Integrate, Don’t Isolate: Teach Multiple Reading Skills Simultaneously

Switch It in action

Imagine with me the recipe that most first grade teachers attempt to create a class of readers:

A dash of phonemic awareness, a larger measure of phonics, sprinkled with sight word games, simmered with an engaging read aloud, but not neglecting the obligatory 10 minutes in a writing journal.

Does the careful mixing of these many reading skills bake make a strong reader?

In many cases, yes! When that happens, it is delicious.

However, if we examine reading outcomes such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), just a few years later in 4th grade the outcomes for over 30% have turned sour.

This batch of readers does not demonstrate even basic reading achievement. 🙁

Bitterness and dis-engagement often follow fast upon repeated disappointed with learning to read. Tragically, each year the distance between the reading “haves” and “have-nots” grows larger.

What if?

Mother And Daughter Baking Together At Home

What if we have forgotten to stir the ingredients and haven’t really finished the dish?

Might an approach that integrates phonemic awareness, phonics knowledge, high frequency word practice, spelling, and writing boost reading outcomes?

With child after child, from beginners to strivers, we do find that an integrated approach to the foundational reading skills prepares great readers.

Integrate; Don’t Isolate

Rather than teaching

  • 10 minutes of phonemic awareness
  • 20 minutes of phonics instruction, and then
  • 15 minutes of handwriting and spelling instruction,

integrate these reading skills into one 5 – 10 minute instructional activity.

What does that look like?

One of our favorite fully integrated activities is called Switch It. This is what it looks like:

Or, here’s anther visual on the Switch It procedures:

Switch It Example image

  1. The teacher calls out a switch,Switch ‘map’ to ‘mop.'”
  2. Then the student makes the switch and says each sound as she moves each letter-sound tile/card:
  3. After she creates each new word, she segments, or separates, each sound in the word:

             “/mmmmm/  /o—–/ /p/……’mop.'” 

A Switch List for a beginner might look like this, with CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words:








While a slightly more advanced student might be challenged by this with some CVCC words:










Here’s a beginning reader, who is four, learning more about phonics information and phonemic awareness in the video below.

Notice how he is able to manipulate sounds in the easier CVC (Consonant-Vowel-Consonant) level, such as “chick,” but then demonstrates a leap forward by also manipulating the harder CCVC (Consonant-Consonant-Vowel-Consonant) word: “prick.”


Simultaneous, Integrated Sub-Skills

What skills do the children practice when they manipulate these letter-sound cards and say their sounds?

Several, you say?

Yes! Here are some of sub-skills that were addressed by just this one integrated activity:

  • Phonemic segmentation
  • Phonemic manipulation
  • Consonant letter-sound knowledge
  • Short vowel letter-sound knowledge
  • Decoding
  • Spelling
  • High Frequency word analysis
  • Connections between word identification and vocabulary
  • Concept of the alphabetic principle.

Notice these multiple sub-skills were integrated and practiced simultaneously, and in short order….hmmm…does that pun work with short order cook? 😉

If you’d like a more scholarly dive into this activity and its benefits, read this article written by Bruce McCandliss, Isabel Beck, Rebecca Sandak, and Charles Perfetti.  These researchers term what we call Switch It a “Word Building” technique, but the gist of the activity is very similar.  With just this simple activity, these researchers demonstrated significant growth in phonemic awareness, decoding, and even….comprehension. Yep!

What are the benefits of this integrated approach to foundational reading skills?

  1. Saves time.
  2. Provides the pivotal transfer ability necessary for the child’s independent reading skills the next day and week.
  3. Develops the phonemic (sound-based) decoding precision necessary to be a strong reader and speller.

So, you want to be a better cook?

Re-examine your recipe.

Consider your scope and sequence and the isolated sub-skill after sub-skill tack.

Perhaps make a more effective, and efficient product if you mix phonemic awareness at the same time you teach decoding and letter-sound knowledge.

We follow a 1-page Streamlined Pathway that guides our thinking in a scope-and-sequence kinda way.

For example, in the first, bottom-left section, we teach multiple, integrated sub-skills: consonants, short vowels, phonemic awareness (all types), decoding, and high frequency words. All in just a couple of activities such as Switch It.

[See this post about Blend As You Read for our other early main activity that integrates multiples skills simultaneously.]Streamlined Pathway still

After working with hundreds of students and watching others work with thousands of students, we testify that students learn to read more rapidly and easily with an integrated approach.

And, the National Reading Panel demonstrated the value of this key ingredient to word identification when they noted greater impact from phonemic awareness integrated with letter-sound instruction.

