Category Archives: School

Help! What Are Phonics? A Confused Parent’s Guide

If you have children who are learning to read, you are most likely going to have heard about synthetic phonics. Many of you might feel confused by them, and not really know what they are, or why they are taught. Being a linguist, a primary school teacher, and a parent who taught my children to read, here is my breakdown for you, explaining why they are worth the effort, and why your child may become a better reader and speller because of them.

Why Phonics?

The fact that you are reading this means that you successfully learnt to read, probably without the use of phonics. You may feel that synthetic phonics looks like a much more complicated way to teach reading and writing, and that if it is confusing to you, how will a child understand it? In fact, synthetic phonics is an easier and more logical way for your child to learn. The reason it is so hard for those who weren’t taught it as a child is that it is a completely different way of thinking about the foundation of spelling in English, and of the relationship between the spoken and written word. Children who have no preconceptions will accept it quite easily. Adults who learnt very differently will find synthetic phonics almost like a foreign language (initially). And here is why: the core principal of synthetic phonics is to teach children first about the sounds that make up English, and then teach the ways of spelling that sound. The way you probably learnt started first with the alphabet, and then you learnt how you put the letters together to make the different sounds. At first it doesn’t sound like a big difference, but in fact it dramatically changes the way you think about the English spelling system.

The alphabet may seem like a logical place to start. But once you learn a bit more about English, you realise why it falls short. We actually have 44 unique sounds in English, give or take a few depending on accent. These sounds, or phonemes, are the building blocks of all the words in our language. We have 26 letters in our alphabet. You can see the problem. We make up for the shortfall by using a combination of two or more letters to make the sounds that don’t have a unique letter of their own, e.g., /th/ or /oo/. If we had a simplified spelling system, we would have just 44 spellings to learn. But, because of the long and varied history of the English language, we actually have around 200 spelling combinations, or graphemes, in common usage. One sound can be represented many different ways: think of /oo/ in ‘boo’, ‘glue’, ‘chew’, ‘flute’, ‘fruit’. Also, one spelling can represent more than one sound: e.g., ‘ough’ in ‘thought’, ‘though’, ‘rough’, and ‘through.’ Learning all the different spellings, and which words to use them in, is a complicated business.

The reason the traditional way of teaching isn’t as helpful as synthetic phonics is that it assumes that there isn’t really a logic to the English spelling system. We weren’t taught why English was difficult to spell. I remember being taught that some words ‘can’t’ be sounded out, and many times you just have to memorise difficult common words. When you learn through synthetic phonics, you begin to understand that this isn’t really the case. Yes, English spelling is horrendously complicated, but you can find a logic to it. A complex logic, but it is there nonetheless: so it isn’t that ‘the’ can’t be sounded out – it’s that the letter ‘e’ is representing the sound /uh/. When you find a pattern to what you are learning, it becomes easier to remember and to build on that knowledge. Understanding that disconnect between the alphabet and the number of sounds in English demystifies our spelling system. It stops being an illogical, jumbled mess, and starts being more of a complicated puzzle to put together.

Learning to Read with Phonics

One of the cornerstones of synthetic phonics is the pronunciation of the sounds, or phonemes. In order to successfully put the phonemes together to build a word, you need to ‘blend’ them together. So, /s/ /a/ /t/ glides together to become ‘sat’. For this you need to know how to pronounce each sound correctly, which is often where parents, and some teachers, fall down. (Listen to the sounds here). It’s important not to add an extra ‘uh’ sound at the end of consonants – for example /s/ is a hissing ‘ssss’ sound, not ‘suh’, and /t/ is an under-the-breath tut, not ‘tuh’ This is important so that children hear just the sounds that make up the word, and nothing extra, otherwise sounding out ‘sat’ may sound like this: ‘suh-a-tuh’ which is actually confusing to a child. They find it hard to hear the word ‘sat’ when it is sounded out this way.

