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Teaching Tips

From Phonics to Awesome Reading

May 12, 2023

by: Dr. Chase Young

6 mins


                           “I’m not sure what I learned today, but my brain hurts. Also, my feet.” 

                                                                                        —Lucia, first-grade student

Teaching kids how to read is awesome. That might not be a typical opening line from a reading researcher, but that’s the very point of this blog. In the current moment of ensuring our literacy practices are evidence-based, we can’t forget that children learn to read best when they’re having fun—when the experience is awesome.

A few years ago, I ran a study to test a new reading intervention protocol we called “Read Two Impress.” I visited the school the following year, and a boy from the study named Thomas saw me in the hallway.  He said to his teacher, “I will never forget that guy. He’s the one who taught me how to read.” Statements like that one are what motivates me, other researchers, and teachers to do what is best for kids. 

Know the Reading Research

The protocol we used with Thomas and his classmates was based on our knowledge of previous research from the 1960s, some from the 1980s, and a theory described in the 1970s. (I know, it may seem as though the journey from hieroglyphs to cracking the alphabetic code happened in the last couple of years, but it took centuries.) Being well-versed in scientific research related to reading is key, or we are forever whiplashed by theories, unfounded trends, or a single-source approach. As researcher Peter Afflerbach said, it’s best to approach it as “the sciences” of reading (2020), and I agree. That’s how we best serve our students and how we move the field forward. As educators, we continue to seek and develop effective and efficient options to meet the needs of all students in all dimensions of learning. For example, even in that critical phonics and early reading phase, we need to look to the research that exists on reader motivation, self-concept, and attitude.   

This science-based—yet holistic—premise is what my colleagues, David Paige and Tim Rasinski, and I call “artfully teaching the science of reading.” When we work with educators, we hope they come away understanding that research-aligned and highly engaging classroom experiences are not an either/or proposition and to look for this balance in any program they use. We call it artful instruction. Teachers use their knowledge of literacy instruction and research, as well as their judgment and dynamic instructional moves, to provide differentiated, responsive instruction.  

Artful Instruction

The three tenets to consider while designing artful instruction include authenticity, aesthetics, and creativity. At the risk of overemphasizing my point—these tenets are in concert, not conflict, with systematic instruction. They ride right along with a phonics scope and sequence. Phonics expert Wiley Blevins, a long-time champion of explicit, sequenced instruction, points out that “fifty percent of each day’s phonics lesson should be devoted to meaningful reading and writing.” (2021). Authenticity, aesthetics, and creativity fold right into this meaningful modeling and practice.  

Authentic instruction simply means that students are learning in a way that mirrors the world. Yes, this can be difficult in the confines of a classroom, but it’s important to think about how shifts in design and delivery can make the experience more authentic. In so doing, we go from synthetic phonics to authentic phonics (I just came up with that, so you heard that here first, folks). As adults in the real world, we often play word games, so it truly is an experience that goes beyond the classroom walls. Of course, the games and words involved should be based on a decent scope and sequence, but once you have that in place, you are free to explore.  For example, in phonics, teachers can use word ladders, making and writing words, word searches, crossword puzzles, phoneme bingo, or even adaptations of Wheel of Fortune.  

Here is a brief example of a word ladder that focuses on two final consonant blends: st and nt. 



REST Where will we rest? Look at the st at the end of the word. That says, /st/. Everyone say it with me, /st/.  Now, let’s keep the /st/ sound and change the first letter to make a word where a bird might rest.
NEST Let’s keep the /st/ sound and change the first letter again to make a direction on a map.
WEST West. Now let’s change the st blend to an nt blend pronounced /nt/. What word is that?
WENT Went. Now let’s change the first letter to make a word that means crooked or curved. 
BENT Bent. Let’s keep the /nt/ blend again and change the first letter to find out where we can rest. 

A tent! We can totally rest in a tent.

Aesthetic instruction is teaching that touches the heart. One way to accomplish this is to select texts that are amazing. By amazing, I mean the texts must be crowd-pleasers. This can vary based on students’ preferences, but you really can’t go wrong with texts that make fun of teachers and administrators, such poems by Ken Nesbitt, such as, My Teacher Ate My Homework and The Principal is Missing. Don’t roll your eyes; it’s for the children. Aesthetic instruction can also touch the funny bone, which I believe resides in the heart. In all the busyness of teaching and administrative work, always remember that it is so fun to laugh with kids. 

