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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 51 back to contents
Readers Letters

Dear Readers,  

My cry for help to Debbie came last year when my son and I found ourselves in what seemed like a big black hole.   At the beginning of my son’s grade 3 year his teacher told me that my son was a year behind in spelling.  This came as a complete and total shock.  I had confidence in that teacher and he said that he would work on it and maybe send some words home once a week.  At the end of the year he seemed to have made a slight improvement.  My real dilemma began when my son was put into his grade 4 class with the same teacher whom he had had for grades 1 and 2.  I, as well as other parents were most unhappy, I particularly, as she had never mentioned to me that Sean was struggling at all.  I went to see her at the beginning of last year with the belief that my son was struggling with spelling and she was very reluctant to agree, she felt that “he may be dragging his feet just a little”.   Shortly after this my son brought his writing book home for me to look at and I was appalled.  He had done a piece of writing that was full of spelling mistakes (the word “frome”(from) was ticked as being correct), had little punctuation and one particular sentence made no sense. The teacher made three spelling corrections, ticked the page and wrote “Keep up the good word” and that was the limit of her marking.  Sean and I worked through the writing together.  When we had finished it was very clear that Sean had tried really hard with his writing and with minimal changes was able to make sense of it. I was furious and presented the book to the principal of the school.  The principal and teacher asked that we attend a meeting and so began our spiral down into the big black hole.  

The following months were filled with stress, anxiety, and urgency.  We began by working through the Spalding method and this did help substantially.  We then tried working through Reading Reflex.  We seemed to continually be on a roller coaster. My first goals were to teach my son to proofread and to improve his handwriting. The more I learnt about the “Whole Language” theory the clearer my son’s coping strategies became. I soon learnt that his poor handwriting was his way of having a 50/50 guess at spelling.  His messy “a” could be an “o” or even a “u”.   We would do some dictation and after he had written it down I would make him read his piece of writing back to me.  It was here I realised that he wasn’t reading to me, he was remembering the dictation and re-telling it.  Often he would read the piece of dictation back to me perfectly but when I actually looked at what he had written it did not match.   It was at this point I realised that my son’s main literacy skills were remembering and guessing.  It was no wonder our sessions were highly stressful situations.  I finally understood why he would come up with every excuse to avoid dictation, why he would cause a distraction at every opportunity and why he would see-saw between anger and tears.  The worst part of our learning sessions was that he would not interact with me.  I think this comes back to school where children are set a task, perform that task regardless of the quality and move on.  As long as the child makes some effort, however little it was, then that was ok and no follow up was required.   We continued on, with me trying to instill in my son that writing and reading required precision.  I did an activity with him which started with a word like “arm” and then tried to show him that by adding just one letter the word changed and so on. (Arm, arms, harms, harmful, harmony, pharmacy)  

My son’s name is Sean and whenever he would spell a word incorrectly by putting the letters in the wrong order, I would try to point out how significant this was by spelling his name as Sena.  It made him realise that it was significant when letters were in the wrong place.  

We continued on our roller coaster until one day both of our frustrations erupted into a massive inferno.  I told him that I would not waste my time helping him anymore because he did not want to be helped.  But from this eruption came a lifeline.  Sean voiced all his negative feelings about himself but at the end said “the only thing I am good at is problem solving”.  It was a horrible time and I regret a lot of what I said.  With hindsight, I can now see that I brought a lot of the urgency and anxiety into the situation.  My feelings of guilt in not helping Sean in his first years of school really plagued me. I had returned to work and did not have the time that I had been able to take with my other 2 children.   I had helped my daughter, and actually taught my other son to read in kindergarten, but did not realise just how important my help had been.  I was helping Sean now but constantly wondered if it was too late.  

