Have you had a student like Anthony?

Anthony’s finishing 1st grade and he seems to be making strides in his reading. He generally aims to make meaning and his knowledge of high frequency words is growing steadily.  He likes books, especially Star Wars books, and he can write a logical short paragraph…..However, you wonder whether the phonics activities you've been using are really sinking in with him.

One day, he might mis-read the word, “coat” as “kate.”

Haven’t we covered the “oa” spelling enough?

But within that week he reads “soap” correctly, and then gets stuck on “pain” because of the “ai” spelling.

Uhhh…we spent a week on that “ai” spelling!

Unfortunately, Anthony’s inability to quickly master the trickier parts of our written code isn’t unusual. Nearly 100% of the struggling readers I have worked with in the last 20 years have had this exact same problem. Our written code, as I’m sure you know, is particularly tough to learn–over 250 different spellings to memorize and use correctly!

But I know it’s frustrating to have students read, write, spell, and manipulate letter-sounds for multiple days, and then you realize, just days later, that a good chunk of those students still don’t know those very same letter-sounds!!  The playdough, the dot-it markers, the worksheets, the apps, the kinesthetic actions, all for naught?

Perhaps all of your students were able to learn the main sounds of the 26 letters of the alphabet, but all the variation in vowels beyond that original 26–what we call Advanced Phonics–eludes many students.

Or, at the very least, those oodles of long vowel combinations and diphthongs and vowel digraphs take months and often years to learn.

Today I want to propose one streamlined activity that has the potential to dramatically boost your students’ phonics learning. And, thus, their decoding and fluency in its wake. It may even accomplish so much that other phonics activities might be set aside.

Why Students Struggle to Memorize Advanced Phonics

Before I suggest the solution, let’s quickly be sure we understand the sources and scope of the problem:

First, consider what a typical basal or reading program recommends for the teaching of Advanced Phonics sounds (such as long vowels, diphthongs, or other vowel digraphs like “oa,” “ie,” “oo,” or “igh”). Often, one or two spellings are taught per day; sometimes these spellings relate to a particular sound that is targeted for several days in a row.

Sometimes, however, the spellings are relatively random.disorganized phonics

A child might be expected to learn “igh” on Monday.

Then “ow” on Tuesday.

And “oi” on Wednesday.

Not much organization here for the child’s brain to hang new information on!  Those who might struggle with learning to read or those with weak oral or visual memories will find this haphazard, random order especially challenging. The odds that they will remember what they were “taught” last Monday on the following Friday are really low.

Have you taught kids like that before?

Yes, you have?  I certainly have.

Besides the randomness of some advanced phonics progressions, the never-ending lists of phonics information to teach just, frankly, gives teachers a headache. This progression is particularly overwhelming from my perspective:example phonics scope and sequence

I mean, come on, honestly, I’m supposed to teach 262 individual items to each 25 children in my class!?!

Worse still, how in the world should I be expected to differentiate for my students’ needs with over 250 items and 25 children?  

Let’s see, Maria has learned items 1-14, 15, 18, and 22.

Noah has learned 1-19, 22, 24-29, and

Elijah has learned the first 200,

etc., etc.,

The possible combinations would look like this:

matrix complete


Too much to even think about.

So, when the administration is pressuring you to differentiate phonics instruction and you feel as if your head is going to explode, you’re completely rational.

It IS impossible!

But wait: enter stage left….a different lens on phonics instruction as well as an elegant activity to teach multiple spellings simultaneously.

Group Phonics Activities by Sound, Not by Spelling

First, don’t think of advanced phonics instruction as isolated, individual spellings. Rather, think in terms of sounds.  There are only about 40-ish sounds in the English language.  

Doesn’t 40 seem a lot more doable than 250?

Thus, grouping by sounds helps the teacher wrap her head around the otherwise-all-too-daunting phonics scope and sequence.

Similarly, and more importantly, grouping by sounds helps the student more rapidly memorize the variations in spellings of each sound. For instance, in one lesson introduce the long vowel “o” and its major spellings (i.e., “o,” “o_e,” “ow,” “oa,” “oe”).  Your students, even the Kindergarten ones, can comprehend this and….it speeds up the learning process!


