Friday, 13 July 2018

Teaching Phonics with Phonemic Awareness Integration: The Codepack

If you're like me (I didn't get my start in Primary; I began my year as a high school teacher and all my elementary LTOs were between grades 6-8), you've felt panicked and ask yourself, "How am I going to teach these children how to read?" It's a terrifying feeling - especially when you may have many who don't even have their letter sounds yet!

Luckily, I was able to be a part of LDSB's MISA project a few years ago. It was led by our literacy consultant and we combined her passion for early literacy with some amazing things that are happening with our local Reading Clinic. We wanted to test with going back to the basics (phonics), individualized learning, and building a resource base to see if it made an impact on students' phonics knowledge, phonemic awareness, reading scores, and writing.

Our presentation board at the MISA Eastern Ontario sharing summit in 2017.

We carefully tracked our data using assessments like phonics screeners, phonemic awareness (focusing on blending and segmenting), reading scores, writing samples, and spelling (I found Words Their Way as an excellent tool because it mirrors our phonics continuum almost perfectly!).

The phonics screener is an individual meeting with each student to find out which sounds of letters they know. The student is shown a letter and they have to tell its sound. For Ontario Kindergarten, we usually keep it to consonants and short vowels. However, several students know digraphs, long vowels, and a few advanced phonics like dipthongs by the end of the year. Knowing letter sounds is a specific goal in the play-based Ontario Kindergarten program. Because you're tracking it, it's very easy to show (and report on) growth in this area as key learning, if you want.

Every student has a codepack. It consists of the sounds (letters) they know. Note that each level of phonics has a different colour. Here, consonants are green, short vowels are pink, split long vowels are white, digraphs are yellow, and dipthongs/vowel digraphs are blue. I chose to use pencil cases found at a local thrift store to store them in, labelled with each student's name.

Now, here's the fun part - the part where you begin working with students. It can be done individually or as a group, as a warm-up or word work center, with a volunteer or Student Support Teacher, etc.. This is where the learning and growth starts. I'll write it as a list to help you with the steps. This is how I do it in SK/1 and Kindergarten - but there are many ways I've seen and heard this used (in grades all the way up to high school levels!).

  1. Students review the letters in their codepack. By themselves, with a peer, or an educator, students can flip through their known letters (information you get from their first phonics screener). Yes. We are only including their known letters. I keep their known letters loose  and their unknown cards in an alligator clip in the case.
    * As you continue and students master working with their known letters, begin to add 1-3 cards  to their codepack's loose letters (how many and how often is up to you - you know the student best!). Incorporate those new pieces of phonetic code into the following activities to help ingrain it in memory and get your student comfortable working with it. Some students master code and add new cards very quickly - others need a lot more repetition and to go more slowly.
Why do we only work with letters we know (and slowly introduce new letters to learn)? Here's a piece I'd included in my shared writing blog post.

  1. Choose some letters and set them out. I try to put out max 10 - fewer cards for struggling students. Make sure you include sounds you can combine to create words. You may choose to quickly review these sounds with the student, "Point to the card that says /p/. Now point to the one that says /th/."
  2. Now it's time to practice sound segmentation! Ask the student to use the cards to spell words (this is why you have to carefully choose the letters you have out). For example, "Can you use the cards to spell DOG? Let's sound it out together - /d/, /o/, /g/. What was the first sound? Which card here makes that sound? Okay, pull the /d/ down. What's the next sound you hear in the word DOG?" You can see how the goal is to have your student(s) begin to segment independently - and apply this during their independent writing.
  3. Here, a student has sound segmented to spell the word 'big' using their phonics cards.
  4. Let's integrate sound blending - a skill necessary for reading! The educator will use the cards to spell a word for the student. The student will need to put the sounds together to read the word. The magic is that the student already knows all of the sounds - they just need to put it together! This is a huge confidence-boost!
    I was having troubles with students not being able to blend. I'm fairly certain it's because they were pointing to each letter and saying the sound individually - as if they were sound segmenting: /s/, /a/, /t/. Our literacy consultant helped me problem-solve this by modeling and having my students slide their finger along the word and hold the sounds, so it sounds more like "sssssssaaaaaaaat." I found a lot more success that way.
Now, I'll explain what I do beyond our codepack activities. Think of it as an extension. The codepack activity itself can take as little as 5 minutes, if needed, once you become efficient and get to know your students. I'll use photos to help explain and give an idea.

