Preservice Reading Teachers in the Differentiated Classroom: A Rationale for Visual Phonics – by Marta J. Abele, Ph.D.

Sep 20th, 2010 | By | Category: Visual Phonics

Editor’s Note: The author teaches reading courses at the University of Dubuque in Iowa. After becoming an enthusiastic supporter of See the Sound/Visual Phonics, she was asked to relate her experiences with her college students and their reactions to STS/VP. The following is her response, which includes a review of current research and a rationale for all teachers to include STS/VP in their reading programs.


I love my job! For over 25 years I have either helped children learn to read, or taught aspiring teachers how to help children learn to read. As many teachers tend to do, we teach what we were taught. For example, I learned to read primarily by using phonics. My teacher stressed phonics as a useful strategy for figuring out new words, and it worked well for me. At least, I don’t remember struggling with the reading process. Therefore, I teach phonics in my college courses for the elementary reading endorsement. Even though phonics instruction was controversial for many years, I continued to think it was important and included it in my reading courses, rebel that I am.

I begin each semester by asking my students, “How many of you were taught phonics as part of your reading program when you were in elementary school?” I get very few, if any, positive responses to that question! This generation of preservice teachers was affected by the “phonics wars” era where reading teachers were encouraged to use whole language to teaching reading. The whole language approach assumed that children acquire fluent literacy as they participate and use literate behaviors in active, natural, authentic learning events (Ruddell, 1999). However, when whole language was not the magic cure for learning to read without leaving any child behind, the educational pendulum began to swing back to the basics.

Fortunately, the National Reading Panel and the International Reading Association support teaching phonics, or the relationship between sounds and letters, as an important aspect of beginning reading instruction when part of a complete reading and language arts program. Unfortunately, preservice teachers are often met with the challenge of first learning phonics themselves before they can offer that important reading strategy to their future students. Thus, we teacher education faculty members have our work cut out for us!

As part of this job that I love, I often accompany my students off campus and supervise them as they practice planning and teaching lessons out in our community schools. On one of those visits about 3 years ago, I noticed some kindergarten teachers using hand gestures as they worked with children in a phonemic awareness lesson. As I watched the kindergarteners sitting on the carpet, they were making the sounds for the letters the teacher was presenting, but they were also mimicking her hand-shape signs. This was something new that I had never seen before! What were they doing and where did the teacher learn this?

I quickly found the connection to Dave Krupke and See the Sound/Visual Phonics (aka Visual Phonics). What a fortunate meeting! It didn’t take long for me or my students to realize that this STS/VP strategy was very effective for helping children learn to read. While many of my preservice teachers may not be comfortable with phonics yet, they are certainly comfortable with another aspect of education – the need to adapt their lessons to all learners and to their individual learning styles. As beginning teachers, they most certainly will be working in a differentiated classroom with students who have a wide range of educational strengths and needs. My preservice teachers understand differentiated learning and accept it completely, since brain-compatible learning and neuroscience research is solidly embedded in our teacher preparation program. Therefore, it was easy for them to understand how effective Visual Phonics would be to facilitate learning.

As a result of my discovery of STS/VP, I arranged for Dave to offer training workshops on campus for our preservice elementary reading teachers. The response has been very positive. Participation is strong and enthusiasm is high for learning this reading strategy. In addition, I have noticed that Visual Phonics has accelerated my preservice teachers’ phonics development. I am now seeing my own students, trained by Dave, using Visual Phonics in their lessons out in the local schools. I also now see teachers in several schools in town using Visual Phonics. As it is becoming more popular, the research is growing that shows the effectiveness of incorporating the STS/VP strategy in elementary reading programs. There is now some evidence that learning to read is a much easier process as a result of using STS/VP with beginning readers.

After seeing for myself how exciting the integration of Visual Phonics into reading instruction can be, I was surprised to find out that some principals and regular classroom teachers are still hesitant to encourage or to try this strategy. I wondered what it would take to convince them to consider using STS/VP. Therefore, I began to gather support from current educational research in order to develop a rationale for using Visual Phonics.


1. Phonemic awareness and phonics are essential focus areas in successful reading instruction.

Since Visual Phonics is primarily used with emergent or beginning readers, I confirmed that phonemic awareness and phonics are still integral components of an effective reading program. The National Reading Panel recommends phonics instruction that is explicit and systematic. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s evidence-based research studies support this. Phonics for kindergarten and first grade should instruct children to relate sounds and letters for both consonants and vowels and provide adequate practice (Report of the National Reading Panel, 2000).

