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New Phonics With Feeling books and author interview

Set Three of the download-and-print Phonics With Feeling Extended Code readers are now available from the Spelfabet shop.

These books provide lots of reading practice of words with single-letter ‘long’ vowel sounds, as in ‘apron’, ‘being’, ‘final’, ‘open’ and ‘using’.

Many of these are suffixed forms of the ‘split vowel’/’silent final e’ spellings in Set Two e.g. make-making, Swede-Swedish, iceicy, hope-hoped, cute-cutest. Word lists at the start of each book make this explicit.

The ‘c’ as in ‘ice’ and ‘g’ as in ‘age’ spellings, which often occur with these spellings, are practised in the Extended Code Set One books.

The Set Three books also include the ‘short’ vowel sounds, as in ‘at’, ‘red’, ‘in’, ‘on’ and ‘up’. When tackling new words, children should be encouraged to try both sounds for a vowel letter, if the first sound they try doesn’t produce a word that makes sense. This requires phoneme manipulation skills, and the knowledge that a spelling can represent more than one sound.

Like the other Phonics With Feeling books, the Set Three books have a print-5-copies version (parent/aide) for 40c per print, and a bulk print-30-copies version (teacher/clinician) for 20c per print. Our free quizzes (downloadable or on Wordwall) have been updated to include Set Three.

Teresa Dovey (pen name Gaia Dovey, as that’s what her grandkids call her) is the author of the Phonics With Feeling decodable readers. Here’s a 15-minute interview in which she discusses why she started writing the books, why they’re called Phonics With Feeling, her academic background in English Literature, what the books are like, who they’re for, how they can be used, and some of the feedback she’s received on them.

We hope these books make decodable text interesting and enjoyable for children, and affordable for adults, and that they help kids learn to decode as well as Teresa’s grandkids, so they can go on to enjoy reading whatever they choose.

If you’ve tried the books, please share any comments or feedback you have below.

1000 decodable quiz questions

At last, our 100 download-and-print phonics quizzes for beginning readers are available here. Each has ten questions, and fits on an A4 page. Most questions have pictures. You can download a free sample of ten of them here. Here’s a 2 minute video about them.

Kids aren’t usually keen on tests, but enjoy quizzes, just as adults enjoy trivia nights. Reading and understanding a sentence at a time can be less daunting than reading, remembering and understanding a book, even a short one.

These quizzes follow the same teaching sequence as Sounds-Write Units 1-10, and the early Phonic Books and Forward With Phonics resources, since our client base is mostly struggling older learners. If you’re using a slightly different phonics teaching sequence, just check that you’ve taught all the sound-spelling relationships in each quiz before using it, perhaps as a review activity.

Writing decodable text is hard work. The literate adult brain constantly wants to focus on meaning not structure. It takes lots of discipline to think of good questions that don’t contain words that are too hard, especially at the early levels. The whole Spelfabet team has been involved in writing these quizzes, and have been extremely tolerant of my initially vague ideas and constant revisions. It’s taken much longer than expected.

We haven’t included an answer key because we hope the quizzes motivate children to ask questions and propose alternative answers/interpretations, argue for a ‘maybe/it depends’ option and otherwise think and talk. You can act as judge, assign a judging panel, or go with the majority view. Right and wrong answers are not as important as prompting children to read accurately and successfully.

We hope beginning and struggling readers enjoy and request these quizzes, and that they help build children’s reading ‘muscle’.

Where is your evidence?

Lately I’ve been having lots of discussions about reading/spelling interventions that lack robust scientific evidence e.g. modelling words in clay. Sigh.

As Hallowe’en loomed, I needed a laugh, so I commissioned this brief video from a talented young claymation artist called Matty Mrksa:

Hope you like it! Feel free to use it as a social media comment.

Dyslexia is not a visual problem, or a gift

Picture: https://www.pxfuel.com/en/search?q=zombie+costumes

Dyslexia means severe difficulty reading words, despite adequate intervention and effort. It can start in adulthood after a stroke or injury, but typically begins in childhood for no immediately obvious reason. A detailed definition can be found here.

Is dyslexia a visual problem?

Dyslexia is not a visual problem, it’s a language-based problem. Like many others, I’ve said this before (here, here, here, here, here, and here) but the zombie idea of ‘visual dyslexia’ still seems to be wasting children’s time, and parents’ and taxpayers’ money, so it bears repeating.

