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Barbara's Blog: Along the way

Barbara Murray - Thursday, August 08, 2019

I taught quite a lot in lower primary classes, but once I moved into Years 4 to 7 I found children had no strategies for decoding when reading and encoding when writing (spelling). When I tried phonics with older students, they had no idea what I meant. I got the school spelling lists and rearranged them year level by year level according to sound. I grouped the words according to initial sounds for consonant sounds and mostly internal sounds for vowel sounds.

I remember a Year 5, 6, 7 class where literacy skills were poor. The students were from a low socio-economic area and their spelling levels on standardised tests were very low. Each week we focused on words with a specific sound. I pre-tested starting from the Year 1 lists. As the students got to 10 words incorrectly spelled they dropped out. Those 10 words became the spelling words to conquer for each student. We worked on the focus sound all week with games and worksheets, everyone working at their own level.

The result was very rewarding for all of us. I began making card games and then when we hit the so-called long vowels, we found so many different ways to represent an individual sound. The /i/ as in tiger sticks in my mind because for all the words to be learned with that sound across the three years levels, we found 11 different ways to represent that sound. Here are example of a few. /i/ as in tiger, /i_e/ as in ice-cream, /ie/ as in pie, /igh/ as night, /y/ as in fly, /uy/ as in buy, /ye/ as in goodbye, /eigh/ as in height...

That situation prompted me to make a chart with all the options for representing any one sound. I collected shoe boxes and used the lids and bases to make the charts.
The students began looking at words around them for more examples of how to represent the focus sound in specific words such as /is/ in the girl's name, Isla.
An interesting aspect of this way of teaching was that the boys became just as interested as the girls in spelling words correctly. Girls typically outperformed boys in many aspects of literacy but with this approach the boys outperformed the girls.
The other most memorable part of phonemic awareness and synthetic phonics was that not only did the spelling improve remarkably but the standardised reading test results also improved dramatically.
I feel that standardised tests can only be used as markers for progress. I conducted them at the beginning, middle and end of the year only to assess progress. If the mid-year result of any student's test was low then that signalled that I had to spend more time with that student in that area.


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