UFLI Foundations and Secret Stories: The Backbone and the Lifeblood of Your Phonics Instruction

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ufli and secret stories phonics

UFLI is the “backbone” of our phonics instruction and Secret Stories is the “lifeblood” that runs through it.

Hi, my name is Leah Ruesink! I am an early literacy specialist, district trainer and adjunct professor from Michigan. I’m here to share my thoughts on two of my favorite evidence-based phonics resources that complement each other perfectly —Secret Stories and UFLI Foundations—AND to explain why they belong together in the classroom. 

What’s all the buzz about UFLI Foundations? 

As a literacy coach, I first heard about UFLI Foundations in a facebook group (The Science of Reading- What I Should Have Learned in College). At the time, my district was using a phonics curriculum that just wasn’t meeting the needs of all students. The district was overwhelmed with the number of students in need of intervention support. 

You cannot intervene your way out of core instruction that is not effective.
—Michelle Elia

Ever since discovering UFLI Foundations, I’ve been digging deeper, spreading the word to the teachers I work with, and planning professional learning around this amazing resource. 

  • What is it? UFLI is an explicit and systematic phonics program receiving lots of attention from teachers and educators across the country. The lessons provide many opportunities for students to practice phonics skills with a gradual release of responsibility model. Teachers love the detailed lesson plans, free PowerPoint/Google Slides Deck to accompany each lesson, and additional materials for center activities and extra practice. 
  • Who is it for? UFLI is intended for core instruction for students in Kindergarten- 2nd grade and intervention for 3rd grade and up. It may be used for whole group tier 1 instruction, small groups, tier 2 and 3 instruction or all of the above.
  • Why does it work? UFLI lessons are systematic, sequential, and explicit with lots of intentional interleaved practice. For example, If the short /i/ sound is introduced in a lesson, that skill is reviewed/practiced more than 300 times over the course of the next 10 lessons.

          UFLI Foundations lessons follow this eight-step routine:
           1.  Phonemic awareness
           2.  Visual Drill
           3.  Auditory Drill
           4.  Blending Drill
           5.  New Concept
           6.  Word Work
           7. Irregular Words
           8. Connected Text

So how do Secret Stories fit into UFLI lessons?

ufli secret stories integration

Secret Stories isn’t a program, but mnemonic “tools” that work alongside your existing reading/phonics curriculum to speed-up access to the phonics code kids need to read. Rooted in the science of reading and neuroscience research, Secret Stories  simplifies phonics by aligning letter behavior with kid behavior to make sounds more predictable, using stories as the delivery mechanism. These phonics “secrets” are the missing puzzle-piece to the 30 minute UFLI Foundations lesson, as they make phonics skills instantly accessible by connecting back to what kids already know and understand. 

secret stories sound wall

Think of UFLI Foundations as the backbone of your phonics instruction—with a scope and sequence that stays firmly in place, providing structured, explicit, systematic and sequential phonics instruction for 30 minutes every day. In line with this analogy, Secret Stories is the lifeblood that flows freely through the veins of the day, moving to wherever it’s needed. The “secrets” are your natural differentiated support for all learning levels—not confined by your grade level pacing guide or to your 30 minute reading block, but extending through the entire day and permeating all the instructional space around your “fixed” backbone lesson.

Using Secret Stories Throughout the Day

Morning Message & Mystery Words:
Introduce and review Secret Stories during your morning message and then search for and notice them throughout the day. You may also have done of your students help write out the “mystery” morning message.

Decoding Morning Message

Secret Mystery Word

Secret Word of the Day                    .

UFLI Lesson:
Introduce a Secret Story during your UFLI lesson, the 30 minutes of your literacy block focused on building word recognition skills.

UFLI and secret stories integration for small group reading/ phonics instruction


short o vowel sound secret story ufli lesson


ufli and secret stories integration word building

Whole Group Time:
Refer to Secret Stories throughout the day, as wherever there is text, there are phonics “secrets” to discover and reinforce.



Small Group Time:
Refer to Secret Stories during small group encoding/decoding. As you are working with students in small groups, draw their attention to unknown words and search for “secrets” in the text.


Introduce Secret stories at the beginning of your writing lesson as you’re
modeling, or use them on a “need to know” basis as students come to a word they need to write. Encourage students to use the embedded mnemonic posters (Secret Stories sound wall) to independently “build” (encode) the sounds they hear in words they want to write using the Secrets they know.

Kindergarten Writing with Secret Stories PhonicsEND OF YEAR KINDERGARTEN WRITING

Choice Time/ Free Play:

Support students to use the “secrets” to read and write unknown words during dramatic play! Students suddenly have the tools to write words
for the “restaurant menu” and to create signs for the “play pet store.”

phonics play with secret stories

Let’s peek into a kindergarten classroom…

phonics in kindergarten

I was invited into a Kindergarten classroom this past spring to observe my first UFLI Foundations lesson. I brought along two teachers from another district to participate in a “Learning Lab,” a day to visit classrooms in other buildings, reflect with the teachers that we observe and plan for instruction going forward. UFLI Foundations was just as new to me as it was to these teachers- I was eager to see a lesson in action!

