Meyer Describes a Phonics Lesson

Here, Richard Meyer describes a phonics lesson. ‘Karen’s’ (a pseudonym) is teaching.

It is a little before 10:00. … The children are seated on the carpeted floor in no particular arrangement; they are facing Karen, who sits in a chair in front of a white markerboard that is fixed to the wall (the way that chalkboards were once at the front of classrooms). …

Karen begins the lesson by telling the children that they will do a “you blend them story.” She reads from the scripted guide in front of her that tells the group of 18 children—10 girls and 8 boys—to pay attention as she begins to read the old fable of the crow and the fox. You know the story: The fox wants the cheese that the very vain crow has in its beak. The fox tells the crow that she can’t sing that well; when the crow sings to convince the fox that she can sing, she drops the cheese and the fox eats it. This story typically lends itself to discussions of gender, beauty, chicanery, and more as readers or listeners transact with it.

However, in this classroom, on this day, the scenario is different because this is a “you blend them story.” Karen begins telling the story. In the following, when I put letters in //, it indicates the sounds for which those letters stand. When the letters are in < >, it means the name of the letter. When I refer to words that Karen writes on the board, they are underlined.

Karen begins to read: “Once there was a /k/-/r/-/o/ [she is making the sounds that, blended together, say the word crow].”

Some children call out, “Crow!” Others follow suit, saying, “crow” as well, just a beat after the first bunch. The second group is taking its cues from the children who understand the task.

As Karen continues through the story, she stops at every fifth word or so and says the sounds (phonemes) that make up the word. She is reading from a scripted lesson that tells her what to say. The children cannot see the words of the story; they are only listening. Karen haltingly says the individual sounds to make these words: /f/-/o/-/x/, /l/-/u/-/n/-/ch/, /sh/-/i/-/n/ [shine], /v/-/oi/-/s/ [voice], /b/-/ea/-/k/, and /n/-/u/-/n/ [none], following the script that demands that she stretch these particular words into their separate phonemes. After the story, there is a brief discussion, but it seemed to me that only the children who said they were familiar with the fable could answer the questions. Karen confirms my suspicion after the lesson, explaining that her stronger readers (and those not frustrated or tuned out) are the ones who typically follow the storyline during this type of activity. Many others, including Karen at times, get lost in the sounds. I, too, had lost the thrust of the story until I stopped to remind myself that I knew it already.

By 10:05, the story is completed. Karen turns toward (and asks the children to look at) the markerboard at the front of the room. She writes superman on the board. Two children call out, “Superman!” right away. I will learn later that they are quite precocious readers that will volunteer many of the words Karen writes. The transition has been wordless as the children watch their teacher shift from reading the scripted story to writing a word on the board. They are used to the routine; it’s almost October and they’ve been at this for many weeks.

Karen erases the <n> on superman and puts a <d> at the end to make the nonword, supermad. Perhaps you will argue that it is a word. Some of the students in Karen’s class would agree, and one of the children suggests that if you are very mad at someone, you “are supermad at them.” Next Karen puts an <n> back, in place of the <d>, but then places a <d> after the <n> to make supermand. Saying the whole thing very slowly, the children work to call the nonword. One calls it out, and the rest echo what that child has said. They look at their teacher; “What is ‘supermand’?” asks one.

Karen says, “It is not a word.”

Karen erases supermand and writes baboon; one of the same two precocious readers reads it. Karen changes it to baboot. Some of the children say it; others echo it. Some of the children are silent.

Next, Karen writes alphabet; the same two children read it, Others echo it. Karen changes it to alphabed. Some children chuckle as they read it; others echo the word and wait for the next word. 1 wonder if they are curious what an alphabed is. Again, about five are silent.

When Karen writes schoolbus, some say it and others echo it. Someone suggests, “Like The Magic School Bus [books]“, as Karen turns it into schoolbun by erasing the <s> and replacing it with an <n>. One child frowns and calls out, “Ms. L, what is a ‘schoolbun’?” One of the children responds before Karen can answer. He says, “Like, when you’re at school, if they have hot dogs for lunch, they give it to you on a schoolbun.”

