Learning to Read Starts with Your Ears (Part One)

I entered the teaching profession fresh out of college in 1984. I graduated from a four-year program with a bachelor’s degree in Education and an added endorsement as a reading specialist for grades K-9. Sadly, looking back now, I left my program knowing very little about how to teach reading. At that time, the nation was deeply steeped in the “whole language” approach to teaching reading. Whole language is based on constructivism learning theory and means students have an active role in their learning (Fauzi & Basikin, 2020). In the whole language approach, the teacher is the facilitator of students learning foundational skills (phonological awareness, phonics, and syllabication) within the context of authentic language. What this meant for me as a new teacher was a bookroom full of whole class novels, no teacher’s manual, and no idea how to teach reading. On top of that, I was teaching a class of students who had been identified as being at risk for dyslexia. Let’s add to that challenge. More than half my students were also English Language Learners! (To this day, I continue to wonder if the screener inaccurately identified students with limited English language skills as being at risk for dyslexia). Sadly, I was not alone in this scenario. Surveys conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality revealed that only 29% of the colleges that offer courses in reading instruction require coursework in the five elements of reading instruction (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) (Greenberg, et al., 2013). My reading instruction looked like a lot of arts and crafts book projects. Students created posters, dioramas, cereal box covers, and other “cute” projects and learned very little about how to accurately decode and read with fluency and comprehension.

This is what my classroom looked like in 1985.

To my credit, I built beautiful classroom libraries, read aloud to students every day, taught comprehension strategies like making predictions, making connections, visualizing, and summarizing. I gave students time to read books of choice during “Drop Everything and Read” (DEAR) time every day. As my instruction slowly morphed into what we now refer to as “balanced literacy” I worked even harder at fostering a love of reading for my students as well as teaching them how to use comprehension strategies. But, as my friend and colleague, Dr. Katherine Casey Spengler likes to say, “It doesn’t matter how much we teach our students to love to read if we are not teaching them how to read.” (Dr. Casey Spengler is a licensed reading clinician in San Diego, California. In her practice, she works with students who have severe difficulties learning to read and write, which she says negatively affects nearly every other aspect of their academics as well as their self-concept.)

Fast-forward 37 years and thank goodness I now know better, and thus can do better. (By the way, try out the hashtag: #knowbetterdobetter on social media to connect with a ton of content on the science of teaching reading. What I really wish I had known then, that I do know now, is the importance of phonological awareness as a foundational building block in learning to read. Moats and Tolman (2019) define phonological awareness as, “Conscious awareness of all levels of the speech sound system, including word boundaries, stress patterns, syllables, onset-rime units, and phonemes” (p. 87).

(Reading Rockets, 2021.)

Start With Assessment

Phonological awareness assessment should begin prior to kindergarten and continue for those students for whom it is indicated throughout the early elementary grades. If students have low decoding or phonics skills, it is advised to start the assessment with phonological awareness. AIM Institute for Learning and Research published this nifty flowchart to help guide teachers in their decision-making process when determining what reading assessments to administer. For some students, there may be a need for speech articulation therapy or screening for hearing loss. For the most part though, gaps in phonological awareness can be closed with intense intervention in as little as 11-15 hours spread out over time (Blevins, 2017).

Begin Instruction with Rhyming Lessons

Rhyming is a joyful activity for young readers, and it also allows for students to enter phonological awareness simply by noticing the sounds in language separate from meaning (Honig et al., 2018). Start by sharing that words rhyme if the last part (i.e. the vowel and what follows) of each word sounds the same. Model with explicit word pair examples, asking students what makes the words rhyme. Follow up with clarifying with non-examples and asking students why the word pairs do not rhyme. Try engaging students in generating rhymes by showing a picture (avoid using print, because again we are focusing on the sounds in language) of an object and naming the object.

Wordless rhyming cards like these are great for phonological awareness activities.

Then ask students what part of the word rhymes. For example, if the picture is of a nut, students should answer /ut/. Then ask students to think of a word that ends in the /ut/ sound. If students respond incorrectly, be sure to give corrective feedback promptly and model the correct response with explanation. There are many rhyming games available to make rhyming practice fun. This is also something we can share and partner with parents to help practice at home for students who need extra support.

