Are you worn down from teaching a student (or a group of students) who have seem to have a “sieve brain”?

There’s nothing more frustrating than teaching phonics repeatedly to a student and yet none of it seems to stick! You teach important content with all the bells and whistles–multisensory, movement, repetition, etc. And then come the next day or the next day and a student looks at that thoroughly taught letter sound as if he’s never seen it before.


We’ve all encountered students like this, and instead of stressing out about it and trying to figure out what you’re doing wrong, I’m going to tell you exactly why phonics isn’t sticking, and more importantly…what you can do about it.

[Watch the video OR read below for the solution to this sticky problem!]

Why Phonics Isn’t Sticking–The Foundational Problem 

It may seem as if some students have brains like sieves. When phonics or sight word knowledge goes in, it tends to slip right back out again. Nothing seems to stick.

The number one reason why some kids can’t make phonics stick is that they have weak sound-symbol decoding.

If a child has this problem, it means that their brains aren’t doing a great job matching sounds with symbols.

Some students will link sounds and symbols haphazardly. They understand the link between some of the letters with sounds, but they don’t match up EVERY letter combination with a particular sound.

For instance, a child with weak sound-symbol decoding may come across the word FLAT.  She may pronounce FLAT as FAT. As you can see, there is some sound-symbol correspondence there, but it’s not tightly aligned.

When students add or subtract letter-sounds from an unknown word, that’s the teacher’s cue that they don’t have strong sound-symbol decoding.

As a result, the words they are reading are not tightly linking sounds and symbols….

Thus, their brain can’t memorize information that’s only loosely linked.

Some kids can trick us with their sound-based decoding. It seems ok–the occasional mistake here and there–but they definitely use sounds to attack unfamiliar words, right?

Most of these types of readers have a hidden reading weakness, though. They have only a partial use of the our sound-based code. Please be on the lookout for this weakness as it is the most common struggle I see in students–by far.

Good readers…or those who will become good readers…notice all the little inside parts of words. They have or are developing strong sound-symbol processing. As a result, words “stick” more easily for them.

Identifying a Sound-Symbol Decoding Weakness

So, how can you tell if a student has a weak sound-symbol decoding problem?

It’s simple.

Listen carefully to the way the child links symbols with sounds. For instance, is she able to identify each sound of the word FLAT?

We want them to see and read /f/ /l/ /a/ /t/.

A student who struggles with sound-symbol processing may leave out the /l/ sound completely, which is a clear sign that there’s an underlying issue.

Another option is to give a quick norm-referenced Nonsense Word Reading assessment. Since the child couldn’t have already encountered these nonsense words, the test reveals how strong his/her sound-based decoding system is functioning.

On this post, I share 2 free norm-referenced Nonsense Word Reading tests.

reading tests

I like to see scores above grade level for Nonsense Word Reading, as good readers are almost always excellent at this.

Making Phonics Stick

Just three core activities can solve a sound-based decoding problem, and they’re easier than you might think:

1. Switch It – where the child reads a word like ‘PIN,’ and the teacher asks her to switch it to ‘PAN’ – simple.
2. Read It – teaching kids to blend the sounds as they read a word.
3. Sort It – where the student deals with advanced phonics information

The three activities of Switch It, Read It and Sort It are the building blocks that will lay the core foundation skills your students need to understand how each symbol connects to a sound. THEN, phonics will stick!

If you’d like to read more about these activities and watch videos of each in action, then click the links above.

OR, I host a complementary on-demand workshop explaining all 3 core activities and how they are so powerful. Head to this link to participate in this workshop,  3 Activities a Day to Keep Reading Difficulties Away

3 activities a day to keep reading difficulties away

Sort It as the Main Hub for Making Phonics to Stick

Sort It is the main activity in which a lot of other things circle around. Sort It is our primary tool for having students’ brains soak up tricky phonics information like the /oa/ in “boat” or “Joe” or “snow.”

To show how powerful Sort It can be and how it can streamline your reading instruction, we’re hosting another on-demand workshop, called Making Phonics Stick!

When you join this Making Phonics Stick! workshop, we’ll show you how this one activity can help you run an entire classroom that’s differentiated using multiple activities.

You’ll also understand why Sort It solves the phonics stickiness problem and how the system can be used to help students’ brains make phonics stick.

If you have students for whom phonics just isn’t sticking, then please register for the on-demand workshop….

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Key Sentences Help Phonics Stick

One element of Sort It–the Key Sentence–can be especially useful both for teacher organization and students’ rapid up-take of new phonics information.

As we teach a new sound, like the sound /oa/, we also teach a Key Sentence, or mnemonic, to help the students (and the teacher!) recall quickly all the spellings of the target sound.

For instance, the Key Sentence for the /oa/ sound is,

“Go home to show the boat to Joe.”

Key Sentence for oa image

As you can see, there are multiple /oa/ spellings in this sentence. The Key Sentence includes each of the high frequency spellings of a given sound (i.e., o, o_e, ow, oa, & oe) as well as mostly high frequency words (i.e., “go,” “home,” “show,” and “boat.”).

(Inside our paid  membership the Reading Simplified Academy, we have a Key Sentence like this for each high-frequency sound. Or, you could create your own….just select high frequency spellings and words for each of the main Advanced Phonics sounds: /oa/, /ee/, /ay/, /i_e/, /er/, /ow/, /oo/, /aw/, /oi/).

Each week we teach 1 new sound, along with its Key Sentence using the Sort It framework.

Thus, in less than 12 weeks, many students will have learned all the tricky Advanced Phonics sounds and their main spellings, such as the sounds for /oa/, /ee/, /ay/, /er/, /ow/, etc.

So, Sort It and the corresponding Key Sentences are easy, yet fun, ways that students receive a lot of exposure to high-frequency words and spellings. We lay the groundwork to help sounds and symbols connect for the kids’ brains, which is what makes the system so powerful. With a lot of practice and the right amount of intensity at one sound at a time, everything starts to stick.

Join the New Sticky Workshop!

If you want to find out how you can help your students overcome the sound-symbol decoding problem, sign-up for our brand-new workshop!

The core content is completely FREE, and you’ll also receive some fantastic freebies if you participate. One of the freebies includes a downloadable /ee/ sound Sort It booklet that is ideal for teaching kids the primary spellings for the /ee/ sound as well as high frequency /ee/ words.

If your students don’t understand how sounds and symbols match up, doing something like Switch It, Read It and Sort It will help them to fill in that mental sieve….Then  it won’t be long before things start to stick.

So…if you want to start implementing the three core activities to save yourself time planning lessons and accelerating your students reading achievement rapidly, sign up for the new workshop, Making Phonics Stick!

What do you think of these activities and principles for helping phonics to stick? I’d love to hear from you…Just comment below!