Decoding Sight Words with Phonics Secrets is finally DONE!!
But before I share more about this, I wanted to explain why I created it in the first place….
It’s always seems odd to me when I hear questions like…. “How do I know which Secrets to teach for each sight word?” or “Is there a list of sight words that has the Secrets I need to teach with them?” or my favorite, “I don’t have time to teach the Secrets because of all the sight words that I have to teach!” (Can you see the irony in that last one?)
Phonics Keys to UNLOCK WORDS for Reading
Secrets are keys to unlock words. It’s really that simple. If kids don’t know the Secrets (a.k.a. phonics skills), then how can they read the words? Without the code, beginning and struggling readers have to rely solely on memorizing words while they wait for the slow pace of grade-level phonics instruction to catch-up.
That means if Howard wants to write about his pet mouse in kindergarten or first grade, he’s out of luck because the ou/ow phonics “skill” won’t formally introduced for another 1-2 years, about midway through second grade. Howard’s mouse will literally be DEAD by the time gets the sound for “owwww” that he needs to write about it his mouse, or to read about it…..let along to make make sense of his own name!
From a common sense perspective, it seems ridiculous to make kids wait 3-4 grade level years (from pk-2nd grade) for the “whole” code they need to read and write from the first day of kindergarten. But this is the nature of the beast when teaching “abstract” phonics skills to “concrete” level thinkers—who are often eating their shoes and licking the carpet during your reading instruction! ;-)
Enter the BRAIN SCIENCE
Research on early brain development shows that the brain develops from back to front, with the social-emotional “feeling” based systems developing far earlier than the higher-level, executive processing centers (which are actually the latest area to fully develop).
While traditional phonics instruction targets “underdeveloped” higher-level processing centers for skill mastery, Secret Stories sneaks through the brain’s backdoor, using muscle memory to fast-track individual letter sound mastery (in 2 weeks to 2 months) and aligning phonics skill concepts with “universally familiar” frameworks of learner-understanding.
Secrets aren’t skills, they’re just stories that kids already know, based on behaviors they already understand, like: having a crush, not getting along, getting hurt, being left out, being a good line leader, being sneaky, doing what your mom or babysitter tells you when they’re nearby, and of course, everything “superheroes!”
These connections exist in the earlier-developing emotional systems, or “feeling” based centers of the brain…..or what I like to refer to as the “tattling centers!” This is the part of kids’ brains that can easily keep track of all the social and emotional “goings-on,” like the behaviors of their classmates. By aligning letter behavior with kid behavior, they can easily keep track of, and even predict the most and next most likely sounds of letters, just as easily as they keep track of the behavior of their classmates and with just as much FUN!
So WHY WAIT?
Research shows that explicit, systematic and sequential phonics instruction is key, so it’s important to follow a scope and sequence. However, your scope and sequence should never tie your hands and prevent you from giving kids MORE of what they need to do what they’re ALREADY doing! Think of your scope and sequence as your “playground,” and the Secrets as the “muscles” kids need to maximize their time playing on it. The best way to ensure that kids take away maximum instructional value from your existing reading or phonics program is to give them the tools they need to actually READ it!
“S0-Called” SIGHT WORDS
Did you know that for experienced readers, virtually EVERY word is a sight word? That’s because the definition of a sight word is ANY word that’s recognized by sight, meaning that it has already been “orthographically mapped” in the brain. For beginning and struggling readers, the transfer of unfamiliar words into sight memory is the ultimate goal, but NOT through rote memorization of word lists.
Kids must be able to actively “decode” words by connecting letter patterns (graphemes) to sounds (phonemes), and to do this they need to know more than just the sounds of individual letters. They need to know the sounds that letters make when they get together, which commonly referred to as phonics skills. But they can’t wait 3 to 4 grade level years to learn them.
Waiting that long means that kids still have to memorize all of the words with phonics skills in them that they haven’t learned yet, which research shows is detrimental. Even teaching them as “heart words” (which are words that must be memorized “by heart” until such time as the phonics skills needed to read them are taught) kids are still having to memorize words that could be instantly read with the Secrets.
Decoding Sight Words with Phonics Secrets
So let’s get back to WHY I created this pack by addressing the three comments shared at the top about sight words.
1. “How do I know which Secrets to teach for each sight word?”
While it’s usually pretty straight forward to know which Secret or Secrets to teach for which words, sometimes it can be tricky. For example, Howard needed the “ou/ow” for the word mouse, not to mention for his own name. And there’s another Secret in is name too, which is “ar.” Just knowing these two Secrets empowers Howard (no “ow” pun intended!) to unlock hundreds of other words too, like: how, now, about, around, flower, are, hard, far, and so many more. Now imagine the alternative, which is making poor Howard wait until 2nd grade when this phonics skill is “supposed” to be introduced. Think how many MORE words poor Howard (not to mention the rest of the kids) would have to just memorize. So again, why should we wait?!
While words like mouse and Howard may be obvious, sometimes you do have to think outside of the box when it comes to certain words. Take, for example, common high-frequency words like: of, was, want, some, come, love, what, etc. By traditional phonics standards, these words are considered to be non-decodable, and thus relegated to becoming “heart words” to be memorized “by heart.”
But the beauty of the Secrets is that they aren’t binary phonics “rules” that either work or don’t. They are behaviors, which means that kids can “think-through” the most and next most likely sounds of letters and ultimately figure out the word. (You can learn more about this here.)
To make it easy, I’ve embedded the first 100 Dolch and Fry words (as well as several other common high-frequency words) with Secret sound graphics so that both teachers and students can easily see the Secrets and the sounds they make in the words.
2. “Is there a list of sight words that have the Secrets I need to teach with them?”
Not only are there lists of words alongside the Secrets that are needed to crack them, but the words are organized in ways that provide variations for structured literacy practice (i.e. to see, read, write, spell and even make new words with the same Secrets) to solidify the connection between phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (Secrets phonics patterns) and help support orthographic mapping in the brain. This process of cementing sound-symbol (i.e. “speech to print”) connections in the brain is the foundation of Secret Stories® instruction, and key to a Science of Reading-based approach to effective phonics instruction.
Editable templates are also included for each part so that you can use your own words for your specific grade level, with those “pre-embedded” with the Secret sound images servings as a guide. As with everything-Secret Stories®, through use, you become the expert by internalizing the concepts and making them your own. (This is the ultimate my goal for each Secret Stories® supplement that’s created, to understand how to use the Secrets even better!)
3. “I don’t have time to teach the Secrets because of all the sight words that I have to teach!”
I hope that after reading all of the above, this one is obvious. If kids DON’T know the phonics Secrets, how can they read the words?!! What exactly are you teaching if not the code kids need to actually read the words they’re seeing every day?
As teachers, our goal can’t be to have our kids just “look at words” all day but not actually read them. That’s just going through the motions and checking the box, not teaching them to read.
We don’t have the luxury of time to just “look” at words all day long and NOT take advantage of these opportunities to give kids the Secrets they need to actually READ them! Especially not now, given the loss of learning that’s occurred over the last two years. We need to take advantage of what we know about the brain’s systems, not just for learning to read, but for learning, in general, so as to work WITH the brain, not against it. The first step to doing this is to teach in a way that actually makes SENSE!
Secret Stories Science of Reading-Based Instruction
So on that note, this email was a lot longer than I intended it to be, but I really hope it’s helpful as we gear up for another school year. Every day, I see so many great conversations about this and other topics in the Secret Group. It’s wonderful to read the in-depth conversations about Secret Stories and the Science of Reading now that so many states have provided training over the summer. I love seeing Secret Stories mentioned in different state trainings for LETRS, Reading 360, Phonics First, etc, as a way to help streamline and fast-track learner-access to the code.
Everyone’s ultimate goal is to make phonics make sense so that it’s easy for teachers to teach and for kids to learn—even if they’re sucking on their shoe while they’re doing it! ;-) Kindergarten teachers know exactly what I’m talking about!
You can watch a short video about the Decoding Sight Words with Phonics Secrets pack made by Sheryl Nicholson, whose tireless efforts in working with me over the past several months to create this pack are the reason that it’s ready in time for school to start!💗 And to read a post by Sheryl explaining more about how she uses Secret Stories® in her classroom, click here.
You can also find Sheryl in the Secret Group, which I’m thrilled to say now has over 40K members! If you’re not already a part of it, we would love for you to join us….as in there, the conversation never stops!
And you can find Decoding Sight Words here or by clicking on the picture up above.
Until Next Time,
I love watching the kids use our Secret posters on the wall to read and write whatever they want. It’s amazing what our youngest learners can do and how easily they can do it when we just give them the tools they need and let them ‘play!’
Sound Walls, Word Walls and the Science of Reading
The purpose of a sound wall is to clearly represent the connections between speech and print in a way that students can easily understand and use as a source of reference to read and spell words. It is a way to organize and display the different sounds (phonemes) heard in speech and the spelling/phonics patterns (graphemes) that represent them in print.
With advancement of new research on the science of reading, there is a clearer understanding of the roles that phonetics and phonology (i.e. “symbol to sound” relationships) play in beginning reading and spelling. Because learning to speak happens long before learning to read, teaching the connections between the letters on the page and the sounds they represent in speech is critical.
Unlike a word wall, which organizes words in alphabetical order so that students can find and copy them, sound walls are organized by sounds alongside the letter patterns that represent them.
The biggest difference between the two is that word walls give learners access to only a limited number of words, whereas sounds walls empower them with ALL of the phonics “building blocks” needed to read and spell ANY word. However, in order for students to actually USE a sound wall to independently read and spell, the “sound-to-print” connections represented must be obvious and easy to understand—even for a five-year old!
This is exactly what a Secret Stories® sound wall is, as while the Secrets explain the sounds letters make when they get together, the sound posters are what help them remember for independent reading and spelling.
In just one glance, students as young as kindergarten can instantly identify the sounds that the phonics patterns represent, and then use them to read and spell words. Rooted in brain science, Secret Stories® target “universal” social-emotional understanding by connecting letter behavior to kid behavior, making sounds easily predictable — even for kindergartners. The Secret posters are a ready-made sound wall that even that earliest grade learners can independently reference to read, write and spell.
How to Work Smarter, Not Harder
“The Secrets are so versatile and work great with our district-required sound wall. The kids reference the Secret Stories posters constantly to figure out words. The Secrets are the ‘backdoor’ in for sure!”
“The (mouth picture/articulation) sound walls are proposed as memory supports, reminders to kids about how to articulate the proper phonemes (language sounds) for the proper graphemes (letters and letter combinations). …… as a practical memory aid, they’re weak (more useful for the teacher as a guide to presentation than to the kids as a guide to reading words).
I guess the idea would be that when a student comes to a challenging word, he/she could go to the word wall, find the right combination of graphemes and examine the pictures of the articulatory apparatus in the hopes that replicating that shape would lead to proper sounding out of that word.”“My take? That’s far too cumbersome as a memory aid — about as practically useful as the lists of 3-cueing clues that some teachers provide: If you come to a word you don’t know, look at the picture. If that doesn’t work, read to the end of the sentence….. The problem is that these steps are neither much like real reading nor practical as efficient scaffolds. Memory aids need to be easy to access or people just don’t use them.” —Dr. Tim Shanahan
“Across various studies (Ehri, 2014; Ehri, Deffner, & Wilce, 1984; McNamara, 2012; Schmidman & Ehri, 2010) it has been found that such embedded mnemonic pictures can reduce the amount of repetition needed for kids to learn the letters and sounds, with less confusion, better long-term memory, and greater ability to transfer or apply this knowledge in reading and spelling.
If one relies on data – rather than reasoning – the answer is kind of a no-brainer — it is a good idea to use embedded mnemonics. It looks like, at least with regard to this feature, your previous program was better than the new one.”
