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Should We Teach High Frequency Words?

March 10th, 2019
Should We Teach High Frequency Words?

High Frequency Words?

As a teacher-publisher, I am a member of quite a few Facebook groups, Pinterest groups, etc. I sell my ELA and reading intervention curriculum on my Pennington Publishing site as well on the monolith: Teachers Pay Teachers. The latter provides a Seller’s Forum, which I infrequently visit.

A seller recently posted this topic:

Sight words – Fry or Dolch? 

I have always used the Dolch list, but notice many people using the Fry list in their products.  Does your school mandate a certain one?  Do you have a preference when looking for sight word materials?

This brings up an important topic. Both the Fry and Dolch lists are high frequency word lists. Each list was developed pre-computer age by groups of grad students counting the number of recurring words in basal readers.

Speaking of the English, teachers in the United Kingdom and many in international schools refer to the high frequency words as “tricky words.” American teachers have generally coined the term “sight words” to refer to high frequency words. This term has some important instructional implications.

Should We Teach Students High Frequency Words to Improve Reading and Spelling?

My take is that teaching (or more likely practicing and testing) long lists of high frequency reading words or using them in spelling instruction is counterproductive. Apologies to Rebecca Sitton, whose list of “No Excuse Spelling Words” still graces the classroom walls of thousands of American teachers’ classrooms. Why is it counterproductive? We need to teach students to rely on the code for reading and spelling. Just as in baseball, we need to teach students to “look for the fastball, but adjust for the curve.” In other words, apply the rule, but adjust for exceptions.

Memorizing lists of 200, 300, 400, 500 high frequency words treats language acquisition as a process of rote learning and viewing each and every word in isolation. This approach falsely teaches students that every reading and spelling word is an exception. The old Dick and Jane look-say method of reading and spelling instruction has been properly relegated to the instructional dumpster; however, high frequency instruction remains a hold-out to some degree. Why is this so? My take is because “Let’s teach the words students will read and write most often” seems intuitively correct. However, intuition is not science and should not guide our instructional decisions.

But What about High Frequency Words with Non-Phonetic Sound-Spellings?

Included within the lists of high frequency words are a subset of words with non-phonetic parts. I call the 108 (plus or minus depending on list and how one counts inflections) words with non-phonetic spellings, Heart Words; others refer to them as “rule-breakers,” irregular words,” “outlaw words,” “tricky words,” “memory words,” and others. Of the 100 highest frequency English words, many are non-phonetic because they derive from Old English.

Most reading specialists would agree that the Heart Words should be introduced concurrently with explicit, systematic phonics instruction. For example, I introduce the 108 highest frequency Heart Words two at a time in my 54 Sam & Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books.

Many of these Heart Words may have unusual spelling patterns, but as students acquire more reading and spelling knowledge, they find that some words initially learned as Heart Words have the same unusual spelling pattern as others. When we teach these “rule breakers,” we need to show students how many of them belong to the same patterns. For example, the Heart Word, one, has similar patterns as the Dolch words: some (30), come (64), and done (180). The more we show the patterns of the English orthographic system, the easier it is for beginning readers to map these words to their orthographic memories. These words can become immediately recognizable in reading and far easier to spell once they reach the level of sight word automaticity.

Researchers Linda Farrell and Michael Hunter completed a study on the Dolch 220 list of high frequency words. Of the 220 words, 82 were identified as Heart Words (37%), and 45 of the words can be studied in similar pattern words.

Reading specialists do disagree about which words would be classified as Heart Words. Although the reading research is clear that memorizing whole words, such as in the outdated “Look and Say” approach, is inefficient, some reading teachers stress that teaching students to remember whole words is important as a part of orthographic mapping. In orthographic mapping, students are wiring the brain to remember all of the sound-spellings of a word in order as a unified whole. These become true “sight words,” because they are recognized automatically by sight, and not any longer by sounding each phoneme (speech sound) out. For example, students might be taught that the Heart Word the is “not all irregular.” In other words, the “th” /th/ follows the rules; it’s only the “e” that does not. It is “the part to learn by heart.” Plus, when used before words beginning with vowels, the the is perfectly regular because the “e” makes the long /e/ sound for example, thē army and thē elephants in most regional dialects.

Check out my article on How to Teach Heart Words for seven activities to do so.

A sound box is often used to help students map heart Words, because they require more instruction than phonetically regular words.

