Author Archives: alison

About alison

Alison Clarke qualified as a Speech Pathologist in 1988, and also has a Masters in Applied Linguistics and an ESL teaching certificate and experience. She has worked in schools, the disability sector, early intervention, hospitals, universities and private practice in Australia, Mexico and the UK.

The sweaty sounding-out stage builds reading muscle

We want young children’s lives to be fun, and free of struggle and hard work. We want them to enjoy reading, like we do. So listening to young children reading simple books containing the spelling patterns they’ve been taught in phonics lessons (decodable books) can be quite painful, and a little confronting, for adults.

They grunt and groan and sweat their way through the words. Most of their cognitive horsepower gets used up just extracting the words from the page, and they don’t understand much of what they’ve read. It’s certainly not fluent. It looks and sounds more like hard slog than fun.

However, inside a child’s brain, something extraordinary is happening. They’re creating a new brain circuit linking the visual areas at the back of the brain with the language areas on the left. They’re shifting some tasks usually done on the left side over to the right hemisphere, and repurposing left hemisphere brain cells for reading. See this 2015 blog post for the science behind this.

Lack of understanding of the importance and value of this stage is probably how predictable/repetitive texts got a foothold in early education. I detest them, because they teach children to fake fluent reading by memorising repetitive sentence stems and guessing the rest from pictures. This is a lot easier for adults to listen to, and if you believe reading should be fluent and easy from the start, it sounds like real reading.

If you went to a gym and they told you their weights were made of polystyrene because lifting real weights makes people sweat and grunt and isn’t pretty to watch, you’d walk straight out.

Predictable/repetitive texts are like fake weights at the gym. They make the exercise easier and less painful to watch, but they don’t build reading muscle.

Next time you’re watching a child slowly and laboriously sounding out words in a well-selected decodable book, cheer them on. Don’t wish it wasn’t hard or try to make it easier. All that sweating and striving is because they’re building their reading brain, which is such a powerful and wonderful thing to do, and well worth the effort.

Top 10 online PA/phonics resources/activities

200+ days in COVID-19 lockdown and no clear end in sight, so I’m scratching around for fresh ways to target phonemic awareness, phonics and morphology online. Maybe you are too. Here are some things I was SO GRATEFUL to find. A million thanks to their creators. Please add your favourite resources and ideas in the comments.

  1. Wordwall

I think my head would have imploded in the last 18 months without a Wordwall subscription (AUD$12 a month for all the games). I’ve made lots of activities which you can use for free, and so have many others.

Only the crossword and hangman games require spelling rather than reading to play, but not to create. I therefore get kids to help me create a game online: first choose a game, type the target words/sentences into it, then play the game, then go on the leader board. Playing the game again can be part of the homework, either on a computer or as a printable crossword or word search.

2. Phonic Books Moon Dogs At Home books and other resources

We use the physical Phonic Books resources a lot, and have found their free online resources very useful during our lockdowns. So generous, and so relevant. A lot of the WordWalls we’ve created also match their books’ teaching sequences.

3. Flyleaf online portal

Flyleaf’s Online Portal contains lots of cute books from the UK which are perfect for online use, and all free at present, because of the pandemic. Again, so generous! Jen’s Best Gift Ever is my favourite, click here to read it, and here’s a comprehension quiz I’ve made as a follow-up activity (use it as a Gameshow Quiz for more pizazz).

4. ICT Games

ICT games are all free online, and a quick, fun way to warm up or finish off a session. I often ask kids to type their own lists into Help A Hedgehog, then see how many they can read before the 90 second timer runs out. Other favourites are Tell A T-Rex, Poop Deck Pirates, Viking Full Circle, Forest Phonics, and Phonics Finder. This site runs on a donation model because the husband-and-wife team behind it think no child should be prevented from learning by lack of money. So if you can afford to donate, please do.

5. Sounds Write interactive whiteboard activities

If you’re using the program Sounds-Write, this USB contains heaps of activities ready for use online. They cover the Initial Code (one-letter=one-sound spellings plus major consonant digraphs) plus vowel spellings up to Sounds-Write Unit 28. The USB costs AUD$95, and I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth.

Because many other Sounds-Write activities are provided as pdfs as part of the training, they have also lent themselves to online use (see item 8 below), and the Aussie/NZ Sounds-Write community has lots of great ideas and resources.