“When it comes to teaching letters and sounds, no question about it, use embedded mnemonics. They work.” —Dr. Tim Shanahan
Targeting “Backdoor” Routes for Accelerated Learning
Aligning Phonics Skills with “Universal” Frameworks of Experience and Understanding
While the Secret Stories® posters on their own are an ideal sound wall, they can also be used in-tandem with any existing sound wall or reading/phonics anchor charts, helping to simplify and streamline the sound-symbol connections. This is because the Secrets align with what kids already know, providing a faster and more efficient route for learners.
…..rather than relying on “underdeveloped” auditory and cognitive processing centers for skill mastery.
This is especially true for teaching vowel sounds. They can be easily prompted with emotion-based cues that literally “land” learners in the correct sound — as opposed to relying on inherently weak areas for early (and struggling) learners, which include: developmental/cognitive readiness, language processing, auditory discrimination and articulation capability. It’s so much easier and faster to just sneak these skills through the brain’s social-emotional “backdoor” and avoid these learning “landmines” entirely. (The same goes for accelerating mastery of the individual letter-sounds with the Better Alphabet® Song — which uses earlier-developing, muscle memory to fast-track mastery in 2 weeks to 2 months, while at the same time, telling Secrets!)
Fast-Tracking Phonics Pieces of the Reading Puzzle
The Secrets work with any existing reading curriculum or phonics program to fast-track more of the code kids NEED to read and write. Taking advantage of early developing, social-emotional centers in the brain, Secret Stories® crystalizes the connections between sound and print to empower beginning readers and writers. t’s a simple formula really….. the more phonics Secrets kids know, the more words they can read and write!
I started teaching The Better Alphabet™ Song on Day 2 of school in August. I put all of the Secret Stories Posters up on Day 5.
On Day 6 my life changed.
I told a Secret, and from that moment on, my kindergartners wanted to know more and more and more. They were finding those Secrets everywhere! I had a student who entered into our class with no real gusto for learning letters or to read, according to his parents. This student became obsessed with looking for Secrets on the wall, finding those patterns in text, and writing them down. He would literally get a blank piece of paper and copy all of the Secrets he knew from the posters on the wall.
He would ask everyday if we could learn a new Secret, and if he saw any letter patterns in words that were on a Secret poster, watch out! He had to learn it. I would have been impressed had he been the only one, but it was every student in the class! They all wanted to know the Secrets!
Writing is where I began seeing the most notable change. Students were drawing speech bubbles for an animal writing project in late September. Inside the speech bubbles were the words “meow” for cats, “hoot” for owls and “nay” for horses. Those tricky phonics sounds that my students typically did not even hear in words were now being incorporated into their writing using the Secret posters on our wall. They referenced them constantly to read and spell. My students didn’t just “know” the secrets, they were owning them!
In reading, we assess students three times a year using FastBridge to determine which need reading interventions. My students were tested and I did not have one student qualify as needing intervention. The Reading Team was curious and wanted to know more about the Secrets. We’ve just completed the second round of testing, and again, none of my students were in need of intervention help. I have taught kindergarten for 14 years and this has never happened.
My students continue to excel in reading and writing, and I am happy to report that all of my students know 100% of upper and lowercase letters, as well as the sounds associated with each letter symbol, thanks to the Better Alphabet™ Song (even the child who came in knowing no letters and only yelled at me when I met him). And it’s only January!
During parent teacher conferences, the Secrets were a conversation that kept coming up. Parents wanted to let me know how impressed they were that their child already knew about blends and digraphs. They wanted to tell me how often their child comes home and shares the latest Secret. The parents were loving the progress that they were seeing just as much as I was.
Today they earned a celebration, and the idea that my students came up with (on their own) was to eat a popsicle, watch a Curious George Episode, and dress up as a Secret Story.
I am attaching a picture of me as “Mommy E” and a group photo that we took!
You can see a real joy for learning on the faces of these children, who are better because of your passion to make the reading and brain science accessible to teachers, and applying a creativity to make strategies that work!
Angela Wolfe, Kindergarten Teacher
Sound Wall = A Brain Based Phonics “Buffet”
Imagine going to a buffet, only to be told that items would be served one at a time, with the waiter deciding “what” you can have and “when” you can have it. This would effectively turn your buffet into a restaurant, defeating the whole purpose of why you go to a buffet in the first place, which is to take what you need with no waiting! At a restaurant, you’re at the mercy of the waiter or waitress who gets to decide “what” you can have and “when” you can have it.
And with virtual learning, kids need access to the Secrets/ Sound Wall outside the physical classroom — wherever and whenever they are reading and writing. The Porta-Pics are an easy and inexpensive “portable” sound wall that kids can reference at home or anywhere outside of the regular classroom or resource classroom.
Prompting the “Need to Know” for Learner-Driven Instruction
Secrets make things important to kids, fostering a “need to know” for prioritized learning and marking information for memory in the brain. Secret Stories® transform the phonics skills kids have to learn into “secrets” they want to know! And the more they know, the more they want to know….and they’re all on the Secret Stories® Sound Wall, just waiting to be discovered!
For more Secret Stories® Word Wall displays and ideas, check out this post, and for answers to all of your Secret Stories® questions, free teacher-made resources and REAL teacher-talk, join the new Secret Stories® Support Group for “Teaching Phonics with the Brain in Mind” on Facebook!
How to Teach Reading to English Language Learners
I went from knowing nothing about phonics to becoming a “code-cracking” expert, and then I helped my kids do the same!
By Ariana Curcó, pre-k/kindergarten Teacher in Monterrey, Mexico
If you’re anything like me and/or if you’re here, reading this, it’s because you’re doing everything you can to be a better teacher, to acquire new tools to do a better job, to find new and interesting resources that will make your teacher-life easier, and to be the best version of yourself for them—your kids. My name is Ariana Curcó; I have been using the Secret Stories for 8 years with both pre-k and kindergarten English Language Learners in Mexico, and this is my story.
I live in Monterrey, México, and I work in a private school that teaches all-English. Yes, you read that correctly—ALL English…..in Mexico! We have about an hour a day of Spanish, but all of our reading, writing, science, math and just about any other subject you can think of is in English. If you’re wondering why this is, that’s an easy question to answer—opportunity. Proficiency in English provides the best chance to succeed in life; better jobs and a better future.
I live in a privileged area where kids are given the best education possible. Parents spend lots of money on private schools and want the best for their children. With that being said, they also want the best teachers and to see results, fast.
I was in my second year of teaching pre-k and wanted to learn as much as possible, and so I started watching YouTube videos about morning routines, guided reading, phonics…whatever I could think of that I could use, I would watch.
Professional Development for Teaching Reading
Every year, my school would send teachers to different education conferences in the US, especially those that focused on the needs of English Language Learners (ELL / ESL/ ESOL), as well as literacy and early education. Unfortunately, I wasn’t chosen by my school administrators to go, but was willing to pay my own expenses so that I could have what I’d always heard was an “amazing learning experience”. And so, I did.
I went to Orlando, Florida to the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). I didn’t know what to expect. I was given several brochures during the registration process and that was it. I had to choose the sessions that I wanted to attend and take notes so that I could share with my colleagues back home. I was a newbie back then, and the teachers I went with were pros. I could see them reading the brochures and marking the sessions they would like to hear, and then making a schedule and finally having a plan. I had no plan, so I took the brochures back to the hotel, and when they went down for dinner, I stayed and studied and tried to make my “plan”.
As I was reading about all of the subjects, strategies and authors, I came across a sessions about phonics called “Cracking the Reading Code with the Brain in Mind: How to Sneak Phonics through the Brain’s Backdoor!” with Katie Garner. While the session wasn’t identified in the program as being for English Language Learners specifically, common sense told me that if I wanted to understand how kids learn to read and write, I needed to learn about letter sounds and phonics. I still remember clearly that this was the first session I wrote down on my “plan,” and I was excited.
The day came, I went in, and I sat down at the very back (I didn’t want anybody asking me to participate since I was a new teacher and felt I didn’t know what I was doing). Then I waited for the session to begin. Boy, did I regret sitting in the back.
As soon as Katie started speaking, I was hooked! I mean, who wouldn’t be? Besides her being awesome, knowledgeable, and a great speaker, the information and strategies she was sharing were incredible. I remember myself standing up and moving further to the front every time she turned around to change a slide, but I just couldn’t sit in the back; I needed to learn more, see more, and hear more about everything she was sharing. And just like that, everything clicked. It all just made so much sense, especially this part—
“The sounds that letters make when they get together is AS IMPORTANT as the sounds they make individually…..even for kindergartners!“
Teaching Kids the “Least Likely” Letter Sounds First
This was the first of many things that I heard which made me question everything I thought I knew about teaching reading. I mean, she was right. Both pre-k and kindergarten teachers dedicate themselves to focusing on the individual alphabet letters and sounds, but letters rarely make their individual sounds when they come together in words. Instead, they make completely different sounds that we never talk about, let alone teach! This means that when kids actually try to apply what we’re teaching them every day about letters and sounds to read real words, they will almost always be wrong.
In our daily alphabet song, we would sing “T says turtle, tuh-tuh-tuh,” but then every time we saw the letter /t/ in real words, it never actually made that sound, because of the frequency of word like: this, they, them, those, the, there, etc. Likewise, for the letter /y/, we would sing, “Y says yo-yo, yuh-yuh-yuh,” but then we’d move over a few inches on the rug to do morning calendar, and would see the letter /y/ in words like: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, January, February, May, July, etc. We read big books that were “by” so and so author, and we would tell the kids to pay attention to the sign hanging above the “Boy’s Bathroom”…..not to mention that our favorite words to read and write were: mommy, daddy, candy, and Happy Birthday!
It’s no wonder I was having such a terrible time and was so confused!
Another “a-ha” moment for me was when I realized that I had been spending valuable instructional time focusing on teaching the reading, but not the reader. I was showing my kids words, but not giving them any of the tools they needed to actually read them— tools that would empower them to crack any word, not just the ones on a word wall.
I hadn’t given my kids the keys they needed to unlock words for themselves because no one had ever given them to me. As a native Spanish speaker and former English Language Learner myself, I simply didn’t know them and had never been taught. I realized that I needed to change my mindset and alter my teaching strategy right away, and I wasn’t going to wait. I started then and there.
When I returned to Monterrey, I talked to the homeroom teacher and told her everything I had learned. I shared all that Katie had given us in session to bring back and use in our classroom, and showed her some of Katie’s vlogs on YouTube. We started using some of the Secret reading strategies to see how we could apply them in our classroom without interfering with our required pre-k curriculum. This, it turned out, was a non-issue. The Secrets blended perfectly with everything we were already doing— storytelling, role play, music, singing, movement and dramatic play. It was a natural fit. Plus, all of the words in our environmental print that were displayed all around our classroom had Secrets in them!
Phonics Stories Kids Already Know
Every Secret that we shared, the kids gobbled-up instantly. about the Secret Stories is that they are rooted in feelings that are universally familiar to all kids—regardless of their age, language background, or even whether or not they know the names of the letters. This is why they are so effective with very young children, and especially effective with English Language Learners. Kids just understand and connect with them instantly.
Everywhere around the world, kids are kids. They love Superheroes and know they must wear a disguise to keep from being recognized, like the Superhero Vowels®; they develop little crushes on each other, like au/aw; they sometimes play too rough and get hurt, like ou/ow; they stick their tongues when they don’t like someone, like th; they have to be quiet in the library, like sh; they like to play with balls, like al; they love to pretend they’re driving a car and slam on the brakes, like er/ir/ur; they know to do what they’re told if mom or a babysitter is around, like with Mommy E® and the Babysitter Vowels®; and they know that if you’re the line leader, you must be perfectly behaved, but when you’re at the end where no one can see you, not so much (lol!), like Sneaky Y®. These are the stories that kids already know because they “live” them every day.