The American Academy of Paediatrics’ Opthamologists’ Joint Statement on Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia and Vision says:

“Vision problems can interfere with the process of learning; however, vision problems are not the cause of primary dyslexia or learning disabilities. Scientific evidence does not support the efficacy of eye exercises, behavioral vision therapy, or special tinted filters or lenses for improving the long-term educational performance in these complex pediatric neurocognitive conditions. Diagnostic and treatment approaches that lack scientific evidence of efficacy, including eye exercises, behavioral vision therapy, or special tinted filters or lenses, are not endorsed and should not be recommended”.

American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Ophthalmology Executive Committee, 2008-2009, reaffirmed 2014, https://www.aao.org/clinical-statement/joint-statement-learning-disabilities-dyslexia-vis

This statement has been endorsed by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Opthamologists. It has five pages of scientific references. Please share it with anyone who is considering vision-based dyslexia interventions like behavioural optometry, coloured overlays, Irlen lenses, the Lawson anti-suppression device, or special dyslexia fonts.

For more detail on controversial vision theories and therapies, visit the American Academy of Opthamology website, read this 2019 article in The Conversation, this 2018 article on the website Science Based Medicine and/or this article by Dr Kerry Hempenstall in the 2020 International Dyslexia Association journal. A 2019 systematic review re “Irlen Syndrome” (read it here), found lack of evidence that Irlen Syndrome exists, and lack of evidence that the treatments proposed for it work.

Children’s learning time is precious, and parents’ and taxpayers’ money needs to be spent wisely.

Do dyslexic people have special talents/gifts?

There are lots of smart, talented, capable people with dyslexia. Some have achieved great things in mathematics, science, art, architecture, entrepreneurship and other fields. They have shown that it’s possible to have dyslexia and still succeed in life.

It’s complete nonsense to flip this and suggest dyslexia gives you special talents and makes you more likely to succeed in life than average. The plural of anecdote is not data.

However, these claims persist, and interventions which lack scientific evidence are still being promoted and taken seriously. A Melbourne school this week helped market a Davis Dyslexia webinar, with an ad making extravagant claims about the special talents of people with dyslexia. Happily, readers of this blog alerted the school leadership to what turned out to be a mistake by the marketing team (thanks, Karen, Heidi and Nancy!), and the ad was removed, kudos to the school for acting so swiftly.

To establish a correlation between dyslexia and life achievement, scientific researchers would need to study a large, random sample of the population. They’d measure reading skills and levels of success/achievement (however that’s defined, I’m sure sociologists have ideas). They’d statistically analyse their data.

Three outcomes would be possible: 1) no correlation beyond what could be accounted for by random chance, 2) a correlation with above-average achievement, and 3) a correlation with below-average achievement. Even if a correlation were found between dyslexia and high achievement, correlation is not the same thing as causation. A third factor might be involved, or there might be multiple factors.

After this blog post was published, I heard from one of the co-authors of a 2021 systematic review of research into whether dyslexia conveys a creative benefit. Their results suggest that “individuals with dyslexia as a group are no more creative or show greater variability in creativity than peers without dyslexia”.

The whole ‘gift of dyslexia’ idea is also IMHO also rather cruel. It’s like telling a dyslexic child, ‘Not only are you expected to overcome your dyslexia, but I expect you to excel at something like art, architecture or entrepreneurship. No pressure.’

Children with word-level reading difficulties, whether they have dyslexia diagnoses or not, should have intensive, systematic, synthetic phonics teaching as part of a literacy curriculum based on scientific research (a useful, free evaluate-your-curriculum checklist is here). Like other children, they should be told they’re expected to play, have fun, rest and do their best at things that matter and things they love, however they decide to spend their one wild and precious life.

“These are just books kids can read!”

My new favourite thing is an interview with US mum Jennifer Ose-MacDonald, about how she worked with her local library to create a collection of decodable books. It’s on the excellent Teach My Kid To Read YouTube channel.

Jennifer took action after she discovered that her local libraries only had books for beginners and strugglers full of too-hard “bomb words” which deflate their reading confidence. Bomb words. A term we need, I’ll be using it a lot. Brilliant.

Jennifer says (just after the 10 minute mark, if you don’t have time to watch the whole 15 minutes) “there’s a lack of understanding in the general population about what a decodable is, because it has a name, people think that it’s special, or that it’s only for a select group of people, and that’s a misunderstanding of what they are. So I think my new role is helping people understand that THESE ARE JUST BOOKS KIDS CAN READ! That’s all they are, they’re books kids can read. And if you want kids to read books, why don’t you look at these? And you’ll see that if you pick the books that are at the right skill level, they can get through a page without having to stop and get frustrated over a word that shouldn’t be there in the first place”.

