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How to Teach Phonics to Big Kids and Adults: Short Vowels

I just finished listening to a TED TALK by Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. Sal was talking about mastery learning and the importance of building strong learning foundations before layering on additional information.

Sal cites the example of a child who scores an average grade of 75% on a unit test. Most educators would accept 75% as an average score, and in fact most diagnostic assessments would accept 75—80% as mastery level; however, Sal points out the not knowing 25% of the test components is problematic. From the student’s perspective: “I didn’t know 25% of the foundational thing, and now I’m being pushed to the more advanced thing.”

When students try to learn something new that builds upon these shaky foundations, “they hit a wall… and “become disengaged.”

Sal likens the lack of mastery learning to shoddy home construction. What potential homeowner would be happy to buy a new home that has only 75% of its foundation completed (a C), or even 95% (an A)?

Of course, Sal is a math guy and math lends itself to sequential mastery learning more so than does my field of English-language arts and reading intervention. My content area tends to have a mix of sequential and cyclical teaching learning, as reflected in the structure of the Common Core State Standards. The author of the School Improvement Network site puts it nicely:

Many teachers view their work from a lens that acknowledges the cyclical nature of teaching and learning.  This teaching and learning cycle guides the definition of learning targets, the design of instructional delivery, the creation and administration of assessments and the selection of targeted interventions in response to individual student needs.

At this point, our article begins to beg the question: What if a shaky foundation is what we’re dealing with now? Teachers can start playing the blame game and complain that we’re stuck teaching reading to students who missed key foundational components, such as phonics. Or teachers can figure out what is missing in the individual student skill-sets and fill the gaps… this time with mastery learning.

The first step is to determine what is missing from the foundation. Teachers have used my reading assessments for years to pinpoint phonemic awareness, phonics, and sight words deficits. For the purposes of this article, the Vowel Sounds Ph0nics Assessment pinpoints which short vowels students have not yet mastered.

The second step is to follow a research-tested instructional scope and sequence. Most all explicit, systematic phonics programs begin with short vowels. As compared to long vowels, the short vowels are much more consistent in their pronunciations and spellings. Of course, teachers also introduce consonants along with the short vowels. Following are the instructional sequence from the author’s reading intervention program and the short vowel animal sound-spelling cards used to introduce the names, sounds, and spellings. Note that only the short /e/ has more than one often-used spelling. Again, the short vowels are quite consistent.

Short Vowels Instructional Phonics Sequence

Short Vowels Animal Sound-Spelling Cards

Animal Sound-Spelling Cards (Short Vowels)

The third step is to group students who have demonstrated that they have not yet achieved mastery with the short vowels. Teachers use a variety of small group formats. Literacy centers have become a popular option to provide remedial instruction within some centers (stations), while offering grade-level and/or accelerated instruction in other centers.

The fourth step is to set aside the necessary time to teach the short vowels. Initial instruction takes longer; however, remedial instruction can be accomplished quite quickly, because gap-filling builds upon some degree of prior knowledge, albeit a shaky foundation. Typically, five 20-minute workshops will facilitate mastery as indicated by formative assessments.

The fifth step is to provide effective instruction and practice for the five short vowels and to use a formative assessment to determine mastery. Teachers need to have back-up lessons in case the student does not master the short vowels on the formative assessment. A solid foundation will allow students to learn additional reading skills.

Teachers who would like to use my short vowels lessons and formative assessment to remediate short vowels are welcome to download this workshop from my Teaching Reading Strategies program:

Get the Short Vowels Phonics Workshop FREE Resource:

Teaching Reading Strategies Reading Intervention Program

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Tier I and II Response to Intervention groups. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, 102 remedial spelling worksheets, expository comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages (same text) with word counts and timing charts recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 reading and spelling game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice,and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and special education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum.  Plus the video training modules teach you everything you need implement the program successfully. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

“This is just what I need! I have been searching for a resource to help my middle school SPED kiddos catch up to their peers and I can’t wait to implement this incredible product in my classroom!!!” Rating: 4.0

Elizabeth Lewis

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