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

RRF Newsletter 48 back to contents
THRASS (Teaching Handwriting, Reading and Spelling Skills) An RRF review

The RRF has been sent complimentary copies of THRASS-IT (an inter-active CD) and the large THRASS PICTURECHART and THRASS GRAPHEMECHART for evaluation. The charts are intended for classroom display. THRASS includes many other resources, but this evaluation relates only to those sent to the RRF and to the Teacher’s Manual, a copy of which has been made available by one of our RRF members. 

The THRASS-IT menu has six sections: THRASSCHART, WORDCHART, Handwriting, Reading, Spelling and Assessment. The first three of these offer ‘Practice’ and ‘Play’ options. The THRASSCHART covers 120 different spellings of the 44 phonemes of English – this is thorough, though the Teacher’s Manual makes it clear that it would be unrealistic (we agree) to cover every possible grapheme for every phoneme – for example it omits the ‘gh’ spelling of the /f/ sound in ‘cough’. In the ‘Practice’ mode, the user is prompted, by a voice and an instruction printed on screen, to ‘Choose a phoneme’, which actually means ‘Click on one of the grapheme-boxes on the THRASSCHART’. The voice then pronounces the relevant phoneme. In the ‘Play’ mode, the voice pronounces the phoneme and the user has to click on one of the appropriate graphemes on the chart, whereupon the voice pronounces the phoneme again and also a THRASS word illustrating it (e.g. ‘/w/ - water’). 

The WORDCHART provides 120 words illustrating the 120 phoneme spellings of the THRASSCHART. The layout matches that of the THRASSCHART – e.g. the ‘oo’ and ‘u’ are in the first box on the bottom line of the THRASSCHART and the illustrative words ‘book’ and ‘bull’ are in the first box on the bottom line of the WORDCHART. ‘Practice’ and ‘Play’ modes in the WORDCHART section are similar to those of the THRASSCHART. In the ‘Play’ mode, however, a user who does not know the THRASS system can take a long time to find the word pronounced by the computer – e.g. it is not self-evident that the word ‘letter’ illustrates the ‘tt’ spelling of the phoneme /t/ and has to be found in the /t/ box. 

In the Handwriting section, the only ‘Practice’ given is that the user is asked to click on ‘the letter’s start point’. This is understandable, however, as a computer screen is not an ideal place to practise letter-formation. 

In the Reading section, a word is spoken by the computer and the user is asked to type it in a box, but as the printed form of the word remains displayed on the screen while one does so, all one has to do is copy it. In any case, it is hard to see this as a ‘reading’ activity. The Spelling section is slightly more challenging, although even here a lot of prompting is given. The Assessment section offers tests of Letter Name knowledge, Handwriting (again only the letter’s start point), Word Recognition, Grapheme knowledge and Phonographic knowledge. 

All sections on the CD are based entirely on the 120 THRASS words. This left us wondering how children are taught to transfer their knowledge to the reading and spelling of other words – the materials struck us generally as focusing much more on checking and reinforcing knowledge specific to THRASS than on generalisable skills. The CD provides some evidence to suggest that the material is not really aimed at beginners, not least because a fair amount of on-screen reading is required. In fact the User Guide itself suggests that children need some prior knowledge: ‘When you first start using THRASS-IT we recommend that you diagnose the child’s awareness of the following: Letter Names; Letter Formation; Word Recognition and Graphemic Awareness using the relevant tests in the Assessment Section’ (p. 5). At this and a few other points (e.g. mysterious references to ‘the grey grapheme’, and the problem mentioned above of finding particular words on the WORDCHART), we felt that the THRASS-IT CD was not quite as much of a ‘stand-alone tool for teaching the THRASS methods and strategies’ as the User Guide claims (p. 4). 

The Teacher’s Manual (1998) is rightly dismissive of the  ‘One-Letter-Makes-One-Sound Method’ (OLMOSM) of phonics teaching but is perhaps unfair in implying that this method is more widespread than it probably is: there is no mention of programmes which predate THRASS but go well beyond OLMOSM - e.g. Joyce Morris’s 1970s Language in Action project, Mona McNee’s 1990 Step by Step, and Sue Lloyd and Sara Wernham’s 1992 The Phonics Handbook. The fact is that the THRASS Manual continues, rather than initiating, a laudable tradition of doing justice to the complex way in which alphabetic writing works in English. We felt, however, that it did not give a clear enough idea of where one would start with absolute beginners. In fact, the Manual, like the CD User Guide, contains indications that THRASS may not really be intended for beginners: for example, in a box under the heading ‘The Reading Process’ on p. 29, THRASS is said to be ‘a support program for children who continue to have difficulty in developing the phonographic skills necessary for reading’, which suggests that it is intended less as a first-time teaching programme than as a programme providing strategies to supplement those which children are already using for word-identification. There are also indications that THRASS may actually regard whole-language strategies as the first resort for reading: ‘When children cannot read a word using picture or context clues, if it is appropriate for them to decode the word, encourage them to break the words [sic] into graphs, digraphs and trigraphs’ (p. 31). This sets it apart from what the RRF regards as synthetic phonics programmes, where the first resort for reading is producing phonemes for graphemes and blending (synthesising) the phonemes. In view of the fact that THRASS sets great store by giving children the `whole picture’ from the start where grapheme-phoneme correspondences are concerned, it seems somewhat anomalous that it should leave any room at all for guessing. One also wonders how children who ‘cannot read a word using picture or context clues’ would manage the more technical feat of breaking it into ‘graphs, digraphs and trigraphs’. 

The THRASS materials available to the RRF provide useful resources for teachers and some activities which may be useful for children who are not absolute beginners. The focus, however, is more on isolated graphemes and phonemes seen from a distinctively THRASS perspective than on reading a wide range of whole words (not just THRASS words and not just parts of words) by sounding out and blending or spelling whole words by segmenting and writing down appropriate letters. It would be interesting to know what age-groups are actually using THRASS in schools and what improvement is reflected in test scores. 

Enquiries about THRASS materials and courses: Tel. 01829-741413 or Fax 01829-741419.




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