Outlaw Word Sound Boxes

Sound Boxes

*Sight words assessments (also referred to as word recognition, e.g. The Slosson Oral Reading Test) shouldn’t be confused with instruction.


Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Teaching Reading Strategies (Intervention Program) is designed for non-readers or below grade level readers ages eight–adult. This full-year, 55 minutes per day program provides both word recognition and language comprehension instructional resources (Google slides and print). Affordable, easy-to- teach, and science of reading-based, featuring the Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables designed for older students. The word recognition activities and decodables are also available as a half-year option in The Science of Reading Intervention Program.


Get the Heart Words Assessment FREE Resource:

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Which High Frequency Words?

September 11th, 2017

Most teachers and reading specialists advocate some teaching of high frequency words: the question is which ones make sense to teach and which ones don’t make sense to teach?

First, let’s dispel a few notions about how we learn to read. It’s not a which came first, the chicken or the egg? question some still suggest. In other words, the end result is not all that matters. Witness the plethora of reading intervention classes in upper elementary and middle schools to see how many of our students can “read,” but not understand what they are “word calling.” How we get to the end result does matter. Reading does not teach phonemic awareness, nor does reading teach phonics and multi-syllabic decoding. These are prerequisite skills which students need in order to to read well.

We have plenty of reading research to positively assert that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is the most efficient approach to teaching beginning and remedial readers. The Look-Say Method of the Dick and Jane readers (sight words only instruction) and the Onset-Rime Method (b-ack, h-ack, j-ack, l-ack, p-ack, r-ack, s-ack, t-ack) have largely been placed on the dustbin of instructional approaches.


We can certainly take things too far. We know some things, but we don’t know a lot of things about reading. We are only at the beginning stages of brain research.


A prudent approach to both beginning and remedial reading instruction is to focus on decoding (phonics) and encoding (spelling) instruction and practice, but to also “throw in” a healthy dose of fluency practice with high frequency words.

Which High Frequency Words Not to Teach and Why

Don’t pass out flashcards or lists of high frequency reading or spelling words for students to memorize. Intuitively, it would seem to make sense to have students memorize the words that they are going to read or spell most often. However, our gut-level instincts lead us astray here.

  • The Dolch and Fry word lists of the most commonly used words in basal readers were never designed to provide a list of words to study. Countless U.S. classrooms still, unfortunately, have these reading goals (and assign parents the task of teaching): 10 words by the end of kindergarten; 100 words by the end of first grade; 200 words by the end of second grade; and 300 words by the end of third grade. As a reading specialist, I’ve worked with hundreds of elementary, middle school, high school, and even community college students who can word call each of these lists, but not read with comprehension. Now, there is some sense to pre-teaching a limited number of high frequency words before beginning systematic phonics instruction.
  • Similarly, the Slosson Oral Word Reading Test and San Diego Quick Assessment were only designed to test word recognition and they do provide correlations to reading comprehension, but authors Richard L. Slosson and Charles L. Nicholson, as well as Margaret La Pray and Ramon Ross respectively, never advocated using their random sample assessments as instructional tools.
  • The “No Excuse” spelling word lists, floating around since Rebecca Sitton popularized this band aid approach to spelling mastery during the height of the whole language movement of the 1980s and 1990s still, unfortunately, serves as the entire spelling program for countless U.S. classrooms with absolutely no research validating its instructional validity.

Which High Frequency Words to Teach and Why

The first group of high frequency words are, indeed, words; the second and third groups are word parts.

  • Heart Words: These words include one or more non-phonetic parts, also known as “the parts to learn by heart.” Or Heart Words may also designated as those sound-spelling patterns not yet taught, such as the “_ve” pattern with words such as live, love, and have. Check out how to teach Heart Words.

Get the Heart Words Assessment FREE Resource:

  • Word Families (Rimes): A rime is a vowel and the final consonants in one syllable, such as “ack.” The rime usually follows an first consonant, e.g. “b,” or consonant blend, e.g. “tr,” to form words, e.g., “back” or “track.” Students apply these to other starting consonants (called onsets) to recognize or say new words. By the end of second grade, students should know every one of these 79 word families with automaticity through explicit, systematic phonics instruction. If they don’t, gap fill with flashcard practice and activities to help students master the rimes. I have found plenty of success teaching the word families that students do not know with sound-spelling blending. Again, the focus is remedial, not instructional, with the rimes.
  • High Frequency Greek and Latin Prefixes and Roots: Greek and Latin word parts make up over 50% of the words in the dictionary. Some are decodable in English, and some are not. Because of the strong reading-vocabulary connection, it does make sense to have students teach and practice the Greek and Latin high frequency prefixes and suffixes which they do not know. Like with rimes, the analogous relationships formed by morphological (meaning-based) word parts make this a sound sight words instructional focus. For example,  bi means two in bicycle, just as it means two in bicameral or biped.

Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Teaching Reading Strategies (Intervention Program) is designed for non-readers or below grade level readers ages eight–adult. This full-year, 55 minutes per day program provides both word recognition and language comprehension instructional resources (Google slides and print). Affordable and evidence-based, the program features the 54 Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables for each lesson and designed for older students. The digital and print word recognition activities and decodables are also available as a half-year (or 30 minutes per day) option in The Science of Reading Intervention Program. Both programs include the easy-to-teach, interactive 5 Daily Google Slide Activities.


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Spelling Assessment Questions and Answers

August 11th, 2013
Diagnostic Literacy Assessments

Diagnostic Reading and Spelling Assessments

I love spelling instruction. Not the give the pretest on Monday; give ’em a crossword puzzle of the words on Tuesday; give ’em a word search on Wednesday; tell ’em to study on Thursday; and test ’em on the same words Friday kind of spelling instruction.

I love the kind of grade-level spelling instruction that sticks with kids (and adults). The kind that makes use of our alphabetic code; the kind that uses spelling patterns and values “spelling rules” (which do work most of the time); the kind that uses a problem-solving approach to word analysis (yes… spelling sorts); the kind that does hold students accountable for spelling errors in their own writing; and the kind that makes use of the Monday pretest as a diagnostic instrument and the Friday posttest as a formative assessment.

That said, as an author of numerous spelling programs and an often-used Diagnostic Spelling Assessment, I get two questions quite frequently: 1. Does a diagnostic spelling assessment make sense? and 2. How can we use the weekly pretest as a diagnostic assessment? But I’ll let teachers ask those questions in their own words…

1. How can teachers address spelling needs for students who are spelling at a grade 1/2 level and are in grade 5/6? How would you give the diagnostic test to these low level students who cannot even spell “rag” or “top?”

August 11, 2013 

RESPONSE: Great question! An effective diagnostic spelling assessment has to isolate and test specific sound-spellings. The trick is to do so with words which assess specific student knowledge about that spelling pattern and nothing else.

Diagnostic Spelling Patterns Assessment

Diagnostic Spelling Assessment

With most remedial spellers, such as your hypothetical 5/6 student, these students have had to develop a quite sophisticated set of coping mechanisms and survival skills to be able to read and/or spell anything at all. These students have become sight-word dependent, using word recognition skills, rather than word identification skills to memorize individual spelling words. In all likelihood the student has learned to read via “Dick and Jane” look-say methods or onset-rhyme techniques, rather than through explicit and systematic phonics instruction. But not necessarily. An effective diagnostic spelling assessment has to isolate that variable to really assess what needs to be assessed.

In your question you refer to the short a, as in “rag,” and the short o as in “top.” Rather than use these words as test items (which most 5/6 students would know), a good assessment uses multisyllabic words to isolate and assess those sound-spellings to isolate the variable of sight-spelling knowledge. That’s good internal and external validity in assessment-speak.

The author of this article has such a comprehensive diagnostic assessment (See author tag below for links) to address this issue. For example, the first spelling word on the assessment is “bumper.” The word “bumper” is used, rather than “bump” or “bun” to assess the short u because most remedial spellers, such as your 5/6 student will not know this word as a sight-spelling.

In correcting that item, the teacher is instructed only to correct the short vowel u. So if the student spells “bumpr,” than it is correct. Another spelling test item will catch the “er” spelling deficit.

2. What’s the use of giving a spelling pretest if the posttest is the same list of words?

June 3, 2012

RESPONSE: I agree with your sentiments. The pretest is a waste of time, unless we make use of it as a diagnostic assessment. Furthermore (I’ve always wanted to use that transition), giving a posttest of the same words is just silly. Why should students have to practice and study, then be re-tested on words they already know? Here’s how to make sense of both the spelling pretest and spelling posttest:

1. Administer the weekly pretest.

2. After completing this diagnostic pretest, display the spelling words and direct students to self-correct their spelling errors by circling the misspelled sound-spellings.

