When I began teaching special education in middle school, I found that twelve of my students (half my sixth-grade caseload) were reading at first- or second-grade level due to their struggles with word recognition. They had been participating in reading intervention for most of their school years and had not made significant progress. Suddenly, they found themselves in middle school classes where the required reading was inaccessible to them.

I used a strategy with them that I had used before with elementary students. This strategy, which I now call “Rime Magic,” was the reason I could send all of my elementary school resource students to middle school with word recognition skills that were at or very close to grade level.

I taught my students to see the rime within a longer word just because it made so much sense to me. And so when these sixth graders made several years’ growth in just a few months, fully able to participate in language arts activities in their general ed classrooms, they announced to me that I had to call the word work we were doing magic. “It’s MAGIC, Ms. Zinke! No, really, you have to call it that!”

Since then, I have given a lot of thought to why Rime Magic works so quickly and efficiently—for both students and teaches—in helping students see how words work.

Below are seven key elements of Rime Magic that make students sit up and pay attention, often finding themselves swept up in the process, swiftly experiencing a new confidence and proficiency with word structure.

1. Immersion

In most phonics programs students are expected to master specific skills in a prescribed order. Rime Magic is a completely different approach. Students are immersed each day in a fast-paced, highly engaging experience with the structure of words. Whether students are in first, fifth, or eighth grade, there is a high level of enthusiasm during a Rime Magic lesson. First-graders are swept along in a wave of easy success, delighting in always feeling like they know the answers. Older struggling readers who are participating in small group or one-on-one intervention have a different kind of enthusiasm. They are able to see right away that it’s actually working!

2. Only Five Minutes

Of course we want the vast majority of our precious language arts time focused on reading and writing, with an emphasis on comprehension and metacognition. Each Rime Magic lesson takes five minutes unless you want to add a few minutes for a Reinforcement Activity, allowing students to get right to their reading, practicing the reading strategies they have learned.

3. Access to the Middle

Rime Magic gives students access to the middle of the word so that they can easily perceive rimes embedded within longer words. Instead of trying to “sound out” a word from the beginning letter or letters, students are able to identify the rime within the word, seeing the word as a series of recognizable “chunks.” When students become successful at seeing words this way, they have a powerful decoding foundation to support their comprehension as they read.

4. Ongoing Scaffolding

For students who have viewed words as mysterious at best, Rime Magic brings immediate success to the equation right away. Each of the teacher’s fingers represents a letter, the rime is in color right where it belongs, and the teacher is saying the letters out loud along with the students. There is no way to get it wrong! Students who have struggled with words begin to sit up and pay attention when they see that it’s so easy to follow along and spell the words. The scaffolding is both oral and visual. There is a gradual release of responsibility, so that less confident students feel supported throughout the process. The students are swept along with the awareness that they will always be successful readers.

5. Positive Response

Rime Magic lessons are a safe space for students who have not participated in the past. Struggling readers often give up and look to other students to do the participating, trying to avoid public failure around answering incorrectly yet again. During a Rime Magic lesson, they are fully acknowledged for any answer given, in such a way that these students are not afraid to raise their hands. Every statement the teacher makes is positive. No one can fail. Very soon, struggling learners who have never participated, or who have disrupted lessons in the past as a strategy for hiding, begin to join in with great enthusiasm.

6. Immediate Success

Because Rime Magic is based on immersion rather than mastery of separate skills, each student is able to move ahead at his or her own pace. Some students will not raise their hands to answer questions at first, and will follow the lead of other students as they chant the rimes. Little by little, their confidence blossoms and they begin to participate in the lessons. Sometimes this transformation takes place in a few days and sometimes it happens within a few minutes. Teachers know and expect that all children can learn and all children want to learn. We trust them to learn in the way that they need to learn and give them books that they can actually read. Success breeds success. Frustration is not very motivating. When success is immediate and ongoing, students sit right up and pay attention. Immediate success causes motivation and engagement and when students feel ownership, they thrive.

7. Prevention and Intervention

Students who have fallen behind in word recognition catch up quickly with Rime Magic and lots of supported and independent reading. However, since we know that children who are not reading on grade level by the end of third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school when compared with those who are reading on grade level (Annie E Casey Foundation, 2012), it is imperative that we implement strategies in our classrooms that prevent students from moving up through the grades with low word recognition. When short Rime Magic lessons are consistently practiced in first and second-grade classrooms (and kindergarten if teachers desire), students begin third grade with a strong foundation in word structure, able to participate fully and effectively with their classmates in all of the literacy activities and strategy lessons that support comprehension and lifelong reading.