 Phonics Pack - TPT
In a notebook (I use the half-size notebooks.), students glue in their phonics cards - which consists of this TPT product of mine photocopied 8-to-a-page. I select cards for sounds they know - ideally, sounds we just practiced using our codepack. Other things we focus on and I teach during this time, if needed: pencil grip & letter formation (do some of that Occupational Therapy work!).
In my SK/1 class, I've done this as an independent warm-up, a word work center, guided work with me, and left it as an optional activity - always accessible to students (I glued a library pocket into the front and continually put new cards at the child's level in). Students would use a date stamp so I could observe progress.

 Phonics Cards - TPT
Looking to become more organized, I decided to store my phonics cards using hockey card pages from the dollar store! I found the cards slipped out easily, so I added some velcro to keep the slots closed. They're organized by level: consonants at the front, then short vowels, followed by digraphs, long vowels, r-controlled vowels, and so on.

 Phonics Cards - TPT
Sometimes, I added printing paper for students to practice their letter formation. It's important that students see you while you're writing the letter. Handwriting Without Tears is a popular resource for those of us who are unfamiliar with the conventional, "proper" ways of writing letters. I often came up with little stories to help students remember how the letter is written - for example, "A lowercase G is a c with a monkey tail that hangs below the line." We practiced tall, short, and hanging letters. I only used this strategy for difficult letters - and it was personalized (we never all practiced witing lowercase Gs together). I found this paper at the Dollar Tree store.

Once students start becoming comfortable with the skill of sound blending, they can begin reading phonetic readers. However, please keep in mine that not all books labelled as phonetic readers are truly so - they often contain words students will have no idea how to decode independently. They only contain some words (often bolded) focusing on a phonics skill. I recommend Scholastic's BOB BOOKS (pictured). Your school may also have the Primary Phonics books available. You'll notice these texts only contain words which students can decode independently! This is amazing because students see themselves as readers; they don't need adult help and get a huge confidence-boost when they realize, "Hey, I know all the sounds in this book already. I just need to blend them together to get the word!" These books will include common sight words - even at beginning levels.
Utilize phonetic readers to being writing sentences! I photocopied pictures from our BOB BOOKS and trimmed off the words (store with the sentence paperclipped to the bundle so you know the corresponding sentence!). Choose one from the child's level - perhaps even after the student finishes reading that book! Dictate the sentence and the child will write it. You'll notice this practices the phonemic awareness skill of counting words - and you can use it as a platform for teaching basic writing conventions - such as leaving spaces between words and ending punctuation.

Get a group together. This can work with a mixed-level group of students! (Why not have more advanced students modeling and explaining how to sound segment?) Use one codepack and give each student a few letters (in the picture, there are 3 students working together). Say a word and have them segment and work together to spell it. Who has the sound card needed? The conversations you'll hear are amazing - plus, this is practicing several Learning Skills as well!

 Phonics Cards - TPT
Use the assessment information you've acquired to create literacy provocations. These cards are simply full-sized, colour versions of the smaller cards I photocopied for students' notebooks! Click the image to bring you to the product on TPT!

Collect tools to help your students learn letters and their sounds. I have a huge collection of these magenetic toys - and I've found all of them at thrift stores (except for one, which was donated by a friend after her children outgrew it). There are also toys that have the entire alphabet displayed and can say the letter name and/or sound when its button is pressed - a great addition to a writing area (no more "Miss Laidlaw, what letter makes the /n/ sound?").
I recenty saw this on Twitter - what a genius idea! Let's add coding and technology to our phonics. I'm already buzzing with ideas on how to integrate our codepacks with my Code-and-Go Mouse, Code-a-Pillar, and unplugged coding opportunities.
 Shared Wrting for Early Primary Students
Have you read my post about Shared Writing for Early Primary Students? You can read about it HERE! You can use your assessment data from the above activities to progress your students' writing. With shared writing, you can model so many other aspects of writing - see the full post for all the juicy details!

Create a display to show learning! We had a lot of student interest in Angry Birds, so they created Angry Verbs! I just printed some colouring pages and students wrote words using -ing (we were learning the /ng/ sound). Be creative!

TYMTR is a free website to practice phonics, sight words, and phonemic awareness. The app (available on Android and Apple) is sometimes free. As an educator, you can create a class account and track students' progress along its 3 levels. I start all students on the first level - it's a fun game, so there's never been any complaints from students working with more advanced phonics!