3. Have students create their own Personal Spelling List of 15 words and have a parent sign the list. Students complete the Personal Spelling List in this priority order:

  • Pretest Errors: Have students write the spelling words they missed on the pretest.
  • Posttest Errors: Have students write the words they missed on the last posttest.
  • Writing Errors: Have students add on teacher-corrected spelling errors found in their own writing.
  • Supplemental Spelling Lists: Students add on unknown words from non-phonetic outlaw words, commonly confused homonyms, spelling demons, and high frequency lists.

4. On the next class day briefly explain the spelling pattern focus of the pretest. My bias (and that of the Common Core authors in the appendices) is that we should be teaching grade-level spelling patterns, not silly themed word lists. If using a spelling patterns pretest, help students learn and problem-solve the patterns through a spelling sort. Avoid useless crossword puzzles, word searches, and write each word ten times approaches. Please.

5. Students study their Personal Spelling List(s) for the spelling formative posttest. Many teachers elect to give the spelling posttest at the end of the week; others choose to combine two spelling patterns lessons and include these as part of the bi-weekly unit test. I give a bi-weekly test of two Personal Spelling Lists to save class time. There is no law saying that you have to test each Friday.

6. To administer the weekly or bi-weekly posttest, direct students to take out a piece of binder paper, find a partner, and exchange dictation of their Personal Spelling List(s) words (10‒20 Minutes weekly or bi-weekly). Students then turn in their posttests for the teacher to grade. I know… you think they’ll cheat. In my experience, very few do. Also… this works with second graders (I’ve done it) on up.

A Model Grades 4-8 Spelling Scope and Sequence

Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4-8

Differentiated Spelling Instruction

Preview the Grades 4-8 Spelling Scope and Sequence tied to the author’s comprehensive grades 4-8 Language Strand programs. The instructional scope and sequence includes grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary. Teachers and district personnel are authorized to print and share this planning tool, with proper credit and/or citation. Why reinvent the wheel? Also check out my articles on Grammar Scope and Sequence, Mechanics Scope and Sequence, and Vocabulary Scope and Sequence.

FREE DOWNLOAD TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING SPELLING RESOURCES. Administer my FREE comprehensive Diagnostic Spelling Assessment with audio file and recording matrix. It has 102 words (I did say comprehensive) and covers all common spelling patterns and conventional spelling rules. It only takes 22 minutes and includes an audio file with test administration instructions. Once you see the gaps in your middle school students spelling patterns, you’re going to want to fill those gaps.

Get the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment, Mastery Matrix, and Sample Lessons FREE Resource:

Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Programs

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has compiled the assessment-based Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary   BUNDLES to teach each of the Common Core Language Strand Standards. The full-year grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 programs provide 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics worksheets and includes sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has

weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

The program also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the author’s program.

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Teach Your Child to Read

December 7th, 2010

One of the true joys and responsibilities of parenthood is teaching your child to read. But wait… isn’t that the teacher’s job? Of course it is, but the best approach is always an effective and complementary home-school partnership. But not every five, six, or seven year old learns to read at school. In the late 1980s I was earning my masters degree as a reading specialist. One of my most fascinating professors, John McFadden, confessed to our class that he didn’t learn to read until he was in the third grade. His teachers’ “look-say” method of reading instruction did not work for him. When his parents hired a tutor who taught phonics, he learned to read in a matter of months and by the end of third grade was reading at levels higher than the rest of his classmates.

As an MA Reading Specialist and educational author, I’ve done all of the “prep” work necessary for parents to hold up their end of the home-school partnership in these Teach Your Child to Read tools and resources. You don’t have to be a reading expert; you’ve got back-up 🙂 These reading resources reflect a comprehensive and balanced approach to help you teach your child to read. Your child’s teacher will have her own instructional reading methods and they will, no doubt, be beneficial. She might be a phonics fanatic, sight words zealot, or rimes words revolutionary; however, every child is different. All three of my boys certainly were… and they required somewhat different approaches. But all three were reading first and second grade reading books by age four. I’ve found that the best approach to teaching reading at home is a balanced, flexible, but comprehensive approach, that “touches all bases” and meets the needs of the individual child. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Now, one important reminder. As you teach your child to read, don’t forget to read to your child daily. Set an expectation that daily reading is what we do in this family. Read whether your child wants to or not. Many parents make the mistake of thinking that they will “turn their child off to the love of reading” if they “force” them to read. Nonsense. Keep at it, whether they enjoy it or not.

