Monday, April 21, 2014

The Reading Clinic

This week sees the start of my full time private practice - The Reading Clinic.  Offering literacy tutoring using the Sounds Write Phonics Program, Functional Literacy Assessments, Parent Support and School Support.  My aim is to do my bit in making literacy accessible to all, increasing understanding by all of literacy difficulties and what can be done.  In the weeks to come a teacher colleague and myself will be putting together information sessions for parents of children with literacy learning difficulties to help them understand their child's difficulties, what can reasonably be done in schools and what they can do to help.   We will begin our work in regional centres.  

And I know from experience that often psychologist's reports are not well understood by staff in schools.  I was confronted with questions about specialist skills required by staff to work with kids with dyslexia.  Again, we will develop information sessions for staff.  Remediation for these kids is not rocket science, it is simply good teaching.

Down the track I will be travelling to Melbourne to train up in Easy English. This is a style of written communication for people with literacy difficulties.  It involves easily accessible use of the English language and images or drawings.  From the research on the functions of the brain, using visual images or icons really helps with understanding.  When I worked in schools I advocated that teachers use stick figure drawings as well as words when teaching.  Now it is my challenge to bring this research into my report writing and presentations.  Time to get out the pencil and practice .....

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Filling In The Gaps

In a recent article Ruth Miskin (Read Write Inc.) makes the statement "Without talk there is little thought." She is commenting on the difference that lots of language early in a child's life makes to their thinking and reading life.  She begins with a description of the early lives of two children, barometric composites of many children in our school systems, and how these play out with reading acquisition.  She then goes on to describe the type of intervention required if the child less exposed to language early on is to gain ground.  Lots of work is required, language rich classrooms, conversations, explicit vocabulary development, reading every day, engagement with stories .....

Early language immersion has huge implications.  In concrete terms it translates in to how many words a child has been exposed to - differences in the millions.  Classroom teachers do not facilitate learning with 30 odd children who have all been exposed to the same number of words.  The difference in exposure to words means children in a single class vary a lot in terms of their familiarity with words that are used in classroom lessons, how easily they 'click in' to the sounds of words and who can access and work with a broad range of words.  And it further plays out in who can develop their recognition of familiar words into more meaningful recall of words from long term memory.   It affects comprehension of what they write, richness of what they write, their ability to use their working memory potential well.

Ruth Miskin goes on to list a number of very good questions for school leaders. Any parent with a child struggling with literacy would be wise to note these questions and ask them of the schools they are considering.  Pulling all of this together is not easy for schools .... or for parents.  Literacy development for many children requires intensive and extended effort.  As a parent I know I fail, often, to maintain the level of home input that is really required to 'quicken' the pace of my daughter's remediation.  I know from experience how an overemphasis on developing literacy can undermine relationships and balance within a family home.  So I do what I can and I look for ways that I can retain and enrich my daughter's relationship with words and reading even though it may not be easy for her.  I support the explicit phonics instruction of her classroom with nightly reading of books (at level - decodable).  I look for ways to extend conversation.  We talk about words.  I look for ways to keep stories alive and interesting.  And I look for ways in which I can keep her engaged with writing (journalling and creative) and the magic that brings.


For many children struggling with literacy their relationship to words is severely contaminated.  I'd like to think we can reengage them.  Success is the biggest motivator which is why I believe wholeheartedly in good solid explicit tutoring.  Children should be able to trust someone to help them learn.  And I want to keep children open to the magic and character strengthening of stories, and books, and writing.


This week I noticed two workshops for children being conducted through the Fremantle Arts Centre Arts Courses.  I've enrolled my daughter in one of them - 'The Laboratory of Hairy Words' for 9 - 12 yr olds.  Its a new course, facilitated by Josephine Wilson.  Children get to play with words in the creation of a small work of fiction.  I am hoping this is fun, great fun, and that my daughter comes home full of enthusiasm for playing more with words.  


She has already mastered the skills of making her own books.  The ones below were made in the days when I operated The Paper Muse.  