Additionally, a position statement by the International Reading Association states that a child’s awareness of the sounds of spoken words is a strong predictor of his or her later success in learning to read. Activities that develop phonemic awareness in children should provide practice with segmenting and manipulating the sounds of oral language. The IRA also asserts that teaching phonics is an important aspect of beginning reading instruction and should be embedded in the context of a complete reading and language arts program. Effective reading teachers don’t debate whether phonics should be taught; instead they ask how it should be taught (IRA, 2010). This leads to the discussion of effective teaching strategies.

2. A multisensory approach engages students in instruction through different learning modalities.

Educators face the constant challenge of meeting the needs of all learners. Differentiated learners include developmentally, intellectually, ethnically, culturally, and socially diverse student populations. More students today have difficulty acquiring the basic skills of reading and writing. More students are being diagnosed with specific learning problems according to the U.S. Department of Education (NCES, 2010). Results of a longitudinal study indicate that about 20% of all elementary-age children will eventually develop symptoms of a reading disability (Uhry, 2005). Traditional teaching strategies do not seem to be as successful as they once were.

Fortunately, we are now in a new era of teaching reading. There has been extraordinary progress in understanding the science of reading and its impact on reading instruction. Since this new brain research is driven by rigorous science and guided by evidence of effectiveness, it is essential that those responsible for teaching reading are brought into this modern era of education (Shaywitz, 2005). To very briefly summarize many highly technical research studies by neuroscientists, reading is one of the most difficult jobs that we expect children to do. There are no areas of the brain that specialize in reading. Asking students to match their spoken language with abstract symbols that aren’t always consistent is a huge task, and one that is not easily accomplished by all learners (Sousa, 2001; Jensen, 1998; Sylwester 1995).

Because learning to read does not come naturally to the human brain, using a variety of instructional strategies to connect to every type of learning style is necessary in order to make this difficult process easier for beginning readers. Standard instruction may not be a good fit for all students because of their individual developmental needs. One student’s road map to learning is not necessarily identical to anyone else’s (Tomlinson, 1999). Special education teachers who work primarily with students with special needs have long accepted that students learn in different ways and at different rates. Gardner’s suggestion that humans have multiple (8) intelligences is now widely accepted by most educators (Gardner, 1993). Various researchers have consistently concluded that development is affected by the match between what we learn and how we learn with our particular intelligences. Therefore, it is clear that reading teachers must be effective in planning and implementing lessons that reach a wide range of learning needs.

A multisensory approach to language education is commonly endorsed and practiced by teachers of students with a wide range of learning difficulties (Moats & Farrell, 2005). Multisensory teaching strategies include techniques for linking eye, ear, voice, and hand in symbolic learning. This involves visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic components. Phonics and phonemic awareness lessons that include multiple senses facilitate the ability to learn and recall. Educational psychologists promote the theory that all senses, including the kinesthetic sense, are involved in learning. Therefore, teachers who combine movement in an auditory lesson with visuals could potentially help many more children learn sounds and letters more effectively.

3. Visual Phonics, STS/VP, is a multisensory strategy for representing sound in a visible way that incorporates hand movements.

The See the Sound/Visual Phonics strategy differs from other phonics programs in its connection to the production of the sounds in English, or what actually happens in the mouth (Montgomery, 2009). The basic framework for STS/VP was developed by the parent of a deaf child for use in a hearing-impaired classroom. Those who are familiar with American Sign Language can quickly see the similarities in the hand shapes used for the sounds in our language and ASL signing. This similarity should be considered a strength of the STS/VP strategy. The hand shape cues serve to make the sounds concrete and visible. The ASL signs represent each letter; the STS/VP hand shapes represent each sound. The two systems connect well, but ASL is not required in order to use STS/VP.

4. Early research for See the Sound/Visual Phonics provides preliminary support for the inclusion of an STS/VP intervention for students at risk for reading failure.

The research for STS/VP documents its potential for children who are deaf or hard of hearing (Trezek, Wang, Woods, Gampp, & Paul, 2007). Another study concluded that STS/VP facilitates the development of phonemic awareness and phonics skills, but more research was needed for hearing students (Morrison, et al, 2008). Now a recent study (Cihon, Gardner, Morrison, & Paul, 2008) extends the research on this strategy to hearing students who are at risk for reading failure. STS/VP now has data and results that provide support for the inclusion of the STS/VP strategy within a balanced reading program to facilitate phonemic awareness and phonics skills. The preliminary findings of this study suggest that STS/VP intervention in the classroom is appropriate for children who are falling behind using the regular curriculum. Post-intervention gains were noted on both the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) and the curriculum-based assessment for participants who participated in the STS/VP intervention. The data also suggest that participants performed similarly to their grade-level peers who were at benchmark levels based on DIBELS and who did not receive the STS/VP intervention.

