Bulking up on phonics

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

At Belmont Academy Charter School, kindergartners are learning their letters and their sounds. (Photo: Connie Langland) At Belmont Academy Charter School, the ongoing use of assessments has resulted in parents getting early warning if their child is straying off track, weeks prior to issuance of report cards.

And when review of data showed numerous 2nd- and 3rd-grade students stumbling in phonics, the solution was to bulk up programming in kindergarten and 1st-grade classrooms.

Now for about 20 minutes a day, children practice letter and word recognition and also, in unison, say aloud the discrete sounds of oral English in a program called Fundations. School leader Jennifer VanZandt described it as “scripted, repetitive, focusing on one letter at a time.”

One recent afternoon, reading specialist Robynn Albeck had the attention of 16 kindergartners and got them started by using a pointer to jump at random from one letter to another.

In unison, the children responded: “A, apple. K, kite. O, octopus. W, wolf.”

“OK, your brains are warmed up,” said Albeck. “So here we go.”

For the next several minutes, they put together small words, one segment at a time. She started with “it” then put a P in front of it. “Pih, pih, pih …. PIT,” most children responded.

She asked for a definition, and Malaysia got it right.

“Like a fruit has a pit, and we have an armpit,” she said.

There were more words to put together: W plus IG spells WIG.Replace the W with a P, and now it’s PIG.

The teacher called on one child, then another to offer definitions. Again and again, the children sounded out each word. “Excellent job,” Albeck declared. “You guys know that when we know our sounds, it helps us read our words and write our words.”

But she added, “If our handwriting is really sloppy, are people going to be able to read our words?”

“Nooooo,” the children responded, then settled down for the final lesson of the day, how to write a capital G and a capital H. Soon they were practicing lowercase and uppercase Gs and Hs in their workbooks, and Albeck, the reading specialist, and Kim Proto, their teacher, went from small table to small table, assessing how they were doing.