Author - Nina Cordoba
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9/1/2020 9:52:46 PM


For years, I owned a tutoring service for school-aged kids, primarily focused on reading. Initially, I recruited my parents, who were retiring school teachers to do the tutoring while I took the parent phone calls, administered assessment tests, wrote the advertising and marketing materials and collected the tuition.

Soon, I was pitching in with the tutoring and found out, to my surprise, that I had a knack for it. After the first couple of years, my mother wanted to go back to teaching—she missed the classroom dynamic. Meanwhile, my 3-year-old daughter was giving me a harder and harder time about staying at the office with me. I decided not to renew my lease and just finish tutoring the remaining students at my house. However, the moms had other ideas. They kept referring new students, and I became a one-woman show.

 Nearly every mother of a struggling reader came to me with the same story. The teacher had told her that her child had a reading comprehension problem.

 I would then administer some tests, including a 5-minute phonics test. At first, I did what some other tutoring centers do: I gave new students achievement tests in several subjects, which was a long process, especially for the younger students. (I soon realized most of the testing was unnecessary. Until a child’s reading is up to par, she can’t possibly be a stellar all-around student.)

 What I found out was that kids where I lived generally did not have problems with comprehension...if they could read the words. The big problem was that they were not being taught phonics (the rules of sounding out) in any meaningful way. 

After looking into it further, I found out they were using the Whole Language philosophy put forward by psychologist and educator Lev Vygotsky. If you want to know more about it, a google search of “whole language approach” will get you the origin, philosophy and controversy. Just know that, despite the lack of any scientific data, Whole Language became the norm in a number of countries.

 My neighbor, who was a young teacher while I was tutoring, once told me, “They’re starting to say we should go back to teaching phonics to students, but, when I went to college, everything was about Whole Language. I don’t know how to teach phonics. I’m not even totally sure what they are.”

 Note: I have not been tutoring for the last 10 years and I thought universities would have switched to teaching more tried and true (phonics) approaches by now. However, I just read an article from 2018 that claimed it’s still not happening, so I don’t know what teachers are learning at this point.

 Here are the problems our school district was having around reading. Yours is likely to have at least one of these problems, if not all three:

-Many teachers didn’t understand the importance of phonics, through no fault of their own.

-Since teachers were trained in Whole Language without phonics, they had no idea how to assess the specific problem within reading their students were having. 

-Teachers rarely have an ample amount of one-on-one time with students. They have to spend a lot of their time just keeping order. If they sit down and try to figure out why your child is struggling, the rest of the class will dissolve into mayhem because “Woohoo, the teacher is distracted!” When was the last time you tried to do anything in an organized way with 10-25 elementary school children? (For one birthday, all 14 of the girls my daughter invited to a sleepover actually showed up. Within 10 minutes, I was searching the house frantically for something that might act as a tranquilizer--for me, not the kids.)

 I think many school districts have tried to add phonics back into schools, but they may be doing it in a haphazard way that many children find murky and confusing.

Our Solution: 

Before we opened the learning center, my mother (who taught kids of all ages in her 34-year career) ordered the top 3 rated phonics programs for us to try out. One of them beat the others, hands down, for ease of use for teacher, ease of use for student, and fast results.

 This system is called Explode the Code. (I have no financial interest in this company.)  But, wait! Don’t go off and buy the workbooks before reading the rest of this post!


Helpful Hint:

After you use the phonics assessment, you can order the appropriate Explode the Code books at a number of different sites on the internet. However, you need to be careful because, sometimes, what’s being sold is a teacher’s book, not the student workbooks. (I had a teacher’s version, but never used it because the rules are clearly written at the tops of the pages.) Also, do not buy Beyond the Code yet. Those are comprehension books. The prices of Explode the Code books vary, so you may want to compare the price plus shipping before buying.


Some places to buy Explode the Code workbooks:

I'm writing this during Covid-19 in the United States and situations vary from state to state. If stores are open where you live and you want to go in person, search: "teacher supply stores in my area," and "homeschool supply in my area" then call them and ask if they carry Explode the Code.

You can typically find them on, and (The workbooks are not religious in any way. Because they work, homeschool parents recommend them to each other and there are many Christian homeschoolers.) Sometimes they are bundled (Books 1-4, for instance). You can also find the workbooks on Ebay at times, but, again, look very closely to make sure you’re getting what you’re looking for and not a teacher’s book or Beyond the Code (comprehension) workbook when you’re looking for phonics.

 So, if your child doesn’t know the consonant sounds yet (b says “buh,” c says “kuh”), start with Explode the Code Books A, B, and C, then move on to Explode the Code Book 1. (I started my daughter on Book A before she was 3, but I had also been doing a lot of unofficial teaching since she was born. Some children might not be ready until they are 4 or 5 and that's normal.)

