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What sounds did you SAY (not just hear) in that word?

If you haven’t listened to the US Reading League’s podcast with Dr Jeannine Herron, or watched it on YouTube, I highly recommend it. She’s an inspiration, the perfect tonic if you’re feeling a bit wearied by swimming-through-COVID-mud, as I am.

At 84, she has a wonderful laugh, rogue chickens, and is planning to write a new program, not resting on her life’s laurels as a teacher, activist, research scientist, adventurer, writer, editor, and a program and software developer.

Our new Australian Curriculum, and next weekend’s Federal election, have made me think a lot lately about the role of education in achieving a fair, peaceful and sustainable future. My lockdown cheer-up project was writing a kids’ book called “I Love A Sunblessed Country”, which you can read in 90 seconds on this website, where signed, printed copies are also available (only if you’re in Australia, and please tell me whose name to write in it). I’m hoping it will spark lots of conversations with kids about what kind of future they want, and how it might be achieved. So I was very happy to hear Dr Herron’s story of being able to integrate her professional life and activism.

Four professionally-relevant things Dr Herron said stood out for me, which I’ll try to summarise here (my apologies if I’ve oversimplified or otherwise misinterpreted):

Speech is the engine of reading and writing

Thinking you can learn to read with your eyes and ears is a mistake. Speech is the basis of the systems in the brain that are necessary for skilled reading, and kids need to start from their own speech, learn that the words they say are strings of sounds, and that letters stand for those sounds.

Phoneme awareness and phonics need to be taught as kids are learning to write. Phoneme awareness only becomes meaningful when you attach letters to the sounds, and understand that the sounds you’re making with your mouth can be put on the page with letters.

We’ve long regarded phonemes as sounds, and in the classroom we ask, “What sound did you hear at the beginning of that word?”, rather than “What sound did you say at the beginning of that word?” It is the motor system that segments, blends and manipulates phonemes, and it’s motor memory that helps us remember the sounds and spellings. The ears are important because you have to have feedback, but it’s the articulation of the sound that your brain is actually using in order to become aware of phonemes.

To orthographically map words so they can be instantly recognised (Herron suggests the term “auto words” instead of “sight words”), you need automatic phonemic awareness. Embedding the shape of a letter into a picture that contains the sound (e.g. in these pictures) helps children remember sound-letter relationships.

Writing and reading should be integrated

Writing and reading should be taught in an integrated way. As adults we read more than we write, and we value reading more than writing, but it makes more sense to first teach young children to represent the sounds in their own mouths with letters.

Encoding and decoding words are like breathing in and breathing out, they are two parts of the same whole.

Resources need to be better targeted

We invest a lot of resources in reading and writing intervention, but it would be better to invest more in preventing problems in the first place. We know how to teach reading and writing, and we should be applying this knowledge from at least preschool.

Teachers are not well-prepared to teach reading and writing, and are very time-poor, so they need short training videos online, where they can see other teachers modelling good practice, and showing them how to work from simple to complex.

Our mission is to raise people’s intelligence

We who are involved in teaching reading are really on a bigger mission, to raise people’s intelligence. Herron says, “The most radical thing we can do besides getting into the streets is to provide an adequate and just and equal opportunity for education for all children”.

Herron says she is reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Swerve, about the influence of an ancient Roman manuscript full of then-dangerous ideas on the Renaissance. Asked her greatest hopes for today’s children, she says: “I want that literacy revolution to happen. I want them to become independent, joyful readers and writers. I think that we’re facing a dark place in our country with a lot of magical thinking, a lot of uninformed thinking, a lot of disrespect for science and rational thinking, and I think it’s very dangerous, and I think the education system needs to deal with it, and … I hope we can have a swerve of our own to a new Renaissance”.

I spent much of yesterday standing in the rain at an early voting centre, handing out How To Vote cards for my friend and local MP, and having strange conversations with other booth volunteers about whether volcanoes are the main cause of climate change, whether COVID-19 is real, whether vaccines are a conspiracy etc. So I couldn’t agree more on the importance of making sure everyone has the reading, writing and scientific skills to use their frontal lobes well.

