January 2021 holiday groups

In the week of January 11-15 2021 we will be running some phonemic awareness and phonics/spelling small groups at the Spelfabet office in North Fitzroy. The groups are for struggling readers/spellers who will be going into Grade 1 or 2 next year.

The groups will be staffed by Speech Pathologists Tessa Weadman, Adrianna Galioto (pictured above, though you can’t really see how smiley and nice they are under their masks) and myself, Alison Clarke.

We’re all trained in the program Sounds-Write and will use it in the groups, as well as playing some phonemic awareness/phonics games. We’ll provide home readers and about 30 minutes of homework each day, leaving plenty of time for swimming and other holiday fun.

Each group will run for an hour, with a maximum of three children per Speech Pathologist, which means each child will receive five hours of intensive intervention. The cost will be $450 per child for the week of sessions. Many private health insurance companies provide rebates for group therapy.

The sessions will run as follows:

  • 9:00am-10:00am targeting children who have done a year of schooling, but are still struggling to blend and segment and thus can’t reliably read or spell words with two or three sounds and simple spellings like “at”, “fun” and “hop”.
  • 11.00-12.00pm targeting children going into Grade 1 or 2 who can blend and segment a little, and reliably read and spell two and three-sound words like “at”, “fun” and “hop”, but struggle with words with four or five sounds like “jump”, “stop” and “frog”.
  • 1: 00- 2: 00pm targeting children going into Grade 1 or 2 who can can read and spell words containing four or five sounds, but struggle with words containing consonant digraphs like “sh”, “ch”, “th”, “ck” and “ng”.

Children who are not already on our caseload will need to come in for an initial assessment ($190) first, so that we can be sure they are a good fit for one of the groups.

We hope our state’s COVID-19 double doughnut days (no new cases, no deaths) continue through January, and that our groups will be a fun way to boost struggling learners’ skills before they go back to school. We will always comply with Speech Pathology Australia COVID-19 safe guidelines.

Please contact our excellent office coordinator, Renee Vlahos on 03 8528 0138 or renee.vlahos@spelfabet.com.au if you’d like more information, or to express interest in enrolling a child in one of the groups. Renee goes on leave on 18/12/20, so if you’d like to check whether group places are still available after that please email info@spelfabet.com.au.

Phonics stocking stuffer

It’s the first day of summer here in Melbourne, after a long, hard year of lockdown. We’ve been mostly working online since March, which was quite a learning curve, so I’ve had almost no energy for blogging or the website (sorry). We’ve now had no new COVID-19 cases for a month (hooray! it can be done!) so are cautiously looking forward to the silly season.

If you’d like a simple, inexpensive phonics game as an end-of-year school activity or Christmas stocking stuffer, you might like my new printed (no laminating or cutting up required!) word-building card game. Lots of kids didn’t learn very well this year thanks to COVID-19, but we’re all pretty weary, so it seems like a good time to build skills and knowledge through games.

Here’s a 90-second video about the game:

Children who only know one sound for each letter of the alphabet will need adult help with the sounds for the consonant digraphs and trigraphs in this game (sh, ch, th, wh, ll, ss, ck, ng, tch, dge), but children who know these spellings can play more independently.

If a child builds a word they don’t know, you might like to tell them what it means and put it in a sentence or two, to build their vocabulary, or just skip over it if it’s not a common word.

Older/more advanced learners can put up to three adjacent consonants in their first words (e.g. bench, truck, splint and strengths), which are then much harder for their opponent to change. Knowing the consonant combinations used in English syllables helps with spelling and reading.

The game – 52 child-sized cards and 2 instruction cards in a box – costs $12 including GST from our online shop, plus $9.20 for packing and postage to anywhere in Australia, or you can click-and-collect from our office in North Fitzroy. Please ring first (03 8528 0138) to make sure our reception will be staffed when you visit, and it won’t be waiting room Peak Minute.

Sorry we can’t currently ship this game overseas. The DSF online shop also sells this game, and may take overseas orders. You can also get this game from the lovely people at Childplay toy shop in Clifton Hill, where I never fail to find the best gifts for kids.

