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Barbara’s Blog: The birth of the Sound Waves program

Barbara Murray - Monday, August 19, 2019

Around 1999, someone came to the school to talk to the staff about a phonemic approach to decoding (reading) and encoding (writing/spelling). None of us had heard the term, phonemic, but as the session unfolded a couple of my friends and I began to realise that I was basically teaching that way.

The phonemic approach differs from traditional phonics because it starts with the entire 43 sounds we use in spoken English. Initially, the students develop an oral awareness of all 43 sounds (phonemes). Next they become able to identify those sounds orally at the start and end of short 2 and 3 sound words.

The next stage is the beginning of Synthetic Phonics, which involves segmenting the words into individual sounds and thus requiring the student to identify sounds internally in words as well.
 
When a student has competency with these skills orally, the student moves to the written stage where representing those sounds occurs using the alphabet letters. The letter or letter groups used to represent sounds in written form are called graphemes. Straight away, the students learn that there are many different ways of using the alphabet letters to represent a given sound, as explained in Barbara’s Blog: Along the way.

Previously, traditional phonics was taught in the lower primary classrooms. The students learned the names of the letters of the alphabet first and then one sound for each letter. Many will relate to the 20 or so chants starting, a like an apple on a stick, a says /a/, b like a bat and ball, b says /b/. If your name was Phillip you were in trouble because according to traditional phonics your name should have been spelled Filip!

When teachers of middle and upper school classes realised that they too were going to have to use the phonemic approach with synthetic phonics in their curriculum plans, most were quite shocked. Actually, many teachers in all primary classrooms had not been trained to teach literacy skills using these strategies. There was a period in the eighties and nineties when whole language was considered the best option for teaching reading and spelling, and teachers who did know how to use traditional phonics in their classrooms were actively directed to stop teaching phonics.
 
My teaching partner and friend, Terri Watson, saw the need to supply teachers with a resource book to help them with this new approach. She suggested we use the strategies I had in my teaching repertoire to write such a book. While this seemed a great idea it was daunting and laughable: What teacher had time to write a book? We were already drowning in all that teachers are expected to teach beside teaching the usual curriculum.
 
As often happens, fate intervened. I attended a dinner at my husband's high school about 3 months later and sat across the table from a high school English teacher who told me she and her husband were going to publish educational text books in their garage near where we lived.
 
I asked if she had heard of a phonemic approach and synthetic phonics. She hadn't but when I explained she soon understood, having been asked by her
classroom teachers in primary school to write spelling words using the phonetic script in the front of dictionaries. She said she'd do some research and get back to me which she did.
 
Terri and I met with the couple and found out they didn't want a resource book, they wanted a whole school program with a student activity book for every year level.
 
And that’s how Sound Waves was born and is now used extensively throughout schools in Australia and even overseas.


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