Reading… the tsunami

After my last post, ‘How to teach spelling…’, let’s look at the detail of what students from Year 2  and above need to know in terms of phonic knowledge.

We’re working with a large MAT introducing Sounds-Write in their secondary schools and so I’ve been looking in detail at some of the texts students will be having to deal with.

The following extract is taken from Mallory Blackman’s Dangerous Reality.

This is how it appears to students reading it, although I’ve changed the font type and size:

Dangerous Reality by Malorie Blackman

“I turned to see them all come charging in my direction.  It was like a herd of rhinos or elephants stampeding towards you, or a tsunami rushing up to sweep you away. I ran. I couldn’t help it. Matt had a look of pure and utter hatred on his face and I knew I was in for a pounding. I had no idea why – and I didn’t want to wait and find out either. But my leg started hurting and I was only three quarters of the way to the school entrance before I was surrounded. The next moment I was practically swept off my feet and pushed against the nearest wall. And they all stood – Matt, Robert, Terry, Alana, and Lawrence “Don’t call me Larry!”).

“I know it was you,” Matt hissed at me.

I frowned at him but didn’t speak.

“It was you, wasn’t it?”

“What’re you talking about?”

My shoulder got thumped. “You threw that plant through my window, didn’t you?” Spit flew out of Matt’s mouth and splashed my cheek. But I didn’t wipe it away. I was too busy staring at Matt, trying to figure out what he was saying. What plant through his window?”

What I’ve done with the text is separate each word into its constituent sound-spelling correspondences. There are one or two you might want to code differently, such as ‘tsunami’, which many people now pronounce as ‘sunami’. I’ll give you a moment to take it in.

I  t ur n ed  t o  s ee  th e m  a ll  c o me  ch ar g i n g  i n  m y  d i r e c ti o n.  I t  w a s  l i k e  a h er d  o f  rh i n o s  or  e l e ph a n t s

s t a m p e d i n g  t o w ar d s  y ou,  or  a  t s u n a m i  r u sh i n g  u p  t o  s w ee p  y ou  a w ay.  I  r a n.  I  c oul d n’ t  h e l p  i t.  M a tt  h a d

a  l oo k  o f  p ure  a n d  u tt er  h a t r e d  o n  h i s  f a ce  a n d  I  kn ew  I  w a s  i n  f or  a  p ou n d i n g.  I  h a d  n o  i d e a  wh y – a n d  I

d i d n’ t  w a n t  t o  w ai t  a n d  f i n d  ou t  ei th er.  B u t  m y  l e g  s t ar t e d  h ur t i n g  a n d  I  w a s  o n l y  th r ee  q u ar t er s o f  th e

w ay  t o  th e  s ch oo l  e n t r a n ce  b e f ore  I  w a s  s u rr ou n d e d. Th e  n e x t  m o m e n t  I  w a s  p r a c t i c a ll y  s w e p t  o ff  m y

f ee t  a n d  p u sh ed  a g ai n s t  th e  n ea r e s t  w a ll.  A n d  th ey  a ll  s t oo d

–  M a tt,  R o b er t,  T e rr y,  A l a n a,  a n d  L aw r e n ce  “D o n’ t  c a ll  m e  L a rr y!”).

“I  kn ow  i t  w a s  y ou,”  M a tt  h i ss ed  a t  m e.

I  f r ow n ed  a t  h i m  b u t  d i d n’ t  s p ea k.

“I t  w a s  y ou,  w a s n’ t  i t?”

“Wh a t’ re  y ou  t al k in g  a b ou t?”

M y  sh ou l d er  g o t  th u m p ed.  “Y ou  th r ew  th a t  p l a n t  th r ough  m y  w i n d ow, d i d n’ t  y ou?”  S p i t  f l ew  ou t  o f  M a tt’ s  m ou th  a n d  s p l a sh ed  m y  ch ee k.

B u t  I  d i d n’ t  w i pe  i t  a w ay.  I  w a s  t oo  b u s y  s t a r i ng  a t  M a tt,  t r y i ng  t o

f i g ure  ou t  wh a t  h e  w a s  s ay i ng.  Wh a t  p l a n t  th r ough  h i s  w i n d ow?”

In the text, you can see that there are multiple examples of one- and two-letter spellings. There’s a three-letter spelling of the schwa in ‘figure‘ and there’s a four-letter spelling in the word ‘through‘, which appears twice in the text.

The various readability scales put the level of difficulty at between Grade 3 and Grade 6 (USA grading system and for students between nine and eleven years.), though this tells you very little about the amount of code knowledge required to read it; nor does it tell you the skills that are needed to be mastered before a student can use the code knowledge they have. What readability scales are more likely to measure are sentence length, embedded defining and non-defining relative clauses and vocabulary difficulty.

One sound, different spellings

Students need to know that the same sound can be spelt in different ways and they’ll need to know the detail of this. Do they, for example, know that the spelling < o > in ‘to’, < ough > in ‘through’, < ew > in ‘flew’, < ou > in ‘you’, and < oo > in the word ‘school’  all represent the sound /oo/? This needs to have been taught explicitly.

One spelling, different sounds

The student will also have to contend with is the idea that many spellings represent more than one sound. Here are a few examples in the text:

In the word ‘come’, the spelling < o > represents the sound /u/. It can be /oe/ in  ‘no’ or /oo/ in the word ‘to’.

In ‘frowned’, the spelling < ow > represents the sound /ow/ and, in ‘window’, it is /oe/ (or even a schwa in some accents of English).

There’s also the spelling < a > in the word ‘call’, which represents the sound /or/ and, immediately after, in the word ‘Larry’, it’s /a/.

Elisions in polysyllabic words

Then, there are words like ‘practically’, a four-syllable word: ‘prac’ ‘ti’ ‘ca’ ‘lly’ but often spoken as a three-syllable word (‘practicly’).

Adjacent consonants

However, what is most likely to cause a student to come crashing to a halt are the large number of adjacent consonants, ‘stampeding’, ‘sweep’, ‘started’, ‘three’, ‘school’, ‘stood’, ‘frowned’, ‘speak, ‘plant’, ‘spit’, ‘flew’, ‘splashed’.., any one of which could cause the student to stumble and have to retrace their steps, often with significant loss of meaning.

All of the above is likely to present a very confusing picture to someone who finds reading and spelling laborious, even to the extent that they come to believe it doesn’t make sense – with the result that they give up. This is especially likely to be the case with secondary school students who might have struggled with this for years.

Okay! So, these are some of the problems and what you see in the Blackman text is nothing in comparison with what you will see in domain-specific texts in history, geography, biology and so on. To quote Stanovich again, ‘…reading for meaning is hindered, unrewarding reading experiences multiply, and practice is avoided or merely tolerated with real cognitive involvement. The downward spiral continues – and has further consequences.’

Those ‘further consequences’ arrive in spades from the moment the student comes head to head with the secondary curriculum.

So, where do we take it from here? I’ll tell you in my next blog post next week!


Photo by Jess Loiterton from Pexels

2 thoughts on “Reading… the tsunami

  1. This is great John .. so good for a wide range of readers to ingest .. I loved doing this with year 6 or KS3 GLD learners .. it really validates every aspect of Sounds-Write ,
    “What are the sounds you can hear ….as you write …. ?”

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