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Zero to Hero

Zero to Hero

Recently one of us gave a talk to some parents about phonics. It was called Zero to Hero: Phonics for Parents. Many of the 40 parents at the seminar were worried about their children’s progress and lack of phonics skills.

They were right to worry. More than a third of our school children are below National Standards in reading and writing. Due to our huge shortage of literacy specialist teachers in schools, children who fall behind will stay behind.

Parents and early childhood teachers can stop this from happening and the best way is to learn some basic strategies for teaching phonics. Phonics is ten times more effective than other ways of teaching.1 Children who succeed in school intuitively use some basic phonics for their spelling and reading.

We know this because they sound out words when reading and because they use invented spelling – which is spelling by sound –something we must encourage beginners to do.

To become great spellers (and readers), though, they need more advanced phonics. In a recent study of year 3 students we found that many children were inventing spellings but did not know how to move forward.

Here are some examples: “I bilt a snoeman”, “my friend gros vegdabills”, “lisins” for “licence”, “tikit” for “ticket”, “skwetting” for “squirting”, “diled” for “dialled” and “poleas” for police.2 After teaching them simple phonics strategies their correct spelling dramatically
improved.2 Correctness is important because essays that have spelling mistakes receive lower marks from teachers than essays without errors.3 Phonics should be an important part of the early childhood education experience, starting with the alphabet.

It has been well known since the 1960s that the ability to recognise letters of the alphabet prior to the beginning of reading instruction is the single best predictor of year 1 reading and spelling achievement.4 Teaching the alphabet is the first step in learning phonics. You can start by purchasing plastic alphabet letters or an alphabet card (like the chart on the following page).

Teach the names of the letters (the alphabet song is good for this). To avoid reliance on memory, ask children to name the letters not just vertically but horizontally as well.

There are lots of different ways to learn the shapes of letters such as copying them (cover-copy-compare), writing them in sand, and making them with play dough.

You can teach how to write the letters using the book called Teaching Handwriting (there is a PDF copy on Google if you type in the book title plus “Ministry of Education”).

Another important skill is to learn Turtle Talk. This is where you teach children to say words slowly, stretching them out.

It helps them to figure out that spoken words are made of phonemes, the smallest sounds in the language, and that we blend sounds together to make words when we speak. Young children are naive about phonemes.

If you ask them what are the three sounds in cat they will say meow, meow, meow instead of /k-a-t/.

Once children know the names of letters and understand that letters can represent the sounds of words they can begin to write.

The spellings may not be totally understandable but they will sound like the target word, e.g., ran for “rain”.

Once children know the letters of the alphabet and their sounds they can begin to read and spell two-letter combinations like at, in, up, us, on. Then move to three letter words making word families like sun, fun, run.

Show children how to read like a turtle, saying each sound slowly, and then saying them more quickly until they all come together as a word.

When they spell “sun” they should also say it slowly like a turtle so they know there are three letters to write. There are lots of word families like this with similar patterns for making lots of words: ag, at, et, op, ot, in, ill, up, un.

The company Smart Kids has a product called Teaching Phonics Effectively that has all the letters and phonics patterns.

Learning simple phonics skills as a school beginner has an inoculation effect in that it reduces the chance that you will need remedial tuition later in your schooling.5 A study in Scotland found that children taught intensive phonics in their first year of school and who were later tested for reading and spelling in Year 7 were years ahead of a control group who had not received such intensive instruction.6 These results convinced the English government to change their teaching to intensive phonics.

Each year, schools in England now children sit a compulsory national phonics check and results are showing steady improvements.

In New Zealand we have found that combining phonics with the current Big Book approach is better than using phonics and Big Books on their own7 – phonics adds extra value to what the school does.

Phonics may not give complete accuracy in reading and spelling but it usually puts you 90 percent there in terms of accuracy; the last 10 percent will come with lots of reading and writing practice.

We want our children to be heroes, not zeroes, and phonics will enable our little ones to become heroes.


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