The last word that the children will have to read in its original and altered form during this day’s lesson is recess. Because this word is used on the daily schedule, more children than the few precocious readers say it. I watch with some of the children as it is changed into reced; Karen erases <ss> and writes <d> at the end. Can you pronounce that word? How would you pronounce it if you hadn’t seen “recess” first? Karen pronounces this by saying the prefix “re” with the word said. “Here’s a challenge: write ‘reced’ on a piece of paper and ask someone to read it who has not seen ‘recess’ first. Some will think that you wanted to write ‘raced.’ Others will make the /k/ sound for the <c>. Still others will say something like ‘rest’.” This part of the lesson is called phonological or phonemic awareness by Karen when we talk about it. She uses the two (phonological and phonemic) interchangeably when we talk. She explains that it’s meant to teach about sounds and words, but she thinks that the nonsensical focus derails that intention. She explains that children want meaning first and that the presentation of nonwords confuses them, especially those just beginning to read. That portion of the lesson is over and Karen shifts to the next portion.

It’s now 10:08. Karen announces, “Let’s get out Sniggle.” Sniggle is the hand puppet that the students have named. “Figure out what Sniggle is doing today,” Karen says, again reading from the script. Karen promised her principal that she would give the phonics program a fair consideration for this school year. Part of honoring that promise is reading the script for each lesson exactly as the publisher intended. She slips her hand inside the puppet to work its mouth.

Karen holds Sniggle facing her; she says, “Maze.” Then she moves her hand so that the puppet faces the children, she moves the puppet’s lips, and she changes her voice as she says /zzzz/. She says “man” following the same routine, with Sniggle facing her when she says the word and making Sniggle face the children when the puppet says the isolated final sound of the word. Sniggle the puppet says /nnnn/. She says “fish” and the puppet says /shhhh/. Her change in voice and movement of the puppet is intended to cue the children into the activity. The teacher is saying one thing; the puppet is saying something else. The children are to figure out what the puppet is doing and do that along with it.

A child suggests that the puppet is saying the ending sound; Karen confirms this, and the children say the ending sound of these words, along with Sniggle: “sleep,” “touch,” “leak,” “meet,” “truck,” “treat,” “place,” “eat,” “please,” and “teach.” Karen is serious about this work. She is enacting the script carefully and conscientiously … .

After the lesson, Karen explained how exhausting it is to follow the scripted lessons because her focus has to be on the material to be covered rather than children learning reading. She also tells me that she’s concerned that puppets do not get to speak full words, sentences, and more in this program. She does not like demonstrating to her students such an unimaginative use of puppets. I picture confused family members as children go home and play with puppets that make sounds but don’t say any words. Karen says “Thank you for helping us” to Sniggle and places him back in his box near her desk.

At 10:12, Karen asks the student teacher to put the overhead projector in place. The student teacher wheels it to a spot behind all the children and aims it at the markerboard; she plugs it in, but she does not turn it on. Karen holds up a white card that measures about 12 by 18 inches with upper- and lowercase <d> printed on it. The publisher of the program provides these cards.

She says, “The uppercase <D> is a straight line down from the sky and a big fat tummy. The lowercase <d> is a circle and then a straight line down.” She says this twice, drawing the letters in the air with her index finger. Some of the children draw in the air with her.

I look above the markerboard at the front of the room, where one might see the alphabet in a primary classroom. There is a row of white cards the size of the one Karen is holding. Six of them have an upper- and lowercase letter (e.g., <Dd>) and an illustration. One of those cards is the letter <a> the other five are consonants. The rest of the cards are blank.

Karen turns over the card she is holding to reveal the letters <d> and <D> again; this side of the card also has a picture of a dinosaur. Some of the children seem excited and talk to Karen and each other about dinosaurs.

It’s 10:14, and I look around at the group of young children. This is the first of a few “scans” that I do; a scan is a research strategy in which the researcher looks a little more broadly at the context or setting. I had been focusing intensely on Karen’s actions and some of the children’s responses. A scan is an opportunity to step back and look at the whole group to further capture the nature of the experience.

I notice that some of the children are watching Karen; others are not. One child has carefully rolled up one leg of his jeans and works at unraveling his sock. He is making a little ball with the string of elastic as he unweaves. Because he is unweaving only the threads that are parallel to the sole of his foot, he is leaving a sort of skeleton of his sock that starts to slip down his leg as he unwraps further. A few of the children are rocking back and forth, seemingly not paying particular attention to Karen (although at this point in time it is conjecture to suggest they are not paying attention merely because they are not looking at her). One child is quietly making the sounds of bombs dropping (“eeeeyowwwwwww plichhhh”) as he moves his hand above the rug, drops it slowly toward the rug, and makes the sound when his hand hits the rug. He does this repeatedly. One of the children picks his nose; another plays with her ears; one more is rubbing her hands up and down her braids (later she’ll undo and redo them).