 Typically, the students I worked with already knew their consonant sounds, so I mostly used Explode the Code Books 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. The half books: 1 ½, 2 ½, etc., are for extra practice if the student hasn’t mastered the concept of the previous book yet. Most students didn’t need the half books, but if there’s a learning disability or your child’s brain is strongly focused in some other direction, he may need the extra practice.

 After we started using Explode the Code, I was amazed at how quickly students’ reading and overall grades improved. I said to my dad, “I can’t believe how easy it is with these books! Why aren’t they being used in all the schools?”

 His reply, “Schools would never pay this much for single-use workbooks.” This is one of those penny-wise, pound foolish moments. I was paying $7-$8 for each book at the time. School districts surely could have gotten better deals. Even if they’d just used Books 1-4 on every reading student in the district, school performance would have increased dramatically.

 Note: I do not recommend most of the phonics assessment tests I found online because they use real words, like “dog” and “cat.” Most kids who’ve been in school but haven’t been taught phonics have memorized a lot of words. You need the assessment to find out whether your child reads phonetically, not whether he has memorized words. This is why it’s better to use lists of mostly fake words that mimic the sounds found in real words.

 Another note: I specifically recommend Explode the Code because it teaches each new phonics rule in isolation. The child can understand what’s happening and master each rule quickly, then move on to the next. Not all phonics programs are as methodical as Explode the Code and, while some children can get by with tons of memorization or can figure out the patterns on their own, many need the methodical approach. This has nothing to do with how intelligent the student is. It’s just a matter of how her particular brain works.

 If you’re still in doubt where to start after administering the phonics assessment, it’s better to err on the side of caution and start with a lower book. (Use the speech below to make sure your child doesn’t get insulted by a book that seems too easy.)

 So, let’s say you have the appropriate Explode the Code book and are ready to start. Unless the child is too young to have learned 3- and 4-letter words already, here’s a speech you can give:

“This workbook will probably have lots of words in it you’ve already memorized. But we’re using it for something else. Now, we're learning the rules and paying attention to the sounds the letters make.”

 Then when you start, read the first rule to your child and ask the child to say each word aloud, emphasizing the sounds of each letter. Example: Child reads “dog.” You say, “But think about the letter sounds: Duh-ah-guh. See how the letters work as a team to make the word ‘dog’?”

 This program is so user friendly, I could tutor 3 students at a time. However, when a new student started, I always sat with him and had him sound each word out to me at first (Example: “Duh-ah-guh: dog”). When he seemed to get the idea of what we were doing, I would say, “Okay, do the next page and then tell me you’re finished so we can check it.” Since phonetic reading is about sounds, I always encouraged students to murmur the sounds to themselves as they were sounding out to reinforce what they were learning. I recommend that you follow this process as much as you can.

 Once the student gets more confident and is marking most words and pictures correctly, you may be able to let them do more pages between checks. The workbooks are not made to be challenging. They are made to teach letter sounds.

This was especially helpful with downtrodden older kids who’d been struggling in school for several years. They came in clearly dreading even more “school” on top of the miserable school day they’d already had. But most of them started feeling better about themselves and the tutoring quickly because they were set up for success instead of failure.

 Important Note: I never graded pages with a red pen because I didn’t want to trigger kids who were getting bad grades and red ink all over their homework. I used a pencil. The two grade options on any page in the phonics workbooks were a “100!” or a smiley face for trying.

When I went over incorrect answers, I never made a big deal out of being wrong. (In fact, I never used the word “wrong.”) I would say, “Oh, we need to fix this one.” Then I’d say something to keep them from feeling bad, like, “Oh, I see what happened here: ‘snack’ and ‘snake’ look almost the same, but not quite. Which one is which? Try sounding them out again.” Then, the student would sound out the words (or I’d help a little by reminding her of the rule), and we’d laugh about how tricky the words were trying to be. (Don’t worry if you don’t know phonics rules. You can learn them as you read the rules aloud.)

 Another Note: Please do not ever, ever, ever, under any circumstances draw a sad face on your child’s paper! Parents sometimes brought me their child’s graded homework to illustrate the problem at school. The first time I saw a frowny face on one of the papers, I almost cried. Nearly all children want to please and impress their teacher and parents, even if they act like they don’t. It can be discouraging and even heartbreaking to receive a frowny face from an adult they look up to.

 Yet Another Note: My mother strongly believed learning should be as fun and engaging as she could make it. She thought kids learned better if they weren’t bored and miserable. I found this to be true with my reading students, my daughter and my adult English as a Second Language students. The more lighthearted and fun you make learning, the easier life will be for you and your child.


Why can’t my kid just keep reading by memorization?

 When children read by memorization (which is what happens with the Whole Language approach), some start struggling immediately and there’s already a clear issue in 1st grade. Many can pull it off for a while successfully, but as they are bombarded with more (and bigger) words, a problem can start to emerge, often around 3rd grade. As they read, they will see a new word, but since they don’t really know how each letter affects the sound of the word, they take a quick mental snapshot of the word and match it with the closest word they know.

