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Exclusive Interview With John Walker – Teaching Reading and Spelling

This week I have the pleasure of welcoming John Walker to the Top Notch Teaching Community. John is one of the creators and trainers of the Sounds-Write program.

Sounds-Write is a linguistic phonics program that teaches reading, spelling and writing. You can find out more about Sounds-Write by visiting their website: http://www.sounds-write.co.uk/. I also wrote an in depth article about the Sounds-Write program and resources, which you can read here: A New Phonics Program: Is It Right For You?

An interview with a literacy expert who shares his knowledge and strategies for teaching reading and spelling.
An interview with a literacy expert who shares his knowledge and strategies for teaching reading and spelling.

I first met John back in 2013 when I attended the Sounds-Write training at the Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation here in WA. I wasn’t confident in my ability to be able to teach children to read and spell and was confused about how it all fit together.

I had been taught the whole language approach, which included such strategies as showing flashcards, using mastery folders and teaching look, say, cover, write, check. I had no success with this approach when teaching children who had fallen behind in their literacy learning.

The Sounds-Write training was a real eye opener, but in the best possible way. I learnt so much and I am now confident in my ability to be able to teach children how to read, write and spell.

An interview with a literacy expert who shares his knowledge and strategies for teaching reading and spelling.
John and his grandson.

The thing that was most engaging about John as a trainer was his extensive knowledge of linguistics and the alphabetic code. There was no question that he couldn’t answer, and he explained it in such a way that was easy to understand, while also helping us see the importance of rigorously teaching the skills and conceptual knowledge needed in order to read and spell.

John has been a source of knowledge and inspiration to me personally as I have been on my own literacy journey. I consider John to be an expert in the field of teaching reading and spelling and I’m so pleased that he has agreed to answer some of our questions.

John also writes a fabulous blog where you can find out so much more about literacy and in particular the teaching of reading and spelling. Check it out at the link below.

The Literacy Blog

I hope you enjoy learning more about John and pick up a few ideas and strategies for teaching reading and spelling.

If you had all the time in the world, what would you be doing right now?

Living in Mosman Park, in Perth, and contemplating the Indian Ocean as the sun goes down! Seriously, I’d probably be doing what I’m doing now: training teachers in how to teach reading and spelling. I’d also be continuing my interest in reading across a broad range of subjects, ranging from literature, through cognitive psychology, evolutionary theory, and history, as well as current political debates.

If you could be a literacy superhero, what one power would you have and why?

Well, I don’t believe in magic wands, so this is a difficult question to answer in the sense that the problems thrown up around the area of teaching literacy are complex. We have what many people believe to be the most complex alphabetic writing system in the world and it takes time to teach it to the level at which the learner can read anything and write most things successfully.

Although you might expect me to answer this by saying something crass like ‘making all children literate’, I think I’d go for helping to enable teachers (and parents) to understand how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language.

I think that this is probably the big challenge facing us. The reason for this is that head teachers (principals in Australia), senior management teams and academics can remember quite easily how hard it was to learn, say, physics, maths, or history. What they can’t remember is having learned to read: for many of them reading was something that, with the right prior knowledge, came easily to them.

Walk us through your journey as an educator; how did you get to where you are today?

I began teaching in primary school and then moved into teaching in secondaries. Here, I taught English, maths, humanities, special needs, as well as coaching several sports. It was working in secondary education that I really became interested in why it was that some children entered school unable to read and why many left still unable to read, in spite of the time the staff spent trying to help them.

In fact, I can still reel off the names of some students who left school unable to read and write well enough to function in the outside world. Where I was teaching in East London, being functionally illiterate was likely, unless they were very lucky indeed, to consign a person into a life of extreme poverty or a life of crime!

Funnily enough, during my time teaching in London, I attended two courses, one lasting a term, the other a whole year. Both of them had literacy as a central focus and neither one taught me a single thing about teaching children who were illiterate to read. The emphasis was always exclusively on whole language. Plus ça change!

After that I worked for the British Council teaching English as a foreign language and this was where the proverbial penny dropped! It was here that I learned that all words are comprised of sounds and that all sounds had, at some point, been assigned spellings.

What also became apparent was that I could see emerging the beginnings of a structural conceptual schema: for example, spellings could comprise one, two, three or four letters and there are often multiple ways of spelling sounds. What I needed next was to read the work of Diane McGuinness!

