Many of us have been sharing outcomes from our work with high-quality curriculum. We spy a trend: districts that have invested in high-quality curriculum in early elementary are seeing gains, especially in K–2. Our hunch is that much credit for these gains goes to the strong foundational skills instruction by our teachers, thanks to use of strong curriculum.

Certainly, a buzz has been building around the importance of phonics instruction, thanks to a “tsunami” of articles about the importance of phonics.

We periodically hear fears about phonics instruction that don’t reflect the realities in our classrooms. Katie McGhee, a first grade teacher in Sullivan County Schools, captured the fears and the realities beautifully in a blog, and we’re pleased to share her insights.

Guest Post by Katie McGhee:

Just the other day, my first graders knocked my socks off with a conversation.

Our district has implemented a curriculum with daily, systematic phonics work, as recommended by experts like Tim Shanahan. On one particular day, we were discussing words with r-controlled vowels. I wrote the word thorn on the board. The children segmented the word into its three sounds: /th/ /or/ /n/. They talked to one another about their noticings, and then I wrote the word north on the  board. This is when the beauty of student understanding and discussion bloomed! The room erupted with observations like:

“OH!!! North and thorn are similar because the initial and final sounds are the same, just swapped!”

“Yes! You just flipped the /n/ and /th/ sounds in the words!”

“Hey, they both have the same vowel sound!”

“I see five letters in each word, but they’ve just got three sounds.”

“Yeah, that’s because both words have two digraphs!”
“Oh you’re right! But just one is a consonant digraph!”

“Both words have one syllable too, because they both only have one vowel sound.”

This was a discussion among six year olds – young children eager and excited about phonics code! Our youngest learners built upon one another’s observations and pushed themselves to deep thinking simply by analyzing and comparing two words. Explicit, systematic phonics instruction works, my friends! And conversations like this happen every. day. as the students learn the code of our English language. But the literacy love doesn’t stop there.

Our daily read alouds are often interrupted by excited observations, as the students connect the phonics rules they’ve learned with words they hear spoken orally as I read. They are eager to share the words they find in their own independent reading that include code we’ve discussed. They give feedback to one another as they apply their code knowledge to their writing.

And there is nothing that will make your teacher heart swell more than a child rushing back from the library shouting, “Look at this book I can read! I know how to decode these words, and I can read this whole book BY MYSELF!”  Young children not only thrilled about phonics code but also eager to apply it themselves? Yes, please!

Sometimes phonics instruction is referred to as the enemy of building a love for reading… as if phonics instruction detracts from time students spend working with texts, or as if it turns kids off from reading. This is not the case at all. Daily, I get to watch students having too much fun cracking the code of the English language for anyone to think they have been turned off by the work.

Here’s a video glimpse of the kind of engagement this instruction and understanding brings each day:

Prior to the video, we had been discussing the fact that the number of vowel sounds in a word is indicative of the number of syllables in the word. This student is excitedly explaining to his classmates why the word south has only one syllable even though it has two vowels. He beautifully relays that while there are, in fact, two vowels in the word, the vowels comprise a digraph, meaning only one sound is produced. The video stops there, but the discussion didn’t! He and his classmates then started shouting out other one-syllable words with vowel digraphs. They excitedly strengthened their reading muscles while leading the learning themselves!

Phonics work builds independent, confident readers. Equipping students with tools to approach unknown words – and confidence that they can do so independently – is one of the greatest gifts we can give our young readers.

But foundational skills work is hardly the only aspect of effective reading instruction! In my classroom, students are also spending time listening to high-level read alouds, discussing the text(s) with their peers, formulating their own questions, AND being given time for independent reading and writing. This is why strong curriculum is so important: the students are getting a balanced diet of reading, writing, speaking, and listening – all while fueling their love for reading!

Providing explicit, systematic phonics instruction and fostering a love for reading are not two mutually-exclusive concepts. Instead, the two go hand-in-hand, providing students with the tools they need to be successful, confident readers! Give the students the building blocks they need and watch as they construct amazing towers.

Katie McGhee is a first grade teacher in Sullivan County Schools in Tennessee.


A PostScript from Robin McClellan:

Katie’s story is a case study in how curriculum supports great teaching and learning:

  • Our teachers have excellent instructional materials for systematic phonics work, based on a well-planned scope and sequence, thanks to our curriculum (Core Knowledge Language Arts, which is available from Amplify and also as a free Open Educational Resource).  
  • That same curriculum helps us ensure the ‘balanced diet’ that Katie references: foundational skills as well as text-based work that strategically builds background knowledge, as well as writing. It helps our teachers confidently cover our bases, and it lets me know that this is happening across classrooms in eleven elementary schools.

In Sullivan County Schools, we are giving healthy amounts of time to all of the essential pillars of early literacy. Anyone who fears that phonics instruction is somehow going to erode other reading essentials hasn’t been in a district using high-quality curriculum.

Robin McClellan serves as the Elementary Supervisor in Sullivan County Schools in Tennessee.