Phonics and morphology go together

Years ago I gave a talk about spelling for Learning Difficulties Australia, focussing on how phonemes (speech sounds) are represented by graphemes (the spellings of these sounds).

At question time, someone asked me whether morphemes matter for spelling. Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in language. Short words (e.g. cat, red, help) often contain only one morpheme, but longer words (e.g. catflap, reddish, unhelpfulness) usually contain more than one meaningful part (e.g. cat + flap, red + ish, un + help + ful + ness). Continue reading

Teaching vowel spellings with a moveable alphabet

Late last year we made some videos with the help of a couple of amazing kids. Heroic Harrison, then aged four, has already starred in a couple of blog posts about early literacy apps and Embedded Picture Mnemonics.

His sister Amazing Amelie, then aged seven, here helps me demonstrate an approach I use to teach about vowel spellings with the Spelfabet moveable alphabet. Sorry it’s taken me so long to put this video up, was already snowed under before we had to switch to online therapy.

You don’t have to use my download-and-print moveable alphabet for this activity if you have a similar one, including an online one, or prefer to make your own. You can also devise your own teaching sequences, or try my Level 3 sequences. If getting anything from my shop before 30 June 2020, don’t forget to use the COVID-19 coupon code to get 30% off.

Thanks to Amelie for her amazing help, and to Caitlin Stephenson for organising this.

Why is the Vic Ed Dept promoting a Fountas and Pinnell assessment?

Last year, Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said the Education Department did not promote or endorse specific programs, and schools were best-placed to make these decisions.

This year, the Victorian Education Department is inviting schools in the North-East region to apply for up to $2000 to be spent on either Fountas and Pinnell or PAT Reading assessments, or a choice of three maths assessments:

The extra funds and emphasis on data-driven instructional decision-making are welcome, but not if they help teachers gather data on how well children can memorise and guess words, or identify children who are struggling with reading comprehension, without clarifying why (decoding? language comprehension? both?).

I’m no expert on mainstream educational assessments for typically-developing older students, but literacy assessments for beginners and strugglers (such as the ones listed here) should assess the skills that matter most for learning to read and spell.

These include phonemic awareness and letter knowledge in beginners, and phonological memory, rapid automatised naming, word and pseudoword reading and spelling in strugglers. These assessments can identify word-level reading/dyslexia-type difficulties, and thus powerfully inform effective instructional decision-making.

Children who seem to have oral language comprehension problems, which also affect reading comprehension, should be referred to a speech pathologist. Children whose comprehension problems arise from pedagogy that prioritises form over content need their teachers to read The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler.

I have only once administered a Fountas and Pinnell assessment, and it left me scratching my head. I just don’t get the whole balanced literacy/guided reading headspace, which has its roots in the now-debunked idea that reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game.

You might already have watched the US Reading League video of psychologist Steve Dykstra unpacking the statistics in the “gold standard” study on Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention program, showing the program was ineffective, though since most teachers don’t know how to read the statistics, they believe the marketing materials, and keep buying it. This doesn’t exactly build my confidence in the validity or reliability of Fountas and Pinnell assessments.

On the assessment page of the Fountas and Pinnell  website, you’ll see that the Benchmark Level Assessment assesses “students’ independent and instructional reading levels according to the F&P Text Level Gradient™“. The last time I looked, this gradient did not reflect the sequence of sounds, spelling patterns and word parts being taught in literacy lessons.

Fountas and Pinnell books for beginners are predictable/repetitive texts, which don’t simplify spelling patterns, and thus tend to encourage children to memorise and guess words, not decode them. I’d be (pleasantly) surprised if their assessments don’t reflect the same logic.

The PAT is the other reading test North-East region schools are currently allowed to buy with this new funding. The Australian Council for Educational Research sells the PAT tests, and its website says that the “Progressive Achievement Tests in Reading assess students’ reading comprehension skills, vocabulary knowledge and spelling”. It doesn’t say anything about word-level reading or phonemic awareness.

