THRASS: the phonics of Whole Language

People often ask my opinion of the THRASS (Teaching Handwriting, Reading and Spelling Skills) approach, which has long been used in many Australian schools. Till now I’ve mostly replied that I’m no expert on it, but I’m yet to see robust research evidence supporting it, and aspects of it have never made enough sense to me to invest in the training.

I once worked at a school in a tiny room where lots of THRASS resources gathered dust. Two huge, laminated THRASS wall charts kept overwhelming their blu-tack and falling on my head.

I looked through the resources, but was working mostly with kids with language disorder or intellectual disability, and they would have been overwhelmed by wordy, THRASS-chart-based spelling explanations like this or this (cognitive load!). The THRASS graphemes kit was too big for our room’s tiny table, and lacked example words and some of the graphemes I wanted, so I made my own.

I tried using a THRASS board game but found it a bit incomprehensible. I don’t like teaching program-specific jargon, like “phoneme fists” or “grapheme catch-alls”, and rapping THRASS chart words might be fun, but I’m not sure why else you’d do it.

The kids I work with often get sounds and letter names mixed up, and write “left” as “lft” and “car” as “cR”, so I like to focus on sounds and how we write them, 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 identifying sound patterns and writing letter names”. I disagree.

However, I thought of THRASS as a systematic phonics program, so was inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt, and not make the good the enemy of the perfect. I even included it as an example phonics program in my (not in the least perfect) 2012 video How Phonics Got Framed.

Since then, I’ve worked with many struggling readers/spellers attending schools using THRASS. Most have had very poor phonemic awareness, and been very confused about how graphemes represent phonemes.

Sometimes parents showed me mind-bogglingly awful THRASS-based homework activities, like using the chart to generate multiple possible (but, um, incorrect) ways to spell a word e.g. boat, bote, bowt, bot. I have no idea whether these were officially-sanctioned THRASS activities or just a teacher being too creative, but it did make me wonder.

Rather than representing phoneme-grapheme relationships with complex, pre-printed charts like the THRASS one, I like Sound Walls, which children co-construct and refresh over time (click here for a 20-minute Sound Wall summary from PATTAN, or here for a longer video by Dr Mary Dahlgren). Teachers wanting static, readymade charts showing all the main phoneme-grapheme correspondences for use with older kids can find free ones on Debbie Hepplewhite’s Alphabetic Code Charts website, whereas the largest THRASS charts (for the floor) cost $770.

Call that a phonics scope and sequence?

You can download the THRASS scope and sequence here. I expected it to state which sound-letter/spelling relationships, word types and prefixes/suffixes are taught over time, like other explicit, systematic phonics programs.

However, the THRASS scope and sequence contains almost nothing to suggest it’s an explicit, systematic phonics program. It has objectives related to knowledge of the THRASSCHART and THRASSWORDS. There is reading and spelling of “Hotwords”: high-frequency words and words about numbers, days, months, time, seasons, colours, plus a group of “sizzle words” including “friend”, “because”, “people” and “birthday”. The Reading Skills section requires children to read and understand six THRASS books, a set of which are available in Big Book format from the THRASS website for $192.95.

The scope and sequence also has objectives like “articulate own name”, “distinguish between a letter and a drawing”, “identify what defines a word” and “understand and identify the IPA symbols“. THRASS still apparently teaches Aussie kids the old Mitchell and Delbridge IPA vowels, not the current Harrington/Cox/Evans ones (which I must learn sometime, sorry, Libby Clark, I still haven’t).

Only towards the end of the Language Knowledge page in the THRASS Scope and Sequence document does it mention things like plurals, prefixes and suffixes, tense endings (aren’t they suffixes?) and “common syllable groups”, whatever they are.

In the absence of information to the contrary, it seems that in THRASS, any phoneme-grapheme relationship can be taught (or not taught) whenever a teacher chooses.

Research, or the mysterious mimeographs

Google Scholar is widely used by researchers to search for scholarly literature. If you type “THRASS” into Google Scholar, the first item it finds is a 2010 article from the Psychology of Education Review describing a study comparing a Jolly Phonics intervention with a THRASS intervention for 54 school beginners in the UK, though 19 were excluded from the analyses for various reasons. The authors expected that THRASS-instructed children would be better at non-word reading and short-term memory performance, but found they weren’t. This research isn’t mentioned on the Australian THRASS website’s research page.