Along with using the alphabet as a starting point, the traditional method also taught us to use other ‘cues’ to help us decipher a word: look at the picture, guess from context, guess from the first letters of the word. The reasoning behind this is perfectly understandable – it speeds up the process of reading fluently. Children don’t spend a long time sounding out each word, and they are thinking about the meaning of the word they are reading, not just the sounds. Although this may initially make children faster and more fluent readers earlier on, it actually encourages bad habits. Children very often just look at the first letter of a word, and don’t let their eyes travel across the whole word. This means that while they may gain earlier speed and fluency, they lose accuracy. Once texts become more complex and context isn’t obvious or pictures are absent, they will find it harder to decode difficult words.

It isn’t that the traditional method doesn’t work. It does – I learnt to read this way. It’s just that synthetic phonics works better. English is a particularly difficult language to read and spell, as can be seen in the fact that English-speaking countries including the UK, Australia and the US, have worryingly high levels of illiteracy and semi-literacy compared to nations with simpler spelling systems. The consistent and logical approach of synthetic phonics will enable children to become more accurate readers and writers, building a solid foundation for the more complex literary skills they will continue to develop throughout their education.

Recommended further reading/watching

Oxford Owl – website dedicated to all things reading, writing and maths. They have an excellent section on synthetic phonics full of information and ideas for parents.

Phonics International – I used this as a resource for teaching my children and for informing myself. The first unit of resources are free, including the excellent alphabetic code chart, but the rest require paid membership. It is fully comprehensive for either home or school use, but a little intense for non-teachers.

Cbeebies alphablocks – entertaining for children, informative for parents.

Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics – an invaluable resource for my children. Each book introduces a new sound, or group of sounds. The stories are extremely well written – they only have words containing the sounds the children have learnt so far, along with a few high frequency words. Each book builds on the previous one, increasing the number of sounds and high frequency words the children read as they progress through the levels. Parent guides also included. Find them on Amazon here

Advertisements

Encouraging a Reluctant Reader – Top 10 Tips:

girl-160172_1280I am writing here from the experience of having been a reluctant reader as a young child myself and from having a seven-year-old without much natural enthusiasm for reading. Her twin, on the other hand, loves it, so I know that parents are in no way wholly responsible for their child’s loveof reading. There are just a few ways in which you can ensure you leave the door open to your child one day loving to read.

I am going to assume that you know the basics of making sure you have lots of books at home, that you read every day to your child (with enthusiasm!) and that you have books that interest your child. Beyond that, here are my Top 10 Tips:

 

1. Work out why they are reluctant

The most likely reason your child is reluctant to read is because they find it an effort. Talk to their teacher if you have any specific concerns, but a child can find reading hard work even if they have no learning difficulty. Just make sure there are no other obvious reasons why they might not enjoy it: negative responses from others, feeling pressured, eyesight problems, over-tiredness, or being given books that are either too challenging or too easy. Also, think about what times of day they are reading – are they well-fed, well-rested, and have had a chance to play? For some children it’s just that reading is not high on their list of priorities when there are far more fun activities they can imagine doing instead!

2. Be enthusiastic

I can’t emphasise this enough. The most important role you can have in this is to encourage and praise your child when they read, especially if it is a big effort for them. Try to remain enthusiastic even when progress seems slow. You may not be able to make your child love reading, but you can help them avoid hating it.

3. Change the location

Go to the park, sit on a picnic blanket in the garden, read at the library. Just change the scene.

4. Have someone else listen to your child read

A visiting family member, a family friend, a patient older cousin… Anyone who will be non-judgemental and encouraging. Get them to say something like, “Mum tells me what an amazing reader you are. Can you read me a story?” Small children can also be a good choice, as your child might enjoy the role reversal, but be aware that little ones have a limited tolerance for slow readers and so this can backfire.

