Category Archives: blending and segmenting

The Phonics Patch on ABC iView

Someone recently asked me why I’m not a fan of the phonics English mini-lessons on ABC iView. They seem to me to demonstrate what American Public Media journalist Emily Hanford calls “The Phonics Patch”. Rather than designing a literacy-beginners curriculum to systematically and explicitly teach sound-letter relationships to automaticity, a Whole Language/meaning-first teaching approach is supplemented with a few phonics activities, and rebadged as Balanced Literacy.

Title and learning intention

The title of ABC iView’s mini-lesson 16 (you’ll find it here if you scroll down: https://iview.abc.net.au/show/mini-lessons-english) is “Decoding words by segmenting individual sounds”. But segmenting is what we do to spoken words, in order to spell them. When you’re decoding, you start from written words, and must figure out the sounds and blend (not segment) them. So the title doesn’t really make sense.

The stated learning intention is to break words into individual sounds to read them. This makes about as much sense as the title. Is the learning intention talking about spoken words, or written words? It’s hard to know.

This is a systemic problem

The teacher in the video seems like a nice woman whose students probably adore her, and who teaches phonics in the way that many teachers have been taught to teach it. Typical initial teacher education courses focus on language meaning and don’t teach teachers much about the language structure which is the basis of our writing system (sounds, spelling patterns, meaningful word parts), so unless teachers learn this during a placement at a school with strong phonics teaching, or do inservice training after graduation, it’s hard for the typical teacher to teach phonics well.

This problem is systemic, and both teachers and students are being badly let down by the system. So please don’t interpret any of the following as personal criticism of the lovely, otherwise-skilled teacher in the video, or teachers generally. As the good folk at the US Reading League say, when we know better, we do better.

There seems to be no phonics teaching sequence

The video introduces children to three important words: segmenting, blending and digraphs. But saying you’re going to teach “blending” is a bit like saying you’re going to teach “riding”. Riding what? A skateboard? A bicycle? A horse? Two-sound words like ‘in’, ‘up’ and ‘at’ are a lot easier to blend and segment than four or five sound words like “stop” or “slips”, and English syllables can have up to seven sounds.

Which digraphs will be taught? English has dozens, it’s not possible to teach them all at once. It’s hard to figure out where the teaching in this video might fit into a systematic phonics teaching sequence.

Precise sounds and precise language matter

The teacher in the video sits at a whiteboard with plastic letters and nice Elkonin boxes on it, but the very first sound she says is mispronounced. She says “PUH” not a crisp, voiceless /p/. When teachers say consonant sounds sloppily/with additional vowel sounds, they make blending difficult for young children, as instead of blending /p/, /i/, /g/ they are blending puh-i-guh. When the video’s teacher blends, she doesn’t actually blend phonemes (p-i-g), she blends onset and rhyme (p-ig).

The teacher says “a digraph is two letters that make one sound”. Young children are literal creatures, so some will think this is literally true, and wonder if they should sit closer to the letters so they can hear them making sounds. Digraphs are two letters that represent one sound. I sometimes simplify this by telling young kids that sounds are invisible so we can’t really draw them, so we use letters to draw them instead. Using more accurate language makes for fewer confused children.

The teacher says that the first sound in the word “the” is voiceless /th/, which it isn’t. “The” starts with voiced /th/. I’m starting to wonder if this teacher has been taught what all the phonemes in our dialect of English are. Also, if this lesson is introducing the concept of digraphs, probably “th” (whether pronounced as in “then” or “thin”) is not the best one to start with, as lots of five-year-olds can’t say these sounds yet, or hear the difference between them and /f/ and /v/. That’s why they cutely say things like “Fank you” and “Can you help me wif vis?”.

How to spoil storytime

The next section of the video I found frankly bizarre. The teacher starts fluently reading a fun story book which contains two and three-syllable words, vowel digraphs and trigraphs, doubled consonants, contractions and other words that are hard for beginners. Then she randomly stops, just as the story is getting going, and pretends not to be able to read the word ‘stop’. She says “I’m stuck on a word. I’m going to segment (??) out the sounds, /s/, /t/, /o/, /p/, blend it together /st/, /op/, stop! Back up and reread…” and then she goes back to reading the story.

It turns out this teacher can fluently read almost all the words in the book, including the following quite hard words: believe, reason, simple, lose, quivering, loudly, Trevor, reply, ain’t, supper, faster, race, face, gobbled, biscuits, kibble, sausages, whoppers, munched, gnashing, choppers, swallowed, minute, something, know, guess, stuffing, notice, lucky, squeezed, tantrums, ceased, sometimes. She doesn’t notice that she misreads “wolfed” as “waffled”.

