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Things to think about for very slow learners:

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Joined: 08 Oct 2007
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Location: UK

PostPosted: Thu Jan 31, 2008 12:33 am    Post subject: Things to think about for very slow learners: Reply with quote

I have received a query regarding those children who are not learning the letter/s-sound correspondences very quickly. This is a thread which may be very important to develop over time. The vast majority of learners should be perfectly able to learn their letter/s-sound correspondences at a good pace.

There are cases, however, when some learners do not seem to match the progress of others - even to the point of being worryingly slow at remembering the relationship between the letter shapes and the sounds they represent.

First of all, don’t think that because the children haven’t learnt many letter/s-sound correspondences to automaticity that this means they can’t. It simply means that they haven’t yet! It is certainly not a sign that they 'need another approach' to being taught how to read. In other words, don't resort to trying to teach these slower learners to read by asking them, for example, to read whole words by their particular shape. This is not going to help those learners at all and will only detract from the core teaching of The Alphabetic Code and the skills of blending and segmenting.

You need to give some thought as to why any learners are not learning in your particular context. There could be a number of reasons which need to be considered and we shall start to address them in this first posting of this thread.

Occasionally some individual children do have a difficulty with recalling the letter/s-sound correspondences to automaticity. They may have a very short memory – or they simply might not be engaging in the activities that you are providing seriously enough. Sometimes children can be particularly immature and inattentive. Wriggly or disruptive behaviour might be detracting from the job-in-hand of paying attention in order to recognise the letter shapes and associate the correct sounds with the shapes.

Whilst it is perfectly possible for letter/s-sound correspondences to be introduced very quickly (for example, around five or six a week are introduced in the Jolly Phonics programme), this can prove too fast a pace for some children. As we introduce synthetic phonics teaching to very young children in some settings, some of the children take a while to realise that ‘doing’ this letters and sounds work is serious business (the core of school work!) - even though though the presentation of the activities is 'fun and games' - and that they need to pay serious attention and do their best to remember the letter/s-sound correspondences.

In effect, they need a settling-in period to adjust to the phonic teaching and learning routines. It may well be that schools do wish to complement the Phonics International programme with a multi-sensory mnemonic system such as the kinaesthetic approach in Jolly Phonics. This is suitable for younger learners in particular. The warning is not to spend too much time and give too much emphasis to any mnemonic system beyond the children’s needs. The ultimate aim is not for the children to do the ‘actions’ per se, but to recall the relationship between the sounds and the letters. (Please note that I have written a section on mnemonic systems in the Overview and Guidance booklet which is available to download for free in unit 1 and which can be accessed in any unit.)

In the Reception class where I work part-time, for example, we are proceeding at the pace of two new letter/s-sound correspondences per week although we do planned phonics sessions around four times per week (with incidental phonics teaching as appropriate). We always use the Sounds Book activity sheets as a minimum as these can be used in a differentiated way (for differing abilities of children working at different rates of progress) - but we always start the sessions revising past learning of the letter/s-sound correspondences with quick-fire activities.

Some of the children are still learning to sound out the letters or letter groups all-through-the-printed-words but cannot yet ‘hear’ these words independently. They can, however, ‘hear’ the word when an adult or other child sounds out the word. It is just more of the same practice which moves them along to the next stage of ability to sound out and blend the words independently.

What we have achieved, however, is that the less mature children have had time to realise that we do this phonics-stuff nearly every day and out of the whole cohort, all the children have learnt nearly all of the sounds except one child who has learnt some of them – this child just took longer to realise that this was serious business! He is no less able than other children – and in some areas of the curriculum he is more able than others to understand oral questions very well. He has just taken longer to settle down to the routines and pay sufficient attention to hold the letters and sounds in his longer-term memory to the point of ‘automaticity’ – that is: to see the letter/s and to say the sound quickly and automatically as if no thought is necessary.

If you have a group of children who are really struggling to recall the letter/s-sound correspondences introduced to date, there may be implications for the teaching itself. This could be something as simple as the teacher not giving sufficient time and emphasis to activities which require automatic responses to seeing the letters and letter groups (graphemes).

Activities which need to be undertaken regularly include flashing up the larger grapheme Flash Cards (provided in unit 1 and in unit 6) to a group or whole class and the children say the corresponding sounds. Don’t allow them to get over-excited and SHOUT the sounds as this will lead to poor pronunciation. It is only the vowel sounds (phonemes) which have any amount of VOLUME whilst the consonant sounds (phonemes) are very quiet sounds indeed. This is why you need a quiet place and sensible routines to flash the cards for the children to say the sounds as ‘purely’ as possible (that is, as close to the phonemes in real speech as possible).

By now, as you have a group of children who have not learnt their letter/s-sound correspondences to automaticity, you need to provide not only whole class flash card sessions, but also differentiated group sessions. Your slower learners need to have the opportunity to think for themselves. They need additional focus to ensure that they don’t slip through the net – overshadowed by the quicker children!

I call it the teacher’s ‘feel good factor’ when most of the children enjoy the flash card sessions and quickly and excitedly say the sounds giving plenty of evidence that they are learning their correspondences and enjoying the teaching and learning. But in amongst those children will be those slower-to-learn children who can easily slip through the net at this stage. They may say the sounds slightly 'after' the quicker children or simply keep quiet. You are right to identify this group and provide some extra teaching sessions to focus on their learning without the faster children being present.