This is the first in what looks like a series of videos, so I look forward to the next one.

We all want children to experience the joy of reading. Typical books for beginners offer joy and hope, but that hope is too often dashed. Decodable books offer joy and confidence.

Thanks to Heidi from Dyslexia Victoria Support for pointing out this video, and to the people at Teach My Kid To Read for making it. It made my day, I hope it made yours too.

New printable decodables and free quizzes

I’ve just made free follow-up Wordwall quizzes for all the Phonics With Feeling decodable readers, including three new Extended Code Set 1 books now available.

The 41 quizzes, of ~20 questions each, are all in a folder called Phonics With Feeling here. I’ve also made printable versions without pictures, which you can download for free here.

The online quizzes are made in the basic Wordwall Quiz format, but you can use them in Gameshow Quiz format for a few more bells and whistles, which many children enjoy, though the timer freaks some highly anxious children out. Click at the right of the startup screen if you want to switch to Gameshow format:

Click on the Share button below each quiz to set it as an after-reading assignment.

The quiz questions are comprehension/concept questions about the Phonics With Feeling readers, which provide extra Really-Nail-That-Pattern practice for children in Years 1 or 2, or slightly older struggling learners. The Initial Code readers are also suitable for many children approaching the end of their first school year (we Victorians call them Preps). Each quiz is written at the same decoding level as the relevant reader.

The quizzes contain some deliberate garden path questions, and traps for picture-guessers and kids inclined to read the start and end of words, and guess the middles, e.g. “Did Red Hen make a net?” followed by “Did Red Hen make a nest?” I hope this makes skimming kids do a double-take, and look more closely at ALL the letters.

The three new Extended Code Set One Phonics With Feeling readers look like this once you’ve printed them with nice coloured cardboard covers:

These new books target:

  • /s/ as in ‘cent’ (spelt C),
  • /j/ as in ‘gem’ (spelt G) and
  • Unstressed final syllable ‘le’ as in ‘candle’ and ‘middle’.

Like all the other Phonics With Feeling books, the Parent/Aide version allows you to print up to 5 copies of each book for 40c per copy, plus printing and materials costs.

If you want to use the books with a whole class or caseload, the Teacher/Clinician versions allow printing of up to 30 copies of each book, which works out at 20c per print. We hope this allows teachers to use them as class sets, and have a few spares to replace any that get lost, leaked on by drink bottles, chewed by puppies etc.

The download-and-print quizzes don’t have pictures, and may be useful as follow-up paper-based activities, or you might like to turn the questions into Kahoot!s, or other games/competitions. If my quizzes are too long for your students, just leave some of the questions out, and tweak the remainder. Save yourself the brain-frying experience of writing decodable text from scratch.

40 Phonics with Feeling books are currently available, but I’ve made 41 Wordwall quizzes, because the last Set Seven book has two stories in it – ‘Sue and the Glue’ and ‘Robot Andrew’. The Phonics With Feeling Extended Code Set Three should be available in November, and will target single-letter ‘short/long’ vowels, providing children with many opportunities to practise ‘flipping’ vowel sounds till they get a word they know that makes sense in context (e.g. the ‘o’ in ‘poster’ and ‘roster’).

Still too hard for your learners? Try the new, free Sounds-Write texts

If these books and quizzes are too hard for your kids, and you need more basic decodable texts, Sounds-Write has a cute new free e-book First Steps Collection about strange pets (including a bug, a fox, a crab, a skunk, a moth, a chimp and a squid), for Units 4-11 of Sounds-Write. They’re a bit easier than the original Sounds Write books. Printed versions are also available, though I think at the time of writing they haven’t yet arrived at Australian suppliers DSF, Soundality or Rise Literacy.

If even those books are too difficult for your learner, we’ve made some 10-question WordWall quizzes for Sounds-Write Units 1-3:

We’re working on quizzes for later units now, if you can smell our brains frying.

Hope you find at least some of this useful, especially those of you who are still (like us, sigh) in COVID-19 lockdown. Stay well!

A phoneme is like a dog

Some of my best-received blog posts have included analogies to (try to) explain complex ideas. So let’s try another one. A phoneme is like a dog.

We start developing a concept of what a dog is when we first encounter dogs, and hear people call them ‘dog’ (or ‘doggie’, for nice, safe-to-pat ones). One-year-olds then often start calling all four-legged mammals ‘doggie’ (and all large birds ‘duck’).

