In early reading instruction, instruction should start at the phoneme level and then have students learn to connect sounds to letters. This “sound mapping” is a foundational skill in learning how to read. When students can quickly identify letter-sound relationships, they are more readily able to decode words with automaticity. This quick decoding allows readers to use less of their cognitive energies on decoding, and more of their cognitive energy on comprehension—the ultimate goal of a reader!
The connection between letters and their sounds, however, is not an innate skill. The body of research included in the Science of Reading and elsewhere has shown that students need frequent and varied opportunities to practice new learnings to achieve mastery. Simple exposure to new letter-sound patterns is not enough to cement sound mapping permanently. In the International Literacy Association's (ILA) Leadership Brief, Meeting the Challenges of Early Literacy Phonics Instruction by Wiley Blevins, Blevins outlines how phonics skills must be regularly reviewed before a reader can independently and effectively apply the skill in an unfamiliar, authentic context.
To support this mastery, teachers should systematically and explicitly teach students through a gradual release of the responsibility model. Through this instructional approach, teachers should first introduce letter-sound patterns and model how to utilize them to decode new and unfamiliar words. This introduction can be scaffolded in a way that reviews known or familiar sounds to support the introduction of new letter-sound relationships via a systematic scope and sequence.
New phonics skills must be regularly reviewed before a reader can independently and effectively apply the skill in an unfamiliar, authentic context.
After instruction and modeling, teachers and students should work together to apply this sound-spelling pattern to decode new words. After a period of guided practice, students should be given ample, supported opportunities for independent practice. Students need multiple, varied opportunities to practice what they are learning to achieve mastery. Independent practice opportunities to review and practice new skills can take many forms, all opportunities, however, should support a students’ abilities to decode or encode (write a letter that matches a sound) in authentic contexts.
Ineffective use of the gradual release model through insufficient opportunities for independent practice is a common instructional pitfall that can undermine readers’ abilities to achieve mastery of letter-sound relationships. Independent practice opportunities must be given intentional and frequent time and space. When teachers over-model application of a sound skill (for example by having students simply “parrot” or repeat activities), readers are unable to do the necessary thinking required in a lesson that would support mastery and growth.
Independent practice activities should be varied and fun to foster engagement and excitement. Some opportunities may include:
“Independent practice” as a phrase, however, can be a bit of a misnomer. Readers should not be left completely to their own devices during this instructional phase and teachers should not be complacent. The role of a teacher during this application period is to offer active support through thoughtful and targeted individual or small group conferring. Teachers should listen to readers and talk with them as they progress through an activity. As they listen, they should look for strengths that they can reinforce. Common difficulties for students include: remembering certain letters or words, sound-spelling relationships, have trouble with high-frequency words. Here are some solutions to support students learning.
Teachers should not only target struggling readers, but any reader who may be trying on manipulation of new sound-spelling patterns. Imperfect practice can lead students to ineffectively map sounds to letters that represent the correct sounds in words. Without corrective feedback, students may begin to misapply or mislabel sound-letter relationships.
Students must be given strategic chances to try the “heavy lifting” of reading. Independent practice offers an opportunity during which early readers can independently apply sound mapping in authentic and meaningful activities. Research has proven that readers progress much more rapidly in their mastery of phonics skills when most of their instructional time is spent authentically applying phonics skills in reading and writing. Independent practice opportunities are essential to support this application!
Explore an Interactive Practice Bundle that will bring independent practice into the classroom and home. This new online collection of student and teacher resources to help students develop their decoding, encoding, and reading comprehension skills independently can be used with any literacy program.
Incorporating independent practice into a classroom’s daily routine can have a profound impact on reading achievement. Students need multiple, varied opportunities to practice phonics skills to achieve mastery as a reader. Thoughtfully structured independent practice opportunities are just the way to support all readers on their road to reading independence!
Word Ladder Activity
Leveled Books with a Phonics Focus
Phonics Activities & Games Kit
Phonics Reflection Kit