You can watch The Reading League’s Laura Stewart’s excellent interview with Dr Herron in the embedded video below, or listen to the podcast here.


New printable decodable books, including an extra free one

To celebrate the removal of predictable texts and multicueing from the Australian National Curriculum (yippee!), more Phonics with Feeling printable decodable books are now available from the Spelfabet website.

These provide an affordable way to help Year 1 and 2 students, advanced Foundation students, and slightly older strugglers to build decoding skills. They are longer than most decodable books, allowing for cohesive narratives, entertaining plots, engaging characters, and themes worth talking about.

Free book targeting u…e as in ‘rule’ and u as in ‘judo’

The new book “Not a Tutu” can be downloaded for free here. It’s about a child whose grandpa notices her interest in a costume shop window. On her birthday, she is jubilant to receive judo lessons from an aunt, and flippers and goggles from her mum, but deflated by a tutu from her grandpa. Her mum says her grandpa was a swimming champion, and urges Lucy to tell him the truth, and ask for what she really wants.

This book thus opens up an opportunity to talk to children about deciding between pleasing other people and pleasing ourselves, and whether/when we can do both.

The book completes the Phonics with Feeling Extended Code Set Three, which now has six books. I’ll send an updated file to previous purchasers.

New Set Nine targeting multiple spellings of ‘long’ vowels

The new Set Nine books are for children in later Grade 1 or Grade 2, and contain eight stories which print as six books (two stories each in the last two books). This set targets multiple ways to spell ‘long’ vowel sounds. Some are for revision/retrieval practice, as they’re covered in earlier sets, and some are new:

  • Revision of a…e as in make, a as in making, ai as in rain and ay as in day, and introducing ey as in they, ea as in break, eigh as in weigh and aigh as in straight.
  • Revision of ee as in see, ea as in sea, e as in be, e…e as in these, y as in funny, and introducing ie as in chief, ei as in seize, i…e as in police.
  • Revision of i…e as in time, i as in find, y as in my, ie as in tie and igh as in night, and introducing eigh as in height and is as in island.
  • Revision of o…e as in home, o as in no, oa as in boat and ow as in slow, and introducing ou as in soul, oe as in toe, ough as in though and ew as in sew.
  • Revision of u…e as in flute, u as in brutal, oo as in moon, ue as in blue and ew as in chew, and introducing ui as in suit, ou as in soup, ough as in through, oe as in shoe and wo as in two (though splitting ‘two’ up into two graphemes is tricky, the ‘w’ was once pronounced, as it still is in twin, twice, twelve, between, twilight etc).
  • Revision of u…e as in cute, u as in unit, and introducing ew as in few, ewe as in ewe (the sheep), eu as in feud, ue as in cue, ui as in nuisance.

Again, this set downloads with a printable quiz for each book, or you can use these online Wordwall ones.

New Set Two book “Bruce the Recluse” targeting u…e as in flute

The original Set Two includes the book “The Mule Who Refused” targeting the spelling ‘u…e’ as in ‘cute’ (really two sounds, as in the word ‘you’), but there wasn’t a book targeting the same spelling pronounced /oo/ as in ‘June’ (without the initial /y/ sound).

A new book, ‘Bruce the Recluse’, fills this gap. It’s about a boy who feels excluded and picked on by his older siblings, so he decides to live in a secluded tent and become a recluse. He soon finds it’s a bit boring and lonely, so when his siblings show remorse and offer olive branches, and he provisionally relents. This book offers an opportunity to discuss the pluses and minuses of sibling relationships with children, as well as giving them plenty of decoding practice.

People who have already bought the original Set Two books will be sent the new file of six books, as this extra book isn’t available separately.

Who are Phonics With Feeling books for?

