How Was This Program Developed?
Starting in the mid 1980s, I developed this program over a period of many years while teaching and tutoring elementary school students. The materials I created, starting with color-coded phonetic word lists and flashcards, followed by little printed booklets that had rhyming short vowel words, sentences, and pictures, were initially used as a supplement to the early elementary basal reading programs that were used in the schools where I taught. My goal was to find a combination of teaching techniques and materials that would help as many students as possible learn to read and write successfully. I saw first hand that learning to read could be a challenging and frustrating process for many students. I was fortunate to be able to attend a Slingerland summer teacher training program early in my career. The Slingerland program was developed by Beth Slingerland as a way to use the Orton-Gillingham program with a full classroom. Both systems were designed to teach dyslexic students, but they work well with all types of students, and have proven to be highly successful for many years. Over a period of time I built on that foundation, adjusting and supplementing the instructional plan with teaching strategies discovered from my own experience and from other outstanding programs. With each new modification or addition, I found it easier to teach my students to read and write.
Reading Programs I Have Studied
I have incorporated teaching elements into Sound City Reading from the programs listed below, shown in the order in which I studied them. This is a process that has been going on since the mid 1980s.
- Montessori - Teaching Montessori In the Home, The School Years by Elizabeth G. Hainstock (This link shows an out of print book that I purchased years ago. It's price is now very high. Look for newer books or find the best price available from book resellers, if you're interested.) - From this program I learned to print the vowels and vowels patterns in a different color on word flashcards and word lists.
- Slingerland® - I attended a month long Slingerland training program and began to use the program in my classroom the following school year. Beth Slingerland studied the Orton-Gillingham method and adapted it so that it could be used with a full classroom. Both programs are designed to teach reading and writing to students with specific language disabilities. From this program I learned to use a structured lesson outline every day that includes alphabet and phonogram flashcards and a dictation period in which students write letters, letter patterns, phonetic words, sight words, and a sentence. I also learned to teach handwriting by having students trace large letter patterns on the chalkboard and on paper.
- Total Reading - Primary Teacher Manual, By Mary Minor Johnston - Sadly, this program is no longer available. From this program I learned that students learn more easily when they say just the letter sounds when they see letter and phonogram flashcards and when they spell words, instead of using the letter names. I also learned to sort the children's books in my classroom library by reading level, paying special attention to the earliest levels. I had a specific sequence in which I taught the phonics patterns in my classroom. I read the text carefully in my favorite purchased children's books, taking notes about the specific phonics patterns found in the words in the story. I labeled each book to show the most advanced phonics pattern in my teaching sequence that was found in the book. This showed me which patterns must be taught before students could read a particular book. The whole process allowed me to introduce a series of children's books to the students in a specific order as they studied new phonics patterns, making the books completely decodable by the students.
- Dekodiphukan - ("Decode If You Can") - This program was written by Bob Baratta-Lorton. He created a story with pictures to illustrate all of the sounds in the English language. The pictures are not key word pictures. Instead, the pictures represent actual sounds, such as a hissing snake, a growling dog, a ticking clock, and so on. The pictures are used on sound charts and in games and activities to help students learn to read. I used the program as a supplement to my regular instruction. The students loved the rotating learning centers. Years later, I was tutoring my five-year-old niece, and discovered that I could not use my usual beginning sound pictures (a/ant, b/bus, c/cat) to teach her the alphabet. She was unable to perceive the beginning sound in the key words. So I wrote my own sound story, created my own sound pictures, and made alphabet posters with each letter of the alphabet illustrated by the related sound picture. In this way I could teach her the alphabet using pure sounds. This change was successful, and she was able to learn the letters of the alphabet and their sounds. I arranged the sound story so that the letters that are easiest to write are taught first and the letters that are more difficult to write are taught last, making it easier for students to learn to write the letters. The easier strokes that they learned when writing the first few letters could then be used when learning the more complex letters.
