On Sequences of Instruction

  • Vocabulary Phonological awareness
  • 29 November, 2009
  • 12 Comments

Blast from the Past: This entry first posted on November 29, 2009, and was reposted on May 30, 2020. These days there is a great deal of interest in the science of reading. That science certainly makes it clear that students need to learn to perceive sounds, decode words, and connect those orthographic-phonemic units with word meanings. While that might reassure teachers about what to teach, many are still uncertain as to the sequence of instruction recommended by a science of reading. Though this entry was published more than a decade ago, it is still up-to-date with regard to the science of reading.

This weekend I received an interesting question from a third-grade teacher in Frankfort, KY. She writes, “In my district we do not have a specific scope and sequence for teaching vocabulary, nor phonics. I have tried to find something that I feel is research-based and comprehensive. I want to help my strugglers and my above-level students. Can you help?” 

Those are two pretty important questions: What should the sequence of instruction be in phonics and vocabulary? And do you need a prescribed sequence to be successful? 

Let me answer the easier of the two questions, first. 

Yes, I think it is important to have a clearly established sequence of instruction in both phonics and vocabulary. In phonics, the question has been tested directly in several research studies, and always with the same result: teachers who were teaching a pre-established regimen of phonics were more successful than those who were winging it. I know of no direct tests of the question in the vocabulary literature, but all of the studies where success was accomplished in improving reading comprehension had a clear plan for the teacher.

So, what is the research-based comprehensive curriculum that teachers need to follow? Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t know. When I look at phonics and vocabulary studies, it is clear that pretty much all sequences work. For example, the National Reading Panel looked at 38 studies on something like 19 different sequences of phonics instruction, and though those differed greatly in the inclusion and ordering of skills, all the approaches seemed to confer a learning advantage. The same kind of thing was true for vocabulary.

That doesn’t mean sequence doesn’t matter. Perhaps direct tests of different sequences could sort out some small learning differences. What I think it really means is that most of the schemes tested in research are pretty reasonable. Most try to teach the most important or largest skills first or have some kind of logic to their plan. Most don’t emphasize minor or later developing skills. But all provide sufficient coverage and structure to make sure the kids have a chance of succeeding.

Yes, indeed, your school or district should have an agreed upon systematic plan for what is to be taught in each grade level so that teachers will have a clear idea of what to do. This plan, whether purchased or developed internally, may be somewhat arbitrary but I bet it won’t be ridiculous. (In other words, you’ll probably spend more time on the m or s sounds than the z sound. Or, you’ll be more likely to teach vocabulary words like “contain” or “reluctant” rather than “quidnunc.” Without such a plan, important words or spelling patterns may not be taught at all, and some concepts or skills may be covered again and again. In such a case, the most successful kids may progress anyway, but this kind of laissez-faire curriculum plan is a disaster for the strugglers.

That there isn’t a single research-proven sequence gives your district latitude. They could buy one of the many commercial programs aimed at supporting systematic instruction or could convene a group of teachers to come up with a district plan. Apparently, within reason, it doesn’t matter that much what the exact plan is, just that there be one and that teachers follow it (we don’t teach alone – we build on what the previous teacher accomplished and prepare students for what is to follow). When a specific instructional sequence exists, you usually see more teaching than when it is left up to each teacher to work this out herself; and that is a big benefit for kids. Of course, if there is a plan, the teacher (and mom and dad) can tell how a child is doing—the instructional sequence becomes a point of comparison for determining who is not doing well.

 

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Thomas Zurinskas
May 17, 2017 03:35 PM

There are 40 sounds for US English. For "phonemic awareness" truespel phonetics spells each of these sounds only one way, so it's truly an easy to use phonetic notation based on phonics as much as possible. Thus phonetics can be taught to k-1 children prior to phonics for a very easy "spelling" system with complete phoneme awareness. Kids merely need to translate their sounds to letters. This is a technique that is proven to work by IBM's Writing to Read system in the 1980's and did not negatively affect learning regular spelling. See the science behind truespel at http://justpaste.it/truescience .
Truespel is being used for ESL instruction and speech therapy. It is free as my gift with tutorials and a converter at http://truespel.com. Much phonics frequency information is there as well for teachers to know.