The student teacher [working with Karen today] turns on the overhead and focuses it to reveal a story about a dinosaur. The story is about eight lines long and fits on the top half of the overhead. Karen reads it as the student teacher points to each word. The story has a lot of <d>s in it. At the end of every few lines are two-letter <d>s written side by side (<dd>). The children are to say the sound /dl two times when they come to the parts of the story where <dd> is written. The sound is supposed to represent the sound of dinosaurs walking.

The experience with the story is short, and the children focus back on Karen as the overhead is turned off. It took only 2 minutes to read it. There was no discussion of the storyline. Later Karen will explain that the push to complete the lesson makes discussion impossible—there’s just not time for it. She also tells me that it is not called for in the script.

As the children look to Karen for what they are to do next, my eyes focus once again above the markerboard. I notice that the letter <h> is one of the letters that can be seen; the card has a picture of a dog near the letters. I whisper to the child next to me, “What is that picture on the card with <h> and a dog?” I realize that I’ve answered my own question (it is a dog), but I think she understands that I’m asking about a dog being on the <h> card.

She smiles and says, “That’s a /h/ /h/ /h/ hound dog.”

I smile back. She has breathed big puffs of air with each /h/, and we both think she’s quite clever.

Karen reads from the scripted teachers guide: “Say these words back to me if they start with /d/ /d/.” She says the sound of <d> twice. Then she reads: dog, daisy, dance, foot, dark, wagon, doorman, and paper, and the list goes on for about 12 words. She pauses after saying each word and waits for children to repeat the words that begin with <d>. The pattern of children responding at this point in the lesson is consistent with what has occurred earlier in the lesson. A small number of children respond almost in unison. Some of the children wait for those initial responses and then mimic them. Some of the children say every word regardless of the initial consonant sound. Still others are silent for the entire activity. …

At 10:19, Karen says, “You all seem very restless because of all this phonics.” It is here that something quite remarkable occurs. … She says, “I’ve got a real book about dinosaurs here.” She holds up a large picture book that has a big dinosaur on the cover. The scripted lesson has been placed aside. As Karen reads and shows them the pictures, the frustration behaviors that I noted abate. The sock unweaver, who is one of the precocious readers, moves closer to Karen and looks at the book as she reads. Other children also move closer to the book. The nose picker stops. The rocking that some of the children were engaged in also stops during the reading of the story. The child who played with his ears and the kids who were chatting with their friends instead of watching Sniggle or echoing nonwords are now focused. As she reads, Karen is emotional and active and changes her voice for different characters. The children interrupt the reading at times for brief comments and thoughts connected to the story.

It’s 10:33. They discuss the story, including the genre. For the next few minutes, the children make connections to other texts they’ve read and talk about what they know and wonder about dinosaurs. The talk about the book winds down, and Karen excuses the children to write in their journals for 15 minutes. She tells them that phonics is not done and that they’ll have to return to finish today’s lesson. She tells them that she wants them to “enjoy writing for a while” before they continue. The children chat as they return to their desks, find their journals, and write. Some of them share their writing with each other and with Karen. Twenty minutes after they were excused, she calls them back to the markerboard area. “Let’s finish phonics,” Karen says.

It’s almost 10:55. The children are seated on the rug again. They are asked to say these words as Karen writes them on the markerboard. She writes dad and changes it to had to mad; she writes an and changes it to and to hand; she writes ant and changes it to can to cat to can to can’t. Some of the children watched as Karen wrote the words and erased parts to make new words. Others did not. Once again, I scan the group of children sitting closely together on the rug. I see: a child picking her nose and examining the findings; one child poking (in a friendly manner) another; one pulling at the rug; the sock child is, once again, tearing apart his clothing; one child talks to a friend; one sits and rocks and twists his ears; one unbraids and braids her hair; one sucks his bracelet; one is squatting, rather than sitting on her bottom; one is rolling; and one is styling her cuticles with her thumbnail. Without looking up, some answer mechanically, some echo, and others ignore as Karen asks them to say what she wrote.

This behavior stands in stark contrast to what I observed during the journal writing time that the children just completed. During that time, children read and reread what they wrote. They read their writing to others near them and asked for advice. They read to Karen and to me. They moved around the room to find words they wanted to spell or to write near a friend. They asked questions of each other of their writing. A few who did not seem interested in journal writing listened for a while, watched their colleagues, and then—as if an idea struck—began writing, too. The one child who appeared to be staring at the ceiling and couldn’t think of anything to write interested me. When I asked him about journal writing, he explained that some days he just daydreams. He also showed me his journal, which was thick with stories, illustrations, and events from his life.