Expose students to letters and their sounds in fun ways. We have staggered dismissal in my class (students going to bus, programs, and parent pick-up). I made an end-of-day YouTube playlist which includes cross-curricular songs - including the amazing Letters Get Down songs! It's great for some DPA or body breaks, too, because he includes actions for every letter! Click the image to see my phonics playlist on YouTube!

Here's a FREE DOWNLOAD of the modified assessment tool and flashcards I've created. Get the document at

I'm hoping you found this post helpful on your teaching journey. Have some ideas? Questions? Feel free to share by posting in the comments!

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Shared Writing ... follow-up

I'm really starting to see a big difference in my students since spending more time on their phonics and writing rather than all our time on reading. Not only are most writing independently now - but their reading is also bumping up!

Parents are also excited and on board. Recently, a parent of a Senior Kindergarten student in my class sent me this article: It's worth a read and gives plenty of research about why invented writing using existing knowledge is a very important skill.

In my phonetic knowledge teaching quest, I also learned about Teach Your Monster to Read. It's a free program on the computer (also available as an app - which is sometimes available for free as a promotion) which explicitly teaches letters and their sounds. I really like that it goes back and reviews prior learning and also sprinkles in some sight words and application of reading and spelling. Students love the different games - which are all laid out in developmental order (consonants first, short vowels - all the way up to r-controlled vowels and dipthongs).

As for shared writing, some colleagues and I have started using pieces of art (visual art, dance, music, etc.) for students to view, discuss, and write about. It's cross-curricular! Grab the freebie observation checklist at

To read my in-depth blog post about phonics and shared writing, go to:

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Shared Writing for Early Writers

I teach a group of Senior Kindergarten and Grade 1 students. When it comes to writing, my students mainly struggle with:
- sound segmentation ("sounding it out")
- encoding (assigning letters to the sounds they hear)
- writing full ideas (complete sentences)
- writing more than one sentence on a topic.

They were writing one sentence - often incomplete, and usually repetitive and simple ("I love Mom. I love Dad.").

So, enter shared writing! Usually used with upper grades with focuses on ideas, grammar, and higher-level skills, my SK/1 focus is on our needs (which were common "next steps" on our 1st Term report cards).

We do it every morning before our Daily 5 choice time (we have Gym in-between on some days - but we have to work around those schedules, right?). The reasoning behind this is so they have constant reminders to use the segmentation skills and phonics knowledge when writing independently. The oral language piece is very important too - and ties into an inquiry our Student Support Teacher is doing concerning the importance and development of oral language and conversation skills. My students crave it and ask for it; it's become part of our routine.
We use the "Let's Talk About It!" picture boards. They've been collecting dust in our teacher workroom. You could easily use pieces of art, newspaper pictures, or pictures from Google Images. Students choose a picture at the beginning of our day to be used during our shared writing session.

We start by looking at the picture. Students talk with a partner or small groups. This is excellent for building oral communication skills, gathering and building ideas, and Learning Skills (especially "Collaboration"). 

As you can see, talking with their groups can get quite animated!
After, we share our ideas as a class. I do this organically - no hands. They instinctually take turns - politely interrupt and add and ask questions. If you prefer, you can collect and share ideas with traditional raising hands and taking turns as appointed by the teacher. This is an excellent time to also accept, analyse, and choose between conflicting ideas. For example, some students thought the tiger was growling - until one student said it was yawning. They looked at its body language (and it was laying under a tree) and decided it was yawning.

Students decided the tiger was yawning - not growling.
I take the pen (well, smelly marker!). I do the writing during shared writing for a variety of reasons - including time management. I need to maintain our learning focuses: sound segmentation, encoding, and writing more than one sentence on a topic.

"Where do we begin? What's a good idea or sentence to introduce what's happening here?" I remind students to stay away from vague pronouns such as it. "What if our reader couldn't see the picture? Would they know what it is?"

Then, word by word, we segment. Students tell me which letter to write down. Some students might know it's on our word wall and run to get the word (this happened when we needed "bear") and some might already know the spelling of a sight word ("out" and "to" are common ones in our writing). It's important to note that PROPER SPELLING DOESN'T MATTER! These are beginning writers - and many SK/1 students are at the Short Vowel Stage in Words Their Way, so it's unfair to expect them to know long vowel patterns, r-controlled vowels, and dipthongs.

Why are words spelled wrong? Because students are applying the code they know. Therefore, this is developmentally-appropriate. It doesn't discourage them by correcting and "teaching" all the nuances of the English language and its spellings.

I constantly reread what I've written to see where I am in the sentence and to make sure everything is on the same topic. Students tell me which ideas to write next.