Familiar “Social-Emotional” Thinking Frameworks
It is within these already familiar, social-emotional frameworks that my pre-kindergartners began trying to figure out the sounds of letters in words all around us. I was in awe. For the first time, my little guys could really read. Sometimes, I couldn’t believe my own eyes. They were discovering so much so quickly, and every day, they begged to hear more Secrets. The power of Secret Stories instruction is incredible. I was constantly amazed by how engaged they were, even the ones who didn’t yet know all of their letters.
On that particular day in Orlando, by luck or by faith (call it what you wish), I happened to be in the perfect place at the perfect time, and I am so grateful.
Transitioning from Pre-K to Kindergarten
Having started my teaching career in pre-k, I moved on to kindergarten three years ago. My God, if I was amazed at what pre-K students could do, my kindergarteners Blew. My. Mind.
So fast-forward 8 years, and here I am, still using Secret Stories. Our classroom test scores in reading and writing are always far above grade level, and our school actually tests students one grade level above—which means that in kindergarten, we are taking the FIRST GRADE end-of-year test. And just as a little reminder—English is their second language. (JAW DROP!)
Phonics Screeners / Reading Assessment
The snapshot below shows the end of year results from last year’s test, which is called CPAA. Our kindergartners took it in May, and it’s a Grade 1 test. I’m still amazed at how much they are able to learn and accomplish in kindergarten.
The next picture is a snapshot from a kindergarten classroom at our school that, at the time, was not using Secret Stories. You can see the difference in the scores, especially in phonics and writing.
Below is a video of one of my kindergarten students reading back in December. She started the year knowing only a few letters, and by Christmas break, she was already reading above grade level—and remember, she’s is Mexican, so English is her second language!
I am so impressed with her achievements, and how quickly she was able to learn all of the individual letters sounds (with the Better Alphabet Song) and start applying them with the Secrets to read. I honestly cannot imagine teaching children to read without being able to tell them the Secrets. They are the single most important tool that I use to teach reading and writing. I am grateful for them EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
We spot Secrets everywhere. All day long, kids will shout out, “I see Secrets!” and then they use them to try and sound out new words. They love finding them wherever they are hiding, especially in our new stories. They love finding them wherever they are hiding, especially in our new stories. They also love “catching” words that have Secrets in them throughout the day (and at home) and then adding them to our Secret chart.
The short video clip below is of my kids going on a Secret Stories “hunt” in our new book.
And check out this little kindergartners writing below. I was so impressed with how much she learned this year. Back in August, she only knew individual letters sounds, and now she’s reading and writing like a pro! (If you need a little help reading it, I’ve transcribed it below!)A Cat and a Penguin Go to Space
Once upon a time, there was a cat and a penguin in the jungle, and the penguin said, I want to learn the planets.
But how are we going to space?
We can go in the rocket.
Let’s go in, okay?
Look, space is so beautiful.
Look, this is Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.
Wow, now I know the planets!
It’s amazing what kids can do when they have more of the code they need to do it! That’s the power of the Secret Stories, and that’s the power it gives beginning readers and writers. No matter what their first language is, if we can teach it, they can learn it!
Developing a “Deep-in-the-Gut” Phonics Skill Set for Teaching Reading
Throughout the years, I have seen many curriculums, phonics programs, and sadly, even many teachers come and go, but the only things that have remained constant are my precious Secret Stories book, CD and posters. Our curriculum offers wonderful opportunities for students to engage in reading and writing, but I am the one responsible for giving them the phonics skills they need to do it! I am so proud to say that I don’t have to rely on anything or anyone else, not even parent support. Secret Stories has given me a “deep-in-the-gut” level of skill-ownership that I can now impart to my students. That’s an empowering feeling!
There’s just one more video clip that I want to share. It’s actually of my own son just before he turned four. (Can you tell how much he loves the Secrets?!! :-)
Secret Stories makes complex phonics patterns simple, as well as the brain based process for teaching them. My wish is that by sharing my own journey and experience, my post here will become the “perfect time and place” for other teachers who needs to find their own power to teach reading, as well as to gain tools they need to do it.
Kindergarten Teacher in Monterrey, Mexico
My Little “Rant” on Dual-Language & Bilingual Programs
Remember what I said at the beginning of this post about opportunity? How we have to struggle to give our children the same chances as others because we are not native speakers or US citizens? Well, there’s something else that has been on my mind, and before I close, I wanted to put it out there….
Last September, I had the chance to meet with Katie in Dallas. She was there for a series of ESC Region 11 phonics workshops, and I was glad to tag along (I think I might have actually begged a little!) She was kind enough to let me join her, and we had many interesting conversations. I was amazed at how differently we do things here in Mexico than in the US, particularly with regard to reading instruction for English Language Learners. I listened to what many of the Texas teachers who were at the workshop had to say and asked I many questions. I was surprised to hear that students in the US were experiencing similar disadvantages with regard to opportunity that we have here in Mexico.
It was so sad, scary, hard (I don’t know which word to choose) to hear that, in the US, English Language Learners were not given the same opportunities as the rest of the students. For example, did you know that in many schools, English Language Learners in Dual Language Schools receive only half as much reading instruction in English as native speakers, and that in Bilingual Schools, they may receive none at all….WHAAAAT?!? I felt confused. I think this is unfair, unreasonable and makes for great disadvantages in the future since they will be taking the same tests, applying for the same college spots, and vying for the same jobs. My thought of the “American Dream” was shattered.
Why? I still don’t understand the reason. Here, we are teaching them English so that they can have a chance, and there, you are cutting their time in half?
And just like that, I remember why I chose to become a teacher and take on the great responsibility that comes with it. We are here to give our students the best chances and opportunities, regardless of their gender, nationality, race, etc…. To make them feel that if they are willing to work hard, they can conquer the world……because, guess what? THEY CAN!
Even if it means that we, as teachers, have to work twice as hard to learn and acquire as many skills as we can to help them—we CAN do it all—and so can every single ELL learner! For teachers all over the world, our constant drumbeat is the same— “I believe in you; your teacher believes in you; and every single teacher—no matter where they are in the world—does, too! We are your teachers, and we will fight every single day to prepare you for what’s to come. We will never stop, because YOU are worth it!”
With Lots of Love to My Teacher Friends Around the World!
If you would like to leave any questions or comments for Ariana, feel free to do in the comments, below. You can also find Ariana on Instagram @AriCurco.
(This post was originally posted on I Teach What’s Your Super Power Blog, and excerpts pertaining to the Secret Stories® have been shared here, with permission from the author.)
Struggling Readers and the Phonics Divide
I had never heard of the Secret Stories until a teacher I thought highly of at a previous school swore by it with her first graders. It sounded interesting, but it was an “in one ear out the other” kind of thing, and I didn’t think about it again.
Fast forward to January of this year, and there was a CLEAR phonics divide in my second grade classroom between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” While some of my second graders were rocking and rolling with their sound knowledge, picking it up easily from the lessons embedded in our literacy block; others were still struggling with short /a/.
Enter Secret Stories…..
So here’s the quick version of Secret Stories: (not an affiliate link, I just love it!)
1. The Secret Stories have stories and posters for all of the different phonics skills and sounds.
For example, instead of teaching the r-controlled vowels as a phonics “skill,” I can tell my kids the secret about how er, ir, ur are terrible, awful, horrible, no-good drivers, and always have to slam on their breaks and say “Eerrrrrrrrrrrr!” (like in the words: her, turn, bird, curve, etc…). Then we connect the sound with the action to engage the full body and anchor the sound-symbol connection into their muscle memory for easy retrieval.
2. The Better Alphabet Song– We sang this daily, twice a day, EVERY day for at least two weeks. Instead of singing the name of the letters, you sing, “A says- ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah, but it can also say- ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay.” It keeps going through all the letters and literally ALL of the sounds each can make individually, including the short and long vowel sounds (known as the Superhero Vowels®), the hard and soft sounds for /c/ and /g/, the combined /qu/ sound, and even all three sounds for /y/ (known as Sneaky Y®). There is a CD (or musical download) included so you’re not on your own with this.
3. Because the Secret Stories isn’t a grade level “program,” it fits into what you’re already using. You DO NOT wait to introduce one sound (or Secret) a week, but instead, you give kids the Secrets they need to read and write words throughout the day. So you’re always looking for opportunities to use the Secrets they know while sharing more. (The ongoing constant use and reinforcement quickly establishes a deep level of skill-ownership.) The author’s point was, “Why should kids wait until February to learn about r-controlled vowels when they need them NOW?!!” Agreed.
Small Group Intervention for Struggling Readers
My initial intention was to use the Secret Stories specifically with my struggling readers who had significant phonetic weaknesses as an intervention. However, my “small” group got waaaaay bigger than I planned because the majority of my students wanted to join in! Some of my strongest readers were strategically placing themselves around my group of struggling readers on the rug while pretending to read a book, just so they could listen in! Eventually, I invited anyone that wanted to join in, and I consistently had 12-15 kids in our “intervention” group.
Our reading intervention time consisted of reviewing previously introduced Secrets, introducing new ones, and them practicing them both orally and on white boards. On Fridays, we would “collect” all of the words with Secret Stories phonics patterns in them, which helped me know which ones I needed to reinforce. Incorrect answers are as informative as correct answers! If we had an extra minute or two during our morning messages, we would play “word detectives” and look for the Secrets in it!
I would ask things like,“Find a word with these two friends who are all about the balls….” or
“Find a two-syllable word with a bad driver in it….” or “Find a word with that has a sneaky letter in it….” etc…..
Even though we didn’t start the Secrets until mid-year, I absolutely saw a 100% difference in both their reading and spelling. Next year, I will be starting with the Secrets week one!
As Secret Stories is not available as a “digital” download, it’s more expensive (about $100 for the book, posters and CD). But I was in a full on panic over having so many struggling readers in my classroom, and so I was more than willing to spend the money to make my life easier. If you don’t have the $100 to buy it personally and you can’t get your school or PTA to buy it for you, it would definitely be worth setting up a Donor’s Choose project.
Secret Stories allows me to quickly introduce a significant number of phonics skills in a short amount of time, and in a way that all of my students could easily remember and understand. Knowing the Secrets also gave us a common language that we could use when talking about the letters and sounds. “I’m looking for Secrets,” became one of our most-used print strategies!
Secret Stories is one of my favorite teacher-things, not only because of the growth that I saw with my students, but because of how much they love them and enjoy using them!
A guest post by second grade teacher, Kelli Gunkle.
Struggling Readers + Failing School = No Time for “Cute”
My name is Kelli Gunkle and I am a second grade teacher in Daytona Beach, Florida. I have been teaching for 5 years in a low-income, DDD, turn-around school with many struggling readers. If you are not familiar with a school climate like the one I teach in, you may have some questions about what all of that means.
In a nutshell, 90% of our students are on free and reduced lunch. We have been a D status for 3 years which placed us in “turn-around” status. This simply means that if we do not earn a C or better we will be taken over, closed down, or turned into a charter school. I tell you this to paint a tiny picture of the environment that I truly have the pleasure of working in.
People often look at statistics and status’ and use those as reasons not to be somewhere. I look at statistics a little differently. All of what I told you above is why I teach at my school. It’s why I get up everyday and teach my heart out. It’s why I don’t have time for the cute stuff.
In my first year teaching, I was like most teachers, and very aware of the “perfect” Pinterest classrooms. Don’t get me wrong, I love anything that is aesthetically pleasing….who doesn’t?! More and more though, I was seeing too many “cute” activities and too little rigor. Activities that would get people to “pin, pin, pin” or “like, like, like,” but none that had much substance to move our struggling readers.