After a week of cooling down Sean wrote me a note asking me to start helping him again. We gave it another go, this time using his problem solving approach.  I feel approaching it from another angle really made a difference.  I told him spelling was problem solving which slowly made him start to interact with me when trying to spell a word. This helped immensely because he would now tell me why he had or hadn’t done something and I knew his reasoning behind it. I would also question spellings of words that he had spelt correctly, to test his confidence and to have him consolidate why he has spelt it that way.   Also, to help Sean in spelling a word, I would encourage him to take off the ending first and then break it into syllables and then sounds.   I found, with the word “talk” for example, that he would spell it correctly on its own but if I said “talked” or “talking” he would often write “torked” .  I also invented stickers to put on his head, one with a “save” button and the other a “delete” button just like on the computer.  Whenever we would come across a word that concerned him we would analyse it and then decide if it was a word that he needed to save because it was difficult, or if it was  a word that he did not need to store in his memory because all the sounds were there.  I made quite a few references to his brain being like our computer and if he continued to store unnecessary files on it then it would become full and no longer work.  

I think it is safe to say that Sean and I have finally turned the corner.  All the pieces of the puzzle now fit together properly in his mind and probably most importantly he is channelling his energy into his spelling instead of trying to avoid the situation.  He now interacts with me freely about why he put “er” instead of “ ur ”.  I make him grade his effort, whether the mistakes he has made are allowable or silly and his grading is more realistic and accurate than before.  He now proofreads well and without so much concentration on his handwriting it has improved as well.  I would say his handwriting has improved at the same rate as his confidence in spelling.  Sean has also shown a renewed interest in reading and last year read all 5 of the Harry Potter books, as well as others and viewed this as a pastime instead of a chore.  

Last year was spent catching up and I hope that this year will be spent trying to make extra ground.  We have had a big rest since before Christmas but will get back into it soon.  It has been a long and lonely road, which we have travelled without any assistance from school. My goal now for Sean is to make all the skills I have taught him become an automatic reflex.  His first tendency is still to guess.  With time and perseverance I am sure we shall succeed.  

Kristin Boucher

Tasmania ,  Australia




Dear Debbie,  

As Deputy Head, I get to see a regular stream of ‘naughty boys’. Of course I love them all, want to give them a big hug and tell them it’s not their fault, and have to try really hard to look sternly at them over the top of my glasses!  

They all arrive at my office door accompanied by a ‘good and reliable type’ clutching their ‘time-out’ sheet. This is where they have had to write down their high crimes and misdemeanours along with a promise to do better in the future.  

To a man, they cannot spell. Their handwriting is appalling. Their vocabulary is pitiful. And it isn’t their fault. It’s ours. I feel that we should be the ones writing the apologies.  

“Sorry we have failed you Darren. Sorry we have denied you access to how to break the code, how to blend to read and segment to spell. Sorry we haven’t taught you how to form and join up your letters properly so that the physical act of writing is not so hard for you.  

Sorry we have patronised you with excuses for why you can’t read and write BECAUSE YOU ARE A BOY. Sorry we don’t know what to do with you when you behave badly because you are totally confused and demoralised and anxious when asked to read and write.  

Sorry we have listened to all the trendy, nonsensical, uncorroborated piffle peddled by the advisers for too many years, the NLS, the TTA et al, rather than following the logical, verified, research-based methods promoted by the Reading Reform Foundation and other synthetic phonics practitioners and researchers.  

Sorry that we have set you up to struggle with reading and writing for the rest of your life and forever narrowing your horizons.”  

It is SO hard, Debbie, to put matters right when the boys have had the wrong start and bad habits are well and truly set in, but I don’t see Ofsted or the DfES making it explicit that Synthetic Phonics teaching from the outset avoids the gender gap and serves the boys well for the rest of their lives. All the recent literature from Ofsted and the DfES about the gender gap in writing mentions all sorts of ideas ranging from male role models to boys’ interests and learning styles, but not a thing about the effectiveness of synthetic phonics teaching and research such as Solity’s ERR and Johnston and Watson’s Clackmannanshire longitudinal study. Why is this?  

Name and address supplied.





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