Read a variety of books at a variety of reading levels. I highly recommend pattern and rhyming books, but don’t limit your reading to “how to read” books. Children need to work on vocabulary and comprehension development, as well.  Stop and ask questions of your child about the reading and encourage your child to ask questions as well. Keep the focus on the text and pictures, not on things outside of the book.

Teach print awareness by methodically teaching your child how to open up the book and pacing your reading with your index finger, left to right as you read. Model “talking to the text” by inserting your own comments occasionally. Children need to perceive reading as a dynamic author-reader dialog, not as a passive activity.

Phonemic Awareness

Despite all of the age-old controversy over reading readiness and when you should teach your child to read, the best indicator is when your child has developed most of the skills of phonemic awareness. These six phonemic awareness assessments will give you the best guidance. Of course, the alphabet is a critical component of getting ready to read and spell. Check out this updated alphabet song! For those areas yet un-mastered, here are phonemic awareness activities that will help your child master these pre-reading skills.

Phonics and Spelling

Recent research is clear that the most efficient way to teach reading is through a systematic, explicit approach to teach our alphabetic code: in other words decoding (phonics) and encoding (spelling). If your child’s school uses sound-spelling cards for instruction, get a copy of these and use them to teach the sound-spellings. If not, use my wonderful Animal Sound-Spelling Cards and these activities to teach all of the sound-spellings. There is even a catchy song to play in the car that will help your child rehearse the card names, sounds, and spellings. Now, if your child is already reading, but has phonics and spelling gaps, it makes sense to “gap-fill,” rather than “start from scratch.” Have your child take the Vowel Sounds Phonics Assessment and the Consonant Sounds Phonics Assessment and practice those specific animal cards and consonant blend cards with the activities.

Every effective outcome in life must have a plan, and this is especially true when you teach your child to read. Here is a systematic plan for introducing  all of the sound-spellings in the order that reading research suggests. Here is how to teach your child to put together (blend) the sound-spellings into words.

Sight Words

Some teachers over-emphasize this instructional component. I was raised on the “Dick and Jane” series that used the look-say method, but I also had “Dr. Seuss,” and more decodable texts. Balance is key. However, it certainly makes sense to teach the most-often used non-phonetic sight words. These are often called Outlaw Words, because they don’t follow the phonics rules. I would avoid having your children spend oodles of time memorizing high utility, non-phonetic sight words. We don’t want our children to have to memorize every word. We want them to use the alphabetic code when at all possible and then adjust to sight words when absolutely necessary. Here is an Outlaw Word Assessment for children who are all ready reading, Outlaw Word Game Cards to begin introducing to beginning readers, and some great Outlaw Word activities.

Word Families

One terrific reading instructional method that works well with systematic and explicit phonics instruction involves teaching your child the rimes. Not nursery rhymes–rimes. These word families draw upon your child’s abilities to build upon the speech sounds (phonemes) and see analogous relationships among word parts. For example, a child who can sound-out/recognize the word me, can be taught to see the connection to be and he. Here is a Rimes Assessment for children who are all ready reading, Rimes Words Game Cards to begin introducing to beginning readers, and some great rimes word activities.


Reading is not pronouncing or memorizing words. Reading is meaning-making. Reading is understanding and making use of what an author says. To teach your child to read, you need to teach reading comprehension strategies that will help your child begin to self-monitor understanding of the text. The SCRIP comprehension bookmark will help you teach your child how to understand what he or she reads.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned 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 Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students 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.

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

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Differentiated Reading Instruction for Gifted Students

April 2nd, 2010

As an MA reading specialist, much of my time is spent advocating for differentiated instruction. Clearly, not all students progress at the same rates nor have the same academic needs. Most of my attention is on encouraging teachers to help students “catch up” on gaps in their reading skills while they “keep up” with grade level standards. However, reading differentiation also applies to students at the other end of the academic spectrum. Gifted students frequently get lost in the mix because their needs tend to whisper, while the needs of remedial reading students tend to shout.

