Introduction to SSP - Module 4 transcript

Now we’re up to module 4 in this course, and it’s the last module that we’ll cover.

We are going to have a look at the features of a systematic synthetic phonics approach.

Phonics, as we’ve seen, is the relationship between the speech sounds, or the sounds we say, and the letter or letters that represent those sounds.

Now these correspondences, this phoneme–grapheme correspondence, can be taught in a couple of ways. Two common ways are through analytic phonics and through synthetic phonics. 

Let’s have a look at the two of them.

In analytic phonics we start with whole words or larger units. This approach relies on analysing words to discover those phoneme–grapheme correspondences. Generally, it utilises look/say or natural texts that contain a broad range of representations. This may be very familiar to you depending on your previous teaching experience.

Synthetic phonics on the other hand starts with phonemes, individual phonemes. I just want to point out the ‘synthetic’ there does not relate to ‘fake’, it relates to ‘synthesise’, it’s about putting things together. So we start very basically. We teach initial one-to-one correspondence, phoneme–grapheme correspondences.

It promotes teaching the phoneme–grapheme correspondences directly and explicitly. So instead of having the children go on a journey of discovery to work out what sounds those letters represent, we just tell them. It’s a very direct path to teaching.

The instruction includes the use of decodable texts. Now every text is just a text, but fundamentally the decodability of a text is determined by how much of the code the children know. What is the background knowledge of the student compared with what’s being presented in the text. And the point about the decodability of text in a synthetic phonics approach is about carefully matching the text to the knowledge of the student.

This is preferable. This is what we want to see. There are some children who will learn their phonics no matter which way we teach it to them, but for the vast majority of children a direct, explicit path is going to be way more effective. For those students who are at risk for some reason, whether they have a language difficulty, whether they are at risk for a reading difficulty, they have ADHD or there’s something else going on, this very direct synthetic phonics approach is going to get us the best results.

So, what’s included? Let’s break this business of systematic synthetic phonics down a little bit more.

Firstly, we need to be looking at a whole-school systematic synthetic phonics approach. When I say ‘whole school’, I guess I mean ‘whole cohort’. We don’t want to be teaching phonics in the upper primary if we’ve got really good strong phonics going on in those early years, Foundation, Year 1, Year 2, we don’t need to be teaching phonics directly and explicitly in the upper primary.

‘Whole school’ means that we are all committed to making sure that every child has those fundamental correspondences so that they can start to lift words from the page and build automaticity. And so you can see that whole-school approach will include looking at the entire alphabetic code and some very systematic explicit lessons that are shared by everyone, so no matter what classroom a student goes into, they will know what’s happening, they know how to participate, and they know how to succeed.

[The slide shows a selection of decodable texts on the left-hand side. The right-hand side shows text from Lyn Stone’s Decoding Dragon.]

I’ve already mentioned decodable texts. You can see Lyn Stone’s wonderful Decoding Dragon here. The point of decodables is that they keep children out of the guessing zone. When we present children with levelled readers – and that’s what all schools have done at one point or another – we’re putting words in front of them that contain a whole bunch of phoneme–grapheme correspondences that they don’t know. So their only option is to look at the picture and have a bit of a guess here.

We want to keep focus on the internal structure of the word, and decodables do that for us.

I’d also like to reiterate the fact that ‘beginning readers’ relates to whatever age the child happens to be. So if a child is 11 and just starting, or they are just working their way to building some fluency with decodable text, they need decodable text. It’s not about the age of the student, it’s about the level of reading development that they are up to. It doesn’t mean you are going to give that 11-year-old the same book you would give to a Foundation student, because they look different, and they are aimed at different audiences. There are some fantastic books written for children aged between 8 and 14 years that are high interest, more constrained and more easily decoded, and we want to make sure that we are providing the appropriate text for all children.

But if you’re a beginning reader, you need a decodable text to stay out of the guessing zone.

[The text reads: ‘Decoding Dragon keeps the Guessing Monster away! Don’t guess! Sound the word all the way through. Keep track with your finger. Break long words into syllables.]

The next thing to think about is that reading and spelling are taught as reciprocal processes. And what that means is that in every single lesson, we are going to both recognise and write graphemes; we are going to read and write words; we are going to read and write sentences. So, whatever we learn to read, we’re also going to learn to write. And it’s important that we keep children out of the copying zone when it comes to this, so that they can – think back to Dehaene’s four pillars – so that they can fully engage in the lesson and get their thinking going and create those mental models and conceptual understandings that help them be strong readers and spellers.