The PAT Reading test might be just what schools in the North-East region most need right now, but it might not be. Schools teaching children phonemic awareness and systematic, explicit phonics, and with a strong Response To Intervention approach, are very likely to need other assessments to document the progress of some students, for good, scientifically-based reasons.

Education Minister James Merlino should clarify that he meant what he said last year, and let schools propose other valid, reliable assessments for purchase with this additional funding. Taxpayers’ money should only be spent on valid, reliable assessments that are consistent with current scientific knowledge about how children learn to read and spell.

More phonics playing cards

We have a new set of download-and-print decks of phonics playing cards, this time targeting more advanced spelling patterns. The cards are still child-sized (5 X 6.5cm) with words facing both up and down, making them easy to read from either side of a table.

The first few decks each target one sound (phoneme) spelt multiple ways:

Continue reading

New moveable alphabet word sequences

I’ve just written 30 pages of new word sequences/word chains for learners to build using my moveable alphabet. These cover the sound-spelling relationships that lend themselves to this type of word-building from my Workbook 3.

They cost $1.40 now everything in the Spelfabet shop is 30% off (use the COVID-19 coupon code. Sorry I can’t make everything free).

Sequences/word chains like these build phonemic awareness and sound-spelling knowledge, and are especially useful with kids who find handwriting difficult. They are hard to make up on the fly without tripping over words that don’t follow the pattern you’re trying to target.

First you make a word using the moveable alphabet, read it aloud, and then ask your learner to change it into a different word. They must consider the identity, order and number of sounds in the words, work out how and where the words differ, and make the relevant spelling change.

Having ready-made sequences allows you to present this activity at a fast pace, get through a lot of words in a short time, and not inadvertently confuse anyone with too many patterns at once.

Many of the readers of this blog probably already use the earlier, free sequences, so these ones probably don’t need lots of further explanation. I’ll just put a snippet here of what they look like, to give you the idea:

If you are getting them, don’t forget to put in the code “COVID-19” to get the 30% discount.

These sequences took me absolutely ages to make, so I hope you like them, and please send me any feedback you have on them. Stay well!

30% discount on all Spelfabet materials

As part of the sector-wide effort to help parents teach their children at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, all phonemic awareness and phonics resources in the Spelfabet online shop are now 30% off.

These materials are digital downloads, so you don’t need to leave home to get them.  You just need a computer, internet, printer and paper/light card, plus a laminator is useful for some items. There’s lots of information in the shop about each item, usually including a video link.

Type “COVID-19” in the “Coupon” field at the online checkout to get the discount. This coupon will be valid till June 30th 2020. Sorry it’s not indefinite, and not everything is free, but like most people working in small businesses, we’re a little uncertain about the future, while counting our many blessings, like homes with space, internet access, food supplies and running water.

I’ve also made a new video for the website’s home page, to help parents get their heads around how children learn to read, and quickly show them some of our resources:

COVID-19 put all of us at Spelfabet on an near-vertical telehealth learning curve, but happily our online therapy sessions have been going well, and our clients are booking in for more.

In between online sessions, this week I’ll be catching up on reading and working on the website: refreshing information, adding more playing cards and videos, and otherwise trying to make the site as useful as possible throughout this difficult time.

If you have any suggestions of ways to make the Spelfabet site more useful to you, I’d be very happy to hear them.

Stay well and keep being a soapy hero!

Free download: My Reading and Word Journal

Here’s a free booklet for use in documenting early reading progress and giving credit where it’s due, now many parents with young children are home helping flatten the COVID-19 curve.

Download and print our new Spelfabet My Reading and Word Journal on A4 paper, fold and staple it, and use it to document children’s reading, in two vital categories:

1. Books your child reads. These should mainly contain the spelling patterns they’ve been taught (decodable books, there are quite a few free or heavily discounted ones available now). Reading such books builds word identification skills, which in turn build reading fluency.

2. Books you read aloud to your child. These might be stories, books about animals, places, the universe, anything that interests your child but is currently too hard for them to read themselves. This type of reading builds vocabulary and comprehension, and shows kids that reading is awesome. Continue reading