A common misconception about gifted students is actually a misconception about the nature of reading instruction. Most educators view reading from the dichotomous framework of learning to read and reading to learn. Reading is viewed as a skill set to be acquired much like memorizing the multiplication tables. Once both reading and multiplication are mastered (typically in the third grade), these tools are used to read the social studies textbook for content and complete long division. All that is left to learn for reading is more vocabulary. All that is left to learn for multiplication is different applications such as multiplying fractions, decimals, etc.

However, reading is not solely a basic tool to be mastered. Reading is not a simplistic “how-to” that is once learned well and thereafter applied. Academic reading is multi-faceted and complex. In other words, there is plenty to learn that will challenge gifted students throughout their K-12 experience. In fact, the old learning to read and reading to learn dichotomy is limiting our “best and brightest” students. In a 2002 study, fully half of college-bound juniors and seniors were not proficient at reading freshman survey course college text (ACT).

Tips to Differentiate Reading Instruction for Gifted Students

1. Use a good diagnostic assessment to screen gifted students, just as you would for students of all levels. Gifted students should demonstrate greater proficiency, and have less specific challenges, than remedial reading students; however, it has been my experience that some gifted students do struggle with basic reading skills, such as decoding, and that they are simply adept at using coping skills to avoid confronting their reading issues. Sometimes “gap filling” can make all the difference in the world to a gifted student. Former California State University education professor, John McFadden, tells his personal story as a gifted nine-year-old who could not read.

“…We learned reading by the look-say method of Dick and Jane reading. The other students seemed to catch on, but I struggled. In third grade, my parents hired a tutor, who taught me phonics. Phonics unlocked the door of reading for me, and I quickly became a good reader.”

2. Make independent reading an important part of your teaching, especially for gifted students. Allow students free choice of authors and genres, though encourage exploration with new ones. Self-initiated and self-directed learning are critically important skills to nurture in gifted students (Passow 1982). Make sure that your students are self-selecting at their instructional level. All-too-often, gifted students read below their grade level. I recommend using word recognition as your primary means of matching reading levels. For more, see How to Determine Reading Levels. Avoid the arbitrary constraints of Degrees of Reading Power (DRP), Fleish-Kincaid, Lexiles, Fountas and Pinnell Levels, Accelerated Reader ATOS, Reading Recovery Levels, Fry’s Readability, John’s Basic Reading Inventory, and Standardized test data reading levels. Motivation is important as well as average length of word, sentence, and vocabulary.

3. Teach gifted students to be analytical readers. Training gifted students to internalize reading discussion with the author will prompt the “out of the box” critical thinking that we hope to see in these students. Beginning reading instruction tends to teach the wrong message to many of our gifted students. Gifted students who catch on early to reading instruction can be habituated into practicing reading as a passive activity of blending and word calling. The more we can stress the active and relational nature of reading instruction as a conversation between author and reader, the more we will challenge our students. Using comprehension discussion starters is a terrific means to this end.

It’s time to differentiate reading instruction for all students, including our gifted ones. An entirely different curriculum is not the answer, but gifted students do need to be taught differently to maximize their progress and love of learning.

The Teaching Reading Strategies (Reading Intervention Program) is designed for non-readers or below grade level readers ages eight-adult. Ideal as both Tier II or III pull-out or push-in reading intervention for older struggling readers, special education students with auditory processing disorders, and ESL, ESOL, or ELL students. This full-year (or half-year intensive) program provides explicit and systematic whole-class instruction and assessment-based small group workshops to differentiate instruction. Both new and veteran reading teachers will appreciate the four training videos, minimal prep and correction, and user-friendly resources in this program, written by a teacher for teachers and their students.

The program provides 13 diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files). Teachers use assessment-based instruction to target the discrete concepts and skills each student needs to master according to the assessment data. Whole class and small group instruction includes the following: phonemic awareness activities, synthetic phonics blending and syllabication practice, phonics workshops with formative assessments, expository comprehension worksheets, 102 spelling pattern assessments, reading strategies worksheets, 123 multi-level fluency passage videos recorded at three different reading speeds, writing skills worksheets, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards (includes print-ready and digital display versions) to play entertaining learning games.

In addition to these resources, the program features the popular Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable books (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each 8-page book introduces two sight words and reinforces the sound-spellings practiced in that day’s sound-by-sound spelling blending. Plus, each book has two great guided reading activities: a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns and 5 higher-level comprehension questions. Additionally, each book includes an easy-to-use running record if you choose to assess. Your students 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. These take-home books are great for independent homework practice.

