I recently had a conversation with a teacher about the word work she was doing with her students. She was very proud of all the practicing the students were doing and felt it was worthwhile work for her students to be completing as she should be. But when I dug a little deeper into what was happening, I learned the students were always practicing phonics skills but they were not getting to transfer and apply these skills into reading real books.
To me, this scenario is like practicing diligently and often on how to measure ingredients, but never actually getting to bake the cake! Cake! We all love and enjoy cake. But if we only practice the measuring parts and never put the parts together we will miss the enjoyment of the cake itself!
Word Work Is Important
Phonics skills are important to teach. Students need explicit, systematic phonics taught to them to help them not only to read but also in their writing and spelling. Reading and writing are reciprocal processes, one feeding into the other. So we don’t want to skip it or just teach it here and there.
Students need to be taught how to handle words and what to do when they can’t read them. For example, breaking unknown words into onsets and rimes.
And word work is not just for lower elementary grades and students. Bigger kids need continued phonics and decoding work too as the words they are reading begin to become larger and harder to decode. Word triangles will scaffold students into breaking these larger words into syllables. So phonics is definitely a must!
Transfer and Apply
Over the years, I have learned that students need our help to transfer what we are teaching them and to help them apply the skills within texts.
It isn’t enough that we teach them phonics skills in isolation. Some students will make the connections for how to take these skills and sounds to help them figure out new words. But many students cannot make that connection and then apply it without our direct teaching.
Be sure to help students transfer their new skills and knowledge as they read and write. Point out to them as they try to figure out a new word that they have strategies now they can tap into. Start broad and see what they do to handle the situation. If they don’t know what to do, narrow down a bit and remind them what they have learned and see if they can use it. If not, do a quick review lesson right there at the table with them. I have often been amazed that some students truly do not realize that what you are teaching them, they are supposed to take and use in other situations. This is the piece that is missing for a lot of developing readers.
Make the Cake
I can’t imagine practicing and practicing measuring flour, sugar, baking powder, etc…but not getting to see “why” I was doing all this learning. Never baking the cake!
Reading is about making meaning. That is why we write lists, letters, stories, etc… We want someone to read it and understand it. So we need to do the word work, but then read the books! Make the link between phonics and reading books obvious. To understand what is written, to enjoy or learn from the message. TO BAKE THE CAKE.
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