Category Archives: phonics activities

New Embedded Picture Mnemonics now available

Despite a universe determined to throw spanners in my works, I’ve finally put artist Cat MacInnes’ new, improved version 2 Embedded Picture Mnemonics into the Spelfabet website shop. If you already bought version 1, you can now upgrade for free.

Research has shown embedded picture mnemonics help children learn the relationships between speech sounds and letters.

There are now two versions of the Spelfabet Embedded Picture Mnemonics: one for speakers of Australian/British (non-rhotic) English, and one for speakers of American (rhotic) English. If you speak another version of English, download both files and mix and match to suit your accent.

Each set contains a mnemonic for each sound (phoneme) plus one for each of the three letters that represent the same sound as c (k, q, x). The pictures are now more relevant outside Australia, with k as in ‘key’ not ‘kangaroo’, ur as in ‘burn’ not ‘surf’ and u as in ‘up’ not ‘undies’ (I’m a little sad about the undies, so if you are too, just keep using the original mnemonic).

The sets now contain ‘o’ as in ‘octopus’, ‘ue’ as in ‘statue’, ‘or’ as in ‘horn’, ‘th’ as in ‘thunder’ and ‘themselves’, and ‘f’ as in ‘fish’ (no adjacent consonant). There are new ‘aw’ as in ‘claw’ and ‘wh’ as in ‘whale’ mnemonics in the US set. The relationship between ‘short’ and ‘long’ vowels is now clearer, as the ‘long’ vowels have a consistent format (ae, ee, ie, oe, ue).

Both the Aust/UK and US A4 poster size files can be found here. The pictures on them are now bigger, with less white space around them.

Both the Aust/UK and US A4 flashcard size files (four to a page) are here. Consonants are in portrait format and the vowels are in landscape format, which I hope helps children understand the difference between vowel and consonant sounds.

You can make and change words with these embedded picture mnemonics, using the flashcard size with individuals and small groups, like this:

Use the poster size mnemonics if doing this with a whole class, asking a child to hold each mnemonic you’ve taught and another child to rearrange them, while the rest of the class writes down the words thus created.

You can also use the mnemonics to build Sound Walls with your class, adding sounds and/or spellings as they are taught in your phonics teaching sequence, and refreshing the wordlists as new vocabulary is learnt, so that you might end up with mnemonics that look like this:

 

 

 

Teachers, therapists and others have already thought of lots of other great ways to use these mnemonics – too many to list here.

Thanks for the feedback and questions about version 1, which made me think about how to improve them. I hope you like Version 2, and thanks to the always-creative Cat MacInnes for her artistic talent, patience and hard work.

Steps for upgrading a previously-purchased file:

1. Go to the Spelfabet website and click on My Account.

2. Type in the email address you used for your original purchase, and the password you created. If you can’t remember your password, just reset it.

3. Go to the downloads area, click on the file(s) you want, and save it/them to your computer before printing. Ordinarily you get three chances to download any file from the online shop, in case of computer crashes or power outages, but I’ve increased this to four for these files in case some previous purchasers have used up their first three.

Any feedback or problems, email me on info@spelfabet.com.au.

New things at Spelfabet

The COVID-19 pandemic knocked most of my plans sideways and sent me into too-tired-to-blog mode for most of the last year, but here are five new things we’ve been working on:

  • Intensive school holiday and Saturday groups for ages 6-8
  • New, improved Embedded Picture Mnemonics (Aust/UK and US versions)
  • Version 3 Spelfabet workbooks
  • Local Community of Practice (INMELLCoP)
  • Decodable text writing interface

Continue reading

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.

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”.