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Explicit Literacy Instruction

There are two phrases we ask That Reading Thing tutors to avoid:

Sound it out

Break it down

Why? Because our students have heard these two phrases their whole school lives and have no idea what they mean.

The analogy I give is learning to build my first website. I started with the WordPress platform because I’d read about their ‘famous 5-minute install’. Brilliant! There were no YouTube demo videos back then so I found the simplest instructions for the inexperienced website builder and here’s Step 1:

If you will be uploading WordPress to a remote web server, download the WordPress package to your computer with a web browser and unzip the package.

That’s what ‘sound it out’ sounds like to struggling readers. It’s ok if you already know what you’re doing but terrible if you don’t. What I really needed was someone to use words I could understand and show me how to download something with a web browser. What does that mean for reading?

Instead of saying ‘sound it out’ we ask students in a variety of differentiated ways to ‘say the sounds and listen for a word you know’.

That’s what we mean by ‘explicit instruction’. It’s not directly telling them a lot of things about reading or spelling a word. It’s giving a simple and clear instruction for exactly what we want them to do when we’re not there to prompt.

It’s similar with ‘break it down’. Students either have no idea what this means or their memories have been burdened by lessons on syllable types or rules in various interventions.

Instead of saying ‘break it down’ we aurally, orally, visually and physically break down and build up words without ever using that phrase or mentioning a syllable type or rule.

We want the student to connect what they see and write (reading all through a word and spelling syllable by syllable) with what they say out loud.

We talk about a student’s natural speech but might nudge a preferred syllable boundary for spelling if it hides a helpful morpheme. For instance, they might naturally say, in/ten/ded or hi/er/ar/chy which is fine unless the student doesn’t already know that <ed> is a meaningful suffix or that <arch> means being at the top of something. In this way, morphology can pip phonics to the post when it comes to expanding a spelling vocabulary.

If a student says ther/mom/e/ter, I’d nudge their syllables to /ther/mo/met/er or ther/mo/me/ter because they expose both ‘thermo’ and ‘meter’ which leads to exploring all sorts of useful words.

Syllables, sounds and graphemes are the most straightforward way for struggling readers and spellers and make sense of the complex (but not chaotic) English language. Keep directions simple and meaningful and avoid burdening memory with unnecessary information. In other words – no more ‘sound it out’ or ‘break it down’ (or rules).

Finally, a quote from a 12-year-old TRT student about his first lesson which prompted this post:

I like how we used syllables instead of telling me to break down the word.

That’s the authentic learner voice that inspires me to keep on explaining why keeping it simple is best.





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