelling patterns that are irregular.

Analogy-Based Phonics: Strategy Use in Context

Objective. Students will use analogy to sound out unknown words they encounter in texts.

Materials. Texts that have several words with a rime or spelling pattern students know

Sequence. Texts that have only one or two patterns; texts with more patterns for which students will have to use their knowledge of various rimes and patterns

  1. Tell students they will be reading a book that has words they have not read before.
  2. Remind them to look for the part of the word they can already read.
  3. Tell students to sound out the first part of the word and add the part they know to read the word.
  4. Remind them that you will review the meaning of the words after you read the story.

Irregular Word Reading: Irregular Word Road Race

Objective. Students will practice reading irregular words that have been previously taught.

Materials. For each student: a game board, word cards matched to game board, a chip or game piece (see Figure 3.5)

  1. Explain the game to students. Tell them: “You will place a chip in the start box, read the word in the first box, then read each word card aloud until you find the card with the word that matches the word in the first box. Now, you move the chip into the box containing the first word.” Explain that they then go on to read the word in the second box, and read the word cards again until they find its matching word card. Continue to the end of the game board. Note that cards are not discarded but are placed in the back of the pile.
  2. Model the procedures in step 1 for students.
  3. Review the meanings of the words.
  4. Give each student a game board, a set of cards, and a chip. Remind students to read each card in the set aloud.
  5. Monitor students.

Figure 3.5. Road Race Game Board

Source:Essential Reading Strategies for the Struggling Reader: Activities for an Accelerated Reading Program–Expanded Edition

Variations. Fill the squares with regular words or specific onset-rime patterns; for kindergarten students and struggling 1st graders, fill each square with a letter (students provide either the name or sound as directed).

Scaffolds. (1) Pair a more able reader with a struggling reader. Students take turns so the more able student reads the word cards until finding the first word. Then the second student reads the word cards for the second word. (2) Limit the number of words.

Challenge. Impose a time limit to read the word.

Lesson for Learning the Doubling Rule (-ing and -ed)

Objective. Students will learn the doubling rule for adding -ing or -ed to CVC verbs and will practice writing CVC + -ing or -ed words independently.

Materials. Flip chart, blackboard, or dry-erase board; writing notebooks and pencils; marker

  1. Tell students they will learn the doubling rule for adding endings to CVC words. Explain that in English, when we add -ing or -ed to a CVC word, we double the last consonant then add the ending. Model the process using only one of the endings and a pattern that students know well.
  2. Give students a word. Ask them to write the word in their notebooks. Then ask them to add the ending.
  3. Ask a student to write the word on the chart.
  4. Ask students to check their work.
  5. Give students several more words.
  6. Review the meanings of all the words.

Review Lesson for the Doubling Rule

Objective. Review the doubling rule for adding -ing or -ed to a CVC verb.

Materials. Flip chart, blackboard, or dry-erase board; writing notebooks and pencils; marker

Sequence. Complete the activity as a group, complete activity in pairs, add CVCC words

  1. Review the doubling rule with students. Remind them that in English when they add an ending to a CVC word they must double the last letter.
  2. Write a CVC verb on board. Ask students what they must do to add an ending. Rewrite the word with the ending.
  3. Tell students that they will have a tick-tack-toe tournament.
  4. Draw a tick-tack-toe board, and write a CVC verb in each square.
  5. Tell students that to gain a square, they have to change the verb by adding either -ing or -ed correctly. If the new word is written correctly, the student may draw an X or O. If the student does not add the ending correctly, the square remains open. In the first round, students play against the teacher.
  6. Have students determine whether an answer is correct or not by showing thumbs up or thumbs down. Continue until someone wins the game by getting three in a row.

Variation. Students play in pairs.

Scaffold. Use only one type of ending.

Structural Analysis: Let's Add Word Parts

Objective. Students learn that affixes (prefixes and suffixes) change the word meaning.

