Category Archives: teaching strategies

Articulatory awareness and modelling a “spelling voice”

The older struggling spellers I work with often have one parent who is good at spelling, and one parent who isn’t. No prizes for guessing who inherited whose spelling-related genes.

The three of them often come to our first session. After we’ve done some assessment, we often have a conversation that goes something like this:

  • Me: ‘When you’re writing long words, you seem to be thinking a lot about what the words look like, but not much about what they sound like. You don’t seem to be pulling words apart and saying them the way they are spelt, to help yourself remember the tricky bits, like the “or” in “doctor” and the “oi” in “tortoise”.’
  • Student: ‘There’s no “oi” in “tortoise”‘.
  • Me: ‘Correct, not when we’re talking normally, but when we’re spelling long words we have to write them one syllable at a time, and if you say each syllable the way it is spelt, it helps you spell the word correctly. It’s also a great way to remember tricky words like “Wednesday” and “business”, you say them as “Wed-nes-day” and “bus-i-ness”.’
  • Parent 1: ‘Oh yeah, I always do that, I say Wed-nes-day and bus-i-ness, and Feb-ru-a-ry and “bea-u-ti-ful. I thought everyone did.’
  • Parent 2: ‘Really? I never do that.’
  • Parents: ‘Maybe that’s why only one of us can spell.’

“Cat”, “dog” and “phoneme” are abstract ideas

Everyone knows phonemic awareness helps spelling, but we tend to focus a lot on the auditory aspect of phonemic awareness, and not much on its articulatory or kinaesthetic aspect – feeling the sounds in our mouths.

Cats and dogs are all different, but with language and world experience children develop an abstract idea of what a cat is, and what a dog is, which allows them to differentiate these animals in the street (on the basis of size, shape, movement, sound etc, plus knowing that if it rolls its eyes and walks off, it’s a cat).

Likewise, actual productions of phonemes are all slightly different, and children need to develop an abstract idea of what a /p/ is, and what a /b/ is, in order to differentiate them when meeting them in the speech stream.

These abstract ideas are based on what /p/ and /b/ sound like (acoustic properties), and how they’re produced (articulatory properties). We start developing these abstract ideas when we’re babies, or we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the words “pea” and “bee”, but we don’t naturally develop conscious awareness of these individual sounds.

The easiest speech to slow down and feel is one’s own

When we start to learn to read and spell, we must become consciously aware of phonemes (i.e. develop phonemic awareness) in order to link them to the graphemes which represent them in our writing system. It helps to become conscious of not just how phonemes sound and look, but how they are produced in the mouth (see here and here for relevant research, and here for videos of my excellent niece saying each phoneme in Australian English).

Learners can’t easily slow down other people’s speech to make the individual sounds easier to discern. They can slow down their own speech, making it easier to identify each sound and feel how it’s produced, and see in a mirror, and decide whether it’s (figuratively speaking) canine, feline, leonine, vulpine or lupine (a great list of animal adjectives is here).

Many kids don’t like saying the sounds in words as they write their spellings. If I had $100 for every time I’ve said, “I can’t hear you” during a say-and-write spelling activity, I’d be richer than Croesus. The usual objection is that saying sounds while writing seems weird and/or babyish.

Kids can’t hear our internal speech

If we want kids to say words slowly, feel them in their mouths and think about their sounds when spelling them, it’s a good idea to model saying sounds/syllables/words as we write them ourselves. If kids see adults doing this routinely, they won’t think it’s babyish or weird.

Conversely, if adult behaviour makes skilled writing appear like a silent, visual task unrelated to speaking, many kids (and sadly some adults) will believe that’s what it is.

I’d like adults within earshot of young children to consciously and routinely sound out/say words as they write them: on the whiteboard, the shopping list, the calendar on the fridge, when filling out forms, wherever. The internal speech good spellers use when writing is not accessible to kids. We need to put it out where they can see, hear and imitate it.

Develop your “Spelling Voice”

The authors of the Sounds-Write program have the perfect term for this say-as-you-write behaviour, though they use it mainly in relation to spelling multi-syllable words: using your “Spelling Voice” (see p21 of this document).

If learners aren’t saying/hearing any sounds, how can they be linking sounds to letters/spellings? Saying words slowly while writing them should be expected and praised learner behaviour.

Once you know the main sound-letter relationships, you can use this knowledge to “over-pronounce” words with unstressed vowels (flow-ER, act-OR, coll-AR, murm-UR, del-I-cAtE, rest-AU-rant etc), in order to remember how they are spelt.

