ABC iView Learn A Word

25 Replies

I don’t know who advises our national broadcaster on the content of its early literacy education videos, but I find them pretty underwhelming.

Please don’t show children in your care the Learn A Word series on ABC iView. It teaches children to rote-memorise the appearance of words, recite letter names, and “take a photo with your eyes” of words.

The sounds in words (phonemes) aren’t even mentioned, though awareness of these sounds is the glue needed to make letters and written words stick in memory.

The Learn A Word videos first say “Let’s all learn a word” and a written word appears on the screen. The first word is “after”.

The video script goes like this:

“After. This word is after. Can you point your finger at the word after?

Now use that finger to write with me. Around and down, up and down, around and straight down, then across, from top to bottom then across. Start in the middle then back around, down, up and over. Ay eff tee ee ar. After. We did it! Let’s say it together. After!

Can you write it slowly? Ay eff tee ee ar. Can you say it quickly? Ay eff tee ee ar. Great work!

I can use it in a sentence: After lunch I like to read a book

Take a photo with your eyes and remember this word: After

You just learnt a word!”

Then there is a pause, a new word is presented (the next word is “again”) and the whole thing repeats with much the same script. Well, I haven’t watched them all, as that would make my head explode with frustration, but I’ve watched quite a few, and they’ve been highly repetitive.

Even one-syllable, entirely sound-outable words like “up”, “at”, “it”, “if”, “on”, “get”, “run” and “from” are given this treatment. So are words with common two-letters-for-one-sound (digraph) spellings, like “them”, “good”, “boy” and “say“. Nobody points out that two letters represent one sound in these words, because nobody even mentions sounds.

The videos explicitly encourage a visual whole-word-memorisation strategy, e.g. for the word “it”, the video says: “put it in your head and say it for when you need it. It comes in handy all the time. It is a great word. It.” Here’s how this is illustrated:

Occasionally children are encouraged to write words in the air, on their hands, arms, feet or the floor, very small or very big, very slowly or very fast. There’s music, pictures, and occasional giggling and sound effects.

Two-syllable words, and words with tricky spellings like the Greek-origin “ch” in “school” and the no-longer-pronounced Old English “w” in “two” get the same treatment. There’s no phonics teaching sequence, no patterns, nothing that would make sense to reading scientists, just rote visual memorisation, over and over.

I wish someone responsible for kids’ content at the ABC would read or listen to Emily Hanford’s reports, understand that a mountain of scientific research shows that we don’t learn to read by visually memorising words, and produce better content for Aussie kids. Maybe ABC presenter Dr Norman Swan can be asked to take this up, as he’s the patron of AUSPELD. Learn A Word on iView is simply not up to the ABC’s usual high standards.



25 responses to “ABC iView Learn A Word”

  1. Yarni MacAlister says:

    Agreed. As a teacher I felt I needed to submit a complaint to the ABC, citing the science of reading as a basis for my complaint. The reply was underwhelming. They advised that the program was advised by teachers, which is disappointing. If we want content like this to change, we need more people stepping forward and complaining!

  2. Louise says:

    Yes, the word really is
    Another word is
    I wonder who they think the audience is.

  3. Carmen Hunter says:

    Thank you so much for – yet again – another succinct, spot-on observation. I feel so concerned for the volumes of parents who will consume this content, believing they’re doing what’s best for their children (as it is from ABC). Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  4. Mim Blake says:

    Oh Alison! I almost cried when I read this blog post!
    THEN I checked the date on the calendar, in case I’d somehow been time-warped back to April 1st!
    THEN I checked the date on your blog post , in case it was one you’d written ten years ago!
    Sadly NEITHER scenario was true! 🙁 JUST when I thought Australia might be coming out of the ‘stone-age’ and shedding it’s ‘whole language’ skin, I see that my previous optimism that the Science of Reading was finally being believed and adopted by more teachers and practitioners, is sadly misguided! How can our national broadcaster get it SO wrong?

  5. Berys Dixon says:

    Well said once again, Alison. These videos are the perfect thing to demonstrate how NOT to teach reading. Let’s hope Norman Swan is looking for a brief diversion from Covid and reads your blog.

  6. Jennifer Davey says:

    They obviously have no idea how to save the children from learning word after word rather than how to work out words for themselves or with a little help such as just learning the tricky bits.

  7. Karey says:

    I posted this comment:
    ‘If ‘Learn a Word’ (which relies on whole word memorisation approach, instead of using evidence based systemic phonics) is typical of the offerings, then this does not inspire confidence in the ABC education offerings.’
    I provided comment and link to your review here, at
    Let’s see if it gets through moderation.

  8. Gillian says:

    Interestingly, the process of spelling a word using letter names, and using the word in a sentence is the same as the MultiLit Reading Tutor Program’s intervention when a student doesn’t know a sight word. I have heard this program is being revised.

