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3 Tips to Revamp Your Foundational Skills Instruction

By Dr. Julia Lindsey, Literacy Consultant and Foundational Skills Expert

In the coming year, many districts, schools, and teachers will be reassessing their foundational skills instruction. Because learning may have been affected by the pandemic, educators around the world are reexamining their curricula at this time. Here are three tips for getting started!

1. Consider a New Curriculum, If This Sounds Like You

How do you know when it’s time for a new foundational skills curriculum? Start by asking yourself if your curriculum corresponds with what we know about how children learn to read. If you notice any of these common red flags below, it’s probably time to look for a new curriculum that better supports your students.

  • Letter-a-week alphabet instruction. This is too slow. Research tells us faster alphabet introduction is helpful, especially for children with limited alphabet knowledge.
  • No attention to phonemic awareness. From isolating phonemes to segmenting and blending, phonemic awareness is critical for reading success. Research shows that even preschool-aged children can and should engage in phonemic awareness activities.
  • Very little or no spelling of decodable words. Spelling helps children build orthographic maps of words. Students who are successful with early spelling are more likely to be successful readers.
  • No connected decodable texts. Children’s brains need the chance to practice foundational skills in context. Decodable texts provide a great opportunity for children to build fluency and practice print concepts and phonics.

2. Bolster Any Curriculum With Supplements

Whether or not you’re entirely revamping your curriculum, adding helpful components can provide much-needed support.

  • Research shows that phonemic awareness can be successfully added quickly, especially when paired with letters. Rather than needing hours and hours of phonemic awareness instruction, children can be effectively supported by short phonemic awareness activities focused on isolating, blending, segmenting, and manipulating phonemes. A five-minute practice routine could be:
    • Model the phonemic awareness skill
    • Have children practice orally with phonemes related to your phonics instruction
    • Have children practice the same skill with letters
  • You might also add decodable texts to your existing curriculum. When looking for decodable texts, ask yourself:
    • Do these texts follow my phonics scope and sequence?
    • Are the texts actually decodable? (Some texts claiming to be decodable actually aren’t.)
    • Do these texts follow my high frequency word scope and sequence?
    • Are the texts meaningful?
    • Are the texts culturally relevant to my students?

3. Quality Matters More Than Quantity

Suggestions vary widely about how much time teachers should spend on foundational skills. Should you devote 10 minutes or two hours each day to teaching the alphabet?

  • Despite a vast range of extreme suggestions, most researchers suggest that in the early grades, around 45 to 60 minutes spent on foundational skills instruction per day is ideal.
  • Times may vary based on student needs.
  • The 45- to 60-minute timeframe often includes whole group, small group, and supported independent (supported reading or computer-based) time focused on foundational skills.
  • Quality is key. Teaching foundational skills effectively doesn’t mean you need to spend all day on these skills!

Curricular decisions are at the forefront of the educational world right now for two reasons: 1) many schools are aiming to accelerate learning in response to the disrupted instruction of the past two years, and 2) large conversations are examining what science says about reading.

Luckily, following research is the best way to accelerate learning. Want to feel confident you’re making research-based decisions about curricula? Try using these tips as a place to start, and see how these best practices can help you support your students as they build foundational skills.

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