The Buzz About Phonics and Word Study From Spelling Bees to Classrooms – Sparking Students’ Interest in Words

by Jillian Fountain, Intermediate/Middle Literacy Trainer, Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Jillian FountainLast month, ESPN aired the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee.  You may have watched some of the contestants as they asked for the etymology of a word, the pronunciation again, or the familiar question, “Can you please use it in a sentence?”  The contestants certainly appeared nervous, but if you looked closely, you would also have recognized the moment when a child’s eyes glimmered, the corner of her mouth ticked up just a bit, and she allowed herself to exhale.  The expression on each contestant’s face in that moment of recognition made me realize something.  We, as educators, craft belief statements about literacy instruction, but often we leave word study out of these written proclamations.  Yet, learning about words and how they work impacts all aspects of literacy.

I am in awe of how much interest the spellers in the Scripps National Spelling Bee have in words and how they work, and I began to think about what I might begin to put in a belief statement about phonics, vocabulary, and spelling.

Students will develop curiosity and excitement about words and how they work.

When children feel excited about something, it drives them to discover more about it.  Students who are curious and excited about words will notice new words and share them with classmates, talk about favorite words, and use words or parts of words learned in various instructional contexts in their own reading, listening, speaking, and writing.  The energy they exhibit becomes infectious.

Students will use what they understand about words to expand their knowledge.

Phonics, spelling, and vocabulary are complex concepts that require many years to develop.  As adults, we continue to grow our understandings of words and how they work.  We also know that learning builds on learning, meaning that broad understandings get refined as students participate in reading, writing, speaking, and listening over time.  If during a word study minilesson, a class learned that adding the suffix –al to a noun makes it an adjective, meaning “related to,” the next time they encountered a word like chemical, the students would notice it and refer back to their previous learning.  In writing, if a student wanted to describe something that happens over and over again, he could think about how it is a cycle, and use his knowledge of the –al suffix to call it cyclical.

Phonics_Event_PhotoStudents will recognize relationships between words.

Words are closely connected with one another.  Synonyms, antonyms, homophones, homographs, words that have similar meanings that are not exactly the same, multiple meaning words, words that share the same base word, etc., turn language into a puzzle.  If students can spend time thinking about how words are related, it will deepen their understanding of words and how they work, as well as help them more quickly recognize words and their meanings, and more rapidly access words to use in talk and writing.

Students will use their knowledge of words to more clearly understand, and more precisely communicate. 

Ultimately, the point of teaching phonics, spelling, and word analysis strategies is to develop students’ proficiency as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners.  If students internalize word-solving strategies, they can quickly and without much effort, accurately read books, articles, letters, and other pieces.  They can also produce a large amount of writing to create readable stories, poems, essays, and other pieces.  If they know a lot about parts of words and relationships between words, they can understand what the writer of a piece or a speaker is trying to communicate.  They can also consider the same information when deciding how to say or write something to get across the message they are hoping to convey.  Think of the power that lies in understanding and communicating precisely.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee occurs once per year, but what I learned from watching this year’s event will stay with me.  As I continue to help teachers think about word study instruction, and how to support students’ understandings of how words work across the school day, I hope teachers see the value in this work.  A curiosity and excitement for, and a depth of knowledge of words will help students throughout their lives.

For more information on our Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling in the Reading/Writing Classroom K-3 course August 7-11, 2017 in Cambridge, MA, click here!


Setting the Stage for ­­­­Joy and Independence in Reading

by Irene Fountas, Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative, Author, and Featured Speaker at the 2016 Literacy for All Conference

A classroom is a place where children can thrive in a language-rich, print-rich, social environment every day of the school year. When you support continuous inquiry, children’s fascination with people and the world, and multi-text based learning, you engage the hearts and minds of your students. They learn how to learn and develop a sense of agency that will propel their literacy learning across the year.



The foundation of growing up literate in our schools lies in authentic literacy learning that brings together children’s language and background experiences with the world of print and media. It begins with getting wonderful books in every child’s hands and selecting high quality complex texts that capture children’s attention with the language, craft and ideas of fiction and nonfiction texts. And it continues when the fabric of the classroom is reading, thinking, talking and writing about books.

The early milestones for developing students’ views of themselves as readers and writers include setting up an organized classroom library in a range of relevant and appealing categories, providing a variety of enticing book talks and teaching your students to do the same, teaching students how to select books that interest them and they can enjoy, teaching students how to talk to each other about books, and introducing the reader’s notebook as a place to reflect on reading through writing.

When students spend their time reading books, thinking about books, talking about books, and writing about them, they build the stamina and independence that places books at the center and promotes a lifetime of joy in reading.