5. Use soft toys as listening companions

I pretend my kids’ toys are whispering in my ear that they want to be read to. Get them to be interactive, and every so often have them respond to the story – jump with excitement, hide behind a cushion in fear, look closely at a picture… Illiterate furry animals who fall down in amazement when your child reads a particularly challenging word also go down a treat.

6. Wear a silly hat

Well, not specifically a silly hat, but do something fun when it’s time to read. Say that whoever reads a book gets to wear the hat, sit on the special cushion, read under the table… Whatever it is that you think your child will find surprising or amusing. Novelties wear off, so think of new ones. The wonderful thing about kids is that it doesn’t even have to be that imaginative. If you say it’s special, and demonstrate it yourself, they will want to copy you. I once just put a scarf on the back of my chair and said it was the “special red reading chair” and my twins were arguing over who could sit on it first!

7. Don’t feel limited to books 

Any reading is good reading. It could be that your child might prefer to read something other than stories – this is often particularly true for boys. Try comics, junior magazines, toy catalogues, reading apps, kids’ websites – my son loves the Lego site. Even if they only manage to read a few words, and the a lot of the time is spent looking at pictures or playing a game, the important thing is that they are associating good feelings with having to read words.

8. Let them read below their assigned level sometimes

It can be tempting to keep pushing, especially when you see the glimmer of progress, but let them read books that they can read confidently if they want to. After all, many adults like to indulge in an easy-read. The general rule of thumb is children should know 9 out of 10 words in a book they are reading, but it can be a nice break for them occasionally to read something where they know every word. It’s also a good reminder for them to see how a book they once found hard has become easy for them.

9. Keep it varied

If you can take away one tip from me, this is it. If your child finds reading burdensome, making the act of reading repetitive and unchanging only makes it worse. I know lives are busy, and you can’t make reading a special experience each time, but every so often try one of the different suggestions I’ve made – cycle through them. If you feel you have got into a rut and either you or your child are dreading reading together, make a change. It’s refreshing, and will prevent forming on-going bad associations with reading for both of you.

10. Be patient

Reading involves a lot of different skills that need to come together in order to make sense out of the written word. Some children pick this up quickly, while others need more time. With good teaching and encouragement they all get there. I didn’t enjoy learning to read as a child but when I grew up I loved studying literature, worked in publishing for a while, and now writing is my hobby! A slow start doesn’t have any bearing on what kind of reader your child will be as they grow up.

 

Decoding your child’s school day

confused

“We basically did nothing all day.”

I think it’s a fairly universal truth that it is hard work to find out from your children what exactly they have done all day at school. If you do manage to extract something more than a “nothing” or an “I can’t remember”, there can still be obstacles. Here is a fairly typical conversation I had with my daughter when I picked her up from school the other day:

Her: “They said I was ok mummy”

Me: “Who said you were ok?”

Her: “The lady in the office.”

Me: “Why were you in the office?”

Her: “Bailey took me.”

Me: “Why did Bailey take you?”

Her: “Because you take someone with you when you go to the office.”

Me: “But WHY WERE YOU THERE?!?”

Eventually it transpired that she had had a sore throat, but that the “lady in the office” had decided it was mild enough to wait till home time.

A parent’s impression of their child’s school day can be rather nebulous, and so I thought I would share a few techniques I’ve developed to get a bit of a firmer idea of what their school day is like.

1.  Ask the right questions

I can’t emphasise this one enough. If you ask a completely open question like “How was your day?” or “what did you do today?” you are opening yourself up to “fine” and “I can’t remember.” Most children, and some adults too, draw a blank when they are asked such a broad question. They can probably only conjure up what they did in the last couple of minutes, and that’s only with a fairly attentive child. You should only expect answers that are as good as your questions.

2.  Be specific 

Here are some examples of more closed questions that may get you a better answer:

Who did you sit next to at lunch today?

What game did you play at playtime?

Who makes you laugh in your class?

What was your favourite part of today? (A bit open, but sometimes works)

Is there anyone you don’t like to play with?

