Category Archives: word attack

New phonics test will help teachers see who’s guessing, not decoding

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has announced that once they’ve been at school for 18 months, he’d like all children to do a short, class-teacher-administered phonics test.

Loud protests, of course. Not another mandatory test, etc. But I agree with his advisors that this short, simple test will be a good thing. I’m optimistic that once it draws teachers’ attention to not-currently-obvious gaps in their students’ reading knowledge, they’ll move to fill them.

Who asked for this test, and why?

This test is largely the result of lobbying by parents, concerned teachers and others because of the gap between research and practice in early literacy teaching, and the unnecessary failure and suffering that results.

This is a big problem for teachers as well as children. Teachers lose a lot of sleep over children in their classes who just keep falling further and further behind in reading, and who they’re not adequately trained or equipped to help.

The new phonics test, based on one currently used in the UK, would be designed to help teachers quickly and easily identify children who aren’t sounding out (decoding) words well. This is the first step towards helping them. Continue reading

Multi-cueing: teaching the habits of poor readers

I’m mentioned in The Age newspaper today because as usual I’ve been talking to anyone who will listen about the need for more and better phonemic awareness and phonics teaching for beginning and struggling readers and spellers.

I was a bit sad that the article started off saying that “the ‘reading wars’ have been reignited”, as I’m not interested in war with anyone. I just want teachers to be given the skills and resources they need to teach all but a tiny minority of children to read and spell, confidently and well, on their first attempt. But I guess in the media it has to bleed to lead.

It was lovely that the article discussed the successful use of an explicit, synthetic phonics program with the Preps at Westgarth PS. Nothing is so powerful as a good example.

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Reorganising high-frequency word lists

Literacy beginners and strugglers are often given high-frequency words to rote memorise, drawing them from the Oxford, Magic, Dolch, Fry or some other high-frequency word list.

These lists treat written words as things to be visually memorised, rather than sounded out.

They work from most to least common words without regard to spelling complexity or word structure, and include a mixture of simple, more complex and unusual spellings.

Teaching high-frequency words in order of frequency reinforces the impression children get from reading repetitive texts that English spelling is a dog’s breakfast, by obscuring rather than illuminating the spelling patterns.

Visually memorising regularly-spelt words is also highly inefficient, and can give children with weak awareness of sounds in words the idea that written words are lumpy wholes without reusable component parts.

I agree that frequency matters, but it’s not more important than complexity.

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100 word spelling test

I put some pseudoword spelling tests up on my website ages ago, hoping they would help people work out which of my workbooks and other materials might best meet their needs.

What is a pseudoword?

A pseudoword is a potential word in a given language, as it has allowable sound and spelling combinations, for example, "flernish" is an English pseudoword, but "wstoepfteg" is not. It doesn't sound or look remotely English.

Pseudowords are great for testing encoding skills/spelling, because they eliminate the possibility that the test words have been memorised as wholes, and require learners to sound out (i.e. use their phonemic awareness and knowledge of phoneme-grapheme correspondences) to spell all the words.

For young children and older ones who haven't been able to build their vocabularies through reading, most of the words in English are pseudowords. In fact, none of us know every word in the language – think of how many words are allowed in Scrabble that you've never heard of. So learners are not phased by being asked to write pseudowords. From their perspective, they have to do it all the time. When you google pseudowords, you find that most of them really do mean something to someone, somewhere. "Google", "blog" and the ubiquitous "selfie" were all pseudowords not long ago.

An abbreviated, 100 word spelling test

I haven't had much feedback about the spelling tests currently on my website, so I don't think they are being used much. Perhaps this is because they are far too long (I don't even use them in full these days) and in video form, requiring internet access. It's not easy to print them off and only use parts of them, or control the rate of presentation of words.

Below is an abbreviated, 100 word spelling test (or the printable version can be downloaded here) – on which I'd love your feedback.

There are no norms for this test, it's just intended as a tool to explore what a learner does and doesn't know about spelling. I usually try a two or three words from each section and then if it's clearly too easy, skip up to the next section, till I find a group of words that contain spellings which are clearly too difficult.

Before we do this test, I usually tell kids that I'm going to ask them to write some alien names and words from an alien language written in English. Sometimes I draw a few aliens – four eyes, six tentacles, some slime etc, and since my drawing skills are atrocious, kids laugh, which helps make the task seem less formal and stressful. Then off we go. No need for special equipment or expensive test forms, just pencils and paper, plus a way to block the view of other people's work for anyone inclined to copy.

Three-sound words

I start with just one letter = one sound in three-sound words (CVCs or Consonant-Vowel-Consonant words):

1. pab
2. jeg
3. kib
4. cag
5. fom
6. zun
7. vit
8. sen
9. hod
10. wup
11. yim
12. rab
13. lud
If a child can't do these, and is going to use the Spelfabet workbooks, they should start at the beginning of workbook 1.
If they can spell the above words, try these words with consonant digraphs:
14. kesh
15. cham
16. coth or maybe koth
17. fung or perhaps phung
18. jeck
19. riss
20. zoll

Four sound words

If they can't do these, start from p 25 in Workbook 1. But if they can do all these, then try these words with CVCC word structure:
21. halch
22. weps
23. yolve
24. rilm
25. vulk
26. renk
27. zant
28. wust
29. lomp
30. yuft
31. rax, as in "I bought at new rax" (they should not write "racks", as this is a singular noun not a plural or 3rd person verb, as in "sacks").
Kids who can't do these should start at the beginning of workbook 2. If they can do these, try some past tense words:
32. These aliens like to vick. Have you ever vicked before? Vicked (rhymes with ticked)
33. On Fridays they like to yeg. They have yegged every Friday for 2 years. Yegged.
34. They also like gopping so they gopped along the street. Gopped.
If these words cause a problem, start at page 31 in workbook 2. But if the above past tense words are written correctly, try some CCVCs:
35. bram
36. plock
37. tweb
38. drung
39. crig
40. glat
41. quep
42. stish
43. snod
44. swun

If these are a problem, try Workbook 3. But if they can spell CCVCs, try some "long" vowel spellings in both open and closed syllables.

Vowel spellings

The possible correct answers multiply here because each sound has several spellings:

45. prave (as in save) or praive (as in waive)
46. chay (as in day) or chey (as in they)
47. zite (as in bite) or zyte (as in byte) or zight (as in fight)
48. ji (as in hi) or jy (as in my) or jie (as in pie) or jigh (as in high) or jye (as in bye)
49. spode (as in node) or spoad (as in toad) or spowed (as in showed)
50. trow (as in slow) or troe (as in toe) or tro (as in fro)
51. froo (as in moo) or frew (as in chew) or frue (as in blue)
52. woon (as in hoon) or wune (as in June) or wewn (as in strewn)
53. thewt (as in newt) or thute (as in cute)
54. sheeb (as in dweeb) or sheab (as in reap) or shebe (as in grebe) or perhaps shieb (as in chief)
55. dwee (as in free) or dwe (as in we) or perhaps dwea (as in sea) or even duee (as in duane)
56. Someone got graked (as in faked) or graiked (as in grained)
57. Someone got trimed (as in timed) or trymed (as in rhymed)
58. Someone got choned (as in throned) or choaned (as in moaned)
59. Someone got prooped (as in drooped) or pruped (as in duped) or perhaps prouped (as in souped-up)
60. Someone got treeced (as in fleeced) or treased (as in creased) or treaced (as in peaced)
Problems here suggest that work is needed on the patterns in Workbook 4. But if these are mostly in the ballpark, other vowels might be the problem, as in:
61. clarp (as in tarp)
62. quer (as in her) or quir (as in stir) or querr (as in err) or quirr (as in whirr)
63. plaw (as in claw) or plore (as in more) or plor (as in for) or ploor (as in poor) or ploar (as in roar) or plaur (as in dinosaur)
64. prall (as in fall) or prawl (as in crawl) or praul (as in Paul) or maybe prorl (as in whorl)
65. jow (as in cow) or maybe jowe (as in Lord Howe Island)
66. glound (as in ground) or glowned (as in clowned)
67. proy (as in boy)
68. sploil (as in boil)
69. zair (as in hair) or zare (as in care)
70. slear (as in hear) or sleer (as in beer) or slier (as in tier) or slere (as in here)
If these are the problem, these patterns are tackled in Workbook 5. If not, try:
71. jance (as in dance)
72. twerse (as in verse) or twirse (as in twirl) or twurse (as in purse)
73. vause (as in pause) or vauze (as in gauze) or maybe vawse (as in hawse, a part of the bow of a ship)
74. glonze (as in bronze) or glonse (as in flense)
75. zounge (as in lounge)
76. boothe (as in smoothe) or maybe buthe or bewthe (but I can't think of any similar words)
These final consonant spellings are tackled in Workbook 6, along with a lot of homophones and spelling overlaps.