A young learner’s brain can much more easily remember these random bits of information, such as “ow” can be the sound /oa/, if they are linked together as one group.  Think about how we share phone numbers: in groups of 3’s or 4’s: ex: 999-555-5455.

Grouping or chunking information is one of the best way for the brain to absorb new information.

In addition, the chunking of this information by sound is a more logical presentation for the child.  He already knows the sounds in words. Let us create a simple bridge from the sounds that he knows to the precise spellings that he needs to learn:

/oa/ = o, o_e, ow, oa, o

So, we introduce the long “o” sound and its most frequent spellings (o, o_e, ow, oa, o) in one session. When we allow students to discover all of the main spellings of one sound all at once, they acquire a better understanding of how our written code works:

English vowel sounds can be represented with a number of different spellings.

After coming out most Kindergarten reading programs that teach mostly just the consonants and short vowels, many children are unprepared for this rude awakening about the complexity of our spelling system.  With simple CVC and CCVC or CVCC words, the spelling patterns are usually predictable and usually demonstrating 1-to-1 relationships.

For example, in a K program, “s” is almost always /s/ and there’s only one way to represent that sound. Nothing wrong with that!

Nonetheless, this concept that one sound, such as /oa/, can have multiple spellings seems out of the blue to many rising 1st graders. But an activity like Sort It quickly reorients young learners to the true nature of our written code.

Power Up with the Sort It Activity

Rather than teaching spellings in isolation, and slowly dripping them out, perhaps even in a random organization, try introducing one sound and its various spellings all at once with an activity we call Sort It.

Here are the steps to Sort It:

  1. The teacher presents a list of high-frequency words of a target sound, such as /oa/, and sheSort It example page tells her students that all of the words they will try to read have the sound /oa—–/.  She also has them create several columns on a blank paper or she offers them a Sort It worksheet.
  2. If the students’ paper is blank, she reveals the Key Sentence and the spellings of the target sound that should be written in each column.  For instance, see the example of /oa/ on the right:
  3. The teacher asks a student or small group of students to read a word and determine which spelling of /oa/ that word belongs with. “In which column does the word, “show” belong?”
  4. Then the students write that word in the relevant column. For instance, the word, “road” goes under the “oa” spelling.  As students write the word, they also say each sound separately (i.e., /r/ /oa/ /d/).
  5. Students repeat the reading and the writing & saying steps several times, filling out multiple words under each spelling.  Columns with spellings that are more frequent, such as “ow,” have more words placed in them, as compared to columns with spellings that are less frequent, such as “oe.”

If you’d like to see Sort It in action, here’s a clip of new 2nd grader who is experienced with Sort It:

Sort It–/oa/ sound with a 2nd grader from Marnie Ginsberg on Vimeo.


Mnemonics & Organization Boost Memory

You may have noticed the importance of the Key Sentence in the above examples–”Go home to show the boat to Joe.” The Key Sentences are mnemonics–or memory devices–that serve as mental hooks around which to wrap all the spellings of a given sound.

For review, we begin with,

“What is the Key Sentence for the /oa/ sound?….Something about a boat….?”


‘Go home to show the boat to Joe.’”

This frequent, but brief, quizzing challenges the students’ memory to retrieve the spellings they are working on.  Frequent, staggered retrieval challenges are the fastest way to store information in long-term memory.  The Key Sentence also provides a way to chunk the information down to even smaller bits–just the trigger of a boat may be what unlocks the sentence….and then the key spellings.

In addition, the organization of the 2-rowed columns serves as another scaffold, or mental framework for children to hook their learning to.

In the context of Sort It, a student may file away, say, the /oa/ sound as folder with multiple folders within it.  Similarly, when she comes across the /ee/ sound and its most frequents spellings, she will file away the /ee/ sound in one cognitive file with these spellings: e ea ie ee y e_e within it.
file folders sort it

The order and logic of connecting the sounds that the child already knows with all the main spellings of that sound at the same time in a graphic organizer spurs her learning.