What book did your teacher read to you today?

If you’re lucky, this will be an opener for a conversation that will end up providing you with a lot more detail. Your child is more likely to remember and recount events when it’s part of a natural conversation.

3.  Ask about what interests them

For a lot of children, this is often playtime! Asking about what spellings they worked on and what they learnt in maths might not be the most scintillating conversation for your child, and they may not make much effort to remember. This may be what you want to find out, but if there is something specific about their learning you want to know, I recommend asking the teacher. So ask about the games they played, who they like to sit next to, who brought the tastiest snack, and who is the cheekiest child. You’ll end up learning a lot about their social groups, and how well they are fitting in.

4.  Do your research

If you do want to know a bit more about what is happening in the classroom, then do a little research on the subject. Find out about the class’s timetable, what themes or activities your children are working on, and which teachers they are working with. Hopefully the school will have already provided you with a lot of this information, but if not, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Then think of specific questions related to it, eg “Did you start your nature picture in art today?” or “which instrument did you play in music?”

5.  If you can, volunteer

This is a great way to have an insider’s view of your child’s school day and to put names to faces. Plus your children will love having you come into the class – it makes them feel very special. Even if you can’t do this regularly, see if you can offer to help on any one-off school or class events.

6.  Don’t believe everything you hear

A teacher once said “if you take what your children tell you about me with a pinch of salt, I’ll take what they say about you with one!” Even the most truthful, honest and intelligent children misinterpret words and actions sometimes. So before you are incensed and ready to give a teacher/other child a piece of your mind over something your child has told you, just breathe and get your facts straight first! It might all be a misunderstanding.

7.  Be prepared for the conversations that come at awkward times

Children have incredible timing. It will be just when you are rushing to get them out the door, or when they have got to bed really late that they come out with something like: “N told me I was mean” or “N made fun of me”. These are the moments when your children are needing your guidance and reassurance, but why couldn’t they have bloody told you at 4pm when you had nowhere to be and you had just asked them how their day had been?!? You can’t control when these issues will pop into your child’s mind, and I feel it’s really important to deal with them when they arise. You can’t recreate these moments at a more convenient time, because their attention will likely have moved on to something else, and the message you wanted to give will be lost.

 ——-

Even with all this effort on your part, you are still likely to get your fair share of “can’t remember” and “nothing”. The fact is you are never going to know everything about your child’s day. Children begin their independent life when they start school, albeit in a very limited and controlled way. They are making their own friends, taking on new responsibilities, and having a life separate from you. This means you should accept that you cannot know everything they are doing. The best you can hope for is to create as many opportunities for natural conversation, and be available when they do want to talk. Try not to get frustrated that they can’t remember the details you would like to know. I know that at the end of a long day when my husband asks how my day has been, my mind draws a blank and I find myself saying “Fine…”

Twins at school – individuals but undivided

 

Friends for life

Friends for life

My twins have recently started a new, much bigger, school and as I went through the enrolment process I was faced for the first time with having to actively choose to keep them in the same class. In the UK, while parents of primary-aged twins are given a choice (school-size permitting), I think the general expectation is that twins will be kept together unless parents say otherwise. I learnt that where we are in the US it is the other way around: after Kindergarten (Reception year) the expectation is that twins will be split up, unless the parents request to the contrary. I did exactly that, but I have to admit that my heart was in my mouth until I had confirmation that they would be kept together.

Having to actively request for them not to be split up felt very strange to me, as I had thought keeping them together would be the default position. I started to feel that somehow I was going against a general consensus that separating twins at six years old is for the best. I had never examined my reasons for keeping them together before, beyond the visceral feeling that my twins have always been together and would be so upset to be separated. I was, however, aware of the arguments for separation: the promotion of independence and self-reliance; the prevention of co-dependence, with each twin only developing half a set of skills; the reduction of competitiveness; the forging of independent friendship groups; and, sometimes, improved behaviour. I know all of these advantages, and understand parents making the choice to split their twins because of them, and yet in my gut I could not bear the thought of splitting them up so young. Was I just being sentimental? Could I not face the reality that eventually my twin babies were going to start leading separate lives from each other? Was I in fact hindering the development of their independence and individuality?

I realised I had to come up with more reasons than “it doesn’t feel right”. (Although, I don’t think that in itself is a bad one!) So after some serious thinking and soul-searching, here are my six advantages for keeping twins together:

  1. Keep it natural

Yes, twins will eventually go their separate ways, and go to different classes, different universities, and, eventually, lead entirely independent lives, albeit with a hopefully close relationship. This is the natural progression, and so it will happen in its own time without the need for its imposition before the twins themselves are ready for it. I don’t believe that keeping twins together makes the separation later all the harder. I think when they reach a certain stage in their development they will choose to do things separately, in the same way as children stop sucking their thumbs and give up their baby blanket; it’s heart-breaking to see them grow up, but reassuring that they are adjusting comfortably to their new stage. Separating twins when they really don’t want it will certainly have an immediate negative effect on their confidence and emotional wellbeing. A gradual transition is gentler, more natural and less traumatic.

  1. Independence starts at home

 Starting school is not the first time I have considered the issue of twins’ independence. When you are a twin parent you learn from the start that promoting self-identity for each twin is very important. You make sure that they have toys that belong to each individually, you make sure they have a bit of individual “mummy” or “daddy” time on occasion, you let them choose activities independently, the list goes on. I am always on the look-out to make sure that just because one twin can do something, it doesn’t mean the other isn’t bothering to learn it. Working the different TV remotes is a good example – my daughter always lets my son do it because it comes naturally to him. I have to remind her to do it herself sometimes, even if she finds it frustrating that it takes her longer. These are things that become so second-nature to twin parents, that I think perhaps those without twins don’t always realise that these are issues we are addressing on a daily basis. The classroom is not the only way they are learning independence.

  1. It needn’t be extreme

 Having been a teacher, I know there are many opportunities to allow children to be independent from each other while still in the same class. In time they can be in different groups within the class for certain activities, or sit at different tables, or be assigned different tasks. And they can also attend different afterschool clubs and activities. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

  1. Being a twin is a fact of life

Twins are going to be twins for life, long after they are finished with school. Their experience of life is always going to be a twin one, ie; they will always have shared experiences that go beyond that of just a ‘normal’ sibling. They share the same age, the same birthday, the same parents, the same childhood experiences, and often the same friends. And this will carry on to a lesser extent throughout their lives. Twins have to forge out their own independence in the face of such similarities and shared experience, and it is something that can be done whether or not they are also sharing a class. There is an important value in learning to be individuals while they are together, and not just when they are apart from each other.

  1. Logistics

Aside from the psychological and emotional aspects to this issue, there is also a logistical one. Schools are not set up for you to have two children in the same year but different classes, therefore every school event, parents’ evening, and school trip is going to involve clashes and difficulties, where you are supposed to be in two different places at once. There is also an advantage to the teacher knowing and understanding the dynamic between both children, as it leads to a greater understanding of them. There is continuity for the children, and the parents, where they have the same set of rules and expectations from the teacher. And, if you are lucky with your teacher, any ‘twin’ issues or co-dependence or competitiveness can be dealt with sensitively and effectively within the classroom.

  1. Enjoy the advantages

I think sometimes there is a feeling that twins should be separated at school because that is the experience that other children have. Singletons must face going to school alone, whereas twins are at an advantage because they have a ready-made friend and ally in their class. And this is absolutely true, it is an advantage, and there’s nothing wrong with that! That is an absolute perk of being a twin parent – you know that your children are not going to be lonely, that they will have someone looking out for them. Yes, they may stick together a lot at the beginning, but my two have always made friends with others, and played independently from each other once they feel settled in to a new place. The experience is just less traumatic for them, and I am deeply grateful for that. Lord knows there have been a lot of times when having twins has made life harder in the past (like no sleep for two years!), so I’m going to take the pros where I can get them!