Patricia Paugh
May 30, 2020 04:53 PM

Are the citations for the research studies mentioned here found in the 38 NRP reviewed studies or elsewhere? Many thanks,
"Yes, I think it is important to have a clearly established sequence of instruction in both phonics and vocabulary. In phonics, the question has been tested directly in several research studies, and always with the same result: teachers who were teaching a pre-established regimen of phonics were more successful than those who were winging it."

Mary Rys
May 30, 2020 05:14 PM

I have used a number of different structured phonics programs throughout my years as a reading teacher, and it is true, in my anecdotal experience, that different sequences can work. I see a problem, though, when struggling readers have to adapt to different sequences and programs due to moving schools or districts or when districts allow many different programs within a school or across a district. Children who are already struggling do not need the additional stress of trying to adopt a new structure or sequence. IMHO - and no, I have not done a research study on this -a consistent & coordinated approach, no matter which one chosen, seems to provide a better road to success.

Mark Pennington
May 30, 2020 05:24 PM

Re: vocabulary sequence. Highest frequency Greek and Latin roots and affixes make sense to me as does the Tier 2 Academic Word List.

Dr. Averil Coxhead, senior lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies developed and evaluated The Academic Word List (AWL) for her MA thesis. The list has 570 word families which were selected according to certain criteria:
The word families must occur in over half of the 28 academic subject areas. “Just over 94% of the words in the AWL occur in 20 or more subject areas. This principle ensures that the words in the AWL are useful for all learners, no matter what their area of study or what combination of subjects they take at tertiary level.”
“The AWL families had to occur over 100 times in the 3,500,000 word Academic Corpus in order to be considered for inclusion in the list. This principle ensures that the words will be met a reasonable number of times in academic texts.” The academic corpus refers to a computer-generated list of most-frequently occurring academic words.
“The AWL families had to occur a minimum of 10 times in each faculty of the Academic Corpus to be considered for inclusion in the list. This principle ensures that the vocabulary is useful for all learners.”

Joan Sedita
May 30, 2020 06:21 PM

I think there needs to be two different kinds of responses to the two parts to the question posed by the teacher -- a scope and sequence for teaching phonics concepts is more readily presented as a list/sequence of phonics concepts. On the other hand, good instruction for vocabulary is not about simply identifying a list of words that should be taught in a particular sequence. It's about integrating a set of direct and indirect instructional practices on a consistent basis throughout the school day. Here are my thoughts about both.

Regarding a phonics scope & sequence: As Tim notes, there is no universally agreed upon scope and sequence. The most useful sequence is one that has a logically ordered sequence that begins with the most basic phonics concepts and progresses to more difficult concepts, with new learning building on prior knowledge. For example, the scope and sequence should start with the teaching of letter-sound correspondences for common consonants and short vowels (which enables students to start decoding CVC words), followed by basic digraphs (sh, ch, th), then blends, then some long vowel spellings including silent e, then vowel pairs and vowel-r, and then continuing to more advanced phonics concepts. Sequences vary somewhat among phonics programs. If teachers are using an explicit, systematic phonics program it is best to follow its sequence for the order of teaching. I recently wrote a blog post about this that includes a generic scope and sequence: https://keystoliteracy.com/blog/systematic-phonics-scope-and-sequence/

Regarding vocabulary: There is no list of specific words that should be taught at each grade! Yes, there is the Coxhead list, but it should not be used in a way that has teachers selecting 10 words at a time from the list to teach each week! Students need to acquire thousands of words each year and that is accomplished more by teachers using direct and indirect instructional practices that are researched based. This includes making sure that young students are surrounded by a rich oral language environment and that students in grades 4 and up are exposed to text that includes complex academic language. In addition, teachers benefit from a model for selecting specific words that are worth teaching in depth such as Beck and McKeown's 3-tier model for categorizing words, as well as templates and activities (e.g., a Frayer template, semantic feature analysis, semantic mapping, etc.) for teaching words. Teachers should also provide explicit instruction in morphology (word parts) and how the use of context sometimes can be used to determine the meaning of an unfamiliar word. An earlier respondent to this post mentioned teaching affixes and roots. For prefixes, there are 20 prefixes that are most commonly used so these are worth teaching as a set. However, there are too many roots and there is not a similar list of the most common suffixes, so these word parts are best taught opportunistically as words that contain them come up, including generating word families with the same root. Finally, vocabulary instruction has to take place 24/7 in every subject -- it's not just something that should happen in ELA class on certain days of the week!

