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.  

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