Morphology – The New Awareness

Morphology – The New Awareness

Part 1 – Morphology – The New Awareness

I am devoting two blogs to this topic. This blog, Part 1, will create an understanding of morphological knowledge and awareness. Part 2, will delve into what learning and teaching morphological awareness looks like in our classrooms.

After reading the title of this blog, you probably fell into one of two camps: 1) I’m intrigued, or 2) I’m scared, or maybe one foot in both.  Either is OK, either is who you are! Read on…

You may recall the news exploding with research about the importance of phonological awareness in 1999 and the NRP publishing their findings, also supporting this “unfamiliar” component of reading. Teachers everywhere were trying to grasp what phonological awareness meant, thought they understood it only to find that it took several workshops, classes, attempts to ‘teach’ it, before they realized that they “maybe” understood it. Perhaps this challenge has been more recent for you.

Anyway, now that most teachers have heard of phonological and phoneme awareness, and great strides have been made to incorporate it into our literacy instruction, we have another awareness to understand and teach – morphological awareness. Hold onto your hats – dictionaries, lesson plans, and word lists – here we go again!

I believe that morphological awareness has been slow to gain momentum in our reading curriculum because it is scary. Many teachers hear morphology or morphological awareness and shut down or turn away. I don’t blame them. I don’t blame you! We know we can’t teach something we are not familiar with, something we know very little about. So, I suggest here, that we focus on learning not instruction. Let’s focus on being learners right along with our students. If we are going to teach morphological awareness, we need to develop our own awareness AS we teach it. I think you will be amazed at how much you already know and teach! You know more than you know, now we need to create an awareness of what you know and build upon it. You can do this!

Why Morphological Awareness?

Morphological knowledge has the potential to affect literacy skills in at least three ways, through word recognition, comprehension, and motivation. Morphological knowledge impacts decoding, spelling, vocabulary knowledge, and comprehension. And the findings continue. Morphological awareness:

  • Makes a powerful contribution to word reading abilities.
  • Impacts reading comprehension positively.
  • Improves spelling and written compositions.

And we also know that for our vulnerable students, literacy skills are positively impacted when morphological awareness is taught during intervention.

  • Morphological awareness uniquely predicts reading and writing skills even when other linguistic awareness skills are considered.
  • In some cases, morphological awareness is the sole or strongest predictor for reading and spelling ability.

Wow! I know that this information certainly caught my attention!

Morphological Knowledge and Morphological Awareness – A Primer

First of all, it is important to know that a morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language. Sound familiar? A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning.  A single unit of meaning, a morpheme, for example, is the word book. However, if we change the word to books, we now have two morphemes, the base book and the inflectional suffix, the plural, which changes the meaning.  So -s is also a morpheme in this word. You know this. You intuit this. You know that when you add /s/ to book, that the meaning changes to more than one book. There is an implicit quality to your knowledge of words and their morphological construction. This is morphological knowledge – this knowledge might be implicit, you just know this at a subconscious level, and it might be explicit, you can put into words what you know about morphemes. Either way you have an understanding of how words convey meaning when you have morphological knowledge.

Morphological Awareness takes knowledge a step further. This level of understanding refers to the ability to consciously consider and manipulate the smallest units of meaning in spoken and written language, including base (and root) words and affixes, or prefixes and suffixes (Apel, 2017).

Similar to the auditory phoneme awareness tasks we give to our students, “Say grow without /r/”, “go”, we can use auditory tasks with morphemes too. “Say swimming. What is the base form? Swim. What is the suffix ending? -ing. Change the suffix ending to /s/. Swims. Change the base to drink.” What did you end up with?

Another exercise might sound like this, “Say convention. What is the Latin Root? -ven -Change the Latin root to struct. What is the word?” What did you end up with?

These exercises are examples of how we can engage students in a conscious manipulation of morphemes and help to create morphological awareness. Of course, we want to include the meanings of the affixes and roots – ven(t) means to come and stru(ct) means to build – and also include writing and reading the words to help develop orthographic mappings for these words and their morphemes.

