I am rather tired of hearing about how the push for systematic phonics teaching is a conspiracy to sell more phonics progrms. Firstly, let’s not pretend that the reading schemes with the shiny boxes and levelled texts with the numbers on them are low cost. Sure, there are phonics programs out there that are commerical products. And yes, those programs come with a cost. That is the nature of products. As in all things, the really good ones are rarely free.
Today’s post is not about the merits of purchasing a program vs not purchasing a program. You can read my previous thoughts about that here. I will say however, that any program is only as good as the person using it. In order for teaching to be highly effective, with or without a commercial program, the person needs to understand the Science of Reading and how to implement it properly.
Ok, that said, let me get to the point. I have long said that you can teach a child to read with a stick in the dirt if you have to and this is indeed the case. However, sticks and dirt aren’t that appealing so lets have a look at some of the low cost ways you can make an enormous difference to the students in your school.
The very best resource you have to teach oral language is you. It is your modelling of language and the opportunities you provide that will build your students’ skills. The 2nd best resource you have is the picture books and engaging novels in your school library. Picture books are an excellent source of rich language from which to base your teaching.
If you want children to use particular sentence structures in their spoken and written language, find books that model that language. Read the text to the students to provide exposure to the target language then point it out to them. Write the sentence or language on your board and work with students to practice using it orally, change out parts of the sentence and invite students to do the same.
Finally, it is knowledge of oral grammar that will help you plan for systematic instruction and to take advantage of the teachable moments that arise across the curriculum. Teachers are rarely adequately prepared to teach grammar through their university degrees. But there is a world of wonderful information online. You just have to look.
There are also resources freely downloadable such as https://www.speld-sa.org.au/services/speld-sa-let-s-talk-together-language-cards.html
Phonological and Phonemic Awareness
Absolutely no commercial program is required to enhance children’s phonological and phonemic awareness skills.
Once you know what the skills are you can assess and teach them for free. There are 100s of free TpT and online resources to print and use to teach these skills. In addition, working with your teaching team you can create PowerPoints that you share with others. It doesn’t have to be fancy.
Here is my free guide to PA skills
You can find a phonemic awareness assessment at
Now this is the one that cops the most flak from those who wish to discredit the systematic teaching of reading. Yes, you can certainly purchase a commercial program to teach phonics, but you don’t need to. Here are some simple steps to get you started in teaching a good strong phonics lesson.
Not sure of what order to teach in? Letters and sounds has a good progression and the whole thing is free http://www.letters-and-sounds.com/
Not sure how to assess? Here’s a free assessment:
Want to track student progress? Here’s a tracking sheet:
If you find yourself without the budget for decodable texts, don’t despair. Try these free resources
Teaching vocabulary is crucial to help build strong comprehension. There are several methods that are useful for the explicit teaching of vocabulary.
Here is a free guide called “Essential Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary” https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/40627_4.pdf
and a comprehensive article https://www.readingrockets.org/article/teaching-vocabulary
Fluency comes as orthographic mapping develops. Fluency is the result of strong phonics and word level reading practice, not a ‘sight word’ program that teaches words as whole units.
When all of the preceding items areas are taught well, fluency will develop well.
Far from being an endless exercise in ‘strategies’, comprehension is mostly influenced by a student’s background knowledge and vocabulary. I have addressed vocabulary. In regards to background knowledge, it costs nothing to build it. YouTube is available to every classroom in the country. A daily knowledge building session or review PowerPoint has no cost associated with it. Non-fiction readings on a variety of topics can be found at https://www.readworks.org/ and it is free to join.
A traditional reading assessment kit costs hundreds of dollars. DIBELS is a free suit of resources that many schools use very successfully. https://dibels.uoregon.edu/
The MOTIF assessments are also free once you register. https://www.motif.org.au/
Teaching children to read using the science of reading does not have to cost money. When you have the knowledge about effective practice, you have all that you need to set children up for success. Of course, a library of decodable texts makes that easier. Access to 35 week’s worth of phonological and phonemic awareness lessons such as the Heggerty program reduces teacher cognitive load. A strong phonics program that enables teachers to create consistency across classrooms can certainly be valuable. However, you can absolutely do without all of that if you are committed to making a change. The next time you hear the argument that “We can’t switch to systematic teaching because it costs too much money”, you will know exactly what to say.
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