I am lucky enough to work for one of the best principals in our county, and under her training, I have learned a lot about choosing rigor over looks. The experience of working for this amazing woman taught me how to properly vet materials for quality before giving them over to my students. I don’t choose the craftivity; I rarely, if ever, even do them. Instead, I choose what I know is going to give my students the maximum instructional value, because our school just doesn’t have the time to “fluff” anything up.
Filling the Phonics Gaps for Reading
This past fall, I was looking for something — anything that could help fill the gaps in phonics with my struggling readers, who were at least a grade level behind in reading. I was given the opportunity to loop to third grade with my class, and so I was well aware of the gaps that they had. I went into this year knowing the holes that would need to be filled, but not knowing HOW I was going to fill them.
Enter Secret Stories
Through countless search attempts, I stumbled upon the Secret Stories website and started reading all of the reviews. I was hooked. The minute I read that students were ASKING to learn about letter sounds and phonics patterns, I knew it was what I needed for my kids. And while the Secrets may be cute, they are all “meat” and no fluff! And so, unbeknownst to anyone at my school, I ordered the kit, put up the posters, and let the magic unfold! I call it magic because that’s the only way to describe what happens once you let the “genie” out of the bottle and start telling the Secrets.
With the current status of our school, we are a revolving door of district, state, and management company personnel going in and out of our rooms on a weekly to monthly basis. We have extra trainings, new strategies, brand-new curriculum, and countless other responsibilities that all teachers have. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to learn one more routine, strategy, or program to implement in my classroom. My kids don’t have the ability to take anything else in. THAT is why I love Secret Stories so much. It runs itself!
The minute I told my students the first Secret, and that NO ONE could know what I was about to tell them— especially all of those people in suits that kept coming in and out of our classroom—they were hooked! They have been begging for more phonics Secrets ever since!
If you were to come into my classroom, you would be welcomed by one of my favorite sights—our Secret Stories phonics posters! My classroom is all pastel colors, so this set was perfect. My kids use these posters ALL DAY LONG to reference how to both sound-out AND spell words words. (Ignore the feet in the first pic, as it was a long day! ;-)
Weaving Phonics Skill Instruction into Reading & Writing Across the Instructional Day
I wanted my kids to be thinking about the Secret phonics patterns outside of reading block as well, so we started “catching” the Secret sounds wherever and whenever we came across them throughout the day! This could be during a math lesson, during I-Ready lessons, or during our read-to-self time. Whenever they find a Secret, they can “catch” it and add it to our collection.
I bought a shoe rack, added the Secret Stories cards from the back of the book to each pocket, and on the side, placed a container for half-sized index cards and markers. This gives them everything they need to catch Secret phonics patterns and sounds during centers, small group, etc.
Watch the video below to see how we use this to “catch” Secrets!
Small Group Reading Instruction and Assessment Prep
I also use the Secrets heavily during small group time. As I mentioned above, our school is in “turn-around” status, so it is incredibly important to fill as many gaps as possible in the primary grades before students move on to 3rd-5th. In small group, we have learning targets and success criteria for the skills we are working on. The success criteria helps my struggling readers to see what steps they need to take in order to master their “I can” targets.
They know that they must achieve these smaller goals in order to obtain their greater goal. To that end, they rely on the Secrets when reading their word lists, as well as whatever they are reading for their weekly text.
When practicing test-taking strategies, we use the Secrets to help identify the phonics patterns and figure out new words in the text. This helps them to become more familiar with the text before they read it.
That way, when they are taking tests, they know to look for phonics patterns in unfamiliar words to help them. This makes them feel more comfortable when they working with more complex text, especially my struggling readers.
To see how we use Thinking Maps with Secret Stories, watch the video below.
The Secrets have changed the way I teach phonics and, if I’m being honest, I will never go back to phonics-based routines in order to teach my students how to read. They do not need to memorize; they need to WANT to READ!
The Secrets have given my students a “need to know” the sounds, rather than me having to force them to learn them. Now, they are ASKING me to teach them….they want to know ALL of the Secrets!!
In a profession where we have no time for the cute stuff, the Secrets have found a way to be adorable AND rigorous. What an amazing accomplishment!
Happy New Year!
From Learning to Read, to Reading to Learn: A Third Grade Update
HELLO SECRET STORIES ……AND HELLO THIRD GRADE! 🙌🏻😍🙌🏻
I had been going into my classroom with my teammate to get things set up. While we didn’t know what this year will look like, setting up our classrooms has brought a much needed peace. Just getting my Secret Stories Sound Wall up felt 👏🏻 so 👏🏻 good 👏🏻!
The Secret Stories are the keys to our reading, and they mean everything to me as a teacher. After using them for the first time last year, I will never go back! It is the best investment I’ve ever made for my classroom and my students’ learning💗 ….. not to mention my own learning as a teacher of reading.
Since last year’s blog post, I have looped on to third grade with my class. I am happy to say that, due to my students’ success in reading last year, there are now other teachers at my school who have caught “Secret Stories-fever” and are now using the Secrets with their students, as well.
The older kids get, the more they want you to just tell them how to spell words. Having not been with my class for six months, given our early release last spring due to Covid and summer vacation, I’ve had to to remind them to use the Secrets they know to spell words. For reading, this is a non-issue, as they just look at the Secret sound wall to decode the words, but for spelling, they often have to choose between two or three different ways to spell the sound.
In late September, I asked my students to take notes on a story, focusing on the main character, their feelings, their motivations, and their actions. Each student wrote what they thought the character was feeling, and what they believed had motivated their actions.
When I looked at this particular student’s paper, I was absolutely ELATED!
She had written the words “geelous,” and I knew immediately which Secrets she’d used to figure out that spelling! She clearly had command of the ge/gi/gy and /ous/ Secrets. And while she didn’t spell the word jealous exactly right, her ability to “build” that word demonstrated her ownership of the phonics skills that were in it — skills that could be easily used to read ANY words with these Secrets in them!
After telling me the word that she’d written, I commended her for using the Secrets she knew to spell it. Then we made a comparison of “geelous” and “jealous” on the board. Seeing her use the /ge/ Secret for the /j/ sound, and then correctly spell the ending with the /ous/ Secret just made my teacher-heart explode!❤️
Before I close, I want to share something that Katie and I worked on together to help students notice and use the Secrets to read and spell in remote learning lessons (as well as in literacy centers, whole group, and small group classroom instruction in the physical classroom next school year). They are “universal” task cards that work with any text and any grade level and can be used over and over again, making it easy to target specific skills/ Secrets on an individual, whole, or small group level. They are also helpful for differentiation, given that they can be paired with any text – from guided readers, to poems on the board, to math directions — they will get your kids searching for Secrets, no matter what they are reading!
For the complete set of Secret Stories® “Universal” Task Cards, click here.
A Guest Post By Melissa Gregory
—Kindergarten Teacher at Title I School in Ohio
Kindergarten- End of October
Who says kindergartners can’t have access to ALL of the code needed to read and write in a short amount of time????
By the end of the FIRST NINE WEEKS, these cuties are taking off in reading AND writing, and are so excited to be word detectives finding ‘secrets’ in every word they see!!!
Kindergarten Writing in Mid-November
My Journey from First Grade to Kindergarten
My name is Melissa Gregory, and I am a kindergarten teacher at a Title I School near Cincinnati, Ohio. This year was my first year teaching kindergarten, though I’d taught first grade for many years. I sent Katie the video of my class in late October, as I wanted her to see how fast my kindergartners were soaking-up all of the Secrets! These little kindergartners knew ALL of the them by the end of October, even though they were still learning their individual letter sounds with the Better Alphabet Song.
Having only taught first grade before, I had no preconceived notions about what kindergartners were “supposed” to do, and so we just “played” with the Secrets all the time. The Secrets were not only their favorite stories, but also their favorite “toys.” They didn’t just “know” them, they were actively using them to read and spell words! With every day came new growth and discovery, and being new to kindergarten, I felt like I was learning right along with them. I was just so excited that I had to share it, and from the moment that Katie posted our little video back in October on Facebook, we both began receiving so many comments and questions. Most wanted to know if the Secrets they knew in the video actually transferred to their reading and writing, and if so, how? So, Katie asked me to track of all of this year’s data and write this post.
This comment, in particular, sums up what many who saw the video back in October were curious to learn—
I am not understanding how this transfers into their reading & writing since it is done in isolation. Is there any assessment data showing how well kids can actually read? I show my students many videos and we sing many songs too, but I don’t see all kids accessing the information later in their reading and writing.
Thanks for any insight you can provide!
My background in first grade….
Having taught first grade in a large school district for the past ten years, this past year was to be my first ever teaching kindergarten. Our district had expanded from four Early Childhood Schools to six, and I was moved to a new building and placed in kindergarten. My new school was a Title 1 and Title 3 school, with both ESL and free and reduced lunch population.
I had been using Secret Stories in first grade for the past seven years, alongside the Lucy Caulkins Reading and Writing Workshop Model, which our district had adopted several years back. Secret Stories was a game-changer for me, as it gave my first graders more of the phonics “code” they needed to actually do reading and writing workshop! As a result, my students had always shown unbelievable growth—not just in their reading, but in their writing, as well. Knowing the Secrets gave them confidence to tackle new words in reading, write more complicated words in their stories, and even figure-out unknown words in their story problems for math.
As early grade teachers, our students are just learning how to “do” school, and so testing is not what is most important, nor should it define them. However, data is extremely important to principals, as well as to district and state-level administrators, as it provides a “snap-shot” of current student performance. If you were to look at my data from seven years ago and compare it to my data now, you would see a huge difference. Yes, I am sure that I have become a better teacher over time, but the truth is, I didn’t have my secret weapon, and so I couldn’t give it to my students. That’s what the Secret Stories are to me and my students. They are our secret reading weapon, and they continue to be the BEST gift I could ever give my kids!
Before I discovered Secret Stories, I had to do weekly word practice and a phonics focus, and so my calendar looked like this…
Sight Words, Word Families, and Phonics Rules (a.k.a. “Before Secrets”)
Everything was taught in isolation and nothing was authentic….or fun. Students would learn the sight words, word families and phonics rules for the week, and then we would move on with hope that they could retain those words and rules. There was no spiral-teaching, except for the weeks we reviewed, and those were only for the sight words, not the word families or phonics rules. I look back now and wonder how my class ever reached the levels required by the end of each school year? During the week, I would use rainbow word worksheets, word sorts, letter tiles and magnetic letters to practice the sight words, and I had a block of time set aside for word study each day.
Becoming Secret Word Detectives
The first thing that you notice when you start telling Secrets is how they naturally integrate with everything that you are already doing. They are literally everywhere! I no longer needed to set aside time for word practice or phonics “kill and drill,” as the kids were naturally using them ALL DAY LONG—in reading, in math, at lunch, in art…..anywhere and everywhere there were words, they found Secrets! Skill-reinforcement was “baked-in” to everything that we were already doing—across all subject areas, as the kids were constantly using them to read and write words. They loved being word detectives and spotting Secrets wherever they were hiding! My teaching became more authentic, which made learning easier and more natural for my students.
From day one, I had all of the Secret Stories posters hung in my room, and I started showing my kids how to use them. I explained that the Secrets were the “keys” they needed to “unlock” words, and I modeled using them for this purpose constantly. Whenever we came to a word that they couldn’t read or spell, I told them the Secret, and then showed them the poster and reminded them how they could use it to read and spell other words on their own. And off they went! During free choice time, they pretended to be the teacher, using the pointers to show and tell the Secret Stories, and then calling on their friends to make the sounds and show the motions. They referred to the posters constantly, sometimes to actually read or spell a word, and sometimes, just to “play” with telling their story and making their sound. I actually have the posters hung on both sides of my classroom so they can easily see them from anywhere, which just goes to show how much the kids use them!
