Breaking the Tyranny of "26"

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MDavis
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Breaking the Tyranny of "26"

Post by MDavis » Sat Apr 11, 2009 2:25 am

When I visit classrooms in the U.S. I am struck by how, almost universally, everything hung on the walls is ordered around the 26 letters of the alphabet and how little -- nothing, usually -- is organized around the forty-odd sounds of our language and the hundred and fifty plus spellings that regularly represent those sounds in printed English, even though I believe these are the things that matter most for reading and spelling. I am wondering how to break the tyranny of the 26.

I would be interested in hearing how teachers in the UK (or elsewhere) who are doing synthetic phonics make the walls "scream the SP theme." Do you have word walls organized by sound? Do you subdivide them by spelling? Do you display completed word sorts? Do you add tricky words to the "sound spaces" on the wall or keep them in separate spaces? Do you have other visual displays that help students understand the code? When do you show the spellings that make up the extensive/advanced code? Do you find that displays of the extensive code (spelling alts) are helpful or overwhelming? How do you make the wall decorations illustrate the phonemes and graphemes rather than just the letters? How do you show 150+ spellings for the 40+ sounds without taking up too much wall space?

M. Davis
U.S.A.
Last edited by MDavis on Sat Apr 11, 2009 11:03 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Debbie Hepplewhite
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Post by Debbie Hepplewhite » Sat Apr 11, 2009 10:19 am

Hi Matthew,

I have had very similar concerns myself here in England. We're perhaps not quite so bad in infant classes in that Jolly Phonics alphabetic code frieze posters and a few other companies' posters can generally be seen - but even then I have noticed that one rarely sees a 'progression' of the alphabetic code from one class to another - and there is rarely anything at all in junior classes related to the alphabetic code. Sometimes you can see somewhat random lists of spellings - often topic related rather than spelling related - so unlikely to be approached from a 'spelling alternatives' perspective.

Some schools may have THRASS charts and some schools may have Ruth Miskin's alphabetic code charts (simple and complex code). We also have a number of companies providing visual aids of graphemes nowadays and notably Sparklebox provides graphemes inside hot-air balloons, leaf-shapes and so on.

In my teacher-training, I suggest to teachers that they all identify one major wall display area in their classrooms and make that their key display area for teaching reading, spelling and writing. I would like to see this in every classroom and I would like to see a noticeable progression throughout the school (although this would 'overlap' to address revision and a range of needs in each class).

I then provide various formats of Alphabetic Code Overview Charts in my online programme - but I believe that these should be free to everyone and therefore they are available for everyone to download in my free unit 1 material at www.phonicsinternational.com .

In my supplementary Early Years Starter Package, I provide similar charts but the graphemes presented either cover those introduced in units 1 to 5 or units 1 to 6. In total then, there is a choice of six further charts.

These Alphabetic Code Overview Charts can be used in a complementary way with any other synthetic phonics programme based on the level of the 'phoneme' - because it's the same code that we are all teaching.

I also approach any word examples as just that - 'word and picture examples' - these are not mnemonics that I am precious about for my programme - and therefore they don't have to be considered as contradicting other programmes mnemonic systems. In any event, some of these charts have no key pictures at all and therefore they really are 'just exemplar words' - and some have no distinguishing colours (although I do think this helps to break up the 150 or so graphemes).

In addition to these Alphabetic Code Overview Charts available for free in unit 1 of my programme, I also provide a comprehensive range of 'Posters' to support the teachers in providing good quality and practical visual aids to model the teaching - and for the learners to be able to 'understand' the teaching and then to 'learn' the new information. Some of these posters such as the 'Say the Sounds Posters' can be used in different formats (e.g. enlarged for class posters, used as page-size in pupils' files to rehearse saying the sounds, used as assessment documents). I jumble-up the graphemes on these posters to make sure pupils are not just rote-learning the sounds!

My programme is designed for all ages and, unlike some RRFers, I believe in sustaining the teaching and learning beyond the infants - so what starts off as a reading and spelling instruction programme becomes, in effect, a spelling programme. With this in mind, this programme may continue to be taught in one way or another for four or more years.