Decoding “Heart Words”
The lesson began, and the teacher introduced the “irregular/high frequency word” → “they.” She quickly explained that the EY, the long ā sound, would not be introduced until a later lesson (I later looked in the book and learned this was almost 40 lessons later!) so students would need to remember the word by heart. She placed a small heart under the “ey” part of the word “they” and moved on. 


Of course, after years of using the Secret Stories in my own classroom (and seeing amazing success), I did my best not to jump out of my seat shouting…“There’s a Secret Story for that!”

EY and AY are just too cool!
With thumbs up and their coolest voices, they say Ayyyyyy!
ey ay embedded mnemonic phonics pattern secret stories

While the UFLI Foundations lesson does not explicitly teach the EY phonics pattern, that doesn’t mean students shouldn’t have access to it, especially when it’s so easily given. In fact, research on the science of reading shows that children should never memorize words they can read, and with the Secrets, these so-called “heart words” can be easily decoded in kindergarten. There is no reason to make kids wait 3-4 grade level years for formal skill introduction via the program when it’s so easy to just tell them the Secret. 

decoding heart words

Hello Literacy/ Jen Jones

We must give students access to the code when they need it. 

The Secret Stories make learning tricky phonics patterns extra STICKY…and memorable! That’s because  they tap into what kids already know and understand—the social and emotional “feeling-based” connections that drive their behavior every day! As kids don’t need to practice or memorize what they already know, the Secret phonics pattern can be immediately put to use for real reading and writing using the embedded mnemonic. I am constantly amazed watching Kindergarteners write words like “partner“ and “smart” after just a few days of learning the r-controlled vowel “secrets” about AR and ER/IR/UR!

Think about the number of times a child sees the word “they” in classroom books and read alouds. And how often students write sentences that include the word “they”…it’s a pretty common word! If we have an engaging way to teach these tricky phonics patterns that actually helps kids remember them…we can’t afford to wait!

they embedded mnemonics

It is neurobiologically impossible for kids to think deeply about things they don’t care about. -Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

We have to get our kids to CARE if we want them to learn and apply these tricky phonics patterns. So the big idea here is…if you haven’t gotten to the UFLI Foundations lesson that explicitly teaches a phonics pattern (e.g. /ar/), and students need it to read or spell a word…tell them the Secret! Grab the Secret Stories flashcard you need and take 1-2 minutes to read the story to your students. Then refer to it throughout the day! 

accelerating phonics skill access

When should I bring the Secret Stories into my UFLI lesson?

There are many opportunities to bring the Secret Stories into your UFLI lessons- I highlight and describe a few below. Note that each UFLI lesson takes two full days to teach. On day 1, you teach steps 1-5, and on day 2 you review step 5 and go through steps 6-8.

Steps 1-4 in the UFLI Foundations lessons are review steps, so I recommend bringing the Secret Stories into steps 5-8. Let’s talk about what this might look like throughout each UFLI Foundations lesson step: 

  1. Phonemic Awareness: This is the lesson step when students work on blending spoken phonemes (/m/ /o/ /th/ what’s the word? → moth!) , and segmenting words into phonemes (say the sounds in the word path → /p/ /a/ /th/) This is a review step.
  2. Visual Drill: This is the lesson step when students see a grapheme (letter or letter pattern that represents the sound) on the slide and connect it to its phoneme (sound). Students say “M spells /m/.” This is a review step.
  3. Auditory Drill: This is the lesson step when students listen to the teacher say a phoneme (e.g. /t/) and connect it to the grapheme as they write it. Students hear the sound and then say “/t/ is t” as they write the letter ‘t’ on their whiteboard/paper. This is a review step.
  4. Blending Drill: This is the lesson step when students quickly practice blending sounds to read review words. The teacher uses the “blending board” (or can just write the words on the whiteboard) to show a word, say each sound with students and blend to read the whole word. Connected phonation is key- I remind teachers to, “make the sounds stick together as you say them.”  This is a review step.
  5. New Concept: This is the lesson step when students are introduced to a new phonics pattern, and learn how to articulate the sound, form the grapheme, and read and write words with it. Let’s say you are teaching UFLI lesson #48 on ‘ch’. At the very beginning of step #5 (the new concept) grab your secret story card for ‘ch’ and take 1-2 minutes to read the story…you will have the attention of your students!ch phonics train fun

UFLI is the backbone, providing structured, explicit and interleaved practice throughout lessons…while the Secret Stories is the lifeblood, flowing fluidly throughout the day.

One part of the “new concept” step involves reading words with the new phonics pattern. Instead of quickly reading the isolated words “am, Pam, man, Sam, an, and  fan,” you might begin by engaging students and telling a made up story about “Sam and Pam on a very hot day, who met a kind man with a fan!” We want to always be on the lookout for opportunities to bring stories into our phonics lessons.