Letters Behave Like Kids
The day I told them the first Secret Story, my teaching changed forever. Having a way to make phonics make sense just made everything we were already doing so much easier! Five and six-year-olds may not understand (or care about) letter sounds, but they do understand that letters behave differently when they are together with different friends, just like they behaved differently with different friends. In the Secret Stories, kids saw their own feelings and behaviors reflected back, which is why they loved hearing and telling them so much. The Secrets come from a place that kids can easily identify with and understand, like, for example: how a line leader is supposed to behave, when to (and when not to) be sneaky, not getting along with your classmate, being left out of a group, having to listen to your mom (or your babysitter!), and even what it would be like to have super powers! The Secrets make kids wonder. They made them curious. They make them think. But most of all, the Secrets make them want to know more Secrets!
My first graders had always learned the Secrets quickly, which is what made our Reading and Writing Workshop take off, but when I moved to kindergarten, I wasn’t sure how this would go. At curriculum night, I shared with parents that I was unsure about how kindergartners would do with Secret Stories, since I’d only used them in first grade. But I also told them that if their kids were going to be reading and writing in kindergarten, then they were going to need them!
Our end-of-year standard for kindergarten was mastery of: individual letter sounds, 25 sight words, and three digraphs- /sh/, /th/ and /wh/….and that was it. My first grade teacher-brain couldn’t help but wonder what in the world kids were actually supposed to be able to do with that?! However, I knew that, as a kindergarten teacher, I would be spending a lot of time on individual letters and sounds, and would need to focus on those first. I was even concerned that giving them the Secrets might be too much…..oh boy was I wrong!
Word Work Playground
The Daily Calendar
At the early grade levels, the entire day is a playground of word exploration and play! I actually shared the first Secret before I’d even introduced any of the individual letters and sounds. It was the Secret about au/aw, which I told them on the first day of school during calendar time. (I remembered seeing Katie doing this in a kindergarten YouTube video and so I thought I would do the same.) I asked the kids how many of them knew what a “secret” was. I told them that there were special secrets that could only be told to very special kindergartners, and that these secrets would help them to become better readers and writers. I also made sure to let them know that they could tell their parents (or loved ones), and that when they go home, they could pretend to be the teacher and teach the Secret Story to them.
School starts in early August, and we do Calendar Time every day, so since we would be “reading” the word August on a daily basis, it made sense to explain why the /A/ wasn’t making the sound it was supposed to (based on the sounds it makes in the Better Alphabet Song, which we also sang every morning and afternoon). To understand why, the kids would need to know the Secret about au/aw.
The picture below is not of me or my class, but I found it on one of Katie’s blogs, and it gives you the idea.
Whenever I told them a Secret, I would make a huge deal about how they were ‘grown-up’ reading and writing secrets, and that no other kids were allowed to know them! Then throughout the rest of the day, I would introduce other Secrets, as we needed them to read and spell words that we would frequently use or encounter (i.e. student names, high-frequency sight words, color words, math words, etc…). Then we could use these Secrets to crack even more words that we came across. Once you begin telling Secrets, there is a sort of “snowball-effect,” which quickly takes on a life of its own, as the kids start to drive their own learning!
Over the next two weeks, I had introduced them all authentically. I purposefully searched for ways to introduce them to the class that would be meaningful.
I introduced Secrets to help us read and write the names of students in our class. Kids love to talk about, explore and “play” with their own names, as well as their friends’ names. They especially loved keeping track of whose names had which Secrets in them, often alerting visitors to our class that they had a Secret in their name, but then refusing to tell them what it was….because of course, it’s a “secret!”
I introduced Secrets that we found in our read-aloud mini-lessons. And while I don’t have a picture of this from my own classroom, I did find this video of Katie doing the same.
Word Study in Math
When talking about Math Workshop, I introduced the Secrets that we needed to read those words (/th/ and /sh/). I really wanted the kids to see the Secrets as their own, personal keys to unlock any word—not something that was confined to our reading lesson. The video below demonstrates this point.
As we practiced walking around our building, trying to learn where places were located, I would point out the Secrets in words that we saw on the walls. I asked parents to send in environmental print, and we would use the words they brought in each day to teach more Secrets. For example, to read the store name, Target, we learned the Secret about /ar/.
When we saw the word Walmart, we needed the /al/ Secret to crack it, along with the previously learned Secret about /ar/. Learning was authentic and continually spiraling. Secrets were shared and re-shared, with the kids never tiring of re-telling old Secrets and learning new ones. And all this was happing simultaneously to picking up the individual letters and sounds with muscle memory, via our Better Alphabet Song (sung twice a day, every day!) I actually caught one of my little guys, who was obsessed with this song, singing it to himself at recess, and I recorded it, as he was just so cute! It’s the video below.
Now I’ll admit that teaching all of the Secrets in the first two weeks of kindergarten isn’t what Katie says to do in her book, but my kids were so hungry to hear more Secrets, that I thought, why not? After all, they’re just stories….and who worries about telling kids too many stories??
I know what you’re thinking (especially if you teach kindergarten), but before you judge, just remember that I wasn’t “teaching” skills, I was telling stories! Stories that they loved and would beg to hear! Also, having never taught kindergarten before, I had no preconceived notions about what kindergartners could and couldn’t do. All I knew was that they kept begging me to tell them just “one more Secret”….and so I did! And every one that I told came back to me like a boomerang in our daily reading and writing—which would only motivate me to tell more! (I literally could not keep a secret- Lol!)
The more Secrets I told them, the more they wanted. The more Secrets they had, the more words they could read and write. Secret skill transfer to reading and writing was easy and natural, as it is only for these purposes that Secrets were shared, so kids automatically made this connection, unlike with an isolated phonics skill lesson. And unlike a phonics “program,” Secrets aren’t grade-specific, and there are no scripted lessons to follow, making it easy to work them into everything you do—any time, any where, and for any purpose….without any prep!
One of the first things that I discovered in kindergarten was that five-year-olds were just as excited to hear the Secrets as I was to tell them! The more excitement I showed, the more they showed, and the more they were learning without even knowing! Without any prompting, they were finding Secrets everywhere, and then telling each other their “secret” sounds. I was constantly amazed at how their little eyes lit up every time they spotted Secrets that they knew in words—from reading passages, to the cafeteria menu, to signs in the hallway. I was even told by parents that “Secret-spottings” were happening at home on newspapers, magazine covers, and even on signs! These little kindergartners were quickly realizing that everywhere there were words, there were Secrets, and that they had the keys to unlock them.
On the 100th day of school, I asked my kids to write about their favorite part of kindergarten, and almost all them said it was learning Secret Stories! These kids were on fire, absorbing and learning everything they could about this ‘grown-up’ world of reading and writing! All day long, they were pointing them out, and I would tell them that we were “stamping our brains” with new Secrets each time we found them in text.
If my kindergarten journey this year has taught me anything, it’s that the most powerful learning occurs when we don’t even realize it’s happening—when learning and fun become one! From the moment that I told the first Secret, my kindergartners were hooked, just like my first graders were.
If we were reading poems, they wanted to circle the Secrets. In read-aloud, they wanted to come up and put highlighter tape on the Secrets. Even in math, science and social studies, they were always “on the hunt” for Secrets. They were obsessed, and it was wonderful! It was so much fun watching their excited conversations about what the Superhero Vowels® were doing, and whether they would “say their name” or be “short and lazy” (if Mommy E® or the Babysitter Vowels® weren’t around). Both their reading AND writing just soared!
To see just how obsessed they were with the Secrets, check out this video that was sent to me by one of my parents of their child’s birthday party. In the caption, the father wrote, “The secrets really ARE everywhere!”
Secret Stories to Sound Out Words for Reading
When my students are reading and come upon an unknown word, I don’t tell them what it is. Instead, I tell them to look for the Secrets.
Several years ago, when I started teaching first grade and hadn’t yet discovered Secret Stories, my kids were usually unsuccessful when attempting to sound out most words, unless they were simple C-V-C words, like cat, bed, cut, etc… Now that my kids know the Secrets, they wouldn’t even start sounding out a word without first noticing the Secrets that are in it. For example, before they knew the Secrets, my first graders might try to sound out the word first like this, “ff-ih-ruh-ss-tuh,” making each letter sound individually. With the Secrets, even my kindergartners will automatically say, “f-ir-st,” because they immediately notice the Secrets and blends.
This is another reason why it is so important that all of the Secret Stories posters are up on your wall where kids can easily see them, as it’s the first place they’ll look when they can’t read or spell a word. It’s also important to encourage them to use the motions or action that naturally goes along with each story sound. Unlike a “program” (i.e. Zoo Phonics, Letterland, Jolly Phonics, etc…) the Secret Stories motions aren’t arbitrary actions that you have to know and remember, but just the natural physical response of engaging in the action/making the sound, like holding the steering wheel and slamming on the pretend brakes when saying, “Errrrrrrrrr” (for er/ir/ur) or sticking your tongue out and making a mean face when saying “thhhhhhhhhh” (for /th/).
We don’t just “stamp our brains” with the pictures, but with the sounds and actions as well! All children learn differently, and the more modalities we can incorporate in our learning, the more connections we make in our brains! Secret Stories’ multi-sensory instruction activates all of the senses—see it, say it, do it and even FEEL it— for deep learning, which is why the Secrets “stick” so easily, even for kindergartners. The visual below is actually from Katie’s session handout, but I wanted to add it here to show how a multi-sensory approach to instruction (especially for phonics) helps to forge deeper learning connections in the brain.
Kindergarten in December
The following videos are of students in my class, who you will see looking up at the wall behind them to find the Secrets they need to decode the words they’re trying to read. I always give them a little time before asking what Secret (or Secrets) they see. These clips are from early December, back when they were still learning how to actively decode new words. As their decoding ability improved, we were able to focus more on fluency, which you will see in later videos further down below.
*Note that these are “cold” readings of instructional-level text, which means that it offers some challenges, based on their current reading level, which of course, is different for each child. Most often, in guided reading, I intentionally select more challenging text (rather than easier books) so as to give them words that they might struggle with a bit, so as to help them stretch and grow as readers.
Teaching the Reader, Not the Reading
The Secret Stories reach every child. My ESL students and little ones on IEPs were able to pick them up just as easily as the rest of my kids. No matter how a child learns, the Secrets just make sense. Kids who aren’t yet developmentally ready to read still love to hear and tell the stories—talking about them like they would their favorite TV or video game characters. But for kids who are ready, these simple stories open up a whole new world of reading and writing for them to explore! Because the Secrets apply to everything we do in kindergarten, reinforcing them is easy and can be done with high, medium and low-level learners, simultaneously. While higher-level learners are able to transfer knowledge of the story to the sounds and letter patterns they need for reading and writing, lower-level learners are simply enjoying knowing and telling the story, not yet realizing the power that it holds.
The first time that I did a Running Record on a child in kindergarten after having introduced all the Secret Stories, I was in shock! Our reading was off the charts, and so were our scores. Once my kindergartners had successfully gotten me to spill all of the Secrets (yes, I blame them!) they were unstoppable. The best part of teaching kindergarten was watching the extreme progression from kids knowing little-to-no letter sounds to becoming full-fledged readers! The transformation was incredible. The second best part was seeing their excitement as they evolved as readers and writers. I only wish that I would have recorded this child at the beginning of the year when he still didn’t know all of his letters or sounds!
Kindergarten Reading Level – Late Fall
Kindergarten Reading Level – Winter
It was around this time in mid-December, just before the holiday break, that I sent Katie the following update….
I just completed our F&P (Fountas & Pinnell) assessments yesterday and today on my kindergarten class! Our kids have to be at a level D by the END of the year, and more than half of my kids are already there, with 10 reading between levels F-I! And most didn’t even know their letters and sounds at the beginning of the year!