There are no Phonics With Feeling books for absolute literacy beginners, because so many good options are already available. The Spelfabet website has decodable quizzes if extra text at true beginners’ level is required. The main focus of the Phonics With Feeling Extended Code books is gradually introducing and revising vowel spellings, which are the hardest thing about sound-letter relationships in English, and the point at which many children struggle and require extra practice.

The author of the Phonics With Feeling books has a PhD in literature, and wrote them to give her grandchildren reading success, pleasure and emotional engagement. Every set now downloads with printable quizzes, and has online Wordwall quizzes.

Printing and assembling Phonics With Feeling books

Download the books’ pdf files, and save them onto your computer. Each set has three files: the book itself, an information file and a quiz. The information file is the same for each set, so you only need to download it once.

We use 220 gsm coloured cardboard for the covers, and print them first, via the rear feed of our printer. The covers are the first 10-12 pages of each set. We then print the rest of the books on A4 paper using the “flip on short edge” setting, then assemble, staple and fold the books with a long-arm stapler (which most schools have). The whole set fits nicely into this colourful box from our local stationery supplier:

Please note that there are now ten Phonics With Feeling sets (one Initial Code Review set and nine Extended Code review sets), each with five or six books, available from the Spelfabet website. A tenth Extended Code set, focussing on extra spellings of ‘r-controlled’ and ‘short’ vowels, is being fine-tuned, will be available shortly.

DSF conference discount code

Attendees of the recent DSF Language, Learning and Literacy virtual conference can use their 20% conference discount code for Spelfabet website purchases till 31st May 2022.

New 2 ways to spell vowels cards, including a free deck

Some students need smaller-than-average steps and extra practice to get spelling patterns into long-term memory. Games are a great, nag-free way to get in lots of targeted, extra repetitions.

The newest set of download-and-print Spelfabet phonics playing cards has 14 decks, each with one vowel sound spelt two ways, and includes a free sample deck:

  1. /ae/ spelt AI as in ‘rain’ and AY as in ‘day’.
  2. /ee/ spelt EE as in ‘see’ and EA as in ‘sea’.
  3. /oe/ spelt OA as in ‘boat’ and OW as in ‘slow’.
  4. /er/ spelt UR as in ‘turn’ and IR as in ‘bird’.
  5. /e/ spelt E as in ‘bend’ and EA as in ‘bread’.
  6. /ou/ spelt OW as in ‘now’ and OU as in ‘out’.
  7. /ooh/ spelt OO as in ‘moon’ and UE as in ‘blue’.
  8. /ie/ spelt IGH as in ‘night’ and I as in ‘find’ (free to download as a sample here)
  9. /oo/ spelt OO as in ‘look’ and OUL as in ‘could’.
  10. /or/ spelt OR as in ‘for’ and AW as in ‘law’.
  11. /oi/ spelt OI as in ‘coin’ and OY as in ‘boy’.
  12. /ar/ spelt AR as in ‘car’ and A as in ‘grass’.
  13. /air/ spelt AIR as in ‘hair’ and ARE as in ‘care’.
  14. /ear/ spelt EAR as in ‘dear’ and EER as in ‘deer’.

These cards match the Phonic Books Moon Dogs 3 Vowels books and workbooks‘ teaching sequence, and the Spelfabet Workbook 5, but can be reorganised for use with other teaching sequences.

One simple game I’ve been playing a lot lately is War, where each player flips a card over, and whoever’s card is highest takes both. I list Joker, Ace, King, Queen, Jack then numbers 10-2 on the board, for kids who aren’t familiar with playing cards or are still working on their number concepts. The aim of the game is to get all the cards. It’s easy to make sure a child wins by sneakily dealing them most of the highest cards.

I also use these cards for random spelling review e.g. play a few games then have a spelling quiz with 10 words from cards randomly drawn from the pack.

Fans of the delightfully nerdy History of English Podcast will know that English speakers have been playing cards since the 1400s, so there’s no shortage of games you can play with these standard decks of playing cards. If you search Youtube for ‘kids playing card games’ there are stacks of videos, or we have some here.

