Kids learn to read best with systematic phonics instruction. This means, kids should learn one phonics sound at a time. Kids also need explicit instruction. The teacher should tell students directly what each phonics sound says: ee says ee as in tree, for example.
This has been described as the science of reading.
However, the science of reading is more complicated and includes more elements.
While systematic and explicit phonics instruction is critical, it’s not enough to get a child reading. Other elements of the science of reading have failed to hit mainstream culture and classrooms.
On social media, I’ve seen clips of “science of reading” teachers give long winded explanations for the sound of a letter or phonics unit. For example, one teacher gave a 20-minute explanation of the letter k. While this is technically systematic and direct phonics instruction, what this teacher was doing was not based on research and it was a waste of time.
20-minute letter k instruction is not only excessive, but it renders the entire lesson ineffective. Kids don’t learn to read through lectures. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-lecture, as some people in education seem to be. I enjoy lectures and I also recognize that talks are an effective way to teach some subjects. However, phonics and reading is not one of them.
In fact, teaching k-2 reading is much more like conducting an orchestra than lecturing an audience. The conductor (the teacher) makes a request and the orchestra (the students) makes a sound. The interaction is constantly moving back and forth. In this way, kids stay engaged with the sound-symbol correlations and they must put forth cognitive work.
In sum, teachers need to talk less.
Oftentimes, way, way less.
I learned this from the dyslexia professor and reading interventionist Dr. John Shefelbine. He phrased this recommendation as the following: “Limit teacher talk.”
“Limit teacher talk,” he said and wrote in his curriculum.
There is so much to learn about teaching dyslexic kids and beginning readers, that this important element of “limit teacher talk” often gets neglected. Teachers may engage in direct instruction, but if they drone on and on, they can render their “science of reading” instruction as not based on the research at all.
So how do you teach letter k?
First, here’s what NOT to do: long winded explanations of the letter k, explaining in detail how it looks, giving numerous examples of things that begin with the letter k and explaining these items, doing a letter k coloring activity to “learn” the shape of letter k, arts and crafts with the letter k, doing activities that solely focus on the letter k. All of these activities are okay in preschool. They can be fun and somewhat instrumental for children who are 3 or 4 years old. But when kids enter kindergarten, they need to actually learn how to read.
Reduce teacher talk.
Here’s what to do: First, by the time kids learn letter k, they should also know some other letters. For letter k is certainly not a good first letter to teach. Kids typically learn a or s or m first. Let’s say the kids already know s, m, a, i, t, p. Then, your goal should be to introduce letter k AND review all old letters.
Your introduction should be quick. Hold up a letter k flashcard. Say “k says k as in kangaroo. Let’s practice saying k.” The teacher and the students should go back and forth and say the SOUND/k/ while looking at the symbol k. Next, the teacher points to the letter k on the phonics sound chart (which should be an alphabet chart. All this should take about 2-3 minutes. Next, is the challenging part: kids need to discern the letter k from the other letters they’ve learned.
A good activity includes 1-3 word prompts from the teacher, a choral response from students and a review of old material.
In order to learn the phonics sounds and letters, students need to contrast them with what they already know. For example, kids learn “w” in contrast to “m,” “d” in contrast to “b” and so forth. Kids need to be able to analyze the letters next to other letters to understand their similarities and differences.
Teachers also need to talk less. They need to give quick requests.
So in a letter flashcard activity the cues would look like the following:
[Teacher holds up a flashcard for each letter.]
Teacher: Say the sound. [Points to letter d flashcard.]
Teacher: Say the sound. [Points to the letter b flashcard.]
Teacher: [Points to k flashcard.]
Notice how in the last cue, the teacher says nothing. She merely points. Notice how the teacher says very few words throughout the entire lesson. This is how phonics lessons should be conducted.
Minimize teacher talk.
Make sure students stay engaged. Keep interactions moving back and forth. Make your students recall and use what they’ve learned.