Category Archives: teaching strategies

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

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.

Here’s the video of my LDA webinar on spelling logic

About 400 people had signed up to attend the webinar I presented for Learning Difficulties Australia on Wednesday called “English spelling has five kinds of logic”, but sadly, the LDA Zoom account locked all but 100 people out. I’m so sorry about that, I didn’t even realise till the end.

Anyway, here’s the video, so you can watch it at your leisure. Sorry I say “um” so much! Below the video is a list of some of the resources I’ve found useful for online therapy sessions targeting spelling, reading and related skills (including irregular verbs, which someone asked about), since I couldn’t fit as much practical stuff into the webinar as I had hoped.

If you have feedback or questions, or any great online teaching/therapy resource tips, please leave a comment.

Useful resources for online learning/therapy during COVID-19

Black Sheep Press has lots of downloadable speech and language activities, including on irregular past tense here and here. There are also apps like Past Tense with Splingo, and the Toddlers Seek & Find apps let you make something fun happen then discuss it. The ELR resources are another option for all kinds of online language activities.

Speech Pathologists needing articulation materials, try the Pottstown Schools website.

Good luck, stay well, and remember when life gives you lemons, you can make lemon tart, lemon curd, avgolemono, lemon butter, lemon delicious…(I’m not much into lemonade).

PS Don’t miss Emily Hanford’s latest, again-excellent report “What the words say”.

English spelling has five kinds of logic

This Wednesday at 6pm AEST I’m presenting Learning Difficulties Australia’s free Weekly Wednesday Webinar (yikes, but I’m back on LDA’s Council so thought I’d better contribute. Also, here in Melbourne we’re going into Stage 4 lockdown, our Jacinda The Warrior Princess hammers ready to smash the virus, so I don’t have an awful lot else on).

Here’s a bit of a preview, to help you decide whether to attend live and ask me Hard Questions in the chat (register here) , or perhaps watch it later on Youtube.

The title of the webinar is “English spelling has five kinds of logic”, and I’m hoping it helps teachers and parents better understand and explain our superficially bizarre spelling system. Much of what I’ll say won’t be news to LDAers or other experts, but I hope they find some useful ideas, angles and resources, and maybe a few laughs, and will want to send the link to others. Continue reading