Irene Fountas will be speaking at the upcoming Literacy for All conference, October 23-25, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island. Her sessions include:

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Celebrating the Twentieth Anniversary of Guided Reading: Elevating Teacher Expertise in Differentiated Instruction (Grades K-5) 

Irene Fountas, Author/Director, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative, Lesley University, MA
Gay Su Pinnell, Author/Professor Emerita, The Ohio State University, OH


Monday, October 24, 2016

Digging Deep: Teaching for Reading Power in Guided Reading Lessons (Grades K-5)

Irene Fountas, Author/Director, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative, Lesley University, MA
Gay Su Pinnell, Author/Professor Emerita, The Ohio State University, OH

Motion versus Action: Purposeful Differentiation

by Michael Ford

Professor of Reading in the College of Education and Human Services at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh and 2012 Literacy for All Conference Speaker 

 “Never confuse motion with action.”  -Benjamin Franklin

Since we first published our book Do-able Differentiation, my co-author Michael Opitz and I have continued to reflect on how to move discussions on differentiation toward more powerful results. We noticed that recent critiques of differentiated instruction (Roe & Egbert, 2011; Schmoker, 2010) have focused on the problem of viewing differentiation as primarily teaching practices — doing different things for different learners. This is “motion” and often fails to reflect intentionality and results in a type of differentiated instruction that also fails to consider student needs in powerful ways. Even in our initial work, we focused on making differentiation more do-able. We know, however, when the models we promoted (and still advocate) are used in a less than purpose-driven manner, they will often not benefit all learners, especially those who need our help the most. The importance of purpose-driven instruction has caused us to give more attention to an additional needed critical dimension of differentiation — acceleration. Instead of seeing differentiation as doing different things for different learners, acceleration implies targeting specific things for specific learners that will cause them to make even greater gains. This is “action.”

I recall a sign I saw at a YMCA: Motion is not action! Depending on the intensity of the exercise, one might expend more calories in the same time that someone else does with another exercise of less intensity.  In fact, two individuals can actually engage in the same exercise with different levels of intensity and get different results. The same is true in literacy programs. Certain practices may actually pay off with greater gains for students who need them rather than other. We need to be much more intentional in looking at what those practices might be. Acceleration focuses us on getting more bang for our buck.

We believe action – not just motion – would address four acceleration guidelines and recommendations to move literacy instruction closer to reaching all students.

Guideline #1: Literacy instruction matters throughout the day.

Let’s challenge the assumption that any one part of the instructional day will carry the burden for addressing the differences students bring to the classroom. If we are going to help all readers be successful, we need to focus on that goal throughout the school day, throughout the school week and throughout the school year. We may need to reexamine current models conceptualized within the RtI frameworks that start with the assumption that Tier One instruction should reach only 80-85% of learners. This means that for one out of every six learners, the burden for acceleration is shifted to one part of the school day instead of placing the responsibility on all parts of the school day.

Guideline #2: We need more effectively designed whole group lessons.

Three critical issues need to be explored in literacy programs. First, we need to examine the amount of time spent in whole group lessons. Knowing that targeting instruction is more effectively done in small groups or individually, we need to look at whether the time devoted to large group instruction is appropriate. Second, when these lessons are used, we need to assess and improve levels of student engagement. Third, we need to assist teachers in using models that provide a way to structure more direct support to those students in need during whole groups.

Guideline #3: We need to make sure small-group instruction is targeting instructional needs effectively.

In looking at small groups, we need to shift a current focus on teaching texts to teaching readers. This means strengthening teachers’ ability to coach readers as they work on texts in small groups. We can tighten up existing small-group models so that all readers have access to the same meaning-based instruction and can share in high-level post reading discussions. Teachers need to explore the use of text sets that allow readers to move through levels of texts more quickly with excellent comprehension.

Guideline #4: We need to make sure individualized approaches target instructional needs effectively.

In looking at individualized approaches, we need to make sure the work students engage in away from the teacher is powerful work. We need to tighten up existing individualized approaches so that all readers are supported in their choice of appropriate materials and focused on high-quality mediated meaning-based instruction before, during, and after the independent reading.

In conclusion, we agree with David Pearson who once said: “Kids are who they are. They bring what they bring. They know what they know and we need to stop seeing this as an instructional inconvenience.” Instead we need to discuss how we can target efforts to differentiate instruction so that they accelerate the growth of all readers especially those who need our help the most.

Michael Ford is a professor of reading in the College of Education and Human Services at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, and he has been involved in literacy education for over 30 years. Michael is presenting at this year’s Literacy for All Conference in Providence, RI. His workshops take place on Monday, November 5, 2012:

  • Moving to a Reading Workshop in Middle School, Grades 4–8 (8:30 am-10:00 am)
  • Moving from Many and Most to Every and All: Addressing the Challenges of Differentiation and Acceleration in Reaching All Readers in Intermediate Classrooms (Grades 4–8) (10:30 am–12:00 pm and repeated 3:30 pm–5:00 pm)