More Than the ABCs: Owning the Alphabet

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Lately, I have been pondering my linguistic journey. Over the years, it has been a journey of self-discovery. A journey that led me to use a fascinating method to teach systematic phonics and phonemic awareness.

If you could have visited my first and second grade combined classroom about 20 years ago, you would have noticed that I displayed traditional alphabet cards above my chalkboard. I didn’t really use it as a reference tool. It was more of a standard classroom decoration than a tool for learning. That is, until I gained some knowledge about teaching letters NOT as letters of the alphabet, but as pictures of sound. I didn’t realize the power the alphabet has when it is considered as a code made of symbols that allows learners to attach sounds to them.

The fact remains, we have an alphabetic language. In other words, letters provide us a way to encode sounds of speech into symbols…the letters of the alphabet. But for years, that information was lost on many a teacher. When I realized how the code system works, it rocked my linguistic world!

The title I used for this entry, Owning the Alphabet, came to mind because of the strategy I began using the next year after receiving the training. Instead of plastering the standard alphabet cards above my chalkboard like in previous years, I told my students that the alphabet was missing for a reason. I told them that they were going to earn and to own each letter by learning the sound or sounds each letter represents. These sounds would be the foundation they needed to read. These sounds and symbols would be their prized possession that we would display proudly above the board if they would be willing to take the linguistic journey with me.

So, starting as early as the first day, I showed my first and second graders a flash card with the letter A printed on it. I held it up and told the students the following words, “I say it, then you say it…” Then, I pronounced three different sounds: ă, ā, ä. I told them that the letter’s name is “A”, but it represents three sounds. Then, I repeated the sounds and asked them to echo it back. They did. Next, I modeled on the board how to write an A and to recite all three of its sounds. They filled up a whole line of A’s across the line on their paper. The classroom was abuzz with the choral sound of kids speaking, seeing, hearing, and writing their sounds…and every time they mastered the sounds, the letters that represented those sounds went up proudly on the wall above my chalkboard. Yes, by the year’s end, my above chalkboard “decoration” looked pretty much like it always had in the past, but it was now full of so much meaning.

Owning the alphabet was just the beginning. We went on to learn all of the multi-letter phonemes, too. This foundation was strong, and my entire reading approach was built upon it.  

So, how about you? Are you interested in embarking on your own linguistic journey with a systematic process for teaching phonemic awareness and phonics? If so, stay tuned!

Curriculum Resources: For more information on a systematic approach to teaching phonemic awareness and phonics, check out the first and second grade levels of Shurley English.


Micro-comprehension: Comprehension Monitoring

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In this series of blogs about micro-comprehension, I have presented strategies that boost micro-comprehension: vocabulary words, gap-filling inference, sentence structure processing, figurative language processing, and applying text structure.

When you teach students how to slow down their own thinking— to become aware of what they are thinking about while reading, you are teaching them comprehension monitoring. However, some readers, especially very young ones, fail to truly read for comprehension. Here’s a solution: teach readers to monitor their comprehension in smaller chunks. If you can help readers chunk their understanding step-by-step, you up their odds for success.


Chunks of Meaning

We can help our young readers by teaching them some thinking steps to use when they read. These steps make it possible for readers to put a voice to what they think about when they read. The first step in chunking meaning starts with getting students to slow their reading down a bit when they read harder texts. Then, teach them to ask the following questions after each paragraph or two. Don’t do it too often. You can tell when a plot thickens in a story, so that is the ideal place to sprinkle in these comprehension chunks:  

  • What are the times and settings of the story I know about so far?

  • Who are the main characters so far?

  • Have any new characters been introduced?

  • What important events have occurred so far and who was involved?

Make sure you model this process periodically throughout the story or book. You will know students understand the gist of a story by the way they react to and respond to these kinds of questions.



