Little things can make a big difference

The education researcher Dylan Wiliam has said that “changing what teachers do is more important than changing what teachers know.” But isn’t knowledge power? And what we do is obviously linked to what we know. So, how can that be?

In the past few years, there has been a groundswell of interest in the science of reading, sparked in large part by Emily Hanford’s reporting for American Public Media on the gaps between scientific findings about how children learn to read and how reading is typically taught in US schools. Many teachers are learning about what cognitive scientists have discovered about reading over the past few decades, information that may have been largely absent from their teacher preparation programs. They are gaining insights and powerful new knowledge. Organizations such as The Reading League are making this knowledge both accessible and actionable. As the motto goes, “Know better, do better.”

However, the leap from knowing to doing can be a big one, for a variety of reasons. We often find ourselves needing to change established habits or form new ones. Just as in other areas of our lives, it’s often best to start small. And small changes can sometimes go a long way.

As a reading interventionist, I have spent time in a variety of early elementary classrooms during the English Language Arts block, and I’ve seen phonemic awareness, phonics, reading and spelling activities take many forms depending on the approach and particular program in use.

Significantly increase effectiveness

No matter what program we use, we can significantly increase our effectiveness with the small habit of consistently modeling and prompting students to say sounds aloud (not letter names) while spelling words. Simultaneously articulating the individual sound (phoneme) while writing the letter or letters (grapheme) that corresponds to it is a powerful practice. It embeds the correspondences in children’s minds, develops their phonemic awareness and facilitates the orthographic mapping process that we know is the key to automatic word reading. This is true regardless of whether the word is considered regular or ‘irregular’, since all words have sounds that are represented by letters or groups of letters.

Teachers may know the importance of making these connections explicit and may use methods and programs that do this. However, I have often observed teachers using the letter names and inadvertently omitting the sounds while teaching spelling. I have often observed students engaged in phonics activities that don’t actually require them to say the sounds. Try keeping the ‘Say and Write’ mantra in your head and teach it to your students. Are you demonstrating a spelling rule or pattern? Say those sounds as you write! Even when the lesson is not specifically a phonics one, but you are writing directions or vocabulary on the board, remember to say those sounds as you write. Are you giving students a dictation? Remind them to say those sounds as they write! A version of this, (we might call it ‘Say and Mark”) can be used when reading words as well. For example, if your students are sorting words according by pattern, you can have them underline graphemes as they say each sound, then blend the sounds to read the word.

Establishing this small habit and infusing it throughout our teaching ensures that what we do is aligned to what we know. It can go a long way in helping our students develop their foundational reading and spelling skills.

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Miriam Fein is a speech-language pathologist and licensed reading specialist. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts, and supports students from early elementary through high school with reading, spelling, writing, and language skills. She believes in the power of evidence-informed, systematic, and compassionate teaching for all learners. 

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