Finally, consider this admonition from Marie Clay, creator of Reading Recovery:

“The lowest literacy achievers will have extreme difficulty bridging any gaps in the teaching programme and linking together things that have been taught separately.”

Please select a student and try the Switch It approach with him/her.   A list of words will make it easier to get started….Download our FREE Switch It packet below to jump start your students’ decoding!

Please report back here with what you found after trying Switch It.  What have you discovered?

Join the Reading Simplified Academy.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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34 thoughts on “Integrate, Don’t Isolate: Teach Multiple Reading Skills Simultaneously

  1. It would seem that while tiles can be used as a visual activity, it is much better simply to have students read (decode) the words and then spell (encode) them as they write, saying the sounds.
    Once the students know the consonant sounds, then teach the short-vowel sounds.
    Teach only a FEW of the highly-irregular high frequency words, such as THE, and teach them in a sentence or context, rather than in a list.
    Next, have the students read only text or passages that are 100% decodable, meaning that the materials include only those phonics concepts and few highly-irregular words that the children have been taught.
    In my experience using Pat Doran’s Phonics Steps to Reading Success, I can teach readers of all ages quickly and at a low cost. By second grade, students should be able to read any word in their spoken or hearing vocabulary. For primary students, the BOB BOOKS can be quite helpful for decoding/reading practice.

  2. Pat, I agree that reading and writing words is essential for learning how to read. 100%! And much of what you describe in your method is also enfolded into Reading Simplified.

    This post about Switch It describes just 1 of a handful of activities that make up the Reading Simplified system. Outside of this 5-minute activity, students also read and write words, as they say each sound (Read It) and sort words by their advanced phonics sound (Sort It). Then they Read Aloud with guided support from the teacher and finally Re-Read with support from peers, teaching assistants, technology, or volunteers.

    What is essential and so efficient about Switch It, above and beyond just reading and writing words, is the power of phonemic manipulation to rapidly teach the child a self-teaching mechanism for decoding, as described by the widely-held theory by David Share (deep, but see here: (See also the paper above by McCandliss et al.)

    Our students master phonemic manipulation skills like top readers in as little as an hour, or sometimes a handful of hours, because of the power of this simple activity.

    Then they are all set up to rapidly acquire the written code because they have a strong foundation. Dr. Keith Stanovich famously wrote about the rapidly accruing effects of early, strong phonemic awareness in his paper “Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy” (find a link at the bottom of page here: )

    Or, listen to how Dr. Stanovich describes the benefits of starting early with strong phonological decoding. In this video he notes, “If you have well-developed phonemic representations, you struggle less with the code…”

    Thus, I find that phonics without integration of efficient phonemic awareness activities is a slower method for teaching students to read. Most students using our techniques learn how to decode above their grade level in about 12 hours of instruction.

    I’d love to hear what you find if you try this technique!

  3. This was interesting and useful. It with the other article will help me to make a better reading programme for my class this new year.

  4. Superb strategies, which are simplified and user friendly. I will be definitely using them and all related materials. Thanks much for sharing

    • Simone, thank so much! Great to hear to hear that you found them simplified and user friendly. That’s my mission!

  5. I am stepping back into the classroom after many years staying home with my kids. I will be teaching first grade for the first time and have been nervous about really effectively teaching the kids to be strong readers. My former experience has been with older elementary. I have so appreciated all of these articles and ideas and feel SO much more confident about how to approach reading. I was dreading the “plod along through a reader” method that seems to be the go to for many classrooms. Thank you, thank you!

    I downloaded the Switch It and the Read It, but am unable to find the letter-sound cards for Switch It to download. Help please.

  6. I work in a school for children with learning difficulties so thank you for these ideas. Back to school today so will be trying them out soon.

    • Great! Switch It should be a great kick of to the new year!

      After you try that, I recommend that you try teaching the Blend As Your Read strategy, which is taught in the activity, Read It. May you have a great year!

  7. I’ve been adding the switch it activity to my lessons- great! I used to do it and had forgotten about it, so I’m so glad to reintroduce it. The kids like it and it seems to help- especially for my students who have trouble segmenting words with words with consonant clusters. I have been following an oral pa program- Equipped for Reading Success by David Kilpatrick, but adding the letters/graphemess is helping those who need the extra scaffold. Thanks
    Sarah Glaser

    • Super! Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Sarah. We hear that kids think it’s fun a lot! All the better!

      I’m reading another one of David Kilpatrick’s book right now, Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. It’s excellent.