The Spelfabet shop used to offer individual decks of cards and discounted sets, as well as free samples. Not surprisingly, most people downloaded all the freebies, then many came back and bought sets. Almost no-one got individual decks, so apart from the freebies, these are no longer available. They were just cluttering up the shop.

I hope your learners enjoy many hours of low-tech, low-cost, high-fun reading practice using these or other Spelfabet phonics playing cards.

New morpheme-based spelling lists

I’ve just added some morpheme-based word lists to the Spelfabet spelling lists.

Morphemes are meaningful word parts, and are listed in the following order: inflectional suffixes (part of grammar), prefixes, derivational suffixes, and bound bases from Germanic, Latin and Greek.

These lists have been harder to make than I’d expected, but also more interesting, because so many morphemes, er, morph.

For example, the ‘fact’ in factory has the same origin as the ‘fect’ in ‘confectionery’ and the ‘fic’ in ‘artificial’ and ‘fiction’. They’re all to do with making stuff, of course. I’ve therefore put them all on the same list, which starts like this:

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to classify morphemes, especially Greek ones. The Greek base ‘logue/log’, as in ‘catalogue’ and ‘analogous’, has the same origin as the -ology suffix in ‘biology’, ‘mythology’ and ‘psychology’, so I tried hard to keep them together, but in the end settled on two linked entries, here’s the bound base one:

If you’re using teaching resources like Word Sums or the Base Bank , you might notice that sometimes my lists have a single entry for a morphing morpheme (e.g. ‘vene’, ‘ven’ or ‘vent’ meaning ‘come’), whereas their resources have two entries. I don’t think this matters, and hope that those resources and my lists are complementary, since it’s easier to work with just one version of a morpheme (what linguists call an allomorph), but it can be interesting and useful to link other versions.

It will probably take a while for Google’s bots to crawl all over the new lists and make it possible to search for e.g. ‘spelfabet base logue’ and get the relevant list straight away. However, it’s been possible to Google e.g. ‘spelfabet igh as in night’ for years, so I’m hoping that soon the bots will do their work, and make it easy for teachers and others to find the morpheme-based spelling lists.

I’ll keep adding more morphing morphemes to the site as time permits, but wanted the lists made available before this week’s DSF Language, Literacy and Learning Virtual Conference, as I talk about morphology quite a bit in my session. Hope you’re looking forward to this conference as much as I am, and that you find my morpheme-based lists useful.

Context can reduce accurate word learning

I’ve been reading an interesting 2017 dissertation by US researcher Reem Al Ghanem in preparation for this month’s DSF conference. It’s about how children learn to read and write polysyllabic words.

One section jumped out at me, because multi-cueing and the idea that phonics/word study should occur in context is still popular in many Australian schools:

“When poor readers rely on context to aid word recognition, they focus on selecting semantically appropriate words given the context clues rather than decoding the words through letter-sound conversion strategy.

When children utilize a compensatory strategy like contextual guessing rather than phonological decoding to aid their word recognition, their attention to word form is limited, resulting in poorer acquisition of word-specific representations, hence the negative context effects.

When poor readers are presented with words in isolation, they are forced to read them using phonological decoding. Although inefficient, their phonological decoding of the words increases their attention to the orthographic details of the words, resulting in acquiring higher quality representations for the words than when they are presented in
” (p103)

Developing high-quality word representations is a challenging activity for struggling readers. Expecting them to only learn words in context is a bit like asking them to only learn to shoot netball or basketball goals during a real game, and discouraging goal-shooting and other skills practice.

As a weedy, unco, asthmatic kid keen to avoid on-court humiliation, I voluntarily did many hours of goal-shooting practice. Imagine if coaches discouraged such practice, and said sporting skills should only be learnt in the context of real games. We’d all stare at them. Then ignore them.