If you just had a quick sweat come on when we started talking roots and meanings… remember, we are focusing on learning, not instruction…yet!

Development of Morphological Knowledge and Awareness

Linguists have recorded accounts of 2 and 3 year-olds experimenting with their morphological knowledge: A 3-year old saying, “I jellied my toast.” “Deers eated the flowers.” “I unpaperclipped it apart.” It is amazing how these young speakers of the language intuit these morphological changes to convey meaning!

Here is some morphological development information for you:

  • Growth in phonological and orthographic awareness taper off after the first 3 or 4 years of school.
  • In contrast, morphological awareness showed some growth in the early years, but more substantial growth after 4th grade.
  • Researchers suggest that the three kinds of linguistic knowledge – Phonological – Orthographic – Morphological – work together contributing to literacy development.

Following are some suggested guidelines for you:

  • Once students are beginning to decode multisyllabic words you can start with compound words. Be explicit, “These are free base words. They can stand alone but we can also combine them to make one word that means something different than one word alone.”

Tip: the second word in a compound word explains the first. Pinecone – a cone from a pine tree. Housefly – a fly that comes in your house. Backpack – a pack that we wear on our back. Notebook…??

Then, here is a general rule of thumb to from our planning for teaching awareness of morphemes:

  • First and second grades – add suffixes to words that require no spelling changes. (help – helpful, sad – sadly, storm – stormy)
  • By mid-second grade – teach beginning spelling rules for adding suffixes. (swim – swimmer, hide – hiding, cry-cried)
  • Start with common prefixes: in-, un-, dis-, mis-, fore-, re-, de-, pre-, a- (These are derivations and change the meaning of the base/root)
  • Teach inflections: -s, -es, -ed, -er, -est, -ing. Then, -ly, -less, -ness, -ship, fold, -ment.

We all know that it takes years of practice to build the orthographic mapping for the words that require spelling changes – drop it, double it, change it. Continue instruction for several years! Correct misspellings and reteach continuously!

Move into roots and derivations big time once students are in fourth grade. You do not have to wait until fourth grade to introduce and build curiosity, but this is where a lot of your instruction will lie.

Focus on yourselves as learners for now. Pay attention to words. Foster your curiosity about words and look them up. Scroll down to Word Origin in and you will find information on the affixes, roots, bases, and even some etymology – the history words, the stories behind words.

Next time, in Part 2, we will focus on instruction!


Apel, K. (2017). Morphological awareness development and assessment: What do we know? Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 43, (2), 11-16.  Spring 2017.

Carlisle, J.F. & Goodwin, A.P. (2004). Morphemes matter: How morphological knowledge contributes to reading and writing. In: Handbook of Language and Literacy, eds. Stone, Silliman, Ehren, & Apel. Guilford Press: NY, NY.

Word Sorts… of a Different Sort

Word Sorts… of a Different Sort

Word Sorts… of a Different Sort

How many times has a colleague shared something with you, have you watched an instructional video, or read an article and said to yourself, “I used to do that! I haven’t done that for a long time – I wonder what happened?”

It is pretty common in this day and age of multiple resources bombarding teachers with “new and different” materials and ways to teach, that we put aside those tried and true practices that got results. We all need change in our lives, perhaps that is what drives us to constantly seek and try new tools in our classrooms.

Word Sorts is one of those tried and true processes. Whether word sorts are applied regularly or sporadically in your classrooms this blog provides suggestions to help your Word Sorts become more effective. A Word Sort is only as effective as the amount of reading practice that actually takes place during the sort – reading practice that includes connection to orthography and meaning during that practice.

The Practice Potential                                                 

Word sorts have the potential to really build up your students’ practice quotient, but have you noticed that many times students perform word sorts and don’t even read the words? I have observed students doing word sorts and just looking at the target graphemes in the words and sorting them into categories based on spelling – but NO reading takes place.