We have had many an enjoyable moment using the suggestions from this little book "How to Make a Journal of Your Life" by Dan Price in filling our journals with drawings and photos and things to stick in.  Now I'm hoping her time with Josephine and other children tickles along her confidence and enjoyment in crafting her own stories and putting them to paper. 

The Laboratory of Hairy Words is a new course.  I hope it is a huge success.  If my girl comes home talking enthusiastically about what she has done then we've made inroads on two levels - more talking and conversation, and more writing.  I will keep you posted.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Sounds-Write Down Under

This past week, John Walker, UK founder of the Sounds-Write Phonics Program has been in Perth with Mary Gladstone (Sounds-Write Australia) running training groups as DSF South Perth and staff at a local school. Tutors and Teachers who were trained last year also had the opportunity to spend several hours with John and Mary, before both departed for their homes overseas and interstate.  I was very fortunate to partake of this opportunity.

Not only did I reap the rewards of John's and Mary's experience and expertise, I also benefitted from the experience and questions of my Sounds Write colleagues.  Many thanks to DSF South Perth for the opportunity to spend time with all these amazing teachers.  I picked up a few tips for working with students who have been so traumatised by their journey in trying to learn to read that they can barely participate.  I learned that our brains are hardwired for recognising faces, learning language, picking up social practices, hunting and learning to recognize predators.   All other learning builds on this primary hardwiring.

The book 'Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn' by John Hattie and Gregory Yates was mentioned more than once - I will post more on that in future blogs.  Reference to this book reinforced what was presented in an educational psychology seminar I attended the previous evening - if we want children to be able to spell well they must have explicit instruction with a lot of repetition - at least 4 repetitions for each word if a representation of the word is to be retained in long term memory. The real work in teaching spelling is in the 'extended code' - understanding the sounds represented by more than one letter.

We talked about the reality that there are no 'rules' in spelling and that probably no teacher could cite all the 'exceptions' that are often referred to when the illusion of 'rules' is taught.  We discussed the use of good old fashioned encyclopedias when working with the extended code.  I have another list of professional books I need to purchase as well as non decodable books we can introduce whilst teaching the extended code. So much for curtailing my expenditure on books .....

Sunday, April 6, 2014

b' and 'd'

Many students have difficulty remembering the orientation of 'b' and 'd' when reading and writing.  Students on the spectrum of dyslexia in particular find it difficult 'bedding down' the correct orientation for 'b' and 'd', 'p' and 'q', 'm' and 'w'.  So the challenge is to find a strategy that enables them to quickly make the correct orientation and to practice it to the point of automaticity i.e. to build the neural pathway and to strengthen it to the degree that kids who are hard wired to see patterns and make connections, do with less effort and explicit instruction.

Various approaches are used.  At the very basic level all letters are made up of circles (whole or in part) and strokes.  Sometimes teachers use the terms 'bats' and 'balls'.  For the letter 'b' students are verbally instructed that the bat comes before the ball whilst for the letter 'd' the ball comes before the bat.  But we know from brain research that visual presentation of material always wins out so using verbal language to create the correct neural pathway may not be the most effective.

With my students I have them put their hands in front of them, palms facing them and ask them to close their
fingers.  They then have 'b' and 'd' directly in front of them.  If I link this movement to the word 'bed' then they have an easy and quick method of comparing their hands to letters in front of them to determine if the letter is a 'b' or 'd' and therefore if the sound to be spoke is a /b/ or /d/.

A couple of weeks ago a friend informed me that her son (with dyslexia) had worked out his own way of knowing how to differentiate between 'b' and 'd'.  She then showed me that when we start to make the sound /b/ our lips are tight together and in a straight line, i.e. the 'bat' is first when we say /b/.  Similarly when we start to make the sound /d/ our lips are round and open, i.e. the 'ball' comes first when we say /d/. Since then I have learned that this technique is promoted by reading therapists worldwide.  But be prepared.  Just because they have learned to use the hand or mouth technique to differentiate between /b/ and /d/, children will need to check using their technique every time they encounter the sound or letter.  Otherwise they will continue to guess - incorrectly.

Out of the mouths of babes .....


