Did you know that phonics learning is developmental?
This means that we need to match our phonics instruction to students’ levels of word knowledge (Bear et al., 2016). In other words, we need to understand what phonics patterns our students already know (and what they don’t know yet). We need to provide instruction that’s neither too difficult nor too easy.
Makes sense, right?
But making this happen in the classroom can be challenging! You might have up to 30 students, so how on earth can you provide “just right” phonics instruction to all of them?!
The reality is this: it’s not possible to achieve perfect, 100% differentiation when you have a large group of students and limited time. However, it IS possible to differentiate your phonics instruction in a way that’s A) manageable, and B) great for your students’ learning.
In this blog post, I’ll share tips for doing just that!
Assess Your Students
The first step to differentiating is to find out what your students need!
Some programs have tests where students read words. Others have tests where students write words.
As long as I have enough time, I prefer to test students on their word reading AND spelling abilities.
Here’s why: Students can usually decode words before they can spell them. In other words, they may be able to read a word on a page by using their phonics knowledge, but they won’t be able to spell it quite yet.
I find it helpful to understand both aspects of their phonics knowledge (both reading and spelling). But if I’m in a time crunch, I at least need to know which phonics patterns students can spell.
If you’d like a free, quick assessment to determine what your Kindergarten, 1st grade, or 2nd grade students know and need to work on, you can use the free assessment in my phonics program. Sign up for the free trial, log in, and look for the free assessment.
That free assessment includes letter sounds, letter names, digraph sounds, and a spelling assessment. (The complete program includes additional assessments to test things like phonological awareness and word reading.)
You can download the free assessment here!
Use Small Group Instruction
Once you know what your students need, you can group them accordingly!
There are several different ways that you can do this. You can have dedicated phonics small groups (my preference) OR add phonics instruction to your guided reading / reading small groups.
I like to set aside a dedicated block for phonics instruction in my classroom. We start with a few short minutes of whole group review, and then break up into small groups. Some students come with me, and some students work independently. We switch at least once (ideally twice, so I can see 3 groups).
There are lots of different ways to set up your phonics small groups. The professional development videos in From Sounds to Spelling go into this in detail, and this blog post may also give you some ideas.
If you choose the “add it to your guided reading groups” option, keep in mind that many students’ phonics knowledge will correspond to their reading level. But for other students, they won’t correspond.
Also, if your core phonics instruction is taking place during your reading small groups, make sure that it gets the attention that it deserves! 3-5 minutes at the end of a guided reading group is not enough phonics instruction for most students.
Use Leveled Materials
Whether you’re teaching phonics in a small group or whole group setting, leveled materials are a lifesaver!!
Here are some examples of leveled materials from my phonics program:
Leveled word sorts:
Word sorts are a great way for students to compare word patterns. But some students are ready for more challenging words, while other students need simpler sorts.
You can have students sort the same patterns but work with different words!
Leveled decodable books:
“Leveled books” usually refer to books that are labeled with a letter or number, like A, B, C, etc. They’re typically viewed as different from “decodable books.” Decodable books are books that are controlled for specific phonics patterns and words that students should know.
In From Sounds to Spelling, we use lots of decodable books and passages. These texts help students practice the phonics patterns and high frequency words that they’re learning. However, a certain decodable text might be great for some students but too difficult for others!
For this reason, the majority of the texts in the program actually include 2 different levels. There is a “regular” level and an “easier” level for most texts.
The easier version of the text typically includes shorter sentences, fewer challenging words, and (when applicable) fewer multi-syllabic words.
Here’s a 1st grade example:
You might also differentiate by using different games / activities for independent practice (From Sounds to Spelling has multiple options per week), different word lists for students to practice reading, etc. And if you’re looking for ways to easily keep differentiated materials organized, check out this blog post for ideas.
Leveled materials make differentiation a whole lot more manageable, even if most of your phonics instruction takes place in a whole group setting!
Like with most things in life, “perfect is the enemy of good.” In other words, don’t scrap differentiation altogether just because your system isn’t perfect!
For more support with teaching phonics and a complete program for your students, check out From Sounds to Spelling here – and make sure to download your free week of instruction! The free week also includes the placement test and an informational packet that you can share with your school administrator.
Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2016). Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (6th ed.). Pearson.