The second article offered by Google Scholar, again not on the THRASS website’s list, is a 2010 South African study of preservice teacher perceptions of THRASS. It found they felt confident about teaching reading but not spelling or creative writing, and that some teachers liked THRASS, but “the way the programme was introduced to the teachers led to most of them disliking it and not using it to its full potential. The training period was too short and confusing for the students to fully understand THRASS. Many students commented on the disorganisation of the THRASS programme when they went to teach it in the schools. While some students enjoyed using the resources, some of them commented on how expensive these were” (p273).

After that, Google Scholar offers:

I have searched for the other research listed on the THRASS website. The first article, Johnson (1995), seems not to be on the internet, but is referenced in the fourth article, Brooks (2002), which also references another article on the THRASS website list, Matthews (1998). The Brooks (2002) reference list gives the Johnson (1995) and Matthews (1998) details as:

Johnson, M. (1995). The Handwriting, Reading, and Spelling Sequence (THRASS): an Evaluation of a Two Term Pilot Study September 1994-April 1995. Sheffield: City of Sheffield Education Department. (mimeograph)

Matthews, D. (1998). Special Initiative to Enhance Literacy Skills in Bridgend, Spring 1998. Bridgend: Bridgend County Borough Council Special Needs Services. (mimeograph)

Mimeographs were things we had before photocopiers. At my 1970s primary school, we called ours the Roneo machine. It had purple ink and sometimes if you were good and finished your work quickly, you were allowed to go to the office and Roneo the newsletter.

The Brooks article is actually a series of influential articles called “What works for children with literacy difficulties – the effectiveness of intervention schemes”. The 2016 edition replaces the Johnson (1995) reference with a reference to “unpublished data supplied by Roger Norgate via Alan Davies”, and says of THRASS that “Data from an evaluation in Hampshire in 2005 also provide evidence of a useful gain in reading”, but not who did this evaluation or where to find its report. I don’t know why someone at THRASS doesn’t scan and pdf the Mathews mimeograph and upload it to their website so we can all read it, or why they are still referring to Brooks (2002).

The other items listed on the THRASS website research page are a single case study (Lovegrove 1998), an education department leaflet (DfES 2003), and articles with incomplete citations and no links which the internet seems to have never heard of, except from THRASS. Try putting them into a search engine yourself, perhaps you can find them. Please put any leads or links you find in the comments. Scientific research is supposed to be replicable, but you can’t replicate what you can’t read.

Oxymoron or phonics patch?

Learning Difficulties Australia stalwart Molly de Lemos recently dug Denyse Ritchie’s submission to the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy out of her archives for me. In this submission, Denyse succinctly summarises my problem with THRASS, by calling it “The phonics of Whole Language”.

She writes, “THRASS is a powerful phonics program that is the phonics of whole-language. THRASS supports whole language strategies as it allows teachers to use any book with a child and to explain any word, thus taking away the confusion that is caused by restrictive phonics practices.”

Under the heading “Phonics Danger”, her submission goes on, “The problem with ‘old/traditional’ phonic practices is that the strategies presented are very misleading, restrictive and unsustainable and actually set up both the learner and the teacher for failure. The child does not understand the process and the teacher has to revert to terms and inexplicable rules such as ‘sight words’, magic ‘e’ and ‘silent letters’, leading to confusion for teacher and student alike.”

Well, yes, rudimentary, outdated, initial/incidental “sounds of letters” phonics teaching does restrict teaching in this way. However, today’s well-designed synthetic phonics programs systematically teach all the speech sounds and their main spellings plus major affixes incrementally, without the need for complex jargon or rules, and with regard to key factors known to affect learning like cognitive load.

The THRASS website says THRASS assumes “that the learner is regularly helped to use picture, context and spelling-choice cues to read text, suitable books and environmental print.” Which sounds like classic Whole Language to me, but with THRASS providing what US journalist Emily Hanford calls a Phonics Patch.

Explaining English spelling to children

One of the key benefits claimed for the THRASS chart is that it allows teachers and parents to explain the spelling of any word, any time. Except if you’re out in the playground or the supermarket, sans chart, and are suddenly asked why the word “extinguisher” or “linguini” has a letter U not a letter W.

