The Big Five: Phonics Teaching Letters and Sounds


Phonics Teaching Letters and Sounds Part 6


Cipher skills are not optional for developing skilled reading in an alphabet-based written language.


To build this cipher knowledge, which is the ability to use the code of written English to decode and pronounce words, students need to be taught the code in an explicit and systematic manner. Ideally this should be taught early in a student’s reading development. 


In my last blog I discussed the importance of teaching letters and sounds to students, and some of the issues and challenges facing teachers, tutors, and parents when they tackle this. In this article, I will be introducing how I teach the letters and sounds to my students, along with the assessments I use to determine their prior knowledge of these skills, as well as for ongoing monitoring. 


All of my current students are first grade or older, and all exhibit some kind of difficulty with word-level reading. Prior to seeing me they have all had some experience of the alphabet letters and sounds, and the initial informal assessment I used with them determined that level of knowledge. Regardless of how weak their knowledge, I always start with teaching the alphabet letters and sounds. Their knowledge in these basic skills will often determine how quickly we can move through this initial stage.


The Orton-Gillingham Online Academy provides a letter sound assessment as part of their Informal Orton-Gillingham Coding Assessment. Another informal assessment is the CORE (Consortium on Reading Excellence) Phonics Survey, which tests letter names in upper and lower case, consonant sounds, and both long and short vowel sounds. The total score from these four subtests allows me to tell if the student is at benchmark, working at a strategic level, or is in need of intensive help. A word of caution here, even if a student provides you with the correct answers, if they aren’t automatic in their responses this is a huge red flag that they are experiencing difficulty. Even if a student self-corrects an error, I make a note that the letter-sound relationship knowledge for that particular letter is probably not solid. Automatic knowledge of the alphabet letters and sounds is essential for a student to be able to blend and decode words. 


I also make a note of letter sounds which aren’t clipped, for example if they say /tuh/ instead of /t/. David Kilpatrick tells us, “When doing phonemic awareness or phonics instruction, it is important to pronounce consonants without adding a vowel sound. The word “cat” is not pronounced kuh-ah-tuh, so we should not be pronouncing ‘c’ as /kuh/ or ‘t’ as /tuh/.”  If a student is not able to produce these clipped sounds, they will have great difficulty when they come to blend them to read vowel-consonant (VC) and consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words. The Orton-Gillingham Online Academy provide training in correct phoneme pronunciation as part of their Level 1 Basic Language Course. An audio download is also available from David Kilpatrick, which will help you to pronounce phonemes in isolation, for assessments, or for instruction. The download information is provided in Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties when you purchase a copy. 


Letter-Sound Cards-Building a Reading and Spelling Pack


In order to teach the alphabet letters and sounds, I group each of the five vowels with certain consonants, and teach these five sets separately. At the start of  each new lesson, I review what has already been covered before we move on. The speed with which I introduce these is determined by a student’s ability to recall, and to use these letters and sounds for blending, reading, and spelling VC real and nonsense words. Later they will move on to blend, read, and spell CVC real and nonsense words. Certain vowels and consonants are often confused, so separating their introduction is generally advisable.


I separate out the consonants and vowels that are most easily confused, and introduce them in different sessions, to give a student ample opportunity to work with a set before the confusable letters are added. Confusable letters are those with similar features, sounds, or names, or differentiated only by orientation, like ‘b’ and ‘d’.  I present each letter or grapheme with a card. Cards are color coded to help the students associate groups of letters, for example the consonants are on white cardstock and the vowels are on pink. I do discuss instructional vocabulary with students, using the terms, consonant, vowel, phoneme, and so on. 


The front of each card has a lowercase letter in the middle and the uppercase letter in the bottom right corner. On the back is a keyword containing the sound the letter makes, along with the letter that represents that phoneme and the letter in print or cursive script, which represents the letter name. For example:


Visual Drill Card for I

Figure 1: Example Visual Drill Card


Using the cards: 


The student is asked to say the keyword, the phoneme, and letter name. An example would be itchy /ǐ/ i, or pin /p/ p. I also use minor visual clues such as an adapted ‘b’ card for students with severe ‘b’/’d’ confusion, where the lowercase ‘b’, and the lowercase ‘b’ within the capital ‘B’ are highlighted in red.