Here's our first Shared Writing with this focus. It's quite simple - but includes a few inferences. The sentences are very simple.

Here is our most recent shared writing. Within a month, students have added details (names), made more inferences, and explored a variety of punctuation (quotations) and grammar rules.
I've definitely noticed a big impact on my students' independent writing!

Grade 1 writing - with some help segmenting. The student encoded independently.
Students can write about whatever they want. To save them from wasting time thinking of an idea, we have an "idea box" - a brightly-coloured box on our shelf next to their journals. In it are cut-outs from a variety of magazines (travel, outdoors, home, wedding, teaching, construction union, parenting, fashion, etc.). I am conscious of including diversities - such as special needs found in sections of educational supplies catalogues, people of colour, religious and cultural clothing and regalia, et cetera.

It's no longer junk mail! Cut pictures from magazines to add to your "idea box" to inspire student writing!

Read about how I keep track of my assessments (like the one provided above) in my binder at

Math Routine

We have a class set of individual whiteboards and a variety of dry-erase markers. The whiteboards are stored in a milk crate in our classroom.

On one side of the board, I've used packing tape to add a number line from 0-10. You could easily add number lines to 20 or higher - depending on what your students are working on and your focus. I added 0-10 because my SK/1s focused on adding and subtracting to 10 using a number line for Term One - now we are beginning to move on to 20 (the Ontario Grade 1 curriculum).

We do 4 skills at a time. Every 4-6 weeks, we change up our routine to learn and review other skills. Our skills have included:

1. Rekenrek

This is great for subitizing, addition, subtraction, and even multiplication (when using more than one rack). We use the iPad app "Number Racks." There are several YouTube videos showing the versatility of rekenreks. I tell students to write the numeral to show how many beads there are - and extra bonus points if you can write a number sentence to show it!

2. Find the Missing Number

Count forward, backward, and skip-count. I learned a nice trick when at a JUMP MATH conference in Ottawa in November 2016: write your number list vertically to help students see the patterns when skip-counting! This involves Patterning and Algebra and Number Sense and Numeration skills. We use the iPad app called Doodle Buddy.

3. Translate, Extend, and/or Identify the Core of a Pattern

We also use Doodle Buddy for this. You can draw shapes, use different colours, or use the stamps (which make sounds!) to create patterns. Students copy the patterns to the whiteboard (a great time to discuss translating patterns using symbols - or naming them with letters or numbers), extend them, and circle the repeating core.

4. Adding and Subtracting 

We also use Doodle Buddy for this. Students are encouraged to use the number line. I drill into their minds: "Where do we start? Look at the symbol - is our answer getting bigger or smaller? How many bumps? Where did we land?".

5. Representing Numbers using Base 10 Blocks

We use the iPad app Number Blocks. We use this app two different ways:

- Teacher writes a numeral and the students draw it. This is great for introducing place value. "How many long tens? How many little ones?" We represent the numeral then count - which also practices skip counting (by 10s) and counting on (by 1s).

- Teacher uses the blocks to show a quantity. Students write the numeral. We use the questions "How many long tens? How many little ones?" to help students understand place value and what it really means.

See how I track my observations in this blog post!

Assessment and Tracking

Assessment and tracking in an SK/1 can be hectic. Balancing play-based learning, inquiry, and scaffolded instruction - while differentiation for your spectrum of learners can be mind-boggling at times. Post-It Notes with your observations are easily lost in the mess.

I've figured out what works for me.

1. Assessment Tracking Binder

Each student has a section (I use hold-punched file folders.). In their section is a curriculum checklist for their grade level, copies of diagnostic assessments (Sound Skills, DRAs and PMs, Phonics and Letter Screeners, Sight Words, etc.), their IEP, and samples of notable student work (especially work of concern for an Occupational Therapist or Educational Psychologist and other paraprofessionals).

When I observe a student demonstrating an understanding of curriculum expectations (through play, inquiry, conversation, or completion of an assignment), I make a note in their section on my curriculum checklists. I use green for "understands it," yellow for "with support," and red for "not yet" or "with extreme difficulty."

Here is an example of the new Ontario Kindergarten curriculum.
The curriculum repeats several expectations throughout itself.
Here, I've quickly jotted down observations.

As you can see, I do the same for Learning Skills.

Here is an example of a Learning Skills page.
This was useful when completing the Learning Skills section of the report card.
It is also useful when communicating with parents, pediatricians, and educational supports.

After the 1st term, I take these out and create new copies for the 2nd term. I found that if I kept the papers for the 1st term in the binder, it gets too full and heavy.