- Handwriting Without Tears - I purchased the materials and studied this program but did not use it with students. However, I modified my usual handwriting instruction so that students start the lowercase letters a, c, d, g, o, q, and s on the middle line instead of below it. I found that this makes it easier for students to learn to write those letters.
- Color The Vowels - Up until I learned about this web site, I used the color-coding system I developed for the vowels on phonetic word flashcards and on phonetic sound charts. Unknown to me, the author of the Color The Vowels site, Chris Bogardus, developed his own color-coded vowel system and typed in public domain poetry applying his color-coding to the entire text of each poem. He discovered my website and called me to ask if I would test his program with my students. It was early in the school year and my first graders were not yet able to read the poems on his site. So I was perplexed about how to proceed. However, my classroom was next door to a fifth grade classroom. The teacher kindly gave me a reluctant reader to tutor for an hour a couple times a week. She read the poems on the Color the Vowel site directly from my laptop computer. From the moment she saw the first page, her eyes lit up when she saw the colors. She read the poems with enthusiasm. She rarely had any difficulty reading the words. We gradually worked through the introductory poems and then went on to the more challenging ones. We discussed each poem after she read it, and she responded with a high degree of understanding. She particularly liked the more complex and challenging entries, because of their interesting story lines. I saw that reading the color-coded text on the computer helped her read fluently, with a high level of interest, and with good comprehension. So I revised the phonics books I had made for my first grade students that were printed in all black print. I applied my own color-coding system to all of the words, sentences, practice stories, and used them with my first graders for the rest of the school year with great success. (Note: The Color The Vowels site says that it will soon be taken down, but it is still up as of January, 2023. Thank you, Chris!)
- Reading Reflex, Phono-Graphix - I read this book after I retired from the classroom and found that I agreed with their teaching approach in many ways. With a student that I was tutoring, I applied one part of their method by making lists of words that included several different phonics patterns that show the same vowel sounds. For example, one list might include these words: rain, play, game, crate, way, stay, snail, etc. I gave my student the lists for homework assignments. His job was to write the words in separate columns on a sheet of paper, sorted by vowel pattern. I like the way this provided a good review of the patterns after they had been introduced. There are many more excellent elements in this program, but I have not incorporated them into Sound City Reading because I already had similar activities that I had developed earlier.
How To Make Sense Of The Many Parts Of This Program
Each Part Was Added Separately Over A Period Of Many Years
- I started reading aloud to my children when they were babies. I read to them daily for many years, and they listened enthusiastically. We were fortunate to have many children's books. They often spent time looking at the pictures in books on their own. When they were in kindergarten and first grade, my husband read The Hobbit aloud to them, a little bit every day over a period of time.
- I became interested in phonics when my two children were very young. They were one year apart. When my daughter was about two or two and a half years old, on an impulse I wrote the letter X on her napkin. She was sitting in her high chair eating. I pointed to the letter and said, "This is X." She repeated the letter name. The next day while she was eating I wrote the letter again. She remembered it and said its name immediately. I then wrote the letter O, and she learned its name. Every day I added one new letter in the same way, using only capital letters. After twenty-six days she could reliably name every letter. I had no thought at the time that this was in any way surprising with so little effort.
- Before my children started school, I read Why Johnny Can't Read by Rudolph Flesch. Inspired by the book, I used a large chalkboard attached to their closet door to study the letters of the alphabet and their sounds with them. I wrote three-letter short vowel words on the chalkboard and showed them how to say the letter sounds in order to read the words. My son, who was not particularly interested in reading and writing at that age, was able to master this skill immediately. He could look at the letters and pronounce the word smoothly right away. My daughter, however, was not able to do so. Even though she knew the letters and their sounds very well, she didn't know how to stick the letter sounds together seamlessly to pronounce the word. It took much painstaking practice over a period of time for her to develop this skill. At that point, both of my children were able to read the short vowel words from the word lists in the book mentioned above. At that point in time, I never went any farther with them in the realm of phonics.
