There is nothing better than that “aha” moment when a student learns a new word! But did you know that research says there are three key parts of the brain that need to be activated when this happens? (Blevins, 2017)
So, what does this really mean? This means that if we simply show students a word on a flashcard and ask them to memorize it…that isn’t sufficient. This may be different from the way a lot of us were taught! It’s definitely different from how I was taught.
In this post, I’ll talk about the 3 key parts of the brain that we want to activate – what they are, and how to activate them all when teaching students a new word.
What Are the Three Key Parts?
When we teach students a new word, we need to activate these 3 parts:
- The part of the brain where the meaning of the word is stored.
- The part of the brain where the spelling of the word is stored.
- The part of the brain where the sounds in the word are stored.
Even if a word is irregularly spelled or has “surprising” sounds (i.e. the o making the short u sound in “from”), we still want to draw students’ attention to the sounds in the word (and, of course, the meaning and spelling).
What is My Routine for Activating All Three Parts?
I have a seven step routine that I use when teaching new words to students (note that I only do this with high frequency words, not every single word we practice as part of our phonics lessons):
- Present a sentence to students that includes the target word. If possible, make the sentence personally meaningful to students. I especially love using students’ names in sentences! For Kindergarten and early 1st grade, try putting each word on separate cards in a pocket chart to help develop “concept of word.” Then, students can mix up the words and build the sentence again.
- Have students come up with their own original sentences that use the word. This emphasizes their understanding of the meaning. I like to do this orally first; even just a quick “turn and talk” with a partner is helpful.
- Discuss the sounds of the word. Use sound/Elkonin boxes as an option (see example photo below this list). Have students use the visual of “pushing” each sound into its own box. Talk about whether or not the word is a “rule breaker.” Here are a few examples:
- The word “did” is regularly spelled. We would discuss each letter and each sound: /d/ /i/ /d/
- The word “from” is a bit of a rule breaker because the “o” doesn’t make the traditional short o sound. I’d have students write it out in Elkonin boxes: /f/ /r/ /u/ /m/. When we get to the “o,” I’d mention that it represents the short u sound, which is surprising! If we’d already learned about consonant blends, I could also point out how “fr” is a blend.
- The word “much” has 4 letters, but only 3 phonemes (sounds) because ch is a digraph. In Elkonin boxes, it would appear as /m/ /u/ /ch/
- Academic vocabulary is key! When discussing each word, don’t shy away from the terms “digraph,” “blend,” “long vowel,” “short vowel,” and so on. As students are learning about high frequency words, these terms should begin to become part of their vocabulary as well. This post may be helpful to you for a refresh on phonics terms.
- Have students tap out the word on their arm, spelling it aloud. I like to have students say the word and then the actual letters of the word across their arms.
- Have students write the word. Multi-sensory activities are the best for this! My favorite option is writing the word over a knitting screen (Amazon affiliate link) if possible. This way they can practice tracing over the word later as well.
- As time permits, have students write an original sentence with the word and read their sentence to a partner.
It’s interesting to reflect back on how you were taught phonics as a student – or even how you originally learned to teach phonics as a teacher. Some things might still align, but it’s always important to stay up-to-date on best practices. It’s one of the best things about being a teacher, in my opinion – I love continuing to learn, grow, and improve! (What a great thing to model for our students, too.)
If you’re interested in learning more about how to make high frequency words stick for your students, check out this free webinar! During this webinar, I’ll show you exactly what activities to use for engaging, effective phonics instruction.
I also have both high frequency word focus sheets and games (you can buy them separately or in a bundle) that follow this method of using 3 parts of the brain! Resources are available for all of the following word lists:
- Fry’s First 100 Words
- Dolch Pre-Primer Words
- Dolch Primer Words
- Dolch 1st Grade Words
- Dolch 2nd Grade Words