My work carries me into some unusual places and allows me to learn a lot of new things. Recently I have met one of the new loves of my life – systematic phonics. Our meet cute was at a staff room table where I was handed a copy of Letters and Sounds. I really hadn’t encountered phonics before and so even the slightly skinny Letters and Sounds program was quite a revelation. As a father of two young girls approaching their first attempts at learning to read beyond their names, I was attracted to the systematic introduction to the phonemes and the associated graphemes. It changed the way that I though about how text and speech worked. I now know that researchers have waxed lyrical for decades about the gap in most people’s understanding of how speech works (let alone it’s relationship to print) but it was a revelation to me.
My daughter was introduced to her first GPCs this year and has already begun using them to decode texts. I can’t say that the stories she is reading are riveting – the tension created when “Pat is at the tap” is slightly less than palpable, but my daughter doesn’t care. She has been waiting for so long to be able to make sense of these symbols that she knows contain meaning that she doesn’t care if the story is limited. Now I couldn’t stop her trying to decode everything in sight even if I wanted to! Seeing this enjoyment at doing something “big kids do” amongst the kids in my school’s classrooms reinforces to me how important this systematic phonics instruction is for their capacity to read.
On that note, I thought that I might take the opportunity to periodically share some of the things I am learning about reading instruction. One of the first things that I have learnt is that learning activities based around reading have effectiveness that is at least partially based on the order and the purpose of selecting the activity. Something that is highly effective for one purpose and at a particular time can be quite limiting for student reading when used for a different purpose. Here are two that come to mind:
Word sorts – sorting through families of words in order to for students to identify morphology and relationships between words is a useful technique once students have learnt their GPCs and can decode effectively. It helps students identify different ways of using and combining morphemes and how they might use the morphemes to identify the meaning of words they do not know. However, one of the early lessons for me was that using word sorts with kids to get them to identify common graphemes and then try to link them to phonemes was counterproductive. Trying to get kids to discover GPCs on their own by looking at patterns of words was not only frustrating for many of them but actually resulted in a loss of time that we could have better used explicitly instructing them in the GPCs. These two types of word sorts can look similar but have very different outcomes.
Contextual cues – A similar idea is the use of contextual cues in texts. When students are able to decode a word, but the word is not one in their verbal vocabulary, contextual cues can be useful to hep them get a sense of the word class or what the word might mean. However, if these cues are used before the child is able to decode appropriately then they become a crutch that the student uses to guess what words are present. Two similar techniques but with very different outcomes for students.
There are many examples like this through instruction in many different areas, not just reading. Reading just happens to be an area where the consequences of a poor choice might be more pronounced.