I bought my phonics curriculum 14 years ago–I think it was one of my very first homeschool purchases! My oldest three all learned to read using Saxon Phonics K, and now I’m flipping through the same flash cards and patiently cheering my fourth child (now a kindergartener) through the same stories. Basically, it’s the old comfy sweatshirt of my homeschool!
I’m not going to tell you that my choice (Saxon Phonics K) is the only way to go or the best phonics curriculum out there..I love it and wholeheartedly recommend it, but I think there are some really great programs available. However, I am sharing 5 characteristics of an effective phonics curriculum. Keep these in mind when choosing your curriculum–I know you’ll make the perfect choice for your family!
As a side note, I think it’s important to teach phonics in the context of a language rich home–filled with great stories, read-alouds, and shared reading experiences. Most homeschoolers I know are all hoarding books, and this is not a problem for us! Library fines on the other hand…
5 Characteristics of an Effective Phonics Program:
The curriculum should be incremental, sequential, and teach phonograms (a fancy word for sounds and the corresponding letters/group of letters). At first glance, it may seem logical to teach letters in alphabetical order. However, I prefer a more systematic approach. For example, my curriculum teaches one letter per week…The first 6 weeks are ordered this way: L, O, G, H, T, P. And then something really exciting happens! At lesson 27, the first leveled reader is introduced with words like “hot,” “log,” and “tot.” My kids experienced the thrill and success of independently reading their very first book in just 27 lessons! Only letters and sight words that have been previously introduced appear in the readers. I love the incremental growth and platform for success leveled readers provide.
2) Variety of Learning Modes
Not only do young children learn in unique and individual ways—they also have short attention spans (maybe you’ve noticed)! Choose a curriculum with activities to compliment a variety of learning styles—visual, auditory, verbal, and kinesthetic. Incorporating all these learning modes into your lesson helps solidify the learning, which is helpful for all young readers and has been shown especially beneficial for kids with learning challenges like dyslexia.
Here’s how that might look in a typical lesson…Our Saxon lessons begin with an alphabet activity–some days we jump to the alphabet, some days we point, some days we march–but a variety of learning styles are utilized. Next , we review every letter and sound my son has learned (Saxon K teaches one letter a week)–first by identifying the letter (just a typical flash card), then by using a picture flash card, and finally we have an auditory sound flash card. For example, let’s look at the letter s: We have a flash card with lowecase s–my little guy names the letter. When going through our picture flash cards, he sees a picture of a sock and the letter s–his goal is to give me the sound (usally easier than naming the isolated letter). And finally the spelling flash card for s–I provided the sound for s, my son repeats the sound, and then writes the letter or manipulates a letter tile.
Additionally, when you choose a curriculum that engages different learning styles, your phonics lessons will have movement and energy! The variety keeps kids focused and positive! One of my top strategies for teaching reading is to keep the lesson moving (Read My Top 5 Reading Strategies). Switching up learning activities is key to keeping frustration at bay!
I love that my curriculum offers extra games, activities, and practice—and that I’m totally free to pick and choose OR completely pass on them. Honestly, as a homeschool mom and teacher—this is always your prerogative! Remember your phonics lessons should be going 30 minutes MAX! I always follow the basic structure and flow of our lessons—but I’m not afraid to stray and supplement with activities that better meet our needs and interests. Sometimes I substitute a worksheet with a more tactile learning experience—like writing in sand or simply writing on the whiteboard. There are tons of fun art projects (thank you, Pinterest) that correlate with letter learning—you can bet we are taking time to make some Letter M Monkeys! So choose a curriculum with a solid foundation—and one that allows you some freedom (or at least don’t be afraid to claim some for yourself)!
4) Spelling is Built In
No, I promise I am not giving my sweet little kindergartener a full on spelling test—but in a gentle way, spelling is introduced and “tested.” Currently, he is expected to listen to a sound and then write the corresponding letter. Eventually he will be expected to break down small words like “van,” and spell them with guidance. This integrated approach builds basic spelling skills, and perhaps more importantly, it begins making the important connection of reading to writing.
5) Rules and Patterns are Taught
When I started teaching my kids phonics, I was amazed at all the patterns and rules in our language! How totally cool! I was kind of geeking out over things like open and closed syllables, the rules for using the soft “g,” sound vs. the hard “g,” sound, and when to use “ck.” So many patterns! We often take them for granted because we’ve seen the pattern all our lives…When these rules and patterns are incorporated into our reading instruction, our kids experience greater success in both reading and spelling.
One more thought on patterns…Many math curriculums include lessons and activities focusing on patterns. Don’t skip over these, thinking they are more fluff than function! Recognizing and working with patterns, equips our kids to see patterns not only in math, but also in reading! Kids like patterns–use that language to help them see patterns in language.
I might say something like:
“You are so great at figuring out patterns…I’ve got a really cool pattern to show you about letters today!”
What are My Curriculum Choices?
Well, I definitely stand by my Saxon Phonics K. The complete Saxon K Homeschool Kit includes everything you need to thoroughly teach beginning reading skills. I’ve never continued formal phonics instruction with a complete curriculum beyond this level. Instead, we always supplemented with inexpensive Explode the Code workbooks for 1st and 2nd grade. (Explode the Code Book 3 picks up right around where Saxon Phonics K ends.) If your child needs more intensive reading help, I would highly recommend continuing with a formal phonics curriculum beyond kindergarten. Orton-Gillingham based programs are going to include the characteristics I’ve shared with you. I have heard nothing but glowing reports and reviews for All About Reading. I’m seriously considering purchasing their curriculum next year for first grade. (Let me know if you’ve had any experiences with it!)
In addition to Explode the Code workbooks, I try to supplement my reading instruction with a variety of online resources. I recently discovered Homer-Kids Learn to Read App. The quality of the program has blown me away! The stories are a mix of fiction and non-fiction (with beautiful graphics) and are chosen for your child based on their interests. Homer also includes favorite characters (I was shocked to hear a story with Thomas the Tank Engine)! These are not the stories you are used to seeing in some of the other reading apps…My son has followed along with stories about Thomas Jefferson, Beethoven, komodo dragons, blue whales, Marie Curie, and mammals! It blends a whole language experience with specific phonics instruction—I am in love!! You can try it for FREE (if you don’t want to continue with the app after your 30 day trial, you must cancel—or you’ll be automatically charged!) Homer costs $7.99 per month or $79.99 annually. For a limited time Homer is generously offering my readers 38% off the annual membership!
In case you missed it, here’s a link to my previous post, Best Way to Teach Reading–My Top 5 Strategies. Please let me know if you have any questions about reading instruction! You can comment below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org (there’s a link in the sidebar). I’d love to hear what curriculum you are using and how it’s going! Keep up the important work, Sweet Friends! Reading progress (especially at the beginning) can feel like a snail’s pace…But your kiddo will get there, and you will be amazed! What a huge sense of accomplishment (for them and YOU)!!
P.S. Here are some product links for Saxon Phonics K and Explode the Code Workbooks!