    • DENYSE Ritchie says:

      How can you spell a word without using letter names? How do you teach I, me, my, to, so, she, was, what, why, when, day, play, park etc … without using letter names? How do you explain how to write phonics patterns and digraphs such as ‘th’, she, sh, ph, at, oy..etc without using letter names? That is what spelling is, hearing the sounds, looking at the spelling choices, learning the spelling pattens (phonics) in the word – and using letter names to identify the phoneme-to grapheme correspondence . Spelling is is identifying sound patterns and writing letter names.

      Spelling should be
      Meaning, analysis, synthesis, using memory, testing and application … MASUTA .

      • alison says:

        It’s quite easy to teach kids to spell without using letter names. In linguistic phonics programs like Phonographix (which David Kilpatrick’s book says is one of the very few highly effective programs) and Sounds-Write, sounds and their spellings are taught first, and later on letter names are introduced. This eliminates a common source of spelling errors like “car” spelt “cr’ and “left” spelt “lft”, because children mix up sounds and letter names. Of course if children ask about letter names their questions are answered honestly but in face-to-face and online teaching, it’s possible to avoid using letter names most of the time, and say sounds and write the graphemes instead. When we get to the “long” vowels, we find that the letter name A and the sound represented by the one-letter spelling A are the same, which some children comment on, but this kind of meta knowledge is not as helpful as carefully-structured, gradual exposure to the patterns, and practise to mastery. In fact it’s perfectly possible to read and spell without knowing letter names. I lived in Mexico many years ago and learnt Spanish, but for some reason never learnt the letter names. In an entire year there, working, volunteering and studying, renting a flat, travelling around, shopping, etc and getting to the point where I would find myself talking to myself in Spanish, I never once needed to use Spanish letter names. I only realised later when I was living in London and rang a hotel in Spain to make a booking, had a lovely chat with the receptionist, and then she asked me to spell my name for her and I couldn’t, as I don’t to this day know the Spanish letter names. Yes, Mark Seidenberg points out that part of forming concepts is to name them, but letter names are not how we map words into long-term memory for reading and spelling, we use phonemes, graphemes and morphemes, and they should be the focus of early teaching.

        • Denyse Ritchie says:

          It would be interesting to see how you could possibly teach your class spelling without using letter names! Unless you use ‘letter sounds only’ which confuses sounds and letters. and then how do you possibly teach the words my, to, me, was, how, book, read..etc?
          Children write car as cR and we as wE, my as mI, street as strEt, because they are not introduced to the Alphabetic Principle correctly from the start. They are taught lowercase letters are the ‘sound’ and are then introduced to capitals by name. They believe that introducing capital letters is introducing a second set of sounds -and now with some of the nonsense telling children capital letters can help with the sound it is totally confusing letters and sounds. You say “In fact it’s perfectly possible to read and spell without knowing letter names.” – I would like to see how you explain the spelling of a word to a child or adult! How do you spell ‘book or read’ to another person? You also say “but letter names are not how we map words into long-term memory for reading and spelling, we use phonemes, graphemes and morphemes, and they should be the focus of early teaching.” You map the graphemes for each phoneme by identifying the letters in the graphemes and morphemes! Phonics is teaching letter patterns and we explain these patterns using letter names.

          • alison says:

            I’m a speech pathologist so I don’t teach classes, just work with individuals and small groups, but barely use letter names, and nor do evidence-based/informed programs like Sounds Write and Phonographix, which are taught to classes of early years teachers. I agree that teaching “sounds” for lower case and letter names for upper case is absurd, a parent told me this happens the other day, and I thought it pretty astonishing. I mostly demonstrate rather than explaining spelling, a lot of the students I work with struggle to understand long, complex sentences with “if-then” and “except” kind of conjunctions. You might explain letter patterns using letter names, but when I am teaching (for example) the spellings of the sound /ay/, I just say that there are a few ways to write this sound, using a…e as in same, ai as in rain, ay as in day and a as in able (I write the spellings out, I don’t say the letter names), and we read and write lots of words with this sound, saying the sound as we write the spellings, noticing that ay is for endings and a is for 2+ syllable words, etc. It’s entirely unnecessary to use letter names to do this, I’ve been doing it all day.

          • Denyse says:

            Your reply Alison is self contradicting… as was this comment on your first reply “I only realised later when I was living in London and rang a hotel in Spain to make a booking, had a lovely chat with the receptionist, and then she asked me to spell my name for her and I couldn’t, as I don’t to this day know the Spanish letter names.” ……….. So, you are teaching children to spell without using letter names…therefore they can only write words, but can’t explain to others how to spell or write a word or even their name. Therefore the remediation is not effective and as such places the child in remediation once again -to learn letter names to spell their name and to be part of and contribute to class spelling lessons.

