I’ve been following the ongoing phonics debate in Australia with interest. Many parents are calling for the introduction of the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) and state Education Ministers are opposing it. Is phonics a panacea?
Introduced in 2012, can we categorically say the PSC has been a success?
Children are still failing to learn to read, even some who ‘pass’ the PSC. Part of the issue seems to me, that schools see the PSC as a hoop to be jumped through, rather than an opportunity to reflect on, and improve, phonics teaching for reading.
Non words are part of the PSC and these are intended to be used to assess decoding ability, using phonics knowledge alone (the look and meaning of the word cannot be used). Assessors for dyslexia use such measures to ascertain whether students have a ‘phonological deficit’. With the explicit teaching of these words in schools, these assessment batteries become less effective.
Many schools teach students to read non words, which is short-sighted as it masks those at risk. Studies also show that the first time a student sees a new word has the biggest impact – how confusing to be taught to read phonetically plausible pseudo-words!
Could the PSC be integrated as a useful screening check for those at risk of dyslexia and reading failure: yes.
Is it used for this purpose in the UK? I think not (too much effort is put into ‘passing’ it). This is about data and not nurturing a love of reading. What message does it give to children about reading?
Children might ‘pass’ the test but still not be ‘readers’. In addition, it is unclear what happens next for those who fail.
There have been numerous studies carried out into reading in the UK and worldwide. In analysing the minutiae of reading: the nuts and bolts, are we somehow missing the Big Picture?
One of the best known signs of dyslexia is reading failure. When analysing statistics, it is important to remember there are many variables: not just the method but the child and the environment; including home, school and importantly, the teacher.
In a large scale study of the effectiveness of intervention schemes, Greg Brooks found that no particular one stood out significantly in terms of impact. However, the teacher is key, see the report here: What works for literacy difficulties.
Teachers need to have an awareness of different strategies when teaching reading but also an understanding of the emotional consequences of reading ‘failure’.
I stumbled across a powerful description of the reading process which likened it to swimming (read the blog here). This analogy stayed with me.
Reading is not just about phonics or whole word strategies, it is not just about practice or whether there is a culture of reading at home. All of these things are factors; however, it seems to me that reading is a lot like the other physical childhood accomplishments which require co-ordination: swimming and cycling; instruction is required, but these are also physical acts, ability to experience success can be affected by attitude, our emotional responses and physical readiness.
Before studying dyslexia, I taught reading to those children who had lost faith in their ability, some may have been dyslexic. One would feel physically sick when he tried to read, another could not sit still. Many had physical and emotional responses to reading, no doubt they had had negative experiences in the past. They had some phonics, they had some ‘whole word’ knowledge but trying to read made them highly anxious, confused, sometimes angry or just plain weary.
It made me think of how we taught our sons to cycle. We took the pedals off the bikes and found a hill; they got balance and a feel for the movement. When they had the balance, we put the pedals back on; they cycled independently – very wobbly at first!
Some children need a similar approach when learning to read; a helping hand and some encouragement, in order to provide a sense that it is all within their grasp. The support needs to be provided and withdrawn subtly, so that the child is barely aware of it and almost feels that they did it ‘on their own.’
The next minute, they’re off! The sheer joy of freedom and independence.
Many years on and, despite the Phonics Screening Check in the UK, some children are still not learning to read. I hope parents in Australia aren’t expecting too much from it. Used to screen for children ‘at risk’ of reading failure and to reflect on teaching practice, the PSC could be a powerful tool.
Is the book something they WANT to read, are they slavishly restricted to particular book bands?
Try using picture books, poems, magazines, signs, logos – any form of written word.
To help children on their way, they need to learn to ‘coast’ when reading, through paired and shared activities. Phonics needs to be taught along with enjoyment of reading and other skills, such as inference and prediction. Interventions such as Reading Recovery can feel highly pressured. In fact, any intervention can make the child feel they need ‘fixing’, are defective, make them feel scrutinised.
Remember, fiction is imagining, factual books are connecting ideas. Reading is not just words/data on a page, it changes and illuminates our brain and thinking.
It’s a complicated process but eventually readers take off and they don’t look back!
Phonics is a good start but perhaps not the panacea many would have us believe.
Michael Jackson sang that it was easy but for some of us, learning our ‘a,b,c’s’ feels impossible. Moreover, as everyone else is ‘getting it’; how does that feel for a young learner?
One of the key components of any SpLD intervention is the ‘alphabet arc’. Why?
Something that dyslexics typically do not grasp, without instruction, is that letters have a name and sound – of course they do!
In order to acquire this understanding, dyslexic children need to experience the alphabet, so that it becomes less abstract. This is essentially how dyslexics can thrive in all areas of learning. Their minds are apt to rotate abstract concepts, to take 360 views and see all possibilities. Simply saying this is ‘a’ because this is ‘a’ does not cut it!! They have to experience something; using their senses, which is where the multi-sensory learning comes in.
