Wichita students refocus on using phonics to learn to read

Holding a yellow highlighter in one hand, Aiden Winkler quickly read through a line of words in his notebook:

“Table, huddle, cattle, crinkle, giggle, sparkles, struggle, paddle…”

For 30 minutes, the fourth-grader and his classmates at Washington Elementary School in Wichita read and re-read the 80 words, stopping to mark ones they couldn’t decipher. They read the words alone, then in phrases – “she stumbled upon,” “middle of the puddle,” “skedaddle along” – and finally in a short story titled “Mable the Duck”:

“She fumbled when the cattle began to grumble at her. Would they tackle her? She felt very unstable …”

This brand of intensive phonics instruction is new for older elementary schoolers in Wichita, where data shows many students in third grade and beyond still struggle to break down words, sound them out and spell them correctly. If they can’t sound out letters or syllables, experts say, they will struggle to understand words in the context of longer passages.

Recent tests show that districtwide, nearly 40 percent of third- through fifth-graders can’t read fluently at grade level.

In response, district officials recently mandated a renewed focus on decoding – the practice of breaking words into individual sounds – in addition to reading and writing for general comprehension. This year, third- through fifth-graders will spend 30 minutes a day learning or reviewing basic syllable types like the “consonant + le” words the Washington students tackled recently.

“I’m a former fifth-grade teacher, and when I was teaching I just kind of expected kids to come to me knowing how to read,” said Susanne Smith, director of curriculum and instruction for the Wichita district. “We worked on reading-to-learn, comprehension strategies.

“But we know we continue to have kids that struggle with those foundation skills,” she said. “So we’re working with all teachers at all levels in order to help them be better teachers of reading, not just teachers of literature.”

The new push means new routines, new activities and a whole new language for students and teachers. In decoding, for example, an old-school peace sign (index and middle finger forming a V) is the mnemonic device for “VCe,” or vowel-consonant-e – a pattern seen in words like “rake” and “kite.”

“Decoding is not something we necessarily had as an isolated piece before,” said Tanya Mitchell, an instructional coach.

“Syllabication rules help kids know what vowel sound to make,” she said. “And the vowel sound is typically what trips a student up when they don’t know how to read a word.”

Two years ago, the Wichita school district adopted a new reading program for kindergartners as part of Superintendent John Allison’s focus on early literacy. The new curriculum, Read Well, incorporates recent research on literacy and how children learn. It since has been expanded to first grade, where it is used as part of intervention strategies for struggling readers.

Older elementary students continue to use the Treasures reading curriculum, but this year district officials have fortified it with additional decoding exercises.

“That’s not a part that’s been emphasized in the past, so we’re just bringing it back around,” said Smith, the curriculum director. “Our data tells us that kids need work on decoding – those foundational skills – so we’re incorporating that back into core instruction.”

Tools for readers

At Washington Elementary, Emilee McCoskey’s fourth-graders keep “word work journals,” where they glue grids of words and other activities. They partner up to play a paper version of Connect Four, where the first person to correctly read four phrases in a row wins.

Students also practice reading and spelling tricky words that don’t seem to follow any of the regular patterns.

“We’re teaching those as ‘heart words’ – words they need to know by heart – because they can’t use their syllabication patterns to sound it out,” Mitchell said.

The patterns, though, help children quickly decipher most words. Here’s how it works:

You see the word “secret” but don’t know how to sound it out. First, you “spot and dot” the word: Find each vowel and draw a dot over it. Now you know “secret” has two vowels and, consequently, two syllables.

After connecting the dots with a line, find the place below that line where the syllables are most likely to break. Words normally break between consonants, but because “cr” is a consonant blend, those letters stay together and the syllables break like this: se/cret.

After that, look at each syllable. The first is open (ending in a vowel), which means that vowel is long. So that syllable is pronounced “see.” The next one is closed, which means its vowel is short – “cret.” Put them together, and you have it: secret.

Sounds complicated, and in some ways it is. An oft-cited phrase among educators, “Reading is rocket science,” aims to illustrate that literacy instruction is not as simple as sitting down with a child, opening a book and pointing at words.

But syllable patterns are like tools in an early reader’s toolbox, said Connie Malicoat, an instructional coach at Washington Elementary. And practice makes perfect – and speedy.

“After awhile, the kids just get it,” she said. “They can spot those syllables, and it’s just boom-boom-boom. They figure it out.

“Pretty soon, they’re teaching their parents how it works.”

Smith, the curriculum director, said the renewed push toward phonics instruction has been “really different and kind of a stretch” for many third- through fifth-grade teachers. The 150-minute block for reading and writing instruction at those grades hasn’t increased, she said, but decoding now takes up 30 minutes of that time.

Writing, which previously had been taught for 30 uninterrupted minutes, is now part of that day’s language composition block.

“We’re seeing great things, though,” Smith said. “It’s great to hear students making those connections and sounding out words, and I’m really encouraged with what we’re seeing.

“Even though it’s a big change, it’s a change that has been embraced, and I really think it’s going to take us somewhere.”

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