The download-and-print version of this game is also still available, either by itself or in a set of three games, but you have to provide the cardboard and colour printer, laminate it and cut it up, and the end result isn’t as robust or professional-looking.

An earlier version of this game contained spellings like ‘v’, ‘j’, ‘ff’ and ‘zz’ which aren’t in many words, so that version was a bit harder to play. These spellings have been replaced by more common ones in the new game, so it’s easier and more fun for beginners and strugglers. I’m hoping to be able to produce more printed resources in future, if these cards are a success.

Survey (with amazing prizes) of our local schools

Last year, some colleagues and I decided to start an Inner North Melbourne Early Language and Literacy Community of Practice (INMELLCoP), to bring together local teachers, speech pathologists, psychologists and others, build knowledge of language and literacy best practices, and share resources, ideas and experience.

Our inspiration was Pam Snow and colleagues’ Bendigo group, BELLCoP. We sought to complement not compete with Nathaniel Swain and colleagues’ inner Melbourne group MELLCoP, since renamed Think Forward Educators. Our focus is further north, on the Yarra, Darebin and Moreland local government areas.

We decided to gather some data to inform our work, by surveying local primary schools about how they currently teach reading and spelling, and offering a prize draw for those assisting. Then COVID-19 hit, and we had to focus on other priorities for a while.

Our survey is finally available, so if you work in a school in Moreland, Yarra or Darebin, please complete it before 30 October, by clicking on this link. It takes 5-10 minutes. We’ve also emailed information about the survey to relevant local schools.

We’re a bit astonished by the thousands of dollars worth of prizes we’re able to offer to those filling in our survey, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of Nessy, Dyslexia Victoria Support and Little Learners Love Literacy. The prizes are:

The survey closes at the end of this month and the prize draw will take place at the next INMELLCoP virtual meeting at 6.30pm on November 4th. This meeting will also consider the de-identified survey data, and how to respond to it in 2021.

If you’re a local and would like to attend the meeting, you can register here. We will send out the Zoom link on the day. I’ll put an INMELLCoP home page on my website soon, to publicise our news and schedule.

If you’re not in our area, maybe you’d like to start something similar? We’d love to hear about it if you do.

Have you signed the Primary Reading Pledge?

Learning Difficulties Australia, AUSPELD and the Five From Five project have together developed the Australian Primary Reading Pledge.

This seeks to reduce to near zero the number of children who finish primary school unable to read, by providing schools with an evidence-based, easy-to-implement framework for reading assessment and intervention.

Children attend primary school for seven years full-time, yet this year over 50,000 Australian students started secondary school with low literacy skills. This is not a surprise – about the same number of kids were struggling in Year 5 NAPLAN in 2018, but our system lacks effective, systematic follow-up, so they continue to struggle.

It’s time to stop teaching the habits of weak readers in the early years (three-cueing, incidental phonics, memorising high-frequency wordlists, etc) and give teachers the professional development, resources and leadership they need to teach these kids more successfully, persisting for as long as it takes.

You can read the Primary Reading Pledge’s plan to achieve this here, and show your support here.

Dr Jennifer Buckingham of the Five From Five project presented a free webinar for LDA about the Primary Reading Pledge last month, which is still available to view on YouTube, if you’d like more details:

The negative consequences of reading failure for both individuals and society are massive, and with the right intervention there are very few people who can’t learn to read. This is ultimately a social justice issue – kids whose parents can’t afford private tutors or therapists should not be left to fall through the literacy cracks.

I hope you’ll join me in signing the Primary Reading Pledge, and encourage others to do likewise. The list of signatories to date is on the signup page (just scroll down), if you want to check who has already signed. Schools can also sign the Pledge, so please bring it to the attention of school leaders you know.

Telling the Spelfabet story

You might have seen the recent, excellent guest posts on La Trobe University academic Emina McLean’s blog by teachers, telling their stories about discovering the science of reading. If you haven’t read them, her blog is here, and the posts so far are:

Emina also writes about what research shows does and doesn’t work in getting people to change their minds and their practice, which is pretty consistent with one of my favourite YouTube videos:

Since stories are more powerful than facts, I’ve decided to have a go at communicating my Spelfabet story: realising a lot of my clients couldn’t read because they hadn’t been systematically and explicitly taught to decode/encode words, teaching them successfully and setting up my website to share this knowledge and related strategies, resources and research.

