Do We Have to Go Back?

May 17th, 2011 | By | Category: Brain

What needs to happen when a student is struggling with the application of phonemic awareness skills needed to establish the neural connections for reading and writing? If we look at early literacy skills as being somewhat sequential, one could pose that these students need to “go back” to re-establish the foundational literacy skills of phonological awareness. That may mean going to Title One Reading or Tier 2 RTI targeted interventions or a reading support program and just focusing on phonological awareness, with the hope that these targeted interventions would transfer back to what is being done and expected in the regular classroom.  While that may seem logical on some level, consider whether the focus of the process is to teach “lessons and concepts” in isolation, with the hope that they transfer, or “discover” those same concepts within the text of reading stories, social studies, science, math, or better yet, in environmental print.

Should we take students back to work on shoring phonological awareness skills up as a separate lesson or set of activities? During a recent conversation with Randall Klein, Founder of Early Reading Mastery, this very question came up and resulted in a lengthy and invigorating exchange of thoughts and ideas. Mr. Klein’s thought was not to “go back”, in large part due to time challenges. There is so much packed in to a teacher’s day and time to “go back” is scarce. Instead, start where students are and bring in phonological awareness to help them “discover” concepts like first sound isolation, rhyming, onset-rime, syllable sense and chunk recognition, in the context where they occur in the first place.

This line of thinking is aligned with a profound thought shared by a very intuitive reading specialist here in the Midwest, who said, “if you have to teach a concept in isolation, go ahead . . . but immediately take that concept into the context of words and text so that students get and see the connection”. To hook onto an old adage about the forest and the trees . . . we need to help students recognize their “trees” AND the forest of which their trees are a part. In the case of pointing out the phonological awareness skills embedded in the context of classroom or group lessons, the skills are not recognized or taught in isolation, but rather recognized or “discovered” where they are embedded.

Opportunities abound every day within the regular curriculum and through the course of the school day to bring in foundational phonological awareness skills, as these opportunities are not always lesson-driven.  It makes sense from a brain-based learning standpoint to use what is front of the students’ eyes and in their ears. Skills taught in isolation and not immediately connected back to the context in which they occur are more difficult for some students to apply, retain, and use than those which were immediately connected or taught within the context of use. Consider this thought from Dr. Jeff Knox, a colleague at a Midwestern university – “the strength of neural pathways comes from practicality and usability” . . . not always from skill-specific lessons.

Bennett-Armistead, Duke & Moses (2005) spoke to the importance of phonological awareness in their book, Literacy and the Youngest Learner:

  • The ability to separate words into syllables or beats will help children to break down a word into parts to spell or read it
  • The ability to recognize and generate rhyming words will help children use known word to decode new words
  • The ability to recognize and generate words that start of end with the same sound will help children learn to associate particular sounds with particular letters
  • The ability to blend sounds into sounds into words will help children learn to “sound out” words
  • The ability to segment words into sounds will help children to spell words
  • The ability to move sounds around to create new words will help children to use known words to figure out new words.

Going back isn’t the best strategy when faced with the need to shore up foundational literacy skills. Reverse the thinking of going back and consider enabling the “discovery” of these skills embedded in what they are doing each day by using techniques such as “think alouds”, where the teacher verbalizes their thinking and reasoning about the phonological awareness skill(s) needed to decode or encode, or spell words, pointing out the skill and how they were used. The idea behind think alouds vs. direct questioning is that it models for students the thinking process the teacher is using and exposes them to vocabulary used in instruction – it is more of a problem solving line of reasoning. In contrast, direct questioning places the student in a “recall” mode of thinking – it’s either right or wrong.

One of the best ways I have read about and seen involves “I wonder” statements. For example, “I wonder if I can figure this word out by breaking it up into syllables?” The think-aloud process would continue after the “I wonder” statement with a “discovery” statement such as, “When I break this big word into syllables, I can see chunks of letters that remind me of our word families.”

Another way to meld phonological awareness into classroom curriculum is to actively engage students in fun ways.  A powerful activity like “word detectives” can be used as early as preschool. Use of a prop, such as a magnifying glass makes this a fun and engaging event, where students go on “hunts” for rhyming words, words with 4 syllables, words that have two vowels that make one sound, and words that have more letters than sounds. Use more than reading books for the word detective activity . . . consider social studies or science or math texts! Community-based environmental print is also a great source of word detective material.

Instead of thinking that some students need to “go back” to each “tree” and strengthen specific phonological awareness skills, switch directions and help them get their bearings while they are in the “forest”.


Bennett-Armistead, S., Duke, N., & Moses, A. (2005). Literacy and the Youngest Learner. New York: Scholastic.

© 2011  Dave Krupke  All Rights Reserved

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6 Comments to “Do We Have to Go Back?”

  1. kathy arlen says:

    Cindy and I were just talking about this very topic today. I love the article! I will definitely plan on using this for my professional development next year. We have really focused on using interactive writing as the vehicle to teach phonemic awareness skills. I have seen HUGE gains in phonemic awareness skills by teaching them in context of reading and writing.

  2. Fidelia says:

    I thank you hmubly for sharing your wisdom JJWY

  3. Twiggy says:

    What a joy to find somenoe else who thinks this way.

  4. Loan Reddell says:

    Very good blog post.Really thank you! Really Great.

  5. Lori Mayer says:

    Thanks for sharing this article. I plan to try encouraging some of the students I am working with to use the out loud “wonder” and “discovery” statements and also I’m going to try the word detective game with my grand kids first, then with some students at school. Thanks for sharing your knowledge to help kids learn in an easier manner. Lori

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