So it’s not that we have our reading program here and then the spelling program here. We don’t need that in the early years at all. In the early years we are just going to focus on our phonics and we’re going to read words and spell words that contain those spelling patterns.

We also need to carefully consider assessment. Reading progress in a systematic synthetic phonics approach is measured using tools other than the benchmark assessment that’s aligned with a levelled reading program. At best, those assessments will tell you how a child’s progressing through that program. They’re not going to give you the detailed information you need so that you can help children develop really really strong foundations, firstly in the phoneme–grapheme correspondences, that’s what we’re looking at, so you can have an informal assessment. And, of course, that Year 1 Phonics Check is an important tool in helping us to monitor student progress.

Let’s have a look at this outline of a lesson.

Now, the steps in this lesson are pretty consistent across all high-quality systematic synthetic phonics programs. We’re going to learn a new sound. Now whether you call it a sound, a phoneme, a grapheme, whatever you call it is less of an issue than the fact that you do it. So as long as we’re building those phoneme–grapheme correspondences, helping children connect the speech sounds with the letter or letters that represent them, that’s what we need to be doing.

In Foundation we are going to focus predominantly on building that basic code: we might call them alphabet sounds or simple sounds, whatever you want to call them; and the most common consonant digraphs. They’re the critical elements in Foundation and then we build in understanding complexity from there.

We have our correspondences. We need to review. Whatever you’re doing needs to include some practice and review. We are then going to read some words, we’re going to write some words, and then when children are ready, we’ll put those things into sentences.

But every quality systematic synthetic phonics program out there includes these elements. They may look slightly different, they may be done in a little bit of a different order, but fundamentally that’s where it is. Because, ultimately, the research is so very clear: we want children focussing on the internal structure of the word. We don’t want them trying to memorise words or guess them by sight. It’s focussing on every sound in the word, the full word from the start to the end, that builds the orthographic mapping. That’s the bit that holds it in their long-term memory for easy retrieval later. Orthographic mapping is built on repeated work, with both reading and spelling of words, attending to every sound in the word.

[The slide shows a sequence of five steps in a lesson. Step 1 is ‘Learn new sound.’ Explanation text for Step 1 is ‘Show the card for the new sound. Say the sound and have your child repeat it. Do this several times.’ Step 2 is ‘Practise reading previously taught sounds.’ Explanation text for Step 2 is ‘Show cards for sounds children have already learned, working on getting faster as they read them.’ Step 3 is ‘Read 3 words with the new sound.’ Explanation text for Step 3 is ‘Support children to sound out words that have the new sound.’ Step 4 is ‘Read 3 words with sounds already taught.’ Explanation text for Step 4 is ‘Support children to read words with sounds they have previously learned.’ Step 5 is ‘Spelling.’ Explanation text for Step 5 is ‘Support children to sound out words and write them down. Firstly with the new sound and then with previously learned sounds.’]

We need to focus on the full alphabetic code. It’s not enough simply to teach that basic code in Foundation and then give spelling lists of particular patterns and think they’ll pick it up. Of course, we are going to have some who’ll be fine with that, but actually we’re not here just to teach some. We’re here to provide equitable access to strong literacy skills for every child.

I’d like to mention that nobody is disadvantaged by a systematic synthetic phonics approach. While I’m saying, hey, we particularly need to focus on our strugglers, everybody wins when we teach in this explicit systematic way. Those children who would have been OK with the spelling lists, with the pattern, actually, their learning will be accelerated and strengthened through this approach.

We need to teach the full code. We don’t want to teach it all at once. Step-by-step, that’s another characteristic of that systematic approach that we slowly build up in complexity, allowing children to work to mastery. But it’s not just about teaching one or two representations of each phoneme. It’s the full code we need to be helping the children understand and build flexibility with.

Another element of systematic synthetic phonics is how we approach irregular words.

[The slide shows three examples of irregular words. The word ‘the’ appears in a handwritten font; ‘th’ is underlined in green; ‘e’ is circled in red. The word ‘said’ is shown on a slide from the Really Great Reading program; the phoneme ‘ai’ is represented with a heart. An image from the Secret Stories program shows the irregular words ‘the’, ‘how’, ‘for’, ‘she’, ‘my’, ‘her’.]

