If you’re reading this article, I’m guessing you know the different ways to say/read the words ‘wind or live’ and of course, until we are reading in context it can be read as either.

Throughout the week, I work with a mix of students, from children in home education, young adults in college, children in school and adults in the workplace.  No matter which group the learner belongs to, I see a clear difficulty in the majority of learners, that is; phonological awareness, phonological knowledge and often alongside this poor auditory memory.  It stands to reason that these individuals are likely to experience these difficulties, as after all, these are some of the key difficulties found in a dyslexia profile.  Dyslexia presents often as a difficulty in reading and spelling (although there are many other ‘unseen’ difficulties, to the non specialist, these difficulties wouldn’t immediately be associated with dyslexia) these are the main characteristics or presenting difficulties which are identified by schools, parents and  which learners require a remedy for.

As a dyslexia specialists, like many of my colleagues, I live and breathe reading and spelling.  Whilst working with a student, I’m constantly analysing the reason why they are making an error, or the reason why they haven’t retained the information, why they have misinterpreted past learning.  I then have to find a different way to help communicate the message and this results in the development of my skills more and more.  I often say the principles of what I teach are not ‘rocket science’ but the theory behind it is more challenging.  Students are often complex and fine tuning the reason why they are struggling can be interesting as we look at each layer.  Therefore, we can never provide a single method of intervention  As the leaner grows in knowledge and confidence, those strategies are also going to evolve.  It is about having a thorough understanding of the causation of reading and spelling difficulties and the way the brain processes information which allows me to help the learner in the best possible way.  Like any field or job, you can reference it to passing your driving test, it’s only once you start practising that you realise what you didn’t know and over the years and periods of self reflection, you come to evaluate your practises and things you’ve read.

One statement which I constantly refer back to is from Waznek and Torgesen (2007) CTOPP 2 manual. “Reading approaches which feature systematic, explicit function in phonological awareness and phonemic decoding skills produce stronger reading growth, in children who are weak in phonological awareness.”  The more I reflect on this, the more I agree. The more I see in my daily practice just how important a structured, cumulative systematic synthetic phonics approach is vital to my learners.

I work with some leaners who are extremely challenged when it comes to reading and spelling.  Some of the adults I work with can make no connection to the sounds a letter can make within a word at CVCC level, although they have some whole word recognition.

Is the Early Reading Framework right?

In 2021, the government released the Early Reading FrameworkWhilst I am of course an advocate of systematic synthetic phonics, I also know that it is not the only approach and that every learner requires a mix of resources and interventions, although it’s about understanding the stage of the journey to reading mastery which the individual is on, to be able to respond with the correct interventions.

Can we rely only on systematic synthetic phonics as a single intervention?

I don’t feel we can ever rely upon one method of intervention, it is about understanding the complexities of the learner and knowing how each intervention addresses each of the areas of need. Learners with dyslexia commonly have coexisting difficulties or differences.

Of course, whole word recognition does have it’s place, often with those who don’t struggle to read. Similarly reading for meaning, shared reading and listening to books whilst tracking text will all help develop language and vocabulary.  However, even those who are good readers can still have difficulty transferring information into spelling.  Just because and individual can read a word, does not mean they can ‘decode’ it, break it into its individual component parts of sounds and the letters which represent that sound.  If an individual struggles with this aspect, usually they either have to remember what a word looks like and this can result in spellings where most of the letters are present but not in the correct sequence.  Basically, the individual cannot ‘encode’ the words, meaning they are unable to sound out the word and make a written representation for each sound. 

The Rose Review strongly suggested the need for a mix of reading skills to be present to enrich the skills of young readers.  I totally agree.  However, for those who struggle to read whole words, they often don’t have the language skills and vocabulary or recognise the word, to link to their own vocabulary, therefore reading is slow and comprehension is poor.  Ultimately, struggling readers don’t gain the enriched language skills from reading on their own, this often comes later, once decoding skills have developed. In other words, their ability to guess at a word in the context of a sentence isn’t usually present, as they’re busy building up words and not comprehending. Their ability to guess in context at how to read ‘live’ is unlikely to be present. Some would suggest this is why the individual needs whole word recognition.  It does have its place, although not as a sole intervention. It’s extremely difficult to remember what a word ‘looks like’.  Some ‘look’ very similar and are easily confused. i.e. ‘house/horse’.  For those with a visual processing difficult, this can compound the difficulty.