Spelfabet to the rescue! Take out your smartphone and google “spelfabet u as in extinguisher” or “spelfabet u as in linguini”, and you should get this page with lists of words with this phoneme-grapheme correspondence. Show your small linguistic inquirer that we don’t write “gw” in English, we write “gu” as in “penguin”, “language” and “iguana”, just as we write “qu” not “cw” or “kw”. Add that /k/ and /g/ are a voiced-voiceless pair of otherwise identical sounds produced at the back of the mouth, which probably has something to do with it.

You smashed it! The child will think you know everything about spelling, even without a massive chart held up by about a kilo of blu tack that occasionally falls on your head.

 

Thanks to Molly De Lemos and Tessa Weadman for help researching this post, and to the  DDOLLers, who always make me think.

25 thoughts on “THRASS: the phonics of Whole Language

  1. Wendy Savaris

    Brilliant again Alison – Spelfabet to the rescue!
    Thank you for such a comprehensive post – brilliant!
    Please put it on FB so many can share it.

    Reply
  2. Cath

    Thank you so much for this! My son is at a thrass school and the teacher keeps telling me he doesn’t know the letter names. I said ‘I thought the phoneme was more important than the letter name’. Now I see it must be part of the program.

    Reply
  3. Tayla

    Very informative thank you. I have been wondering about THRASS myself as a school I went to uses it and well I definitely remember those posters from my primary school. I really liked the video you linked about sound walls. I’m hoping to use it as a suggestion for struggling spellers/readers for teachers.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: THRASS: the phonics of Whole Language | Spelfabet – The Literacy Echo Chamber

  5. Wendy Allott

    Thank you , thank you, thank you for this. My kids’ school uses THRASS. When my eldest was in Prep, I went to his teacher and said that he was struggling to learn to read and write and I was concerned.

    I didn’t tell her I was a teacher myself, mainly because it’s not helpful and also because I’m a secondary teacher, specifically Indonesian language – completely different skill set. But I had been confused by their approach to at-home reading – no consistency and books changed every day, where as my inclination would have been a focus book to become familiar with the language and spelling. But what did I know? I was out of my depth. I also found the ‘strategies’ he was given strange. Eagle Eye, for using the pictures as clues and ‘Stretchy Snake’ for sounding out but he didn’t know what the letters were called let along what they represented. Again, this wasn’t my area of expertise, and being teacher and parent, I could both sympathise with her and see that my child was struggling. She told me not to worry, towards the end of the year she told me he wouldn’t achieve a ‘C’ level, which confirmed my own feelings. Then she marked him at a ‘C’ level anyway in his report. I’ve seen this game before.

    When he was in Grade One, I went to his new teacher and had the same conversation. She gave me a print out of a THRASS chart, although she was nervous about whether she was allowed to. Not surprisingly, it didn’t mean anything to me and although my son recognised it from the classroom, he didn’t know how to use it. I went back and she suggested speech therapy, which he did but he didn’t really have any speech issues and quite quickly those sessions came to an end. As the end of the year approached he was still behind, but again he was marked up.

    When he was in Grade Two we did the same dance. The teacher said she’d get the curriculum coordinator to look at his work, as by this point I was saying maybe he was dyslexic. He still couldn’t identify letter correctly. But she was busy with the school concert.

    When he entered Grade Three he joined the senior school. Not a THRASS chart to be seen and I was told that senior students no longer use Eagle Eye and Stretchy Snake or Chunky Monkey. But my son was still struggling. Why waste time ‘teaching’ them those strategies when they were not going to be relevant? After three terms the curriculum coordinator looked at his work, told me he wasn’t dyslexic and not to worry – not all kids are readers.

    He’s in Grade Four now and obviously this year is a mess for everyone. He did a year of tutoring last year with an excellent tutor, but he hasn’t been able to see her this year.

    My youngest is still in juniour school, still being taught using THRASS. Home learning has meant I have some insight into language arts lessons. When I hear the teacher saying, “We’ll choose the ‘w’ from water and the ‘i’ from tin and the ‘ll’ from bell” I want to scream.

    To be fair, I don’t know if this is a school issue, or a THRASS issue but I feel it’s a mix of both.

    Sorry for the rant.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Please don’t apologise for being rightly angry about your son not being taught to read properly. Reading it, I feel angry too, though not with the teachers who I am sure are just doing their best, but don’t have the training or resources to do better (yet). Does he have intervention now? I thought tutors were still working online, we certainly are, but sadly have a waiting list. As soon as it’s feasible to hire more therapists I will do so and try to clear the waiting list, as children in trouble should not have to wait for help.

