Yeah. I know. Super sexy blog title today. I can tell you’re here because of that burning question: How do you know that what you’ve picked for a phonics instruction approach actually works?
I have two answers for that question, but first… a little background.
I am an extremely lucky teacher. I have the autonomy to choose my curricular materials based on what I know works for kids. I know how lucky I am to be sitting in this seat, and I am grateful for it every single day.
That being said, our school took a long hard look at available phonics instructional approaches and guides before making our choices a couple of years ago. As a grade level guide, we are using the TCRWP Phonics for K-2. We already use the Units of Study for reading and writing K-6, we are familiar with the workshop format, and we are lifelong fans of Lucy Calkins and her incredible crew of educators.
That’s not all I’m using, though! This year, I pioneered an add-on approach that was totally different than anything I’d ever seen before.
I learned about Katie Garner and her Secret Stories at CCIRA (a big Colorado reading conference) a few years ago. I was super intrigued by her backdoor approach to teaching phonics in a way that is solidified through kids’ social-emotional centers of their brains. Even writing that sentence now makes me smile! And remember… this is phonics I’m talking about! Phonics: That one little piece of the entire reading puzzle that has the power to completely derail the whole puzzle if it’s not internalized and transferred. Yeah. No pressure.
I could write multiple blog posts to further expand upon why the Secret Stories are so amazing, so feel free to reach out for more information if you’re curious. I promise you – it’s a game changer.
The long and short of it is that I have used the secrets in my classroom from the first day of school, each and every day that follows, whenever a student needs some specific phonics information, and with no “scope and sequence” to adhere to. Yep. Playing it fast and loose over here. Whenever a student needs it, I provide it. How cool is that?! This is a very different approach to your traditional, “follow each lesson in order and follow the traditional doling-out of phonics rules across grade levels” trajectory.
Except, beyond that wild snapshot of being all loosey goosey with my phonics instruction (that might make you cringe just thinking about it!), the truth of the matter is that my addition of the Secret Stories to my classroom is research-based and incredibly intentional. I teach my core phonics program, the TCRWP phonics units, with fidelity and I love how child-friendly and full of joy each lesson is. (Joyful phonics?! Crazy.) I use the secrets to support and to supplement this core instruction. I really think that my blended approach is the perfect mix for my students.
So… how do I know that this unique approach is actually working? Here are those two answers:
Answer #1: When we got to the “silent e” lesson in our TCRWP book, my first graders already knew about it! They’d known about it, had identified it in published texts, and had been using it in their writing for weeks. In fact, we had to put headphones on Rasheed (our TCRWP stuffed lion phonics guide… #joyfulphonics) so that we could secretly make a plan to pretend not to know the rule so that Rasheed could “teach” it to us and it wouldn’t hurt his feelings that we already knew about that bossy Mommy e. Talk about feeling empowered! Those first graders “allowed” Rasheed to talk them through this “crazy brand new lesson of something they’d never ever heard about before”, they were on top of the world and so proud of their knowledge, and I had absolute proof that what I had taught – at the time when it was what was needed to actually access the texts in front of them – had STUCK.
Example #2: When, at parent-teacher conferences, I heard another teacher tell a parent that she wasn’t surprised that the reader was stuck and didn’t know the ou/ow sound because she hadn’t taught it to him yet. That rule hadn’t yet come up in the scope and sequence of her program.
**Pause for a deep breath**
Please understand that this is in no way a bash against another teacher. It is simply an example of evidence that struck directly into my heart and confirmed that I had made the right choice for my students by shifting my instructional approach. I am not the sole holder of phonics knowledge. I am not the one who gets to pace out the growth of my students’ phonics usage and transfer. To think of it another way, I am not the waitress who holds back dessert until you’ve eaten all of your greens. Adding the Secret Stories to my classroom allowed for more of a banquet-style availability. Take what you need when you need it. You’re looking at the calendar and wondering why August sounds like it starts with a short o sound? Here – let me tell you the secret of why au and aw say that sound. (Hint: It’s because they’re in love!) Your name ends with a y and you don’t understand why it makes a long e or a long i sound? Here – let me tell you the secret of Sneaky Y. He’s so naughty…
(Remember when I said that I could talk about the secrets forever? I’m serious. Just ask me questions!)
As an incredibly fortunate classroom teacher, I get to choose a trusted curricular resource like the Units of Study as my Tier 1, core instructional guide. The lessons are fabulous mixes of joy and knowledge, and my students are pumped when it’s time to learn with Rasheed. I love that. AND… I am beyond thrilled that I’ve also found the Secret Stories to use as my “special sauce” to offer my students whenever they need it. By posing phonics knowledge as something that is a grownup secret, I activate my students’ “need to know” heightened state of alert. In that moment, their brains are fully firing and ready to grasp onto this new information. Because it’s delivered through stories that are anchored in social-emotional constructs, it sticks.
(Seriously? I could keep going on like this for pages!)
So. Those are my two answers to my question of how I know that things are working with my unique approach to teaching phonics to first and second graders.
P.S. If you’re curious why ou and ow might end up in the hospital, then just reach out… I’m here!