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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


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!

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.

Creating a Climate for Responsible iPad Use

I have been getting teased a lot lately. I should say a little more than usual. In all honesty, it is because I told my principal that, aside from my wedding day and the birth of my four children, the day we went 1:1 with iPads was the happiest day of my life. In my defense, it really was. It is invigorating to me to constantly learn something new. That goes with the territory when it comes to tech.

I am learning and adjusting as I go. “What have I learned?” you might ask. (Aside from the obvious, which is new apps that seem to constantly be emerging). I found that kids get really excited to have an iPad. Sometimes they are so excited that they just can’t help trying out all the apps on their device before I have the chance to teach and introduce them. I have learned that kids need to be taught how to listen and follow directions before they start doing. I have learned that kids need to understand that using an iPad is a privilege and an immensely powerful learning tool. In order for students to learn and grow, they need to be on-task and not just engaged while working.

That is what led me to create an iPad contract that I discussed with my class and then asked them to sign. In doing so, they understood that signing the contract signified a promise. Kids truly understand promises and know how it feels when someone breaks a promise to them.

The next, natural step, was to talk about what should happen if they break their promise. The following poster is what the class decided on as a list of consequences. Taking time to do this was immensely worthwhile since we use our iPads all the time. Stopping my teaching to ensure that children are using their iPad as a tool and not as a toy makes my job as a teacher very difficult. There needs to be a flow to any lesson. Asking students to take responsibility for their actions was one of the best things I could do.



Family Words by “The Word Lady”

*Here is another post by “The Word Lady” highlighting how teachers can meaningfully teach vocabulary to students. Today’s topic is family words. Click on Jill Negrete’s lesson plan at the bottom of this post to find out more!

As teachers of beginning readers, we have our hands full at times. We are trying to open up a new world to our students (a language based, print rich world). A child’s background knowledge plays a large role in identifying words, while reading, at this early age because they rely upon what makes sense when they read words. Sometimes students make sense as they read. Sometimes they do not.

What happens if they don’t? How can I help my students be successful? A good friend, and reading recovery teacher, taught me to carefully select books as I plan my reading lessons. Students with language issues can experience a lot of frustration as they read if the language the author uses is unusual and does not make sense to them.

The Word Lady is also teaching me to deliberately teach vocabulary. When the vocabulary component of our new reading program focussed on family words, Jill Negrete ran with it. She made the abstract come to life!

Students dressed up to illustrate the concept of parents. (The father wore a hat and the mother wore a necklace.) Their children held a ball to show that they were in fact children. When the children grew up they put on a hat or a necklace to signal that they were now adults. In the end, we had a real life family tree with grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents, cousins, nieces and nephews!

Acting out a Family Tree
Lesson Plan for Family Words

Numbers Numbers are Everywhere!

*This is a third installment in a series of posts about vocabulary and language learning from Speech/Language Pathologist, Jill Negrete, from the Grantsburg School District.

Numbers are Everywhere Lesson Plan

All math teachers can relate to teaching a new concept and later finding that students didn’t really “get it.” Learning by rote memorization does not stay with a student and they soon forget what it was that you tried to teach them. Sometimes concepts are abstract from the start and students need something to connect their new learning to for it to sink in.

The Word Lady teaches number words in a dynamic way. As teachers, we may describe objects with words such as “pair,” “few,” “several,” and “many.” If we look at it from a student’s perspective, what do these words really mean anyways? It is possible that students with language difficulties are sitting through our math lessons feeling dazed and confused.

Jill Negrete has shared her lesson plan for teaching number words. It is a must read for any elementary math teacher to see how you can take real world objects and put them in the hands of children to help them truly understand numbers.

Laney Sammons talks about helping students make “math-to-self,” “math-to-math” and “math-to-world” connections in her book “Guided Math.” Speaking from experience, I have found that students do not automatically see how one math concept is similar to another. Students also tend to view these concepts in isolation and do not see how the concepts are similar to things in the world around them or in their own lives. Children first need to be taught that these connections exist, and then need guidance making connections before making them independently.

As you look at Jill’s above lesson plan, you will see that she helps kids make connections naturally. She holds up a boxed cake mix (a familiar sight to many students) and goes on to talk about how numbers are used to measure both time and temperature to cook it. Kids listening immediately make a “math-to-self” connection since many of them have cooked with a loved one at home.

After The Word Lady’s lesson on numbers, my students spent the week working on “Numbers are Everywhere” book using Book Creator on the iPad. These books are not only bursting with six year old personalities, but they are chock full of mathematical connections. The end result is a deeper mathematical understanding.

*For more information on the different types of mathematical connections, please read my previous post “Have you Chirped Today?” from December 11, 2012.