Materials. Chart paper, marker, a list of root words students can read and give the meaning for each

Sequence. Most-common prefixes, most-common suffixes, less-common prefixes, less-common suffixes

  1. Tell students that adding word parts to a word will change the meaning of the word. Tell students that prefixes appear at the beginning of the word and that they will learn the meaning of the prefix and then add it to root words.
  2. Write a prefix on the chart paper. Read the prefix and tell students its meaning.
  3. Ask students to read the prefix and tell its meaning.
  4. Write a root word on the chart paper. Ask students to read the word and give its meaning. If students do not know the meaning, provide it.
  5. Write the root word with the prefix. Ask students to read the word.
  6. Model how to determine the meaning of the new word. For example, un- means “not”; happy means “with joy”; so unhappy means “not happy” or “without joy.”
  7. Provide additional root words and ask students to read and define the prefix, read the root word, read the word with prefix added, and define the new word.
  8. Repeat steps 2–7 with the second prefix.

Variation. Use suffixes.

Scaffold. Limit the number of prefixes introduced.

Advanced Word Analysis: Make a New Word

Objective. Students will add previously taught prefixes or suffixes to a root word and will give the meaning of the new word.

Materials. Root words written on cards (three to four per student), small sticky notes with a prefix or suffix written on them

Sequence. Most-common prefixes, most-common suffixes, less-common prefixes, less-common suffixes

  1. Tell students they will be reviewing the meaning of prefixes and suffixes they have learned and will practice reading words with prefixes and suffixes.
  2. Review the prefixes and suffixes written on the sticky notes. Ask students to read them in unison and provide the meaning.
  3. Ask students to read the root words in unison. Then give each student three to four root word cards.
  4. Tell students you will pick an affix from the pile; each one in turn will add it to one of his or her root word cards, read the new word, and say its meaning.
  5. If a student has difficulty providing the meaning, ask the student the meaning of the affix, then the meaning of the root word. If the student still cannot provide the meaning, model the process. For example, un- means “not” and happy means “with joy”; unhappy means “not happy” or “without joy.”
  6. Continue with the other affixes.

Scaffolds. (1) Limit the number of affixes used. (2) Use only prefixes or suffixes.

Advanced Word Analysis: Word Part Jeopardy!

Objective. Students will identify prefixes, suffixes, and roots in words and their meanings.

Materials. Category cards for each of the three categories: prefixes, suffixes, and root words; answer cards for each category; dollar amount cards (for sample Q&A see Figure 3.6)

  1. Place game pieces on the board as you explain the game.
  2. Tell students they will be playing Jeopardy! to test their knowledge of word parts and their meanings.
  3. Divide students into teams.
  4. Tell them that under each dollar amount there is an answer to a question related to its subject category card.
  5. They will pick a category and dollar amount, expose and read the answer, then give the question to the answer.
  6. If they get the answer correct, they get the dollar card. If they answer incorrectly, another team gets a chance to answer.
  7. Game continues until all the cards are exposed.

Figure 3.6. Sample Answers and Questions

Sample Answers

Sample Questions

The suffix -er or -or means this.

What is “a person who does something”?


Who is “someone who narrates”?

The prefix re- means this.

What is “again”?

The prefix in bicycle means this.

What is “two”?

Give an example of a word using the prefix trans.

What is “transport”?

A prefix is found in this part of the word.

What is the beginning?

This is the main base of a word.

What is the root?

The root in geography.

What is “graph”?

This root means “write.”

What is “graph”?

Advanced Word Analysis: Is It Real?

Objective. Students will use the prefixes they have been studying to make words.

Materials. Word cards using prefixes from previous lessons; game board with words that combine with prefix cards to make real words, and some that combine to make nonsense words; dice or spinner; game pieces

  1. Review what a prefix is. Review the prefixes from the previous lessons. Make sure that students can read, spell, and define each prefix.
  2. Ask students to read the word cards in unison. Periodically ask a student to define the word or to use it in a sentence.
  3. Introduce the game and explain the rules.
  4. Distribute a prefix card to each student or pair of students. Tell students they will take turns rolling the dice or spinning and then moving their game piece the appropriate number of spaces. Then they combine the prefix on their card with the word on the space and read the new word. The students must decide if it is a real word or a nonsense word. If it is a real word, they must define it and use it in a sentence. If unable to complete all steps correctly, they can ask a peer for help. If it is not a real word, the student tells what it would mean if the prefix were used correctly.
  5. Continue until one of the students reaches the end.