Considering aesthetics while designing and delivering instruction requires you to think about what your students care about or will find interesting. It is about capturing their attention and making them care about what they are learning. Connecting content to their own lives is a great way to engage students. It might not be humorous poetry; it could be sports, current events, or local history. Adapting your instruction to engage students in particular contexts is a great way to engage your students.  

Creative instruction is that which reflects you. You bring yourself into designing instruction when you construct it creatively. This is by far my favorite part. What do you love? How can you share that love with your students? Do you love gardening, playing football, hiking, or binge-watching sci-fi? Whatever you love, you can use it to amp up your instruction. I love so many things, but for this first example, we focus on my love for playing the guitar and Weird Al Yankovic. For those of you unfamiliar with Weird Al, he writes hilarious parodies of popular songs. 

Example: Promoting Vocabulary, Syntax, and Fluency with Songwriting

Using a nice I Do/We Do/You Do setup, we learned to write our own parodies using topics we thought were funny, relevant, and worthy of sharing.  It begins with reading lyrics and understanding the original meaning of a song. We then brainstorm some topics, such as falling off the monkey bars, forgetting to do homework, or perhaps even the inability to whistle. Keep in mind I am currently workshopping this as I type, but let’s take that last one and put it to the tune of the popular song High Hopes by Panic! at the Disco. 

Had to have high, high hopes for my whistlin’
Shooting for the stars, and I’ll make them listen.
Didn’t have any skills, but I had a vision. 
Always had high, high hopes. 

I’ll stop there as I’m sure you get the point, even though my example is shameful compared to the musical genius of Weird Al. Also, I didn’t have my brilliant students to assist me in making it better. Still, the process involves reading, considering the original meaning, thinking about the audience, lots of vocabulary brainstorming, and transposing dialogue into something new that fits the structure of the song. It’s a complex process, and we usually dedicate about 20 minutes per day for a week, but it is worth it. When complete, we rehearse (repeated readings build fluency) until we are ready to perform with accuracy and appropriate expression. Not only is it a creative way to engage students in literate processes, but it is also authentic because we wrote a song together to be performed for an audience. That’s real-world stuff right there. Then they all want to be rock stars. I love it when kids go home from school thinking they might be famous one day.  

Example: Summarizing, Sequencing, Writing, and Making Memories

What else do I love? When I was about 10, I made movies with my friends all the time. They were always terribly made horror films with plenty of fake blood and an atrocious plot, but it sure was fun. One day, while watching old episodes of “Movie Magic” (if you know, you know), I decided it was time my students made their own major motion pictures based on their favorite texts from class. I created a framework based on how real movies were made, including idea development, script treatments, storyboards, and the whole bit. Although the process brought me to the brink of insanity, with my support and a carefully constructed framework, the students succeeded. They turned their favorite poems, picture books, news stories of current events, scary stories, and chapters of books into major (okay, actually quite minor) motion pictures.  While making the movies, the students had to read texts in various genres, construct meaning, write summaries and scripts, visually represent sequences of texts, use technology, and more. It was a challenging and extremely impactful process.   

A parent once told me her son came home from school one day and said, “I’m not sure what I learned today, but my brain hurts. Also, my feet.”  

Sometimes I hear that not all learning has to be fun. To that, I say, “Challenge accepted!” If I can make learning fun, then I will. I don’t believe in fun quotas, but I do believe in instruction that is arranged in such a way that students are excited to apply the skills they are learning.  Your homework tonight is to think of a way to teach summary (boring!) in a creative, aesthetic, authentic way. Good luck and happy teaching! 


About the author

Dr. Chase Young is a professor in the School of Teaching and Learning at Sam Houston State University, current editor of Literacy Research and Instruction, and former elementary school teacher and literacy coach. He earned his Ph.D. in reading education from the University of North Texas in 2012. His research primarily aims to develop fluent readers, support struggling readers, and integrate art into the science of teaching reading. Most recently, he co-authored Artfully Teaching the Science of Reading with David Paige and Tim Rasinski. When he’s not teaching or writing, he enjoys fishing and smoking meat with his wife and three children in Conroe, TX.


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