Word Level Lessons: Compound Words

Compound words are a good entry point for phonological awareness at the word level. Two-syllable compound words are a great starting place for work in blending, segmentation, and deletion. Be sure to work with words that are familiar to students to avoid confusion and allow for the focus to be on phonological awareness. If unsure, explicitly teach the meaning of the word before using it for phonological awareness instruction. To teach and practice blending word parts, use two picture cards to introduce the word parts. For example, if blending doghouse, use a picture card of a dog and separate card with a picture of a house. Start with telling the student that the first card is a picture of a dog, and the second card is a picture of a house. Then, tell the student when you say the two words together without a break in between, they make a new word, “doghouse.” This game can be played whole group, small group, or with individual students with other picture cards.

To segment words, say the word aloud to the student using one picture card for the word. For example, hold up a picture card of a cupcake and tell students the picture is a “cupcake.” Then tell students that there are two word parts in the word “cupcake” and ask them to listen carefully as you say and clap the word parts.

Wordless picture cards like these are great for compound word activities.

Finally, to teach and practice deletion of word parts, use two picture cards again as if you were blending word parts. Only this time, practice putting the word parts together (blending) and then remove one of the parts and ask students to say the word that remains. There are many games available online and in professional texts such as CORE’s Teaching Reading Sourcebook (2018).

Word Level Lessons: Syllable Segmentation and Blending

Segmenting syllables is a skill that typically precedes the ability to individually segment phonemes. If you are worried about the word syllable being too challenging for your young readers, know that it isn’t necessarily important for student to know the term. Instead, focus on the concept of syllables and the ability to manipulate them. Again, try to work with familiar words so that students can focus on the phonological awareness part of the lesson and not struggle with word meaning. Teaching and practicing syllable segmentation is similar to the lesson described above with word part segmentation using compound words, only this time students are practicing hearing the individual syllables in words that are not compound words. Tell the students you are going to say a word with more than one word part, and you want them to listen carefully for the word part and clap the parts with you. For example, say the word “carrot” and clap the two syllables. Then ask students how many word parts are in the word “carrot.” Think of blending the word by saying the word parts separately and asking students to “put the parts together” to say one word. Later, show students picture cards and practice segmenting and blending the syllables, sorting into stacks of one, two, and three syllable


Sorting picture cards by syllables provides a visual component to these lessons.

Decoding x Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension (The Simple View of Reading)  

I hope this post was helpful in sparking some thought around reconsidering early reading instruction. Reading is a complex act comprised of multiple skills. While I was steeped in balanced literacy, I was only attending to the “language comprehension” strand of Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001). Our students need explicit, systematic, and sequential instruction in both strands to become skilled readers. Come back next week for a post on phonemic awareness; the next stage in phonological awareness!


AIM Institute for Learning and Research. (2019). Quick guide for reading assessment [Flowchart]. https://media.ride.ri.gov/EEIE/GuidanceSY20-21/ELA-AIM-Tool-Flowchart.pdf

Blevins, W. (2017). A closer look at phonics: Common Causes of failure and 7 ingredients for success. Corwin Literacy.

Fauzi, C., & Basikin. (2020). The impact of the whole language approach towards children early reading and writing in English. JPUD – Jurnal Pendidikan Usia Dini, 14(1), 87–101. https://doi.org/10.21009/jpud.141.07

Greenberg, J., McKee, A., & Walsh, K. (2013). Teacher prep review: A review of the nation’s teacher preparation programs. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2353894

Honig, B., Beard El-Dinary, P., Hudson, R. F., Lane, H. B., Mahler, J., & Pullen, P. C. (2018). Teaching reading sourcebook (3rd ed.). Arena Press.

International Dyslexia Association. (2018). Scarborough’s reading rope: A groundbreaking infographic. https://dyslexiaida.org/scarboroughs-reading-rope-a-groundbreaking-infographic/

Moats, L., & Tolman, C. (2019). LETRS: Units 1-4 (3rd ed.). Voyager Sopris Learning.

Phonological and phonemic awareness. (n.d.). Reading Rockets. https://www.readingrockets.org/teaching/reading-basics/phonemic

Reed, D. K. (2012). Why teach spelling? RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.