So, I would expect these key display walls to be constantly refreshed to match the stages of teaching and learning - thus I refer to my posters as a 'Rolling Programme of Posters'. Oh - but not the Alphabetic Code Overview Charts - they should be a 'constant' reference chart - although, as I say, different versions may well be chosen by different schools/teachers.

In units 1 to 6 of the programme there are 'Hear the Sounds' audio-visual resources. There are 93 colour posters to match this resource which I call 'Picture Posters'. These map the 'sounds' to the 'graphemes'.

I provide 200 Aphabetic Code Frieze Posters with key words and pictures to teach the letter/s-sound correspondences - these include examples of the graphemes on 'writing lines'. I would never expect to see all of these posters in one classroom - just the ones being taught within a reasonable time-span.

I provide 205 Mini Posters which consist of a cumulative, decodable word bank which matches the core Sounds Book Activity Sheets. There are no pictures - only the words. These are throughout the 12 units.

I provide 31 Say the Sounds Posters consisting of cumulative graphemes - this is the very flexible resource that I mention above.

I provide 62 'Grouping the Spelling Alternatives' which are colour-coded picture posters with words which 'gather' the growing bank of alphabetic code knowledge throughout the programme. These have accompanying, optional 'Draw the Pictures' activity sheets to embed the learning.

Basically, Matthew, I encourage teachers to make their own professional choices about the use of my programme's vast bank of resources - but if a school used it wholeheartedly you would get a clear picture of the alphabetic code that the school is using and what teachers are teaching and learners are learning without a shadow of doubt.

Jenny has commented that I should not suggest that good results are dependent on such posters because we have had good results where such a comprehensive range of posters are not used.

She is right.

I wonder, though, what level of results we could get across schools where such a comprehensive range of visual aids for teaching, learning and informing parents are used?

I'm also working on the possibility of managing 'intervention' in mainstream classrooms rather than the current constant 'withdrawal'. It is the same alphabetic code that pupils need to learn whether they find this more difficult, or have not been taught well-enough, or where they join classes as pupils with English as an additional language.

Would the addition of clear visual aids on classroom walls help such children generally and specifically?

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Post by leapyearbaby » Sat May 09, 2009 12:01 pm

In FS, I had the JP frieze on the wall in the order that the sounds were taught. With tricky words in an area of the writing wall. Tricky ones only, not HF words as so many of them are decodable. I had alphabets on cards.

In KS1 we have the graphemes on display that correspond to the phase of learning. JP also does a very good phoneme strip which we use more than anything to support writing in Y1. We do have an alphabet on the wall, but that is to demonstrate handwriting.

I know the US varies hugely from state to state, but many areas do seem to be weak at teaching phonics. My friend's daughter in Missouri is being taught using letter names, writing capital letters. She was taught to spell colours (in kindergarten) by learning a collection of songs.

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palisadesk
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Re: Breaking the Tyranny of "26"

Post by palisadesk » Sun May 10, 2009 8:56 pm

MDavis wrote:When I visit classrooms in the U.S. I am struck by how, almost universally, everything hung on the walls is ordered around the 26 letters of the alphabet and how little -- nothing, usually -- is organized around the forty-odd sounds of our language and the hundred and fifty plus spellings that regularly represent those sounds in printed English, even though I believe these are the things that matter most for reading and spelling. I am wondering how to break the tyranny of the 26.

Most districts in the US (and Canada) require teachers in K-3 (and sometimes beyond) to have "Word Walls," which are usually organized -- as you observed -- around the 26 letters, and not around GPC's. Words taught as spelling words, high-frequency or "sight words" are placed on the "Word Wall" under the letter that is the initial letter in the word and often -- especially if teachers are following the Cunningham "Four Blocks" approach -- the words are displayed on a coloured background card cut to the "shape" of the word.