Not having ever taught kindergarten before, I am just floored by their progress! I was in first grade for the past 11 years, so I was not sure how quickly kindergartners would learn the sounds and put it together in order to read fluently. Well, by December, they were reading and comprehending!!!!♥️If anyone ever wonders if the Secrets work in Kindergarten, they should hear these angels read and comprehend. I myself am amazed! Sorry, but had to brag about Secret Stories! I know all of the teachers out there who use it will get it! 🙂
PS We also do Maps Testing, and I can’t wait to see the difference in overall growth from September to December! I will share that when I get it.
Below is my kindergarten F&P data showing where we were in December, as well as their overall growth by the end of the school year.
“Fountas & Pinnell” Reading Level Assessments
Note that by the end of the school year, 50% were reading at “end of first grade” level, having passed level J (the highest level-assessment allowed for kindergarten by the district). This is compared to 6% of kindergartners, district-wide (including students from non-Title I schools).
Our district also uses MAP Testing with a projected RIT score to show where kids should be by the end of the year. Those who use NWEA MAP will better understand the data below. For those who don’t, the projected RIT score is for Spring. As you can imagine, several students had already surpassed the projected RIT score by Winter testing. Our administration looks at the percent of projected growth met, which should be around 100% by the end of the year. Anything above that indicates how much more a student grew than was expected from their RIT score.
On average, there should be about a 10-point growth from Fall to Spring. The assessment data below shows growth from both winter and spring. Keep in mind that these assessments are just a snapshot of the entire child, and do not inform what is good overall growth. They are most useful to ensure that all students are continuing to move—from the lowest to the highest. Average student growth on this assessment is traditionally between 80%-120% percent. My average student this year in kindergarten was over 200%.
Kindergarten “Map” Testing – Reading
As I stated above, while data is important, it provides only a snapshot of the whole child, especially in kindergarten. Secret Stories have improved my scores immensely over the years, so I no longer worry about testing, as we are always way ahead of where we need to be, midway through the year. Not having to worry about teaching the “reading” means that I can focus more on teaching the reader. That’s where I can invest my time and energy, not on sight word lists and reading “practice!”
Word Work Activities and Phonics Play
Midway through kindergarten, my class had become highly-skilled word detectives, and our “word work” was never limited to our reading block! We circled and highlighted Secrets in the stories and poems we read, put highlighting tape on our big books, and were always on the look-out for Secrets hiding both in and outside of our classroom! Reading and writing was never limited to an isolated “phonics” or “word work” time; it was immersed into every part of our day! Whenever Secret phonics patterns were spotted, we would circle or highlight them. Then we tap out the word, chunking each Secret Story sound together (instead of saying the letters sounds individually). For example, if we came across the word thirds in Math, we would highlight the letters /th/ and /ir/, and then tap and sound it out as, it out as “th-ir-d-s” (as opposed to “t-h-i-r-d-s”). We would even use a large magnifying glass to show how the Secret letter patterns should jump out at you before you start reading them!
Using a document camera, we would look at poems, like the one about leprechauns, below. We would then circle all of the Secrets we could find and read it aloud, together. If you walked into my room, you would see that no matter what paper I put in front of them, they would all find and circle the Secrets before I even mentioned looking for them.
Secret Stories Hunts
Another fun opportunity for phonics play is going on Secret Story “Hunts,” as this is a great way to strengthen beginning learners’ visual acuity to quickly recognize letter patterns in text. While we often do this at guided reading with our little books, we also like to “hunt” for Secrets in words all around our classroom. We can hunt for words that contain a specific Secret Story pattern, or for words with any Secret Stories patterns! We can also use a timer to make it into a contest to see who can find the most—although to win, they have to be able to READ all of the words that they “captured!” Another fun twist is to extend the hunt to the hallway, the cafeteria, the principal’s office, or even the entire school! The picture below shows the kids going on a Secret Stories Hunt around our classroom.
“Sentence of the Day” and Focus Words
We also have a “Sentence of the Day” book, which we make and do together every day. The students start at the carpet with me, and I introduce the sentence and our focus word.
For example, in the video below, the sentence was, “She is not in school today?” with the focus word, not. At the beginning of the year, I would have to read the sentence to them a few times, but at this point, they are doing a cold read of the sentences to me. We literally take apart the sentence. The students look for Secret Stories, punctuation, capitalization, plus anything else they happen to notice, and then we pull out one word, and think of more words that rhyme with it.
This is a great way to reinforce awareness that if they know how to read and spell the word not, then they can also read and spell the words lot, hot, rot, shot, etc… or, as in the next clip below, if they know how to read and spell the word will, they can also read and spell words like: hill, pill, fill, chill, etc… This activity is a powerful one, as it reinforces everything they know about reading and writing, and provides an easy to way to informally assess their ability to apply the Secrets. It’s also a great way to increase phonemic awareness, as well as recognition of word families for both reading and spelling, but without causing confusion between simple word letter patterns (like -op, -at, -it, etc…) with Secrets (which are the sounds letters make when they don’t do what they should!)
Once we have finished, we then read the sentences three or four times (or more at the beginning of the year). Then the kids go back to their seats, write the word four times, and then write the sentence in their very best handwriting. When finished, students will raise their hands and read it to me. When first starting to read, I have them point to each word as they are reading it so that they can practice one-to-one correspondence, which some students continue doing through the year.
Merry-Go-Round Phonics Instruction
I can’t stress enough the importance of activating all of the modalities in learning practice—the visual, the auditory and the kinesthetic. Whenever we would spot Secrets, we would always reference the poster (visual) while making the sound (auditory) and doing the motion (kinesthetic). By presenting information to the brain from as many angles as possible, Secret Stories fosters deep connections that learners can’t forget. Katie talks about how Secret Stories offers kids a “merry-go-round” for learning that just keeps spinning, giving kids who need it more time “jump on,” and giving them never-ending opportunities to do so. We keep our merry-go-round spinning by always taking the time to re-tell the story, reference to the poster, and engage in the action with the sound. This constant reinforcement of what the Secret is, where it lives (on the wall), and the sound (or sounds) it makes helps to ensure that our merry-go-round never leaves anyone behind—regardless of where they are in the learning process.
Whenever we stand in line before leaving the classroom, one student gets to take my pointer and be the teacher, pointing to the different Secret Stories posters (or words on other posters) hanging in the room. Whatever words were pointed to, the kids would have to read as quickly as they could. This simple game actually had a big impact on their learning, and was well worth the extra five minutes it took to line up. It was during these short, little 3-5 minute windows that I first began to see them evolving into readers before my eyes! Their writing was also improving with each passing day, as they got better and better at using the the posters to transcribe the sounds they heard into readable words.
Using Secret Stories with the Reading and Writing Workshop Model
Our district has used Lucy Calkins’ Reading and Writing Workshop Model for the past 15 years. Before the Secrets, I would follow the Readers/Writers Workshop books like they were my Bible!
I was teaching first grade when I first heard about the Secret Stories from my sister, who was also a first grade teacher, as her school had just purchased them. She would rave and rave about them, telling me all about her school’s success. I was intrigued, but as with any new “program,” I was a little apprehensive. The last thing I needed was something else to teach, and I didn’t really want another book with more lessons that I would have to squeeze into my already overstuffed day. But once she explained how easy it was, and that it really wasn’t a “program” at all, I was all in!
I decided to purchase it with my own money and immediately begin introducing it to my first grade class. Some of my first graders at the time were already reading, while others were still working on letter sounds and sight words, though all of them were captivated by these little “secret” stories. A wave of learning began to rise across the different levels in my classroom, with everyone taking something away from each Secret that I told.
I could write a big word on the board, like for example, vacation or assumption, and while my stronger readers would use the Secrets to silently sound out the word, my lower-level readers would be equally excited to just look for the Secrets and tell their stories while acting out their sounds. Despite the different levels, we could all go back and blend the letter sounds and Secrets together to read the word aloud. To me, this is the epitome of what Katie refers to as, “Buffet-Style” Instruction, with all level learners able to come to the table and “eat” what they’re ready for! The result was a no-prep “multi-tiered” word work activity that not only reinforced the Secrets, but also that no matter our age or grade level, if we knew the Secrets, we could figure out 99% of the words we encounter! (And if you’re wondering how this would work with words that don’t follow phonics rules, that’s actually the most fun part….getting to be “Word Doctors,” which you can read more about here.)
Phonics Units of Study /Phonics Workshop Model
This school year, our district adopted the new Lucy Calkins TCRWP Phonics Units of Study/Phonics Workshop for kindergarten and first grade. This was another thing that I was concerned about when moving to Kindergarten, as I was unsure how to incorporate Secret Stories with a phonics program.
We didn’t receive our TCRWP Phonics Units Teacher Kits until October, so during a professional development on how to use them, we were told to begin on book 2. given that book 1 was geared toward the very first few weeks of kindergarten and we were now two months in. Once I got started, I quickly realized that my students already knew all the concepts—not only book 2, but in book 3, as well. So I had to jump ahead to book 4, and even then, I was able to skip several more lessons that my kids were already able to do.
The reason I was able to skip so many books was not just because we’d already learned all of the skills presented, but because we had been using them daily in everything we do. And while this might seem as though it would present a conflict, it’s actually quite the opposite! Because we didn’t need to engage in any of the phonics skill introduction or practice work in the program, we were able to take full advantage of the open-ended, extension activities for authentic reading and writing that the program offered. The Phonics Units turned out to be a perfect “playground” on which we could flex our Secret Stories “muscles” in a variety of ways for reading and writing!
In the Phonics Units of Study, Lucy Caulkins stresses that in order for beginning learners to be able to transfer phonics skills to reading and writing, they need faster access to them. But unlike the Phonics Units, which deliver phonics skills by grade level across kindergarten, first and second, Secret Stories fast-tracks the WHOLE code in kindergarten by giving kids a way to understand letter sound behavior—so they don’t need to memorize everything, or learn through rote practice. So then, why wait? The more tools we bring to the table, the more value we can take away….and that goes for any reading series or program!
Prior to adopting the Phonics Units of Study, our district required kindergarten students to know 25 sight words by the end of the school year, while first graders had to know 115 before moving on to second grade. In December, I decided to go ahead and test those students who were ready on all of the first grade words, even though our district only requires the 25. Suffice it to say that I actually had to contact our central office and complain (in a nice way) that the online entry system would not allow me to enter anything above a “99” in the field for kindergarten because it only registered two-digit numbers. (They changed it for me! :-)
So here we were, barely half way through kindergarten, and most of the kids could already read all of the 115 first grade words or more! (You can imagine how cocky they were, especially the ones with first grade siblings!)
Kindergarten Sight Word Mastery (Baseline & Mid-Year Assessment)
I’ve always loved using Secret Stories with Writers Workshop, as the two really do go hand-in-hand! Each day I do a mini-lesson and I model, model, model! Then, before students go back to their seats to begin their own writing, we spend a few minutes discussing what they notice in my writing—highlighting, circling, or using highlighting tape to mark all of the Secret Stories that they see. When they are doing their own writing, they are using the Secret Stories posters constantly.
As they tap their arm to segment the sounds that they hear in each word, they know which Secrets make each sound, and can refer to the posters to see how to write it, or just to self-check. Each student also has a Porta-Pic in in their desk folders for easy access that they can refer to anytime they are reading or writing. Kids can take them home for reading and writing there (since they won’t have access to the posters) as well as to their resource/pull-out classrooms (for those who go).
The following video clips show our Writers Workshop time at the beginning of the school, as well as midway through the year. You will notice that at the beginning of the year, students focus more on drawing the pictures and just trying to get some letters down on the page, whereas by the end of the year, they are writing books.
