Sunday, May 25, 2014

Reigniting a Love of Words

How to reengage children with words when their relationship with them has been damaged?  This is a question I ponder often.  Three things seem pertinent:
  1. A consistent, safe, playful, structured, (and probably lots more) relationship with at least one other - around words.
  2. A solid structured, cumulative, explicit phonics program through which to learn.  One that makes sense, and on this last point I put linguistic phonics' programs at the top of the list.
  3. Opportunities to play with words, learn about words, not be afraid to express words, put words into sentences .... immerse in imagination through words.

The second point is evidence based, that is, research over time has demonstrated the high correlation between this type of literacy program and performance on reading, spelling and writing.  I am also aware of research into programs which aim to make a difference at children's understanding of emotions and social interactions and the pivotal influence of the relationship in which this learning is supported.  On the last point, maybe there is a bank of research on this too but at this point in time I haven't started to explore it - at this point in time it just remains an important part of my passion.

Pie Corbett on the talk4writing website talks about activities in which "... a strong link is made with home playing an invaluable role in developing a love of words and gradually building the bank of language."  As a parent (who loves books) of a child who has developed reading difficulties, watching the  impact of their contaminated relationship with the written word play out at home (no reading) and at school (difficulty reading and reluctance to write) is soul saddening - particularly when she has the most wonderful gifted imagination.  Success with a solid phonics program really helps to boost a child's motivation to reengage with words.  But before success comes effort.  In that phase I try to ignite hope - hope that a child can understand words before them and hope that they can one day express all the wonderful ideas, stories and expressions that sit with latent potency inside them.  From my days in managing community markets, I have learned the value of images to hope and creativity.  In my remediation tuition this is where IT comes in.

In the 'igniting hope' phase I am experimenting.  With one boy I have gone to the library to find larger print, diary/comic type books on this favourite sport - I thank all those wonderful authors who write for a very varied audience!  With another I use post it notes to demonstrate how she has to hold information in her head whilst she reads and what needs to be done (lots of practice) to move the post it notes from working memory to long term memory.  She gets it.  And with parents I alert them to the voice to text and text to voice features on their iphones and ipads.  Eyes light up ... hope.

In the sounds write lessons we have the opportunity for children to generate silly sentences. Those who have been particularly damaged by their school experience with words clam up.  I look for ways to ease their reentry.  In the free resources section of the talk4writing website, Maria Richards, the talk4writing primary expert, gives a wonderful overview of apps that can be used to ignite creativity in children.  Somewhere on the site Pie Corbett makes the statement "Fear is the enemy of creativity."  I absolutely agree, and there is no bigger impediment to writing creativity than fear of words and the written word. 

I experimented with a few of the Apps over the weekend.  In particular I zoomed in on those that would support a selection of the learning objectives I have for the children:
  • Improve their feelings towards words.
  • Reinforce their understanding that letters are simply a code for sounds of speech in words, so play with the letters, move them around, see what new words emerge.
  • Increase their vocabulary by learning new words.
  • Give expression to their imagination.
  • Practice spelling, learning more about how different combinations of letters represent different sounds and how the same combinations can represent different sounds depending on the words.

I am not an English teacher and nor do I want to be teaching about formal elements of writing.  I leave that to the experts. But I can help kids reconnect with words, have fun and learn.  I can build a bridge which children can later develop through formal classroom instruction from the experts.  In SW units we have children build silly sentences and they can also build silly stories.  I thought that if I explored poetry it might be less threatening.

Here are some of the incidental learning fun things my 10 year old daughter and I did over the weekend.  The first is a poem we put to writing using the pages app.  Together we made up the sentences and one by one my daughter dictated them into her ipad mini using the voice to text button.  I mailed it through to my word processor (and the app converted to Word format) then I tizzied it up on publisher.  Later I will print it up and paste it into a small book she has made over the years.  The poem was inspired by her meanderings whilst delivering our local paper.  She notices every little interesting thing along the way and they all end up in her pockets waiting to be carefully extracted to show and tell of her 'treasures'.  Earlier in the week I had found some of Pie Corbett's books for kids in the Kwinana library.  I am not a poet so these children's books on writing poetry served me well.  "Use powerful verbs, precise nouns and expressive adjectives."  (Poem-Maker, Word-Shaker, by Pie Corbett, 2005.)  As an added bonus, this little exercise made me look at my own language and how what I say sets the scene for my daughter's use of language and vocabulary development.  I am determined to at least become a better word shaker.