But this is not universal practice. Even some basal programs -- notably Open Court, Kaleidoscope and Houghton-Mifflin -- provide "Sound-Spelling Cards" that provide for teaching spelling alternatives and advanced code vowel combinations. They have cards for the basic code, but then separate ones for digraphs, long vowels and diphthongs, as well as cards for alternative spellings of such consonant sounds as /j/ (ge, gi, gy, dge).

When teachers use these, they display the words under the appropriate sound-spelling (GPC)card. I haven't seen the Kaleidoscope or H-M cards (a picture of two of the H-M cards is here: http://www.hmhschool.com/School/images/r_c04358.jpg), but the Open Court ones are taught in a manner similar to Jolly Phonics, with an action for each sound that is associated with the picture (see some examples here: http://www.opencourtresources.com/ocr/g ... ctions%202). The K-1 Sound-Spelling cards do not contain all the spelling alternatives but the upper grade ones do.

Some teachers make up their own keyword charts developed from the Sound-Spelling cards and displaying the alternative spellings with an example of each on the card:
http://www.sausd.us/14431010311337150/l ... s_done.pdf

Teachers are encouraged to teach children to USE the sound-spelling cards when writing and to attempt various spelling possibilities; the students are to be held accountable in their independent work for those words/spellings that have been explicitly taught.

OC is a program that can be taught in an entirely SP way or in an entirely BL way, so practice at the classroom level varies with the "philosophy" of the school and district.

I've seen teachers develop similar "Sound-Spelling Walls" to use with Abecedarian and the key words taught in that program. The sound-spelling card has a picture of the keyword (these are arranged in a row under the GPC, if there are multiple alternatives) and if multiple (as in alternatives for /oe/), they are arranged in order of frequency, which is how they are introduced to the students. Then new words that students encounter in their reading or spelling are posted under the appropriate sound-spelling card and keyword. Students are required to know the keyword (and its spelling) for each GPC.

These techniques seem to work rather well. A colleague who uses the OC cards, and another who made her own to accompany Abecedarian, have both had superior results with student writing and developing "spelling sense" -- not necessarily accurate spelling in all cases, but using phonemically probable spellings instead of guesswork or mangled visual recall. A key factor in making use of these alternative "word walls" successful is regular daily activities (5-8 minutes or so) that keep the children focused on the sound-spelling cards and their uses. Some Word Wall activities designed for the usual A-Z word wall can be successfully adapted to a more GPC-friendly approach.

Susan S.
Last edited by palisadesk on Tue Jul 14, 2009 5:16 pm, edited 1 time in total.

MDavis
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Re: Breaking the Tyranny of "26"

Post by MDavis » Fri May 15, 2009 12:26 pm

Thanks for an interesting post. I wonder if you would enlarge on this sentence.
palisadesk wrote:
OC [Open Court] is a program that can be taught in an entirely SP way or in an entirely BL way, so practice at the classroom level varies with the "philosophy" of the school and district.
First of all, what does the abbreviation BL stand for?

Secondly, I wonder if you would expand on what you say about Open Court. What does it mean to teach OC in an SP way? what does it mean to teach OC in a BL way? Do the vendors deliberately promote it as something that can be taught either way, or is this your observation about what happens in practice?

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Re: Breaking the Tyranny of "26"

Post by palisadesk » Fri May 15, 2009 9:14 pm

MDavis wrote:First of all, what does the abbreviation BL stand for?
It stands for "Balanced Literacy", a.k.a. "mixed methods" in the UK. It is a mainly "holistic" approach that minimizes discrete skill teaching.
MDavis wrote:Secondly, I wonder if you would expand on what you say about Open Court. What does it mean to teach OC in an SP way? what does it mean to teach OC in a BL way? Do the vendors deliberately promote it as something that can be taught either way, or is this your observation about what happens in practice?
If you are not familiar with the history of Open Court Reading -- or even if you are -- you will probably find this book of interest:
Let's Kill Dick and Jane: How the Open Court Publishing Company Fought the Culture of American Education by Harold Henderson

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_gw?ur ... &x=15&y=11

Diane Ravitch wrote a review here:
http://www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/4612772.html