Teachers do this type of organizing and sorting of information all the time for their students.  For instance, in math, children are often guided to learn how to add or multiply all the 2’s for one period of time. Most math teachers don’t teach 2+3 on Monday and 4+5 on Tuesday.  😉  And, they often show images or charts that demonstrates 2 plus anything in a visual way.

Our solar system/Solar system on black with stars planets and their names

Or, in science, students learn about the solar system all at once.  Teachers reveal all the 8 (or is it 9 again?) planets that revolve around our sun…all at once.  They show diagrams of how all the planets relate to one another and to the sun.

So, I don’t know why we so often ignore (or at best only gradually reveal) the natural order of our written code–that it springboards from sounds, and that these sounds connect to several specific spellings.

Through these 2 techniques of a graphic organizer and the Key Sentence mnemonics, the new or struggling learner is given a mental filing and retrieval system that tends to facilitate faster learning of phonics knowledge.

Want to see how Sort It might look in a small group setting? See the video below for an example with 1st graders in their 2nd encounter of Sort It:


A Week in the Life

If you were to attempt Sort It with your students, what else might you be doing that week to practice and extend the learning of the target sound?

Simply, I think of just 3 activities, repeated or extended throughout the week:

  1. Sort It, which can be done 2-4 times in one week, with different words
  2. Reading texts that incorporate all the spellings of the target sound, such as the page “Joe and Joan” below.
  3. Other activities to reinforce the spelling, reading, and writing of the target sound.Search for It oa sound

One easy “other activity” is Search for It: read a text with the target sound, as in the above. Then, after the whole text has been read and discussed for comprehension, have the students search for each spelling of the target sound and circle those spellings.  If time allows, they may also add those words to a Sort It page for extra multi-sensory practice.

I know that the creativity of teachers allows for almost limitless possibilities for the “other activities.” Just keep trying to tie any creative idea you have back to the graphic organizer of the Sort It page and encourage children to rely on the Key Sentence.  Also, the more often the students actually Write and Say the sounds as they write them, the faster they will learn. There are times for just reading or for just sorting, but they accomplish slightly less than when more senses are folded in.

After a week with the /oa/ sound, I often move onto the /ee/ sound, but I set aside some time for review the work of the previous week.  

Also, if students haven’t mastered all 5 or 7 spellings of a given sound by the end of the week, but they have most of them learned, that’s fine. Keep plugging ahead and reviewing.  

Integrate Multiple CCSS Simultaneously in 1 Phonics Activity

As I’ve written about previously here, we aim to save instructional time by hitting multiple reading sub-skills and multiple standards simultaneously.  If you adopt Sort It, these are the Common Core State Standards that you will be addressing:


Recognize that spoken words are represented in written language by specific sequences of letters.

Recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet.

Count, pronounce, blend, and segment syllables in spoken words.

Demonstrate basic knowledge of one-to-one letter-sound correspondences by producing the primary sound or many of the most frequent sounds for each consonant.

Associate the long and short sounds with the common spellings (graphemes) for the five major vowels.

Distinguish between similarly spelled words by identifying the sounds of the letters that differ.

1st Grade

Distinguish long from short vowel sounds in spoken single-syllable words.

Orally produce single-syllable words by blending sounds (phonemes), including consonant blends.

Isolate and pronounce initial, medial vowel, and final sounds (phonemes) in spoken single-syllable words.

Segment spoken single-syllable words into their complete sequence of individual sounds (phonemes).

Know the spelling-sound correspondences for common consonant digraphs.

Decode regularly spelled one-syllable words.

Know final -e and common vowel team conventions for representing long vowel sounds.

Decode two-syllable words following basic patterns by breaking the words into syllables.  (When students reach this level, after learning about 3-5 of the most frequent sounds, they begin to Write and Say in Chunks, rather than by individual phonemes.)

Read words with inflectional endings.

Use context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding, rereading as necessary.

2nd Grade

Distinguish long and short vowels when reading regularly spelled one-syllable words.

Know spelling-sound correspondences for additional common vowel teams.