- In 1987 I began working as a teaching assistant in an elementary school resource room in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I was assigned two second graders and a few older students who needed help with reading. I studied a book about the Montessori method, and discovered that it uses vowels printed in color when teaching beginning readers. I took it a step further and assigned a specific color for each vowel sound, using the vowel sound heard in the name of the color whenever possible. For example, the ow pattern has the sound heard in the word brown, the ee pattern has the sound heard in the word green, violet letters are used to show the long i sound, orange shows the o sound, blue shows the long u sound, and so on. For each vowel, I assigned a light color for the short vowel sound and a darker shade of the same color for the long vowel sound. I bought colored markers and fine point colored felt tip pens and made vocabulary flashcards and phonetic word lists using color coded vowels. I analyzed each new story the students were expected to read, then wrote short color-coded word lists for each new phonetic pattern in the story. I taught the students the sound for each new pattern, then had them read the new word lists. These color-coded lists worked very well. The students improved rapidly, the students’ parents were delighted, and I was hooked on teaching reading. At the same time I began typing extensive phonetic word lists into spreadsheets on our first computer, a Commodore 128. I used these as a reference when making the flashcards and word lists.
- In 1989 I began teaching at the kindergarten and first grade level in Johnson City, Tennessee, while working on a master’s degree in elementary education. At one point, I made a set of small booklets containing rhyming short vowel word lists and short vowel sentences, illustrated with simple line drawings. The children loved them, laughed at my pictures, and begged for more. I used these booklets from many years to teach short vowel words.
- During the summer of 1990 my school sent me to a month long training session for the Slingerland Method. I learned to use alphabet and phonogram flashcards along with key word picture charts as part of my daily teaching routine. I learned how to teach handwriting using very large letter patterns for students to trace. I learned how to look at my basal reading program and create structured decoding and spelling sessions to reinforce that program. During the dictation period, students listened to letter and phonogram sounds that I dictated and repeated the sounds as they wrote the patterns. Then they spelled words with the same patterns, using letter cards on a large pocket chart before writing the words on lined paper. Student achievement in my class that year soared. I continued using these teaching techniques every year.
- One year I tutored a student in my class who was having trouble learning to read short vowel words. Finally, I had him spell each word with plastic letters first. He was able to do this readily. Then I showed him flash cards with the same words, with pictures on the back. He could read the words! After he read each word, I turned the card over to show him the picture. The picture served two purposes. It showed him that he had read the word correctly, and it reinforced the meaning of the word. Over a period of several lessons, we went through all the short vowel words that way. It made a big difference for him to spell each set of words with plastic letters before attempting to read them. I incorporated this spelling activity into my small group instruction in my classroom, and continued to use it every year. First we spelled a new set of words, then we read the same words from a set of picture/word cards. I found that this process did an excellent job of teaching students to read short vowel words. Later in the school year, when I introduced new phonics patterns, such as ee/feet or sh/ship, I had students use plastic letters to spell words with those patterns, too, with the same positive results. I used picture/word cards for those patterns, as well.
- Some time later, while teaching first grade, I received an advertisement in the mail for the Total Reading program. The caption read "Fill the hole in whole language." Intrigued, I ordered the teacher’s manual and one set of the student materials. The program was similar to the Slingerland program, but not entirely the same. The instructions said to use just the letter and phonogram sounds during the flashcard review and daily dictation lesson, instead of the letter name-keyword-sound routine used in the Slingerland program. I tried this with my class, and suddenly the few students who were still having trouble started doing much better. I realized that although many children can learn either way, some students need to focus on the sounds only to avoid confusion. I have been using the "sound only" approach ever since.
- The Total Reading program also used oral blending exercises to help students build phonemic awareness skills. The routine used small pictures. Students had to listen to the individual syllables or individual sounds in words and find the matching picture. I found that this activity worked well, and went on to create a more extensive set of my own pictures to do this activity. The pictures are now incorporated into the Learning The Alphabet and Exploring Sounds In Words books at level one and level two.