Just like text, words are just words. The level of regularity or irregularity comes about based on the student’s background knowledge.

Some words, like ‘said’ that we can see here on the screen, have a spelling pattern that really only appears in one or two words, so we could probably safely call them irregular. But it doesn’t mean that the student has to learn that word as a whole by sight. Remember the research is really clear: we don’t actually process words that way. Even you and I as adults and proficient readers still attend to the sounds in the word. We just do it all at once and in an unconscious way, so it’s not clear that that’s what we’re doing.

We can see with the ‘the’ here, there will be regular elements. They may know the ‘th’ but they haven’t come across the schwa and the representations of schwa, that most common vowel, the ə. In the word ‘she’, they may know ‘sh’ but they haven’t yet learned that the ‘e’ represents the long vowel ‘e’.

It’s not that all children in every school will approach these words in exactly the same way. Rather, we know our students and what they know, so we can point out the regular parts and the irregular parts. They’re basically just the bits we don’t know yet. Because we need to have a number of these words, remembering that we do not want these learned as wholes by sight. Actually, our brains don’t work that way.

Back to decodable texts. I know I’ve talked about this a fair bit already but I do want to reiterate that these are not just for the first year of school. They are available to students for as long as they need them. Fundamentally, children will use decodable texts until they have a really good solid grasp on the full complexity of the alphabetic code and they’ve learned that alphabetic principle. We want them reading multisyllable words. We want them to have moved from the decoding sound-by-sound into the word recognition, where they are developing orthographic mapping and they don’t have to sound words out anymore. That’s a process and so when they are doing those things, when they come across an unfamiliar word and they’re not guessing at the word, they’re actually using their phonics knowledge to work it out. That’s when they might be ready to move on from decodables. Lots of people think we get to the end of Foundation and then they don’t need them anymore; that’s actually not the case. Different children will be ready to move on from decodables at different stages. This is a great conversation for you to be having with your school team and with other people around you who support you, so that you can develop an understanding as a school about how all of this works.

Let’s have a really good look at some predictable texts versus decodable. I’ve called it ‘predictable’ here but some people might call it a ‘natural text’ or this is what we understand to be a ‘levelled reader’.

I want to point out some things to you about what’s going on in the words in these pages.

If we look at this one on the left, I’m sure we all recognise it.

[The slide shows pages from two school reader books. On the left is a predictable text; on the right is a decodable text.

Predictable text

Dad laughed. ‘Oh, dear,’ he said. ‘We can’t go fishing today!’

‘But we can have a picnic in the boat,’ said Rosie. ‘This is not a fishing boat today. This is a picnic boat!’

Decodable text

Mama hen and the chicks went to the pond. Mama hen and Sam and Chip and Dan and Ben and Mag pecked up lots of grubs from the mud.

The duckchick flapped his long wings, stretched his long neck, and ‘Splash!’ jumped into the pond. He pecked up some crusts.

‘Cluck!’ went Mama hen, shocked.

‘Cluck!’ went Sam, and Chip, and Dan, and Ben, and Mag.

‘Quack!’ went the duckchick.]

If I were to think about the fact that a child may know the basic code and have automaticity, effortless retrieval of the phoneme–grapheme correspondences, of the alphabet sounds and the most common consonant digraphs like 'sh', 'ch, 'th' and ‘ng’, if I examine it like that, we’ve got all of these words that are now irregular, that have sound spelling patterns in them that the child may be unfamiliar with. And, in fact, it’s a whopping 67% of that page.

So, thinking about this from a cognitive load perspective, our little people who don’t just pick everything up – which if we’re honest, is actually quite a number of them, it’s not just one or two, it’s a good chunk of most children – they’re going to find that really hard. Of course, they are going to look at the picture. They’ll rely on their current oral language skills to get them through. It doesn’t mean they are actually effectively reading and decoding and building orthographic mapping of those words.

[On the left of the screen, the words that don’t fit in the basic code are circled in red.

Predictable text circled words

laughed, oh, dear, he, said, we, can’t, go, today, have, a, boat, Rosie, is

There are seven lines of text and most words are circled; one line has all the words circled.

On the right of the screen, the words that don’t fit in the basic code are circled in red.