Loving Words

I was going to say one of the reasons I got involved in understanding reading and how to teach it was because I wanted to be able to influence children's relationship to the written word and the joy that can come from it.  Actually that wasn't the one big reason - THAT was watching my daughter struggle with no observable support from her classroom teacher at that time.  Back THEN I thought that getting children to read was simply about finding the right program to teach them.  What I FINALLY realised was that yes, there is overwhelming evidence that a great phonics program really does make a huge difference, but what I saw at the level of one on one tutoring was that how I was in my being and how much enthusiasm I brought to the learning experience was of equal if perhaps not more, importance.

I love books, I love to read ... and at my age I should probably be sitting around, enjoying the simple pleasure of reading, a lot.  I am happy when I am reading and playing with words.  So how do I bring this to my tutoring of young charges, who, more often than not, have been totally put off reading because they were either not taught correctly and/or just had too much difficulty with the task.  I go back to being able to influence children's relationship to words on a page, the fabulous stories they convey, the pleasure of turning a page, the texture of paper, and the feelings of pride when we construct our own stories.

I am a trained bookbinder.  I have conducted many workshops with adults and children on making their own books.  I have not yet progressed on to writing my own book, but who knows, maybe one day.  

The book, 'Homemade Books to Help Kids Cope' by Robert G. Ziegler, M.D. is a book I hold as one of my most treasured.  I love the idea of writing stories for children who need help with understanding.  I love the idea of parents writing stories for their children and I love the idea of translating these stories into little homemade books if people want to take it one step further.  If children have a negative relationship with words then my aim is to engage them through sensate rich creativity.  Using the process outlined in this book, simple bookbinding skills and kids' interest in writing stories and adding their artwork, I aim to increase the power of the learning and change their experience to one of awesome enjoyment.

I start with a Sounds Write lesson in which children sort words of the same sound into different spellings.  We know from our research that solid spelling skills required repeated exposure (and for many children, lots of repeated exposure!).  We also know that the more senses we engage the more meaning is made of what is being learned and the more rich and solid the neural pathways that are constructed.  In Sounds Write the sorting process is taught and can be followed up with worksheets.  I have taken it one step further.

Here I have taken the story writing template outlined in the book mentioned above and invite children to write a 'decodable' story using as many words with the target sound as possible.  All other words may only be constructed from sounds they have covered.  Any frequent words with irregular spellings will also need to have been covered in the Sounds Write Sequence and Scope.  Its a challenge but not as difficult as it may seem.  And if children are really motivated I invite them to add their own artwork or for those especially keen I am happy to bind up a simple book which they take away.  As these stories and books are constructed I will post them on my blog.


Here is one I constructed with daughter last year - only we haven't got around to adding the artwork!
Published decodable books can be expensive to buy and come along with professional artwork.  We all need resources to support our work using good phonics' programs.  Older children can be put off with some of the 'younger looking' resources available to them.  In addition to being more multisensory and then more potentially powerful, perhaps writing one's own story and illustrations is also more grown up.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Taking the 'S' out of Viper

Whilst looking at this card in the latest local card collection craze my daughter stated that the name of the character was 'Visper'.  This didn't quite sound right so I asked her to look at the word more carefully and tell me again what the name was.  "Oh," she said, "It's Viper."  I asked her why she said 'Visper' the first time around.  She said she didn't know.  And what about you?  Any hunches?

For many children in early primary school they are taught the sounds of letters through pairing with pictures, and in the case of the /S/ sound it is often paired with a picture of a snake.  In my daughter's case her brain has wired into it that the picture of a snake always implies the presence of an /S/ sound. This pairing has been learned to automaticity, which simply means that whenever she sees a picture of a snake in a pose similar to that used on the picture cards of her early primary school, it means an /S/ sound should be around somewhere - even if it isn't represented in a written word.  In her case neural pathways about the pairing of sounds and pictures have been instilled.  What hasn't been learnt to automaticity is that the eyes need to look for representations of sounds via letters in written words if they are to be read accurately.  In an attempt to make the learning of letters interesting and what some might term multisensory, teachers innocently embellish their teaching practices with things like pictures and stories and movement which often distracts the neurological wiring children really need - which is the pairing of sounds with letter representations.