The word sort is a wonderful, and powerful activity when we understand the important roles of the brain’s orthographic processor as it functions in cahoots with the phonological and meaning processors. Yes, these separate distinct areas of the reading brain (visual, sound, and meaning), work in tandem to help students recall how to read a word, bring meaning to the word, and also how to spell it. In other words, when students recognize and read a word and know what it means, the likelihood of spelling the word correctly improves!

Try these steps to bring word sorts back into your regular practice routines – or to revamp the word sorts you are already doing.

Prepare the materials:

  1. Prepare your list of words. These should be words from your phonics lesson for the week, or your spelling list. Choose a few words from previous lessons that will benefit from some review and add these to the list. You want the group of words to include more than one vowel sound as you will be asking students to group words by sound and you want them to differentiate by sound AND spelling.
  2. Moveable words, words written on separate slips of paper that students move around into groups, work best for these sorts. Direct your students to create their moveable word ‘slips’ using one of the two methods: 1) Students write their words on separate ‘slips’ of paper and collect them in a baggie or envelope. This can be done over a couple of days, introducing the words in groups as you study the words with students. 2) Create a grid of the printed words and students cut them out. Remember, reading the words comes first. Make sure students can read the words they will be asked to sort and spell.
  3. Alternately, you can ask your students to write the words as they perform the sorts. In this case, make sure students have practiced reading the words and are familiar with them. Students will need paper and pencils or white-boards.

The Sorts:

Use these teacher-directed sorts in the order presented.  The sorts can be done in the same lesson or spread them out over a few days.  You can start by asking students to find different ways to sort their words and share with partners how they sorted their words. But to strengthen the ‘miles on the words’ reading quotient, follow this open sort with the following purposeful teacher-directed sorts.

Number one rule for word sorts: If you touch it, you read it. Lips in motion – LIM. You want to HEAR students reading the words. Kids will be touching the words all the time as they move them into groups – every time they touch the word is a potential read-it opportunity! If students are writing the words into their sorted categories, your rule can be read it before and after you write it!

Prepare Three Types of Sorts:

  1. Start with a Sound Sort. This sort will ask students to think about the phonemes in the words. Your sound sort will depend upon your words. Study your word list ahead of time to determine the sound sort(s) you will use (one or two sound sorts is enough). Some examples include:
    1. Ask students to find words that rhyme and put them together.
    2. Ask students to find words that share the same vowel sound. For example, if the words have double oo with the two vowel sounds, shoot and brook, ask students to group words that have the same vowel sound as book.
    3. Your words might lend themselves to long and/or short vowel sounds.
    4. If you have a nice selection of words with two phonemes for C (/s/ and /k/) you could sort by consonant sound.
    5. If your word list is multisyllable, you can ask students to sort words by accent – eg., Find all the words that have an accent in the second syllable.

The goal for this sort is to get kids reading and paying attention to the phonemes in the words.

  1. Next, do a spelling sort. Ask students to find all the words that spell a certain phoneme with a given spelling. For example:
    1. Find all the words that spell /z/ with an S.
    2. Find all the words that have /ow/ spelled with OU.
    3. You might even ask students to find words that have a schwa vowel sound and group them by spelling of the schwa if your word list has multisyllable words (the schwa only occurs in an unaccented syllable of a multisyllabic word).
  2. Lastly, end with a meaning sort. Students will really be reading the words for this one. I suggest you start with a closed sort, one directed by you.
    1. Find words that will go with the topic ‘animal’.
    2. Find words that would fit under the heading school.

Students love to create their own meaning sorts too. After you model for them how to create categories for groups of words, ask students to create a category sort for the class to do.

  1. Finally, end your sort with “Feed the Bag”. Students read each word one last time as they put them into their ‘bag’, or envelope.

Word sorts of this sort will really make a difference in your students’ word reading, spelling, and reading fluency with comprehension!

The Layer Cake of Reading Comprehension

The Layer Cake of Reading Comprehension

I have been contemplating the topic and content of this blog on every mountain trail and pathway I traveled this summer – and I am fortunate to say my contemplation covered multiple miles! It was a glorious summer and I hope you can say the same – heat and all!

