Unit 2: Literacy Skills

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Unit 2: Early Literacy Teaching Skills


In this unit, we will dive deeper into the written aspect of learning to read, including ideas about explicitly teaching phonics and whole language instruction, instructional practices to support early readers, and what the process of learning to read really looks like.


2.1 Phonics vs Whole Language Debate

2.2 Learning to Read

2.3 Instructional Practices

2.1 Phonics vs Whole Language Debate

Teaching whole language learning or explicit phonics for literacy is a contested debate. Before we begin, watch this video for a summary of the debate and information on the way our brains process information.

While both skills are valuable and most teachers continue to provide a more balanced approach to reading instruction by teaching both skill instruction and immersion with phonics and whole language, some school districts and states have even modified curriculum based on the assumption that teachers are using more holistic practices and no longer teaching phonics (Baumann et al., 1998, pp. 636-638). Both strategies should be strategically taught, but evidence is clear that explicit and systematic phonics instruction leads to greater success in decoding and fluency. Whole language learning doesn't provide students with the valuable tools to break the language code and problem solve through new words that they cannot identify by sight. Phonics instruction gives students a toolbox with strategies they can use to break the code.

Nonsense words are a classic example noting the differences between whole language learning and phonics. When students are presented with a list of nonsense words, students relying on whole language learning skills will be unable to read the words because they are not familiar with them. Those relying on phonics skills, however, should be able to use known sounds and letter patterns to read the unfamiliar word, even if it is nonsense. We don't read nonsense words in our day to day lives, but we do come across words we don't know or are unfamiliar with, so having the foundational skills of phonics are important to figuring out those new words.

2.2 Learning to Read

Stages of Reading:

There are several researched and identified stages of learning to read (Lambert & Strom, 2020, 41:00).

Pre-Alphabetic or Logographic Stage
Symbols students might be able to identify in the pre-alphabetic stage.

At the beginning of literacy development, students don't have any sense of phonemes (letter sounds) or graphemes (symbols associated with letter sounds). They may begin to comprehend the meaning of non-letter symbols and guess words based on context clues and images.

Partial-Alphabetic Stage
Examples of associations students might make in the partial-alphabetic stage.

Once students learn their letter sounds and to identify letters, they enter the partial-alphabetic stage. Here, they can understand and identify alphabetic cues. They tend to rely solely on the initial and final sounds in consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words in both reading and writing.

Vowel sounds are more nuanced and complicated so are more difficult to learn and solidify as the glue holding the words together.

Full Alphabetic Sound Stage → Consolidated Alphabetic Stage

Here, students are attending to all the sounds in words. They are able to identify all letter sounds, including long and short vowel sounds, and both blend and segment words. They are still typically decoding words letter by letter, but can do so with more fluency.

Examples from the progression of decoding in both the full and consolidated alphabetic stages.

Students then graduate to the consolidated alphabetic stage, where multi-letter spelling patterns, including digraphs, consonant blends, and vowel digraphs are solidified and recognized fluently (Lane, n.d., p. 3). They are beginning to recognize whole words by sight and don't need to sound as many words out.

Automatic and Multi-Syllabic Words Stage

The final stage of reading is when students are able to recognize all simple and complex sounds and their regular spelling patterns to read longer and more difficult words.


In the partial-alphabetic stage, students use alphabetic cues to identify the initial and final sound in basic words for both reading and writing. Typically these are accessible consonant sounds. We will explore the partial-alphabetic stage and our reliance on consonants for language with the following activity. In this activity, you will read a set of words from a given category with all the vowels removed. Sound difficult? You might be surprised.

Click here to access the activity in Google Slides. Make sure you are viewing the slides in presentation mode! When finished, return here.

Let's reflect! Answer the following questions for yourself.

  • How was the activity? Was it easy? Challenging? Unexpected?
  • Did you notice a particular reading strategy that your brain used to read the words? What was the strategy?

Other Factors:

Reading is not taught on an island, and a tree's growth is as reliant on external factors as it is on its own roots. As much as we can refine our classroom teaching practices to best suit the needs of our students, there are always going to be other factors that contribute equally to literacy development. In the next unit, we will explore some a couple factors that contribute to language development and skilled reading, but many will go uncovered.

Another take on Scarborough's reading rope, showing skilled reading in context (Strom, 2021).

2.3 Instructional Practices

Direct and Explicit Instruction of Reading Strategies

Phonics lessons should be planning out explicitly to teach a direct skill based on student need. Phonics skills should be used as a foundation to build reading strategies. Each lesson should provide opportunities for students to immediately practice and apply those new skills. Examples of reading strategies include:

  • Sounding it out (stretching the word to say one sound at a time)
  • Looking at the picture for support and checking it with the first sound in the word
  • Looking for known words or parts
  • Chunking words (breaking into syllables or known sounds and parts of words)

Current phonics instruction also includes more contemporary activities and instructional approaches, leading to increased student engagement and generalization of learned skills.

Physical Movement and Tactile Experiences

Moving the body stimulates the brain, so including movement in to the phonics and reading instruction reinforces and stimulates brain activity. Lesson activities then become collaborative and student-centered, promoting engagement for better learning outcomes (Kilbourne et al., 2017, p. 115). Also, as we explored with phonological and phonemic awareness in Unit 1, it's important to make learning phonics fun and engaging for students!

Teacher modeling "skywriting" for a class (Wilson, 2013).

Wilson's FUNdations phonics program incorporates movement with letter formation. Students learn to write new letters by tracing with their finger, writing it in the air using their whole arm ("sky-writing"), or using a whiteboard marker or other writing implements. Using the their full arm for sky-writing engages the body in a new way and helps solidify the letter in their minds.

Some classrooms use sandboxes or shaving cream to practice letter writing because it connects with students' sensory needs and motor skills and is fun!


Students will be engaged if what they are doing is interesting or fun. Students will also be engaged if their teacher is engaged and having fun. Modeling passion, interest, and excitement about a topic or idea is as important as modeling a skill and enhances student engagement.

Wrapping Up

In Unit 2, we looked at what the process of learning to read looks like and what types of instructional practices support students in using phonics as a stepping stool to future reading ability.

We'll identify who might be learning this material and continue our own learning in Unit 3: A Variety of Language Learners. Back to Home.

Extended Resources:

Baumann, J. F., Hoffman, J. V., Moon, J., & Duffy-Hester, A. M. (1998). Where Are Teachers' Voices in the Phonics/Whole Language Debate? Results from a Survey of U.S. Elementary Classroom Teachers. The Reading Teacher, 51(8), 636–650.

ESL Expat. (n.d.). No harm no vowel - esl vocabulary games for Kids & Adults. ESL Expat. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from https://eslexpat.com/esl-vocabulary-games/no-harm-no-vowel/

Kilbourne, J. R., Scott-Webber, L., & Kapitula, L. R. (2017). An Activity-Permissible Classroom: Impacts of an Evidence-Based Design Solution on Student Engagement and Movement in an Elementary School Classroom. Children, Youth and Environments, 27(1), 112–134.

Lane, H. B. (n.d.). How children learn to read words: Ehri’s phases. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from https://education.ufl.edu/ufli/files/2020/03/EhriPhases.pdf

LME Global. (n.d.). The Reading Wars - Phonics Versus Whole Word. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from https://www.lmeglobal.net/the-reading-wars-phonics-vs-whole-word.

Strom, C. H. (2021, February 9). Skilled reading in context. Carolyn H. Strom, PhD. Retrieved April 18, 2022, from https://carolynstrom.com/blog/skilled-reading-in-context

Wilson Language Training Corporation. (2013). Fundations.