Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

Components of Quality Reading Instruction

There are five elements of reading instruction-comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, phonics (word study), and phonemic awareness (Sprenger, 2013). Walk into any primary classroom, and you will likely have no trouble seeing the first two or three in action on a day to day basis. Teachers everywhere understand that they are essential skills to teach and you will see them being taught despite the differences in curriculums and reading materials being used.

Phonemic Awareness

We know that being a competent reader means reading with understanding, expression, and decoding unfamiliar words when necessary. But is there more to being a good reader than that? The answer is yes. There are other important skills that are essential in learning to read. According to Reading Rockets, a website devoted to educating parents and teachers about reading and writing, children should “develop an ear for language” and a prerequisite skill for reading. This is called phonemic awareness and it specifically describes the ability to hear individual sounds in words. Phonemic awareness helps students blend sounds together to form words, isolate the beginning, middle, or end sounds in a word, identify which words have the same beginning or ending sounds, identify how many syllables a word has, or manipulate phonemes to form new words.

Phonemic awareness activities are auditory. There are many activities and resources that you can use to teach it. A simple method involves using pictures. For example, you can show students a picture of an object and ask them to identify the beginning sound. In addition, you can prompt them to identify other words that have the same beginning sound as cat.

Sample Phonemic Awareness Activity


Teacher Language:

What’s the picture of? “Cat”

What is the beginning sound? /c/

What is another word that starts with /c/?

Children who lack phonemic awareness skills will struggle in reading. In fact, according to Marilee Sprenger, author of Wiring the Brain for Reading, along with letter identification, phonemic awareness is a predictor of reading success (Sprenger, 2013).

The state of Wisconsin now has reading screeners, such as the PALS assessment, to help identify students at risk for reading difficulty. These screeners assess a child’s phonemic awareness skills. Students in kindergarten, first, or second grade may be lacking the ability to blend words, or separate a word into its individuals sounds. It is essential for the teacher to explicitly teach these skills in order to help the child become a successful reader. In fact, according to Marilee Sprenger, author of Wiring the Brain for Reading, “the absence of phonemic awareness is the greatest problem of struggling readers.”

When planning for instruction, it is important to understand that phonemic awareness develops along a continuum. Students learn rhyming first, then the ability to separate a sentence into its individual words, and then move on to syllable and onset rime blending and segmenting. The most difficult skill along the continuum is phoneme isolation and manipulation.

Research indicates that it necessary to devote only 8-15 hours to phonemic awareness instruction. Once students have acquired these skills, it is no longer necessary to continue allocating time to them. Students also generally acquire these foundational reading skills in pre-k to first grade. According to K 12 Reader Reading Instruction Resources, students will benefit from small group instruction focusing on only 2-3 phonemic awareness skills at a time.

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Linda Dorn and Tammy Jones explain in Apprenticeship in Literacy, that “phonics is the relationship between the letters in written words and the sounds in spoken words.” Reading Rockets explains that children are taught “that the letter n represents the sound /n/, and that it is the first letter in words such as nose, nice and new.”

Phonics instruction is grounded in print. The focus is helping students learn to match sounds to the letters they make and to teach rules for pronunciation (Cognitive Elements of Reading, n.d.). It goes beyond knowing the sounds of the 26 consonants and vowels. Students first learn letters, sounds, consonants and short vowels, and then they learn more complex skills such as final e, consonant clusters and blends, vowel patterns such as oo, au, aw (variant vowels), ou, ow, oi, oy (diphthongs), long vowel spelling patterns, silent letters, and open and closed syllables (Dorn & Jones, 2012).

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Which comes first?

According to the SEDL Reading Resources website, phonemic awareness and phonics are not necessarily related skills. It is possible for a child to have phonemic awareness while having very limited exposure to print.

You might be wondering which comes first-phonics or phonemic awareness instruction. The answer is simple. Before formally entering school, while they are sitting on the lap of a caring adult, listening to stories being read aloud, children are already developing an ear for language. They are already developing phonemic awareness.

Once students have developed their phonemic awareness, it is important to teach children phonics. According to Peter Barnes, author of Phonics Instruction Activates Brain Area Best Wired for Reading, phonics instruction actually increases brain function in struggling readers. The left hemisphere of the brain, which is responsible for language and visual regions, changes to resemble the brain function of a successful reader.

Growing Successful Readers

Knowing that phonemic awareness and phonics are not one in the same skills is one of the first steps in understanding the two concepts, and the research speaks for itself. A lack of phonemic awareness is the cause of reading difficulties in struggling readers and systematic phonics instruction has shown to activate regions of the brain and change brain function. It is important for all primary teachers to understand how to teach phonemic awareness and phonics in order to help every child be a successful reader.


Cognitive Elements of Reading. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2017, from

Dorn, L. J., & Jones, T. (2012). Apprenticeship in literacy: transitions across reading and writing, K-4. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse .

Sprenger, M. (2013). Wiring the brain for reading: brain-based strategies for teaching literacy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Teaching Phonemic Awareness – Effective Strategies. (2010, November 28). Retrieved July 12, 2017, from


Introduction to Personalized Learning

I have the fortune to have a principal that has been interested in personalized learning and who toured a school in the Milwaukee area that has been doing it very well.  She has inspired me to learn more about personalizing educational experiences and setting academic goals with my students.  I jumped right in this spring and relied upon my understanding of “the CAFE” by Boushey and Moser to help manage the process.  I also had the opportunity to attend an “Introduction to Personalized Learning” workshop last  spring at our local educational agency (CESA 6 in Turtle Lake, WI).  I am excited to share what I have learned with my colleagues over the next few days.  I am including my SlideShare presentation and accompanying notes as a resource for those interested in learning more about personalized learning as well.  I am by no means an expert but I am definitely journeying down the personalized learning path with my students close at hand.

Click on the following link to download  personalized learning notes  that you can use to interact with the slide presentation.

Click  here  to visit CESA 1’s website to explore various videos about personalized learning (both from a student perspective and from that of a teacher).

Are you interested in learning how to identify the core elements of personalized learning?  Click here to visit CESA 1’s website to download the personalized learning honeycomb.  (Scroll to the bottom of the page where it says “downloadable graphic and matrix.)

Brilliantly Blended Learning

Another title for today’s blog post could be “Blending Learning Effectively.”  I have been deeply interested in blended learning for the past two years and I must say that I have come a long way in my understanding of how to craft engaging lessons that will help my students think deeply and learn successfully.

At first, I was reactive in my efforts to flip lessons.  I had a student that was going to be absent for a significant amount of time due to a major surgery.  My principal suggested flipping lessons to help her keep up with the work of her peers.  The only thing I could think of was to tape the lessons that I was teaching the rest of the class and later post them on my classroom website.  It quickly became apparent to me that I was missing something because as I reviewed my videos, I could see that my lessons tended to “wander.” Could I, let along a student, sum up the learning target in 1 or 2 sentences afterwards?

I began to experiment with different platforms to deliver content.  I learned that opportunities to interact to the lesson and draw upon prior knowledge resulted in increased student success.  I learned that students performed better when they had the chance to work in cooperative learning groups.  I used to think that the sky was the limit in my potential to provide individualized instruction for my students with the use of technology.  Perhaps one of the biggest “aha” moments was when I read in John Hattie’s “Visible Learning” book for the first time that individualized instruction has a low effect size (translation-didn’t give much bang for its buck).

I have included some resources here today that I will be sharing with my colleagues that are interested in learning more about blended learning.  One of the most powerful and influential books that I have been reading this year is “Visible Learning for Teachers Maximizing Impact on Learning.”  If you are familiar with Hattie’s work, you will recognize some of the suggested instructional elements in both the SlideShare and the notes to accompany the presentation.


Click on the following link to access notes that support learning activities that go along with this session:  Blended learning notes

Click here  to access examples of K-12 flipped lessons to evaluate.

You’re almost done!  I first delivered this presentation at the 2014 MN TIES Educational Technology Conference with my co-presenter, Mike Henderson.  Click here to access our resources page.  You will find a brochure to accompany the presentation in addition to examples of student lessons.  (Note: the Layar science and social studies activities are time sensitive and are no longer “active.”  If interested in experiencing the lesson through the eyes of a student, just email be at and I will send you current campaigns.)

Enjoy and, as always, if there are any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me or comment below.

TIES 2014 Education Technology Conference-Flipped Classroom Technology: Blended Learning for All Students

There are a lot of teachers and tech integration coaches geared up right now.  The countdown is on!  The 2014 MN TIES Education Technology Conference is taking place December 6-9th.  My co-presenter, Mike Henderson, and I are excited to share tips and tools for creating blended learning activities for students of all ages.  After seeing our presentation, your previous ideas about blended learning may be challenged.  What many teachers once thought was for older students is now applicable to even elementary age students.  I promise that those attending our session will walk away with ideas and strategies that can be put into practice right away.  With Augmented Reality (AR) at the heart of our presentation, be prepared to gain the skills to “wow” your students and increase engagement in the classroom.

Read below to learn more about the tech tools that we are using to deliver content to students.  You will see step-by-step guides that you can easily follow to navigate the technology successfully.  In addition, you will also see real examples of lessons that students are completing.  Take off your teacher hat and view the activities from the eyes of a student.

Attending our session on Monday, Dec. 8th?  (11 a.m. Lake Superior B)  Download and print the student examples below that will be referenced during our presentation.  You know you will be glad you did!

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Flipped Classroom Technology: Blended Learning for All Students

(Download the above brochure to learn more about creating blended learning activities for students of any age.)



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Layar How-To


Clicimage credit: mms.monticello.schoolfusion.usk on the links below to see actual examples of elementary ELA, Science, and Social Studies learning activities.  Use the free “Layar” app, on your mobile device, to interact with each activity and experience it from the standpoint of a student.


Moon Layar Activity

Language Arts Layar Activity

Police Officers Layar Activity

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Creating a Nearpod Presentation How-To 2014



Nearpod is a great tool that you can use to create interactive slide presentations.  Gone are the days of just listening to teachers talk.  Now, students can listen, respond to teacher questions, and interact with their peers on a whole new level.  The new homework feature is also and easy way to present content to students.  They can complete the activities at a later time in class or even at home.  You have the option of having students work independently or in a cooperative learning situation.

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Click on the link below to see the activity sheet that elementary students use to complete a Nearpod homework activity.


Nearpod homework example-flipped timeline activity

QR Codes

Using QR Codes to Flip Handwriting Instruction

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Olympic Themed Handwriting Activities

Click on the link below to see a QR code sheet that contains handwriting demonstrations created with the “ShowMe” app.

Flipped handwriting lessons

What do students do after they complete a handwriting assignment in their handwriting journals?  They turn it in for teacher review.  To reinforce correct letter formation, I have set up a system where students can work towards a prize.  Each assignment successfully completed means that I cross off one olympic symbol on the child’s tracking sheet.  When the sheet is filled up, the child earns a handwriting certificate and a medal.

can write like an Olympian Click here to see the tracking sheet described above.

Click here to read an earlier post explaining how I use QR codes to flip my handwriting instruction.

Interested in seeing other ways that QR codes can be used in your classroom?  Click here to see!

If you have never flipped a lesson, or if you teach elementary or middle school, the above resources may give you a lot to think about.  If you have already been using tech to deliver content to students, my hope is that you  might find a great tool here that can help you refine the process and make it easier.  Whatever the case may be, remember to start slow.  Don’t get overwhelmed and quit.  Begin with one step at a time.  Enjoy the process and the discoveries that you and your students will make.  It will be a fun ride and you will that both you, and your students, will be more engaged as a result!

Any questions?  Feel free to contact me via email at or Twitter (@BillieRengo).

See you Monday!

What do QR Codes have to do with Reading Comprehension?

work on writing
I love Debbie Miller. I love the “Two Sisters.” I love Regie Routman. I love Ellin Oliver Keene. Now I am really sounding like I spend a lot of time in first grade surrounded by 6 and 7 year olds! The reality is, I do love what these reading gurus stand for. I love teaching my students to take a book from their book box and move beyond “word reading.” Regardless of reading level, I love to teach young children to dig deeper into their reading. The connections, the questions, the predictions, the inferences that result are exciting. At times, they bring tears of joy to my eyes!

What do you do, however, when you spend time introducing comprehension strategies in a systematic manner and students still “don’t get it?” I have never subscribed to the thought process of “Well, I taught it. It’s not my fault they didn’t get it.” I feel like if they didn’t get it, then I didn’t really teach it. (Not well anyways.) That’s when I go back to the drawing board. I try to come at it in a different way.

I have been excited this year about QR codes. I love using the app “Show Me” on the iPad to create a video that captures my thinking about something. I have been using “Show Me” to model different comprehension strategies. My students scan the QR code during their independent work on writing time and then practice the strategy on their own.

The QR code doesn’t take the place of my direct teaching, however. They are meant to reinforce the correct way to do something. Students can watch the QR codes as many times as they need to get it right.

It has been fun. It has also saved me some time. I don’t feel so much like a broken record this year.

Helping Students Manage Choices During Our Literacy Block

word work plan
Students have more choices than ever. My cabinet is overflowing with teacher made games, games I bought from catalogues, and games that have been given to me. We have computer and web-based games. Add iPads and a plethora of apps into the equation and the result could be confusion for students.

We do reader’s workshop in my classroom. As a result, I try to “guide” students as they make choices. My goal is for them to reflect upon themselves as a reader and choose the literacy activities that will help them achieve their goals. We track progress together and we also celebrate when goals are mastered.

I found, however, after integrating iPads into my literacy block for word work, students began to lose sight of their goals. The range of abilities is vast in my room and so I purposefully chose apps that will meet the needs of all students. There are apps for sight word practice, apps for vocabulary, and apps for grammar. Some apps are meant to reinforce the foundational skills beginning readers need while others are meant to broaden a fluent reader’s vocabulary. I do not want each student using the same apps. They are meant to promote growth. (Not to keep students busy.)

