“Make Phonics Instruction Fun!”

This is a guest blog by Rayna Dineen, Reading Quest Founder and Executive Director. Reading Quest is an outgrowth of the student – led literacy campaign, Hooked on Books, and the NM Alliance for Literacy created by Santa Fe middle school students and their teaching principal, Rayna, at Santa Fe School for the Arts & Sciences and local high school students in 2012. This blog provides an overview of the work and mission of Reading Quest and how they use Phonic Books to create a fun, engaging, and effective phonics program.


The Reading Quest Story and Mission

Learning how to read is a human right and a social justice issue. There are thousands of struggling readers whose families cannot afford individualized tutoring, and we are working to close that opportunity gap by providing high quality, science of reading based tutoring for all children in need. Reading Quest’s mission is to provide equitable access to quality reading instruction for all students and to empower them to believe in themselves as they become strong, enthusiastic readers.

My name is Rayna Dineen and I am the Reading Quest Founder and Executive Director. I have delivered ‘Reading is Magic’ intensive summer camps for the past eleven years. Each year the average growth of the students in these two-week intensives, as determined by pre-and post-tests, has been one full year (one grade level). Seeing the consistent effectiveness of the program over several years, I created a separate nonprofit to be able to bring the ‘Reading is Magic’ methodology, and its impact, to a much wider population of students. Reading Quest received federal 501(c)(3) status in June, 2015.

Our Phonics Program 

The debate between ‘Phonics’ and ‘Whole Word’ (current iteration, ‘Balanced Literacy’) has been going since at least the 1950s in America. The scientific evidence for the superior effectiveness of systematic, explicit phonics instruction couldn’t be clearer. 

Some educators believe that phonics instruction is tedious and boring, and that children will be uninterested in reading by too much time spent on repetitive phonics drills. Educators are concerned that wonderful literature will be passed over in favor of boring decodables. At Reading Quest, we celebrate and share wonderful literature and we focus on reading decodables. Teachers are quite correct: if you present phonics in a boring tedious way, children won’t like it and therefore it won’t be effective. 

So the solution is– make phonics instruction fun! In a nutshell, this is what Reading Quest is all about and why we love Phonic Books!

The Role of Decodable Books

Using decodable books is truly the backbone of our program as each of our students gets the chance to read a “just right” book each session – a book that focuses on the particular reading rule they need to practice. It is really challenging to create a book without using lots of sight words that the students haven’t learned yet, but the books in each of the Phonic Books series are really true to the word families on which they focus. It is extremely rare to find such high quality decodables that all students love!

Phonic Books are truly unique decodable books. Our students love these books because they are exciting and cool. The illustrations are amazing, reminiscent of anime and their favorite graphic novels. There are hidden clues throughout each series and our students love trying to figure out what is going to happen. These books empower our students as they are reading ‘chapter books’ for the first time. The stories are more mature than most decodable books and there are elements present from video games that really add excitement to each story as the characters face obstacle after obstacle and never give up. 

One of our favorite series is the Magic Belt series. Our students love seeing the characters collect the gems and follow the map. They are enthralled and ask questions throughout the story which really encourages conversations and vocabulary learning. Our students love to look at the page numbers and the back of the book to figure out which color gem they are collecting in each book. We also always review the vocabulary list at the beginning of each book which helps with comprehension. Our students are always excited to read the next book in each series and are often trying to guess what is going to happen next. Honestly, our students love the Rescue, Dragon Eggs, Talisman, and the Alba series, to name a few. 

Our Teaching Approach 

The foundation of our approach is the relationship created between tutor and student. A bond of trust and safety allows each student to work hard and keep reading, even when it gets tough. Our students are also particularly motivated when teenagers are reading with them and encouraging them to persevere and work hard. We train teen and college age tutors using multi-sensory hands-on, phonics-based strategies.

Our work is also based on instilling a growth mindset in the children we serve. Not being able to read can cause students to feel ashamed and embarrassed and not able to learn. We begin our work with each child by reversing these feelings of failure and hopelessness with the conviction that they are capable of any accomplishment by making their best efforts and persisting in the face of challenges and obstacles. We also make the learning process so fun and exciting that each student begins to see themselves as competent, powerful, and engaged on a path towards individual mastery.

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