She pretends to get stuck on three more words, which she laboriously sounds out: stamp, thank, bin. These words are much easier than the many hard words she reads with ease. If any actual child read the way she does, they’d be a scientific curiosity. Is she trying to teach children that we only sound out easy words, and the hard ones you just have to know somehow? I counted 435 words in the story, and the teacher sounded out four of them. Is she trying to teach children that sounding-out is a relevant strategy for fewer than 1% of words?

If you like, you can try this embedded phonics strategy yourself next time you’re reading a lovely story to a young child. I very dare you. You’ll find that even polite, placid children will soon be giving you the “can you cut that out and just read the story?” evil eye. Highly recommended, if your jam is annoying kiddies and spoiling storytime.

If you’re teaching kids to blend sounds, then blend sounds (not bigger chunks)

Back at the whiteboard post-story, the teacher says we’re going to practise segmenting and blending, and to “get your mouth ready” (which is my suggestion for the subtitle of the Phonics Patch Movie, what does it even mean?). She says /p/ and most other sounds correctly this time (yay), but the words she’s chosen to study from the story are a mixture of levels of difficulty. Where C= consonant and V= vowel, they are a CVC, a CCVC, and two CVCC words, one of which includes a digraph. So if the kids can only manage three-sound words, the last three words are too hard, and if the kids can do four sound words, the first one is too easy. The digraph in the last word is a new one (ch), though children have had no chance yet to practice the first digraph she taught.

When the teacher blends the four-sound words, she does it by saying the onset then the rime, not by blending the individual sounds, i.e. she’s not blending /s/, /t/, /o/, /p/, she’s blending /st/ and /op/. She blends “best” as /b/, /est/ and “champ” as /ch/, /amp/. For kids with poor phonemic awareness, this will be mighty confusing. Where did “op” and “est” and “amp” come from? They weren’t the sounds she said.

A puppet sequence at the end of the video has the teacher saying individual sounds to read words, but then blending onsets and rimes, or for the word “munch” she says /m/, /un/, /ch/, but then having blended the /n/ with the vowel, she segments it out again to get “much”, and has to self-correct. At the end of this sequence we have yet another new digraph, “sh”, again before kids have had a chance to practise the ones taught earlier.

……

Will any five-year-olds learn how to blend or segment from watching this video? Will they be able to read or spell more words, including perhaps words with digraphs? Highly unlikely.

That might not matter to you if you’re used to teaching early reading via multicueing, repetitive texts, and rote-memorisation of high-frequency wordlists with an occasional phonics patch, or if you think getting 85% of children reading well enough is something to celebrate, as a PETAA spokesperson recently said. Or if you have no knowledge or experience of really powerful, effective phonics teaching.

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.

Top early literacy apps 2020

Most young children are already using apps on phones or tablets, at least occasionally. Whatever you think of kids’ screen time, we want it to be quality time. There is some evidence that interactive apps support early academic development, but finding quality early literacy apps can be difficult and time-consuming. Lots of what’s available is (IMHO) simply rubbish.

It’s helpful to read adult reviews of apps for children, but a lot of online information is available about them already, and to REALLY road-test an app, I like to watch a young child using it. My colleague Caitlin Stephenson and I have thus filmed Harrison (aged 4, nearly 5) trying out some of my favourite early phonemic awareness and phonics iPad apps for young children.

The resulting video is below. We hope it gives you a taste of how each app works, to help you decide whether it would suit the small person/people in your life. The video is 16 minutes long, and the apps tried are listed below (numbers in brackets are start times on the video clock):

The only tablet I have is an iPad, but some of these apps are available for other platforms. Many also work on iPhones. If you’re not in Australia, please note that my app store links are all to the Australian store, so you’ll have to search your local store for apps that take your fancy.

I’m not quoting prices here because they often change, and things that I’ve said are free suddenly aren’t, while things I’ve said are expensive drop in price. Also, some apps have hundreds of activities, while some have only one/a few, so it’s like comparing apples and banquets. I’ve decided to leave the value-for-money question up to you.

Other early literacy iPad apps IMHO worth considering for young children include:

Beginners’ decodable books allow children to practice phonics skills by reading stories  containing simplified spelling patterns, and some of these are also available as apps:

Apologies to all the people who make good apps of which I’m not aware. I’d love to hear about them, and wish I had more time to search for and try them.

I hope this blog post helps you find apps that the small people in your life enjoy, and which help them develop great early literacy skills.

School holiday groups

Here in Melbourne’s inner north, we will have some phonemic awareness and phonics/spelling small groups running in the first week of October 2019 (our second week of school holidays). The groups will be for children in their first three years of school.

The sessions will be held at the Spelfabet office in North Fitzroy (Suite 3, 430 Rae St), and will be run by Tessa Weadman, Speech Pathologist. She is highly skilled and very smiley and nice, here she is:

Each group will have three one-hour sessions on Wednesday 2nd, Thursday 3rd and Friday 4th October (the days Tessa works). Children will be expected to attend all three sessions. Each group will include a maximum of three children, so they will be quite intensive. The cost of the groups will be $270 per child for the three days.