6. Little Learners Love Literacy apps and other resources

The app versions of the lovely LLLL books have been a great way to show young clients the books, by sharing the iPad screen online. Always affordable, the iPad versions are currently free till the end of September (at least in the Australian store). Which is so incredibly generous, and will help so many young, locked-down children learn to read. Lots of paper-based LLLL activities also lend themselves to online use, see item 8 below.

7. Powerpoint versions of decodable texts

Some kids with good keyboarding skills like typing a simple story to dictation, to create a book they can then show a parent or teacher. I’ve used some Phonics With Feeling books for this, with author permission. I take screenshots of the pictures and paste them onto slides, type the text, then use Powerpoint’s formatting suggestions to make it look more schmick. Then I save it, delete the text and save it again under a different file name. Voila! A simple onscreen reading then spelling activity with large text.

8. Adobe Acrobat Reader editing tools

We use Zoom and it has been excellent, but I rarely use their whiteboard or editing tools. The free Adobe Acrobat editing tools work much better with pdfs. You can scroll through homework and cover it in ticks. You or the learner can type, change the font size and colour, and move text around. You can underline or put boxes around target words in sound searches (we play a guess-how-many-jellybeans-in-the-jar game with these, first guessing how many words with the target sound there will be). I just wish I could turn off the predictive text! (any ideas? I’ve tried everything!)

You can also play games (like the one above from Nicole Brady) using big dots as counters. Sounds-Write, Phonic Books and Little Learners Love Literacy books all have paper-based games that can be scanned as pdfs and used this way, and there are digital versions of the LLLL books. I use the iPad or iPhone app Make Dice held up to the camera for dice games, as I’m rubbish at online dice (all tips gratefully received). Make Dice can also replace the spinner for the Phonic Books Spin, Read and Spell games.

9. Kahoot!

I’m sad to say that I’ve only recently figured out that Kahoot! can motivate many kids to do quite a lot of reading. The best music teacher in the world (hi Roz!) told me it had revolutionised her lessons. Kids are often familiar with it from school, and think it’s fun and cool. We’re writing some downloadable quizzes now which should be easy to turn into Kahoot!s.

10. Jamboard

Google’s Jamboard is another useful tool I wish I’d discovered earlier. It’s like an online whiteboard with colourful post-it notes, from which I’ve made simplified versions of my moveable alphabet for word-building sequences, e.g. here the learner would be asked to change “stitch” into “switch”:

Kids tend not to stretch or rotate the tiles the way they have in other formats I’ve tried using for this activity. Jamboard is also a quick way to create neat word sorting activities:

I get words for these sorts from my website’s sorted-by-sound lists (for same-sound-different-spellings activities) or sorted-by-spelling lists (for same-spelling-different sounds activities).

I hope you found some useful information in all that, especially if you’re still working online too. Pretty please leave any great ideas you have to share in the comments.

Don’t waste school PA time on syllables and rhyme

Our education system seems to be abuzz with discussion of the importance of phonological awareness, which is excellent. Most difficulties with reading and spelling English words can be traced back to poor awareness of the sounds in words.

However, I’m worrying that valuable lesson time is being wasted teaching school-aged children awareness of large, salient phonological features like syllables and rhyme, instead of focussing on individual phonemes, the smaller, harder-to-discern sound units represented in our writing system.

Various versions of the above phonological awareness continuum diagram, minus the circles I’ve added, have been floating around our education system for years, and probably helped foster the common misconception that awareness of syllables and rhyme are prerequisites for developing phonemic awareness. Yes, preschool rhyming skills tend to correlate pretty well with later reading skill, but correlation is not causation.

The Reading League in the US last year published a review of current research on phonemic awareness and phonics by University of Rhode Island Emeritus Prof Susan Brady, which concludes it’s not necessary to devote time and effort to fostering awareness of syllables and rhyme/onset-rime before children can acquire phonemic awareness. You can read the long version here, or a briefer version in their journal. Prof Brady uses the term “phonological sensitivity” for larger-chunks phonological awareness (everything except phonemic awareness).

Phonological sensitivity is evident across cultures, and acts as a mnemonic

Prof Brady writes that, “In cultures not having the benefits of literacy, phonological sensitivity skills have been documented, but not full awareness of phonemes, even by adulthood” (p6, and she refers to this old but interesting study, I guess there now aren’t many non-literate cultures available to study).

Ancient poems, chants and songs from predominantly oral traditions often have strong metrical structure, rhyme and/or alliteration. These are still features of poetry and song around the world, though admittedly my research on this has only been via travel, our excellent local Boite World Music events, WOMADelaide, and reading internet articles with titles like “9 Countries Whose Traditional Forms of Poetry You Didn’t Know About”.

