Automaticity and Fluency with Phonics

One thing I've learned over the past few years is the importance of developing fluency with phonetic skills. Research shows that a strong foundation with phonics is key to reading success. For many of our developing readers and for all of our struggling readers, it is so important that we are giving them ample practice with their phonics skills. Dyslexic students especially have trouble with decoding. They especially need explicit instruction in phonics instruction and plenty of opportunities to apply newly-learned and previously-learned phonics skills. All students learning to read benefit from this though! I used to think it was too boring and I didn't give my students the practice they needed. Now that I am more systematic, explicit, and consistent with my phonics instruction, I see so much growth in all of my students! This post is mainly for your intervention groups, but all students benefit from phonics instruction.

The ideas in this post are true for all beginning readers, but the level of intensity will be what varies. Some kids do not need as much instruction and practice to gain automaticity and develop fluency. For many though, it does involve ample opportunities to practice under the guidance of a teacher. Before I go further, I want to clear the difference between automaticity and fluency.



1. Automaticity at the letter level

It starts with the alphabet. We need our students to know these letters and supply the sounds with automaticity. From there, (when phonemic awareness is also strong,) they are ready to sound out words. If a student is slow to retrieve a letter sound, that will make the whole process of sounding out the word slower and more difficult. Once my kindergarteners know their letters, I still do a quick activity daily to practice automaticity. I continue this in the beginning of first grade as well.

It can be as simple as flashcards or something like in the picture above. My alphabet RTI pack has several of these Letter-Sound practice mats. They are quick and helpful. You can do it in unison or have them whisper read at their own pace.  To mix it up, I sometimes do the activity pictured on the right with a pocket chart. Students roll a dice, then read the row of letter sounds that are next to that number. You can have the your whole small group read together while one student (who rolled) gets to do the tracking with a special pointer. That way, I watch the person with the pointer to make sure she/he is making the correct sounds but everyone gets that practice. 

Next, students need explicit instruction with sounding out words. I begin with letter tiles, where I build the words and my students read them. I also give my students opportunities to build the words. 

I also have two sets of these on my white board at all times. I use magnetic dots on the back and leave them at the top of my white board. That way, I am always ready to teach a new phonics skill!

2. Automaticity at the word level
From the letter tiles, we move on to word lists like the one on the left that is a little more scaffolded. When they are getting more comfortable with sounding out words, I move into the word lists on the right. 

If you are looking for word lists like the two pictured above, you can find them HERE
The vowel guide at the top is SO helpful! I have a freebie in my store of just the "vowel helper". You can find that free vowel helper here. When students forget a vowel sound, they say the keyword to remind them. Like everything else, this needs to be modeled and practiced before expecting them to use the vowel guide independently. 

Some other ideas for building automaticity at the word level are pictured below:

Word sorts, onset-rime match ups, using sound boxes to encode, and vowel fill activities. The top left picture shows many of the phonics skills we had practiced at that point in the year. All I did was slowly add in word families with the phonics skills we were learning. To warm up, we would go through reading the word parts. 

NOTE: If CVC words are too difficult for them to blend, I do more phonemic awareness instruction. (I have a long post about PA HERE.)  Then I begin with reading CV and VC words. (These will be mainly nonsense words as there are not many two-letter words. I find this really helps kids who are not ready to read three letter words.)

3. Fluency with sentences
When they are comfortable with sounding out words, I move on to sentences. I start out with easier, shorter sentences, like these: 

You can find TONS of phonetic sentences like the ones pictured above and below HERE

Click on the picture to watch a video as an example of a student with automaticity but not fluency:

In this video, my son is reading the CVC word sentences. This is his second read. The first read involved more decoding. He is going into kindergarten in a month and has been working on sounding out words and short sentences all summer. This video is a good example of a student who is getting better with automaticity at the word level, but isn't quite fluent yet (because he lacks the other elements of being a fluent reader.)  

I also like writing sentences on sentence strips and putting them in a pocket chart. 

Students can then mix and match the sentence parts, which forces them to reread each phrase over and over. ;) You can find these Phonetic phrases here.