Times will be as follows:

  • 9:00am-10:00am targeting Foundation/Prep children who are struggling to blend and segment and thus can’t reliably read or spell even little words with two or three sounds and simple spellings like “at”, “fun” and “hop”.
  • 10.30am-11.30am targeting Grade 1 or 2 children who can blend and segment a little, and read and spell some two and three-sound words like “at”, “fun” and “hop”, but struggle with longer words and words with harder spellings.

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

If these groups fill up, Tessa or other Spelfabet staff may be able run more, either in the afternoon of the same week or the first week of the school holidays. We are also now planning groups for the January 2020 school holidays.

Please email Tessa on tessa.weadman@spelfabet.com.au if you would like to find out more about any of these holiday groups and/or express interest in bringing a child to one of them.

Ros Neilson on the Foundations of Early Literacy Assessment (FELA)

Last month at our office we had the pleasure of hosting Speech Pathology legend Roslyn Neilson for a talk about her newish early literacy assessment, the FELA.

The FELA is intended to supersede two of Ros’s previous tests, the SPAT-R and SEAPART, and help teachers, therapists and others assess phonemic awareness and alphabetic knowledge, which are vital, teachable early literacy skills.

The FELA can be used in preschool screening as well as progress monitoring through the early years of primary school.

On the day, we decided to video the session, as we could only fit 30 people into our biggest room (which Ros scarily called a Conference Centre), and had to turn a few people away, plus many other interested people were too far off or too busy to come.

Here’s the video, with my apologies that it’s blurry at the start and there is a short break and you might need to turn up the volume towards the end (camera malfunction). Ros’s slides can be downloaded here.

Thanks so much to Ros for freely sharing her time and expertise so generously, and for the chocolates, which we are still enjoying. The FELA is available from Ros’s website, takes up to 30 minutes per child and I think is very reasonably priced at $198 inc GST. If you’d like to take a look at it and you’re in Melbourne, Ros has left us a copy, and you’d be welcome to browse it.

Thanks also to fab Spelfabet staff Renee Vlahos, Caitlin Stephenson and Tessa Weadman (yes, I am going to put them on the website soon) for their help, and to my brother for the huge bag of apples that got me making easy, delicious apple cake (here’s the recipe, but I microwaved and drained the apples, and beat the eggs). After I bought my Goodwill Wine I found out they raise funds for Code Read Dyslexia Network. Please consider when next ordering wine.

My brother just gave me ANOTHER huge bag of apples, so maybe that means I should invite another speaker. Ros is a pretty hard act to follow, but let me know if you have ideas/suggestions.

Shallow and deep phonics

My last blog post copped a little flak for its focus on the Victorian Education Department’s top two pieces of advice for parents when their children are stuck reading a word, both of which start with the sentence, “Look at the picture.” (see p14 of this document).

This is very bad advice because it directs children’s attention away from the key information required for good word-level reading. It’s based on the idea of multi-cueing/the three-cueing system, which is scientifically-debunked nonsense. A complex but excellent explanation of why can be found here, and the actual role of context in reading is explained well here.

To read an unfamiliar word, children need to take it apart into spellings (graphemes) e.g. “n”, “igh” and “t”, not “ni”, “g” and “ht”, associate these with the relevant speech sounds (phonemes) and blend them into a word. With practice, familiar words are unitised in memory, via a process called orthographic mapping, and no longer need to be sounded out, they become instantly recognised.

Unfamiliar words of more than one syllable must be sounded out a syllable at a time. Earlier syllables must be held in memory while later syllables are worked out, making long words harder.

Once a printed word is converted into a spoken word, its meaning can be accessed, if it’s known. But even if a child doesn’t yet know what a word means (i.e. it’s not yet in their semantic memory), having heard it before (i.e. having it in their phonological memory) kick-starts the process of putting it into long-term memory for instant recognition. Over time the child can learn and refine its meaning(s), and how to use it, by hearing and seeing it in use. Continue reading

Free early phonemic awareness, phonics and handwriting workbook

Last week, I read my state education department’s booklet advising parents on how to help children with literacy and numeracy. I understand it will be in the Prep bags given to all Victorian children starting school in 2019.

I was, frankly, appalled. The booklet mentions phonics only once, saying onscreen phonics games improve reading and “letter sound awareness”, whatever that is. It doesn’t mention phonemic awareness or handwriting at all.

A ton of scientific research has shown that phonemic awareness and phonics are key ingredients in getting literacy beginners off to a good start, along with work on vocabulary, comprehension and fluency, and that writing letters helps you remember them. Continue reading