I seem to have a special talent for going to the post office or newsagency right on Peak Minute, and end up standing in a queue next to carousels full of cheap cards, stickers and books with titles like “Teach Your Child To Read” and “Amazing ABCs”.
I am irresistibly drawn to these books and start leafing through them, though I know from experience this will only make me grumpy.
These books are almost invariably written by people who don’t seem to have much linguistics knowledge or to have studied the best way to help children learn to read. Many are at least as likely to confuse children and waste their time as help them learn to read and spell.
Let’s look at some example pages I photographed last time I stood grumpily in such a queue, ignoring the people staring at me because of this odd behaviour. All these activities are marketed at parents of absolute literacy beginners, aged 5 and up:
Here we have a mixture of short and long words, easy and hard spellings, and no obvious beginning reading/spelling skill being taught at all.
The only way absolute beginners will be able to do this activity is if they can get an adult to explain how to do it, and read out all the words for them.
“Red” is really the only word on this page that belongs in a reading/spelling activity for absolute beginners, because it’s a short word with one letter representing each sound.
The activity itself is laid out in a confusing way, because the word “fish” is closest to the word “roof”, not the word “yellow”, which it seems to be intended to match.
These words don’t seem to even be related by meaning, the reason many “spelling lists” consist of words with disparate spellings. I don’t understand why the forest is blue, and the fish yellow.
The instruction says “Write A word between the lines that doesn’t belong to the group of words on each line below”. I think it should say “Write THE word…that doesn’t belong”
Again there is a mishmash of long and short words and easy and hard spellings, including some really hard ones like the “ah” in “galah”, “oe” as in “shoe”, “aer” as in “aeroplane” and “ss” as in “scissors”.
It’s also unclear why learners are asked to copy the odd one out instead of just circling it. Maybe handwriting practice? But if you don’t know what you’re writing, you might as well copy chicken scratchings.
The letter X is used in two main ways:
1. Representing the sound combination “ks” at syllable endings, as in fox, six and wax.
2. Representing the sound “z” at word beginnings, as in Xavier, xylophone and Xena the Warrior Princess.
Only the first of these two usages really belongs in a book for absolute beginners, except perhaps beginners called Xavier, Xander or Xerxes.
On the page about the letter Y, the example word given is “yacht” – even though the rest of this word’s spellings are likely to add more confusion than clarity in little learners’ minds about how letters and sounds are related.
If you want a quick litmus test of whether a book about learning the alphabet is any good, I recommend turning to the pages about X and Y. If you find any X-rays or yachts, move on.
What can I say? More mixtures of long and short, hard and easy words. To absolute beginners these are likely to look like chicken scratchings, and how sounds and letters work doesn’t get a guernsey here.
Let’s think about the sounds in the word “horse”. There are three of them, represented by the spellings “h”, “or” and “se”.
Instead of keeping these spellings together to help learners understand how sounds and letters work, this activity scrambles them.
It does this for all these words – there are three sounds in duck, and five in donkey and rabbit, but the two-letter spellings or digraphs in each of them – ck, ey and bb – are split up.
This is not likely to help a child crack sound-letter relationships.
Anyway the moral of this blog post is: I do not recommend buying literacy-teaching materials from post offices, newsagents, $2 shops, remaindered bookshops or other places where there are no early literacy experts, unless you are very confident that you can find good materials in among very many not-so-good materials.
Spend your hard-earned cash on materials that are based on the scientific evidence about how to best teach children to read and spell.
There are many, many such resources available – see my Phonics Resources list for examples, and please let me know if there is something good available that’s not on these lists.