Al Ghanem’s dissertation goes on:

“While context clues can support comprehension, they are unreliable sources for orthographic learning. Teachers must select the instructional strategy that fits the goal of instruction, and presenting words in isolation appears to be the most beneficial when the goal of instruction is acquiring word-specific representations.” (p107)

Why do we say the past tense suffix -ed three ways?

Young children learning to sound out words often write ‘jumped’ as ‘jumpt’ or ‘jumt’. They write the verb ‘filmed’ as ‘filmd’ and ‘landed’ as ‘landud’ or ‘landid’, depending on their accent.

They’re writing what they say/hear, which is great, but English has a special spelling for the regular past tense suffix: -ed. This spelling shows readers that, for example, the intended meaning is ‘packed’ (the bag) not ‘pact’ (between two countries).

But why do we pronounce this suffix three different ways? Why do we also have three pronunciations for regular plural and third person present inflectional suffixes, as in ‘kicks‘ (sounds like /s/), bends‘ (sounds like ‘z’) and ‘wishes‘? (sounds like /es/ or /uz/, depending on your accent). And what’s an inflectional suffix, anyway?

Here’s my third Fun Spelling Facts for Grownups video, in which I try to relate the visible part of our writing system (orthography) to the sounds (phonology) and meanings (morphology) in our spoken language. It’s 7.5 minutes long (yes, I talk too much), but the past tense -ed part is first. Hope it’s useful.

New year, same crappy old Education Department advice

In 2018, my state’s Department of Education and Training (DET) produced a brochure for parents called “Literacy and numeracy tips to help your child every day”.

Its top recommendation for “Helping your child work out difficult words” was to tell them, “Look at the picture. What word makes sense?”

Its authors clearly weren’t across the scientific research on how the brain learns to read, which shows that strong readers read (surprise!) the written words in books. Guessing words from pictures or context is only the strategy of 1. weak readers, and 2. learners trying to read books containing spelling patterns they’ve never been taught (e.g. predictable texts, still sadly widely used in schools).

I wrote a cranky blog post about the DET brochure at the time. Then, as my hands were still itching to tear my hair out, I made a free phonics workbook with the same teaching sequence as affordable decodable books, to give parents without much cash a better alternative.

Three years later, parents of five-year-olds have once again been given the same crappy advice in the same brochure, in the 2022 Prep bags. This is the Australian state with the car number-plate slogan “The Education State“, I kid you not.

The brochure only contains the word ‘phonics’ in a section called “Making the most of screen time”, but doesn’t help parents find quality early literacy programs, or consider the difference between them and Reading Eggs, as I have here and here.

There are five nice story books in the Prep bags, suitable for parents to read to children, but not a single decodable book suitable for young beginners to read themselves (unless the book “Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee!” is different from “It’s Me, Ruby Lee!” in the Education Minister’s media release).

For a calm, thorough discussion of the difference between the approach recommended by the DET in this brochure, and the approach recommended by reading scientists, see this article: Balanced Literacy or Systematic Reading Instruction? by Prof Pamela Snow.

There has been lots of media discussion about the importance of evidence-based teaching in the early years – recent examples are here, here, and here – and so many wonderful schools and teachers are enthusiastically embracing reading science, that I’d imagined further taxpayer-funded distribution of bad advice to parents wasn’t possible.

Our system not only fails many children with language-based learning difficulties at the start of their education, it bizarrely offers non-evidence-based “Colour Themes” during NAPLAN tests, and this year is making life even harder for the ones who battle on to Year 12, by adding a literacy assessment to the General Achievement Test. The result will be recorded on their graduating certificate for potential employers to see.

Instead of going back to tearing my hair out, I’ve made my January 2019 free Letters and Sounds workbook available again. If you can afford something better, use it instead. If not, and if your child is being taught to read and spell by memorising and guessing words, I hope it helps get them decoding and encoding. The leaflet size Pocket Rockets follow the same phonics teaching sequence, and I think they’re still the cheapest printed decodable books for beginners around.

I look forward to the day when the Victorian DET provides more solidly evidence-based early literacy information and resources to children and parents.