      Reply
      1. Wendy Allott

        Thank you. Our tutor is a much older lady. Very, very knowledgeable but not tech savvy. It is something we’re still working on with our son and, if we ever get back to school properly, something I will be raising again with his teachers. I agree, it’s not the teachers’ fault, they genuinely care, I think the system lets them down too. Thank you for your support.

        Reply
        1. Molly Houlihan

          Wendy, I am so sorry to hear your struggle – you must be extremely frustrated! So many parents are realising only now that their children are at home, how behind their literacy skills are. I am trained in Cracking the ABC Code which is an evidence based literacy intervention program. If you do need some additional help, I am currently implementing this program with students online. I’ll pop a link below so you can have a look, it might be something that suits your sons needs. Please reach out if I can be of assistance!

          Reply
    2. Rebecca Cannell

      Sorry to hear of your difficulties Wendy, but just for the record, the reading strategies you reference (‘stretchy snake’, ‘eagle eye’, ‘chunky monkey’, etc) are actually not THRASS strategies at all and used regularly in my children’s non-THRASS school.

      Reply
      1. alison Post author

        Yes, chunky monkey et al are Whole Language/multicueing strategies, not THRASS ones, but they are often used with THRASS, since as the co-author of THRASS has said, it’s the phonics of Whole Language. Sometimes Whole Language is used with other initial, incidental or analytic phonics approaches that don’t have clear, systematic, comprehensive phonics teaching sequences or early years decodable books.

        Reply
  6. Lucy Clyde

    Having undergone training in a systematic synthetic phonics program (Sounds-Write) where I left with confidence I could implement the program and teach reading, I found myself utterly bamboozled after doing training in THRASS. The rote learning memorisation of the chart as being the FIRST step for reading was beyond my cognitive load, let alone a 5 year olds! There did seem to be a scripted elements for teachers, associated with some of the games, but we were not provided with those and were expected to rely upon brief practice sessions that quickly left my short-term memory (perhaps the scripts are provided at another course?).

    The lack of associated assessment of students’ learning meant that I have seen reliance on whole-language based benchmarking used to “level” readers, rather than using valid and reliable reading assessments. Without a systematic introduction of sounds/letters (the letter/sounds are taught in alphabetical order), there is no connection to the reading materials students are given and the gradual increase of difficulty. Assuming a child learns in the order of the chart and achieves the first 3 sound/letters of each of the consonants and vowel charts – they will be able to identify b:bird; bb:rabbit; c:cat and a:ant; a:baby; a-e:tape … hardly a useful start to reading!!

    Reply
  7. Tanya Serry

    I really appreciate the objective way you have explored the issues Alison. Thank you to Molly and Tessa for the support to make sure that every aspect was considered in a methodological way.

    Reply
  8. Donna E Keating

    As A Prep teacher I was always worried about the information overload for Preps learning THRASS! So happy to hear others can see that now too!

    Reply
  9. Harriett Janetos

    Thank you for promoting sounds over names. Prior to getting my reading specialist credential, I was trained in PhonoGraphix and have read all the books by Diane McGuinness. When I had the opportunity to teach a kindergarten class a few years ago, I never referred to letter names. I remember when one of my students wanted to spell ‘toy’ he simply asked me what /oy/ looks like, so I showed him–and then made sure he said the sound as he wrote it. But I didn’t spell it out. You say:

    “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.”

    Stanislas Dehaene agrees with you, and in Reading in the Brain says that far from being helpful, letter names may even delay learning to read since the brain processes phonemes. Working with hundreds of struggling readers over the years, I have found that many are confused by having been taught names and sounds simultaneously.

    Thanks for such interesting posts!

    Harriett

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Ah, I’ve read Reading in the Brain (in fact I have two copies, I was at a conference where Dehaene was speaking and hadn’t brought my copy for him to sign, so I bought another one) but don’t remember him writing that about letter names. So THANK YOU, I will go looking for it next time I’m in the office with access to my bookshelf.

