Effective Reading Teachers Use Routines to Stay Focused on What Works

Effective Reading Teachers Use Routines to Stay Focused on What Works

The internet bombards us with instructional resources everyday in our email and through social media: “Try this, download this, new lists for this, another way to teach that”. That’s not to say there isn’t some great support for us out there, but do you find yourself pressured to try something new too often? So often in fact that you have neglected to use the routine processes that have always worked?

I have run into this dilemma in many schools I work with. I return for a follow up training and while reviewing routines we worked on previously, I often hear teachers say, “Oh! I used to do that! My students loved it,” – or even more meaningful, “My students really benefitted from that and I forgot all about doing it – I need to use that again!”

I do think we are brainwashed into thinking we have to try something new all the time to be effective… well, reading teachers, let’s refocus on what we know to be effective. Explicit and systematic instruction are the elements of effective teaching – our job is to plug in the skill, the WHAT we are teaching and the ingredients, the HOW we will teach it. Easier said than done most of the time. But those of you who you know me, know I have developed teaching processes that help you establish the routines that will keep your instruction focused, systematic and explicit. They will make you efficient and EFFECTIVE – providing more time for you to do all the other teaching “things” you need to do – and they still allow you to plug in some “new” practice discoveries now and then, because we DO all need to switch things up once in a while!

James H. Stronge, in his new text Qualities of Effective Teachers, 3rd Edition, explores the research on effective teacher qualities and organizes them under several headings that fit with how reading teachers teach: Professional knowledge, instructional planning and delivery, and learning environments. This blog is about instructional routines. The processes we apply systematically WILL be more effective if they are built on current professional knowledge about how students learn to read, are built into our daily planning and teaching, and also create safe learning environments where we respond to our students’ needs to help them be successful learners.


Phoneme Awareness Routines:

  • Ask early elementary age students to manipulate sounds in words during multiple brief exercises throughout the day. These tasks are auditory only, no letters are involved!
    • Blend phonemes: Teacher says a word with the phonemes segmented and students blend the sounds to say the word.
    • Segment phonemes: Teacher and students segment and say the phonemes in words.
    • Substitute phonemes: Say cup. Change the /u/ to /a/. Cap.
    • Delete phonemes: Say beet. Say it again without the /t/. Bee.
    • Add phonemes: Say ear. Add /ch/ to the beginning. Cheer.

Here’s the routine: Every day, throughout the day engage in brief phoneme exercises. Use words from the stories students will listen to during read aloud, words from their own reading, words that reflect themes being studied, etc.

  • Always ask students to manipulate words at the phoneme level before decoding with graphemes. Use word items that they will be decoding in the lesson. For example, if students will be working with the grapheme -ck, present a few of the word items auditorily first and segment the phonemes to discover the common phoneme, in this case at the end of every word.

Here’s the routine; it’s a warm-up routine to use before decoding:

  • Teacher: Pick. I will pick up the paper. Word?
  • Students: Pick
  • Teacher: Sounds?
  • Teacher and students: (tap fingers or other tactile movement for each sound) /p/ /i/ /k/ Pick.
  • Teacher: What do you hear at the end of pick?
  • Students: /k/
  • Repeat with two or three additional words.

Phonics Routines

The practice element is very important and we rarely provide the extended practice that that will increase the learning quotient for many of our students. Make these practice routines a permanent fixture in your decoding lessons.

  • Phoneme-grapheme mapping, also known as sound spelling, leads students to isolate phonemes in words and then spell each phoneme. This routine helps with decoding automaticity and spelling.
  • Watch a teacher use this routine with a small group of students. Note her routines within the routine – her systematic process repeated with each word. Watch the video here.
  • Here are a couple of blackline masters for you to use. One for early elementary and one for later first grade and up.
  • If you work with older students, these mapping processes can be adapted for multisyllable words. Here is a blackline master for syllable spelling and also a video that shows how this routine looks and sounds with vocabulary terms.

Here’s the routine: Use phoneme grapheme mapping, also called sound spelling to introduce and teach graphemes for decoding and also spelling. Only a few words are needed for your capable students, require more practice in small group with students who need more practice to learn new phoneme-grapheme spellings.


Vocabulary Routines

All of us teach vocabulary. We know the importance of enriching our students’ mental lexicons. The greater our exposure to words, and our knowledge of words and their meanings, the greater positive impact on reading comprehension, overall academic success, and richness of life. As we know, the vocabulary found in written text varies widely from the vocabulary used in conversation so routine attention to words is critical! Here are some vocabulary routines to build into your teaching expertise:

  • Make it routine in your classroom to be curious about words. Model frequent thinking aloud by questioning words. “I am curious…Do contemplate and temperature share the same root?” “And what other words share the root temp-?”
  • Check dictionary.com routinely to discover answers to the questions you and your students pose. Scroll down to discover word origin for words. One 4th grade class, created over 450 word groupings over the year, based on shared roots! What a great word study routine!
  • Follow a routine when teaching vocabulary. Here is a step by step lesson from Reading Teacher’s Top Ten Tools. Remember to ALWAYS ask students to say words aloud. This is critical for helping to create a strong phonological neural connection for words. Somehow, the motor movement, the articulation of words helps with decoding words, spelling words, and recalling their meanings too. Make it a routine to ask students to say vocabulary words aloud!

Here’s the routine: Daily curiosity about word origin, how words sound, word meanings, and spelling. Talk about words, draw attention to words, collect words. Use a routine when teaching words – follow a systematic process!


Regular use of reading routines helps us incorporate many effective teaching elements which can lead to high levels of success that can inspire and drive us. Stronge, in his new book, found this commonality in his research on effective teachers. Effective teachers know their stuff, they seek professional knowledge and seek to apply that knowledge in routine ways. They stick with what works and keep their attention focused on what works. They limit distraction from the many alternate options out there.

Simplify your instructional planning when you use systematic routines that keep you focused on teaching the skills that your students need to learn.


Professional Knowledge

How well have you maintained levels of professional knowledge about reading instruction? Whether you are just beginning to understand the science behind how we learn to read or need a refresher, The Reading Teacher’s Top Ten Tools online professional development can help build and rejuvenate your professional knowledge.