- While teaching in Johnson City, I continued making word lists for the common phonics patterns that students need to learn in order to begin reading. I put the lists in the sequence needed so that students could read the very easy Short Vowel Stories about Bob and Sam published by Evan-Moor. I made more lists and arranged those patterns in the order needed to read Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss. I typed a set of sentences to go with each list of words, and put the pages together to make booklets to provide decoding practice for the students in my class. I made worksheets with sets of ten pictures and words for each of the phonetic patterns. I also made sound charts to put on the wall, to use during the daily phonogram review period. The charts showed the phonics patterns I was teaching, with key words and pictures. I drew and colored these by hand. I added triangular shapes to the top of the charts so that they looked like houses in a city. I added streets below the houses with pictures of cars and trucks. At this point I started calling my materials Sound City Reading.
- About the same time I made sets of apple alphabet and caterpillar games to reinforce the letter sounds and phonics patterns that students were learning. Students loved playing these games, and their ability to recognize the letters and patterns and remember their sounds was even better than before. For my most reluctant students, the improvement was dramatic. Since then I’ve used these games as a regular part of my instruction.
- I moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1999. I began tutoring two students, a brother and younger sister, using the charts, word lists, sentences, and games. Slowly and steadily, they began reading. However, there are many different phonics patterns in the Hop on Pop book, and at some lessons there were no new pages to read in the book because more patterns still needed to be introduced. So I began writing little practice stories to provide more time reading connected text. I had to think very carefully about each story, so be sure that I only used words with phonics patterns that had already been taught. The students did well with all of the materials, they did learn to read, and I used those stories with my students every year after that.
- I offered to volunteer in my cousin’s school with some of her first grade students. My short vowel booklets were much too difficult for them, even though they were being taught with a phonetic program in the classroom. So I created a set of beginning and ending sound worksheets with pictures and found that they responded well to those. These pages eventually became the Exploring Sounds In Words books. The students knew the alphabet sounds, but they couldn’t put the letter sounds together to read a short vowel word. On a hunch, I checked to see if they could put just two letter sounds together. They could not! I decided to teach them to put two sounds together first, and then go on to three-sound short vowel words. I made a large chart on poster board with the alphabet letters written in three columns in alphabetical order. I made cards for each short vowel, and slid the vowel cards down the left and then the right side of the columns of consonants. I stopped at each consonant and the students had to pronounce the two-letter combination using the short vowel sound: ab, ac, ad, af, ag and ba, ca, da, fa, ga, and so on. This task was so difficult for the students that I consulted with two speech teachers to make sure I was doing the right thing, and they both approved of my plan. For a time I had to model each sound combination and have the students repeat. It took weeks of practice, but it worked! The students finally learned to put two letter sounds together. They could pronounce the two-letter combinations confidently as I moved each vowel card down the chart, without help from me. I call these two-letter combinations “silly sounds” because they have no meaning. We went on to begin reading short vowel words from flashcards, then the phonetic word lists and practice stories I had previously put together. Success! PDF files for a large and a small version of this chart are available on this site.
- Later, I tutored my young niece at my home. She was at the preschool level and was having trouble learning the alphabet. My alphabet charts were set up to use key words, as they had been for years: a/ant, b/bus, c/cat, and so on. These did not work with her, because she could not hear and identify the beginning sounds in the words. I remembered a program I had used in Johnson City called Dekodiphukan. It used a sound story with pictures to introduce the letter sounds. I wrote a new sound story for my niece, using the same concept. The pictures represented real sounds heard in the environment, for example truck engines, hissing snakes, and squeaking swing sets. I wrote a new part of the story and drew a new picture before she arrived for each lesson. I changed the alphabet charts on my wall to show the letters with the sound pictures. The sound pictures worked! Slowly but surely, she was able to learn the alphabet letters and their sounds.