Decodable text circled words

the, to, of, his, into, he, some, Mama

There are nine lines of text with very few words circled on each line; one line has no words circled.]

If we compare this to the decodable text on the right-hand side, we can see that there is a significantly higher number of words in this text. But have a look at the number of words that are irregular: fewer words are irregular and in fact represent 18% of the text.

We can see that there’s so much more on the page. There’s lots of things going on, but this is not going to tax our students’ cognitive load as much as the one on the left. And when we look at the number of irregular words the child might need in order to read this, we can see that there is quite a difference in the number of words that the children will need in order to access these texts.

[The slide shows two lists of irregular words. The list of irregular words from the predictable text is: laughed, dear, said, can’t, Rosie, have, a, we, today, is, oh, he, go, boat. The list of irregular words from the decodable text is: the, two, of, his, into, he, some, Mama.]

OK, back to the lesson here.

[The slide shows the same image as earlier, relating to the sequence of five steps in a lesson. Step 1 is ‘Learn new sound.’ Explanation text for Step 1 is ‘Show the card for the new sound. Say the sound and have your child repeat it. Do this several times.’ Step 2 is ‘Practise reading previously taught sounds.’ Explanation text for Step 2 is ‘Show cards for sounds children have already learned, working on getting faster as they read them.’ Step 3 is ‘Read 3 words with the new sound.’ Explanation text for Step 3 is ‘Support children to sound out words that have the new sound.’ Step 4 is ‘Read 3 words with sounds already taught.’ Explanation text for Step 4 is ‘Support children to read words with sounds they have previously learned.’ Step 5 is ‘Spelling.’ Explanation text for Step 5 is ‘Support children to sound out words and write them down. Firstly with the new sound and then with previously learned sounds.’]

So, we’ve got our ‘learn a new sound’. Now, when we’re learning a new sound – I’m just going to call them sounds, remember you call them what you will in your school – that lesson needs to be fast paced. The trick here is to get as many repetitions into a short space of time as possible. We don’t want to go too quickly because that can be counterproductive. But certainly, if I was showing the letter ‘a’, the students say /a/, /a/, /a/, /a/, /a/, /a/. So we’ve got fast-paced multiple repetitions.

We’re going to put our review in there because we need to build consolidation. Different children will need different numbers of exposures in order to build that consolidation, so it's really important that we’re paying attention at every step of the lesson here. We’re noticing which children have got it and they’re firm and it’s all concrete for them, and they’re ready to move ahead, and which children are going to need extra support in a Tier 2 intervention situation. Our Tier 1 is our whole-class teaching and our Tier 2 is that extra, not different, but more intensive repetition of what we’ve just done. We need to notice who those children are, then we’re going to read some words and write some words, including some review in there.

One of the things to note is that we include reading and spelling of the same focus grapheme. The words that you have children read are the same words that you are going to have them spell. I like to shuffle them. I don’t want anyone getting too comfortable. But we want them to have the advantage of the reciprocity of reading and spelling here, so use the same words.

This brings us to assessment. Assessment I understand is a hot topic and sometimes there can be heated discussions but please don’t get heated. Let’s just really think of assessment as an opportunity to really have a look and see, did the children learn the things I wanted them to learn? Fundamentally, these sorts of assessments will do it.

On the left is one, I’m going to be honest with you, I made it up, because it’s an informal assessment and so you will look at what are the sounds that we’ve taught. Can the child tell me what the sound is when they look at the grapheme? Can they read real words? Can they read alien words?

[The slide shows a page of words and letters in large plain font on the left of the slide. Graphemes are shown in a box, followed by a list of real and pseudo words that use those graphemes.]

Now some people don’t like the whole idea of alien words and you’ll see people say, ‘Oh, they’re teaching alien words.’ We’re not actually. We’re using the alien or the pseudo words as an opportunity to assess. Because we may not know whether the child has orthographically matched the word ‘shop’ and they just kind of know it, but they’re not really paying attention to the structure of the word. But when it comes to ‘shep’ we will know that because they’re unfamiliar with it. We want to see, are they using their phonics and are they sounding out. Remember that’s what gets them moving on to really beautiful authentic texts in Year 2 and beyond.