Next, we played with one  of the apps - Visual Poetry.  For $2.99 children can create their own poems, draw their own picture and the poem transitions into the picture.  Many of the girls I work with like to draw, so the combination of drawing and writing is a good one.  The poem began with an imaginative comment my daughter made about the night time antics of her teddy bears.  We quickly penned a poem into the ipad, she drew a picture of a bear and this is the end result. The next morning I realised I could take a photo, so I took one of one of the bears and the picture below is the end result of that one.  
I'm not sure it adds anything to the poem but again for a child wishing to put on paper what they see and feel, the photograph gives another avenue for expression.

There are other apps on the previously mentioned article on the talk4writing website.  I will blog them another time.  One creates stories using nouns, adjectives and verbs the child inputs.  I am going to use these with SW Extended Code Word lists.  Another creates silly sentences with an option to learn the meaning of words used.  I could use this in story creation, add the words to our sound dictionary, use Lesson 15 to explore the tricky bits in words and just show kids that people have fun with words - it doesn't always have to be serious.  

Another app allows the teacher to create their own spelling list for kids to play with and use in a version of hangman.  If I can only find the time to insert the spelling list this app will be invaluable for reinforcement of speech sounds and spelling patterns during wrap around at home sessions.

So now I am happy, a brilliant phonics program and an emerging comfort in using technology to playfully reengage children with words.  May their imaginations flourish like a village square fountain (I finally used a simile!).

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Parent Information Session

I know what it's like to be the parent of a child with reading difficulties!  My personal experience was really the start of my journey in developing my understanding and igniting my passion to make a difference to children with learning difficulties and/or dyslexia.  In the beginning though I struggled to understand anything.  I spent money on seminars and interventions that were never going to support my child learning to read - learning to read, write and spell would only come through a great teaching relationship and an evidence based intervention program.  But in the beginning I was looking for a quick fix that didn't require my time - because as a working mother, time was something I was very short of.

When my early endeavours didn't bear any fruit, I then decided that I simply had to take the plunge and tutor my daughter myself.  I attended a substantial amount of training and started working with her at home. The training involved learning lots of steps and procedures, sure, grounded in what we know about dyslexia and how to remediate it, but it didn't provide me with an overall understanding that pulled our knowledge together.  I felt panicky most of the time and in this state I really wasn't going to make a positive difference for my daughter.

And then I attended the Sounds Write training .... I had read related research by Diane McGuinness, a psychologist who conducted extensive work on understanding our language system.  Finally I found information that brought coherence to the work that needed to be done with children.  Everything fell into place - and I was properly trained in how to teach!  I have heard and read of teachers with 30 plus years of experience in attempting to make a difference with children with reading difficulties/dyslexia but who had previously had limited impact - until they too came across some form of program originating out of the D. McGuinness material.  They commented that it was only when they came across the simple understanding that linguistic phonics offers were they able to relax and feel assured that they could achieve what they set out to do.

So I breathed again, and set about working with students and my daughter.  Something that felt stressful overnight became a pleasure, fun, something to be enjoyed with children.  My relationship with my daughter changed, and it continues to grow in richness as I learn more about bringing curiosity with words and language and reading to her.  John Walker (Sounds Write Co Founder) and Mary Gladstone (Sounds Write Australia) brought amazing enthusiasm and expertise to their training sessions and follow up support.  Thank you to DSF for being the conduit - I have benefited enormously from the trainings they have offered.  Through my exploration of many, many, websites I have also made a connection with Fiona Nevola (Sound Reading System UK) and have benefited from the material she has developed and graciously allowed me to bring into Australia.  I continue to read work by Diane McGuinness and the internet now makes it possible to be networked into conversations about the day to day issues of working with children and in schools.  But of course my biggest teachers are the children I am privileged to work with.  My understanding and interest has come a long way - and now I would like to share it with other parents so that they too can hope to move on from confusion and distress.

I am running a 2 hour information session for parents on Sunday 15 June, 1.30 to 3.30 in my home in Spearwood. The cost is $35.  If anyone is interested in coming along please contact me via email on  Places are very limited so get in early.  I look forward to seeing you there and connecting with other parents compelled to make a difference to the literacy lives of their children.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Teaching Spelling is Nothing to Laugh About

I recall reading somewhere over the past few months that research is suggesting that visual recognition strategies for the learning of spelling is now thought to be interfering with the neural development actually required for accurate spelling.  I am seeing that in action.

