Do you have a phonics block built into your kindergarten day, or is it combined with your reading time? Do you have 45 minutes to an hour to teach those foundational skills, or are they taught during a warm up or daily routine? No matter how your phonics time is structured, I’d love to share some strategies I use to teach phonics skills to make sure that my students have a solid foundation.

You could have a few minutes or a complete block of time to teach phonics, and my advice would still remain the same. Make sure you spiral your skills, do many skills at once, have both oral and visual cues, and get your kids into small groups. Let’s break down how you can do all of these things in 15, 30, or 45 minute blocks of time.

Some teachers just don’t have the time during their day to devote an entire block to teaching phonics skills. Maybe you are using an adopted program that does a daily phonics routine, but it’s short and not that great. Let’s make sure that if all you have is 15 minutes a day, you do these things.

Cover lots of skills. For whatever reason, I used to have the mindset that I cover letter ID and sounds in early Fall, rhyming and initial sounds in late Fall, and don’t get to medial sounds or onset/rime until late Spring. Unfortunately, in covering skills in a timeline/progressive manner, my higher achieving students were bored in September and my slower-moving learners were not getting enough coverage to help them progress. Be sure that during your phonics warm up, you are covering multiple phonics skills. Cover about 5 skills during each warm up (letter ID, rhyming ID, beginning sounds, compound words, and blending sounds would be excellent skills to practice in early Fall).

Spiral skills, come back to them often. Don’t leave letter ID behind after December. Students can continue to benefit from exposure to build their fluency and automaticity. Also, don’t be afraid to introduce a more difficult skill early in the year since you’ll be coming back to it periodically throughout the year. Even if your students can’t segment or blend CVC words yet, make sure you put it in your warm up. They’ll be able to hear and see you do it, and that will help build their confidence when it’s time for them to try on their own.

As you continue to spiral skills, make sure you assess as you go. You can choose a small group of students to watch over a few weeks and check for progress during the warm up. (These are included in the Foundational Skills Mini Lessons)

Use oral and visual cues. Flash cards with letters on them are great. Hold them up and quickly go through the alphabet. You can do the same thing except ask students to give you the sound. If you have rhyming flash cards, that’s great, too! But don’t worry about having visuals for every skill you cover. One of the most important parts of this warm up is your students hearing the sounds being manipulated in the words. Hand motions are a great addition to oral skills (using your arm to tap out the sounds in words when segmenting, sliding your hand down your arm to blend).

If all you have is half an hour, you have time for a warm up and a mini lesson with one of your small groups. Do all of the strategies mentioned above for the first 15-minute warm up, then do a mini lesson.

Create small groups of students. You may already have “guided reading” groups, but this isn’t that. If you use some sort of screener like DIBELS or Fastbridge, look closely at the results of your BOY assessment. You can also do your own version of a beginning of year skill check in order to see which phonics skills your students seem to know or need to learn. If you have this kind of data, you can start putting your students into small groups by skill. For example, I first group my students by letter sound ID. I try to make 4 groups which have anywhere between 4-7 students in each group. I make my own criteria for groups, so you can as well. My lowest group knows 5 or less letter sounds where my highest group knows 21-26 letter sounds. When students are grouped by skill, I am able to tailor my mini lessons to their exact skills.

Games like this Beginning Sounds Bingo are perfect for using in small groups. Students are totally engaged and love playing! You can then use these as centers when the small group is done! (These are included in the Foundational Skills Mini Lessons)

Don’t teach the same mini lesson to all groups. Once you have your small groups created by skill, you will be able to determine what to focus on. My students who know letter sounds will still get a spiral review of them, but we will go on to more in-depth skills so they can continue to advance. As far as what to teach in your mini lesson, that is up to you. Some schools have phonics programs for teachers to use, some use intervention programs like SIPPS (which I do not agree should be used for mini lessons for all students but only for students who need the intervention), and some use a variety of resources. I use something I created myself because my school had NOTHING for a while! There are 40 mini lessons, and I start my groups at different lessons. One group starts at Lesson 1 while another group may start at Lesson 11. The skills spiral but do progress gradually.

Do one group per day.
I know you’ll want to get in as many as you can, but trust me. Use the 15 minutes you have after your warm up to work with just one small group. Give them the entire time so that they can get the differentiated mini lesson, play a game, and do an exit ticket/formative assessment. The longer you work with them, and do it regularly, the more likely you are to see results! What are the rest of your students doing while you work with this small group? Preferably, a phonics skill rotation. Phonics centers, technology (Lexia, Starfall, or other ELA program), Words Their Way, or any other phonics-based activities you like to use.

If you’re lucky enough to have this much time each day, you can do a warm up and TWO small groups. This will allow you to see your small groups 2 or 3 times per week (if you have 4 groups total). I typically will see my two lower groups 3 times per week and my two higher groups twice a week. I want more face time with my groups who need more reteaching, support, and instruction. How can you manage all of this movement?

Do rotations. If you haven’t already tried rotations, then you’re missing out! I love teaching both math and phonics with rotations. This allows me to strategically plan exactly how I want to support my differentiated groups. I have written more in depth about teaching with rotations in THIS POST. Rotations are messy at first. You’ll want to adjust them to fit your class’s needs. But don’t be shy, try them! My students truly excelled last year and I attribute it to our rotation model classroom.

When you do two groups, you can assess more students each week and make the decision to keep them in your group or move them. These assessments are included in the Foundational Skills Mini Lessons

You can use whatever mini lesson plans you prefer to teach in this small group format. If you want to see what I use to teach all of these mini lessons, you can click on the pictures below:

Set 1: Lessons 1-20

Set 2: Lessons 21-40

There you go! I hope you can take away some strategies for teaching phonics no matter what time frame you have. Here are my final tips:

  • Don’t be too rigid. It’s okay if you need to skip a warm up because of a special event. It’s okay if you can’t squeeze in a mini lesson in the beginning of the school year. You’ll find a groove and will make it work. I suggest not skipping the warm up if at all possible, but don’t beat yourself up if you need to!
  • Keep your groups fluid. If a student is in your “lowest” group, your goal is to either move them out of the group or move the entire group up! The best feeling is when your lowest group gets so small that you end up combining them with the next group. Keep your groups to no more than 7, though, so you may need to split a larger group into 2. Just do the same activities with both of those split groups!
  • Set a timer! If you think you’ll go over your 15 minutes, time yourself. When it goes off, stop and transition to your next activity. There’s no good in calling it a warm up or mini lesson when it’s 30 minutes long! 
  • Use games! Kids love learning through games. In your mini lessons, keep it fun and light. I have games in my small group lessons resources and they are kid-tested. They love them!
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