Category Archives: teaching strategies

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!

Arrowsmith: the triumph of marketing over science

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is back touring Australia, promoting her controversial Arrowsmith program to parents and teachers of children with learning difficulties.

Oxford Psychology Professor and all-round legend Dorothy Bishop succinctly summarised  informed professional thought on this program a couple of years ago in this tweet:

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young got famous by writing a book called The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. But as Macquarie University Professor Anne Castles has pointed out, we all change our brains every day. It’s called learning. Continue reading

Embedded picture mnemonics: flashcard size

I’ve had many requests for a flashcard-sized version of our Embedded Picture Mnemonics, so (finally, sorry, I was moving house) here they are.

Embedded picture mnemonics are drawings of letters embedded in a picture of something with a name that contains that sound. The classic example is a snake in the shape of a letter S.

Mentally linking two abstract concepts (a speech sound and its letter/spelling) to the point where one automatically evokes the other is hard work, and typically requires hundreds of repetitions. Continue reading

Experience the Simple View of Reading

Appealing to personal experience seems to play an important role in the marketing of popular early literacy teaching approaches, so perhaps a personal experience angle might be useful in building understanding of the Simple View of Reading? Let’s give it a go.

Try reading these texts

See if you can get any meaning out of this text:

Не́которые иностра́нцы ду́мают, что в Росси́и медве́ди хо́дят по у́лицам. Коне́чно, э́то непра́вда! Медве́ди живу́т в лесу́ и не лю́бят люде́й.*

If, like me, you don’t speak Russian, you’ll get nowhere. I know neither the code nor the language. Even if a Russian speaker read it aloud, I wouldn’t understand it.

In Simple View terms, my Decoding is zero, my Language Comprehension is zero, so my Reading Comprehension (zero multiplied by zero) is also zero. Continue reading

Marketing reading science

I was glued, green-eyed to Twitter a couple of weeks ago for tweets about the US Reading League’s conference, wondering whether Greta Thunberg and the polar bears would forgive me if I planted 40 trees before I flew to their conference next year (global overheating freaks me out even more than education’s research-to-practice gap).

Excellent local linguist-teacher-blogger Lyn Stone attended the conference, and you can read her reports on it here:

Continue reading

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.