      Reply
  10. John Walker

    Really good and timely work, Alison.
    I guffawed when I read that Denyse Ritchie had asked, “How can you spell a word without using letter names?… Spelling is identifying sound patterns and writing letter names”.
    We both disagree!
    Best regards,
    John

    Reply
  11. Judith R

    I was the Prep literacy intervention teacher when the school introduced THRASS. I had to do the training along with everyone else, but for all the reasons you’ve identified, I didn’t really use it a lot myself. One day while reading, a student paused at the word ‘this’. She recognised ‘th’ as a grapheme, which was great as that was the hard bit. She then thought back to her memory of the THRASS chart, and came up with ‘feather’ as her word guess. That moment really confirmed for me how unnecessarily complicating and confusing it all is.

    Reply
  12. Jennifer Davey

    Fantastic investigation! It’s great to refer teachers to your website for such well considered comment about the teaching of reading.

    Reply
  13. Nicky

    Thank you so so much Alison for providing this timely article. I work in an area where THRASS is the most popular method of teaching reading and so many kids are reaching Secondary School with extremely low literacy levels. There is a push from a minority for structured systematic phonics and the schools that have taken that on have seen remarkable differences. THRASS is still being promoted by many as fitting into the systematic phonics category. Once teachers know about cognitive load theory and the difference in teaching methods it is clear why THRASS is fundamentally flawed.

    Reply
  14. Tracy Tunney

    Thank you for this interesting article to read, and discuss. From what I’ve read, you haven’t attended a PD for THRASS which means you are making judgemental comments on resources rather than the THRASS pedagogy. Similar to me making judgements on a musical instrument and the way it looks without being taught how to use it. If you have been offered the opportunity why not attend the THRASS PD to make an informed judgment? I have to attend PD that I disagree with all the time and it presents perfect opportunities to discuss best practices. You make some valid points in your article and I like the idea of the sound wall vs word wall. This is the same set up as the THRASS dictionary my students use. However, the link you added is done by an American lady who states there is 18 vowel sounds when ACARA states we must teach the 24 vowel sounds of English (something many programs don’t cover). She also stated the long “u” sound which if you have done THRASS training and look at the IPA in any dictionary you would know the pronunciation of the “u” is actually two phonemes and is represented by the letter being a diphone. With my THRASS knowledge I am able to fill gaps of any program my school chooses to use and have not purchased all the THRASS resources that you reference as being expensive as they are simply tools to aid my teaching. I have made many resources and bought some too.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      No, the resources aren’t the main issue, the pedagogy is. I’ll be interested in doing the THRASS training when it has a clear PA and phonics scope and sequence, decodable books and all the other hallmarks of a high-quality phonics program, and when I stop getting so many referrals for struggling readers/spellers who have attended schools using THRASS. I work for myself so I don’t have people forcing me to attend PDs that I don’t want to attend, sorry that you do. Yes the US sound walls have 18 vowel sounds, because American English is a rhotic accent with different vowels from ours. If you want a set of Mary Dahlgren’s materials adapted for an Australian accent, they are here http://www.tools4reading.com.au/product-page/australian-kid-lips-cards. I’d be very interested to find out what ACARA says are the 24 vowel sounds, please send me the URL. There are two “long u” sounds in English, if you want to use that terminology, the one on tofu and the one in human (or blue and cue, or grew and few, or Zeus and feud) and yes the latter is a diphone, but explaining which part of the letter u in human is the /y/ sound and which is the /oo/ is slicing it a little too fine than I think is necessary. Of course if a child notices it’s really two sounds I say “well done, very clever, but for our purposes it’s easiest to just think of it as one sound”. Great to hear you are able to fill gaps in your teaching sequence, which sequence are you using?

      Reply
      1. Tracy Tunney

        Sorry Alison. That was a typo on my part as it should have said 24 consonant and 20 vowel sounds. My fault for trying to type discussion points on my phone, instead of a laptop.

        My school uses Words Their Way, Jolly Phonics and Michael Heggerty. All of which I need to use my THRASS knowledge and training to fill gaps.

        Reply
  15. Christy Walsh

    Thanks Alison! I love the title! I worked at a THRASS school in an educational support role for a few years. On so many occasions I felt like leaving the room due to the use and explanations given using this program. Often teachers couldn’t even agree on how to “THRASS out” the spelling words, or would pick and choose which part of the THRASS program they “believed in”. One one occasion I had to try and assist 7 Term 2 prep students “THRASS out” the words sister and brother. These were children who could not even sound out CVC words or blends let alone understand schwa! It made me mad that these children were doomed to fail even in their beginning year of school when the foundations of reading and writing should have been, and could have been, a high priority.

    Reply

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