- Now that my niece knew her letters and sounds, I attempted to have her spell short vowel words with plastic letters. At this point she was in kindergarten. She couldn’t do it. Not at all. She couldn’t identify the separate sounds in the words. She didn’t grasp the concept that the letter sounds were arranged sequentially to form the word, to match the way the word was pronounced. One day as we were attempting to do this yet again, I tried giving her a two-sound combination to spell. Instead of “Show me cat” I said “Show me ca.” She could do it! “Show me ac.” She could do it. It only took a few sessions, and she was able to begin spelling short a words. We repeated the process with each short vowel. She went on to learn to read like a pro, using my materials, with never a hint that she had trouble getting started. She made straight A’s after she entered first grade. She has now grown up, finished college with a degree in biology, and is working in a challenging technical field.
- After tutoring in Memphis for several years, I went back to work full time, teaching first grade in Cordova, Tennessee. I used all the teaching techniques I had learned with each of my first grade classes. One year I had a student who still could not read short vowel words, despite all of my efforts. One day, as I was tutoring him after school, we stumbled upon a method that helped him “crack the code.” We were working with a set of flashcards that included short a word cards with the matching pictures on the back. The cards I was using showed the exact words from the very first story in the basal reader, which he was still unable to read. I had decided to try an oral blending activity with him to see if that would help him. I placed the picture cards on the table and we played a game. I said the sounds for each picture “like a robot,” with a pause between each letter sound. “C….a…..t.” He had to listen carefully and put the sounds together mentally to find the correct picture. He could do it easily for every picture! Then I turned the cards to the word side. Again, I said the separate sounds for each word, pausing slightly between each sound. He could find the correct word card, and then say the word! Next we reviewed a few non-decodable (for him) sight words from the story using color-coded flashcards. I finally handed him the reading book, and let him try reading the story. He could read it! He read it comfortably, fluently, without stumbling over the words. I was surprised and elated that such a simple procedure made such a big difference.
- I was so amazed with the success of the “robot game” that I took the time to make sets of pictures/word cards and color-coded word cards for every phonics pattern taught in the whole first grade basal program. I made a set for each first grade teacher at our school, and there were ten of us! I followed the same procedure described above, placing the picture and word cards in a pocket chart so I could work with the whole class. This worked incredibly well. We went through the routine the first thing every morning, introducing a new set of cards every day. Then we spelled the same words during our daily dictation period. Combined with the use of phonogram flashcards, sound charts, and wordlists and stories using the new phonics patterns, the class made excellent progress.
- One summer I received a call from Chris Bogardus in North Carolina. He had created a web site using color coding to help older students with their reading. He had seen my color-coded materials on my web site, and wanted me to test his materials with my students. My early first graders were not far enough along to read the poems on his site, so I decided to incorporate some of his ideas into my own materials. I had been using color-coded vowels on my flash cards, wall charts, and a few word lists, but not in the sentences and stories. I rewrote the student books I had made, adding color-coding to all of the words, sentences, and stories, using my original color-coding scheme and the same font Chris used on his web site. As I put these books together on the computer, I realized I could rearrange the pictures and words, placing them on opposite pages. This allowed me to recreate the “robot game” directly in the student books without using cards in a pocket chart. I projected the picture/word pages on a large screen in the classroom, and the whole class played the robot game from the screen. The students used a long pointer to show the correct pictures and words on the screen. We used this routine in class throughout the year. During the daily dictation period we spelled words with the new pattern, as usual. I also began a routine in which I read each new practice story aloud to the students. We discussed the story, and then read it together several times, first echo reading, then reading all together, and finally having the class read in unison without my help. The students then reread the new phonetic words and the same story from printed books, taking turns in small groups.
- With the permission of the principle, I started the school year in 2010 with just my Sound City Reading program. We waited until November to start the basal reading program. This is how I planned it. I made a list of all the phonics patterns needed to read the first stories in the basal readers. I began teaching using the Sound City Reading phonogram sequence. As soon as we had learned enough phonogram patterns to read the first six or eight stories in the basal reader, we started the basal reading program. At that point the whole class could read the first stories from the basal readers and do the related workbook pages with confidence, with no stumbling and guessing at words. Success!! We then continued using both programs simultaneously. We finished the Phonetic Words And Stories books by about the end of February, and worked through the Advanced Phonics Patterns book while we continued in the basal readers. I had tremendous support from the parents. Those kids really took off with their reading! This was the best progress overall I had ever seen in a class. Every student finished the year reading at grade level or above.