A child I was working with was reviewing her homework last night and was required to spell the word 'laugh'.  As usual she asked me how to spell it and as usual I asked her "what sounds can she hear".  She heard the three sounds /l/ /ar/ /f/ correctly.  She knew the word started with 'l' and then recalled that it had a 'gh' in it.  What then unfolded was what she had been taught in class.  The sounds of the word disappeared from her working memory, they were discarded as irrelevant.  Instead she added a 't' after the 'gh' and then she inserted an 'i' before the 'gh'. Why?  Because they were doing or had done 'ight' words in class.  Her neural connections said that whenever she saw a 'gh' then she must add in an 'i' before and a 't' after.  This was consistent with the word family spellings, LSCWC and flash cards that had been used with her to teach spellings.

Fiona Nevola in her work 'The Sound Reading System' says.  "It is not helpful to give the learner rhyming families (word families) to read. When they read real text (what we read every day) they do not meet word families.  Rhyming families encourage guessing and part reading of words."  This is what I saw in this girl's attempt to spell laugh.  Spelling is the flipside of reading.  They are interchangeable, therefore the strategies one uses in reading are also applied in spelling.  The child began with an accurate recall of the sounds in the word 'laugh', but she only went part of the way before abandoning the only solid entry into spelling a word (sounds) for the (detrimental) word family repetition she had been taught in class.

Teaching word families also attempts to overteach blends (establish blend neural pathways) through repetition.  Blends are a combination of sounds and should not be taught.  There are two sounds in 'ight' - /ie/ and /t/.  Children need to keep the separate sounds in their working memory if they are to read and spell them accurately.  Again I heed the words of Fiona Nevola "Teaching blends can also have another effect: many learners who are having difficulty with reading add extra letters whether they are there or not.  They may also leave sounds out and instead write what they are used to seeing together".  The 'hooks' into spelling that a solid connection with sound offers are discarded as the (taught) neural pathways associated with visual strategies kick in.  

And finally, "spelling involves recall memory:  memory without visual prompts. The more the learner writes, saying the sounds, the easier it will be for them to become an accurate and independent speller."  Time and again I have seen the truth in this.  Later on this girl was required to write the word 'smile'. Again I started with what sounds she could hear.  /s/ /m/ /ie/ /l/.  She wrote down the 's', 'm' and 'l'.  I then asked her how many ways she knew how to spell the sound /ie/.  She gave me 'i', 'ie' and 'i-e'.  I then asked her to write the word using each of the spellings and then to tell me which one was correct.  She identified the correct spelling - even though her personal mind was not so sure!  In every case with the children I work with, when I have used this approach, they have accurately identified the correct spelling - even when they weren't sure. This is because of what we know about orthographic processing.  If a child works with a spelling on at least four different occasions connecting the sound with the letters, those connections are established in long term memory. This is where they need to be if RECALL is to occur.  Recall is different to recognition. Recognition is used in reading, recall is necessary in spelling - recall draws information out of long term memory.  Long term memory offers up the correct information we need - if we have used sound strategies for establishing it there in the first place.  Teachers need to be mindful of the strategies they are using because strategies are also laid down as neural pathways - and not just the focus of those strategies.

The use of strategies such as 'Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check', Flash Cards, Word Families and Sight Word Memorization for spelling all interfere with the sound development of the neural pathways required for accurate spelling. Instead of linking a child's spelling with the sounds in words they distract a child's cognitive processes into scanning for words they have seen, rules they vaguely remember and letter clusters taught during word family spellings.  Spelling becomes a mental scanning with very little to link sounds with letters.  They create chaos instead of order, they exceed the fact of limited cognitive load and they waste the precious limited time children have to learn to spell and read whilst in primary school and the resources of the teachers who teach them.  They are a human made spelling 'crazymaker', it is tough watching their effect in our children.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Language Makes a Difference

The more I work with children and the older my daughter gets there are two things I realise more and more. One is that exposure to language and words is one of the key central pillars to how easily or not a child can engage with the demands of the educational curriculum.  The second, is that if children are securely engaged with the written word - this doesn't translate into being a brilliant reader - it just means they have a secure relationship with reading and writing, don't feel overwhelmed and have a trusting relationship with a great instructor, then they are naturally inquisitive about the meaning and use of words.

Research conducted in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd R Risley tells us that children in low resource families are exposed to far less words than children in high resource families.  And their relationship to language is different - this translates into "discipline is different".  How parents guide behaviour with their words influences a child's relationship with language.  Both these things play out in acquisition of literacy skills in school.  And it really is a huge task to facilitate the catch up.