As well as being integral to art forms, these phonological features make information easier to remember and transmit verbatim. The Iliad might have been lost to an ancient game of Biddelonian Whispers without its strict metrical structure. Beowulf might have drifted and dissolved into diverse dreadful dramas, and I doubt we’d remember the words of our favourite songs so exactly if they were written in free verse.

Phonemes are more difficult to discern, but are also powerful mnemonics

Phonemes are invisible and transient, and blur together when we speak in a process called coarticulation, making them hard to separate out. There’s no reason to be aware of phonemes unless you’re learning an alphabetic writing system.

Dr Linnea Ehri chaired the US National Reading Panel’s investigation of phonological awareness 20 years ago, and has been a leading researcher on phonemic awareness since then. I love her analogy of the phonemes in spoken words holding the “glue” needed to hold written words in memory. When children become aware of phonemes, they activate the glue. You can hear Dr Ehri talk about this from the 60 minute mark of this Reading League podcast, I’m sure you’ll then want to listen to the whole thing.

Dr Ehri explains that teaching children to say words slowly, listening for their sounds, and thinking about their mouth movements, builds phonemic awareness. It’s highly effective to use letters to represent sounds in phonemic awareness activities, as this makes the relevance/purpose of the activity clear and transferable, but representing sounds with tokens (buttons, shells, gemstones, banana chips, whatever) is also effective, for example with children who don’t yet know letters. Dr Ehri doesn’t talk about handwriting in this podcast, but I’m sure she would agree that saying words’ sounds while writing their spellings is also a powerful word-glue-activating activity.

This phonemic awareness continuum is seriously underspecified

If you look at the phonemic awareness steps in a typical phonological awareness continuum diagram, they’re not very informative. For a start, there aren’t many of them for such a complex and difficult process. Blending usually appears before segmenting, though these are reciprocal processes, and should be taught and learnt as such.

There’s also no useful detail on word types, though it’s obviously easier to blend and segment a word with three sounds, like ‘cat’, than it is to blend and segment a word with seven sounds, like ‘scripts’. It’s easier to delete or manipulate a single initial phoneme, like the ‘c’ in ‘cat’, than it is to delete or manipulate the ‘c’ in ‘scripts’. I’d also expect the average six-year-old to find it harder to blend/segment the word ‘scripts’ than to delete/manipulate the first sound in ‘cat’, so deletion/substitution aren’t always the hardest phonemic awareness activities. It all depends on phoneme identity, order and number.

If we represent vowels with V and consonants with C, then list all the possible combinations of these in single syllable words in English, putting example words in brackets, the list goes something like this: V (eye/I), VC (up), CV (go), CVC (hot), VCC (elf), CCV (stay), CVCC (help), CCVC (stop), CCVCC (crust), VCCC (ends), CCCV (spree), CVCCC (tents), CCCVC (strayed), CCVCCC (frosts), CCCVCC (splint), CCCVCCC (sprints) and CVCCCC (texts). These should be represented on the phonemic awareness continuum.

In general, it’s easiest to discern the first sound in a word, then the last sound, and then sounds that are in the middle. Internal consonants are especially hard to discern, which is why young children often write ‘stop’ without the ‘t’ and ‘help’ without the ‘l’. They blur into the sounds around them and get a bit lost. Sound type can also make a difference, for example the sounds /r/ and /l/ have vowel-like qualities, so sometimes children consider them part of the vowel.

I’d like to propose the above as an interim replacement for the less-helpful phonological awareness continuum diagrams currently floating around our education system. I’m sure people smarter than me (perhaps you?) can and will improve on it.

Nothing against syllables and rhyme for preschoolers, in fact I am planning to enjoy lots of them with my three preschool neighbours when our COVID Lockdown 6.0 finally lifts. But school-aged children need to activate their remembering-written-words glue by focussing on phonemes.

Phonics With Feeling books are now in the Spelfabet shop

Six sets of the delightful, affordable, download-and-print Phonics With Feeling decodable books by Gaia Dovey are now available from the Spelfabet shop.

You can download and print a free sample book here. It’s about the ups and downs of siblings and pets, sharing and drawing boundaries, and solving problems. One boy I know got to this page…

….and exclaimed, “That’s just like my sister! She always wants to do my things, and it’s very annoying!” He was hooked. The cute illustrations add emotion and humour to the story. Some children might enjoy colouring them in.