Reading comprehension is a stimulating topic for us to consider. This blog explores comprehension with you, down pathways and up a few difficult mountain trails, into territory you may not have considered before. There is a wealth of comprehension research out there that is waiting for you to discover and possibly review from previous study.

What does it take to READ with comprehension? Well, of course decoding must happen first, and hopefully decoding and simultaneous connection to meaning, with these processes, decoding and language comprehension, happening automatically, working in sync. So, let this discussion of comprehension rest firmly on our understanding that we must include daily decoding instruction to ensure that our students are accessing the written code.

What does it take to TEACH reading comprehension? It takes a deep understanding of how written language works, of how academic language is different than spoken language so that we can build our students’ understanding of the written word, its organization, and its structure. To teach comprehension requires a deep understanding of how to guide students to think about what they read as we teach how to connect ideas and synthesize information while reading.

The Layers of Comprehension

Let’s talk through the layers of comprehension as if we are planning a reading comprehension lesson. The first layer sets the foundation for all of our planning. It will guide us in the decisions we make before reading, during reading, and after reading.

Layer One – Establish a purpose for reading. What do you want your students to come away knowing and able to put into words after they read? What will you guide your students to THINK about while they are reading? Studies show that long after the reading is over, the information students recall is directly related to the purpose that was set for reading.

Do: Set a purpose for reading – make sure the purpose is meaning related, not simply the application of a ‘strategy.’ Meaning related example: Understand that cultures differ and are defined by their food, clothing, and family/community relationships.  Compared to a non-meaning related example: Apply compare and contrast. While it is true that you may lead students to the goal of reading, the purpose, by asking them to compare and contrast cultures, the purpose you set, based upon the meaning of the passage, will guide your instruction.

Layer Two – What is your students’ background knowledge for the topic and the concepts presented in the reading? As you consider this, be aware that students’ background knowledge includes understanding how the text is organized, its structure – especially for expository texts.

Think About and Plan: What structures did the author use to organize the content? How will you help your students understand the structure to help them organize the information as they read?

How will you quickly and efficiently set the stage and stimulate their background knowledge for the reading? You don’t need to spend a lot of time here – let’s get to reading as soon as we can!

Here is a great guide to expository text structures, their associated vocabulary terms, and graphic organizer examples for each.

Layer Three – Is there any vocabulary that students would benefit from hearing and using before reading?

Do: Choose just a few terms from the passage to use in your introductory comments about the passage. What terms are presented within context that will help students determine a sense of meaning? Guide students to verbally reason their thinking about word meaning based on context. Will technical terms need additional clarification other than what the author provides?

Use this vocabulary organizational tool to help you gather, sort, and determine which words to spend time teaching before reading and quickly during reading.

Layer 4 – Are there any inferences that students might not make, especially inferences that contribute to the comprehension goals?

Do: Locate these inferences and be prepared to ask pertinent questions that will lead students to make the crucial inferences. Or, be prepared to model your own thinking, make your thinking visible to your students to demonstrate how to connect ideas and provide the missing information.

Layer 5 – What writing exercise will lead students to put into words what they have learned?

Do: What better way to circle back around to the set purpose for reading, than to ask students to put into their own words what they have learned. We know when we are asked to write about what we have learned, we learn that information at deeper levels. Make sure to ask student to rehearse orally what they will write before they write. Hearing others’ ideas, and sentences can be very helpful for your students with developing language skills.

 In Closing – Comprehension Strategies

The meaning of comprehend is “to understand the nature or meaning of; to grasp with the mind.” We know that any number of us can read a passage and will come away with a similar understanding, hopefully the understanding that the author intended. But we also know that each of us brings a little something unique, connections to our personal experiences, to the meaning we grasp. This synthesis results in what is called the Mental Model, or what will be our enduring understanding.

Each of the layers you just read about includes some aspect of language that is overlooked by our determination to teach comprehension strategies. Comprehension strategies are important, they differentiate between several varying and important ways in which we cognitively consider text as we strive to synthesize information, as we strive to “grasp with the mind.” Use the academic language of comprehension strategies; model the application of those strategies. Make your lessons stronger by doing this within the context of getting to the gist of the purpose for reading.

