Noteworthy Voices 4-MIN. READ

The Importance of Foundational Literacy

By: Kandra James 11/15/2022
Check out these tips for bolstering your students’ reading proficiency by focusing on foundational literacy skills. 
Young learner reads independently.

Picture yourself in your first grade classroom again. Do you remember putting sounds together to form words and learning to read and write those words? For most of us, it’s difficult to remember processes that seem second nature to us in our adult lives—especially when we’ve been reading, writing, and talking for so long!

But foundational literacy skills are the building blocks for learning to read. Unlike learning to speak, which happens naturally, reading must be explicitly taught. It requires a methodical, step-by-step approach that can teach even reluctant readers. You can’t cut corners or skip steps.

Here are three foundational steps for nurturing your emerging readers and getting them started on the right foot.

Tuning Our Instruments

Begin by having your students “tune their instruments,” or get their ears ready to hear sounds and their mouths, lips, teeth, tongues, and the roofs of their mouths prepared to make those sounds. I start by having students identify the different syllables of a word. For example, shad and ow merge to form the word shadow. As I repeat both syllables slowly and then say them together quickly, the students listen and focus on my mouth.

Next, we replicate this process in unison, repeating the syllables slowly and then quickly together. I continue adding different words gradually and more quickly, which becomes increasingly more difficult. We use this process in order to gently fold in new skills.

When teaching foundational literacy skills, you must prime one aspect of your neurons to accept something new in order to create additional connections and pathways. It’s important to stress sounds in a foundational setting because if the ear is not tuned to hear a sound, our brains will not know what to make of it or what to tell our mouths to do with that sound.

For example, think about another language. You can hear someone speak and know it’s a different language, but you can’t understand what they’re saying because that language has different phonemes than the ones you’re accustomed to. The English language has 44 phonemes, and as an English speaker, my ears are accustomed to hearing them. If your ears can’t hear or identify a sound, your brain won’t know what to say.

Positioned to Learn: Phonemic Awareness

Once your students tune their instruments, have them note the positions their mouths, lips, tongues, and teeth make when vocalizing sounds. Think of the sound sh. What do you do with your lips? How do you make your lips move to form that sound? Present these questions in the classroom to build connections between hearing a sound and vocalizing that sound.

Next, you can delve deeper into an understanding of hard and soft digraphs. Try saying the whole word there while putting your fingers where your neck and jaw meet. That’s where your vocal cords reside.

Do you feel the little vibrations that occur when you say there? The digraph th has two sounds—one hard and one soft. The th in there represents the hard sound. But the th in think doesn’t create as much vibration because it’s a soft sound.

These lessons and explanations aid in scaffolding phonemic understanding for students in a manner that is interactive and approachable.

Seeing and Reading: Phonics

Once you broaden phonemic understanding by having your students hear a sound, say that sound, and put those sounds together to say a word, you can move on to phonics—the process of connecting sounds (i.e., phonemes) to letters (i.e., graphemes) in order to decode and read words.

In this facet of foundational literacy, I have students start by reading words written on the board that incorporate the sounds and/or letters they have learned. First, I say a line of words like thud, that, this, and thin out loud. As I say them, I have the class say them too but initially only in their heads. Next, we say them together slowly, out loud, and work up to a faster pace. I repeat this process with multiple lines of words and eventually with full sentences. Structuring phonics like this allows for all those neural connections to build upon each other without critical foundational aspects being left out.

With supplementary materials that aid with teaching students how to build and spell words and explicit and systematic phonics instruction, you can apply these skills to text passages and activities to bolster your students’ confidence and capacity in tackling new and complex foundational lessons.

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