Are you looking for the most effective way to teach children to read? This analogy will change the way you think about teaching phonics – for good! As a reading intervention teacher, I successfully based my phonics instruction off of this analogy. So now, you can too!
I remember being a teenager and learning how to drive. Do you remember that?
I got that little booklet from the DMV. I read it, then I studied the laws of the road. Red light, green light, 4-way stop, gas, brake, defog the windshield..check!
I took the test for their learner’s permit.
(I failed the first time, but that’s a story for another day.)
I passed. Woohoo!
I was so excited and could not wait to get behind the wheel.
So my dad handed me the keys to his brand new SUV and said, “We’re going to Big Bear (the mountains that are about 2 hours away) and you’re driving the whole family!”
Just kidding. 😅
No he didn’t.
He would never.
I’m sure you can imagine why! 🧐
You would never take a teenager from I just passed the written test and got my learners permit to Here, drive a challenging route in a brand new vehicle with everyone we love most in the car.
I had no driving experience! Even though I was a straight A, responsible, perfect daughter (I hope my parents read here 😉), how could I possibly be a good, safe, driver without ANY driving experience?
We all know that the facts and laws in the little booklet do not equate with the skill required to drive behind the wheel.
But does that little book of laws teach you that your car’s brake is extra sensitive?
Does it tell you what to do if a car randomly swerves into your lane?
Does it tell you how to reach back and give your screaming 5 month old in the back seat a pacificier?! Whoops. Just kidding on that one.
Memorizing the rules of the road and actually driving (safely) on the road are two totally different things.
Yes, I needed that “head knowledge,” but I also needed the driving experience.
Teaching Phonics the Right Way
Learning to Drive and Learning to Read
My teacher friends…this is what happens with our phonics and reading instruction!
We teach students phonics skills. Then they memorize them.
And then we “send them to Big Bear” and wonder why they struggled to make it up the mountain. 😓
Students need explicit phonics instruction. It’s true.
But, they also need reading experience in order to become confident, fluent readers.
So I’m going to share the exact system I use to make sure my readers learn and apply every phonics skill I teach. 🙌
Applying Phonics in a Reading Experience
Reading isn’t just about knowing sound-skill relationships.
That would just be decoding.
In order to truly READ, they need to be able to make meaning of what they decode.
We need to give them experience decoding and we also need to give them experience making meaning.
But before they can make meaning while reading, they must be able to decode. So let’s start there.
Learning to Decode
So let’s think back to you and me as teenagers, learning how to drive.
Once you got your learner’s permit, where did you first take a drive?
I can tell you it probably wasn’t across two freeways and up a twisty mountain path!
My dad took me to a big, empty church parking lot in the middle of the week.
Why? It was a safe place for me to gain driving experience while building my driving confidence.
What made it safe?
- There were no other distractions!
- There weren’t many people or objects I could hit.
- There weren’t any other cars around.
- There weren’t tiny lanes and tight turns.
This is how students should practice decoding sounds in words.
- No other words around.
- No other new and unknown skills bombarding them.
- No focus on understanding the sentence they just read (yet!).
First, they need to practice just sounding out the new skill in a word. They just need to decode!
The Decoding Parking Lot
A targeted word list is your safe parking lot! By targeted, I mean that those words contain the new skill they learning.
This way they can safely “navigate” how to read the word.
They see this new skill and then they practice sounding it out inside of a word.
They are decoding.
It’s not a sentence or a paragraph, yet.
They don’t have to worry about the meaning of the word, yet.
They just have to practice apply their knowledge of the “law”…
For example: SH says /sh/.
Just because I said word list, doesn’t mean this needs to be boring!
Think white boards and markers, bingo boards, magnetic letters, Blend & Read activities or even Decoding Drills!)
Moving Beyond Decoding
Ok, so your students have been rocking decoding words with the new phonics skill!
They’ve become really fluent at reading words with the target skill.
But…you’re not done yet!
Do you really think I should go from the parking lot of a big, empty church to the Southern California freeway? 😳
Of course not, that would set me up for failure.
I would get on that 6-lane freeway full of cars going at high speeds with the constant introduction of on-and-off ramps and probably a honk or two (or ten).
Not only would I be extremely overwhelmed, but there’s a strong likelihood I could end up in an accident.
And then how would I feel about driving?
Probably like a failure? Because I thought I knew how to drive (remember how good I got in that parking lot?), but the freeway was WAY too much for me. Now, I probably am not as eager to get the behind the wheel and I’m starting to see myself as a “bad driver.”
Has that ever happened to your students?
They felt so good after fluently reading and writing words with sh.
But now there are sight words, and words with other digraphs, and they’re trying to make meaning of what they’re reading and it’s just too much for them right now. 🙅🏽♀️
They go from parking lot (spelling word list) to freeway (grade level text) and they feel defeated, unconfident, and turned off from reading.
(How do I know? Because that was ME!
You guys, I didn’t learn to read until 3rd grade. THIRD! I was sooo lost and confused. But that’s a post for another day.)
Once I mastered that parking lot, my parents let me drive in our neighborhood.
There were more cars, but it wasn’t crowded.
There were defined lanes, but the speed limit was still slow.
There were stop signs, but not a ton of traffic.
I had to apply a few more of the “driving laws” but it was a safe place to build my confidence driving.
Sentences are your neighborhood.
There are more words, but they’re words they can decode.
There are sight words, but ones they’ve already mastered.
There are new words, but they still have that target skill in them.
There’s meaning to be made, but it’s a simple thought in a short sentence.
And you let them practice, and practice, and practice some more in the context of a simple sentence.
- I see a blue fish.
- The dish is pink.
- I wish for a fish.
The sentences are simple and they are also decodable. But, there’s meaning to be made! The target skill is being used in real words and those words are being used in context.
They will make sense to the student, but I don’t include any words that they wouldn’t know because this is a confidence-builder and experience-maker.
Before they even attempt to read the sentence, we find and highlight the target skill words.
- I see a blue fish.
- The dish is pink.
- I wish for a fish. (Do you even know how excited they will be that they found two words with sh in one sentence?)
Once we’ve highlighted the words with the target skill, we practice reading just the words.
Do we have that down? Ok good. So now we can put them in context – the context of the sentence.
Now, we can successfully read the sentences and talk about what they mean!
Let them get really confident reading these sentences.
I got really confident driving around my neighborhood, but it didn’t just happen in one day.
I went multiple days in a row. I drove the same neighborhood multiple times.
Don’t just do it once! You’re cheating them of the reading experience and of the opportunity to build fluency and confidence!
Rereading Tip – Have your students put 3 happy faces on the bottom of the page. These don’t have to be on the page already, let them draw them on! Then nstruct them to color a happy face each time they read the page. I don’t know why it’s so motivating for them, but it is! 🤷🏽♀️ #doit #idareyou
The more time they read the sentences, the more their fluency will increase. Fluency will increase their confidence. Who doesn’t want that?
(Short and Decodable) Main Road Passages
Okay y’all, it’s time.
Time to leave that safe neighborhood and drive on Main Street!
Maybe it’s not called Main Street in your town, but it was in mine!
On Main Street, there are more cars. In passages, there are more words.
On Main street, there are traffic lights and four way stops. There are new laws I need to apply! In passages, there are more sentences, there are more words. There will probably be more punctuation, too.
But you know what else is on Main Street?
Yogurtland!! And suddenly this drive becomes really meaningful because…frozen yogurt! Now I am even more motivated to go!
Passages tell a story, which means there’s a lot more meaning to be made! So this isn’t just decoding and reading memorized sight words. This is understanding a story, and for new readers, this is exciting. And it’s motivating, too.
With decodable passages, there’s enough context that you can ask comprehension questions to make sure students really understand what they are reading.
(Seriously, controlled reading passages are my favorite. I love when my students start to read passages and understand the stories. They get so soooo excited. It warms my heart so much!)
It’s the I just drove myself to Yogurtland and got myself yogurt feeling turned into I just read that story and it made sense – I can read! ??
Do you see where I am going with this?
Explicit instruction of sound-skill relationships is essential to phonics, but a targeted word list is not enough to achieve phonics mastery.
It’s simply not enough to for your readers to become fluent with that skill.
They need reading experience with every explicitly taught phonics skill.
Give your students these baby steps. Give them these confidence builders. Give them experience behind the “reading wheel” each and every time a new phonics skills is taught.
My System for Teaching Phonics
When I teach a new phonics skill, I do all of these. Every single time.
- Teach the skill.
- Read and write words with the skill.
- Read and write sentences with the skill.
- Read and write decodable passages with the skill.
- Read longer passages/stories that include the skill and assess comprehension.
- Continue to review past skills in the context of reading so as they’re learning new skills, they keep reviewing old skills.
I promise you, these steps are not a waste of time.
In fact, every single step builds confidence and experience in reading.
Before you know it, your students’ are cruising through text – like you driving on autopilot on your way home from school!
You don’t think about the gas and brake anymore, do you? No!
You just do it.
They won’t be thinking about SH saying /sh/ any more.
They won’t need to. It’s engrained in their mind. So they’ll just read it!
And hopefully, they’ll enjoy it, too! ?
(In case you’re wondering, I have totally conquered the SoCal freeways. #thanksDad)
What do you think? What systems do you use for effective phonics instruction? Let’s chat about it in the comments below!
Thanks for this. I take it one step more and let them write poems or paragraphs that are made up of real word from our list along side words that are not real eg the dish went for a walk with a plish. He made a wish but got nish.
Hi Lorna! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. That is a great idea! I love that. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you. It makes so much sense. I wonder if it would help my struggling readers to know the analogy…everyone loves to learn to drive, learning and struggling to read/ do math, sometimes not so much because of a fixed mindset.
Thanks for your comment! I really think that teaching them to have a growth mindset is crucial to learning in ALL content areas!
Have a great day!
Great article! It’s all about baby steps in learning to drive, read, or whatever you desire to succeed in doing.
Hi Sunny! I totally agree with you! =)
Have a great day!
Thanks so much for this piece. I will try it with my students that are struggling to read.
You’re very welcome! Have a great school year! -Lauren