I hope this blog has been helpful and that when you plan your next lesson, you will have a heightened awareness of setting a purpose and focusing on that purpose as you consider structure, vocabulary, inferencing, guiding questions, and your students’ final writing exercise. You are going to create powerful lessons!

To Write or Not to Write? There is No Question! Part 2

To Write or Not to Write? There is No Question! Part 2

To Write or Not to Write? There is No Question! Part 2

That’s right! Teachers know “To write or not to write?” is not a question worth spending the time talking about – of course our students write! And as it turns out, we need to write more. But what should that writing look like in order to really capitalize on getting the most out of the process? THAT is the real question!

I wrote a blog last year (Part 1) that investigated how writing strengthens the skills that benefit both reading and writing development.

Recall, we discussed the strong similarities between the skills needed to read and the skills needed to write. There are multiple ways to strengthen decoding skills and comprehension skills while writing. This blog will expand upon how to increase purposeful attention to the reading skills during writing and provide you with some great ways to write right up to the last day of school!

Phoneme awareness: Writing helps students develop phoneme awareness. When writing, students practice segmenting the sounds in words as they spell them. This is powerful stuff – as students segment the sounds in words, and make a match to graphemes, they are strengthening their decoding AND their encoding skills – both important for automatic word recognition when reading.

Tip: Provide a “Sound Strip” for your young students. The Sound Strip reminds students that they can spell words independently. It gives them a concrete focus to help them “say the sounds” in the words they are writing.

  • Prepare a strip of paper for each student. Section the strip into five one-inch squares. Color each square a different color.
  • Tape the Sound Strip to the top edge of the students’ desks.



  • Instruct students how to use the “Sound Strip”. When writing, if they don’t know how to spell a word, they do not have to ask the teacher, “How do you spell _____?” They can use their Sound Strip to help them say the sounds in their word, touching one box for each sound, and then spell the letters for those sounds on their paper.

It is ok for teachers to respond to student requests for how to spell words, and teachers should always give students the correct spelling of words. Spelling words correctly and then reading those words, helps to build the orthographic memories for words, which will ultimately lead to word reading automaticity. But teachers do not always have the time to answer each students’ request, and it is a good thing for students to develop independence when writing – temporary spelling is a powerful phoneme awareness-grapheme matching tool. “Sound Strips” work!

Decoding: Decoding skills take many years and LOTS of practice to develop to automaticity. Writing can provide some of that extended practice our students need to build decoding skills! Writing helps to strengthen the wiring and connections in our students’ reading brains for making those orthographic, to sound, to word and meaning, matches.

Tip for younger students: Follow these steps to provide more practice with the phonic elements you are teaching AND to review concept learning from a topic of study.

  • Display a list of phonics words, from the phonics lesson, on the white board. Read through the words with your students.
  • Explain to the students that you are going to create sentences about “a topic of study” using the words.
  • Model a sentence orally that reflects your content and uses one or more of the phonics terms. For example, if you are studying communities, and you are working on the -ck rule, a sentence might be, “The fireman uses his truck to help put out fires in our community.”
  • Ask students for their ideas, leading them to rehearse their sentences orally.
  • Then, ask students to write their sentence(s).

Tip for older students: Decoding does not end when students have learned the basic phoneme-grapheme correspondences. Decoding moves into the realm of syllables and morphemes. Older students whose reading is progressing adequately, will begin chunking words when decoding and spelling. Capitalize on this advanced level of phonics through writing. Follow these steps:

  • Choose a vocabulary term that students are studying as part of their reading. Choose one that has a root upon which multiple word forms can be developed. For example, inscribe contains the root scrib and its variant script, which means to write.
  • Write inscribe and ask students to write it. Teach the root, scrib/script, and its meaning. Brainstorm other word forms, talk about their parts of speech, and model how the words can be used. Ask student to use the words orally. Record the words in a column:









  • Work with students to write sentences and paragraphs incorporating the words they have written. Ask them to write about something they are learning about to make the task meaningful and to give them a topic for their writing.
  • Most teachers have a Teacher’s Book of Word Lists hanging around somewhere. Use it to plan morphology lessons.