As a result, I took time to develop a word work planning sheet. The sheet has the various research based word work/spelling activities that students need to grow as readers. Students use the sheet over the course of a week and cross out an activity as it is completed. Most students will make appropriate choices. Others, however, need a little more guidance and so we discuss the plan together and highlight an appropriate choice for that day.

You might be wondering what impact the plan sheet had on my class. I am very pleased. Students make deliberate choices during our literacy block and enjoy purposeful learning as a result.

Quick Start to Comprehension


O.k. So the title of this blog may be misleading. Teaching students to deliberately and conscientiously use strategies to understand and remember their reading better takes time. My goal as a curriculum coach, however, is to help simplify information and give teachers a place to start. I created brochures on each thinking strategy to share with colleagues at my school a couple of years ago. Today I would like to share them with you. If you are interested in adding a shared reading component to your day where you teach students to make connections, ask questions, or synthesize information, this is a place to start. The content is inspired by Debbie Miller and her work “Reading with Meaning.”

*Click on a link below to find the strategy you are looking for. FYI-I created these brochures on my home computer using Microsoft Works. Since we do not have that program at school, I scanned each page in order to share them with you.

metacognition brochuremaking connections and visualizing brochureinferring and asking questions brochuresynthesizing brochure

Augmented Reality-Explosive Learning Breaking Down Classroom Walls

Have you heard about Augmented Reality recently? Are you wondering how it can positively shape the learning climate in your classroom? Are you wondering how it can propel your teaching to a whole new level? I am a huge fan of AR and I have spent much of this school year discovering the ins and outs. I created this slideshare presentation to introduce educators to the facinating world of AR. Enjoy!

We’ve “Flipped” Over Handwriting


With the advent of RTI and Common Core State Standards, I have experienced a growing sense of urgency in my teaching. My goal is to teach my first graders to be independent, creative, deep thinkers. I want to guide them as they set goals and help them track progress towards their goals.
In the past, an absent student would miss out on that day’s learning. Access to technology has changed this completely. An absent student can immediately continue along their learning path upon their return to school. On the flip side, a motivated student can complete lessons at their own pace in the elementary classroom.
I have always struggled to fit handwriting practice into the school day. Teaching students to analyze texts, infer, predict, and provide evidence for their thinking has been a priority for me. I strive to teach my students strategies to comprehend math and explain their thinking. I always thought, “Where does handwriting fit in to all of this?” We would be “fitting in” handwriting instruction right down to the last few weeks of school!
QR codes and the app “Show Me” gave me the platform to create videos illustrating correct handwriting formation. Students then were instructed to set a goal (completing at least 1 page per day), and then were given sheets where they could track progress towards their goals. Since the winter olympics were just starting, becoming an “olympic hand writer” was our theme.
The results were awesome! Students shifted their thinking from just trying to complete the page to trying to do it well. Many students chose to complete more than one page a day and they used any free time to complete the work. They are no longer dependent upon me to teach the whole group lesson. The learning is student driven and at their own pace.

Math Journals Enter 21st Century with Mobile Apps

connected mcgraw hill_Much of what I do is on my iPad. My husband (and our school custodian) call me obsessed. Call it whatever you like. My iPad is a tool that just makes sense to me and the opportunities it provides for me to organize, share, and evaluate student work are endless throughout the day. When I learned that our new math program (McGraw-Hill’s My Math) has a mobile app, you could say I was intrigued. I jumped in, and with my students’ help, we were able to figure it out and integrate it into our math workshop. Students have the choice to complete their daily assignments using the traditional paper math journals, or they can do everything digitally right on the iPad. Once you learn the apps ins and outs, it works out pretty well.
The “My Math” program has many digital tools to support teaching and learning (found at The iPad app is a mirror of what you (or your students) see when logged in. The coolest thing is how you can check each child’s work. They no longer have to come up to you, stand in line, and wait for you to look over their answers. You have the capability to check each and every child’s work without ever having them come to you. The “student review” function allows you to select each child’s account and evaluate their work while they are working. You can catch inaccuracies before they are practiced and ingrained. Pretty cool, huh?
You see the “student review” button on the mobile app as well. I have used it and have been able to see what my students are doing. However, you don’t have the capability of writing on student pages and giving corrective feedback. You do have the ability, however, when you log in to and click on the student journal. Students will be able to see whatever you write.
I have attached the handout that I prepared to share with staff members at my school. You might find the handout handy if you also use McGraw-Hill’s ConnectEd “My Math” program. Enjoy!

ConnectEd mobile app user guide