And one from the Wall Street Journal is here:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1163031 ... jie/6month


Blouke Carus, the developer of Open Court, is an unsung hero of synthetic phonics in the U.S.A. He was an engineer, not an educator, which may explain his immediate grasp of the evidence for code-based teaching as opposed to the Look and Say that was in fashion when he entered the fray. His goal was to provide materials that would have children learn the code and how to use it in an efficient, effective manner and enable them to read classic literature, excellent children's stories, and rich content that would provide them with a solid grounding in many areas of study. Henderson's book relates the saga of how Carus developed Open Court, his struggle to get the word out and make inroads into public education, and ultimately his failure to make the series a financial success, necessitating his selling the program to a major publisher.

Teachers and parents loved Open Court -- it taught the code in a systematic, SP way -- teaching a spelling for each phoneme, introducing spelling alternatives in a manner similar to JP, teaching blending explicitly, and minimizing "sight" vocabulary (words like JP "tricky" words were called "outlaw words" and sounded out with attention to the "tricky" part as needed).

The early reading materials were sentences made up wholly of GPCs taught, and progressed by middle first grade into short decodable stories and ultimately into classics like Frog and Toad. There were clever workbooks with unique and intriguing "comprehension" exercises, beginning with simple (often humorous) sentences that related to a picture which the student had to correct. Fables and fairy tales were used in "cloze" passages (this was about third grade IIRC), and other stories involved having the student locate specific information, find contradictions or absurdities, fix sentences so that they made sense (one that I remember was, "Carrots make good pets, but they are a lot of work," which could be amended in several ways, such as "Hamsters make good pets...." or "Carrots make good snacks"). Children found these exercises fun, and they did promote careful and thoughtful reading with attention to every word.

I used some of the OC materials along with the Lippincott program when I taught in a private school in suburban D.C. while attending grad school, and was impressed with the materials then. Later revisions added more literature anthologies and support materials for second language learners, catch-up materials for children who entered an OC school without the needed grounding in the code and how to use it, etc.

So, Open Court Reading was for many years the only synthetic phonics basal series available in the U.S. While it had a devoted following, it did not make money for the publisher. Carus had a very successful Open Court Publishing house that primarily produced academic works, and that subsidized OCR for some years. The quality of the "readers" OC produced was outstanding -- I still have some of the ones for grades 4-6 (OCR was originally a K-3 program exclusively, but expanded into the junior grades at some point). They are notable in that they contain well-written units on history, geography, myths and legends, classic poetry, heroes, inventors, scientists -- rich content as contrasted with the fluff we see today. Even now there is a significant emphasis in OC on teaching background knowledge, concepts and vocabulary as part of each unit -- an emphasis that is especially beneficial to less affluent children.

Open Court has undergone several revisions and expansions as it integrated spelling and writing instruction and reached into the upper grades. Schools that used OC tended to have extremely good results -- not just test results, but lots of enthusiasm for reading and writing, as the quality of the materials was very high. Teachers I knew who taught in OC schools were passionate about it, but went beyond that to say that using Open Court taught them how to teach reading, and they were subsequently able to go to other schools and adapt materials or create their own to teach the code and the skills of blending and segmenting as well as higher level skills for writing, reading complex text and so on.

So I guess that's what I meant by saying OC can be taught in an SP way. It was designed that way, so it should be no surprise.

However, when OC was purchased by McGraw-Hill (late 1990's), they did commit to keeping it as a systematic, synthetic phonics program -- but they also intended to make it more marketable. They did this by adding all kinds of components to the program that, while not strictly in conflict with the SP origins, make it impossible to teach everything, and thus empower teachers to "pick and choose." Without training or an expectation of following a SP approach, teachers will naturally follow what they have been taught (or what they are required to do) and in most cases this is some variant of "Balanced Literacy" (BL). So, teachers may have the OC materials, but leave the decodable books in the box, teach word families and "sight words," omit the teaching of blending or systematic decoding, use the sound-spelling cards only as alphabet cards, and so on.