Over time, we gather data about the main, consistent, observable features of dogs: four legs, two ears, up-turned tail, fur, non-retractable claws, carnivorous, able to bark, yelp and growl. We do this by paying lots of attention to dogs, which isn’t hard when you’re small, and so many dogs are keen to rush over and lick your face.

Size is not a distinctive feature – a chihuahua and an Irish Wolfhound are both dogs. Fur colour and length don’t help, think Afghan hounds and dachshunds. Most dogs like chasing balls and sticks, and being taken for walks, but in my experience, rescue greyhounds say ‘meh’ to walks, and Pomeranians think it’s my job to fetch. Most dogs are friendly, but I’m not in a rush to pat Rottweilers or Bull Terriers.

The Official Thing that makes a dog a dog (even a three-legged one, or a yodelling Basenji), is the Canis lupus familiaris genome, but we usually learn about that well after we’ve pruned, shaped and fleshed out a robust abstract concept of a dog. Meanwhile, out in the real world, every dog is still different.

Similarly, literate English-speakers all have a concept of the phoneme /s/, though out in the real, live speech stream, where sounds shmoosh together, every /s/ is different. For the jargon buffs, a phoneme is the idea in your head, and the different ways it shows up in real, actual spoken words are called allophones.

The concept of the phoneme /s/ develops at the intersection of speech and print, when kids notice that a particular kind of sound and mouth gesture in spoken words is represented by the letter ‘s’ in written words.

Speech sounds and mouth gestures are a lot harder to pay attention to than dogs. They don’t rush up and lick you in the face. Speech is invisible and transient, and its gestures are mostly automatised and occurring without conscious effort by school entry, though some kids are still fine-tuning the difference between ‘rock/wok’, ‘freezer/freesia’, ‘thin/fin’ and ‘than/van’, and of course many EAL and Team Speech Therapy kids have more difficulties.

Getting children to say words slowly, listen to the sounds, and feel what’s happening in their mouths while writing/reading the relevant spellings is the teaching equivalent of bringing speech sounds up close enough to lick them in the face. It makes them hard to miss.

While gathering their data about /s/, children might notice that in the word ‘see’ it is produced with retracted lips, while the /s/ in ‘soon’ is produced with rounded lips. However, lip position is not a distinctive feature of the phoneme /s/, in the same way that size and colour don’t really help us work out whether an animal is a calf, cat or dog.

You can prolong /s/ as much as you like in dramatic poems about sly slithering snakes. Length in time is not a distinctive feature in Modern English phonology, though it is in some languages, and Old English had short and long vowels, which is why those terms still hang around today.

Since /s/ is produced slightly differently depending on its word position and neighbours, discerning it needs to be taught in different word positions and with different neighbours. That means saying, reading and writing it in a range of phonetic contexts, in words like ‘sat’, ‘sit’, ‘sob’, ‘sum’, ‘gas’, ‘yes’, ‘bus’, ‘best’, ‘desk’, ‘wisp’, ‘cups’, ‘hats’, ‘banks’, ‘spin’, ‘stem’, ‘skin’, ‘swim’, ‘slip’, ‘snip’, and ‘smog’, not just words starting with the sound /s/, or worse, the letter ‘s’ (sometimes including words like ‘sugar’ and ‘shop’, which don’t even contain the sound /s/, see here, here and here). Teaching about /s/ only in initial position is a bit like teaching about dogs but giving labradors as the only example.

Few adults can give the official, Canis-lupis-familiaris-genome type definition of /s/: it’s a voiceless alveolar fricative. But we know what a /s/ sounds and feels like, and notice when it’s moved so far forward it’s become /th/, or so far back it’s become /sh/, just as we have conceptual boundaries to differentiate cats and dogs, even ones as similar as these (yup, these are gratuitous cute animal pictures, welcome to the internet):

A child who has developed a robust, abstract idea of the phoneme /s/ based on saying lots of words with voiceless alveolar fricatives, representing them with the letter ‘s’ in written words, and reading words containing this sound-spelling relationship, is in a good position to go on to learn additional spellings: ‘ss’ in ‘Jessie’, ‘c’ in ‘Lucy’, (half of) ‘x’ in ‘Max’, and so on.

Of course, the dog is not the only animal, and /s/ isn’t the only phoneme. Luckily there are only (about, depending on your accent) 44 phonemes, not thousands of them – I’d never heard of a dhole until I read up on the Canis genus for this blog post. Learning, learning, all the time.

Reading expert Dr Mark Seidenberg and colleagues have produced some recent videos called Phonemes, Speech, and Reading, and Becoming Phonemic, if you’re keen to learn more about what phonemes are (and aren’t) and how children learn about them.