Verbal Reasoning: This language skill contributes to reading comprehension. Verbal reasoning requires understanding of language structures (how we organize words to express our thinking) and calls upon the need for precise vocabulary to convey ideas. Sounds like a perfect marriage for writing to me!

Tip: Carefully choose the comprehension questions you will ask your students during and after reading. Then use these questions to lead oral discussion and written responses.

  • Choose inference questions because these questions lend themselves very nicely to verbal reasoning. For example, “Was the Japanese government pleased to host the summit?” Or, “How did Jasmine feel about her mother getting a new job?” The answers to both of these questions were not stated in the text, but there was specific content that the reader can use to infer their answers and to justify their thinking.
  • Ask the question and take an answer. Ask students, “What makes you say that?” After an answer is given. Simply asking this follow-up question, What makes you say that?, takes students deeper into their understanding and requires verbal reasoning.
  • Ask students to write their answers. Guide students to begin their answers with the key words in the question.

Use the metacognitive prompts from the previous blog to engage students’ thinking and reasoning about their reading. Create a habit for daily brief writing to metacognitive prompts- plan these into your lessons.

Working Memory

The memory that is always slaving away when we read and when we write is working memory – the memory that holds onto ideas, and continually works with those ideas as we add more information in order to synthesize and learn. Working memory allows us to formulate and hold onto ideas while we transcribe them during writing. We know that using graphic organizers for writing limits the demand on working memory. They help students organize information to set them up for writing.

Tip: Match your graphic organizer to the dominant text structure used in your students’ informational text. Here is a handout that will help you do this.

  • Do a close read with a piece of informational text. As your read, lead students to discover the structure that the author used to present the information.
  • Ask students to find the words and organization features that help define the text structure used.
  • Show students the graphic organizer that reflects the text structure and work with the class to gather main ideas and subordinate ideas or details to complete the organizer.
  • If time, ask students to write a summary paragraph or other outcome using the information that was gathered on the organizer.

Remember: Writing does not teach students how to read, but writing does enhance, strengthen, and provide practice of many interrelated reading and language skills. Have a strong ending to a great school year!

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 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.

The Daily Write

The Daily Write

The Daily Write

Last February I wrote about writing and it garnered quite a bit of attention – and rightly so! We want our students to be writers, and we know that just asking kids to write is not going to TEACH them HOW to write. When you read between the lines, these are the implicit questions one asks, “How do I teach my students to write? What do I need to understand about writing and what can I do to bridge that knowledge to my practice?”

The Action Behind Writing

We need reminding sometimes, that there is a lot going on in those young brains when students write. And all of those ‘goings-on’ need a lot of practice to become automatic. I’m not just talking about the cohesive ordered ideas that must form in the mind as sentences connected one to the other, or the right choice of words from an individual’s storehouse of vocabulary, but also everything from the pencil grip, letter formation, spelling (which includes phoneme awareness and the grapheme-phoneme match), even spaces between words! Wow. Writing IS a demanding task.

Transcription skills, what it takes to transfer thought to paper, impacts writing fluency. Transcription skills are the skills that determine whether or not there will be a seamless transfer of those important ideas to print. Transcription skills are where the rubber meets the road.

So, here’s a mantra for us – Make it Tight – Let’s Write!

Make it tight – Tighten up our instruction to include the transcription skills (letter formation, spelling, handwriting, sentence construction) and provide a lot of practice to help those skills transfer our students’ language seamlessly to paper. We teachers must provide the workouts that will build strong writers!

