There’s nothing more frustrating than teaching phonics repeatedly to a student, and yet none of it seems to stick!

Even after trying every strategy in your arsenal, the very next day it's as if they've completely forgotten the letter sound you worked so hard to teach them.


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….

Meaning–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 our sound-based code. So, be on the lookout for this weakness.

It's 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.

In 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.

But there’s one more key – and it’s crucial.

When doing Sort It, it’s not only important to sort the words into the correct sound spellings but to immediately Write and Say each word after it’s sorted. 

The Write and Say strategy is a great hack we weave into ALL our word work activities. 

THEN – phonics will stick!

Check out the video below for examples of this Write & Say strategy in action with readers from age 4 to 50!

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 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.”

When you organize words based on sounds, students pick up those spellings and their variations at a much more rapid pace compared to traditional phonics instruction where each sound spelling is taught in isolation.

This means you'll be able to teach more advanced phonics concepts in weeks vs. months or years.

No more scrambling at the end of the year to get all your phonics standards covered.

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!) quickly recall 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.

So, 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.

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. 

The Secret to Transforming Your Reading Instruction

In this video, you'll learn more about this highly effective quick fix, including:

  • How to use it effectively,
  • What it looks like in a real classroom, and
  • The science behind its power.

Watch now to discover how seamlessly you can incorporate the Write and Say strategy into your instruction.

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