 I was reading some academic comments on recent research about the role mothers in particular play in laying down the foundations for literacy acquisition through their early talk, conversations, reading of books and involvement of their children whilst reading books.  As you would expect these behaviours and attitudes have a significant effect.  The challenge is to facilitate these behaviours in those families with less resources, i.e. less finances, less expertise, less information, less networks, less support.  As I was reflecting upon the 'bigger picture' of these types of early childhood relationships the thought came to me that as a whole society is in the process of elevating 'being literate' from the privilege of the noblesse, or the religious orders, to being the right of everyone.  'Being literate' enables access - access to information, access to power, access to understanding how things work (obvious and hidden), access to better paid jobs, etc. etc.  And there is a whole swag of people working in academia, in schools, in parenting support, in not for profit organisations, everywhere, all involved in the momentous task of enabling everyone to 'be literate'.  I think that is a rather noble intention.

Being illiterate and therefore being denied the level playing field that comes with it I think plays a big part in many of society's problems today.  I don't recall the exact figures but somewhere between 70 - 80% of young adults and adults in detention centres and gaols don't have levels of literacy that allow them to engage successfully with the written word demands of living in our society.  Have you ever stopped to think how frustrating and difficult this must be?  (This is one of the things the children I work with have brought to me - a deeper appreciation of difficult their life is, particularly in the classroom.)  And if, as a society, we could support more parents, and mothers in particular, to have the resources, time and support, to engage more with their children with language and vocabulary, how much would we save in money spent down the track.  I don't imagine it will be an easy task.  But at least many, many, people are trying.  Paediatricians are being supplied with books to hand out in conversations with new mothers, children are being supplied with books at every early years birthday, children in third world countries are being supplied with books, volunteer pre literacy services are being provided to new mums and their kids.  Much is being done.  

And there is still so much more to be done.  In my reflections an important question I think came to mind, "How do we support mums of younger children to be in the world, engaged with it, and inquisitive, so that they may bring richer conversations to their children?"  In the discussion threads I subscribe to some questions are being raised about the impact of more mums in the workforce, which translates into less stress free time to be and talk with their children.  Other questions are being raised about the impact of technology, children listening more and more to one sided conversations their parents are having on the mobile phone, and the reduced availability of their parents due to their time on the phone.  One of the questions asked is whether rather than seeing literacy levels of all being raised, may we not in fact see it reduce as parents across all resources levels increase their hours of work and increase their time on the mobile phone.  I guess, time will tell.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Asking for Longer Sentences is Gobbledegook!

When a child doesn't understand or been  taught explicitly that the squiggles on a page represent the speech sounds of words, and if they haven't been taught the way the alphabet code works, then this is how the material they have to read looks.  Gobbledegook with a few bits they recognise interspersed along the way.  This is how the written word looks to children with reading difficulties/dyslexia.  To work with the written word without solid instruction is confusing and threatening.

Imagine then their experience when they have to write sentences or stories?  In the past week I have seen three separate examples of comments from teachers to students with diagnosed dyslexia.  In each case the request was for longer sentences, an increased use of words and for better spelling!  This is unfair.  I understand that teachers have put in considerable effort trying to bring the curriculum to all their students but for those students who are confused and/or haven't been taught to read, write and spell by a teacher with a solid understanding of how our writing system works, how a child's brain works and how to bring the two together, then children will not be able to do what the curriculum and their teachers request - unless they are given specialist remediation.

This is also true in High School.  I hear High School teachers talk about the needs of their students being for greater vocabulary and language.  But if one looks closely the real need is for understanding of the alphabetic code and for someone to make the confusion understandable - because once someone has done this, the brain, with its innate drive for patterns and coherence, will take off.

Related to this is the cognitive ability testing that has been administered to children who have been diagnosed with dyslexia.  If a child has been assessed as having average or above cognitive ability then initially one should start with the assumption that the child is capable of achieving grades of 'C' or above.  (Of course this requires more sophisticated interpretation but it is a useful starting point.)  Assuming some key elements of your child's cognitive profile are not too aberrant from the average range, if your child is continually being assigned grades of 'D' or below, even after they have put in considerable effort, then a conversation with the teacher about how your child's disability can be accommodated in the classroom is required.  Average and above cognitive ability suggests your child has thoughts, ideas and knowledge, that they can express and which could potentially earn them a 'C' grade.  Their disability will get in the way of this - but remediation will help and processes can be put in place to separate out its impact.  Assessing their understanding and knowledge can be separated out from assessing the ability to hand write words and string them into sentences. It can be done.  Simple voice to text, and text to voice features on IPads make a great starting point.