Timothy Shanahan
May 31, 2020 12:42 AM

Patricia--

Yes, turn to the Report of the National Reading Panel on that. There is a link to that in the resources section of my website.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
May 31, 2020 12:43 AM

Mark--

Absolutely, you can make those choices based on logic... that doesn't necessarily mean that your logic is any better than anyone else's (no empirical test of those ideas). '

thanks.

Nan Santucci
May 31, 2020 02:36 PM

Wylie Blevins' A FRESH LOOK AT PHONICS and Jan Richardson's sequence in NEXT STEPS FORWARD IN GUIDED READING have been valuable tools that have had a positive impact on my reading instruction especially when compared to Fountas and Pinnell's Classroom Phonics, which unfortunately, is what my district uses for its core instruction. I value your opinion, so if you have time, what are your thoughts on the three referenced resources, and are there any others you recommend for my toolbox?

KEVIN KINGSWELL
Jun 01, 2020 10:28 AM

Greetings from Australia.
My three kids have done well in all areas of learning.
The two girls had systematic teaching in phonics, but their younger brother did not, and only achieved success though his sheer native intellegence.
After 60 years of teaching I am part of a 'nurturing village' preparing to run workshops in 'train the trainer'---helping teaching assistants to master one refinement of the pioneering, SPALDING WRITING AND READING PROGRAM, from your USA.
Our Aussie version is the internationally-accepted LEM (LIGHT EDUCATIONAL MINISTRIES) program, which will help deal with the decliniing results in reading education.
In spite of the unceasing 'reading wars'----ref. a new book from the USA I have just acquired, THE KNOWLEDGE GAP by Natalie Wexler.
Sadly, Natalie is 'spot-on'---politics will not 'go away".
While the children suffer, because of adult prejudice.
Please offer any suggestions re crowd funding---'the virus' has made any efforts so far, impossible---'we' need around AU$10K.
No hints intended!
Thanks for bringing up this basic issue.
And finally, do you know of the work of Prof. Marilyn (?) Jaegar-Adams, in the USA?
Her evaluations of phonics remain the 'gold standard'.
In my opinion.
Kevin.
MARYBOROUGH
QUEENSLAND 4650
AUSTRALIA.

Lise L'Heureux
Jun 03, 2020 02:15 AM

I'm French and train teachers and special ed. teachers on orthographic coding in "la langue de Molière". No single progression has been established... and we are nowhere near it. But the principles are the same as English (and I assume all alphabetical languages). Start with phonemes you can stretch and the most common syllable structure (CV in French), explicitly teach syllable structures and their specifics - how the system works. French also has a huge morphological component (most of it with silent letters - uhhgg!) that must be taught in parallel.
In Canada, Maureen Lovett's Empower approach out of SickKids in Toronto has had great success in Ontario.

Gail
Jun 24, 2021 05:30 AM

Hi Tim, Thanks so much for raising the issue of sequences in instruction - it's so important... My question is whether there is any sequence at all for reading comprehension instruction that you know of from research? I'd be really interested to hear if there is?
I think that decoding is complex, in itself - even though it's a constrained skill, meaning there is a limited amount of content. Comprehension, being so unconstrained, seems to be really never-ending... some sort of sequence would help teachers immensely, if there is any research to support that? Many thanks, in advance if you can post a response!

Gail
Jun 24, 2021 05:30 AM

Hi Tim, Thanks so much for raising the issue of sequences in instruction - it's so important... My question is whether there is any sequence at all for reading comprehension instruction that you know of from research? I'd be really interested to hear if there is?
I think that decoding is complex, in itself - even though it's a constrained skill, meaning there is a limited amount of content. Comprehension, being so unconstrained, seems to be really never-ending... some sort of sequence would help teachers immensely, if there is any research to support that? Many thanks, in advance if you can post a response!

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *
Name*
Email*
Website
Comments

On Sequences of Instruction

12 comments

One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.