  8. Hi, I wanted to know if JK children don’t know they alphabets with sounds or just the letter recognition how can I challenge them?
    I really enjoyed the video and am keen to implement it into the classroom for all the children.
    I was wondering would adding pictures as visual aide with the word make it more interesting?
    Thank you so much for this.
    Shehirnaz Hafeez

    • Shehirnaz, Switch It is the fastest way to help children of all ages learn the letter-sounds. I use it as soon as my students know about 5 letter-sounds.

      However, if they are so young and inexperienced with literacy that Switch It would be too hard, then we use a variation of Switch It called Build It:

      I don’t recommend using pictures unless your student needs the vocabulary support because s/he is learning English, too. The pictures will slow you down. The activity should take about 5 min. most days. (My videos of my Star Student in the Level Up Your Readers’ Achievement were a little longer than that because I was demonstrating the activity for the Level Up event.)

  9. I have a sample of ‘Switch it’ and would love the whole program. How do I get a copy of the whole program? We started using it last term and are seeing some great results.

    • Tracie, thanks for sharing your success! Congrats!!

      We are closed for general enrollment, but are offering access through an on-demand workshop, 3 Activities a Day to Keep Reading Difficulties Away. You can register here: OR click on Reading Simplified Academy on our blog to get on the Waitlist for the next time we open for general enrollment.

  10. I used some of the free Switch It activities with my Tier 3 Intervention students this year, and ALL of them showed reading growth. I am hoping to dive further in to the entire Reading Simplified system over the summer and be prepared to integrate it for all of my students in the upcoming year. I was really surprised by how motivated my students were. They enjoyed the structure of the activity and did not become bored with doing the same activity using other word lists.

    • Thanks so much for coming back and sharing your results, Corena! Congratulations!!

      Read It and the Blend As You Read decoding strategy would be the classic next activity to complement Switch It. You can learn about Read It here.

      And if you’re ready to get full access to the entire Reading Simplified system, we’d love to have you join the Reading Simplified Academy. Lots of other teachers have the same plan as you–study and prep over the summer and then start the new year with a bang. Since we’re open right now to those in our End-of-Year Challenge, here’s a link for you and others interested at this time. ($50 off off annual membership is RSA50.)

  11. After downloading the free sample of switch word lists I tried it with my whole class. They love switch it!!! However, I realize after watching the video again I need to tweak the way I was wording it. I was saying….switch the ___ sound for ____ and then reading the word. I need to have them figure out what sounds to switch to make the new word I give them.

    • Sweet! Thanks for sharing your quick success, Vickie.

      And good CATCH! Yes, this approach is a subtle tweak from a lot of common practices, but when you do ask the students to do the switching, they are given the harder cognitive task. It develops their cognitive flexibility, especially phonemic manipulation. Can’t wait for what Day 2 brings! 🙂

  12. Yay! I tried out Switch It with one student before using with a group of five. The procedures were very easy to follow. The student I worked with needed reminders to say the sounds while moving the tile and to blend them together. A few errors when making two words, but a success for that student. The challenge for me will be finding the best way to organize 5 sets of sound cards. Thank you for including your suggestions, Marnie.

    • Hi Lori, I’m so glad to hear that you are having success with your student! In the Teachers’ Lounge, we have several members that have shared their strategies for organizing their sound cards if you need some ideas. 🙂

  13. This is wonderful information. I have used the sample Switch it and have seen so much growth. After watching other videos, I decided to dive in and join the academy. I am glad that I can do this at my own pace. Wished I had found this before the school year started. Never to late to start. Thank you!!

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to write, Jennifer! You made my day.

      May it be a great 2019 for you…and may your kiddos quickly catch up anyway with the mid-year start! (Please don’t be a stranger in the Teachers’ Lounge…we want to hear how it goes!) 🙂

  14. I so enjoyed the Level Up program – I have joined! Whilst I am not in a classroom I can see the value of the efficacy and want to become more adept so I can share with my teacher friends. They practical processes of ‘integration’ so fits to my mind with the work of Maria Montessori of ‘follow the child’ and facilitate their work/learning – and provide it systematically. From what I have seen and experienced this program sure does. Well done Marnie!
    Also will be able to use it to support ‘Jim’ a family member who is floundering in his classroom literacy activities.
    Thank you so much!

    • That’s so lovely to hear, Sian! Thank you!! Yes, I’m so glad you see that connection to Montessori’s teaching. Our activities have several roots in her ideas and tradition. The earliest reference I’ve found, for instance, of organizing Advanced Phonics spellings by sound (as we do in Sort It), was from a Montessori teacher in the 50’s.

      See you in the Teachers’ Lounge!