This blog series explores some strategies that a parent of a Grade One student received from their school. I am reviewing these strategies and ranking them from worst to best. Welcome to part 6! (You can revisit previously reviewed strategies by clicking on the links below).

Strategies that will be reviewed in this blog:

Here is a list of strategies, in random order. Each of the strategies has a catchy title, a short description, and a picture of an animal to cue/remind the student to use the strategy when reading.

  • Skippy Frog: Skip the word, then go back (reviewed in Part 1 HERE)
  • Lips the Fish: Say the First sound
  • Stripes the Zebra: Find the pattern
  • Stretchy Snake: Stretch the sounds
  • Chunky Monkey: Find the chunks or little words you know
  • Eagle Eye: Check the Picture (Reviewed in Part 2 HERE)
  • Flip the Dolphin: flip the vowel sound
  • Tryin’ Lion: Try another strategy (Reviewed in Part 5 HERE)
  • Slow Down Snail: Slow down if it doesn’t seem right (reviewed in Part 4 here)
  • Check it chicks: Make sure it looks right, sounds right, and makes sense (Reviewed in Part 3 HERE)

Strategy Countdown Worst-to-Best Blog post 6:

Strategy #5: (countdown from worst to best)

Strategy Name: Lips the Fish: Say the first sound

Pros: ANY word structure/sound analysis strategy is valuable
Cons: Encourages “look at the first letter and guess the rest”.
Rating: 6
First Impressions:

We finally get to some strategies that have some utility! I can move away from my cynical and pessimistic “default” mode! (somewhat). Any strategy that encourages word structure analysis – looking at the sound structure that makes up the word – is going to be valuable. This strategy introduces the invaluable skill of decoding. However, this strategy is contingent on providing the student with text that is at an appropriate level, or else this becomes MALADAPTIVE and promotes looking at the first letter to guess.


Pros and Cons discussion:

This strategy introduces and reinforces the necessary reading skill of decoding.

Before students become mature readers, they must become very good decoders. Think of decoding as a process of turning letters into sounds, then combining these sounds together to identify a word.

This is contingent on phonological analysis – the ability to discriminate and identify each sound in the word correctly, as well as phonological memory to keep those sounds in the correct sequence.

Students MUST be able to perform phonological analysis on a word – not only ACCURATELY but also QUICKLY. This sound processing skill MUST become automatic.

Decoding also requires phonological synthesis – once a letter or group of letters is sounded out, the student must combine that sequence of sounds to identify the correct word. This also ties into word retrieval and vocabulary knowledge.

The student must have a good understanding of letter-sound relationships – which sound a letter or group of letters represents.

This starts out easily enough – in the word “bat”, the letter “b” says /b/, “a” says /a/, and “t” says /t/.

This becomes more complicated as we introduce words like “laugh” – the letter “l” represents the /l/ sound, the letters “au” represent the /a/ sound, and “gh” represent the /f/ sound.

When the brain cannot identify these relationships – e.g., that the last sound in the word “laugh” is a /f/ sound and is represented by the “gh” letters, there is a breakdown in the reading system.

Important note – the brain must identify this information VERY QUICKLY. The brain must near-simultaneously be thinking of the sequence of sounds in the spoken word while looking at the sequence of letters that represent the word on the page, while also retrieving the correct word and activating its meaning.

Any breakdown in the accuracy or speed of processing for a word like this, and the word will never be stored as a “sight word”, leading to maladaptive ways of trying to learn it such as visual memory or using context to read this word when encountered.

Note the intensive neural connectivity that is needed – “moving” information between the frontal lobes, sound processing, visual processing, and language meaning areas of the brain.

Therefore, decoding is an essential component of reading and spelling instruction – learning the relationship between letters and sounds.

And decoding is very challenging without the prerequisite phonological skills. Explicit instruction of the phonological skills that are required for decoding are lacking in most programs.

Phonics teaches decoding. Phonics is good. And phonics is not super helpful if there is an underlying phonological processing disorder (Sound processing disorder).

The hierarchy of instruction is important. The cart gets put before the horse far too often.