Once again, Karen moves from one scripted activity to the next. At 11:10, she has the children pick up letter cards with <m>, <n>, <c>, <d>, and <a> on them. These are some of the same letters that are displayed above the markerboard at the front of the room. The <a> is printed in red, and the rest are black. On one side, the cards look like a conventional deck of playing cards; one letter is on the other side of each card. They pick up the cards from piles on a nearby table, and they form a large circle upon returning to the rug area. Karen has not asked that the circle be formed. The children know this routine and immediately start to make words and call them out. Being in a circle allows them to see each other’s cards.

Some make “mad,” and Karen asks them to say the sounds of each letter in “mad.” Others look at their colleagues who have formed the word successfully by putting the cards with <m>, <a>, and <d> together and find those letters to make the word themselves. Others finger the cards and move them around, not paying particular attention to the word Karen acknowledges and asks them all to make. One child calls out “dam” and is accused of making a bad word, but Karen clarifies that this is a thing that holds water back, not the bad word. One says he could make “candy” if he had a <y>. Karen says, “That is harder than we’re supposed to make.” This is the only time in the lesson that she looks over the children at me. Her eyes fill with water. In just a few minutes, the children make words suggested by their colleagues or the publishers (via Karen). The cards are collected.

Later, when I ask Karen about her feelings when she responded to that child, she explains that the program underestimates some children and confuses others. “It’s just not for every child,” she sighs.

The closing part of the lesson, beginning at almost 11:20, involves the distribution of a “book” made from a blackline master. The book fits onto one piece of photocopy paper, with each page being one half of the piece of paper. When the book is folded, it will have four pages. The book is illustrated with simple line drawings. It is about a cat that naps on a mat, on a (mouse) pad, in a pan, and in a cap. The cat’s owner is illustrated as being annoyed at the cat’s choices of places to nap. The only words in the book are: “the,” “cat,” “had,” “nap,” “on,” “a,” “mat,” “pad,” “in,” “pan,” and “cap.” Some of the words are used in one sentence on each page of the book. The children read the text in a mass oral reading; more accurately, some read, some echo, some ignore. This is followed by a flurry of rereading to a few neighbors. They briefly discuss the naughty cat in the book. Karen says they may color it later on. The children’s immediate reading of the book, en masse, suggests how familiar they are with the routine of the lessons. They know when they are to read and reread.

After they read the book a few times to each other, one child leans back to a nearby bookshelf and grabs a stapler. He places the single folded sheet of paper (referred to by the scripted lesson as a book) into the stapler and staples it so that it looked like the books they sometimes made during their now-infrequent writers workshop. But the books the children make during writers workshop have many more sheets of paper in them. The children are accustomed to writing longer books than the one they just read; those longer books are held together with staples. There really was no need for staples as far as I could tell. However, looking closely on the sheet that a child near me had, I could see two half-inch lines right at the fold of the paper, suggesting the placement of a staple over each one. The stapler is passed around the circle and all of the children staple their books.

Karen asks the children to put their books into their book bags, square plastic bags (12 inches by 12 inches) that seal at the top. The children keep these in their desks so that they have books handy if there’s time for reading. Some of the children have been reading rather complex texts, such as The Magic School Bus (Cole, 1986); others have more predictable (not just phonetically regular) books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear (Martin, 1983) in their bags. The program provided other books like the one about the cat, and some of the children have those in their bags. Karen has a book of blackline masters (photocopy quality sheets for reproduction and distribution to the students) filled with many more one-page ready-to-fold books to copy for the children during the year.

Each day, Karen is required to do one lesson of this direct instruction, systematic, intense phonics program. When the children are dismissed for lunch, Karen tells me that when she told a district reading administrator that phonics was taking up to 90 minutes on some days, she was told that she has a “personal problem.” She makes little quote signs in the air when she says personal problem. “What does that mean?” she asks looking at me. …

The total time spent on phonics, subtracting the minutes that the children heard a real book and wrote in their journals, was 60 minutes.

Meyer, Richard J. 2002. Phonics Exposed: Understanding and Resisting Systematic Direct Intense Phonics Instruction. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. pp.12-22. || Amazon