This situation can also be seen with children who have learnt 'l' or 'r' blends to automaticity .  This is where a consonant is paired with an 'l' or an 'r' for example and children are taught to learn through repetition words that begin with 'fl' and 'br'. What I can then encounter in tutoring sessions and in the classroom are students who, when they come across words beginning with an 'f' or a 'b', automatically add in the 'l' or 'r' blend.  For example, a child may be presented with the word 'bend' but through the repetitive learning of 'bl' blends they then automatically read the word as 'blend' even though no 'l' is present in the word.

There are a sizeable number of literacy programs available to schools and parents. And unlike some other countries, in Australia anyone can create their own program and market it to the general public and our educational facilities.  There is also a long history around what is regarded as the 'best' approach to teaching children how to read.  In the middle of all this we continue to have significant numbers of children failing to learn to read, or worse still, learning to hate reading.

For me, the Sounds Write Phonics Program is impressive.  It pares reading back to the three skills of blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation.  Sounds come first - in every teaching interaction. Superfluous buffering of teaching through the use of pictures, blends, onset & rime, stories, are extracted, allowing the teaching methods to directly create the neural pathways needed for reading.  The alphabetic code (how the alphabet is used to represent sounds in words) is sequentially, cumulatively and explicitly taught.   Dynamic lessons coupled with 'safe' relationship support learning.  For a taste of the Sounds Write program I highly recommend that teachers and parents purchase the Sounds Write Phonics Program App from itunes.  At $2.99 for the Initial Code this is a great way to start.  And for those of you interested in the science behind the practice I highly recommend the blog 12 Jan 2014 post Linguistic phonics: a practical example by John Walker (Founder and Creator of the Sounds Write Phonics Program) to be found in his blog The Literacy Blog.  

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Insight Inside Children

I was listening to the 22 November 2013 BlogRadioTalk of Elsie Spittle and Linda Pransky when Linda talked about a young girl she was coaching in the 3 principles.  At one point Elsie commented on the level of wisdom in that young soul and in a flash I could 'see' what she was talking about.  Wisdom or Insight is not something that is given to us. Sure we learn a lot from being in physical form and experiencing life (if we pay attention) but the realisations that come, even from our reflections, are insights from deep within ourselves. They are information that we already know.
I do not have the same insights as another person.  I frame my insights with the use of my attention and focus. What I am curious about provides the temenos for the insights that come to me.  If I ponder and reflect upon the 3 principles then I will have insights about them, if I ponder and reflect upon the complexity of living in today's world then I will have insights about that.  Insights will always come to us, but whether we recognise them is another matter and will depend upon our own consciousness about the fact of wisdom or insight from within.
Young people, if engaged with in such a way that they feel secure and safe, will have their own insights about the three psychological principles operating in all of us and about how they are using those principles to create their lives.  As therapists and parents we are never in control of what they may 'hear' or 'realise' from within, we can only listen to our wisdom about how best to quiet their minds, create feelings of security, provide information and pose questions.  But what is realized from within them is totally out of our control.  But insights and realizations they will have - and they will come from the understanding or connection they have to understanding that already exists within them.
Doesn't that blow your mind away?  If we can help our children to understand the nature of the principles that operate within them, to be mindful of their state of mind and the feelings that come with it, to recognise the quiet and loud voices of wisdom and insight, and to reinforce their relationship with and trust in that wisdom, then their lives will be beyond what we have come to realise in our own and they will be okay always.  They already have everything they need inside them.
Elsie and Linda talk about the need for the adults in children's lives to not look for what is wrong in our children, but rather to look for the fact that they have wisdom. Cultivate that awareness and bring it to your children.  This amazing gift will allow them to reap all the richness that resides in their inner being, that gift will be like allowing our children to open their own treasure chests (and not just the ones flashing across movie screens).  Bring to their attention when you see them in their wisdom and doing things right. Talk to them about what this feels like versus the feelings that come with being in other forms of thought.  In time the feeling of being in wisdom will be something they consciously seek and nurture every day and they will notice sooner rather than later when they are in thought that leads them astray.