When thinking about words such as ‘live’ and ‘wind’, our struggling learners will find it difficult to pick up on the language clues, to know how to say the word, in the same way which an experienced reader will have the ability.  Therefore, explicit teaching is required.  A synthetic phonics programmes will show an individual a vowel can be pronounced to make different sounds. When met with a word with a more complex vowel digraphs such as ‘ai’ in ‘ wait’, an individual can be shown that they don’t always label each letter but at times we chunk letters together to make one sound.  It is this ‘chunking’ and blending which can help the learners auditory memory.  Supporting this with multi-sensory techniques and over learning this singular pattern helps the learner develop a confident approach to reading/writing this sound in isolation.  It is these techniques which are used in CodeBreakers. We can also show explicitly how to ‘experiment’ with the vowel sounds in words to practice sounding out and blending, often helping the learner develop vocab and semantic links to retain the word.  We can teach that the letter ‘i’ can say a long or short sound and this gives the learner the ability to ‘test’ how that word may be read (wind or live).  Whereas, the learner who is only taught that the word says ‘wind’ and in Wind in the Willows, may need to be explicitly shown the words says ‘wind’ (wind the watch) and not have the skills to try sounding out  the letter ‘i’.  So many letters can make different sounds.  For example. the letters ‘y’ or ‘i can be pronounced differently, depending on their relationship with other letters.  The letter ‘c’ is a clear example of this, sometimes saying /s/ other times saying /k/.  Teaching explicit rules of how to change these letters to make a different sound, removes the guess work.  In many case we can teach a ‘code’ or a ‘rule’.  CodeBreakers tasks are designed specifically to address this and then check their understanding. This can often suit the logical learner.  It means the learner is no longer reliant on knowing what a word looks like rather they are given skills to breakdown words and blend them.

Word morphology is a further method, again we use this with CodeBreakers, specifically looking at verbs and suffixes initially.  Again, it’s about understanding the individual and ability to process the language related to the various level of word morphology, as at times it can be quite demanding on language skills. Likewise we can teach words based on word etymology, although this equally requires good language skills.  We know that our struggling readers may have language processing/language development delay, often unseen and undiagnosed, which will affect our choice of intervention. This is not to say that it cannot be revisited once the individual has developed other reading skills.  Morphology and etymology are important aspects which can develop vocabulary and meaning.

How can a systematic synthetic phonics programme help reading and spelling?

The process of teaching learners to read by whole word recognition, means you then have to also teach them how to spell.  Yet a systematic synthetic phonics skills simultaneously addresses this.  The system of decoding can at the same time be reversed to encode words.  Using the same system we can help individuals spell.  In my experience, spelling is a much harder skill to develop.  An individual will benefit immensely from learning how to break down a word into sounds before using their knowledge of spelling choices.  This is where we need to teach individuals how to recognise each sound in a word and know which letters make that sound.  The difficulties in auditory memory can also add to the difficulty of retaining the sounds too.  Here, I use an old but excellent resource, wooden letters or anything which can move and represent a sound.  I help individuals to process the sounds and which letter/s represent each sound, for example ‘pick’ has 3 sounds and 4 letters, the ‘ck’ are moved to make one sound.  It’s interesting to watch as some learners will start to clearly identify which letters make the sound. It is a skills, like any other, which should be practised and practised with all new sounds.  The use of the moveable letters supports the auditory memory by providing a visual aid too.  

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All reading methods have their place for all children, although at different stages of their literacy development.  Making the right choice of intervention is about understanding the individual, their complexities, diagnosed and undiagnosed educational needs.  It’s about understanding how each system of reading and spelling intervention approaches those needs and choosing the appropriate method for each individual, based on their stage of development.  Some children enter school with poor language skills, others very articulate, yet their spelling does not always match their language.  Some children present with ‘behavioural’ difficulties and understanding the causation can be the key to unlocking their educational, perhaps even literacy and language needs.  Some children enter school as having basic reading skills and quickly develop into competent readers but struggle to spell.  Others have no recognition of letters and can’t sequence the alphabet and this might continue into secondary school, yet they can express themselves verbally.

As professionals supporting individuals in reading and spelling development, we can only arm ourselves with as much training as possible, learn about the complexities of the way individuals process information, to enable us to make appropriate choices for the individual at the stage of their development. 

CodeBreakers is available for school or home intervention. If you are working within a school and looking for a systematic synthetic phonics programme, please feel free to contact us to arrange a demonstration.

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