Each set of books has a parent/aide edition (print up to 5 copies @ 40c per print) and a teacher/clinician edition (print up to 30 copies @ 20c per print). Not as cheap as the free-till-the-end-of September Little Learners Love Literacy apps (so generous!), but an affordable way to get multiple copies of printed decodable books.

These books are intended to complement, not replace, existing decodable readers. They aren’t for absolute beginners. The Initial Code Review set is intended for children towards the end of their first year of schooling or in Year 1. The Extended Code sets are intended for children in Years 1 and 2. Depending on the child, any of these books can be used with a slightly older learner who needs graphemes introduced at a fairly gentle pace, and heaps of practice. There’s only so many times you can read the same book.

These books have a higher word count than the typical decodable book, so are perfect for consolidation/fluency work. I imagine they’d also be great for extension work for children who can easily read the shorter, simpler books that are at the right level for most of their classmates, but haven’t yet been taught more complex spellings.

The author of these books has a PhD in literature, taught English language and literature, worked in teacher preparation, and originally wrote the books for her grandchildren. It shows. They aim to provide both reading success, and the pleasure and emotional engagement which motivates children to read. Their extra length allows for cohesive narratives, entertaining plots, engaging characters and themes worth talking about.

The Phonics With Feeling books originally had their own website, but it was too much hassle to run (if you’ve ever run a website, you’ll know what I mean). I nearly cried when they disappeared, and contacted the author to find out why. I’m already dealing with the hassle of a website, and she’s really nice, so we decided to join forces.

Only the first six of an eventual eleven sets of books are available now. The rest are on their way. The original books are being reorganised to match the teaching sequence in the Spelfabet version 3 workbooks and other materials, and a few extras are being written and illustrated.

Each set of books is downloaded as a pdf file, which you save to your computer, then print with (preferably) coloured covers. We’re using 220 gsm coloured cardboard for covers, printing the covers first, via the rear feed of the printer. Then we print the rest of the book on A4 paper on the “flip on short edge” setting, then assemble, fold and staple the books with our special book-stapling stapler (probably not its real name).

I hope you like these books as much as I do, and that they make many children excitedly shout things like, “That’s just like my little sister/brother!” while getting enough practice of major spelling patterns to become skilled and enthusiastic readers.

PS on 15/9/21: I’ve started making Wordwall quizzes as follow-up activities for these books, which can be played online for free, but you might need a subscription to access the printable version. The top of the first printable quiz looks like this:

New low-frequency word spelling test

I’ve just finished the new version of the free Spelfabet low frequency word spelling test. Click here to download the file and save it to your computer for printing.

It contains 182 words in five levels, and follows the same teaching sequence as the version 3 Spelfabet workbooks. I hope it’s helpful in deciding where to start in these books, or just in identifying the spelling patterns your learners know, and which need attention.

So you can try the test on yourself first, I’ve filmed myself administering it from the wintry depths of Melbourne’s Lockdown 6.0 (yes, I am masking up and fully AZ vaccinated, the vaccine to get is the one you can get). You just need paper and a pen or pencil for this test, and each level takes between 5 and 15 minutes. Check your answers against the download, or with any walking dictionaries you know, perhaps you’re one.

Please don’t ask kids to do all five levels at once, just start with the level you think they can manage, or Level 1 if they’re in their first year of schooling, Level 2 if they are in their 2nd year and Level 3 if they’re in later primary school years. By mid-primary school most children should be able to have a decent crack at most of these words.

Level 1: 12 minutes

Level 2: 11 minutes. As you can see, my camera’s zoom lens has a mind of its own.

Level 3: 15 minutes (sorry, a bit long, I know)

Level 4: just over 4 minutes (phew!)

Level 5: 10 minutes

If you use the program Sounds-Write and/or the Phonic Books, the teaching sequence in this test is probably familiar. It matches the Dandelion readers Units 1-20, but with extra emphasis on word-building/prefixees/suffixes, then the Dandelion Split Vowel Spellings books (but with more ‘short/long vowels’ and prefix/suffix work and a few extra spellings), then the first set of Extended Code books (one vowel digraph at a time), then the Moon Dogs 3: Vowels sequence (revising one vowel digraph and adding a new one). I’m still working on the later levels, and will add these to the test over time.

The printed test is set out in columns with the target sound/spelling at the left, then the word, then a definition and then an example sentence. The last three levels also include words with analogous spellings e.g. for newly-minted it-word ‘rona‘, the analogy words might be ‘sofa’, ‘coma’ and ‘soda’. I won’t put any of the actual words on the test in this blog post, so they’re all fresh to you when/if you try it.