  1. Explicit, systematic instruction in multiple phonological processing skills addressing hierarchical levels
  2. Explicit, systematic, structured instruction in phonics (letter-sound relationships)
  3. Practise with reading fluency using DECODABLE TEXT
  4. Introduction to orthographic patterns (letter patterns and conventions – e.g., the letter “ck” represent the /k/ sound, but only after short vowels and only at the end of a syllable).
  5. Introduction to irregularly spelled words that don’t fit within regular letter-sound correspondence or orthographic patterns (e.g., laugh, although)

Common Instructional pitfalls:

  • Looking at phonics as a cure-all without addressing sound processing (phonology)
  • Moving too quickly through phonics levels
  • Focusing phonics instruction too much on LETTERS to the neglect of SOUNDS
  • Not targeting all sounds through phonics
  • Not using a hierarchy (jumping around between easier and harder targets and patterns)
  • Not using appropriate word targets and reading materials


Let’s bring this back to our strategy – Lips the fish: Say the First Sound

Many “leveled readers” will look like this:

I see a dog. I see a fish. I see a frog. I see a dolphin. I see an ostrich.

The student will quickly learn to memorize the sentence structure, look at the picture to fill in the blank with correct answer, and if they are unsure if the picture shows a dolphin or a shark, they will look at the first letter in that sentence (“d”) and retrieve the word “dolphin”.

None of this reading. Not really.

The target reading words in these sentences are not “leveled”. We have a CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) word with a short vowel in the word “dog”. We move to a CVC word (consonant-vowel-consonant – 3 sounds) with a digraph (2 letters make one sound) in fish. We move to a word with a consonant cluster blend in a CCVC word (consonant-consonant-vowel-consonant) in the word “frog”. We then move to 2-syllable words in “dolphin” and “ostrich”.

These are all separate instructional levels:

  1. CVC words with short vowels
  2. CVC words with digraphs
  3. CCVC words with short vowels
  4. Multisyllabic words (which is WAAAY down the list of appropriate targets – we haven’t even introduce long vowels yet!!)

These words should NOT be grouped together in a text, unless it is for a developed student who is an intermediate reader! NEVER for a beginner!

Working at a developmental level requires using previously mastered letters and sounds to teach new letters and patterns. Repetition of new or familiar sequences is advantageous.

Let’s see how Lips the Fish could be used in a developmentally appropriate way to teach first letters OR to teach rime units (word families)

I see a bat. I see a cat. I see a rat. I see a hat.

Now, using a consistent word ending, the first letter and the first sound is ESSENTIAL. Once you sound out the first sound (“r” says /rrr/), you can blend the onset sound (/r/) with the rime unit or rhyming ending (/at/) to arrive at the word “rat”.

Oh, and incidentally, I would NOT use pictures of bat, rat, hat to support this! If a student is ready to decode simple consonants and short vowels at the onset-rime level of sound processing, then they should be able to read this text WITHOUT picture supports!

If not, we need to back up further in the hierarchy and train the deficient underlying skills, or find simpler targets (e.g., decoding VC words that also make up word families: -at, -an, -us, -it).

Working at a child’s level ensures the student is making sense of the relationship between letters and sounds – how the letters they are seeing on the page from left to right represent the sounds they can hear in that word when spoken from first to last!

Once these skills are intact, we can build from it. We don’t need to stay on the level of reading bat, rat, cat for long – it is a stepping stone.

From here, we can bridge to reading other targets:

  • Other short vowels: bet, wet, set; bit, sit, lit
  • Digraphs: chat, that
  • Consonant clusters: flat, brat.

Notice that the next instructional targets always progress from INTACT skills – using what is KNOWN to teach what is UNKNOWN.

One of the most important by-products of this approach is student success! Self-esteem and confidence emerge readily when we work at the proper level and only advance when students show mastery.

Don’t advance too quickly. Don’t introduce too many variables at once!

E.g., moving from reading the word “hat” to reading the word “splash” is usually too hard – you are introducing the concept that 2 letters (“sh”) represent only one sound, and you are also integrating a tri-cluster (“spl”) that is makes the sounds hard to individually isolate, identify, and blend. Additionally, the letter “h” has now “switched” from saying the /h/ sound to becoming a part of the “sh” sound. If this is the first time they are introduced to this, they are going to be TERRIBLY confused!!

This is a sure-fire way to overwhelm your student and introduce shame, frustration, defiance, silliness, avoidance, etc.

If you control the variables and progress in a structured, systematic way that follows a hierarchy of phonological and orthographic complexity, you manage a students experience along the way, and you get engagement, confidence, and self-esteem.

What can you do instead?

Assess and Plan.

Phonology develops FIRST.