Instead of a blog post, I have made a nearly nine minute (yeek! Too long! But it’s hard to cut back) video, which is now on my website home page. I hope it helps encourage others to also share their stories and connect with each other in a No-Shame zone, realising that we’ve all made mistakes and missed opportunities, are all always doing our best, and that (as the good folk at the US Reading League say) when we know better, we do better. Here it is:

Thanks to Emina for her excellent, strategic insight (she might still be looking for guest posts if you have an inspiring story you’d like to tell!), her storytellers, and also to former colleague Nicole Erlich who bought me the book “The Influential Mind” a few years ago, and I didn’t pay as much attention to it as I should have (another mea maxima culpa, I’m not even a Catholic, sigh).

We’re still in COVID-19 Stage 4 lockdown here in Melbourne, but had only 14 new cases today (huzzah!) so fingers and toes crossed the end is in sight. Stay well!

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. Continue reading

Half-price phonics playing cards, for social, screen-free fun

Before we had Netflix or even TV, families and friends had lots of fun together playing cards. Playing cards were invented in China over a thousand years ago, and spread via Persia and the Middle East to Europe by about 1400 (learn about their fascinating history here).

A standard deck of playing cards can be used to play hundreds of different games, involving matching, trick-taking, shedding, catching/collecting, fishing, comparing, and much more. From Snap to Poker, there’s something for every age and ability level.

Card games can be used for high-repetition phonics practice by putting words containing a student’s phonics targets on the cards, and requiring each card’s word to be read when it is played. I like to play a game, ask the student(s) to spell a few of the words on the cards, and then have another game. This reinforces the idea that reading and spelling are reciprocal processes.

If you don’t have favourite childhood card games you can teach kids, we have some videos of how to play games we like, and there are heaps more here, or just put “playing card games for kids” into a search engine to find a cornucopia of games.

12 new phonics playing card decks

We’ve just put a new set of downloadable phonics playing cards in the Spelfabet shop, These decks fill some gaps in our previous decks – compound words, “soft” C and G, additional spellings of “short” vowel sounds – and then present additional consonant sounds with multiple spellings. Here’s what one card from each deck looks like:

All our playing cards are half price till 13 September, the earliest date Melbourne’s COVID-19 Stage 4 lockdown will be lifted (fingers crossed, 179 new cases yesterday). Lots of us need fun things to do till then.

The cards are child-sized (5 X 6.5cm), with words facing in two directions, so they’re easy to read from either side of a table. Their sequence broadly matches the Sounds-Write/Dandelion/Phonic Books/Forward With Phonics teaching sequence, but if you use a different phonics teaching sequence, you can reorganise them.

Playing Cards Index page

There are now 81 decks of phonics playing cards in the Spelfabet shop (14 are free). It’s hard to scan through them all, so we now have a Playing Cards index page linked to the main menu, to help you find the deck(s) you want and get the best value for money.

The page is organised in groups based on how hard the words are, apart from the last group, which is a bit of a mixture. For each group, only two decks are showing until you change the “Show 2 entries” drop-down menu to say “Show 25 entries”, to make all the decks (between 12 and 18 of them) visible.

Download, print and cut up your cards, and enjoy!

These playing cards are downloadable files (that’s why they’re free/so cheap), so it’s your job to colour-print them on light cardboard (packs of 200gsm A4 cardboard are available at major stationers, some of whom will print them on card for you), laminate them if you plan to use them a lot, and cut them up, perhaps while watching Netflix/TV, or get the kids to do it. If any get lost or wrecked, you can just print more.

Thanks as always to the fabulous Spelfabet team for their work on these, especially Caitlin Stephenson for the original idea, Renee Vlahos for layout/formatting, laminating and lots of patient cutting-up, and Tessa Weadman for game video appearances, and lately for cheering us up with her new puppy at Zlunch.