Decode regularly spelled two-syllable words with long vowels.

Decode words with common prefixes and suffixes.

Identify words with inconsistent but common spelling-sound correspondences.

Use context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding, rereading as necessary.

Whew! I hope you can see how much Sort It can accomplish. And, if it becomes the linchpin of your decoding element, then many more standards can be met simply by guiding a student to read a text of a targeted sound and by implementing other enrichment activities that link back to the core Sort It organizer.

This may be all you need to get moving with an activity to power up your phonics instruction.

Or, if you want a little more info about what Sort It might look like 5-8 weeks down the road, keep reading:

Now Time for a Little Radical Talk

Some of us love flexibility. Some…not so much. If you like to follow a program by-the-book, step-by-step, and never-veer, then please take a slow breath and consider another worldview:

All of the Advanced Phonics combinations do NOT have to be taught explicitly.

Whaaaaat? I know some of you are thinking this….

Yes, I know that all the influential reading research reviews have clearly demonstrated the value of systematic, explicit instruction of phonics. (See Jeanne’s Chall classic 1967 review, or Marilyn Jager Adams’ Beginning to Read from 1990, or Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children from 1998, or the report of the National Reading Panel in 2000.)

The Sort It activity as I described above is explicit–although the student discovers a lot of the knowledge for herself in the context of a teacher-created situation.

I also recommend a systematic approach.

While research indicates the significance of systematic instruction of phonics information, there’s no particular sequence that has clear research preference. So, I adopted the following order of teaching Advanced Phonics that is ordered, in general, by frequency of spelling pattern.

/oa/:   o o_e oa ow oe

/ee/:   e ee y e_e ie ea

/ay/:  a_e ay eigh ai a

/i_e/:  i i_e igh ie

/oo/:  u_e o oo ew ue oe

/er/:   er ir ur ear or ar

/ow/:  ow ou

/aw/:  aw au ough al

/oy/:  oy oi

Each week a new sound is presented while previous weeks’ instruction is reviewed.

HOWEVER, the research on “systematic” and “explicit” does NOT prove that every letter-sound must be taught in the classroom.  

Rather, the best prevailing theory of word identification learning developed by David Share suggests that children need only sufficient phonemic awareness and sufficient phonics knowledge to be able to discover the rest of the code by themselves, in the context of real reading.

Thus, we systematically and explicitly guide students to learn most of the code, especially the most frequent spellings. We also guide students to develop the cognitive flexibility, or phonemic awareness, to make intelligent guesses for unknown spellings in words.

In other words, when the child encounters the word, “cloud,” but reads it first as “clode,”

1) she realizes that’s not a word;

2) she isolates the spelling that is likely the source of her error;

3) she plugs in the /ow/ sound as another possible choice; and

4) she confirms that “cloud” makes sense in the sentence.

Share terms this theory of how children learn to decode the “self-teaching hypothesis” of word learning. Research and theory suggest that students do not need every bit of phonics information explicitly taught to them. Rather, they just need enough knowledge of the code and skill in attacking it to be independently learning new spellings occasionally when they encounter them.  

Given sufficient knowledge and skills, the young reader “self-teaches” herself the one aspect of a word that she has previously not learned.

I remember this experience clearly for myself as a young student. I came across the word, “pterodactyl.”  I was at first completely surprised to see a “pt” at the beginning of the word because it is such a rare spelling.

I was pretty sure no one had taught me that spelling.  

However, I somewhere in the dark reaches of my mind, I must have heard the word

/ter o dak til/ before, because I hesitatingly guessed that the word must be /ter o dak til/ and the “pt” must indicate the /t/ sound.  

I used my phonemic awareness, phonics knowledge, and multi-syllable decoding skills to determine that the one piece of information I was completely unaware of was likely the sound /t/.  

Pteranodon bird flying upon ocean - 3D render

No one ever explicitly taught me that “pt” could be /t/ at the beginning of some words of Greek origin.  

But by the time I had seen and heard “pteradactyl” a couple of times, I was pretty sure that “pteranodon” was /ter an a don/ when I next ran across it….on my own.

