Phonics Based Vocabulary Acquisition

Set 1
Set 2
Bundle: sets 1 & 2

One year, soon after returning to the USA and K-12 ESL, the intervention dean at my school told me to, “do whatever it takes to improve our ELL’s reading scores.” We had a large number of beginning and low intermediate English language learners in upper elementary and middle school who were reading at a kindergarten or first grade level. Most of these students were classified as having limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) and fewer than half of the students (and their parents) could read or write in their first languages (primarily Bengali and Arabic). Many different research-based curriculums and interventions had been tried, none produced significant results. Our students were falling further and further behind. Since I was taking an action research course as part of my second master’s degree studies at the time, I decided to make this problem the focus of my research. The question I finally settled on was, “Will intensive and direct phonics instruction help English language learners become better readers more quickly than the general English language development that has been provided to them in the past?” I then spent the next year developing a word family based phonics program and implementing it. I tracked student data for a total of three years and the results were staggering.

The year before I began using my phonics based vocabulary acquisition program, the students’ average growth on the NWEA reading test was 82% (100% is equal to one school year). At the end of the first year, students showed an average growth rate of 245%. The second year of implementation yielded an average growth rate of 336%, and the final year I tracked scores had an average growth rate of 268%. Needless to say, my dean was very happy with the results! After leaving that particular school, I used the same program quite successfully (average growth rate of 123%) with my primarily Spanish-speaking middle schoolers in a different district. While this second population of students were also classified as SLIFE, most could read and write in their first language, as could their parents. I believe the students’ first language literacy, and familiarity with the grapheme system, explain why the average rate of growth was lower.

Enough about the data, let’s talk about the program! The two levels consist of ten units each and begin with a focus on vowels. Set one covers the word families AT, AN/AD, AP/AG, OG/OP/OT, EG/EN/ET, UG/UN/UT, IG/ILL/IP, R-controlled vowels, and VCe (ake, ore, ine). Set two deals more with blends and diagraphs and includes the word families SH, CH, TH, WH, ST, QU, OI/OY, AW/AU, KN, and TION. I typically did a unit, or word family, each week, though I’d stretch it to two weeks for the longer units (those that include 20 words, rather than 12). We typically spent between 20 and 30 minutes a day on the different activities, and we met five days a week. Our typical daily lesson included a review of the sound we were focusing on (particularly the difference between short and long vowels), a read aloud (students would signal when they heard a word with the target sound), a student-read book (list of suggested books for teacher read aloud and students read times is included in the units), a word work game or activity, and a worksheet. Each Friday we’d do an assessment, testing students’ spelling and use of the words.

Some of the word work activities we did included:

  • Sort Cards- students would match a picture care with the corresponding word card. These cards were also used as prompts in other games, as a Memory-style game, and as flashcards.
  • Magnet Spelling– it was during the development of these units that I first discovered my middle schoolers enjoyed using magnets to practice their spelling. I eventually made picture strips for each unit and it became a regular part of our word work routine. You can read all of the details, and get a free digital template version, in the blog post from June, 2021.
  • Match Up Cards– these are cards I designed to go with the match up boards my father designed and built for me (get the free building plans in my TpT store). Students slide the picture cards into the left slot and the word list into the right slot. They then use rubber bands to match the picture to the correct word. (A blog post describing this activity in more detail is planned for May, 2022.)
  • Clip Cards- students use clothes pins to indicate the correct word for the picture in the center of the card. This is another activity I was surprised my middle schoolers enjoyed, but they did and so it too became part of our regular rotation.
  • Scrambled Words– described in the “Trash” section of Toys, Trash, or Teaching Treasures?, this activity involves students choosing a plastic egg and then using the Scrabble tiles inside it to spell a word. Students then record the word next to the correct picture on their recording sheet.
  • Spin, Spell, Sentence– this game was a favorite the students asked to play whenever we had five minutes left at the end of a class. As I explain in a previous blog post, I print CD labels with pictures from our list of target words. I then affix these labels to old CDs and DVDs, and use the CD Spinner my dad designed and built for me (free building plans in my shop). The student spins the spinner, states the word represented by the picture, spells the word, and uses it in a sentence.
  • Body Boggle– it was this set of units that also inspired Body Boggle and its many variations. It was my second group of middle schoolers (almost entirely boys) who came up with the team version–where each person on the team would take turns jumping to the next letter, sometimes running into one another in the process.

The worksheets we did each week were always the same.

  • Cut and Paste: students cut out pictures and glued them next to the target words.
  • Alphabetical Order: since most of the students were still working on mastering the English alphabet, this was an excellent way for them to practice writing their words and an important skill at the same time.
  • Crossword
  • Word search
  • Cloze (complete the sentences with the target words)
  • Journal: though not technically a worksheet, each student had his/her own journal with 1-2 pages for each word family. Each week the students used each of their words in a sentence. It didn’t take long before my middle schoolers began competing to see who could create a sentence with the most target words in it and still have it make sense.

Every Friday was assessment day. I always started by reading the words in random order, as one would when giving a spelling test. The students would write the words next to the appropriate picture in the table at the top of their test papers. This allowed me to asses their understanding of the vocabulary, as well as their ability to spell the word (they received one point for spelling it correctly and one point for placing it next to the correct picture). The second half of the test was a cloze, requiring students to write the words to complete the sentences.

When I first began this adventure I never could have imagined where it would end up. My dean and I were simply desperate to help our students improve and so decided to try something different. Ending up with a complete curriculum involving spinning CDs, plastic eggs, muffin tins (another review game), and jumping middle schoolers is definitely not what I expected! This past summer I spent some time updating this program. I added more links to supplemental resources and reading books, updated all of the images, and included a few extras (like the Jeopardy review games). I hope the program is helpful to many more students and teachers. Happy teaching, everyone!

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