The 4 C’s of Effective Phonics Instruction that Boost Student Engagement

March 3, 2014, Angie Barnett

The 4 C’s of Effective Phonics Instruction that Boost Student Engagement

boost student engagementWhen I do classroom observations, I truly don’t even need to watch the teacher to evaluate instruction; I watch the students. If the processes are consistent and the instruction is clear, it is reflected in the students’ engagement, interaction, and efficiency in guided skill practice and application.  Ensuring student success during explicit phonics instruction comes down to what I call the Four C’s.

The Four C’s of Effective Phonics Instruction

  1. Clear instruction and processes
  2. Consistent processes
  3. Corrective (positive) feedback
  4. Connections to reading and writing

1) Clear Instruction and Processes

This is accomplished in a couple of ways. First, teachers need to be familiar with the content before teaching to ensure their instruction and explanations are clear and concise. Teachers should not be reading the lesson for the first time as they are instructing the students. It can almost be more damaging for students to have confusing instruction than no instruction at all; the confusion becomes a challenge to undo. Second, the processes for instruction are simple and predictable for a reason. When instruction follows a predictable, familiar format, then students can focus on the content instead of trying to navigate the mode of instruction and what is expected of them. Teachers can greatly aid in efficient learning by explaining processes (e.g., modeling, dictation, marking, transfer) clearly and checking for understanding by having students explain the process and demonstrate what is expected within the framework of reading instruction. 

2) Consistent Processes

The processes in Reading Horizons are what make the reading curriculum so effective—if they are done correctly and consistently. The process of dictation, in which all modalities are employed and vital connections are made, is the most important process. Teachers can ensure the power of the process by being consistent. Whenever giving a word as an example in instruction or during practice in dictation, teachers should say it twice and have the students repeat it twice. Then the teacher should use the word in a sentence as the students write and mark/prove the word. Every time. Teachers may also have the students turn to a partner and use the word in a sentence and/or have students explain their process of marking. Whatever processes a teacher puts in place that help the student move towards clarity are wonderful—just remember that the key is consistency with those processes. 

3) Corrective (Positive) Feedback

Corrective feedback is vital to make sure a student understands what he/she missed or didn’t understand and how to fix it to avoid the same error in the future. During dictation practice, students should not just erase and replace mistakes. Students should first talk through what the error was, logically reason out what they need to do differently, and then write the correct response to the right of the error on their board or paper. This is one of the reasons why we advise students not to erase during dictation. If we erase and replace, the student is unable to compare and see where the error occurred, and no real understanding is reached; thus, the likelihood of a similar error occurring in the future goes up. Making connections is particularly difficult for students with processing disorders, which is why it is so important that teachers help them draw logical connections rooted in understanding. 

Another key point relating to feedback is that all feedback should be positive. Attaching negativity to this process through guilt and shame over errors is profoundly damaging to the student. Learning is in and of itself a process. It is not a destination. Expecting perfection and shaming students for errors or for lack of understanding is simply unacceptable. If guilt or shame gets attached to this instruction, then students will develop negative feelings towards the program not because it doesn’t work but because of their experience associated with it. 

4) Connections to Reading and Writing

The biggest concern I hear from teachers is that students are not easily or automatically transferring the decoding skills learned in Reading Horizons to their reading and writing. Again, it is not something most students will do automatically; the teacher is the integral connecting piece for skill transference to be accomplished. For example, if the students are taught Phonetic Skill One during instruction, then throughout the day students should be guided to look for words that follow that skill in anything they read, regardless of the content area. In their writing activities, students can be prompted to use a few words that follow the skill learned. The Transfer CardsReading Library, and other games and activities are all designed to help students transfer skills; however, teachers still need to guide students through the process and point out the connections for students until they see them for themselves. 

The Four C’s are a simple self-check for teachers to see if what we are doing is helping to create clarity for our students or causing confusion. We ask ourselves: Is my instruction clear? Are my processes consistent? Am I providing positive corrective feedback? Am I helping students connect these skills to their reading and writing? If we are doing these things, we can rest in the truth that we have the key pieces in place and that our students will be successful.


Learn how these processes are embedded throughout the Reading Horizons elementary reading curriculum and reading intervention program.

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