Can Phonics Improve Student Motivation? Tips for 6-12 Interventions

Two-thirds of students entering high school are not proficient readers! This is a crisis, but there is a simple piece of the puzzle to fix this problem. It would dramatically improve student performance! However, most of us don’t know anything about it.

The problem is that we do not teach a COMPLETE set of English rules. In last week’s article, I shared information about a fabulous book called, Uncovering the Logic of English. The author, Denise Elde, clearly explains how much we are missing in our traditional reading instruction.

Elde says we are causing damage to students’ logical thinking patterns. Students apply decoding and spelling rules to all words. But, they are often wrong. In some cases, they are “wrong” 70% of the time because they only know half of the rules.

In response, they think there must be something wrong with them. They must be missing something. This is the beginning of a downward spiral for many students who are more logical, instead of intuitive. When they are wrong so often, they start to think “What’s the point?”

Eventually, they hit middle school. By this time, they are on the path of remediation and intervention. Teachers are frustrated because students have “bad attitudes.”

I can’t blame teachers for being frustrated, but I certainly understand the students’ situation. We would feel defeated ourselves if we could not figure out the secret code. Heck, students don’t even know there IS a secret code! They think they are defunct.

We could prevent scores of students from needing intervention if we modified reading instruction from the beginning. However, since many of my clients teach study skills as part of a middle and/or high school intervention program, they can address this problem right along-side other lessons. They can teach the logic of English!

Study skills are about teaching students strategic ways to access information. Covering a complete set of phonics rules clearly falls into this category. Students deserve to know the rest of the code. Most of all, they deserve to know that they “didn’t miss anything.” They are NOT going crazy!

But Don’t Call It Phonics…Or Spelling…Or Decoding!

As important as these skills are, you have to sell them to middle and high school students. Even though they have been victims of incomplete instruction, we have to fix the problem carefully. Any words associated with elementary school will immediately make them feel like they’ve been demoted a few grades. To prevent negative associations, call this instruction “Linguistics.”

Keep It Simple.

“Linguistics” is a sophisticated word, but don’t let it overwhelm you or your lesson planning. Teach 1 rule at a time, 2-3 days per week, using Eide’s book as your guide. Instruction time should be short and succinct. Don’t let your students (or yourself) get bored!

Here’s an example of a schedule I might follow:

Day 1: Introduce linguistics. Ask students if they have ever been frustrated by English rules that did not apply to words they were reading or spelling. You will see a lot of hands go up! You may very well be the first teacher to acknowledge this challenge. Explain that there is a good reason for their frustration; we have only been teaching them half of the rules! Now, they are going to learn the other half.

Share Rule #1 with them today. As you go throughout the rest of the class period, look for examples of this rule. Write Rule #1 on a large card and post it on the wall for continued reference. (This work is easy to delegate. Get a parent, student, or community volunteer to create these cards for you. The rules are clearly laid out in Eide’s book.) Total instruction time: 7 minutes.

Day 2: Skip linguistics. Focus on other areas of instruction, but have students keep their eyes open for examples of yesterday’s rule. Invite students to add words to your posting as you find examples.

Day 3: Review Rule #1 and review examples. Emphasize that they have not going been crazy all of this time! Since this is likely your first time learning these Mystery Rules, let them know that the rules are new for you, too; that will be extremely motivating for students! Review time: 2 minutes.

Next, introduce Rule #2. Share examples. Post the rule on the board. Have them look for examples in their classwork. Instruction time: 5 minutes.

Day 4: Skip linguistics.

Day 5: Review Rule #2 & 1. Discuss examples. Compare and contrast them. Introduce Rule #3. Share examples. Post the rule on the board, just as before. Total time: 7 minutes.

Day 6: Skip linguistics.

Day 7: Review Rules #3-1. Share examples. Compare and contrast them. Introduce Rule #4. Share examples. Post the rule on the board. Continue to look for examples throughout other lessons and classwork. Instruction time: 7 minutes.

Day 8: Skip linguistics.

Day 9: Review Rules #4-1. Once you have covered 4-5 rules and reviewed them several times, the earlier rules will be very familiar and reviewing them should go fast. Keep a rapid pace to keep students engaged! Introduce Rule #5. (Instructional time: 7 minutes).

Continue a similar pattern through all of the rules. You can make a lot of ground while keeping this instruction short and sweet!

Keep It Simple Part II

Determine your objective for this instruction. Do you want students to memorize and master all 30 rules? Or, do you simply want them to be familiar with the rules? Perhaps it is enough for them to simply understand that there is more to the code and that they are intelligent people. They no longer need to feel like something is wrong with them.

At some point, it certainly would help students to know these rules very fluently, but you may not have the time to teach them for mastery right now. You probably need time to learn them, yourself. Do not let yourself be overwhelmed by this process and let that hold you back from enlightening your students. These are important additions to the English rules that will help them understand what has been a Secret Code. This awareness, alone, is 80% of the battle!

You Are Changing Lives!

Students will be inspired to learn that there has been a logical explanation to years of confusion! You may never know how many students will be “turned around” by this revelation…and validation. It will certainly help many “struggling” students find a more positive path.

-Susan Kruger


SK EB 110716

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