Layer, Upon Layer, Upon Layer

When I was young there was an ad on TV for frozen danish with a lady saying ‘layer, upon layer, upon layer’ in a Danish accent. It is one of those advertising moments that has really stuck in my brain.

When it comes to effective reading instruction, we need to apply this layer, upon layer, upon layer approach to ensure that beginning readers are only ever asked to read with graphemes and high frequency words that they already know.

Phonics Lessons

When it comes to phonics, this takes the form of teaching a specific sequence of graphemes and using cumulative words lists. Cumulative word lists mean that children are never tempted to guess at words (and if they do, you can redirect them with ease). In practice this looks like:

Lesson 1: Teach a grapheme, then read and spell] words that only contain graphemes that the student has learned so far including the new grapheme.

Lesson 2. Teach another grapheme, then read and spell words that contain the grapheme you just taught and those students already know.

In this way, the list of words builds as students learn more graphemes.

As you add more graphemes, the word list can get bigger.

Decodable Texts

It is not enough for texts to be simpler to decode. I often see sets of books for sale in stores or online that claim to be phonics readers or decodable texts. Yes, these books contain fewer graphemes and may concentrate on a particular phoneme, but they often also contain a whole heap of graphemes and high frequency words that children haven’t yet learned.

When selecting decodable texts to be part of your phonics and reading program it is important to ensure that the texts are cumulative. That is, that they build on each other. Quality decodable texts do this well. We can see from the picture below that the books in each box contain only the graphemes stated. The difference between Level 2 and Level 3 is 10 graphemes. There are 20 books in level 2, so while children are working their way through the level 2 texts you are teaching them the next 10 graphemes that they will need to be able to successfully read the level 3 books. Different programs and series do this slightly differently, but all quality decodables have this graduated and cumulative approach.


From the picture below we can see that this series also increases in complexity between levels. This is very clever because it allows the student to deal with a limited number of increases in complexity at a time, preventing cognitive overload. They become more fluent with the 16 graphemes in set 2 BEFORE being asked to read with a whole new set of graphemes.


Cognitive overload is an important factor when designing lessons for all students, but particularly when supporting students with additional needs. Teaching in a way that presents graphemes and words cumulatively will ensure that your students can tackle one thing at a time on their road to being a successful reader.

My next post will explore the very important subject of cognitive load. To find out when it is published simply enter your email address below and click the subscribe button.

As a thank you for reading and to support your teaching in 2020 I have created a free resource with a suggestion for a sequence of phonics teaching and a cumulative list of 157 words. This 31 page document also contains colour coded, printable cards.

To download this free resource, visit my store by click the button below.

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