I like to tell students that using their Spelling Voice is a bit like talking like the Queen. The Queen would never dream of saying “choclit” like us plebs. She says “choc-o-late”. She pronounces things like the “t” in “often” and “soften”, and the “p” in “raspberry”.

Unlike my generation, lots of today’s kids have never heard the Queen speak, and the younger Royals’ speech is, sadly, less studiously posh. So maybe it’s better to tell kids that they should speak like a robot when spelling. After all, robots always pronounce the /i/ in “exterminate, exterminate” and the /i/, /o/ and /er/ in “philosopher”.

Another 12 decks of vowel-focussed playing cards

Just in time for our thank-goodness-winter-is-over school holidays, here’s a dozen more vowel-sound-focussed playing card decks, including two freebies, to download and print.

These decks are a little more advanced than the previous ones available here, here and here. They reflect the teaching sequence used in the Phonic Books Talisman 1/Rescue Series and the Sounds-Write program‘s Extended Code section and books, but can be used with other synthetic phonics teaching sequences and programs.

The decks work from sound to print, and focus on the following sound-spelling relationships:

  • /ay/ as in “mistake”, “contain”, “holiday”, “navy”, “obey” and “great”.
  • /ee/ as in “coffee”, “disease”, “secret”, “carry”, “believe”, “protein” and “compete”.
  • /oe/ as in “remote”, “roast”, “follow”, “hero” and “mangoes”.
  • /er/ as in “swerve”, “circle”, “burnt”, “search” and “worth”.
  • /ou/ as in “aloud” and “trowel”, and /oy/ as in “point” and “destroy”.
  • /oo/ as in “smooth”, “rule”, “true”, “fluid”, “jewel” and “group”.
  • /igh/ as in “delight”, “despite”, “crisis”, “apply” and “allies”.
  • /or/ as in “porch”, “before” and “drawn”.
  • /or/ as in “stall”, “chalk”, “brought”, “daughter”, “author” and “warm” (there were so many spellings of this sound they wouldn’t fit in a single deck).
  • /air/ as in “chair”, “declare”, “bear”, “where” and “their”.
  • /ar/ as in “charm”, “past”, “calm”, “heart” and “aunt”.
  • One deck of high-frequency words with a mixture of the above sound-spelling relationships (not available separately, but included to bring this set up to a dozen decks).

The decks can be downloaded individually (starting from the third item here) or as a discounted bundle of 12. We suggest printing the cards on A4 200gsm cardboard, available from major stationery shops, which can be used in most printers/photocopiers.

If you plan to use the cards a lot, we suggest laminating them, though this is not essential if you’d rather not add to the planetary plastic overload. We recommend that children be encouraged to practise their scissor skills by cutting them up, rounding the corners if a more professional look is sought.

All the decks can be used for any card game requiring a standard deck of cards, from very simple games of chance like War to complex strategic ones like Mancala.  See this previous blog post for videos of other suggested games.

We hope these cards give many children many hours of well-targeted, high-intensity repeated reading practice, cleverly disguised as fun. Thanks once again to Caitlin Stephenson for the original idea and design.

Four cheers for Emily Hanford

American Public Media journalist Emily Hanford has made some accessible, powerful and widely-discussed documentaries about the gap between reading science and classroom practice in the US. It’s a gap that also exists here in Australia, and elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

If you haven’t listened to her documentaries yet, please make the time to do so. You can click on the pictures below to access each one.

She started in September last year with this:

In October 2018, she followed up with this:

She also wrote a New York Times opinion piece entitled “Why are we still teaching reading the wrong way?”

My apologies to blog subscribers who missed these till now. I circulated them on social media but was too stupidly busy with my new office and sick mother to write a blog post about them.

In January this year, on National Public Radio, Emily made:

In March came this video interview called What Teachers Should Know About the Science of Reading:

Emily’s most recent, again brilliant contribution to aligning teaching with reading science in a pro-teacher, pro-equity way, is this:

I very dare you to get to the end of this documentary and not be gobsmacked by “Father of Whole Language” Ken Goodman’s extraordinary comment “My science is different”.

Goodman shows he is simply not interested in the mountain of scientific evidence contradicting his theory-and-observation-based ideas about how children learn to read, yet his ideas are still the basis of the “three-cueing system” approach to teaching reading that’s still widely used.