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

FREE DOWNLOADS TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING RESOURCES: The SCRIP (Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict) Comprehension Strategies includes class posters, five lessons to introduce the strategies, and the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks.




Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic ELA and Reading Assessments FREE Resource:

Reading, Study Skills , , , , , , , , ,

Top Ten Reasons to Teach Phonics

January 17th, 2009

Teachers and parents often ask me if children learn to read in different ways. The short answer is, of course, they do. Some children have learned to read through explicit and systematic phonics; others have learned to read in a sight word-based “look-say” approach; some have learned to read via memorization of onsets and rimes; still others have learned to read via osmosis, i.e. they just seemed to “catch on.” However, I usually re-phrase their question as “Should children learn to read in different ways?” At that point my answer will change.

Our reading and spelling system is based upon the alphabetic code. It certainly makes sense to teach children to read how our system has been designed. If the student experiences difficulties, we have back-up strategies to reach the end-goal of literacy.

Top Ten Reasons to Teach Phonics

1. Phonics is an efficient way to teach reading.

There are only 43 common speech sounds (phonemes) in English and these are represented by about 89 common spellings. Learning the phonics code produces the biggest learning bang for the smallest instructional buck.

2. Phonics works.

The swing away from “whole language” to phonics-based instruction over the last 35 years has vastly improved reading test scores on nationally normed tests.

3. Phonics is the fastest way to learn how to read.

Reading is not a developmentally acquired skill that naturally derives over time from lots of reading (Adams, 1988; Stanovich, 1986; Foorman, Francis, Novy, & Liberman 1991). Learning the code is the quickest way to learn how to read accurately and independently. Non-readers can independently read simple decodable text after minimal instruction.

4. Phonics makes students better spellers.

Because explicit phonics instruction teaches recognition, pronunciation, and blending of the sound-spelling patterns, students are better equipped to apply those same patterns to spellings.

5. Phonics requires less rote memorization.

The “Dick and Jane” reading method requires memorization of hundreds of words. Phonics makes use of prior knowledge (the sound-spelling relationships) to apply to new learning.

6. Phonics works better for students with learning disabilities.

Students with auditory and visual processing challenges learn best from the structure of explicit phonemic awareness and phonics instruction.

7. Phonics works better for English-language learners.

Phonics instruction relies on phonemic awareness and the connection of speech sounds to spellings. Phonics builds upon and adjusts that connection, rather than abandoning reading instruction already gained in the primary language.

8. Phonics works better for struggling readers.

Effective diagnostic assessments can easily determine which phonics skills have been mastered and which have not. Gap-filling simply makes sense. Remedial readers have strengths to build upon—they don’t need to start from scratch.

9. Phonics makes students smarter.

Interesting research shows that phonics-based instruction can actually change brain activity, resulting in significant improvements in reading (Flowers, 2004). Shankweiler, Lundquist, Dreyer, and Dickinson (1996) noted that differences in comprehension for upper elementary students largely reflected levels of decoding skill.

10. Phonics learning builds self-esteem and gets results.

Because progress is so measurable, students can quickly see their improvement in assessment data, and more importantly, in reading.


Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Science of Reading Intervention Program

Pennington Publishing provides two reading intervention program options for ages eight–adult. The Teaching Reading Strategies (Intervention Program) is a full-year, 55 minutes per day program which includes both word recognition and language comprehension instructional resources (Google slides and print). The word recognition components feature the easy-to-teach, interactive 5 Daily Google Slide Activities: 1. Phonemic Awareness and Morphology 2. Blending, Segmenting, and Spelling 3. Sounds and Spelling Independent Practice 4. Heart Words Independent Practice 5. The Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables 1ith comprehension and word fluency practice for older readers. The program also includes sound boxes and personal sound walls for weekly review.  The language comprehension components feature comprehensive vocabulary, reading fluency, reading comprehension, spelling, writing and syntax, syllabication, reading strategies, and game card lessons, worksheets, and activities. Word Recognition × Language Comprehension = Skillful Reading: The Simple View of Reading and the National Reading Panel Big 5.

If you only have time for a half-year (or 30 minutes per day) program, the The Science of Reading Intervention Program features the 5 Daily Google Slide Activities, plus the sound boxes and personal word walls for an effective word recognition program.


Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic ELA and Reading Assessments FREE Resource:

Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , ,