Base camp

Following on from my last post, I want to make the point and to keep on making the point that it doesn’t matter if a student is six, sixteen or sixty: if they can’t read and write, there are certain fundamentals they need to learn to begin with. Furthermore, this is especially true if the student is addicted to a host of maladaptive practices such as guessing a word from the first letter or letters, its shape, the pictures in the background…

Read my lips. There are no shortcuts. I want to scream from the rooftops that if you are starting phonics in Y3 or beyond, whether it’s as a whole class or as an intervention, trying to start from the heady heights of polysyllabic words by teaching students to read and spell a word like ‘photosynthesis’ will almost certainly result in you having to call out the literacy, mountain rescue team.

Ask a class to syllabify ‘photosynthesis’ [without looking at the spelling of the word] and they’ll clap ‘pho’ ‘to’ ‘syn’ ‘the’ ‘sis’ for you… They might also be able to tell you what it means. To be able to read and spell the word for themselves, however, requires a huge depth of pre-existing, foundational knowledge.

Let’s call the starting point for that foundational knowledge Base Camp and make clear that before our would-be conquerors of Mount Reading and Writing even begin to contemplate the summit of their journey, they first need to begin their ascent from the simplest steps.

Starting with the simple

If we begin by teaching the twenty-five single-letter spellings in the alphabet, [let us exclude < q > for the time being], and we teach words comprised of the simplest CVC structures, we have a transparent code which makes obvious and accessible the orientation of the code and how it works: from sound to print. Doing this will also provide us with a base from which we can, in the words of Diane McGuinness, start to ‘peg on’ spelling alternatives later without changing the logic of the approach. For example, after teaching the spelling < f > for /f/, we can teach < ff > and say, “This is another way to spell the sound /f/.”

We should always start by teaching reading and writing (spelling) together. This means beginning with word building, where students learn to link the sounds they already know and use in every waking moment of their speaking and listening lives with the spellings they need to represent those sounds. Word building teaches that we can spell sounds with a single letter from left to right across the page; it teaches the skills of segmenting and blending; and, it teaches elements of the code we need in simple, CVC words.

The procedure involves linking three sounds in a word that is already familiar and meaningful to the children, such as ‘sit’, ‘sat’ or ‘mat’, to the spellings of the sounds in those words. [We choose familiar words so that children aren’t also having to search their memories for meaning. If meaning is familiar the reduction in cognitive load is immediate.] As they build and read words, children are learning the skills of segmenting and blending and, though they may not be consciously aware of it yet, we are teaching them that we can spell sounds with a single letter. For more detail on how to teach word building, see my post: Word building, the foundation stone of beginning literacy (hyperlink /https://theliteracyblog.com/2020/12/20/word-building-the-foundation-stone-of-beginning-literacy/)

If you are a KS2 or KS3 teacher, you may think that beginning with CVC words is totally irrelevant to the students you work with. It won’t be for all of them! However, in our experience of running interventions for older students, the area in which many have broken down is at the level of CVCC/CCVC/CCCVCC words. We find that many students struggling in Years 3 to 6 and above have skills so deficient they are unable to read and spell words such as ‘risk’, ‘crab’, ‘trust’ and ‘script’ without dropping out a consonant.

Adjacent consonants: the rocky terrain on which so many founder.

Many phonics programs don’t spend time teaching the skills of segmenting and blending adjacent consonants at all; if they do, they don’t teach the skills robustly enough; or, they postpone teaching these skills until much too late – Phase 5? Are you kidding?! This omission leaves many students trying to cope with the greater complexities of the writing system by having to learn the different ways of spelling sounds in the language and struggling to overcome the problem posed by adjacent consonants.

When students arrive in Year 3, never having had the foundations properly established, where on earth do teachers, untrained in teaching phonics, even begin to try and teach the statutory spellings? This is not to mention all the other words on a never-ending curriculum list, especially when there is nothing to link any of the words other than meaning?

Let’s return to ‘photosynthesis’.

Coding ‘photosynthesis’:

  • The spelling < ph > is the way we spell /f/
  • the spelling < o > represents the sound /oe/, although it could be /oo/, or /o/ or /u/
  • the spelling < y > in the word represents the sound /i/, although it could be /ee/ or /ie/, or /y/
  • and, the second spelling of < o > and the spelling of < e > are schwas, lying in wait to trap the unwary speller.

The above is only one level of complexity: only the code contained in the word. Then, there are the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation needed to both read and spell the word and, in many polysyllabic words, these difficulties can and often are compounded by word stress, prosodic features and the problems created by schwas (weak vowel sounds).

If students have been taught from the start how to segment and blend sounds in words and this has been combined at every step with the teaching of code knowledge and an understanding of the way the writing system is structured, then teaching students to read and spell proficiently is elementary. Thereafter, teachers can really go to town and teach the various aspects of morphology or the word-combining elements making up any more complex, polysyllabic word, as one would with ‘photosynthesis’. But all of this presupposes that this code knowledge, these skills and the deep conceptual framework of understanding of the way in which the code works is present already. If it isn’t, your students will remain stuck at Base Camp and then good luck with teaching the statutory spelling lists!


Photo by Dick Hoskins from Pexels