Phonemic awareness and phonics, PLUS comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency have been dubbed the five pillars of reading instruction by the National Reading Panel (NPR). If all that sounds just a little like what homeschooling phonics advocates have been saying for a long time, we'll forgive them and just be thankful they've so competently assimilated the research. By the same publisher as Explode the Code, this bright, colorful, easy-to-use new reading series was built upon these five pillars. The result is a moderately priced, comprehensive, phonics-based K-3 reading and language arts program.
Phonics instruction is systematic and direct. Children learn a variety of decoding strategies through the increasing knowledge of phonemic awareness (recognizing the relationship between letters and sounds), onsets (beginning sounds), rimes (vowel and ending consonant groupings), word families, and word parts. The K program covers introductory phonemic awareness and identification, initial consonants, short vowel word families, and some initial consonant digraphs. In Grade 1 (level A), students review these concepts and continue by covering initial and ending consonant sounds (studied together), initial and final consonant blends, vowel digraphs, diphthongs, word families, r-controlled vowels, hard and soft c and g, and silent letters along with the CVC, CVVC, CVCe words. Reviewing and expanding, the Grade 2 (B level) book adds the schwa and CV words. Decoding multi-syllabic words is covered both in Grade 2 and Grade 3 (C level) but "le" and inflectional word endings are reserved for just Grade 3. Spelling is covered at every level.
Which brings us to the PLUS. The phonics instruction is set amidst quality literature (well-loved nursery rhymes, contemporary poetry, and folk and fairy tales from many cultures) and non-fiction text that introduces and reviews the phonics concepts. Comprehension and vocabulary studies and a continual emphasis on reading fluency integrate the phonics instruction with all aspects of language arts. Comprehension strategies help children understand sentences and longer segments of text. Vocabulary exercises use context clues and cover synonyms and antonyms along with structural analysis.
The student books are colorful worktexts and could probably be used as a stand-alone. Phonics concepts are clearly presented, and the literature selections and basic instructions are included. One of the things I like is the occasional presentation of a computer keyboard with the word family letters highlighted. It would be an easy transference to having your student type word families on a computer incorporating beginning keyboarding skills. Another recurring "bow" to our modern lifestyle is the lessons utilizing a sticky note activity. There are 113 lessons (in the A book), which translates into four lessons a week with one day for review.
However, before you opt for just the student books, consider that the Teacher Guides allow for more full-bodied and comprehensive phonics and language arts instruction. For instance, each TG lesson includes suggestions for read-alouds (easily accessible from the public library) that complement the lesson. While some of the TG material is clearly directed to a classroom situation, there are also suggestions for additional learning activities that can engage the different learning styles (i.e. lots of hands-on suggestions). Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to use the TG is the rounding out of the phonics instruction. As an example, student book Level A includes a poem - Ar-A-Rat - about a rat on Ararat. I was scratching my head about the wisdom of introducing so many "a" sounds until I realized that the TG fully explains each sound and uses the poem as an introduction to the "a" sound diversity. The Teacher Guides include reduced student pages with instructional directives in the margins.