Attention during learning

13 Replies

A child I’ve been working with has just started reading and spelling four-sound words.

He can read them with and without consonant digraphs (e.g. “shops”, “chimp”, “held” and “ducks”) in games and single word activities.

He can write them slowly but accurately in single word activities.

However, when I asked him to read them in an illustrated decodable storybook recently, his reading accuracy went through the floor.

His eyes kept flicking back and forth between the pictures and the words, instead of focussing on the words, and he was clearly guessing lots of words from pictures, first letters and/or context, rather than sounding them out. For example, he read “a bunch of grubs” as “some worms”.

Then I discovered he’s started having a daily intervention session at school with a Reading Recovery teacher.

I simply can’t compete, on one session a fortnight plus three or four fifteen-minute home practice sessions a week. Sigh.

It’s really not fair to him that adults are teaching him two contradictory things. I teach him to sound out every word, but Reading Recovery encourages sounding out only as a last resort, and teaches children to attempt to read words beyond their decoding level (so of course the only thing they can do is guess).

I wonder whether I should stop my sessions with him till he’s finished his school-based intervention, then try to shift his attention back to where it should be when reading books.

Classroom study: spelling versus literature-based phonics

Thinking a lot about how children’s attentional focus and strategies influence their learning, I found a great article called “Teaching Phonics in the Context of Children’s Literature or Spelling: Influences on First-Grade Reading, Spelling, and Writing and Fifth-Grade Comprehension”.

It’s about a 1990 Californian study in which two classes of children with much the same literacy curriculum were taught phonics via two different methods.

One group studied phonics in spelling activities. The other group had phonics instruction embedded in literature.

The study was carefully controlled to make sure one group wasn’t ahead of the other from the beginning, and that the only difference in the phonics instruction was the way it was presented. For example, they made sure the same sound-spelling correspondences were taught, words were presented the same number of times, the teachers swapped around etc.

At the end of Grade 1, they found that the children who worked on spelling were better at spelling both regular real and made-up words, reading made-up words (i.e. reading word attack) and that they wrote longer stories.

The spelling instruction also got the lower-ability children reading connected text better.

They went back when the children were in Grade 5, to see if there were still differences between the groups. A lot of other things had (of course) happened in between, so conclusions could only be drawn with caution, but at the end of Grade 5, the children who had worked on spelling had significantly better reading comprehension than the children who had worked on phonics in literature.

In their discussion, the authors suggest that the two different ways of teaching direct children’s attention differently, and evoke different strategies. Specifically, in spelling activities, “attention is more focussed on the phonemic properties of words, and phonic strategies are more likely to be employed” (p707).

The authors recommend using spelling activities for systematic phonics instruction, rather than literature activities, particularly since it’s hard to find literature that lends itself to teaching some sound-letter correspondences, and teachers tend to overestimate their own phonics knowledge.

This research fits neatly with recent research suggesting that multitasking makes you stupid. Working on pulling words apart into sounds and mapping letters/spellings onto them can be difficult, and deserves students’ full attention. If they’re also trying to understand and predict a storyline, answer comprehension questions etc. they will have fewer available attentional resources to apply to spelling.

Sounding out words makes your brain light up like a good reader’s brain

A recent Stanford university study suggests that teaching learners to focus on sounds and their spellings when reading “lights up” the parts of their brains best wired for reading.

I won’t paraphrase it too much because there is a very readable summary article here, but essentially the researchers devised a new language and then taught one group of people to sound out the words, and another group of people to memorise the same words as wholes.

Then they got both groups to read the words while they scanned their brains, and found that the ones who learnt to sound out words had more left hemisphere activity (more like good readers), whereas the ones who learnt to memorise the words as wholes had more right hemisphere activity (more like struggling readers).

They concluded that the way a learner focuses their attention during learning has a profound impact on what is learned, and that skilled teachers need to be able to focus learners’ attention on precisely the most useful information.

This sort of research just makes me want to tear up beginners’ sight word lists and throw them all in the recycling, then blockade the Education Minister’s office until he agrees to provide synthetic phonics training and resources to all primary schools. But I suppose that would just get me into trouble. Sigh.


13 responses to “Attention during learning”

  1. Fantastic piece as always Alison.

    As you know, modern Systematic Synthetic Phonics includes teaching not only decoding for reading, but also encoding for spelling. These should be taught in equal balance and, of course, handwriting needs to be linked with the spelling and letters thought of as the 'sounds' they are code for when spelling.

