After learning the basics of short vowels, more advanced phonics rules are hard for first-grade kids. Today we’re looking at one specific phonics rule – “er” makes the ER sound – and thinking through the fundamental rule of learning: practice only leads to learning if you're practicing the right thing.
A thing here can be so many things – so let’s use a worked example. How do we teach one specific phonics rule – the r-controlled vowel – “er” makes the ER sound.
One way is to teach ER is by focusing in on it, highlighting it for a whole day’s activity. We would say "E, then, R, makes the 'ER' sound. 'ER ER ER'." And then we would practice lots and lots of ER words. This is pretty common in first grade classrooms.
In an in-class activity, you could try teaching this way by practicing sets of “ER” words:
perm, term, tern, fern
Based on our experience, you might be disappointed with the results.
But why? This approach gives early readers lots of practice on listening to and using ER. After all, doesn’t practice lead to learning?
Well - what are your kids actually practicing? What do they have to pay attention to?
Breaking up Words into Pieces
Let’s go through these words one piece at a time. Remember that these single-syllable words are made up of three parts: an onset, a nucleus, and a coda. Here, the onsets are in red on the left. Two of them are “f”, two of them are “t”. Okay, so there are two choices for any onset. The user has to ask themselves for every word: does this one start with an “f” or a “t”?
The nuclei (the vowel in the middle of the word) are in blue, in the middle. All 4 of them are “er”. When practicing, you don’t have to choose anything at all. Just use what’s there, don’t think about it, and move on.
The codas are in yellow on the right. 2 are “n”, 2 are “m”. Like with onsets, for every word, kids will have to make a choice: Does this word end in an “n” or an “m”?
So, weirdly, we’ve wound up with an activity that tries to teach “ER” but actually teaches kids more about “f” vs. “t”, and “n” vs. “m”. Even worse – we accidentally teach early readers to IGNORE the vowel in the middle. This lesson teaches kids that vowels are a part of the word that can be skipped! You can imagine how this leads to bad consequences down the road.
Teaching Vowels through Contrast
Now let's rework that same example with some overlap to previous lessons on short “E”:
term, tem, fen, fern
Notice that there are some choices in each section, but a lot of this – the beginnings, the ends, and the short E vowels – have already been practiced quite a bit. There’s only a few brand-new decisions here that your kids are learning anew, and those tough choices are all about the rule we want to focus on – “ER” vowels.
This is teaching through contrast. The new content is taught along with practice on the rules that kids already learned. With this design, we make sure that the new rule isn’t learned in a vacuum, but instead, is being compared to what’s been learned before. The lesson both teaches ER and strengthens existing short E and simple consonant skills. Now, students have to pay attention to the new rule with every word in the new activity.
You can extend this to other R-controlled vowels: AR, IR, UR, OR. Give your students lots of opportunities to contrast each one with short-vowel words (Short A with AR, Short I with IR, and so on).
Kids learn to read through practice. But again, remember: this only leads to learning if you're practicing the right thing.
Want a lesson plan and app that does this already, with R-controlled vowels and other early sound/letter patterns?
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