The first curve in the capital is written in black. Diacritical marks are placed within the forward slashes for the vowels on the back of the cards, and the breve above the vowels is used, representing a short vowel sound. Once again these markings are discussed with the student.


Adapted B

Figure 2: An Adapted Letter ‘B’


For additional practice with the vowels the students are provided with keyword shapes to trace, where they emphasize and elongate the initial sound in the keyword and finish with the vowel. For example the “itchy” keyword shape is a squiggly line going from the top to the bottom of the page, with a dot on the top. The student says “iiiiiiitchy” as they trace the squiggly line and as they place their finger on the dot they say the phoneme /ĭ/. I ask them to practice this three times daily. 




Figure 3: Tracing Shapes to Reinforce Vowel Sounds


Each student builds their reading and spelling pack as they work with me. Different programs and trainings often introduce the letters in a different order, but this is my order of introduction:

i, t, p, n, s

a, l, d, f, g, h

o, c, m, r

e, b, j, k

u, qu, v, w, x, y, z


Visual Drill Procedure


To practice the letters and sounds that have been introduced, a visual drill is used during lessons and at home. The teacher, tutor, or parent points to the letter or shows the student the front of a particular reading and spelling pack card, and they are asked for the phoneme that letter makes. Students are prompted to recall the keyword if they have problems recalling a particular sound. If a student has difficulty recalling a certain phoneme when presented with the letter, a picture of the keyword can be added to the back of the card. The Orton-Gillingham Academy Level 1 Basic Language Course explains in much greater detail how to use the visual drill in your classroom, tutoring practice, or with your own child. This drill can be used as a means of ongoing monitoring of a student’s letter and sound knowledge.  


Auditory Drill Procedure


An auditory drill allows a teacher, tutor, or parent to see if a child is able to recall the correct letter when presented with its phoneme. Initially when calling out the phoneme, I ask the student to repeat it and then point to the correct letter from among those laid out in front of them. I use the reading and spelling pack cards for this activity. When they have correctly identified it, I ask them to give me its name. I do this while the students are learning to correctly form and write the letters in uppercase, and later lowercase, using the Handwriting Without Tears program as described in my previous blog. Once these handwriting skills have been established, I ask them to write the letter on a whiteboard or on paper as I present each phoneme. Multiple spelling choices are introduced as appropriate, for example when the /k/ sound is presented, the student would be expected to write both ‘c’ and ‘k’ once these letters have been introduced. For further ideas and training in the auditory drill I recommend taking the Orton-Gillingham Academy Level 1 Basic Language Course. Once again, this drill can be used as a means of ongoing monitoring of a student’s letter and sound knowledge.  


This blog has only dealt with the alphabet consonant and vowel sounds so far. Once the student has demonstrated they are able to successfully recognize, recall, and use these letters and sounds to read and spell VC and CVC words, I present them with the two and three sound blends at the beginning of words, and later the two sound blends at the ends of words. There are some programs that discourage this as often the blends are taught in such a way to make the child think they cannot be separated. So a child may read “fog” as “frog.” I do not teach the blends in this way, and furthermore, I ask the student to consistently break apart a blend when doing the auditory drill, so they can pick out the individual letters and write them. During the visual drill, I often discuss these as two sound blends and I may bring out both letters and ask a student to blend them and exchange them for the correct blend. I find teaching the blends helpful for reading to allow the student to blend and decode a word more easily. 


Order of Introduction


The order in which various programs teach letter sounds after this stage varies greatly. However, I will return to the later letter-sound relationships and multiple spelling choices in future blogs on this topic of phonics. It should be remembered that alongside of teaching the alphabet letters and sounds, it is essential that the early phonological awareness skills of rhyming, alliteration, and initial sounds should also be developed. My next blog will deal with what I described as the second level of development, Level 2 Phonic Decoding, in my first blog on phonics for this series on the Big Five for reading.  




Lorna Wooldridge is a blog writer for the Orton Gillingham Online Academy. She is a dyslexia specialist tutor with over twenty-five years of experience and qualifications in the field of learning differences, from both the UK and USA. Lorna has a unique perspective on this condition as she has dyslexia, and her passion is to serve this community in any way she can.

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