Let’s write – Engage students in brief daily writing exercises to practice the skills we teach. Here’s how we fit it all in – no need to have an extra writing period. Connect writing exercises to the content students are learning. Writing, and writing instruction, can happen in response to any subject. Teach students how to:

  • verbalize what they are learning and reading about and how to list key words.
  • formulate sentences, and or build paragraphs in response to their learning.
  • “talk aloud” their thinking. Model for students how to apply a structure, a plan in response to metacognitive prompts.
  • use oral rehearsal to first say what they will write and then to write their answers.

Let’s focus on two types of daily writing that provide the opportunity for instruction and writing that will build strong writers: Notes, and Sentences.


Writing notes is a perfect marriage to practicing the transcription skills and also building the foundation for summary writing (determining and organizing details under main ideas). Writing notes demands very little of the phonological working memory. Students only have to remember one, two or three words to jot down instead of whole sentences. This provides an ideal opportunity for building automaticity of the handwriting, letter formation, and spelling skills.

  • Younger students will benefit from making ‘lists’. Making lists provides ample opportunity to practice spelling and writing skills when asked to list all the things the character in the book did at the park. Use two column organizers for this exercise.
  • Two column notes – Provide the main idea and ask students to verbalize the details to fit. With narratives, students could fill in the story elements – setting, characters, problem, solution, resolution. Informational text and content learning – main ideas and topics provide headings under which the details can be gathered.
  • Brainstorm parts of speech – verbs, adjectives, etc. in relationship to reading material.
  • Bold headings – headings provide the main idea, teach students to formulate a question based on the main idea and then read to find the answer. For example, if the bold heading in a text is, Our Natural Resources, a question we might ask is, “What are our natural resources?” After asking this question, students are primed to find the details that fit with their key idea and write them down.


Writing sentences is a skill that benefits from intentional instruction. A new book and national effort to improve writing and critical thinking by Hochman and Wexler, The Writing Revolution, is one of many resources out there to help us learn HOW to teach sentence writing.

Sentences are the backbone of written text. Constructing sentences and connecting ideas across multiple sentences is not an easy task, yet that is how we convey our thinking in writing. As it turns out, our knowledge of sentences is also linked to our ability to comprehend when we read! Time spent learning how sentences work, how to write good sentences and combinations of sentences, will not only improve students’ writing but will also potentially result in improved reading!

Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Combining Sentences – Remember those combining sentence exercises we had to do in school? Well, guess what? There is good research behind the exercise! Bring sentence combining into your lessons to make the exercise pertinent to what students are learning. Find two adjacent sentences in student reading material, or what you are reading to students, that can be combined with a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet and others). Present these and work with students to determine the relationship between the sentences, then the ‘combining word’ that will be used to make one big sentence from the two. Rehearse the sentence orally until the right sentence is found and then write it. Here is a link to a video from The Top Ten Tools to help you see how a combining sentences lesson looks.
  • Sentence Frames – young students benefit from being given a sentence frame in which to plug information about their learning. Who or WhatActionWhen. Who or WhatAction You can combine when and where and even why or how in the same sentence. You can also use linking verbs instead of action verbs. Here is a link to some sentence frame examples.
  • Grow Sentences – Use a technique I like to call SEED to help students see how simple sentences can grow, just like a seed when we plant it and feed it. Ask questions to gather information that will be used to expand the predicate. Then, lead students to say something else about the subject that will extend our thinking about it – adjectives? Add an appositive? Once all of this is gathered, work to order the resulting phrases, perhaps add a conjunction, decide what the final sentence will sound like.

S – Begin with a Simple subject and predicate. Pilgrims sailed.

EExpand the predicate. “Where did they sail?” to a new land, “How did they sail?” in the Mayflower, “Why did they sail?” to live freely

EExtend our thinking about the subject. “Describe the Pilgrims.” They were brave and determined.

DDecide what the final sentence will sound like:

The brave and determined Pilgrims sailed to a new land in the Mayflower to live a life free from the king’s rule.

Writing is a many faceted thing, a skill that takes many years to develop. We can help build the transcription and language skills needed for writing through daily brief writing exercises. If you liked these writing ideas, you will enjoy The Reading Teacher’s Top Ten Tools. Check it out!