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The beautiful simplicity in McGuinness’s prototype

I’m writing this post because I’ve just realised that after over four hundred posts, to my horror, I’ve never talked about Diane McGuinness’s ‘Prototype for teaching the alphabet code’ before.

Fifteen years ago, amongst the most enthusiastic phonics advocates in the UK, everyone was thoroughly conversant with it. However, from what we’ve seen on Twitter recently, what has become increasingly apparent is that there’s a new generation of teachers out there who have never heard of it, much less followed (any of?) its principles.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the prototype, here are those ten core principles, with a short commentary from me:

1. “No sight words (except high frequency words with rare spellings).”[These might be words like ‘of’, in which the spelling < f > represents the sound /v/. ‘Of’ is the only word in the English language in which /v/ is spelt using the spelling < f >.]

2. “No letter names.” [Letter names can be useful as a shortcut once pupils understand that the sounds in the English language are represented by spellings. This would usually be by the end of the first year of school, when they have learned the Initial/Basic Code.]

3. “Sound-to-print orientation. Phonemes, not letters, are the basis of the code.” [Start by teaching that sounds in simple, CVC words can be represented by single-letter spellings. Humans have been speaking for, at the very least, 100,000 years; writing, on the other hand, was only invented about 5,000 years ago. See also a previous post on this.]

4. “Teach phonemes only and no other sound units.” [The English alphabet system is based on the individual sounds of the language, not on larger units, such as onsets and rhymes. If a child has been taught that /b/ and /l/ are written < b > and < l >, why on earth would they be taught ‘bl’ as well?]

5. “Begin with an artificial transparent alphabet or basic code: a one-to-one correspondence between 40 phonemes and their most common spelling.”[This is one of the most crucial points made by McGuinness. Young children can easily be taught that the sounds in our language are represented by single-letter spellings. They are easy to introduce, easy to remember when spelling, and lack the complexity of digraphs, trigraphs and multigraphs.]

6. “Teach children to identify and sequence sounds in real words by segmenting and blending, using letters.” [By ‘using letters’, what McGuinness means is segmenting and blending in the context of written words, rather than doing this orally.]

7. “Teach children how to write each letter. Integrate writing into every lesson.” [Children should be taught carefully how to form each letter, though not in their phonics lessons (cognitive overload). When teachers neglect to teach letter formation from the start, like anything, correcting a fault can be very, very hard, especially when it has been practised to semi-permanency.]

8. “Link writing, spelling, and reading to ensure that children learn that the alphabet is a code, and that the code works in both directions: encoding/decoding.” [Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. Of course, from a psychological point of view, writing is more difficult than reading because it draws on recall memory, rather than recognition memory.]

9. “Spelling should be accurate or, at a minimum, phonetically accurate (all things within reason).” [Once it dawns on (even quite young) children that they can represent the sounds in words in writing, they start to try and write anything and everything. Error correction should always be based on what the children have already learnt. For example, ‘frog’ spelt as ‘fog’ would need to be corrected but ‘Queen’ spelt as ‘Quen’ would not unless and until the spellings of the sound /ee/ had been taught.]

10. “Lessons should move on to include the advanced spelling code (the 136 remaining common spellings and 80 sight words).” [This probably takes the average child about two more years to learn. However, once learnt, it provides a strong base for learning less frequently encountered spellings, which, if taught in context, are easy to add to the repertoire. ]

Since publishing her ‘manifesto’, precious few approaches to the teaching of reading and spelling have adopted a single one of her precepts, never mind all of them.

As well as taking into account cognitive load theory (which McGuinness is familiar with), I strongly believe that any phonics programme, for it to be of outstanding quality, should adhere to all of McGuinness’s principles with one exception. We now know that, with enough practice and a carefully calibrated step-by-step approach, it is easy to teach the Extended/advanced Code by teaching more ways than one of spelling a sound.

As a postscript, Susan Godsland of Dyslexics.org.uk tells me that Professor McGuinness first published her prototype here in the Reading Reform Foundation Newsletter in 2002.

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4 thoughts on “The beautiful simplicity in McGuinness’s prototype

  1. An excellent reminder! Too bad more publishers and programs haven’t adopted these principles. We have and see children learn to read much more rapidly than they do with mainstream approaches.

    Thank you! I’m going to share this with our audience.

  2. As a side-note, I found your blog, and therefore Sounds Write, indirectly via McGuinness’s Early Literacy book. I had been Googling for followup research in the 15 years that have elapsed since its publication, and I was somewhat dismayed to learn that her work is no longer in the lexicon of current early reading research. But your blog came up tangentially, I think you use her as one of your #tags in some of your posts.

    I suppose my point is – talk about McGuinness more! Reignite the awareness! She ends the book with a bunch of questions regarding the practical aspect of teaching the Code in the best way possible. Short of formal research, it would be great if you made a good stab at them, if only anecdotally through the lens of somebody who runs a phonics training company.

    I’m not a teacher, only an eager parent fumbling my way round for the best approach to introduce my sons to reading. I had gone halfway down the rabbit hole of approaching it from an oral “phonemic awareness” perspective, where the ‘experts’ claim that this precedes reading instruction. I began to feel like it was just beating around the bush, and why not just start teaching the thing we are trying to get them to do?! Eventually I took pause for thought, discovered McGuinness and her prototype, and have loved the process of teaching my son to read since. Turns out, at 3, he was entirely ready for direct reading instruction!

    Together we have completed the Basic Code, and are now working on our vowel digraphs. Unfortunately I’m having to fumble around once again, since I have exhausted the Sounds Write material for the basic code, and there’s not really much else out there for the Advanced Code that are true to McGuinness’s prototype. Luckily, I can fumble around but also know I’m going in the right direction provided I stick to the prototype rules. Maybe I’ll get to one of your Advanced Code trainings one day, though it’s tough living in Colorado, USA!

  3. As a parent fumbling around trying to assess the efficacy of various reading approaches for my sons, McGuinness’s prototype was a godsend. In fact it is so informing that I no longer need to follow one programme or the other, I can make lessons and teachable moments up on the spot and be confident it falls within the parameter of her prototype. The hardest part is finding “readers” that fit the bill, but they are out there if you look hard enough.

    On a side note – John, I found your blog indirectly through McGuinness’s Early Literacy book. Having read the book, I found myself on Google doing further research (and your blog has in the past used her name as a #tag), and was dismayed to find her prototype is not in the lexicon of early reading research.

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