Unlearning Old Habits as you Switch to the Science of Teaching Reading

Phonemic Awareness and Phonics, Science of Reading

Chances are your school or district has moved to (or is in the process of moving towards) evidence-based reading instruction — also known nowadays as the science of reading. And as more states begin to adopt the science of reading and even write it into state law, it’s important to stay on top of these changes in curriculum and instruction. But the science of reading isn’t just a matter of learning how to teach a new curriculum or new strategies — you may also have to unlearn some old habits.

What do we mean by unlearning old habits? Well, as Education Week reports, some instructional strategies (like three-cueing) have become deeply ingrained in teaching practice, either from teacher prep programs or years of following a balanced literacy curriculum that lacked explicit, systematic instruction in phonics or practice with connected texts. One first-grade teacher interviewed by Education Week describes how her students “weren’t paying attention to the printed words on the page; they were scanning the page looking for pictures and making guesses.” If you’re accustomed to directing students to find clues in a picture to guess a word, this can be a difficult habit to break — especially because students are often successful when they use this strategy with simple predictable texts. But thinking past these types of predictable texts is important, and giving students opportunities to apply their new letter/sound knowledge without guessing or looking at a picture is vital for strengthening these connections in their brains.

Sometimes, a first step along the science of reading journey may start with updating your classroom environment — for example, changing your word wall to a sound wall. Word walls have been around for years, and setting up a word wall at the beginning of the school year is a familiar ritual for many teachers. But sound walls can offer greater support to students when learning language. Unlike a word wall which organizes sight words or high-frequency words alphabetically, a sound wall is organized by speech sound and includes the different spelling combinations that represent each sound (for example, the word “phone” would be placed under the /f/ sound rather than the letter P). Rather than memorizing sight words that are exceptions to the rules, students will see what letters or letter combinations correspond to each speech sound, helping them better understand the connection between reading and spelling. You can also experiment with different variations of sound walls — you could choose to use one wall for consonant sounds and one for vowel sounds, and even include pictures of students’ mouths as they form sounds. For more details on how to transition to a sound wall, check out this article from Reading Rockets.