2. Routines, Skill Checks, and Checklists

We always start our math time with a routine. Students and I come up with 4 things we will practice - for about 4-6 weeks until we change it up. I give the questions on our iPad and SmartBoard and every student answers it using individual whiteboards. I can easily check off who gets it, who's almost there, and who doesn't get it. These are stored at the front of my assessment and tracking binder - which I have open with me while we are doing our routine.

For the students who are not quite independent yet - those are the students I bring over for more 1-on-1 or small-group conferencing for additional revision of these knowledge and skills.

The checklist was created using a table in Microsoft Word. For the headers, I just merged cells.

Student names are listed vertically along the left-hand side. When we began in September, I colour-coded my Grade 1s with one colour and my SKs with another colour. Along the top are the 4 skills of our routine. I can easily check or X and make notes when students show me their whiteboard answers. I can also easily see who hasn't completed any answers, been absent, or I haven't observed for some reason yet - those are the students who I look for next time and/or bring over for individual conferencing to see if they have these skills and knowledge.

I also use these checklists when I use my Skills Check. These are completed during individual conferencing - usually during Daily 5 time or blocks of play-based learning time.


3. Expectation-Grouped Checklists

I usually used these when teaching Grades 1/2 - but I have used them for my Grade 1 students in my SK/1 room. Usually used with Math, I pull expectations from across the 5 strands that relate to the unit we are on. Then, through assignments, play-based learning, conferencing, conversations, observations, et cetera, I make notes on student achievement. These are stored at the front of my assessment and tracking binder.

How do you keep track of student learning in your room?

Thursday, 8 October 2015

I've always had a hard time with assessments and keeping track of them - especially after changing my beliefs on tests and moving down to the primary grades - where it's more about observations and conversations. In previous years, I used class list and assigning grades or marks or checkmarks next to their name under a brief description of what we did. It was hard to see at-a-glance how the child was doing - and everything had to be translated for report cards.

Then I got an idea. It really happened last year, when job action saw no comments on report cards. I was teaching an academically-needy Grades 1/2 class. I made this product:

Starting this year in SK/1, I knew my room would be incorporating even more inquiry-based learning, conferencing, observing, and seemingly "completely random" covering of the curriculum expectations. It was also a goal of mine to become more organic in teaching/learning - to teach what's important to students, what they're interested in, and keep the curriculum expectations running yearlong instead of just compartmentalized.

I thought - why can't I use these for documentation, too? Here's an example from an SK's section of my assessment binder:

I use a colour-coding system to highlight curriculum expectations which are strengths and needs. For students whose achievements are "in the grey area," I make note of the several attempts to teach and conference with them to achieve the standard and how much support was needed for them to attain it.

It's easy to pop back and forth from the SK pages and the Grade 1 pages.

As you can see, one activity (collecting, sorting, and graphing leaves) completed a few expectations in both SK and Grade 1 curricula. Want to know more about it?

I took my students on a nature walk and told them to collect interesting leaves. We came back and talked about how we can sort them - and decided by colour would be easiest. We sorted them, counted them, then graphed how many of each colour there were. Here's our co-created graph:

The next day, we went on another walk. This time, students brought their own paper bags and collected about 10 leaves each. We came back to the room and they sorted them, graphed it, then had me document their interpretations of their graphs.

Another thing I'm really excited about is my word wall. My friend cut me two boards of wood and screwed in hooks and glued on letters for me. I glued it onto the ugly concrete wall in my classroom using "No More Nails." On it, I have Dolch Pre-Primer, Primer, and Grade 1 words. I also have a few more of my word wall products - most recently, my family words. There's also their names on the word wall - complete with their pictures! The kids love it!

I've noticed it really entices students to write, write, write! I've never had a class that enjoys writing - INDEPENDENTLY(!), so much (especially at such a young age).

I pulled pairs of students to conference with me. I introduced their Word on Writing book and explained when they'd work on it. I took them on a tour of the classroom to show them writing supports - the word wall, their personal dictionaries, and the picture dictionaries. We sat back down and I explained that good writers need an idea and asked them to think what they'd like to write about - which could be ANYTHING. Then, I said it's not just enough to write the idea; they need to write something about the idea - explain it - in other words, write a whole sentence about it. They thought about it, told me, and I supported their writing - NOT by writing in yellow or on a Post-It, but directing them to the word wall, helping them sound segment, prompting to use the picture dictionary, or writing the word in their personal dictionary. Success!