          • alison says:

            That’s rubbish, children aren’t on the phone when they are talking about spelling. They can just write/type the letters they mean.

          • Denyse says:

            So when ‘do’ they learn letter names to identify graphemes so they can return to the classroom to be part of and contribute to class/peer spelling lessons?

            Sad they don’t know how to explain what they are typing or writing…especially if later as you were, they are on the phone and need to spell their name or their street, suburb or country to someone.

          • alison says:

            They learn later on, of course. But letter names are not essential in the early stages.

          • Carmen Hunter says:

            How do you teach spelling without letter names, you ask?

            Really quite easily!!

            ‘This is the way we write the word [sheep],
            /sh/ (as you write that grapheme)
            /ee/ (again, writing the grapheme as you say the sound)
            /p/ (as above),

            Done! I’m not sure how telling them ‘ess haych ee ee pee’ is a superior method…

            Or, using your example:
            ‘This is the way we write the word [me]:
            /mmm/ (writes the grapheme [m])
            /eee/ (as above [e])

            I would be very interested to know which words you use to teach these using letter names??

          • Denyse says:

            Thank you Carman –

            But how do your learners then explain how to write sheep back to you? They need to use letter names.

            Teaching sheep?…
            The sounds we hear in sheep are ‘sh ee p’ (3) how do we write the ‘sh’ sound -we use the letters Ess, Aitch, how do we write the ‘ee’ sound -we use the letters Ee, Ee, how do we write the ‘p’ sound we use the letter ‘Pee’. We can then teach/ ask so how do we write the ‘sh’ in chef – we use the letter Cee Aitch. how do we write the ‘ee’ in beach we use the letters Ee Aye.
            How do we write the word we, we can hear two sounds ‘w-e’ how do we write the ‘w’ sound we use the letter Doubleyou and how do we write the ‘e’ sound we use the letters Ee.

            Without this knowledge you are not teaching children ‘how to spell words’ -nor how to differentiate between homographs and homophones.Teaching the Alphabetic principle correctly from the start is essential to teaching spelling.

        • Narelle says:

          Hello. It seems that this thread makes a simple teaching of letter names into a very complex issue. As Shanahan once agreed with me on Twitter, ‘it’s not the teaching of letters names that’s a problem, it’s the instruction’. I’d much rather have a child enter my class know the letters name is , than calling it an a a (apple), for we need access to high frequency words sauce as ‘was’ from the very beginning. Apologies for my previous response, the IPA symbols didn’t work on this platform.

          • Narelle says:

            And now spell predictor prefers ‘sauce’ rather than ‘such’


          • alison says:

            You don’t need letter names to teach about “was”, you just tell kids sometimes at the end of words like “is” and “has” and “his”, we say “z” for this letter (S) not “s”, they’re very similar sounds and sometimes they use the same letter. Then for the “a” in “was” I show them “want”, “wand”, “wash” and so on and say when we have a /w/ with an /o/ we usually write it like this (wa), I think in the olden days they said it differently but the way we talk keeps changing, so now it’s like this. Never had a problem with it, or needed to use letter names in the explanation. Which IPA symbols are you using for Australian English, BTW? The Thrass scope and sequence seems to contain the old ones that I learnt at uni in the 1980s, but since I don’t teach them to children and the old ones work OK for my own clinical notes, I haven’t bothered to update.

    • alison says:

      Hi Narelle, when/where did I say the ABC was trying to fully educate children, or that anything replaces a knowledgeable teacher? Just let me know and I’ll make the necessary corrections and apologise. I think you might have used characters in your comment that my website doesn’t recognise, so some of what you’ve written is hard to understand, but it’s great to hear that you teach phoneme-grapheme correspondences in a patterned way, and I’m sorry you’re still coming across children who are only taught the “sounds of letters” not the full complexity of our spelling code, including one-sound-several-spellings and one-spelling-several-sounds. Teaching small amounts of code at a time and practising this to automaticity using decodable books allows gradual mastery of the code, without teaching kids things that they then discover don’t stack up in their reading, in the way you describe. I hope soon we can all agree that teachers need to be taught phonology, orthography, morphology and the bits of etymology that explain otherwise-inexplicable spellings, so that they are ready to ensure that all kids achieve to their potential at reading and spelling, and thus are well-equipped to thrive across the curriculum and beyond. That would put me out of business, and I’m sure there are people who’d like to see that soonest! But don’t worry, I can do other things, and would be delighted to see both teachers and children having more success, and fewer instructional casualties on my waiting list.

  9. […] not letter names. Letter names are vital to THRASS. Co-author Denyse Ritchie even commented on my recent blog post, “How can you spell a word without using letter names?… Spelling is is identifying sound […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *