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You know at the end of university I didn’t have a clue how to teach kids how to read, write and spell. I came through university with the whole language approach to teaching reading. This approach is based on the visual memorisation of whole written words and doesn’t teach the skills or conceptual knowledge needed to read. When I came through uni, phonics was a bit taboo, and we were told that we don’t teach literacy like that anymore. I have had no exposure to phonics and don’t really know much about this approach to teaching reading.
I attended a 4 day workshop last week called Sounds~Write with two fantastic presenters John Walker and Mary Gladstone. Sounds~Write is a linguistic phonic programme that teaches reading, writing and spelling. The programme begins with sounds in language and moves to sounds in the written words. This is vastly different from a traditional phonics programme, which is designed to focus on spellings, rather than sounds in the contexts of words. A traditional programme focuses on how words look and how they are spelled.
Wowee what an eye opener this was for me. I feel like I’ve been on a massive learning curve and now I need to try and make sense of all of this new information.
I think the best thing about this programme is how explicit it is….it is very sequential, cumulative, skills based and you are provided with individual lesson plans that include a script format so as the teacher you know exactly what you need to say. So you are using the appropriate language from the start.
Concepts and Skills
An important part of the programme for me was learning about the conceptual knowledge and skills needed for a reader. The 4 concepts that a reader needs to understand and that are explicitly taught in the programme include:
- Letters are symbols that represent sounds.
- A sound may be spelled by 1, 2, 3 or 4 letters. Example: dog, street, night, dough.
- One sound – different spellings. Example: rain, break, gate, stay.
- One spelling – different sounds. Example: head, seat, break
The 3 essential skills needed in order to decode the English language, and that are taught in the programme include:
- Blending: this is pushing sounds together to build words.
- Segmenting: this is being able to pull individual sounds apart in words.
- Phoneme manipulation: this is being able to insert and delete sounds in words.
The lessons are divided into 3 main teaching sections:
1. The Initial Code
In this part of the programme students are taught the essential skills (segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation) needed in order to decode the English language. This section looks at words with the structure of CVC, VCC, CVCC, CCVC, CCVCC, CVCC and CCVC. If you’re unfamiliar with this C=consonant and V=vowel. This section doesn’t yet introduce the concepts 3 and 4 listed above. It also looks at some spellings that can be written with a double consonant.
2. The Extended Code
The extended code continues to use the skills previously taught but moves on to the more complex concepts of one sound – different spellings and one spelling – different sounds.
3. Polysyllabic Words
Again this section uses previously taught skills, but this time with words that are made up of more than one syllable. This section also includes a lesson where students analyse the polysyllabic words to identify the difficult spellings and then use the skills to help read and spell these words.
The Best Bits
Some of the parts that I particularly like about this programme for teaching reading include:
- It can be used with individual students, small groups or for whole classes.
- Writing and spelling are part of all lessons.
- It includes diagnostic assessments so you can work out exactly what skills students are using and what concepts they may already know. You then use this information to work out where to start the individual child.
- You don’t need the student to have 100% mastery before moving on. You aim for about 80% and then can move on, and this is possible because it is cumulative.
- The use of gestures, this is an essential component and helps to direct students and let them know exactly what we want them to do.
- The programme spends a lot of time talking about the possible errors students may make and they give you the exact phrasing of what you need to say to help the student make the correction.
- It is not the teacher doing the work for the student. The teacher provides phrasing and gestures so that the student can do the error correction on their own.
- All the extra support materials they provide.
How I’ve Already Used It
I was pretty excited after the first day so I came home and thought I might try a little bit with my Little Miss Three. The first sounds that are introduced are the /a/ /i/ /m/ /s/ and /t/. So I thought I’d try the first lesson and the word ‘sat’.
The first lesson involves students in building words using the target sounds. I wrote the letters in the word on separate post-it notes and had them spread on the kitchen bench (not in order). Then on a piece of paper I had three lines drawn, e.g. _ _ _. I said to my daughter, “I’m going to say the word ‘sat’ very slowly and I want you to hear the sounds that make up the word ‘sat’.” Then I said, “what is the first sound you heard in the word sat.” So I said “sssaaat” very slowly (and gestured to the first line).
Little Miss Three for a couple of times just said the word ‘sat’, so then I really held the initial sss sound so that it was very obvious what that first sound was. She then said /s/. We moved on the same way with the other two sounds. She had some trouble with the sound /a/ but did get it but then when we got to the /t/, she kept saying ‘sat’. Then she got irritated and said she didn’t want to do it anymore.
As we had started cooking dinner I continued with what I was doing. I could hear her saying to herself the word over and over again and the first two sounds. Then I heard her just say the /t/. She then said to me, “Mummy the other one is /t/. I’ve been practicing and now I can say it.”
We then built the word using the post it notes and pulling each letter down to the corresponding line as we said the sound. We then read the word. We didn’t do any more after that as I thought that was more than enough for her to digest.
Then a couple of days later I was sitting at the table doing my reflection sheet that is part of the programme and Little Miss Three asked if we can do the activity we did the other day.
So I got my post-it notes again and randomly spread the letters in the word ‘sat’ on the table. But Miss Three didn’t want to build the word; she promptly told me that she needed 3 post-it notes because she had to write each one.
I didn’t want to push it so I gave her the marker pen and the post-it notes and went back to my sheet.
A little while later she said to me, “okay Mummy I’m ready now.” Then she told me I had to say the sound as she pointed to each letter. Below you will see how I had arranged the post-it notes and how she wrote her letters for each sound.
I was quite astounded by this as we didn’t really spend that much time on it the few days before. I feel quite excited now about using this new approach to teaching reading.
They do suggest that the age to start with children in this structured approach is about 4. So I won’t be spending too much time with Little Miss Three completing the formal lessons yet. But I’ll focus on sound games. Things like “I spy a mmmuuug”. And get her to blend the sounds to make the word. Also games for when we’re driving, “I see the ‘sun’, what’s the first sound you hear in the word sun”. I’ll post updates on our progress as I use this programme more.
I would highly recommend this programme to any teacher out there. If you’re a graduate or teacher in training, then to me this is an essential programme to learn. If you’ve been teaching for a while and use a phonics approach, then Sounds~Write can actually replace any of those and be the only programme that you use. It is almost like a one stop shop, no more trying to scrounge together a heap of different resources to help you teach reading, writing and spelling.
If you have the chance to attend a Sounds~Write workshop, then do. You will not be disappointed. If you want more information then you can check out the website here: http://sounds-write.co.uk/.
I’m really excited to start using the programme! I’ll keep you updated on my progress with it.