Kindergarten Writing Workshop – Fall
Kindergarten Writing Workshop – Winter
Play-Based Learning & Phonics Fun
During center choice time, my students love to use the puppets and pretend to be the teacher teaching the Secrets. Recently, one student asked if we could make Superhero Vowel puppets. This led to an entire STEAM lesson, and ended with our making puppets for all of the Secrets, and even putting on our own puppet shows!
I divided students into groups of four, and each group had to design and create their own puppets using supplies from our classroom, and then create a skit. Once they made their puppets, they worked with their partners to rehearse their skits. Then each group presented their puppet show to the class. Once all of the skits were finished, students sat and shared their puppets and the sounds that they made.
Play-based, cooperative learning is so much more valuable than any scripted lesson, not to mention a lot more fun! With the Secrets, kids already own the skills, so the real learning lies in their discovery of how to use them. In early grade classrooms, there are endless opportunities to “play” as readers and writers! And I believe that this is why the kids love learning the Secrets so much—because they give them more to play with! They associate the Secrets with fun, play, and stories!
Here are some short clips from our Secret Stories puppet-play—
/ch/ and /ed/
Short and Long Vowel Sounds (a.k.a. Superhero Vowels & their ‘Short & Lazy’ Sounds)
The 3 Sounds for Y (a.k.a. Sneaky Y®)
Reading fluency is key as phonics skills become second nature, and one way to encourage it is through song! We love to read, write and SING our way to fluency! First, we read a book about our favorite animal, then we write about it, and then we sing about it! Check out this talented little one sharing her “All About Animals” writing about raccoons, to the tune of “Party in the USA!” It’s adorable!!
As a teacher in a Primary K-1 building for over 13 years, when students would leave, I wouldn’t get to see them again unless they come back to visit. When they did, I would always ask them to read to us, and then I would let my little ones ask them questions. Once question that they always ask is, “What did you learn that helped you the most?” and the response is almost always, “Secret Stories.” I love knowing that I have given them a gift that continues to help them grow as readers and writers, long after they leave my classroom.
Teacher Expertise in Phonics Secret Stories
The best way to start Secret Stories is to jump right in and don’t overthink it!
Secret Stories give beginning grade learners easy access to all of the code they need to read and write long-before they will be formally introduced by your reading series or phonics program (as per traditional grade level scope and sequences). THIS IS NOT A PROBLEM—it’s a gift!
All you have to do is tell the story and then plug in its sound (for reading) or the letter patterns (for spelling/writing). Telling a Secret to explain strange letter behavior will never (I repeat, NEVER!) conflict with anything else you are doing—no matter what reading series or even phonics “program” you are using! It’s simply giving meaning to letters and sounds that would otherwise have none—and thus, would need to be repeatedly practiced as “skills” (instead of stories).
While Secret Stories is systematic and explicit with introduction of “most-needed” (highest-frequency) first, you can also share and use Secrets as you need them throughout the instructional day! Never limit them to just language arts time, because remember, they’re not a “program,” they’re tools for both you and your students! Secrets should never be taught in isolation, but immersed into everything that you do, and talked about everywhere you go (which kids will naturally do anyway whenever they see words!)
Remember to take advantage of every opportunity to make your students’ learning authentic, but don’t wait too long to introduce all the Secrets. And to all my fellow kindergarten teachers out there, DO NOT WAIT for kids to know the individual letter sounds before you start telling them Secrets! That’s like waiting for kids to learn Bob’s name before introducing them to Tabitha, just because her name has a /th/ in it!
With the Secrets, you can teach them together by singing the Better Alphabet Song (twice a day, every day, with “eye glue” and “muscle mouth!”) while simultaneously sharing Secrets! My class actually knew all of the Secret Stories before they’d mastered all of the individual letter sounds! This is because there is no learning curve for the Secrets, as kids get the stories (and their sounds) instantly, whereas the individual sounds are acquired through muscle memory, which can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months with the Better Alphabet Song,
And most important of all, GET EXCITED! If you’re excited, then your kids will be excited! (This is actually the easiest part, as you won’t be able to help yourself!)
Children are like sponges, soaking up everything around them to grow. And my little sponges grew beyond my wildest expectations! All I had to do was feed them the Secrets, and then watch them grow into real-life readers and writers!
PS Please leave any comments or questions below, and never miss a Secret (or a Secret-freebie surprise!) by subscribing to the Secret email blast here!
Helping Older Readers Who Struggle
A Guest Post by Anna Hardway, M. Ed.
If that’s the case, you are probably reading this late at night, having wrung your hands, scratched your head, and said your prayers….while continuing to search for answers. I know this because I have been you.
I never thought about becoming a Reading Specialist at any point in my college career. I started reading when I was three, so OBVIOUSLY I knew everything about reading, right? Nope, not even close.
My second year of teaching, I was plunked into a Title I Intervention position in a K-8 school. I had cruised through “intervention” with my K-2 students, as at that age, they absorb pretty much everything. My work with struggling readers at the upper grade levels, many of whom were struggling with dyslexia, was an entirely different story.
As soon as I began working with 3rd-8th grade struggling readers, I realized there was SO MUCH that I didn’t understand. I wanted to help them, but had no idea where to start, as many were just too far behind. It was at this time that I began working on my Master’s Degree in Special Education, as solving this problem would require more knowledge and tools than I currently possessed, and I was determined to help these kids!
When I had initially started working with struggling readers at the upper grade levels, my first reaction was to blame every teacher that they had ever encountered in earlier grades. How could a sixth grader in a regular education classroom be reading at SECOND grade level?
Being in a small school at the time, I got to know each of those teachers. Every one of them had been frustrated with the same children—not knowing how to help them, but trying to do their best. They simply didn’t know how to get there.
It was then that I started down the path of blaming parents, society, and culture in general. That’s a bleak place to be. This disposition didn’t last long, as soon I had my own son—who in first grade had decided that he would rather cut holes in his shirt rather than learn how to read. He was interested only in things that had wheels or made noise—neither of which applied to the average book. And so, his “go-to” reading material was anything with “schematics” (think assembly instructions for a bookshelf with diagrams for pictures!)…at six years old!
While my son may have been perfectly fine with the “Encyclopedia of Cars” and “Build Your Own Bookshelf” directions, I had to have something to “read” with him that was at least a little more enjoyable. Thank God for the “Look Inside/See Inside” books, as they were our regular bedtime “stories.”
Accelerated Reading Intervention
After finishing my master’s degree and becoming a Reading Specialist, I understood the importance of beginning grade level screeners and various other forms of assessments used to identify vulnerable learners so as to catch them before they fall. Research shows that the ability to identify all of the letters and sounds by Halloween in kindergarten is a primary predictor of later student reading success. Yet, for many at-risk, or vulnerable learners, achieving letter sound skill mastery often extends well beyond the kindergarten year and into first grade—delaying instruction of critical first grade phonics skills.
While spending the entire kindergarten year mastering individual letters and sounds is not an uncommon practice in today’s classrooms, it is unnecessary, as brain science offers preferred pathways for learning that fast-track individual letter sound instruction. The Better Alphabet Song is a perfect example of how easy it can be to put science into practice, as it targets earlier-developing, muscle memory pathways for faster skill acquisition, rather than relying on under-developed, executive processing centers.
And this is only the beginning, as we can use brain science like a road map to “cheat the brain” into learning more complex, phonics skills as well! For example, the Secret about the Babysitter Vowels® makes sounding-out longer, multi-syllabic words easy, as it provides an instant “compass” to know whether vowels will be long or short. Watch the clip below to see how the Mommy E® strategy extends into higher-level Babysitter Vowels®.
I became obsessed with Secret Stories in my instructional practice because it got my kids exactly where they need to go quickly and efficiently, and it also confirmed what every good reading specialist already knows, which is that “time is of the essence!” The Secrets aren’t program for teaching the “reading,” but tools for teaching the READER!
The Science of Reading and the Brain
Current and traditional methods of reading and phonics instruction and intervention do not adequately make use of the brain science and are ineffective at successfully engaging the whole brain for enhanced memory and learning. Secret Stories drastically differs from traditional core reading and phonics programs in that it aligns instruction to work naturally with the brain, rather than in opposition to it. Secret Stories moves phonics instruction from brain-antagonistic to brain-compatible so that it makes sense to older students, who have long felt confused and left behind. It engages more neural pathways for deeper learning connections by introducing information to the brain from as many angles as possible. Secret Stories’ multi-sensory approach to learning is holistic and multidimensional, with more systems and modalities utilized that strengthen struggling learners’ ability to both receive and retrieve the information.
Weaving abstract letter sounds into stories makes them interesting, activating the brain’s positive emotional state and hooking the information into a strong memory template. In this way, learning is non-conscious and effortless, as high-leverage phonics skills are acquired through “backdoor” (social-emotional) learning channels that are more easily accessible. Additionally, cloaking phonics skills as “secrets” makes them important—something that all learners are curious about and want to know—making them meaningful and relevant, and therefore, easy to teach and learn.
Secret Stories accelerates access to ALL of the code-based, phonics skills that struggling learners need to read and write—regardless age or grade level. With its “backdoor-to-the-brain” approach, complex phonics patterns are made simple, as is the brain based process for teaching them. This makes Secret Stories one of the most highly effective, instructional tools available to educators and parents, alike.
For older, struggling learners who have tried so hard for so long, Secret Stories is the missing “piece” of the elusive reading-puzzle. Its “backdoor” approach re-ignites their interest, curiosity, and most importantly, their desire to unlock the mysteries of text!
Guest Blogger, Anna Hardway, M. Ed., is a 20-year educator and currently a consultant on various education topics such as Reading, Curriculum, Assessments and Development Strategy. She has worked inside public education, and has worked for Save the Children, as a Director of Programs for Early Literacy and Rural Education. She has also developed education recovery programs in the aftermath of disasters such as the Oklahoma Tornadoes of 2013, South Carolina Floods of 2015, West Virginia Floods of 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017. If you would like to reach her, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
How to Teach First Graders About Persuasive Writing
Teaching persuasive writing is not easy, and getting kids excited about doing it — especially first graders — is even harder! But not when there are leprechauns involved….
Now you might be thinking, “This lady is crazy! Look at that mess! Why would anyone purposely ransack their own classroom for the sake of a persuasive writing lesson?” And maybe you’re right. But in our little first grade classroom, reading and writing activities provide the perfect “playground” for adventures like these! Knowing the Secrets empowers my kiddos (many of whom are ELL) to read what they love and write the stories that they want to tell! And unlike average first graders midyear, they aren’t the least bit reliant on sight words to read and write, as they OWN the code!
My name is Renee McAnulty, and I am a first grade teacher at Cottonwood Elementary School in Hesperia California, and you may remember me from previous guest posts on Katie’s Blog.
Increasing Student Engagement with Persuasive Writing
I am that teacher who is constantly trying to come up with creative ways to get my kids completely engaged in our lessons. When it comes to teaching beginning readers and writers, the first (and most important) step is to ensure that they have the tools they need to read write with! And that’s not easy, given how little of the code (i.e. phonics skills) the average first grader has of the code at this point in first grade, as per the grade level scope and sequence in our reading series.
Add to that the constant pressure of trying to compete with video gaming, YouTube, high energy tv shows, etc., focusing students’ attention on reading and writing tasks can be challenging! My special recipe includes the “4C’s” — Creativity, Critical thinking, Collaboration, and Communication….along with a “sprinkling” of Secrets! Combining all of these ingredients has completely transformed what reading and writing looks like in our classroom. We have actually become so strong in our abilities, that we sometimes have to use writing to get ourselves out of sticky situations, like the one that happened last week.
Before I explain the chaos, keep in mind that we are first graders, and as such, we have very BIG imaginations!
—We believe in magic.
—We believe in fairies (and actually have one living in our classroom at the moment)
—We believe in elves (and host an Elf-exchange program with the North Pole each December)
—And we believe in leprechauns.