Scaffold. Pair students of high and low levels of English proficiency.

Bear, D. R., Templeton, S., Ivernizzi, M., & Johnston, F. (2008). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
This book gives information on how to provide word study instruction to students based on their spelling developmental stages. The text provides a description of the basis for this approach to instruction, instructions for assessing students prior to beginning instruction, and activities for students in each of the stages of development.

Blevins, W. (1998). Phonics from A to Z: A practical guide. New York: Scholastic Professional Books.
This guide provides a wealth of information for teachers in an easy-to-read and easy-to-use format. The book begins with a brief description of phonics and then provides activities, lists, and teaching guidelines for alphabet recognition, phonemic awareness, letter-sound correspondences, and regular and irregular word reading.

Cunningham, P. M. (2004). Phonics they use: Words for reading and writing (4th ed). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
This research integrates the strategic approaches needed to help students develop reading and spelling skills using a coherent collection of practical, hands-on activities that provide a framework for teaching phonics. It emphasizes the importance of students using phonics for decoding, reading, and spelling a new word, and for writing. Rather than subscribe to a single theory, the book stresses a balanced reading program—incorporating a variety of strategic approaches—tied to the individual needs of children.

Diaz-Rico, L. T. (2004). Teaching English learners: Methods and strategies, my lab school edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Chapter 8 provides activities for teaching grammar through integrated language skills and gives a history of English to help explain the peculiarities of the language.

Donat, D. J. (2003). Reading their way: A balance of phonics and whole language. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
This book fulfills the goal of increasing reading achievement with a balanced literacy program for kindergarten and beyond, using the best of phonics and whole-language approaches. Donat presents reading-instruction strategies, scheduling and grouping options, assessments, evaluations, and sound and spelling patterns for each grade level. Teachers will find an abundance of ideas for immediate implementation in their classrooms, and school administrators will appreciate the guidance in developing quality literacy programs. Supplemented by an appendix of suggested resources and a reference section.

Henry, M. K. (2003). Unlocking literacy: Effective decoding and spelling instruction. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Designed for general and special educators of students from prekindergarten to middle school, this book offers a range of creative strategies for helping students learn and a refresher course on language skills. The text is filled with classroom activities; lesson plans incorporating multisensory, language-based instruction; samples of student work; explanations of current research; and extensive word lists.

Kress, J. (1993). The ESL book of lists. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
This book provides useful lists for teachers on a number of topics, including the identification of difficult English sounds for specific language groups and word lists for a variety of objectives.

McCormick, C. E., Throneburg, R., & Smitley, J. (2002). A sound start: Phonemic awareness lessons for reading success. New York: Guilford Press.
One volume provides three separate sets of phonemic awareness lessons, complete with scripted directions and reproducible learning materials and assessment tools. Incorporating a variety of activities, each set is field-tested and research based and the lessons may be used independently or in conjunction with one another.

Moats, L. C. (2000). Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.
This comprehensive book on the English language will help you understand the organization of written and spoken language, make the connection between language structure and how children learn to read, and provide sample lesson plans and adaptations. This information is essential for teachers of English language learners.
This Web site provides reading instruction and reading games for students in preK–1.
Offers other links for enhancing reading, such as teaching grammar and phonics.
This Web site presents the definition of alphabetic principle, research findings on phonics, the importance of phonics, and how to sequence phonics skills in grades K–3.
This Web site provides information on critical phonics skills and critical features of phonics instruction.
This Web site allows readers to download the professional development guide on phonics and decoding instruction. This guide provides a variety of phonics and decoding strategies and instructional materials, including information on English language learners.
This Web site provides research findings on phonics instruction (e.g., approaches to phonics instruction, cautions about phonics instruction).
This Web site introduces science-based phonics instruction and contains links to several papers on phonics instruction and a list of phonics product companies.
This Web site presents articles on effective phonics and word recognition instruction for students with reading disabilities.


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