A lot of recent research supports the systematic teaching of phonics in beginning reading programs. The problem is that phonics lessons can get awfully dull, with teachers pointing to the letter and having kids say the sound, or students poring over phonics worksheets that ask them to match the right letter to the word, add letters to make new words, create words that rhyme, and master other phonemic awareness skills. Bo-ring! I can still remember my teacher handing me a stack of phonics books and telling me to work on them in my spare time. In my spare time! I’d skipped second grade, which is when phonics USED to be taught, now it’s taught in preschool in many places.
Phonics doesn’t need to be boring. If teachers spice it up with songs and games and activities, then it becomes easier to learn than if it’s simply a rote mechanical process of sign-symbol regurgitation. I like using Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences as a framework for looking at different ways of presenting phonics to students. Gardner suggests that there are at least eight intelligences in every student: Word Smart, Number/Logic Smart, Picture Smart, Body Smart, Music Smart, People Smart, Self Smart, and Nature Smart. Kids are apt to learn more effectively if one or more of their most developed or preferred intelligences are built into the lesson plan. Here are some ideas for phonics activities for each intelligence. The specific skill being taught here is differentiating the ”ee” and ”oo” phonemes/graphemes:
- Word Smart: Tell the kids a story about some animals in the forest. Here’s what it might look like written on the board as the teacher reads it to the class: ‘‘Once upon a time there were two little birdies that were left in a nest. A cat started crawling up the tree to gobble them up. They got worried and cried “ee!” Luckily, there was an owl nearby who saw this and he screeched “hoo!” The parents of the birdies heard the owl go “hoo!” and they flew back and saved their little ones, who were so happy that they just kept crying “ee!” all day long! When the story comes to an ”ee” sound or an ”oo” sound, all the kids shout out that sound. This can be done with other phonemes as well. The combination of written and oral language is an important integrating element here.
- Number/Logic Smart: For the logical child, one can put up on the board a Venn diagram showing two circles intersecting. In one circle put words that have the ”ee” sound (e.g. she, bean etc.), and in the other circle put words that have the ”ee” visual configuration (e.g. been, seer). Where the circles intersect would be words that have BOTH the sound and the visual configuration of “ee” (e.g. seen, keen, knee, bee etc.). Then do the same thing with the ”oo” phoneme and grapheme.
- Picture Smart: Put the above story on the board, and have kids come up and use color markers or chalk to highlight the words that have the ”ee” and ”oo” phoneme and grapheme in them. Another fun thing you can do is to draw a picture of the owl in the story, and emphasize circles around his eyes (”oo”), and with another bird like the Bohemian Waxwing make the eyes look instead like (”ee”). Advertisers have long known that if you want somebody to remember your company, embed the name in an image.
- Body Smart: Have the kids say the above story on the board in unison and every time they get to an ”ee” sight and sound, they stretch out their arms, and every time they get to an ”oo” visual and aural word, they bring their arms in toward their bodies. Other gestures suggested by the kids can also be used and are likely to be more fun for them.
- Music Smart: Music is great for teaching phonics. In fact, if teachers used nothing but songs to teach phonemic awareness, I think they’d be doing far better than they are doing with their systematic direct instruction and worksheets. Use songs that play around with the ”oo” and ”ee” sounds. One good song that I learned in summer camp as a teacher goes like this: ”I want to eat/Eight apples and bananas/I want to eat/Eight apples and bananas.” Now the way I learned it, you say each line and the kids repeat it back to you (versions of this song are on the Internet). Once they get the basic song, then you substitute the ”ee” sound for all the vowels, so it sounds like this ”Ee ween tee eat/eet eeples and baneenees/Ee ween tee eat/eet eeples and baneenees” For the ”oo” sound it would sound like this: ”Oo woont too oot/Oot ooples and banoonoos/Oo woont too oot/Oot ooples and banoonoos.” You can have a lot of fun with other phonemes as well!
- People Smart: After you’ve told the story in the Word Smart section, then tell the kids that you’re going to whisper either the ”ee” sound or the ”oo” sound in their ear one at a time. After doing this, then have the students stand up and mingle a little. Then on a signal (a chime works well), have them shout out their sound and find all the other people in the class who are saying the same sound. Very good for auditory discrimination!
- Self Smart: Self Smart is the intelligence of knowing who you are, and part of this kind of smart is knowing what you’re feeling and being able to regulate it. Emotion is a very powerful learning aid, since our brains evolved over millions of years to process strong emotions. So for our two phonemes, we can emphasize the emotional valence of each one. So that ”oo” is like the ”ooooh!” that we feel when we see something fascinating or terribly interesting. I used to teach Portuguese immigrants in Montreal, Canada and whenever they were displeased with something like a homework assignment, they often would say ”eee! sir” (they always included the ”sir” – very polite!). In the United States we tend to use ”ee” as an expression of fright (”eeee! that monster is eating up our town!”). So the teacher can create some emotional scenarios or show photos that evoke emotional reactions, and have kids not only saying the phonemes, but feeling them as well!
- Nature Smart: You’ll notice that our story involved animals in the forest. You can go online to the Audubon Society website and find audio files that record the sounds of real birds. Then you can identify the ”oo” sound and ”ee” sound with different birds. In another post, I’ve suggested that since auditory sensitivity for nature sounds was once vital to our survival in the wild, that kids are more apt to remember phonics sounds that are similar to sounds in nature than they are to just having some teacher saying ”buh” ”tuh” ‘nuh!” without a rich context.
So this should give you a sense of how to proceed with an enriched phonics program – it should be above all fun and engage kids with movement, music, oral traditions, nature sounds, images, and more. You certainly don’t have to do all the activities listed above, but hopefully these suggestions will inspire you to create your own multiple intelligences/phonics lesson plans. Reading isn’t just a science, it’s an art, so be creative with it!
For more information on teaching reading (and writing) through the eight multiple intelligences, see my book The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive.
This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.
Follow me on Twitter: @Dr_Armstrong