In fact, did you know that leprechauns are responsible for messing up classrooms all over the world? If you don’t believe me, Google it, as their mayhem is well-documented. This is why I had my munchkins create leprechaun traps. We even put on a “leprechaun exhibit” for the entire school to show off our creative traps, and to encourage others to do the same.
So, after making and setting our traps, we left them out overnight. When we returned to our classroom the next morning, it was pure chaos! The leprechauns had not only escaped from our traps, but they trashed our room, leaving us to clean up their mess…..and it was a BIG mess!
Still in shock, but with a full day of learning ahead of us and no time to waste, my little munchkins started cleaning the giant mess as fast as they could. Then, without any warnings, our principal entered the room (which I will admit, “may” have been pre-planned! ;-)
His face showed his shock….and his disappointment. How could these precious first graders, who love their school, treat their classroom like this? He was speechless. The kids immediately tried to explain what had happened, “We didn’t do it! It was the leprechauns!”
The look on his face said he was not buying it. (Our principal had some theatre training and is a very good actor!) The kids could tell that he was thinking, that WE really did this! They tried their best to explain, but to no avail.
Our principal is a very busy man, and he just doesn’t have time to listen to nonsense. However, despite his busy schedule, he is also very reasonable and very fair. So, he gives the kids their most important assignment to date, to explain to him, IN WRITING, why they are not responsible for the mess. If they can prove that the leprechauns were the real culprits by citing evidence and research, as well as the reasons that they believe that it was them who did this, then he might be convinced to believe us.
The kids wasted no time. They thanked him and then went to work cleaning the classroom. They un-flipped the tables, sharpened the pencils, and began writing.
Not Your Typical First Grade Writing
Now was not the time for, “How do you spell Leprechaun?”
Our reputation was on the line! It’s moments likes this when basic kid-writing simply with simple sight words just will not do. We were not going to be able to convince our principal that we were innocent with:
“I like leprechauns.”
“Leprechauns are cool!”
“I really really really like them.”
“Leprechauns are fun!”
Thankfully, we were armed with our Secret Stories and could write exactly what we wanted, no needed to say!
How incredible is that? We know how to write!
In fact, our writing is being requested by our principal!
Why? Because he can read it!
One of the many perks of kids knowing the letters’ “Secrets” is that they can not only read almost anything, they can write almost anything too! And so without any hesitation at all, the kids started to write….and write….and write.
Why did they write so much?
Because they could, and because it was fun!
This awesome (albeit messy) writing adventure was the perfect mixture of play, passion and skills! It wasn’t just fun, it was exciting! Who would think that words like these would ever be used to describe a first grade writing assignment?!!
Our First Grade Persuasive Writing
When the last of the writers finished up, I sent our class reps to the office to schedule a meeting with Mr. Mauger so that we could read our letters and plead our case. It was just after lunch that he called us in. The kids gave him their letters and showed him some of the research they had done online.
Then he read all of our letters.
After some persuasive conversation, our principal finally said that he believed us. The kids were so relieved, and so very proud that they had once again written their way out of another sticky situation! (You can read about our trauma over Rocky, the school mascot, here!)
When we got back to our classroom, we sat down and chatted about everything that had happened. I told them how proud I was of them. “Munchkins, because you are officially readers and writers! You wrote exactly what you wanted to say, and didn’t even have to ask me how to spell anything! You had the power and the confidence to write your own thoughts down on paper!” (A quick side note here— If you use Secret Stories, but don’t know about/use the “Zoo Keepers & M&M” strategy, you need to watch this and then download it NOW! It’s free, and really help kids understand that they must “capture” as many letters (and Secrets!) that they hear in the words they are trying to write. It’s a great tool for ensuring Secret Stories skill-transfer to writing. It also makes beginning writing much easier to read, and to enjoy! You can read more about writing with Secret Stories here.)
You might be thinking that such a huge production for a silly little writing lesson is unnecessary. And sure, I could have just passed out a worksheet with a couple of leprechauns on it and a few lines for writing, while listening to the sighs and moans as I explained what the writing topic was and how many sentences they “had to write” in order to be “done.”
The whole lesson probably would have taken no more than twenty minutes and then we could have moved on to something else….all the while keeping our classroom neat and clean! But where is the fun in that?
The truth is that by next year, these kids won’t even remember learning to read and write, just like they don’t remember how they learned to walk and talk. These are tasks that they perform automatically with no effort at all.
Reading and Writing Fluency
And this is my goal for them as readers and writers—that every day, they will become more fluent! They may not recall the actual learning process, but they will never forget the day that a crazed group of leprechauns tore up their classroom, and how they had to rely on their writing abilities to persuade the principal that they were innocent of the crime!
The Importance of Play in Learning
I hope you enjoyed this peek into our first grade persuasive writing adventure, and I hope it inspires you to infuse more “play” into reading and writing activities in your own classroom!
Secret Stories is the missing piece to our “1,000 piece” puzzle!
Weaving “play” into literacy learning is so critical at the early grade levels, and Secret Stories transforms every reading and writing experience into a virtual playground! The Secrets are are play as far as kids are concerned! They can’t stop talking about them and actively “hunt” for them in words throughout the day. They role-play their sound behaviors to get the sounds/spellings they need to read/write.
This may sound odd to those who don’t use the Secrets, but it almost feels like my class and I are on an endless vacation of reading and writing adventures! I say “vacation” because we’ve long since surpassed all of our “required” first grade reading level objectives—with most of the kids reading (and writing) far above grade level, and those who would normally struggle, performing strongly on-grade level.
Our little first grade classroom has become a reading and writing playground where deep learning and critical thinking opportunities abound! (I actually saw a video clip of a kindergarten teacher trying to explain the same thing, and it’s exactly the way that I feel.)
When kids know the Secrets, they “own the code” and have everything they need to read and write what they want. And this is so important, as standard curriculum leaves so many holes. Before I started using Secret Stories, my first graders struggled to read and write anything, aside from the sight words they had memorized.
Teachers need tools, and so do kids! It drives me crazy when I hear teachers who are struggling to teach their kids their kids to read that they “don’t have time for one more thing!”
The Secrets aren’t one more thing. They are EVERYTHING that kids need to read and write, and everything that teachers need to teach them how to do it. They answer all of the questions about why letters make the sounds that they do when “jump off our alphabet chart and into the real words” that we see every day.
Kids can’t help but ask “Why?” anytime they spot Secrets in a word they cannot read. They literally “beg” to hear them, and this is when you realize that you are no longer driving the learning train. The kids are. They have taken over and are seated squarely in the driver’s seat and leading the way in their own learning!
We have time to relax and take literacy lessons to new heights that were never possible before in first grade. I know I sound like a broken record when I say that I cannot imagine teaching in a world without Secret Stories, and when I look back, I honestly have no idea how I ever did.
(a.k.a.”Mrs. Mac’s Munchkins”)
PS I wanted to share a quick “techie-tool” that we use to tie in our technology component, called Flipgrid. The kids recorded themselves reading their letters to Mr. Mauger, and then he recorded his response. The kids love it, and we can even share the links with our parents!
And here is a rough screen recording of one of my littles reading her letter to Mr. Mauger along with his response. (The sound isn’t great, as the kids were all recording at the same time and so there is a lot of background noise.)
What Dyslexia Isn’t…
As promised, I’ve asked reading specialist, Heather Vidal, to come back and shed more light on dyslexia, what it is, and more importantly, what it isn’t—despite the common misconceptions. If you are a new subscriber, or if you missed Heather’s previous guest post about how she uses Secret Stories® in conjunction with Orton-Gillingham to meet the needs of her dyslexic students, you can read it here.
I would like to preface Heather’s post by addressing the recent debate on use of the term “dyslexia” and its efficacy as a diagnosis for struggling readers, along with the International Dyslexic Association’s definition of dyslexia—
“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”
Dyslexia and the Brain
A diagnosis of dyslexia can help to shed light on a reader’s struggles and identify the best form of intervention. There is a wide gap between what we know about the brain and how we teach kids to read, and that the most critical variable in effective K-2 literacy instruction is early intervention by way of teacher knowledge and expertise.
It is vital that teachers know about and understand the brain science so as to properly align instruction with the basic tenets of brain based learning, particularly in regard to what research shows is the weakest link in our reading and writing instruction—teaching phonics.
A Guest Post by Heather Vidal, Orton-Gillingham Reading Specialist
Katie has graciously invited me to share more about what dyslexia is (and isn’t!) and why the Secret Stories® method works within a curriculum for dyslexic students. You can read my other post here) As a reading specialist, private tutor and curriculum developer who works specifically with dyslexic students learning to read, I often get questions about what dyslexia is, but it’s actually easier to explain what Dyslexia is not.
What Dyslexia Is NOT
- Dyslexia does not mean that students read entire words or sentences backwards.
While some dyslexic students do flip letters and transverse words, this is not the only sign of dyslexia, and some dyslexic students don’t do this at all.
- Dyslexia is not a sign of low IQ.
In fact, many children diagnosed with dyslexia are found to have higher than average IQ’s. Dyslexia is not correlated with IQ, but a difference in the way a dyslexic person’s brain works.
- Dyslexia cannot be outgrown.
With the proper instructional approach, students can become excellent readers. However, this does not mean that they no longer have dyslexia.
- Dyslexia is not rare.
While numbers vary, the International Dyslexia Association has found that between 15-20% of people have some degree of Dyslexia.
Using Secret Stories® to Fast-Track Orton Gillingham Instruction
So what does all this have to do with Secret Stories®?
At one of the first trainings I took regarding the Orton-Gillingham approach, the trainer explained dyslexia like this—
“Imagine comparing a page of text to a brick wall. An efficient reader can see the mortar in between each brick (letter sound) and the different color variations that each brick possesses (the possibilities of letter sounds). If you were dyslexic, you would know you were looking at a wall, but segmenting each brick would be very difficult.”
Dyslexia can manifest in many ways, but all of these ways come back to students having difficulty reading and spelling (and most often, segmenting words into individual sounds.) Since dyslexia is classified as a neurobiological learning disability, the best way to help dyslexic learners is to utilize instructional methods that are compatible with the way the brains works.
Dyslexia is classified as a learning disability that causes students to struggle with fluency, word recognition, and poor decoding and encoding skills (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003, p. 2). Seventy plus years of research has shown that the best way to help dyslexic kids learn to read is to employ a multi-sensory, phonics and linguistics based approach to reading instruction that offers continuous feedback.
All of these tenets are compatible with Orton-Gillingham and Secret Stories approach, but using the two together (in my opinion) is the best way to help students with dyslexia learn to read well. Secret Stories activates the brain’s earlier-developing social and emotional systems for learning (i.e. the brain’s “back-door”) and provides students with meaningful connections to all of the foundational phonics skills covered in an Orton-Gillingham based curriculum.
Differences Between Secret Stories® and OG
When speaking with Katie a few days ago, she shared some of the questions she receives from teachers asking about the differences between the Orton-Gillingham and Secret Stories methods, so for those who are interested, I’ve made this handy chart of the two reading/phonics programs/tools.
By applying a brain based approach to reading instruction through the combined use of these two powerful teaching tools, teachers can reach not only dyslexic students, but all students who struggle with learning to read—providing more meaningful (and fun) ways to learn!
For more information about dyslexia, visit The International Dyslexia Association.
Heather MacLeod Vidal is a Orton-Gillingham certified reading specialist and curriculum writer for Treetops Educational Interventions in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Lyon, G.R., Shaywitz, S.E., & Shaywitz, B.A. (2003). Defining dyslexia, comorbidity, teachers’ knowledge of language and reading. Annals of Dyslexia, 53, 1-14.
I am so grateful to Heather for taking the time to share her insight and expertise! If you have any questions or comments for Heather, you can leave them in the comments below and she or I would be happy to answer them.
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