How to keep literacy varied and fun to provide the repetition students need

A challenge in teaching students to read is they all learn differently. While repetition is key, some need it much more than others.
Elizabeth Greene
Elizabeth Greene
Elizabeth Greene is a first-grade teacher at Springmore Elementary School in Cleveland County, North Carolina. She can be reached at [email protected].

One of the challenges of teaching students to read is that they all learn differently from one another. Some are visual learners who need to see things on the board. Kinesthetic learners might benefit from many different approaches, as long as they incorporate some kind of physical movement. And, while all students learn through repetition, some need it much more than others.

Although we haven’t always referred to it as such, I have used the procedures and strategies of the science of reading in my classroom throughout my career. Fortunately, the science of reading encourages a variety of approaches to meet the individual learning needs of all students. Here’s how it works in my classroom.

Small groups

Differentiation is really important for my literacy instruction. If I couldn’t teach in small groups, I’m not sure I could reach the needs of each learner. Students need to be grouped by ability to allow them access to instruction that fits their learning needs. We don’t want anyone to be left behind, but we also need to be challenging those students who have mastered the new skills.

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Independent work is also important. We use center rotations quite a bit—about two hours every day—so each student has opportunities to learn and practice their literacy skills in a variety of ways. Some center activities that we use include phonics transfer books, decodable texts, and sight word fluency exercises.

Before daily center instruction, students participate in a lesson on phonics using the Reading Horizons Discovery foundational literacy program. Prior to Reading Horizons, we used a different program. But, we began to see that any new students moving into our school who hadn’t been using the phonics from the beginning of the year really struggled.

Now, our lessons are much better for new students to adjust to quickly. This year, the lessons have also been updated to create center groups automatically based on activities or skill checks that gauge how well they’ve understood each new lesson.

A variety of repetition techniques

Whether students are working individually, in small groups or all together as a whole class, using a variety of techniques is important. Students learn in many different ways. It’s always interesting to see which activity or exercise is going to resonate with each one of them.

When students begin first grade, they learn how to look at a word and identify letter sounds and then put them together to make words. In their transfer books, they have word mapping exercises that are excellent for building those decoding skills with daily practice, one letter at a time. We talk about each sound, and then work with the daily sound in our small groups. After that, we get to apply the new skill in a reading passage.

I like to work on nonsense word fluency with my students as well. This is another exercise that helps develop decoding skills in which students read made-up words. Since the words are made up, they have to identify the sounds themselves correctly instead of relying on their word knowledge.

This activity came from a literacy program that we previously used, but I like to pair it with our current program’s five phonetic skills and make games using them. The repetition and daily practice help students build fluency and the games connect with all kinds of learners because they’re fun, and that always keeps everyone engaged.

Integrating technology

Technology is incredibly helpful in the early literacy classroom. Students get excited about it, which makes it easier to engage them in lessons. But, it is also a practical help to me. Using our literacy program, I am able to mirror everything we’re doing up on a screen where the students can see it. That frees me to walk around and see what students are doing at their desks so I can see who may need more help or if some students are ready to move on to the next step.

I do find technology challenging to use at times, perhaps because I’m older, but the students just connect with it so quickly. It’s the future, so they need practice with it, but it also makes it so much easier to integrate different senses into instruction and practice.
We also do a lot of guided reading, both as a class and during center rotations. I might read a story to the whole class and then ask about characters or different story elements. I try to make it fun by choosing good picture books, and then we build our centers around the story. For example, they might be asked to retell the story using just pictures, so they have to place the events of the plot in the correct sequence.

On our classroom iPads, we also have stories that students can read themselves or have read to them by the technology. They can even record themselves reading, which they love. We choose books that are appropriately leveled for their ability and then they answer questions to help develop their reading comprehension.

I do still believe handwriting is important, so I make sure students aren’t doing everything on computers. It’s important to find a balance between using technology to engage students and deploying tools like pencil and paper.

Students aren’t born readers. They need lots of practice, which could become a very boring routine of drilling skills day after day. To keep them engaged you have to learn what they like and work to turn their practice into fun games that also build their skills, or by modeling reading with fun books.

Students aren’t always going to make perfect progress toward proficient reading. In fact, there are going to be new challenges every day, but if you can help them love what they are doing, they will be excited enough to rise to those challenges and grow throughout the school year and into their futures.

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