Multisyllable words

If your learner can make a reasonable fist of all of the above, she or he is probably needing to mostly work on multisyllable words, which you can check with these pseudowords:
77. A thing that flots is a flotter
78. Let's all go glonking
79. Let's all go vuzing (as in US fuzing) or voozing (as in snoozing) or vusing (as in using)
80. Let's all go clepping or klepping (as in stepping)
81. I found two thritches (as in witches) or maybe thriches (as in riches)
82. Don't touch it, it blexes (as in flexes)
83. I found a yoaf/yofe, and then another one, so now I have two yoaves (as in loaves) or yoves (as in cloves)
84. Do you think it's getting sharter lately? Sharter.
85. That is the breenest (as in greenest) / breanest (as in cleanest) thing I ever saw in my life. Breenest or breanest
86. We have to wait for it to drappen before we pick it. Drappen (as in happen)
87. I bought a new truttle (as in bottle) or possibly truttel (as in chattel).
88. We had a squessful day (as in stressful)
89. They started to gatter him, and he didn't like being gattered (as in shattered)
90. Look at that kire (as in fire) or kyre (as in tyre) or kyer (as in dryer)
91. Look at that ture (as in cure) or kewer (as in skewer)
92. They were felling rotchy (as in blotchy) or wrotchy (as in wrong) or rhotchy (as in rhotic)
93. That's the slarchiest thing I ever heard
94. They found two medloys
95. It was very grellow (as in yellow) or maybe grelloh
96. They went frining (as in dining) or phrining or perhaps friening or phriening
97. They went frinning (as in grinning) or phrinning or perhaps frynning or phrynning
98. Nobody was drairing (as in chairing) or draring (as in caring)
99. Its zame (as in fame) or zaim (as in aim) was extraordinary, it was very zamous (as in famous) or zaimous
100. They started to dwerry (as in berry) and they dwerried for two hours.
These patterns and others like them are tackled in Workbook 7. A student who gets these mostly right but still makes a lot of mistakes on vowels in long words might find Workbook 8 useful.
I'm still trying to finish workbooks 9 and 10! One school holidays when other priorities are out of the way, it'll happen.
Once again, the downloadable, pdf version of this test is now in the freebies section of my website shop, click here to get it.
I'd love your feedback on this 100 word spelling test, so if you use it, please tell me what you think/discover, and especially anything you think could be improved.
P.S. On 10/6/15: Many thanks to Kristie Smith and Andrea Burt for pointing out a couple of errors in the original version, I have now fixed them.

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Cheap decodable books – Pocket Rockets

Most of the books my local schools give beginners to read are of the repetitive, look-at-the-picture-and-guess variety. They contain a large, random selection of sound-letter correspondences, and often long words and hard spellings.

There’s no way beginners can sound many or even most of these words out, and schools typically have few or no decodable books, which strip back this complexity and provide children with focussed opportunities to practice the sounds and spellings they’ve been taught. Crazy, eh? But there it is.

Class teachers often don’t get to choose the books available, and don’t have a budget to buy decodable books. They must either use the too-hard books or (if they are determined to teach in accordance with the best scientific evidence) get free or cheap decodable books that reflect their teaching sequence. Free ones are great but involve downloading, printing and binding them oneself, which is time-consuming, and it’s hard to get a professional-looking result.

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Dr Louisa Moats: We need to be outraged

Learning Difficulties Australia has just marked its 50th anniversary with a national speaking tour by US literacy expert Dr Louisa Moats.

Dr Moats is the author of many influential papers and articles about literacy, and has been a key advocate for better language education for teachers in the US.

Louisa Moats - wanted, teachers with language knowledge

I've written a couple of previous blog posts about some of her work, here and here, but you can just google her name to find out lots more.

I spent all of Saturday and this morning in workshops by Dr Moats, so my head is kind of exploding with good information and ideas, in particular about how to align literacy-teaching with the scientific evidence about what works best.

I tend to get very focussed on sounds and spellings because they're the area of greatest need for most strugglers, and because of the lack of accurate information and systematic teaching about them. Teachers and the curriculum are focussed on letters, but letters are not the basic units for decoding, sounds (phonemes) and their spellings (graphemes) are.

However, Dr Moats' workshops reminded me about the broader context of what constitutes a good literacy program. It's good to get a bit of an "eyes up" now and then.

Dr Moats was very frank: Reading is one of the most studied aspects of human psychology, so we know a great deal about how novices learn, how proficient readers read, what' s going on in the brain when we read and what causes reading difficulty.

So, she says, "At a certain point (or a certain age) you begin to wonder: if we know so much about reading, how come there are so many poor readers?"

Her answer is that the science of reading is not well-reflected in classroom practices.

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Let’s call “nonsense word decoding” “new word attack”

A key criticism leveled at the very sensible use of nonsense words to assess children's awareness of sounds and spelling pattern knowledge is that they don't mean anything.

But how true is that?

In the UK all Year 1 children's reading word attack is now tested via a Phonics Screening Check, so I thought I'd ask Google for definitions of some of its example nonsense words:

Pseudo words practice sheet Continue reading

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