Being a twin is a unique experience, both at school and far beyond that. To try to make their experience in line with everybody else is futile, as it never will nor should it be. Eventually they will grow up and lead separate lives, but in the meantime they are creating precious shared memories that will last a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONFESSION

Naughty or nice?

Naughty or nice?

I am going to admit to something that is taboo for a grown-up to say. Especially for one who has been a teacher and professes to love children. But here it goes: There are some kids I just don’t like. I know that sounds mean; how can I dislike a small child? But when I became a teacher I learnt that children are smaller versions of grown-ups: some you love, some you think are OK, and there are just a couple you really have an aversion to. (The trick is not to show it of course!)

It was brought home to me the other day when my daughter told me something that had upset her at school. This is a new school for her, and her first time in a proper big school, having only attended a small Montessori until now. She has settled in amazingly well, and is so eager to please her teacher. She was working hard on making a pattern with coloured wooden shapes, and a boy threw something at her work. She asked him to stop, but then he did it again and upset all the shapes and the pattern she had been making, and there was no time to start again. I asked if she had told the teacher, which she had, and the teacher had told the boy off, so at least I knew it had been dealt with.

She was obviously upset by the fact he had ruined what she had been working on so hard, but what mostly had upset her was the fact that he had seemed so pleased about it. She told me, “He looked happy that he had damaged it and upset me, mummy.” She was so confused by this idea. I could feel my inner protective-lioness creeping up. Just who was this beast-child? I wanted to go and tell him exactly what I thought of him. There is nothing like upsetting my child to bring about my taboo-hatred. Here was my sweet little girl with nothing but kindness and generosity in her heart, being exposed to deliberate meanness. She just could not understand why someone would derive pleasure from upsetting another person. To be honest, I’m a grown-up and I still don’t get it. I felt a little chink of her innocence being taken away.

Up till now I’ve always tried to explain naughty behaviour in other kids as having a cause – either they want attention, or they are tired, or they have got into bad habits. Just because someone does something you don’t like, it doesn’t mean you should stop liking them. But what about those people who just get a kick out of annoying others? Children often start out pretty self-centred, and generally have to be taught compassion and sympathy. But we all know adults that don’t ever develop it, and they were all children once.

You know when you send your children to school that you are letting them into the world without you, to fend for themselves in that brutal social jungle called the playground. This won’t be the last time my daughter has to cope with someone behaving in a way that upsets her. We all have to learn that while we shouldn’t put up with people being mean, it’s something everybody experiences from time to time. I have to teach her that it’s perfectly reasonable to be upset by that behaviour, and to tell the teacher, but that at the same time some kids are just like that, and to try to concentrate on the good things that happened at school.

This was a small incident of course, but it played on my mind how I should approach teaching my children to cope with unpleasant behaviour in others. Finding the balance between being patient and compassionate of others’ bad behaviour, while not accepting being a victim of it, is a tricky business. I try to teach them to find the good in people, and look for what may be provoking the less desirable traits; the “even good people do bad things” approach. I think it makes for a much more tolerant society if we do. But I also have a responsibility to teach them that there are some people you are just not going to like, and that is perfectly normal. That’s how we feel as adults, and so we should expect no differently of our children. It’s just important to ensure they know how to draw that distinction, and not be overly accepting, nor overly intolerant.

Of course that applies to me too. And I like to I think I’m pretty clear on how I draw my distinctions, as a few days later I intervene when my son is upset with my daughter: It turns out she was gleefully breaking up a sand pile he had been making. “What are you doing?” I say. “You know that was upsetting him. Why would you do that when you wouldn’t like it done to you?” “Oh, sorry Mummy.” She says, chastised. A time-out ensues. “Ah well,” I think to myself. “She must be over-tired…”