When students read aloud, do not allow them to simply skip a word and move on. Sometimes, readers will substitute a wrong word. If the substitution doesn’t work, and the reader just keeps plowing through, that’s a problem. Don’t let them ignore it. Instead, teach them to go back and re-read. Good readers need to re-read to verify comprehension—it’s just that a lot of kids will never do so if they aren’t taught directly. Teach the following steps when students encounter new words or phrases or whole lines of challenging text. When a student stumbles, hesitates, or substitutes with a nonsense word, do this:

  1. Say: “Go ahead and try it.”

  2. If the student cannot correct the error, say the word for the student.

    Note:  Decide what caused the problem. Ask yourself if the student made the error because of a phonics problem, a visual miscue, or if the student substituted with a nonsense word. If the student immediately self-corrects the mistake, just move on. If the student substitutes the problem word with a synonym that works in the sentence, have them correct it after they finish reading the whole passage.

  3. Have the student start at the beginning of the sentence which contains the problem word or phrase.

As you continue your efforts to help kids learn to read and comprehend, give some thought to all of the micro-comprehension strategies in this series. If you make it a habit, you will multiply your effectiveness and improve your students’ reading comprehension at the same time. Thanks for reading!

(This post is part of a series on Micro-Comprehension. To start at the beginning, click here.)

Micro-comprehension: Applying Text Structure

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As I continue my series about micro-comprehension, text structure processing is next in line. Earlier, I wrote about sentence structure processing. The process of analyzing sentence structure and text structure shares similarities. However, analyzing at the sentence level gives a close up picture of the meaning of the sentence; whereas, analyzing text structure provides the bigger picture of an entire essay or any  longer piece of writing.

Many fluent readers seem to automatically process text structure, but it is probably subconscious. Take a look at this short list of text structures students encounter:

  • sequence/chronological order

  • compare/contrast

  • description

  • cause/effect

  • problem/solution


Unfortunately, a lot of readers miss out on whole chunks of meaning because they get caught in the muck and mire of wading through too much information. Tunnel vision sets in, and students simply gloss over the purpose for the passage. Understanding the overall structure of the text can help students avoid some of these struggles. So…how do we teach students to recognize these text structures?


Look at the list of text structures again. Luckily, these types of text structures come with signal words and phrases that you can directly teach students to recognize. Then, as they read, these words clue them in as to which textual structure they are reading. The NEA published an excellent chart to illustrate this.


With practice, students can identify the structure, which prepares their brains to comprehend and retain the information. Students who can readily determine an author’s text structure will have a much clearer mental model of the goings on in a piece of text.


Now, here’s an interesting approach that will also inform your reading instruction. First, Shurley English provides graphic organizers (also called advance organizers and prewriting maps) that help students determine the kinds of text they want to write. Since we show students the ins and outs of how to write various text structures (depending on the purpose of the writing and the audience), it isn’t a huge leap for them to analyze what they are reading, based on an author’s chosen text structure. And, they can use our graphic organizers to help them do it! It’s almost like reverse engineering, using texts and graphic organizers.


Now, it’s your turn…

  • Select a short passage—any grade appropriate prose will do.

  • Provide your students the appropriate Shurley English prewriting map, or have them select which map will best work for the text.

    • use  a Venn Diagram for a comparison/contrast structure;

    • use the Descriptive map for a descriptive text structure;

    • use the Persuasive/Argumentative map for a problem/solution text structure, etc.

  • Read the passage aloud or have volunteers read it aloud.

  • Have students listen carefully and fill in the information on the map as they hear or read the text.


I love using reading and writing skills interdependently because that’s the way those processes actually interact in the brain. Each lends itself to the other as confirmation that the meaning is getting through! As students begin to identify text structures in their reading, you build onto that knowledge to shore up their writing, and vice versa.


In my next article, I will conclude my series on micro-comprehension with a discussion about comprehension monitoring. Please join me!

(This post is part of a series on Micro-Comprehension. To start at the beginning, click here.)