If you teach K-2, you know that in order for children to learn, engagements must be fun and engaging... but still aligned with a learning intention. Phonics can seem absolutely un-fun when you're handed a curriculum or an overview of graphemes and phonemes or lost in the rigidity of the science of reading.
Here are some activities I've used as a teacher in phonics lessons and literacy centers that get kids excited about practicing letters and sounds.
I've grouped phonics and sight words together because I find that if an activity works for one, it can almost always be adapted to also work for the other.
1. Basketball Phonics
Gently toss a ball into a basket (at a very close distance). For every score, kids get to read a card with the focus letter, grapheme or word. This can also be done with a pinecone or acorn into a box, crumpled paper into a bin, etc. Basketball phonics is a practice for letter-sound recognition or decoding depending how you use it.
2. Sandbox Writing
(small group) say a sound or word for learners to spell in a sand box. To create small, individual sand boxes, I have used tea trays, cafeteria trays and tops to paper ream boxes. Sandbox Writing builds on letter formation, spelling and applying phoemic awareness.
This is perfect when students are given a template or working mat to put the letters or words on (keeps the focus a bit better) and place them in sheet protectors. Students can press the PlayDoh into the letter shapes or roll out snakes to form the letters. PlayDoh phonics reinforces letter formation and decoding/sight word recognition.
4. Drive the Bus
(phonics, sight words, decodables) hang signs around the classroom with focus/review letters and words. Kids "drive" around the classroom reading each one, review the letters and words collectively after. Great for lesson starters and phonics review.
5. Keyboard Typing
(phonics, sight words, spelling) keyboard typing of finding letters and spelling words is an excellent independent activity for literacy centers. I found an old keyboard sitting by the trash bin in the hallway one day and a light bulb turned on for me. I went straight to IT and asked for any old keyboards and take them out for literacy choice time. I like to use it most for spelling and sight word but it can also be used for phonics.
6. Whole Body Phonics
Each new sound gets a movement along with the key word (Jolly Phonics and Twinkl Australia do this with hand motions). The class can use a known movement or come up with a new one which matches the key word or phoneme. I have loved the way students use this during writing - stretching out the sounds of a word, performing the action the writing the grapheme.
7. Buried Treasure
prepare a small container of sand and place letter and/or decodable word cards in the treasure. Children take turns finding treasure and identifying the grapheme or decoding the word.
8. Phonics Names
Use kids’ names as keywords or to exemplify a sound-letter pattern. Can be part of morning circle: “Sativa’s our student of the day! Let’s look at all of the sounds in her name!”
9. Phonics Mascot
have a puppet or plush toy introduce new phonemes. Our early years librarian uses a puppet to teach main ideas to the children and their attention changes instantly when that old turtle comes out - sometimes by popular demand. I've tried in class for phonics and it works! But I chose a sparkly dragon ❣️
10. Sparkle Line Up
(they spell a word you give, with each child saying a letter. Child with last look letter has to say SPARKLE before he child aft. Can do with sounds , too).
11. Word Shark
Include a Word Shark as one of your classroom jobs. You can make the job match whatever skill you’re teaching. I used it for morphemes last year (prefixes, suffixes, roots) and the job was to add to our ongoing display.
12. “I Spy”
for whatever the pattern of the day is (can be used for code or sound)
VOWELS - I like songs where you play with/substitute medial vowel sounds (“I like to eat apples and bananas” is one I like, but use flashcards with the vowel letter so kids connect the sound they’re substituting with the letter code)- good for phonemic awareness.
13. Phonics Yoga
Having kids make the letters of a sound with their whole bodies and/or using chalk to write giant letters/letter strings for a given sound and then “walk the word” to sound out and blend-uses larger muscle groups for a multi-sensory movement break (using gross motor is supposed to help memory.
14. CVC Cup Game
fun for small groups: put 3-4 consonants (or blends to digraphs) on 2 cups and 3-4 vowels on a 3rd cup, 1 code on each side. Put vowel cup in the middle-take turns closing eyes, rotating a cup, saying the word - nonsense words will crop up unless you carefully select the sounds. It’s the same as choosing letter tiles from a bag really.
15. Drop Everything and Phonics
Try this as a quick review during line up, lesson transitions or whenever kids need a movement break.
Lots of teachers make and sell premade templates with words, pictures or sounds but I take a short cut! Set up a quick game with a 3x3 grid for children to copy on their white boards - I teach it with two lines down, two lines across (add more rows and columns for a longer game). Then I give the children a written list of more than nine letters, sounds, or words that I want to focus on. Children choose nine of the words from the list to fill in their grid. Call out words and let the kids cross off the ones they have. It takes a few times to build the routine of setting up, but once they get it, it's so fun and in high demand in my classroom.
17. Stamp It Out
while they are sounding out CVC or CCVC to stamp on their page, they are scanning and reviewing all the letters of the alphabet. Seriously engaged learning to practice sounds and spelling.
placed learned sounds or decodable words on small circles of brown paper or cardboard. Place them on a flat pan or table surface and using a spatula, flip the pancakes and read the grapheme or word. Pass the spatula and enjoy the pancakes. Serve with orange juice 😉
19. Phonics Puzzle Starters
try having a word/phrase with a missing grapheme or two on display at the start of the lesson. Not only is it a quick way to review phonics and engage learners before another literacy lesson, it is also a small buffer for students who have difficulty transitioning. When I have a game or puzzle slide to start, students manage to get to the carpet just a little faster!
20. Phonics Hopscotch
Just like the traditional game but the numbers are replaced with ten of your focus graphemes. Hop skip and read!
21. Treasure Hunt
Hide your letter/word cards or focus flashcards around the classroom (more cards than children, even if you include some repeated phonemes). Children should go through the classroom until all the cards are found and practice reading them to a partner or to you. Phonics Treasure Hunt supports letter recognition and the associated phoneme.
22. Storytime Phonics
Read aloud a short story to the class that focuses on a specific sound you are teaching. When students hear the sound or find it in the text, they should follow with a given action (eg. tap their head,
23. Scavenger Hunt
Much like the treasure hunt, students will search the classroom - but this time for object that represent a focus phoneme. You can hide objects that represent the sound(s) or cards with images on them. Phonics Scavenger Hunt builds vocabulary (working in pairs is excellent for language learners) and letter/sound recognition.
And while it is not an activity exactly, if you have a sound wall or word wall in your classroom - have the children make the illustrations to accompany the graphemes. It will be beautiful and the children will have ownership.
Alternatively, if you want a cleaner look to your classroom, your word wall should still be stunning, engaging and relevant. It should be a space that is more than a decoration, but be both contextual for your learners and useful to them. Read more about do's and don'ts of classroom decor and set up here.
Happy teaching and learning,
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