As a Youth Literacy Advisor tutoring struggling readers in rural Jamaica, I started out with no curriculum, limited resources, and no formal teaching experience to lean on. Fortunately, thanks to the opportunity to shadow another Peace Corps Volunteer, I learned about an invaluable resource at my disposal.
Over my two years of service in the school, this one tool saved me much-needed energy and increased the effectiveness of my teaching. It kept my students’ attention better than any game I could conjure, and it clearly helped concepts stick better in their memory.
I’m talking about youtube videos.
My Own Jamaican Letter Sound Video!
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I’ve been using all the videos below for two years now, but not one of them was made specifically for Jamaican students. The accents in the shows are either American or British, and they refer to things like yachts and violins (which have little meaning to the kids).
Because phonics is such an important skill that is often missing from Jamaican students’ repertoire, I used the videos I had, and it was effective. But all along, I was looking for something truly Jamaican. I didn’t find anything, so I finally ended up making my own video.
I drew the pictures based on phonics materials I found in Jamaican schools. Then I trained a bunch of my students to do the chant and featured their voices in the audio. Resources were limited, and I wish the quality was better. I hope that some day, someone else will take it to the next level. Regardless, my dream is that this video can be used as a resource across the island- by Peace Corps Volunteers and Jamaican teachers alike.
Please help me share it!
How to Use Videos Offline
In Peace Corps, internet access is not always guaranteed. Fortunately, you don’t actually need the internet at school to use youtube videos in your lessons!
Using sites like SaveVid, you can actually download them in formats like .wmv, mp4, .mov, etc. When I was starting out, I basically went to the internet cafe and searched youtube for the concepts I needed to reinforce with my students (i.e. letter sound song, short vowel sounds). I then copy and pasted the youtube URL into SaveVid, saved the files to a thumb drive, and transferred them onto an iPad or laptop for later use.
Best Free Videos for Teaching Phonics
The following videos are the ones I had the most success with in my tutoring groups. Because I was working with readers several grade levels behind, you’ll notice that many of these videos focus on the very basic building blocks for young readers.
Alphablocks is probably my all-time favorite because it’s not only entertaining and clever, almost every episode can be used to teach or reinforce a particular phonics principle. I use Episode 1 over and over to help teach the letter sounds, and the kids love it. Before this video, one of the trickiest sounds for kids to recite correctly was the sound of letter X, but the x-man character in this episode was such a favorite that X quickly became unforgettable. In general, these shows are a natural way to reinforce the concept of sounding out a word phonetically. Some of the more advanced episodes (there must be over 30) demonstrate things like making a long vowel sound.
I got one of these letter sound songs from a previous volunteer and found the other just searching around youtube. Even kids who say they don’t like to sing, enjoy learning with songs and moving to the rhythm.
Leapfrog also has a series of phonics shows, which some Jamaican kids are already familiar with. These are a longer and play more like a full TV show, so I don’t often use them in class unless it’s just a certain excerpt. But they’re good for giving an educational spin to free time. I’ve found the Letter Factory, Word Factory, and Sing-A-Long to be helpful in teaching specific concepts (they may not all be available on youtube).
Phonics Kids shows are great but also long. Kids like the chanting but it gets old after a while, so I just choose a few sections to show, based on what we’re working on in class. The first series shows the capital and common letters- my first graders loved the part where they trace the letter in the air with their finger. The second series goes over consonant sounds, and the third series is the short vowels.
Once you’re beyond the basics of the alphabet and letter sounds, there are a wide variety of shows for any phonics/reading concept you’re trying to cover. For example, I found these about Super E and Two Vowels Go Walking, which really helps my students remember the rules for reading long vowel words. After watching the show the first time, I always make sure to ask the kids to repeat the key message from the song back to me. Then we work on reading some examples of words that follow the same pattern, and go from there.
My Favorite, Free Internet-Based Resource
For folks that do have the luxury of high-speed internet with their students, if I had to recommend just one online resource for learning to read, it would definitely be Starfall.
Starfall’s free online activities and stories are neatly arranged in a natural phonics progression. It’s relatively user-friendly so even kids with no previous computer experience can learn to navigate the activities after a short tutorial.
When I used Starfall during special Literacy & Computer camps at the Community Center, I created a sticker reward system for completing each activity in its proper order. The only thing you have to watch is that they don’t start clicking on the various icons off to the side of the page, which will take them to other sites.
Those are some of the very best, free shows I’ve been able to use in my literacy tutoring groups. Are there any favorites you’ve come across?
Coming soon, I’m compiling a resource for future literacy tutor volunteers based on the lessons I’ve learned over the past two years. If you have any questions about this kind of work, please mention it in the comments below so I can add more useful info to that next post.