I know that this happens to a considerable extent from several sources. I'm not in an OC school myself, but I have been on an OC email group for some time and teachers there share various experiences which make it clear there is a significant BL use of Open Court. Sometimes a district buys the materials, but provides no direction and simply leaves schools to do as they wish. Teachers with no background in SP, or understanding of the code and how to teach it, will quite understandably default to BL mode. A very experienced reading coach who has worked in numerous school districts in the east coast and midwestern states told me she has often seen OC taught in an entirely Whole Language compatible way, and even when the phonics components were used, they were usually used in only a minor and ineffective manner. A local trainer told me something very similar (quite recently), though the schools she knew of who purchased OC often did so because they wanted a more systematic teaching of "phonics," but did not appreciate the dangers of "mixed methods."

As to what the vendors say, I have no idea. I would predict that they, like most basal series vendors, promote their product as "complete" and "balanced" and tend to emphasize the components that the purchaser shows the most interest in. Open Court is now a basal program with considerable market penetration; it still retains all its SP components, but they can be easily overlooked by those who promote a more top-down approach.

Susan S.

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BL, OC, SP

Post by MDavis » Sat May 16, 2009 9:53 am

Thanks for this clarification. I had to laugh when I read it because I am familiar with "Balanced Literacy" but did not make the connection between "BL" and Balanced Literacy on my own.

Someone should do a piece of intellectual anthropology on this term "balanced literacy" and trace its origins and development, the way Marilyn Adams tried to trace the origins of the Three Cueing Systems. It's an ingenious term from a marketing point of view. It's one of those terms that is on everyone's lips but the meaning is, or can be, elusive. In one sense everyone is favor of balanced literacy. (Who would support "unbalanced literacy"?) I am certainly in favor of a balance between building decoding skills and building vocabulary and background knowledge. But in another sense, and I take it this is the dominant sense, Balanced Literacy really seems to have become a new wrapper for traditional literacy practices with some phonics sprinkled on top. It's like people don't want to say Whole Language anymore, because some of the key assumptions of Whole Language have been discredited. But many do more or less what they did before with Phonics or Phonemic Awareness added in and call it Balanced Literacy.

My sense is that the term "Balanced Literacy" is much less of a dominant shibboleth in the UK than in the US, where it is now very widely used.

I have also read the Henderson book (though I had not read the two reviews you linked to). It's fascinating but also sobering in its assessment of the diffficulties involved in trying to promote alternative ideas in the teaching of reading. I do recommend the book, although I think the effect it is likely to have on reform-minded educators and publishers is not exactly cheering.

I found your last three or four paragraphs very enlightening. They helped chrystalize some ideas that have been in my head for a while. I think you are really on to something when you say that these big publishers toss in everything but the kitchen sink, making it very hard to determine what represents the core of the program. It allows them to sell it to anyone and everyone, which is very useful from a sales angle. A teacher can take the same kit and either do something SP teachers would recognize and appreciate, or something that is much closer to Whole Language than what we would call phonics.

Sorry if this is drifting away from "Purely Practical Posts."

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Post by chew8 » Sat May 16, 2009 11:13 am

Matt wrote:In one sense everyone is favor of balanced literacy. (Who would support "unbalanced literacy"?) I am certainly in favor of a balance between building decoding skills and building vocabulary and background knowledge.
I agree. I am also in favour of stressing that the point of putting the focus firmly on decoding at first is to get children as quickly as possible beyond the point where they have to think consciously about decoding - i.e. to the point where they can lift the words effortlessly off the page and can concentrate fully on the meaning of the text. In other words, I see 'balance' as applying not just to things that synthetic phonics (s.p.) advocates are happy to stress simultaneously (e.g., in Matt's words, 'building decoding skills and building vocabulary and background knowledge') but also to things that we are happy to stress sequentially.

It seems that some of the resistance to s.p. is based on the perception that the conscious focus on decoding is permanent, with the knock-on effect that reading for meaning always takes a back seat. I think we need to stress that this is not the case.

Jenny C.

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