On the right here we have the Motif suite of assessments. They are completely free. You do need to create an account but they’re free to access and there are a number of assessments there that you can use. Many of them are norm-referenced to look at the sounds that children have as well as the word-level reading.

[The slide shows the front page of the Macquarie University Motif site, which shows a range of assessments.]

And, of course, we have the Year 1 Phonics Check, which is a fantastic tool to take a snapshot of where your Year 1 students are sitting, so you can as a team evaluate how effective is our practice now and identify children who may be in need of additional support.

[The slide shows details from the Year 1 Phonics Check online tool.]

But please, I can’t reiterate enough, the importance of assessing right from day one of Foundation. I don’t mean individual children sitting down; I mean the formative assessment that you conduct within your lesson. The Phonics Check is one tool, a very important one that has an important place, but we are going to make sure that we get the children getting great results in the Phonics Check by monitoring what’s going on as you teach.

And so that brings me to the in-program tools that will be available to you if you’re using a commercial program.

There is no one right program. There are a number of high-quality ones out there. I will acknowledge that the SPARKLE kit from Decodable Readers Australia is there. They don’t offer a phonics program but there is certainly a scope and sequence with their decodable text. They offer the SPARKLE kit as an opportunity. But we can see we’ve got an assessment here from Read Write Inc, and from Little Learners Love Literacy, and all the other programs out there that are high-quality systematic synthetic phonics programs will include assessment. That’s what you’re going to use regularly. A couple of times a term, sit the children down one-on-one, how are we going, to capture that data and not rely just on our gut feel. We need to be looking at each child so that we can assess and evaluate our own teaching. How we are going and how are the children keeping up?

[The slide shows a set of books from the SPARKLE kit; a sample assessment from Read Write Inc; a sample of grapheme–phonemic assessments from Little Learners Love Literacy.]

Once they’re through that whole phonics phase of their learning then they’re ready to go on to something that is more comprehensive at text level. You may have heard of DIBELS, sometimes called ‘dibbles’. It is a screening tool, a monitoring tool, that has a number of different sub-assessments within it, but it is norm-referenced for text level. This is what would replace your benchmark assessment from your levelled reader program.

[The slide shows details for the DIBELS program, from the University of Oregon, College of Education.]

You might be looking for something that’s a little bit more formal, so the DIBELS there is a monitoring screener, whereas something like the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability is a norm-referenced assessment. And the reason I share this one with you is that it’s one that schools can access. There are a number of norm-referenced assessment tools out there. Your school will come up with an assessment schedule and look at different assessment tools to see which tools answer the questions that you’re asking in your school and which ones are going to be of most benefit to you all, so that you can really monitor your own progress and help students achieve really well.

So let’s recap module 4.

  • Systematic synthetic phonics is not an add-on to a balanced literacy approach, but it’s a complete framework in and of itself. It is not a program though. Programs help us organise content. They are merely tools that ideally reflect these fundamentals of systematic synthetic phonics. It’s not about the best program; it’s about understanding where the research sits, what’s going on, and making sure that our practice reflects that.
  • The main focus of systematic synthetic phonics is the explicit teaching of the full alphabetic code and includes both blending and segmenting of words in every lesson. Remember, no separate reading and spelling program; you’re going to follow my suggestion, and the suggestion of others will be, to follow the scope and sequence of your reading tools, whether that’s a program or other things, and use that to guide the spelling. But it all happens in the one lesson.
  • To support students to develop efficient reading skills, students are provided with decodable texts that contain graphemes and irregular high-frequency words they know. We do not want the children guessing from the context or from semantic clues. We want that focus on the internal structure of the word. We help children develop into skilled readers by focussing on all of the sound and letter correspondences, the phoneme–grapheme correspondences, and that’s how we build that orthographic mapping so that they can learn to automatically and effortlessly lift words from the page.
  • And finally, assessment focuses on monitoring the development of fundamental skills and then shifts to norm-referenced assessment of text-level reading with that phonics screening check (Year 1 Phonics Check) being an important assessor of those milestones for Year 1, and a really great way for you as a school to take a snapshot of what’s happening. And not just you as a school, but your state and our whole country to take a snapshot to make sure that we’re helping children to develop those fundamental skills that the research tells us are so very important.

Well, that’s it from me everyone. I’ve had an absolute lovely time putting this together for you and preparing it.

I wish you all the very best in your teaching. Bye-bye.