Cognitive Load Theory and Working Memory limitations are big topics in education. By taking in information via Primary biological information i.e. our senses; this decreases the load on Working Memory. It is more of an evolutionary approach to learning, information that just couldn’t be processed before, gets transferred to Long Term Memory!
Read more here: Evolutionary Upgrade of Cognitive Load Theory.
The alphabet arc is simply, as it says on the tin, alphabet letters arranged in order of the alphabet, in the shape of an arc.
So often, when I’m teaching the alphabet arc, students will say .
‘..but this looks like a…and if you do this, it becomes a…’
Encourage them to close that 3D, spatial thinking down – it is not going to help them in this task!
Look out for:
A few months ago, my eight year old was sitting on the bed (between there and the bath we have our BEST chats).
He: ‘How do you spell ‘p’?’.
Me: ‘What do you mean?’, …unsure whether he needed the loo. (I always answer a question with a question, as it’s usually just ‘wondering out loud’ and he has the answer).
‘He: The letter: ‘p’, how do you spell it?’
Aaaaah, he didn’t understand the ‘Alphabetic Principle’, the fact that letters have names and sounds.
So, what is the Alphabet Arc anyway?
Using wooden, or plastic letters, the pupil is asked to arrange the alphabet in an arc on the desk or table in front of them, with ‘m,n’ in the middle.
There are many versions of letters available: magnetic, coloured, tactile, plain. It might be easier to start with coloured letters and progress to plain wood. With the plain ones, pupils find it harder to remember letter orientation, therefore there is greater challenge.
How can you help your students acquire this knowledge?
In this way, pupils are using their sense of touch, they are saying the names and sounds and hearing them. Have a mirror handy so that they can see the sounds being made from the lips and teeth and encourage them to feel them too: air, vibrations, movements of the tongue.
Things to look out for and address:
Look here for my video for Nexus Education:
Look here for a lesson plan (whole class) on letter names : Whole class alphabet arc
Understanding the power of the dyslexic mind and the alphabet.
In a brilliant exhibition at the Smithsonian, dyslexic graphic designer, Madalyn Hymas, showed how 6 letters can make 48 words. You start to appreciate how confusing the alphabet is for a mind that sees endless possibilities!
*seek specialist advice where possible, however, this relatively simple ‘alphabet arc’ exercise can really help – DON’T DELAY!
In this blog, I aim to help Primary classroom teachers identify the elephants…I mean dyslexic children in their midst. I feel that teachers often have a good instinct but perhaps lack confidence, or are limited by school policy, when it comes to identification of dyslexia.
I am driven by the desire to help to identify and support dyslexic learners because my own son is dyslexic. Dyslexic learners often have low self esteem and can become disenfranchised due to negative experiences in school.
I challenge you to be curious…
I’m told Dyslexia is a ‘predictable’ need but many educators still resist identifying and supporting this, fairly common, learning difference. Why?
Is it fear of cost implications, at a time when budgets are tight?
Perhaps it’s the abstract nature of dyslexia, or the fact that, unlike some other learning differences, dyslexia reflects directly on teaching. Is it fear of labelling a child?
It is suggested that there are, at least, three elephants in every classroom! The analogy of an elephant seems particularly pertinent; I’ve often seen the scientific study of dyslexia likened to blind men ‘looking’ at an elephant. They each experience a different aspect and are convinced they have the full story. The truth is; it’s different for every individual but there are some common characteristics.
We can ignore dyslexia but it will not go away; what is the cost, both to the mental health and future opportunities for these children? Could educators be doing more to identify and support these learners?
The year 1 phonics screener might give information about these children and the year 1 target of ‘knowledge of letter names’ might give a further clue. Dyslexic children typically struggle to acquire the ‘Alphabetic Principle’ i.e. that letters have names AND sounds. Letters continue to be abstract to them until they ‘discover’ them through multi-sensory learning (feeling the letters, saying the sound, writing the shape).
Observe and listen to your children! Who might be dyslexic?
This isn’t exhaustive but might just get you thinking! Remember, the only expert is the child – get to know them and work with parents to provide mutual support.
**Take a moment to jot down what you think are indicators of dyslexia, under the following headings: Speaking and listening, Writing, Reading, Maths and Sensory differences.
Now read on!
Here are some clues:
Be on the Look out for:
*nb a letter within 2 lines e.g. /a/ suggests a sound.
Why? I may have low sensory feedback from these speech sounds (I can’t feel them or ‘hear’ them), this transfers to spelling later. This might be linked to some challenges with coordination too.