- I began working with my young grandson at home to teach him the alphabet and discovered that even my easiest materials were too hard for him. He wasn’t able to remember the alphabet letters and sounds that I introduced, even using the sound story. So I developed an alternate approach and the pages I created became the Learning The Alphabet books. I used pictures from the sound story and created an alphabet lotto game so he could study the letters and sounds over a period of time even though he had not yet mastered all of them. I also created a handwriting book so that he could trace and copy large and small letters. (In the classroom I had used large letter patterns on paper to teach handwriting, but I never used a workbook.) Slowly but surely he learned the letters and sounds, and he began reading short vowel words. His sister, two years younger, didn’t want to be left out, so she worked with us, too, making just as much progress as he did in every area except handwriting.
- After retiring, I began keeping my grandchildren every day while their parents went to work. We spent about an hour a day working on reading, using the Rhyming Short Vowels and Phonetic Words And Stories books I had made. My grandson was repeating kindergarten at the time. For a long time my grandson pronounced the sounds in each word one at a time instead of putting the sounds together smoothly. I started covering the last letter in each word to let him slide the first two letter sounds together, then I uncovered the last letter to let him complete the word. This worked for him, and he slowly overcame the habit of saying the sounds separately. To counteract this tendency, I tried using short vowel word lists that began with the same two letters, instead of the rhyming lists that I previously used. A check of reading research online showed that some researchers were using the same idea, and I rewrote the short vowel materials to group words by beginning sounds instead of rhyming patterns. This is called body-coda decoding. I have now incorporated both rhyming and body-coda word lists into my teaching materials. I have found that some students do better one way, and other students catch on more quickly the other way. Having students study both types of lists seems to promote the most progress, and for one student reading both types of short vowel lists turned out to be a major breakthrough (see #23 below).
- With daily lessons, my grandchildren were able to go on to complete the rest of my reading program with no problems, working all the way through the advanced materials and all of the books on the trade book list, before my grandson started first grade. His sister entered kindergarten the same year. They were both reading at a second grade reading level at the time.
- During the 2014-2015 school year, I tutored a kindergarten student who was having difficulty remembering all of her alphabet letters and their sounds. We went through my usual routine, and began working on two-sound oral blending skills to prepare her for reading short vowel words. She could spell short vowel words with plastic letters, and she could pronounce two-letter combinations such as ba, ca, da and ab, ac, ad, but she was still not able to read three-letter short vowel words very well. She was reading them in a laborious, halting way. I thought carefully about the exact sub-skills she needed to read the words, and realized that she needed to read rhyming word lists first, and then read the same words arranged in a second list. The words in the second list began with the same letters. This type of list is called a body-coda list. By doing this, she would learn to substitute beginning consonant sounds (when reading the rhyming lists) and substitute ending consonant sounds (when reading the body-coda lists). I created a short vowel book with this structure, using color-coding for the vowels. We had previously tried the picture-word “robot game” without success. So I made this with just the words - no pictures. I had my student read the lists, working with one short vowel per lesson. She read both types of word lists, rhyming and body-coda, one after the other. She immediately began reading short vowel words and sentences with confidence, and rapidly became more fluent. Soon she began spelling and reading words and stories in the first phonogram pattern book with no trouble at all. The book I made for her is called Color-Coded Short Vowel Lists. I also set up a Color-Coded Phonetic Lists book and revised the Basic Short Vowels book, with both books incorporating both rhyming and body-coda lists.
- In the long run, my teaching has always improved the most when I worked with students who did not respond to my current teaching techniques. Many of the approaches I use were developed by trial and error, working directly with individual students. As those students taught me what would work, I kept adding to my “bag of tricks” to help children learn. I hope that sharing them with you will be of benefit to you and your students.