 Imagine you are a 2nd grader working on a handout your teacher gave you. It’s about plants, but you don’t know that. Since you were never taught phonics, the individual letters in a word don’t mean that much to you. You start to read the paragraphs and every time you see the word plant, you call it “play” because you’re a little kid, so of course you memorized the word “play.”

 All the way through the story, you make that word substitution. At the end, there are questions you’re suppose to answer. None of them make sense. In fact, the story didn’t make a lot of sense either.

 Now imagine that you did that, not with just one word, but a half dozen. How would you ever answer the comprehension questions correctly?

 That’s why teachers end up thinking the problem is comprehension when it is actually a phonics issue. They are grading comprehension worksheets and the grades are bad. The natural assumption, if the teacher doesn’t have a strong phonics background, is that the student has a comprehension problem.

 Note: After teaching the first few kids to read, I decided not to have any students work on comprehension with me until they had finished Books 1-3. Otherwise, you are setting the child up for failure because he doesn’t have the key to the code that enables him to read the words correctly.

 What about the words that don’t follow any rules?

 Ah, yes. If only we all spoke Spanish, a language that knows how to make spelling rules and follow them.

 English was once a Germanic language, then the Normans came in with their fancy Latin-based words, etc. I’m not a linguistics expert, but our language often feels like kind of a hodgepodge.

 When the student starts working on comprehension, he will run into words that he can’t sound out according to the rules. I always referred to them as “weird words” with my students.

 Me: “This is a weird word. Weird words don’t follow the rules, so we have to memorize them.”

 Even though this doesn’t sound ideal, it works. Kids can memorize a lot of words, but most can’t memorize every word they need to use in the English language. And memorization doesn’t help students figure out new words they encounter when reading the way phonics does.



Once the student is at least halfway through Book 3, you can start adding in some comprehension. You can get the Beyond the Code workbooks, by the same people as Explode the Code or a myriad of other workbooks. Comprehension work generally involves one or more paragraphs of reading. Afterward, the student answers questions about the passage she just read.

 When I was homeschooling my daughter, I would go to the kind of places my mother dragged me to as a kid—the teacher stores. They already have everything organized into subject matter and grade level. I would then glance through the ones at the appropriate grade level to see which might appeal most to my daughter. She was always super visual. (She didn’t get it from me. I’m super auditory.) She’s a great appreciator of art, loves color, and is a girly girl, so I kept that in mind when picking her workbooks.

 However, as I write this, we are in the middle of a pandemic, so you may prefer to do your shopping online. You can totally get your child in on the process. In fact, the more your child is included in the process, the more likely he or she is to cooperate.

Most kids don’t have any big comprehension issues once they learn phonics. However, the comprehension practice can help them pay more attention to what they’re reading, which will help them in their other classes, too. It also lets you keep track of where your child is grade level-wise because comprehension books are typically marked by grade level.

 You can even get more specific. For instance, if you notice your child seems to have trouble following the directions at the top of workbook pages or elsewhere, you can type “3rd grade Following Directions workbook” or “Following Instructions workbook grade 4” into your search bar and voila! You will see a number of workbook options. Always double check the grade level so you don’t end up with an 8th grade book for your 2nd grader.


Helpful hint:

When you are looking for any type of workbooks for your child, you’ll find them at a wide variety of prices. More expensive is not necessarily better. The price is probably more affected by how many pages the book has and, even more importantly, whether it is reproducible or not. (If it’s reproducible, a teacher is allowed to make unlimited copies once she buys the workbook. Those workbooks often cost notably more than a workbook meant to be used by one student and discarded.)

I would argue that the workbook your child finds most interesting is the one to get. I would always start with comprehension materials that are below the expected grade level of the child, then work up. To save money, if my 3rd grader was finishing Explode the Code book 3 in phonics, I would get a cheaper 1st grade comprehension workbook with less pages to make sure he can show mastery (80%-100% at least 3 times in a row before you move up to another grade level. You do not need to choose the most expensive workbook. You should be able to get a comprehension workbook for the cost of 1-3 fancy coffees.

Fun videos to reinforce phonics

Silent e words (to go with Explode the Code Book 3)


Note: Although I normally work as a fiction writer nowadays, I am writing these educational blog posts as quickly as I can during August and early September 2020 to help parents during the pandemic. If you are visiting this site during this time, check back in a few days for more educational posts.

Other education blog posts published or currently in the works:

-READ THIS FIRST: Educating at Home: Deciding What to Do and How to Do It

-READ THIS SECOND: Getting the Most from Your Child

-Reading: Quick Phonics Assessment

-Reading: Teaching Reading the Right Way (This post)

-Where Can I Find Learning Materials for My Preschool or Elementary Student?

-Creating Real-life "Opportunity Learning" Moments

-Preparing Your Infant and Toddler for Success

Copyright 2020 Nina Cordoba

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