The picture below shows on a table because I was playing a game with them. I wanted to show you this so you could see that you can just write on the strips too. :)

Then they get a little longer like these ones:

I like to incorporate this phrasing activity with my sentences. This activity helps kids chunk sentences into meaningful phrases. This hopefully will help them with comprehension when they read longer sentences. At the very least, it does make them stop to think about the sentence and reminds them that these phonetic sentences (all sentences) carry meaning. That is the goal of reading!

Another good activity that requires students to think about meaning is a phonetic sentence scrambler.  Students not only end up reading and rereading each word over and over, but they are also thinking about how to create a sentence that makes sense and sounds right grammatically.  You can find phonetic sentence scramblers here but you can also make your own using note cards! 

Even after reading simple phonetic sentences, I still want my students to be thinking deeper about what they are reading. I find that it's easier to teach comprehension strategies right away with simpler sentences. We want our students to be in this habit of thinking about what they are reading. The picture above shows what is included in my Phonetic Sentences Pack, but you could do this without it. Basically, I have my student choose a sentence. Then I ask them to make a prediction, inference, or connection, or ask a question, explain what they visualize, or clarify something. For example, on that first sentence they may ask, "Why is the pet sad?" They may infer that the pet is a dog because dogs often sit on laps and do show emotion. The visual below explains it more.

If you would like a copy of this comprehension activity, I am sharing it HERE or on the picture above.

The activity below is something I've blogged about before. I love doing this activity with my students. It shakes it up a bit so they are not just reading sentences on a page. This can be a center or a small group activity. You can read more about it HERE and can find it in my store HERE

4. Fluency with reading passages and books

Finally, once students can read sentences with some fluency, you can start to introduce short stories. There are so many great phonetic books out there to try. I also use these laminated story cards that students can interact with. They also come in a printable version (like on the right.) The printable version has comprehension questions that ask the student to go back to the text. It is so important to include a comprehension element no matter how simple the text may seem. You can find the story cards and reading passages HERE. (There is a short vowel version, blends version, and long vowel version and a bundle of all three. Scroll to find the ones you want.) 

What about Guided Reading?

It is my personal believe that leveled readers used for Guided Reading are not appropriate on their own for beginning reading instruction. Students need explicit systematic phonics instruction. Once they have solid phonics skills, I can move on to more interesting and diverse books. This is when I dive into guided reading more with the leveled readers that are not phonetic. You can even do a combination, so that they are exposed to both phonetically controlled texts (to develop automaticity and fluency with phonics skills) and guided reading texts. With guided reading, the focus is usually more on applying a variety of strategies to leveled texts. These texts are not phonetically controlled. The early levels usually have a pattern and picture clues. Although I like guided reading, I find this alone is NOT effective for my struggling readers (which typically is 25% of the class- let's not forget 1 in 5 students has some level of dyslexia.) I'm not saying that I don't use them because I do. I'm saying I do not rely on them for all of my instruction and small group practice. I do a lot more with phonetically-controlled texts in the very beginning and I add in some of the patterned guided reading early levels as a supplement so they are learning to use other strategies. This is just my personal opinion and I know many will disagree. I love guided reading for my kiddos who already have a strong phonics foundation and several sight words mastered. I actually do start teaching the strategies right away, without the guided reading level texts. I teach them to look at the picture, sound it out, look for chunks, think about what makes sense, etc. I have had more success focusing more on phonics skills early on and moving into the guided reading approach later. You can download the strategies I use HERE and read all about them in an old post HERE.

Sight Words 
Along with phonics instruction, I am teaching sight words.  I teach sight words simultaneously with phonics. I wait until they are comfortable sounding out some short words before I add in sight words. I've found if I start too soon, then it can be confusing to many of my beginning readers (especially the struggling readers.) In my experience, they must know their letters and sounds before sight words should be introduced. I have a very systematic approach to sight words as well. You can read more about that HERE.

Nothing Replaces Good Literature 
Another important note: Although a lot of your instruction should involve phonics, it should not take the place of great literature in your overall literacy instruction. Every day you should still be reading aloud to your students to give them exposure to good books. This way, they are continuing to develop vocabulary, comprehension, and a love of books.

The Keys to fluency instruction: With whatever you are choosing to use for fluency instruction, remember these three things are key to any fluency intervention.

Phonics Resources: 

I have TONS of phonics resources in my store. To see all of them, click on the phonics tab on the right in my store (or you can click HERE). Here are a few that were shown here:




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