In the late nineties I was training teachers to teach literacy and, at the same time, teaching very bright young students colonial and postcolonial studies on the masters course at Warwick University when, one day, I suddenly asked myself which one was the more important to me. Well, the students at Warwick could most likely cope very well if I wasn’t there teaching them. Training teachers would enable me to influence the thousands and thousands of children who needed to learn to read.

If a teacher walked up to you asking for your advice about teaching reading and you only had a few minutes to give them your best tip, what would it be?

In regard to the area we’re talking about – literacy – I’d tell them that the only constant in the writing system is the sounds of the language because, once you understand that, you have a structure for teaching the code: sounds are matched to spelling and spellings are matched to sounds.

There are many types of reading books available for teachers and parents to use with beginning readers. What is your advice when picking reading books?

Walk on both feet! Use decodable readers that match where a child has got to in their phonics programme – to promote automaticity – and also read to them an endless variety of fictional and informational texts to expand their vocabulary, their knowledge of the world and their love of books.

Once you’ve made a good start on teaching the complexities of the code, they you can use more difficult (in terms of the complexity of the code) bite-sized texts from common or garden readers, authentic fictional texts and encyclopaedias. These are also very useful in helping to build knowledge, which I see as a vital part of the whole process.

Many students have difficulty with accurate and fluent reading. Why is reading fluency important and what are some things that teachers can do to help with developing fluency?

To become a fluent reader, the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation need to be taught and practised to mastery level. Of course, this has to take place in tandem with a gradually increasing code knowledge and conceptual understanding of how the code works.

If reading is slow, halting and the process of decoding is taking up too much space in working memory, then the reader is going to find gaining meaning much more difficult.

Can you tell my readers about the ‘schwa’ phoneme and the best way to tackle teaching this concept?

For L1 (‘mother tongue’) speakers, locating schwas in words is not difficult. This is because English is a stress-timed language and, for that reason, we lay stress on, for our purposes here, certain syllables in words. Stress is placed on strong syllables in words. These are very easy to identify because L1 speakers do it naturally. The trick is to bring this tacit understanding to conscious recognition.

Why is this important?

Because the problem with schwas is that, very often but not always, they aren’t spelt as they sound. Once the strong syllables in words have been identified, it’s easy to look at the weak, un-emphasised syllables and to ‘hear’ whether they contain those weak vowel sounds we call schwas.

When we’re reading, unless a word is not within our spoken vocabulary, we tend to ‘normalise’ the word. When we’re writing, however, it is the schwa sounds we need to focus on. This is important because schwas are the most common vowel sounds in the English language, yet they are often misspelt.

Using a spelling voice is very helpful in getting over this problem as well as helping to overcome other problems, such as those posed by elision (We say ‘goverment’ but it’s spelled ‘government’; we say ‘choklut’, we spell the word ‘chocolate’.)

What strategies have you used to help increase students’ vocabulary? Can you recommend any further reading for effective vocabulary instruction?

I believe strongly that, alongside their teaching of reading and writing, teachers should be constantly on the look out for opportunities to develop students’ vocabularies.

Opportunities to teach new words and their meanings constantly occur in the context of word building and word reading activities. In the first five or six years of life, a child’s spoken vocabulary is likely to far outstrip anything a child can read. Certainly, up to the time a child enters school much of the vocabulary they’ve acquired will have been through spoken language, which, for the lucky ones, will include language acquired through having been talked to, sung to, read to.

Once in school, children should be taught phonics, which, because it is so hugely generative, will expose them to an exponentially growing repertoire of vocabulary. At the same time, especially in the earliest stages of learning to read, teachers need also to be reading children a range of different kinds of texts.

In my opinion, a hugely neglected area is the reading of informational texts, through which pupils can become familiar with a broad spectrum of domain-specific words and with grammatical structures of different text types or genres.

What are some strategies that teachers and parents can use now to help children with their spelling, especially those high frequency words?

This is something that I am asked often, both by teachers and by parents. I’ve written a number of times about how to help children with high frequency words on my blog, which you can read at the below links:

Down with high-frequency words!

High frequency words

Should key words be taught as ‘sight’ words?

How to teach some HFWs (Part I)

How to teach any HFWs (Part II)

What is the single most important takeaway that you want my audience to know about the teaching of reading and spelling?

That being able to decode is the first step to being able to enjoy reading – the two go hand in hand – and that everything a child does from the moment they enter school depends on their ability to learn to read and write.

I hope you enjoyed reading more about John and literacy. I’d like to thank John for generously giving his time to answer our questions.

John has also agreed to answer some more of your questions, so if there is anything else you would like to know about the teaching of reading and spelling or the Sounds-Write program then please ask them in the comments below.

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