That’s an example of the self-teaching hypothesis of word learning in action.

Why the deep dive into word learning theories?

Because we want to remove the burden that many teachers feel if they are using an explicit phonics program.  Some programs seem to be drowning the baby in the bathwater.

This break from overkill is in keeping with our mission at Reading Simplified. We streamline the process of teaching so you can catch a break all the while your students can accelerate their reading achievement.  

Although there are over 250 spellings, I don’t actually ever teach anyone all of them.

Yet my students regularly read well over grade level and I witness them figuring out sound-symbol connections of information they haven’t been taught. (And most of students for the last 15 years have been identified as struggling, learning disabled, or dyslexic, so please don't think I'm just talking about reaching the top 50-75% of our children.  I'm talking about reaching everyone with this general theory of word learning.) I try to guide them to discover a sufficient amount of the code (see list of the order of Advanced Phonics sounds we teach above). Then I ensure they read aloud…a lot…with adult support and/or by following along to narrated texts, so that they put their developing skills into play for themselves.  

Unfamiliar spellings are encountered rarely–they’re rare remember? 😉 –so students have 95% or more of the information they need to be able to attack an unfamiliar word independently.  [This assumes that they’ve developed the cognitive flexibility and strong decoding strategies that we teach through activities such as Switch It and the pivotal decoding strategy Flex It.]

In the context of real reading, students can figure most of the remaining elements of the code out for themselves.  And we all can spend more time reading real books together, rather than working on worksheets or isolated word work.

Even as adult readers that’s how we are still operating.  If we come to an unknown word, we try various sounds for the part of the word we don’t recognize.

How would you say this word:


Is it /es kuh tol u gee/?

Or is it /es chuh tol u gee/?  

(It means study of the end times.)

 We try both sounds and see which one sounds closest to a word we might have heard.

We DON’T think about a phonics rule to determine that it’s the /k/ and not /ch/ sound.  We want our students to have these same decoding skills, sufficient phonics knowledge, and flexible approach to attacking unknown words. Sort It is one of the main tools we use to ensure our students rapidly acquire sufficient phonics knowledge while always also reading for meaningful words.

Shaving Your Phonics Activities to Save Everybody Time

If you organize your phonics instruction around the organizational tool of Sort It, you can not only boost your students’ learning speed, you may also find it so much simpler to differentiate with.

Organized around sounds, there are only a handful of major topics you need to cover: /oa/, /ee/, /ay/ /i_e/, /oo/, /er/, /ow/, /oi/, /aw/. If one group of student knows most of the spellings of 4 of these sounds, then you can advance with them to the 5th sound.  With that subset of children for guided reading time, for example, they can sort /oo/ sound words, read /oo/ sound texts, search for /oo/ sound spellings, write /oo/ sound sentences, dictate /oo/ sound words, etc.

Another group may just be starting to learn Advanced Phonics this way.  With them, you will do very similar activities; however, you will focus on the /oa/ sound as the target.

Yet I know that some of you are directed to teach your whole class simultaneously for phonics or word identification instruction. That’s unfortunate and not based on the best of current research (but that’s for another post).

However, you can still simply assess your students with this sound-based framework and distribute students to small group or independent work that’s centered on their next un-mastered target sound and the Sort It framework

In sum, we hope you are intrigued by the potential efficiencies you and your students might gain through an activity such as Sort It.

Based on past experiences, I expect that your students will gain several things:

  1. better understanding of how our code works (i.e., one sound–/oa/–can have multiple spellings–o, o_e, ow, oa, oe),
  2. faster acquisition of Advanced Phonics knowledge,
  3. better ability to decode unfamiliar words,
  4. faster development of high frequency word knowledge, and
  5. improved fluency.

You, in turn, may benefit from:

  1. easier planning,
  2. more effective differentiation,
  3. better phonics assessment,
  4. less stress, and
  5. (perhaps) less time working on school stuff!  Yeah!!

Finally, please let me know if you’ve used something like Sort It before and/or what you find when you try it now.  Does it make a difference for your classroom?