Typical Lesson at Symbols

Two times a week, you drop your child off at Symbols for lessons with their tutor. Each time they come home, they’ve learned new information, which helps them in school. But what actually goes on for the hour that they are at Symbols? We asked two tutors to explain, for a typical Language Arts student who struggles with reading or writing, what the lesson would be like, from start to finish.

One of the lesson plans is one that was used for a student who sometimes has difficulty staying focused. The tutor aims to keep his lessons somewhat varied from day to day, so that the exact same routine isn’t followed every time he’s at Symbols- this is because he seems to stay more excited and wants to try things when activities are slightly different every time. He also responds very well to rewards. The other lesson plan is based off of a general student doing LA who has trouble with letter reversals.


Before the lesson even starts, especially for a student who has difficulty focusing, the tutor has them choose a reward. Some possible reward options are a ball toss, hockey pass, play-doh break, stickers, drawing pictures, or bringing a small toy from home that they can play with for a break (as long as it’s not disruptive to other students). Once five tasks have been accomplished during the lesson, the student is then allowed to have the reward. Five tasks usually takes about half the lesson to complete. For some students, the Wall of Champions is also a great motivator. The tutor tells the student that if they work hard and do a good job on their worksheet, then they will be put up on the wall. Then their parents will be super impressed, and so will all the other parents and students in the waiting area where the Wall of Champions is, and this drives the student to try extra hard.

Starting the Lesson

To start off, a lesson begins with review. The homework from last lesson is checked, corrections are done, and the tutor goes over what was learned last time. This is often followed by a quick kinesthetic activity to get the blood flowing to the brain, usually a ball toss for a sight word that was taught the previous class. Another example activity may be for something like the final e spelling rule- a manipulative drill is done where the student has to find suffix cards scattered around the room, and has to drop or keep the paper square with “e” written on it that they’re holding.  Rapid-fire exercises from previous lessons are also done to review. For example, the tutor may have 3 or 4 worksheets that cover topics from the past 2 weeks, and with the student, would do about two questions from each sheet. This helps to strengthen the neural pathway to the learned material by having to recall that topic and apply it weeks after they learned it. For younger kids needing to do sequences like seasons, months, days of the week, etc, YouTube is a great resource. The tutor will often pull up and then sing a preselected catchy song with them on the topic at hand. Singing songs helps to make sequences stick really quickly for kids.

Next, a penmanship exercise, such as working on reversal practice with b/d may be done. A sky/grass/ ground page is often used to to write a row of ‘b’, and a row of ‘d’. Sky, grass, ground charts are used to reinforce proper penmanship and letter formation. Certain letters ‘live’ in certain parts of the sky, grass, and ground.

Next comes the visual deck. This is a deck of cards with several sections. The first section are phonograms. They are cards with phonograms like “th”, “qu”, and “arr” on them, and the kids have to say the sound as the tutor flips through them rapid fire. To keep the student invested in going through the cards, which can sometimes be tedious, every fourth card the tutor and student may compete to see who can say the sound fastest. This is great for competitive students, and helps keep them more engaged in the task. The next section of cards are affixes. Students must say the definition of the affix and give an example on how to use them. For example, they’d say “-ing means doing it right now” and the tutor prompts them with “If you run right now you are…” and they’d say “running!”  The third section is concept cards on various spelling rules, grammar, parts of speech, punctuation, vocabulary, etc. Students have to recollect as the tutor flips through the cards. For students who have been coming for a couple years, only one category of these cards is studied for that day, as trying to fit them all into one lesson would be too time consuming. The fourth section of cards is sight words. This is when they get up and review the mnemonics for each word doing a physical activity (ball toss, hockey, bouncing a ball, soccer, etc.)

A blending drill typically follows this. One type of blending drill that may be used is a paper with 3 different columns. Left column = beginning blend, middle column = vowel / diphthong, last column = end blend. Students have to connect the letters and sound out the words they make. The words are either real or pseudo words. This exercise helps students to sound out words they don’t know.  For students that have difficulty focusing, every time they complete one word from the blending drill, they get to draw something on the paper.

After this comes an auditory drill, which is done in a standard way: The tutor says a sound, and the student has to write down the corresponding phonograms on paper.

Next comes spelling exercises. For one tutor, every other lesson alternates between doing spelling written on a regular sky, grass, ground spelling page, and using the white board. Spelling drills consist of phonetic, martian, (also known as ‘pseudo’ words- they are not real words, but can be sounded out phonetically based on spelling rules), and sight words. The student may be asked to put on paper 8 phonograms, 6 phonetic words, 2 pseudo words, 4 sight words, and a sentence. This is modified depending on the time left.

Break Time

When the spelling is completed, which is about halfway through the lesson, the student gets a break, where they can use the reward they chose at the beginning of class. This little break is important, as it gives the student something to work hard for during the first half of the lesson, and gives their brain a break so that they come back refreshed and ready to learn.

New Materials

Once the student comes back from break, this is a perfect time to teach new material, such as a new phonogram. For example, the phonogram ‘tch’ may be taught. This starts off with an auditory practice, where the tutor says a list of words, and the student has to identify the common sound in each word (tch). They then have to trace and say a story for ‘tch’ 5 times on a sky, grass, ground manipulative. Then, the standard “New Phonogram” worksheet is filled in. Another method for teaching sight words involves the tutor telling the student a unique story/doing some movements to help them anchor the word to a situation they’ll remember. Usually it’s pretty wacky and unforgettable, like my pet gold fish named Freddy being bored, having surgery and getting legs, and running around over the nearby mountains, and people going “Omg, where’s that fish FROM?” This helps kids remember the story “Freddy Runs Over Mountains” spells FROM. The story is followed up by working on a worksheet that requires them to say the story many times while spelling the word. Then a ball toss may be done, taking turns saying a word from the mnemonic as the ball is tossed back and forth. Lastly the student traces the word on red sand.

Next comes reading lists/sentences. Words that had the new sound, ‘tch’ in them are added to a list, so that the student can practice recognizing this sound in words and also practice sounding it out in words.

At this point, the tutor and the student often go to the Reading Corner, which has a rug and a cushion, and is a nice place to read. The student reads books that match their reading level. After, the tutor asks comprehension questions about the story that was just read. These questions are a mixture of straight up recollecting facts from what they’ve read, questions that go on a tangent and have them think of creative answers, questions that have them relate their experiences to what they’ve read in the book, etc. Some of our tutors have a reading reward system. There is a sheet with 16 lines, and for every book the kids finish, they put the title of the book on a line. After 16 books, they get a prize, which may be something like a Ring Pop. This seems to motivate kids to read books. Also, the kids are told that reading is a progression, and there are levels. They start from level 1, and move up when they finish all the books from level 1. Most kids read for the sake of leveling up, getting the Ring Pop, and being able to see on the sheet their progress, a list of 20+ books over 2 sheets.

Finishing Up and Homework

To finish off the lesson, the tutor gives and explains the homework. This may include ‘tracing and saying your story’ for ‘tch’, filling in the blanks of words with ‘tch’, and sounding them out. Homework is usually a sheet from Symbols, from the Internet, or one that the tutor has made up themselves. Sometimes the student gets manipulatives where they have to put cards in order to memorize a sequence, like days of the week. Or for nouns, they may get a bunch of slips of nouns and have to glue them into one of 3 columns, person, place, or thing.

Once the hour is finished, the tutor talks to the parent about the lesson, as this is an important form of communication.

Rob Wahl