Don’t prevent these slower-to-learn children from joining in with the whole class when you introduce the new letter/s-sound correspondences. Just because they haven’t learnt all the previous correspondences doesn’t mean that they won’t start to learn at least some of the new ones along with the other children. So NEVER deny them the ‘new learning’ opportunities.

But, in addition, select just a few of the earlier correspondences (for example, half of unit 1) and focus your additional activities on these. Try and put the slower-to-learn children into matched partners and then provide opportunities for them to play the Pairs Game. Place the cards face down, take turns to turn them over and say the sound, then turn over another card to look for its pair. If the child cannot say the sound of the overturned card, tell him or her the sound but then turn it over again. The child has to ‘earn’ the card by remembering the sound. 'Brains' are designed to learn. The teacher simply has to set the right conditions for the learning to take place and this may well be the need for one to one, pairs, or small group activities away from other distractions to allow maximum concentration.

You can play a simpler version of this 'turn-over' game by not looking for the children to be matching any ‘sound or shape pairs’. Simply lay out a very small number of the grapheme cards (even just two if the child has great difficulties in learning) and keep turning them over and saying the sound on seeing the letter shape until the recall is there. Then build up the number of cards that you use. When the first two are remembered, introduce a third card as well as keeping the two learnt in the pack and so on.

You need an adult at first to heavily supervise this game to make sure that the children know what to do, focus on the activity and play the game properly. For both ease of organisation, and for creating a sense of progression, consider printing out the smaller Grapheme Cards for these 'say the sound' games on different (pale) shades of paper or card for the different units.

When you have a quite a few cards in the pack, you can start to make the games competitive if this is appropriate for the children/learners concerned. This can be very effective indeed for focusing the mind and accelerating the learning. It can really get exciting and lead to a sense of achievement. If you have three or four matched partners playing this type of game and one partner clearly races ahead, change around the partners and make sure you create the kind of climate where even the losers feels fine because they have had fun and done some learning. In other words, he or she may not have won the game in terms of speediness, but he or she has nevertheless got ‘new learning’ and you can tick this off some kind of achievement chart or incentive chart. You could use the 'plain' Alphabetic Code overview charts whereby the alphabetic code is split up into the 'simple code' and the 'complex code' as a tracking chart (the 'building up the code' charts - A4x2) - or if space is ample (for example, in the home environment), you could use the 'Colour the Code' or 'Write-over the Graphemes' Alphabetic Code charts (A4x4) - all available for free in unit 1.

If at all possible, engage with the parents of all your pupils but it is really very helpful (and arguably your responsibility) to inform the parents of struggling learners and try to set up working partnerships. You can provide the parents with some printed-off grapheme cards and some Pairs Games and describe the kind of activities needed to speed up the learning and create incentives for the children to want to learn.

Other helpful materials are the Say the Sounds booklets currently in units 1 to 6 which are actually designed to be the first ‘reading’ for going home. The 15 Say the Sounds posters in units 1 – 5 are also very important. In my setting we have enlarged and laminated these and place them on cupboards round the classroom. We often see the children pointing to the letter shapes and saying the sounds and we can also plan to use the posters to point at random letter/s for the children to say the sounds. In reverse, we (the adults) say the sounds and ask the children to point to the corresponding grapheme. These posters can also be provided for the parents to use with the children in the home environment. It might also be helpful to provide the focus letter/s-sound correspondence Picture Posters and/or Mini Posters for temporary display 'at home'. Could these be displayed in prominant places like 'on the fridge' or 'on the wardrobe'?

For the slower learners, however, make sure that they are not overwhelmed and that you are not expecting them to say all the sounds. Perhaps target the sounds a ‘row at a time’ on the Say the Sounds posters. It is the tiny steps which will add up bit by bit.

You must also make sure that you don’t prevent the slower-to-learn children from seeing and hearing words being constantly sounded out all-through-the-word and blended. Remember the all-important 'finger tracking' from left to right all-through-the-word routine. Constant modelling is very effective. What they can’t do now, they will be able to do as they see and hear WHAT to do over and over again. The whole point is that the repetitive teaching at the right level leads to ‘automatic’ learning. They can’t help but learn (unless there are some significant neurological problems) because their DIET of teaching is the systematic phonics teaching.

This means as a teacher you need to be very good at saying the sounds in such a way that the ‘target’ word is attainable. The better (or ‘purer’) you model saying the sounds close to real speech, the easier it is for children to ‘hear’ the target word, but also emulate your enunciation.

So, to sum up at this stage – You need to continue to provide whole class activities at a reasonable pace for the overall level of the class, but you also need to focus on additional activities at the level of any struggling children.

Learning the letter/s-sound correspondences to automaticity is the absolute priority activity – but you need to keep modelling the skills of blending for reading, segmenting for spelling and handwriting as well.

Try spending five minutes several times a day doing quick-fire ‘say the sounds’ activities – at least with your slower children. Little and often is very much the key to success with lots of praise and encouragement and patience on your part.

When you are asking other children who are ready to do a bit of independent writing – don’t expect or ask your slower children ‘to write’ if they can’t write. They can happily ‘play write’ in the role play corner, but make sure that you never ask them to do something independently that they cannot do. In effect, you are making them feel like failures. When other children are happily engaged in an activity, use that opportunity to focus on your slower learners in a quiet space.

If you have already tried all these things to no avail, you will need to write me with much more specific details of the problems you are encountering with your slower-to-learn learners. I will then be able to make specific suggestions for you to try.

Very Happy
Debbie Hepplewhite
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