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NYC Helpline: How To: Teach Literacy

Connecting Research-Based Reading Practices to New York City's Reading Program
Arlyne LeSchack

The National Reading Report describes the teaching of reading as a five part process. Those five parts are phonemic awareness, phonics and the alphabetic principle, fluency, vocabulary development and comprehension. Further, the report sees the first two components as necessary prerequisites for the other three. What does that mean exactly?

Phonemic awareness is the understanding that spoken language is made up of a series of small sounds or phonemes. The research indicates that a child's level of phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of success in learning to read. In fact, the realization that there is a connection between the sounds of spoken languages and letters of written language is at the heart of understanding how written language works.

Similarly, the National Reading Panel report contends that understanding the alphabetic principle is a critical part of learning to read. Children must understand the essential nature of alphabetic language -- that the letters of the written words stand for the sounds of the spoken words.

So how does this all fit with "Balanced Literacy" and the Reading Workshop/Writing Workshop model adopted by New York City? Well, of course, there is some controversy: proponents of a more holistic approach would contend that the child can develop phonemic awareness and knowledge of the alphabetic principle through exposure to stories and just the right books while they are learning to read.

The two philosophies meet in the middle, however, through the work of Patricia Cunningham. She is the developer of the "Month-by-Month Phonics" program also adopted by New York City as part of their reading program. The program includes working with words at all grade levels. The goals of the word work include learning to read and spell high frequency words, learning patterns used to decode and spell other words, transferring word knowledge to reading and writing and developing automaticity with reading words.

All classrooms have "Word Walls" which are used for teaching. The teacher introduces five new words each week. She selects high frequency words that will be used in shared and guided reading as well as writing. The steps for teaching are:

1) See the words.
2) Say the words.
3) Chant the words (that includes snapping, clapping wiggling, stomping and cheering).
4) Write the words.
5) Trace around the words.
6) Do "On-The-Back" activities.

On-The-Back activities are designed to help students learn that some of the words on the word wall can help them spell lots of other words. Here's an example: Focus on word on the word wall like "it." Tell students to pretend they are writing a story about how a dog "bit" their brother. They can say "bit" slowly and listen for the first sound; students identify the initial sound and write the "b" followed by the "it."

Through these activities the students are developing both phonemic awareness and increasing their knowledge of the alphabetic principle. They nicely compliment your Reading and Writing Workshops and as a teacher, you've managed to connect two very different philosophies of how children learn to read.

Please e-mail me if you have any questions.


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