The Building Blocks for Reading: The Importance of Phonics for K5 and Younger


In our recent Front Office webinar, we spoke with Tammy Harrington, an Elementary Product Manager at Abeka with 15 years of experience in the classroom teaching preschool, and Kelly Walker, the Nursery Director at Pensacola Christian Academy. She currently works with babies and toddlers and has 20 years of experience as a preschool teacher, as well as director credentials with the Florida Department of Children and Family. 

These two experienced educators walked us through the fundamentals of learning to read, starting with phonics. Phonics is the true gateway to reading. It helps students become smooth, confident and comprehending readers. At Abeka, we use an intensive phonics method that helps students develop the necessary tools to decode and analyze words.

“Whole word” and “site reading” are the contrasting methods to intensive phonics. When a student is using these methods, they look at the shape and outline of a word and memorize it. Their reading fluency is tied to memorization rather than analyzation and comprehension, which limits their reading fluency over time. Intensive phonics helps students look at individual letters and combinations in order to analyze a new word. 

Abeka’s intensive phonics approach can be broken down into six basic steps. 

1. Learn to recognize the short vowels and their sounds.
That means A, E, I, O, and U; and work with students’ short sounds.
2. Learn to recognize the consonants and their sounds.
We use pictures to connect familiar objects and animals to relate the letter at the beginning of each word to those objects.
3. Learn to blend the vowels and consonants.
Put the two previous steps together by combining the vowel sounds and consonants sounds they’ve already learned. Abeka emphasizes the blend at the beginning of the word, not the end like other programs. They do this because we read left to right.
4. Learn to sound one-vowel words.
Using the consonant sounds and vowel sounds, students can now learn to combine the two in simple one-vowel words. For instance, m-a says “ma”, add the t, and the sounded out word is“mat”. Students will identify within these words that there is only one vowel, so they’re able to emphasize the short vowel sound, and then, identify two-vowel words in the future.
5. Learn the sounds of the long vowels + Learn to sound two-vowel words.
When there are two vowels in a word, the first one is a long sound, and the second one is silent. For example, “rain”. The “a” is a long vowel, and the “i” is silent. So, once a student is able to identify and mark those, they will be ready to sound the two-vowel word out.
6. Learn and apply special phonics sounds.
This step is typically not addressed until Kindergarten. Special sounds represent 132 common letter combinations in the English language. Some can be sounded out, but by learning to identify these sounds instantly, the student will be able to move more fluidly and quickly through words on a page. In turn, their reading comprehension will be much easier to develop and work on.

Now that you’ve been introduced to the six steps of the Abeka intensive phonics program, we’re going to walk you through how we apply those steps at each age group, starting with 2s.

Age 2: Building Communication Skills

Use your curriculum as a guide, and be creative with how you show and share new words with students. Start by linking something your young student does know to something they don’t know. For instance, in a book, if you point out a dog and they know it’s a husky – if they know that word – you can go one step further to explain that huskies belong to Eskimos and live in Alaska. With that you’ve just expanded their vocabulary. Periodically revisit that new information in order to work on retention.

Build their confidence to speak new words Children build their confidence in learning new words in order to formulate sentences. And you can help them to do that by connecting spoken words to people, places, and things. Asking thinking questions will queue them to remember new words they’ve been exposed to, and with time and practice, they will understand how the words can be applied in a sentence.

Phonics actually starts at this point in a child’s vocabulary development. They must first understand how to say words and form those words properly into sentences. Then they can learn to sound out words from letters, and eventually, read those words and comprehend what they mean.

You can help cement these new words in a child’s memory by getting as many senses involved as possible. A few multi-sensory opportunities included in the 2s Abeka curriculum are the bright, colorful illustrations and visual aids. Include thinking questions to get them to speak new words themselves.

How to create sensory opportunities for word reinforcement

Getting all the senses involved helps preschool-aged students to recall and connect what they’ve learned. The Animal Alphabet Friends book helps to connect a bright image with a letter and word, and the first sound of each animal is emphasized in order to teach them how to speak the animal’s name. A couple of other fun tricks our preschool teachers like to use are songs and poems to teach them vocab and phraseology they might not pick up in regular sentences.

Songs like the ones you can find in our Little Ones Sing Unto the Lord book are an interactive way to get everyone involved, use new senses, and even get some children who are hesitant to speak to do it without even noticing–in song form. Fun poems and finger play books help students with sentence structure. And together, songs and poems will help create repetition which is the key to learning.

And lastly, don’t forget, your students will mirror your excitement and enthusiasm for the words, songs, and poems you’re introducing to them. By showing them that learning new words is fun, they will enjoy the process.

Age 3: Learning Letters and Letter Recognition

By age 3, your young students’ word knowledge has exploded. Their next big milestone will be to learn letters and develop letter recognition. In the Abeka curriculum, we start by using the Animal Friends flashcards in conjunction with Letters and Sounds for 3s, with emphasis on the shapes of letters to start to learn nouns. Have your students trace letters to start to gain a feel for their shapes. Or, make letters memorable by describing a capital “A” saying “go up, slant down, and put on his belt.” We also include cards to send home with the student for additional practice of the letters the class is focusing on so parents can help their kids practice too. The back of each card includes an explanation of how to draw each letter’s shape.