The game is up, the facts are out, and thanks to Emily Hanford and APM they’re in a free, accessible and easily digestible format. Please share them with every teacher, parent and other person who might be able to help get a more scientific understanding of how to teach reading into our education system.

I don’t enjoy having to spend a lot of my day undoing damage caused by well-meaning, hard-working teachers who were taught half-baked “my science is different” ideas at university and by “meaning-first” educational consultants. And I’m sure that (as the US Reading League people say) when teachers know better, they will do better, and so will their students.

New and improved phonics playing cards

There’s a new set of downloadable phonics playing cards in the Spelfabet shop, including a couple of free decks. These add a few new sound-spelling relationships and syllable types as well as mixing and reviewing patterns covered earlier. Spaced practice, people.

The sequence broadly matches the Phonic Books (last bit of Magic Belt/That Dog, and most of Alba/Totem) and Sounds-Write teaching sequence, but the cards should be able to be used with most other phonics teaching sequences. All four of us at Spelfabet have done some work on these, after Caitlin Stephenson had the original idea.

Use these cards to play any of the games shown in videos in this previous blog post, or any other game you like requiring a standard deck of playing cards. Continue reading

Last chance to register for LDA’s David Kilpatrick seminars

Registrations close shortly for this month’s LDA seminars by David Kilpatrick. I’m not sure exactly when they close for Perth and Cairns, but Melbourne’s close on 8th August. Adelaide & Sydney are already sold out. The seminar on the 19th at Melbourne Town Hall will include 17 supplier displays (details below) to browse from 8.15-9.00am and during the breaks.

Dr Kilpatrick is the author of the excellent Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties and Equipped for Reading Success, and you might have also seen him talk online (e.g. here, here, here, here and here).

I recently assessed a teenager with the kind of reading and spelling difficulties I hope these seminars will soon help stamp out. He’s a classic Compensator. Intelligent, hard-working, with good oral language skills, but very poor phonemic awareness and proficiency (<1st percentile on the CTOPP-2 Elision subtest) and thus weak word-level reading and spelling.

He finds it hard to sound out unfamiliar words, tending to look at the start and end of words and guess the middles. If you give him a wordlist including similar-looking words like “complete” and “compete”, he probably won’t notice they’re different.

His teachers aren’t aware of the extent of his reading difficulties because they don’t test word-level reading or phonemic awareness, and when this student reads connected text he gets most of the words right, by compensating for his poor decoding with his good oral language. They notice his poor spelling, and try to help him with it, but it’s not really their area of expertise. Continue reading

We need GOOD practice, not common practice

I wrote an opinion piece in The Age newspaper this week called “Premiers’ Reading Challenge no fun for kids who can’t read“, arguing we need to close the gap between research and practice in early literacy education, so more kids can enjoy, not dread, the Premiers’ Reading Challenge.

I hope it’s helped put another nail in the coffin of common, but extremely poor, literacy-teaching practices like rote wordlist-memorisation (the “magic words” etc) without regard to their structure, incidental-not-systematic phonics, and encouraging kids to guess words from first letter, sentence structure and context/pictures.

I hope it also helps kill off the idea that reading is natural, and replace educational blah-blah about reader identity and teacher literacy philosophy with more interesting discussions about what science tells us about how to best teach reading.

I’m sorry they didn’t include my link to Emily Hanford’s great “Hard Words: why aren’t kids being taught to read” audio documentary, but otherwise happy with it, especially the mention of David Kilpatrick’s seminar on 19 August at Melbourne Town Hall (have you signed up yet? He will also speak in Perth and Cairns, and Sydney and Adelaide, but they’re booked out).

Of course letters to the editor appeared the next day disagreeing with me. People who agree with something they read in the paper don’t generally rush to write to the editor. Editors don’t usually give a right of reply to these letters, so I’m giving myself one here. Continue reading

New word-building card games

I’ve been faffing around for ages trying to improve on my old word-building card games, and finally have a new set of three decks of download-and-print cards I’m happy with.

These games are intended to provide practice blending and manipulating sounds in one-syllable words, and learning their spellings.

The basic games are lot simpler, and young children can play them more successfully, as the less-common spellings are now in the harder games. The colour scheme has been revised thanks to feedback from people with red-green colour-blindness (oops, sorry).

The basic “short” vowels game can be used by six-year-olds who know the alphabet and a few consonant digraphs. Two players or teams each build five words using the five vowel cards, then change each other’s words into new words. Here’s how to play it:

Continue reading

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