Please note that this test should not be used as a substitute for formal, standardised tests with norms, percentiles etc., though of course schools could gather data from it and work out their own local norms. It’s intended as an exploratory tool to shed light on what learners know about spelling, and help adults decide what to teach next.

I’d love to know what you think of this test, so please leave any feedback or suggestions in the comments.

New word-building sequences

I’ve just revised my word-building sequences for the Moveable Alphabet to match the Spelfabet Version 3 workbooks.

The first set is available free from here. It follows the same teaching sequence as the Sounds Write program and books and Phonic Books Units 1-10, since we now use them here a lot. I’m hoping these sequences will be easy for parents and aides to use.

You can also build these sequences with the Embedded Picture Mnemonics flashcards if working with very young children, click here for a video showing you how.

The second set of sequences is $2 from here and the third is $3 from here. You’ll need a set of suffixes to build the third set, which are included when you download them. The suffixes are now also part of the basic Moveable Alphabet (I haven’t revised the advanced version yet, so just add the free download to it if you like).

Here’s a screenshot from the second set:

Here’s a screenshot from the third set:

I’m working on Level 4 sequences now, and updating the example teaching sequence (red button) under the website Spelling Lists menu to reflect the new workbooks and sequences. Sorry this is a process not an event – I’ve had a bit of overwork, lockdown and family drama burnout, plus it’s midwinter here in Melbourne, brrr.

On the cheerful side, Reading Science action now seems to be going on everywhere I look. Here’s just some of the gobsmacking free and cheap online learning on the amazing internets:

The AUSPELD Talking Literacy series

The LDA weekly Wednesday webinars

The Reading League YouTube channel, podcast and online academy

Think Forward Educators online events

La Trobe University SOLAR Lab short courses

Sounds-Write Phonics 1-to-1 symposium

Lyn Stone’s YouTube channel and website

Jocelyn Seamer’s YouTube channel and website

Aren’t they all great?! As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

New Spelfabet workbooks and EOFY discount

I’ve finally finished five new download-and-print Spelfabet workbooks. These version 3 books better align with the Sounds-Write program and the Phonic Books myself and my colleagues are now often using, and with the Drop In Series books for older learners.

For a 20% discount on these and anything else in the Spelfabet shop, type the coupon code “EOFY 2021” at the checkout.

Many of our clients have memory, attention, language or other difficulties as well as learning difficulties, and struggle to make the transition from Sounds-Write’s Initial Code to the Extended Code, which requires them to learn several spellings of a new vowel sound at once.

We only see our clients weekly or fortnightly, so need lots of activities that are easy for parents to supervise at home. I thus wanted new workbooks to teach vowel spellings more gradually, with earlier, explicit teaching about morphemes and work on polysyllabic words, and reviewing prior learning in lots of sentence-writing with punctuation (having read The Writing Revolution).

I’ll be talking about meeting the needs of clients like these at the free online Sounds-Write 1:1 Symposium on May 23-28. The lineup is amazing, it’s hard to know where to start, don’t miss it!

I’ve made videos about each new workbook, in which I hope you enjoy my fire-engine red fingernails (covering ugly nail bruise from dropping a chookhouse paving stone on my finger, yeow). There are also detailed descriptions of each book in the website shop, but essentially their contents are:

Level 1: Words with checked (‘short’) vowels from CVC to CCVCC and CCCVCC (C=consonant, V=Vowel)

Level 2: Consonant digraphs, basic suffixes, and up to three-syllable words with varied stress

Level 3: “Long/short” vowel contrasts, “soft” c and g, extra suffixes and some prefixes

Level 4: Seven extra vowel sounds, four extra vowel spellings, and more practice of patterns introduced in earlier books.

Level 5: 14 extra vowel spellings and more practice of previous patterns.

Like the previous workbooks, Version 3 has a parent/aide edition and a slightly more expensive teacher/clinician edition, the only difference being that you can print more copies of the teacher/clinician file. File pictures are in colour, but you don’t have to colour print them. Most of the pictures in the workbooks are PCS, a trademark of Tobii-Dynavox LLC, all rights reserved, used with permission.

The old Version 2 workbooks and kits are still in my website shop in the “old versions” folder, if you still want one, or haven’t finished downloading ones you’ve bought. Sorry that I’ve only been able to finish half the workbooks for Version 3, I’m working on more now, but life is busy!

Hope you and yours are all staying virus-free (I’ve had my first vaccine), and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the new workbooks.