Take time to get creative

It can help students get into the learning mindset to use a puppet, like Amber Lamb. The kids will anticipate seeing her when it’s time to learn about letters and sounds. Each time Amber Lamb comes out, your students will be engaged and excited, making it far more likely that they will retain the new letters and sounds you will be introducing.

How does the curriculum help you teach 3s?

The curriculum provides you with a guide on what to teach, and then from there, you decide how you want to teach it. Abeka even provides a sample script to help you get an idea of how you could position the lesson to your students by highlighting what should be emphasized.

Repetition helps set learning habits

Repetition is woven throughout the Abeka lesson plans, and it’s a big part of what helps students remember the important parts of each lesson. Amber Lamb is a great example; as your students begin to look forward to that piece of the lesson, they will continue to be attentive and interactive.

By following the weekly lesson plans and including themes and repetition, your students will learn the cadence of your classroom. The consistent structure within lessons will allow students to focus less on what’s coming and more on learning.

Through repetition and practice of each letter you introduce, you will be building and reinforcing confidence in letter recognition and sound formation. Through the daily reading and interactive conversations that are mapped out in the curriculum, your students will begin to understand more complex sentence structure, and they will continue to develop their listening and communication skills.

K4 and K5

After preschool, students have already developed the connections between books and reading. They’ve been exposed to books through pictures and letters, and as they enter K4 and K5, they will be prepared to begin engaging with the 6 steps of intensive phonics we outlined at the beginning of this blog.

How phonics is introduced in K4

In K4, the concentration is on the first 4 steps of the phonics reading program. The curriculum touches on step 5. Within the K4 teacher curriculum lesson plans, you will go at a pace of about 3 days per letter, starting with vowels and moving into consonants. Once students have mastered those, they’ll begin to learn to blend. From there, they will start to learn one-vowel words.

How phonics is introduced in K5

In K5, your students will focus on steps 1-5, reviewing what was learned in K4, and then, touch on step 6. The pace speeds up a bit, and it becomes a bit more predictable. Your students will get two days per letter. On the first day students will work on recognition of the letter and the sound. On the second day, the class will work on blending, then on to one-vowel words. This structure creates a predictable pattern for the students, allowing them to feel comfortable knowing what to expect. And the predictability is also good for the teacher because they can spend more effort and time focusing on the students and the creativity of each lesson.

Enforcing true sounds

In K4 and K5, students will be developing their true sounds, which means they will learn how to mark the vowels, and eventually, be able to read words faster because of those indicating vowels. It’s very important to establish good habits with true sounds early.

Visualizations are a great way to help establish good habits for vowels. For example, for the letter “a”, have students pretend as if they are about to bite into an apple to help cement the way their mouth should form to make the true sound of the “a” in apple in their head.

You should also be intentional about making time to fit in a review of the vowels and consonants letters. Those fundamental pieces will be critical for your students to move forward in their reading development in the future.

In the blending steps of K4 and K5, the curriculum will begin with the letter blend ladders. You should start slowly speaking the blends together, and move faster as they begin to master them. Once your students have them memorized, you can turn the blend ladder over. The combinations are mixed up on the back, so they will have to rely on comprehension over memorization.

One vowel-words

In step 4 of K4 and K5, your class will move on to learning one-vowel words, starting by addressing the blend ladders and adding a consonant to the end of each blend. Then, students will learn the vowel rules.

Our favorite way to remember the most important one-vowel rule is: When there is one vowel in a word, it usually says its short-sound. Mark it with a smile. You’re teaching them to recognize that that letter is going to say its short-sound. Each time they mark that sign on a word, it’s a trigger in their mind for the correlating sound.
With long sounds, an easy way to teach your students to remember the sound is: Did you know the long-vowels are their letter names? That’s the main thing they need to learn, and once they’ve learned that rule, students will learn how to mark those vowels in order to train themselves to notice how to speak, and eventually, read those words faster.

Special sounds

In step 6, students are preparing to read by beginning to learn the 132 most commonly usedletter combinations in the English language. As soon as students are able to master blends and then form the words, we give them sentences with words using these special sound letter combinations. Students are taught to circle the special letter combination or “special sound” within the word and mark the vowels in order to learn to combine them.

How the curriculum helps you teach K4 and K5

The curriculum walks you through the ideal allotted time per subject, along with ideas on how to teach each lesson. In K4 and K5, there’s much more change within daily activities as opposed to the slower pace of the earlier preschool curriculum.

The curriculum also includes workbooks where students can apply and practice what they’re learning as the lessons are taking place as well as send pages home so parents can keep up. Having something to send home for parents to see and help reinforce is always helpful.

Throughout the phonics program, we recommend having multiple readers on hand for your students–each book builds a new sense of excitement to complete. Students can take home their little books and read them to their family members. Once they return back to school, and they get a sticker for completing that book, they will feel a sense of accomplishment. And the readers don’t just start at the final step–they can start as early as the vowel and letter steps. Through readers and workbooks, students will begin to develop independence, and hopefully, a love of reading in the process.

Whether you teach 2s or K5, you are an integral part of learning to read and write for each of your students. What joy and honor to watch these young minds learn! Please comment below with any additional questions or advice you may have for other teachers when using our phonics program. We want to hear from you.

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