While formal research is important, many classroom teachers value other informal evidence of learning. For example, local kindergarten teachers who have been using STS/VP for several years have consistently observed that their students are making more rapid progress in phonemic awareness. What used to take until Christmas to accomplish is now occurring before Thanksgiving. For kindergarten teachers, that is significant progress based in informal data and personal observation, and that is enough to convince them to continue to use this strategy.


If we accept that:

  1. Respected reading research institutions support teaching phonemic awareness and phonics as part of a balanced reading program; and
  1. A multisensory approach is the most effective teaching strategy for differentiated learners; and
  1. STS/VP is indeed a multisensory strategy  for teaching phonemic awareness and phonics that incorporates visual, auditory, and kinesthetic components; and
  1. There is solid research data to support the effectiveness of STS/VP with kindergarten participants who are considered at-risk readers; then it follows that

STS/VP is a strategy that should be supported by administrators, curriculum directors, and classroom teachers who want to be more effective in helping all children learn to read. Furthermore, teacher education programs should include STS/VP  in preservice teachers’ reading courses.

I am convinced that this strategy is valuable, my preservice teachers are convinced that it helps, many classroom teachers and principals are convinced that it works, and there is research to back us up. If you are a wise reading teacher who is looking for something that works, contact Dave Krupke ( and the International Communication Learning Institute (715/866-7453; as soon as you can and find out for yourself how “seeing the sound” can help your students learn to read.


Birsh, J.R. (Ed.). (2005). Multisensory teaching of basic language skills, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Paul     H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Cihon, T.M., Gardner, R., Morrison, D., & Paul, P. (2008). Using Visual Phonics as a strategic      intervention to increase literacy behaviors for kindergarten participants at-risk for

reading failure. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention 5(3), 138-155.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

International Reading Association. (2010). Phonemic awareness and the teaching of reading: A    position statement (PS 1025). Newark, Delaware.

International Reading Association. (2010). The role of phonics in reading instruction: A position   statement (PS 1018). Newark, Delaware.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Moats, L.C., & Farrell, M.L. (2005). Multisensory structured language education. In J. R. Birsh   (Ed.), Multisensory teaching of basic language skills, 2nd ed. (pp. 23-41). Baltimore: Paul

H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Montgomery, J. (2009). Dave Krupke – What exactly is Visual Phonics? Communication Disorders Quarterly             29(3), 177-182.

Morrison, D., Trezek, B., & Paul, P. (2008). Can you see that sound? A rationale for a       multisensory intervention tool for struggling readers. Journal of Balanced Reading      Instruction 15(1), 11-26.

National Center for Educational Statistics,

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). (2000). Report of the        National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the       scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH       Publication No. 00-4754).

Ruddell, R.B. (1999). Teaching children to read and write: Becoming an influential teacher.

Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for           reading problems at any level. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Sousa, D.A. (2001). How the special needs brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

Sylwester, R. (1995). A celebration of neurons: An educator’s guide to the human brain. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tomlinson, C.A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners.

Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Trezek, B.J., Wang, Y., Woods, D.G., Gampp, T.L., & Paul, P.V. (2007). Using Visual Phonics    to supplement beginning reading instruction for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.            Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 12(3), 373-384.

Uhry, J.K. (2005). Phonemic awareness and reading: Research, activities, and instructional           materials. In J. R. Birsh (Ed.), Multisensory teaching of basic language skills, 2nd ed.

(pp. 83-111). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

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7 Comments to “Preservice Reading Teachers in the Differentiated Classroom: A Rationale for Visual Phonics – by Marta J. Abele, Ph.D.”

  1. Ann Hughes says:

    Well written article which supports use of Visual Phonics for students in the general education setting!

  2. Neil says:

    Great Post

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Neil says:

    Awesome post!

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. Neil says:

    Great Post

    Thank you for sharing.

  5. Excellent issues altogether, you just gained a brand new reader. What could you recommend about your post that you made a few days in the past? Any certain?

  6. Janelle says:

    I am a very strong supporter of phonics. I am one out of many that did not receive phonics in elementary school. I had never heard of VP before I came across a class of Dave’s on the AEA website. VP really works! I’m using it in my classroom and the students love doing the hand shapes. Even those who do not struggle with reading enjoy the hand shapes.

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