Phonological processing = processing word structure. Words are made up of sound units including syllables, onsets, rhymes, and sounds. And a student must process ALL OF IT.

If you don’t know your student’s current ability to process syllables, onsets-rimes, individual sounds, and sounds within consonant clusters or blends, you need to STOP and complete a comprehensive phonological assessment.

If you don’t know your student’s ability in the areas of sound discrimination, memory, analysis, synthesis, and manipulation, STOP. You don’t know their level, and you don’t know what to teach.

If you don’t know your student’s ability to complete both basic AND advanced phonological processing tasks, STOP. You have don’t know what orthographic level they are capable of learning.

Orthography is built on intact phonology

Orthography = the concept and conventions of English spelling – how letters and groups of letters represent the sounds of all English words.

Orthography and phonology develop lock-step – development in one supports and facilitates the other. However, these skills often get out of balance – the scales tip toward the orthography side.

Usually, these students have stronger visual memory. They are better at vocabulary and language meaning. They begin to compensate with these skills to the detriment of sound processing. This is a pretty “classic” dyslexia pattern.

Poor readers guess words that look similar. They guess words that make sense within the context of the sentence. They look at the first letter and guess a word that starts with that sound.

Sound familiar? This is a LANGUAGE DISORDER. The problem here is sound processing.

Orthographic instruction, therefore, must be carefully controlled to match their level of word structure analysis ability.

If you don’t know your student’s ability to decode various word structure such as VC, CVC, CV, CCVC, CVCC, CCVCC, CCCVC as well as orthographic patterns such as consonant digraphs, vowel digraphs, tri-clusters, and orthographic patterns like -ck, -tch etc., you need to STOP. If you don’t know if your student can accurately distinguish short vowels from long vowels, or accurately distinguish short vowel sounds from each other, then you need to STOP.

  • They likely aren’t processing these orthographic levels because of an underlying phonological deficit – and this needs to be assessed and addressed
  • They likely haven’t had structured instruction in a logical sequence that manages complexity and slowly introduces new variables to teach what is unknown from what is known
  • A comprehensive phonological and orthographic assessment is needed.
  • A careful instructional plan based on intact skills (known) to teach the next developmentally appropriate targets (unknown, but within reach) is needed.

If you know the current level of your student, then spend some time mapping out a logical scope and sequence of next instructional targets to ensure you are working at their level and know what to introduce next that is going to be developmentally appropriate.


This strategy has utility when used with an appropriate reading level. We need to teach students to code and decode to read and spell – to understand at a deep, automatic level the relationship between letters and sounds.

Spelling is turning sounds into letters. Reading is turning letters into sounds. This requires VERY STRONG phonological processing skills FIRST, then phonics. Students MUST become adept at decoding, and this strategy is PART of what can get us there.

We need to teach students to look at ALL the letters, and turn all the letters into corresponding sounds, and say ALL the sounds, accurately, in the correct order. The first letter/sound of a word is a START, but keying in on the first sound is not all that beneficial – ALL the letters and sounds in the word are equally important!

Often the first sound makes up the “onset” position of the word, so this strategy is more valuable when a student is working at the onset-rime level of sound/word processing.

E.g., the first sound is helpful in h-at, r-ed, b-us.

This strategy is less helpful to read words like “flip, spot, trip”. To read these words, a student must be able to process at the Basic Sounds level of processing, to split the initial consonant cluster that is in the onset position of the word/syllable.

Using the Lips the Fish strategy to help students process at the onset-rime level of sound processing, and to work at an equivocal letter level (such as CVC words) is beneficial.

Using Lips the Fish strategy to try to attach complex words with consonant clusters, or 2-syllable words, is not going to be beneficial, and may actually be detrimental.

This strategy can easily become maladaptive to a student that is relying on visual information and contextual information to the detriment of processing word structure and carefully examining letter-sound relationships. It encourages “look at the first letter and guess the rest”.

As outlined in Part 5 HERE, the most common maladaptive reading “strategies” employed by poor readers are:

  1. Using the first letter as a sound cue to guess a word
  2. Using visual memory – the overall “look” of the whole word
  3. Guessing based on meaning or context.

What do you think is going to happen with a student that leads heavily on this strategy? You guessed it! (pun intended).

Watch for part 7 and beyond of this blog series as we move from the WORST of these strategies to the BEST.

Got questions, concerns, yeah buts? Visit to engage in some delightful conversation on how you can improve your reading instruction or your child’s learning.