6. Word Work: During this step, students are practicing the focus skill by writing words using a  “word chain.” The teacher prompts students to encode (spell) and decode (read) each word, changing one phoneme at a time.
          chop → chip → chill → hill → dill → dull → mull → much → such → sun

This is a perfect point in the lesson to have your Secret Stories cards nearby for reference! You may notice several of your students are writing “cop” instead of “chop,” in their word chain. Grab your “ch” Secret Stories card and spend a moment re-reading the story and providing corrective feedback. (Note: The Secret Stories musical exercises are also a great way to practice this.)

Phonics Flashcards word work at board

7.   Irregular Words (aka “Heart Words“): You get to step #7 in your UFLI lesson and look at the high frequency word ‘they’ realizing there is one “tricky” part  that your students have not been
explicitly taught…YET. This is a perfect opportunity to grab your stack of Secret Story cards, find
the story for that “tricky” part, and take 1-2 minutes to read the “secret.”

sight words with Secret Stories

           You might grab a pair of sunglasses and a leather jacket for an added special effect!

  • 8.  Connected Text: For this step, students are reading sentences and paragraphs with both high
    frequency words and target phonics pattern words. Students also have a printed decodable passage to practice reading in small groups, or with a partner. This is a great opportunity to search for the “secret story” in each sentence and/or passage. You may have students circle as many “secrets” as they can find and then practice reading the “secrets” words to a partner. Students also write dictated sentences during this step, and may refer to the Secret Stories to spell tricky phonics patterns.phonics for decoding in kindergarten


phonics for writing

Is there a specific order to introduce the Secrets?

As a literacy coach I am frequently asked…”When should I introduce each Secret Story? Is there an order or scope and sequence to teach them in?” to which I reply…

There is no specific order or sequence to introduce the Secret Stories. Let’s revisit the analogy of UFLI foundations as your backbone, your scope and sequence for phonics instruction. Like a backbone, it stays in place, providing structured, explicit, systematic and sequential phonics instruction for approximately 30 minutes a day. 

The UFLI lesson assures that all phonics skills are explicitly taught and practiced. It provides equitable instruction for all students, specifically those who can’t recover from being taught to “just memorize” and need lots of support to shift back to decoding.

But, how are we accommodating students who don’t need that slow, laser-focused approach? What do we do for our students who are ready for more, and want to read and write bigger words? 

Provide access to the “Secrets” throughout the day! The Secret Stories is the lifeblood of your classroom, flowing fluidly throughout the veins of the day..moving to where it’s needed. Putting the Secret Stories posters up creates equity in the classroom, and acts as a differentiated support for students who are ready to read and write bigger words. Even if UFLI lessons haven’t covered a specific phonics pattern, a child can just “look up” and find the secret story they need.        

  We can follow a structured scope and sequence AND also give our students access to
the code (the secrets!) when they need it. 

Use the following checklist to keep track of which “secrets” you’ve introduced to students throughout the year: 

How have I used Secret Stories and UFLI as a literacy coach?

One of my roles as a literacy coach is to work with districts and teachers to find curriculum resources that align with current literacy research. Since discovering the Secret Stories and UFLI Foundations, I’ve been using both in various ways across the districts I support:

          1.  Grant writing: I support teachers by writing grants. The most common grants we’ve written
together the last few years have been for the Secret Stories, the UFLI Foundations book, and
various decodable readers (Hello Decodables, Phonic Books etc.)

          2. Leading professional learning: Since both the Secret Stories and UFLI Foundations are
fairly new to the teachers I work with, it is important to provide professional learning throughout
the year on both resources.

Here  are a few of the UFLI Foundations/Secret Stories sessions I’ve led alongside my coaching colleagues:

  • UFLI Foundations Lesson (Day 1 and Day 2):
    Several professional learning sessions have outlined each step of the lesson. language to use during instruction, and resources needed to teach.
secret stories ufli phonics training for teachers

The Better Alphabet® Mini-Mats

secret stories phonics stickers and word mat

  • UFLI Progress Monitoring Session:
    This session focuses on “day 5 activities” that include progress monitoring and review of the weekly UFLI lessons. There are SO many free resources in the UFLI toolbox (website) including “Roll and Reads” (pictured below), decodable passages and home practice sheets.



Below is a note-taking sheet I created for teachers to take notes as I model using Secret Stories with the UFLI lessons. The picture below is of a kindergarten teacher’s notes.


  • Gamifying UFLI:
    This session provides ideas for extending UFLI lessons with games, and practice activities as well as ideas for centers and small group.
  • UFLI Refresher:
    During this session, teachers have had some time to teach UFLI lessons in their classrooms. We spend time reviewing each step of the lesson, reviewing language and important reminders.
  • Make and Take Workshops:
    These professional learning workshops are planned for teachers to create activities to enhance UFLI lessons and bring in the Secret Stories.
  • Choose Your Own Adventure-“All about the Secret Stories”:
    This professional learning day presents teachers with options for different sessions they choose to attend. Below are pictures from this PD.