Reading Above The Fray: What Are Foundational Skills and Decoding

I am so excited to be joining my friend Abbie from Kindergarten Chaos for a winter book study. We chose to do a book study over the winter break because we know there are so many changes happening and it’s so much pressure and information to process. We wanted to help break through the noise and share our insights, and my own journey, with the science of reading. We chose the book Reading Above The Fray because it’s an easy read full of easy ideas and strategies we can all implement! You can grab the book on Amazon to read along with us. And for this book study, we’re doing a weekly webinar video where Abbie and I discuss two chapters and share our takeaways, ideas, and tips for bringing the information into the classroom in real, easy, practical ways. Click the image below to sign up for the free webinar! There are multiple videos to watch as we did a couple chapters per week.

Here are my takeaways from chapters 1 and 2.

No one is an expert on foundational skills. Researchers can’t even settle on a single definition. So that means NONE OF US are experts (despite what some on social media say…) and we’re all learning and growing together. Don’t let anyone shame you or judge you on this journey to be better. We’re all trying to understand so much research and so many changes. And since the research is so consistent in what works, we need to keep the focus on those best practices and make necessary changes in our classrooms and our own teaching. And remember, we are in this TOGETHER!

Bring The FUN!

First, because foundational skills are so repetitive, it is so important to make it fun and bring joy into teaching and learning foundational skills. Our district has a required foundational skills curriculum that we do follow. We also supplement with our TKS BOOTCAMP curriculum and lots of fun games. True story: I had a district-level observation (principal, his boss, lead literacy coach, etc) to see my foundational skills lesson. After the lesson, my principal stopped me in the hall and asked if I were OK. I assured him I was and he said: “You weren’t as animated as you normally are…” I was so focused on the implementation of this required curriculum that I had forgotten to HAVE FUN and make learning fun. Mr. Greg was lost in the curriculum. NO MORE FOLKS! We’re going to make sure foundational skills is fun. Here are some ideas to make these skills fun:

(NOTE: any videos and pictures with masks are from the 2021-2022 school year. Masks are no longer required!)

Stomp And Spell

This is so easy to implement and the kids go CRAZY for it. Simply make 3 columns of letters on the floor: beginning sounds, middle sounds, and ending sounds. I use a Sharpie but dry-erase markers work and so do Vis-a-vis markers. Paper might not work so well since the kids are “stomping” the letters.

How it works:

A student “stomps” the letters on the floor. As they stomp, the class is saying the sounds and writing the sounds/letters on the whiteboards. After all three letters are done, we decode the word and discuss if it is a real word or not. We also pull in vocabulary by discussing what the words mean.

Wear A Costume

Making lessons fun really can be as easy as a silly hat or costume! Grab an old Halloween costume and do a foundational skills lesson. Kids will giggle and laugh while learning!

Use Everyday Objects

Cups, spoons, sticky notes. Anything can be used to bring some joy into a foundational skills lesson!

You can write letters on sticky notes and have students spell words. Then they can decode the words and write the words. Easy. Fun.

Repeated practice is a must.

Perhaps one of my biggest takeaways and where I’m making changes is the idea that students need to decode a word 1-8 times so that word can be orthographically mapped into their brain. My first thought was how well our TKS BOOTCAMP curriculum aligns with this research. Throughout the lessons of TKS BOOTCAMP, students are decoding words multiple times: circle charts, word building, word writing, decodable texts, small group word work, and independent practice with our word matches. That design was intentional when creating our Bootcamp curriculum. And I will say that over the last 3-4 years of doing book studies focused on phonics and the science of reading, I am proud that TKS BOOTCAMP has been aligned to all research and best practices from day 1. We have made modifications to make the curriculum BETTER but it has always been built on a foundation of research and best practices for almost 10 years.

Now that we know the research says 1-8 repetitions, we will be explicit that we get at least 8 repetitions with each word.

Another change that I am making after reading these chapters is how we approach our decodable texts. Decodable texts are a must in foundational skills and we have used them for several years by reading them 1-2 times a day for 2 days and then again on Friday for students who needed extra practice. That means students were in the text about 2-5 times. I was expecting them to read the page and decode the words and then be able to read the page fluently. Now I understand that I was wrong. We need 1-8 times to read each page to build that automaticity. So we will be changing our approach to using our TKS BOOTCAMP decodable texts so we get closer to 8 readings a week. This will happen in small groups, one-on-one, and independently.

Foundational Skills Are MAGIC!

Foundational skills are essential. They are a must. Students must have a solid foundation if we want to build readers. BUT students also need to have a LOVE OF READING. Students need to read for fun. Students need to see our excitement for books and reading and words. You can have great foundational skills lessons but if kids don’t have a love of reading, we’re missing a very important piece of the puzzle.

Decoding is the most efficient way to be proficient in reading. Yes, it is challenging for kids because it demands a lot of work and brain power. And it can be challenging for teachers because repetition can be hard to listen to sometimes. But remember that decoding is what turns those symbols and squiggles and letters into words. And that is the magic for our kids.

For more resources, check out these TKS creations:

For more ideas and resources, check out these blog posts:

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