Why? This might be because these letter names are articulated in the same areas e.g. ‘c’ and ‘s’ are said through the teeth.
Why? I can’t hold the information in my working memory and when under stress, forget what I want to say. I’m desperate to take part and share my awesome ideas which are often complex.
Why? I might have working memory (where information is held) and auditory (processing of sounds) processing difficulties, this leads to sequencing difficulties.
Why? I often try to support language with my imagination and may visualise meaning, using my ‘mind’s eye’, I don’t have a picture for ‘verb’.
*SEEK ADVICE FROM A SPEECH AND LANGUAGE THERAPIST WHERE POSSIBLE.
Be on the Look out for:
Why? I might have difficulties with co-ordination and fine motor skills. The shape of letters may not have become automatic for me. I may not really understand what letters are i.e. a picture of a sound.
Why? Abstract words cannot be visualised (I don’t have a picture for them to help me) and they drop out of working memory when I’m writing, due to memory overload.
Why? I might have a difficulty with visual perception (how things appear on the page) and orientation. I might get memory overload, I might not really understand how to use punctuation.
Why? I can’t tell when a word ‘looks’ wrong and it’s like encountering the word for the first time. I typically struggle to map sounds (phonemes) to their corresponding letter shape (graphemes). My difficulties with speech and language start to transfer to writing. Letters and syllables may be transposed (wrong order) due to working memory difficulties (working memory is where we hold information temporarily).
Sounds in words are indistinct to me and a word can be like a chewing-gum blob of sound in my mouth!
This is probably the area most commonly associated with dyslexia. To really understand and spot dyslexia though, one has to look across a child’s cognitive profile and Primary teachers are perfectly positioned to do this.
Be on the look out for:
Why? I can’t differentiate between them, my mind might rotate them. I can’t recognise them automatically. I might have a difficulty processing symbolic information (see also maths).
Why? I might… struggle to hold the sounds in memory and sequence them.
Why? Decoding/reading is primarily an act of coordination and the eyes jump in saccades (hop) across the page and across words. Dyslexic children seem to lack coordination in this area.
Be on the Look Out for:
Why? Because I can’t remember symbolic information without supporting aids e.g. visual or semantic clues (meaning).
Why? I might have visual and perceptual difficulties.
Why? Numbers are symbols and are abstract which makes it hard for me to remember.
Why? I might have difficulties sequencing and remembering abstract information.
*Time, times tables, days of the week and months of the year can be really tricky for me.
This aspect of dyslexia tends to be discussed far less than e.g. reading, where a lot of money has been put into research. Observe the child, talk to them, does any of this fit?
In additional to our main 5 senses, we have our proprioceptive sense (where our body is in space) and vestibular (balance). If you are lucky enough to have an OT in school, talk to them about this.
Be on the look out for:
Why? I might struggle to filter out background noise.
Why? I might have difficulties maintaining arousal/concentration and need some kind of external input to help me concentrate. Movement might help me, or standing to learn.
Why? It’s how I process the world!
*SEEK ADVICE FROM AN OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST WHERE POSSIBLE.
For help with spelling: Memory and spelling
For suggestions to help with learning the alphabet see: Alphabet Arc
How might you initiate a discussion around dyslexia in your school? read here: Let’s chat: dyslexia
Suggested Further Reading:
Day-to-Day Dyslexia in the Classroom, Joy Pollack, Elisabeth Waller and Rody Politt, (2004, RoutledgeFalmer).
Dyslexia and Mathematics, T. R. Miles and Elaine Miles, (2004, RoutledgeFalmer)
Dyslexia: A Practioner’s Handbook, Gavin Read, (2016, Wiley and Sons)
Removing Dyslexia as a Barrier to Achievement, Neil McKay, (2012, SEN marketing)
Rose Report Read Rose Report
Sensational Kids, Lucy Jane Miller, (2006, Penguin).
Teaching Literacy to Learners with Dyslexia: A Multisensory Approach, Kathleen Kelly & Sylvia Phillips (2011, Sage).
As a dyslexia teacher and mum, my aim is to support those with dyslexia. I am particularly interested in helping class teachers to get a better understanding of this rather abstract and complex difference. Sadly, dyslexic strengths often only appear after school life has ended. My dream would be for dyslexic children to thrive in school, both emotionally and academically. They can learn, if they can do it differently.
I’ve used the name ‘thinkpix’ because when my eldest son (now 10) was around 5 years old, he told me ‘I have a picture for everything’. I read ‘The Gift of Dyslexia’ shortly after and everything fell into place; why he was struggling at school, had been late to talk (3 years), could never remember nursery rhymes and had never been interested in the alphabet!
My first blog is on identifying dyslexia in the classroom. I will look at how to support these children in future blogs as well as other living and learning posts!