    I have an additional component, however, in the phonics 'Teaching and Learning Cycle' which I refer to as PLAIN cumulative, decodable texts.

    Once children have been introduced to a new letter/s-sound correspondence (the 'code'), they then have activities which include word-level blending and word-level spelling, but then they 'apply and extend' to plain, cumulative texts.

    This is a very powerful practice because once again activities include reading, spelling and writing – but there are NO picture clues to distract and children are able to apply their existing alphabetic code knowledge and phonics skills successfully without being taught, or forced by necessity, to guess unknown words.

    Then, their language comprehension is part of the process and they can bring their IMAGINATIONS to bear by picturing, and even drawing pictures, the content of the cumulative texts.

    It's magic!

    • alison says:

      Hi Debbie, thanks for the nice feedback. By “plain” texts I think you mean ones without illustrations, and I agree that these are useful to consolidate knowledge learnt in spelling activities. I sometimes turn picture books into DIY lift-the-flap books by putting post-it notes over the illustrations. Children read the text and then we lift the flap to see the picture, and discuss both text and picture before going on to the next page. Pictures are great as long as they aren’t allowed to disrupt the decoding process. I also have a workbook called Big Comprehension of Little Words which has a single picture with ten or so mostly Basic Code sentences about it on each page, and children have to decode the sentences and circle either true or false e.g. “The cat is in the pan”, “The cat is on the pan”, “The pan is on the cat” etc. I use it a lot with kids with language difficulties, as it allows me to work on prepositions, sentence structure etc at the same time as decoding, and it’s clear that only some of the sentence meanings match the picture meaning, so children have to carefully read each word, and the task makes it clear that they can’t rely on guessing from the picture.

  2. […] Attention during learning | Spelfabet. […]

  3. Phil H says:

    This is really interesting. I've been teaching my four year old to read mostly by sounding out words in story books, and running into the same problems that you describe here. I'll think about doing some more separate spelling exercises.

    I've also had terrible issues with the problem of not knowing how to work my teaching around the teaching that my kids get from other sources. But I think that's a failing we have to overcome. You can't just give up in those situations, and say it's my way or the highway.

    • alison says:

      I agree, it’s very tricky, I’m not a teacher, I like and respect the teachers I work with, and I don’t pretend to know everything. But I can also see that teaching a child two contradictory things at the same time is pretty unfair and unproductive, and in a resource-constrained environment there are probably better uses of my time, if I can’t persuade colleagues to use teaching methods that the experimental research and up-to-date models of the reading process support. As I understand it, the “3-cueing method” was a fad that caught on and is now widely assumed to be grounded in good evidence, but it just isn’t. For starters, in the current models of reading, there’s no way context can assist with decoding.

  4. 2biysintow says:

    Alison, your example is so my son. I can always tell when he has had a reading recovery session. One day he said ‘commanded’ when the word was ‘told’. As he has got older he now knows not to guess a word.

  5. Kylie says:

    I agree, and I find the same with students I work with Alison. It must be so confusing for them. At school they’re taught to be ‘expert guessers’ and then I tell them not to guess when they read with me. It is very hard to compete and makes progress in learning to decode so much slower. I wish I knew the answer for students who endure conflicting instruction (well I do know the answer actually, but it isn’t within my control!)

  6. Isabelle says:

    You are spot on as always, Alison!
    My advice to parents it to tell the school that their child will no longer attend RR sessions and to back this up with the overwhelming evidence base (settled science!) against the three-cueing system.
    These harmful strategies take the child away from the structure of the word and we know that good readers don’t rely on context.
    Parents, visit for guidance and resources.

  7. I am 100% sure the common reading errors such as mixing up ‘from’ and ‘for’ stem from the whole word have a guess method because they are introduced as ‘sight words’ unecessarily when they obey all rules of phonics.

  8. Hey Alison,

    Let’s get into trouble together! I’m up for that.


  9. Berys Dixon says:

    Hi Alison, Yes , count me in when you’re ready to storm into politicians’ offices.
    I agree with Isabelle. The parents need to be supported in standing up to the school. It’s the child’s whole future at stake.

    • alison says:

      Wonderful! I reckon there must be a way to turn this COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity, so many parents who have done home learning have realised their kids simply don’t have the decoding or spelling skills to cope with their work in class, and that school is not providing them with the word study foundation they need.

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