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….

decoding sight words with phonics skills

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!

phonics sound wall posters

“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!

science of reading aligned phonics instruction

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,
Katie

Secret Stories Phonics Blocks

Teaching is not a profession for the weak.  It is a profession that you have to feel in your bones and your soul.  You have to wake up in the morning and know that you are going to make a difference in a child’s life by getting up and going to work.

The dedication and commitment it takes to be a teacher in today’s school system is not like it was when I graduated 32 years ago.  School systems are asking more than we can give, yet teachers find ways to keep giving.  That is because we know that the best has yet to come.  This is why I get up each day and I show up for my students.  I know that MY best day of teaching has yet to come. MY best year of teaching has yet to come!  I will continue to grow and learn and get better because that is what I do as a teacher.  I do what it takes for my students to succeed.  I want my retirement year of teaching to be MY best year of teaching!

The Best is Yet to Come
by Sheryl Nicholson, Kindergarten Teacher

Post-Covid Kindergarten in May
In the spring of 2021, after a crazy year of COVID shut-downs, I was preparing my lesson plans for the week and looking for a good YouTube video on blending CVC words because my students were really struggling with this skill, Somehow I clicked on a video of Katie Garner talking about the Secret Stories.

SIX HOURS LATER, I’d binge-watched everything I could get my hands on about the Secret Stories on Katie’s Youtube Channel. In a nutshell, the Secrets are short brain-based stories that explain the sounds letters make when they get together, with posters to help kids remember for independent reading and writing. They make phonics accessible by connecting skills to what kids already know (i.e. having a crush, not getting along, playing rough and getting hurt, being sneaky, listening to your mom or babysitter, etc.).

Everything made so much more sense, including why my students were still struggling with blending simple CVC words. If the only sounds they knew were the ones letters make individually, then CVC words were all they could read, and these words were the least likely to be encountered throughout the day.

That’s because most words we came across contained phonics patterns that we hadn’t learned yet and wouldn’t for at least one or two more grade level years in first and second grade. I was starting to understand why Katie said in the video that it’s actually  especially when we don’t have to. 
So with only six weeks left in the school year, I began frantically texting my teammate, and after a little arm-twisting, convinced her to jump in with me and start telling Secrets!

Sound Walls for Independent Reading & Writing

The more I learned about Secret Stories, the more excited I was to get them, and after waiting for what seemed like FOREVER, they came! We immediately laminated the posters and put them all up to make a sound wall that kids could use to help remember the new “secret” sounds they would be learning

phonics sound wall

I joined the Secret Facebook Group and found so many great ideas from other teachers on how to get started! I even found a cute idea posted in the free group files to create a “secret” cover for the section of my Secret Stories book that contained the Secrets!

secret phonics code book

Now we were ready to go!
Granted, we only had about six weeks of school left in the year, but I wanted to see if there was truly “magic” in these Secrets.

Having no clue where to start at the almost END of this school year, I just jumped in. The first “secret” I saw was in our school name, Lovejoy. So, Sneaky Y was the one that we started with, and I made a big deal about it being a grown-up reading “secret” that kids weren’t supposed to know. I even made them go and check the hallway to make sure that no one would hear! Then they all gathered around  on the carpet and I told the secret about WHY /y/ was so sneaky, as well as the sounds he could make. THEY ATE IT UP!!!!  After that one, we literally blew through the rest of the Secrets! They spotted them everywhere—in books, on the walls, in read alouds, at home…there was no escaping them!

The biggest change I saw was in their writing. They went from almost completely “inventive” spelling to using the secret phonics patterns.

Their confidence just soared with these new phonics tools under their belt.  The only downside was the short time we had remaining to use them since our first grade teachers didn’t have them. So before school ended, I made each student a Secret Stories key chain (with the Secret “Take-Home” Tags on Tpt) to review during the summer.

Phonics Brag Tags

Needless to say, word got around about these things called the “Secrets” and soon the other kindergarten teachers in our district wanted in on the action.  At the end of the school year, we found a foundation that awards grants to teachers through a rigorous proposal process. It’s highly competitive, so in order to stand out, your proposal must be creative. So we decided to incorporate the Secrets into our grant proposal with a mock Zoom call. It was a huge success and we were able to get Secret Stories for all nine kindergarten classrooms at our school!

Instant Speech to Print Connections for Beginning Reading & Writing

By the end of that school year, my mind was already racing with ideas for the next school year, and how I could make teaching the Secrets even better for my kindergartners.  I found the Secret Sound Stickers and these were the seeds for a million ideas!

phonics stickers

I knew that I wanted to start introducing the Secrets in August, but wasn’t sure how to do that since most of my students wouldn’t even know the names of the letters yet. We could sing the Better Alphabet Song to fast-track mastery of the individual letters and sounds, but in order for kids to actually USE them to read or write anything, they would also need to know the phonics Secrets.

I am a firm believer in teaching smarter, not harder. I thought about the things that I already do and how I could incorporate Secret Stories into them.

Secret Stories Phonics Stickers

Phonics Secrets in My Name
At the beginning of each school year, I make All About Me posters for each one of my students.  I send a form home at “Meet The Teacher” before school starts that parents and students fill out and return to me.  Then I make a personalized poster for each student and every day we highlight one.

Spotlighting the phonics Secrets in student names is a perfect way to introduce them. Why teach kids how to just “recognize” their names when they can use the Secrets to actually READ them? Not only did knowing the Secrets in their names  help to make sense of the sounds that the letters were making, it was also a personal way for kids to take ownership of the phonics skills.  As different phonics Secrets were introduced, we would add the small red cards (from the back of the Secret Stories book) to our pocket chart to keep track of them.

phonics cards

I even grouped students with the same phonics Secrets in their names together as I shared their posters.  For instance, I introduced everyone whose name had just one Secret, then I introduced those with a Mommy E in their name, and then I introduced those whose names started with the same blend, etc… This took about 4-5 weeks, but it was a perfect pace to introduce about 30 Secrets in 25 days or so.

 phonics patterns in names   phonics sounds in names

Here’s one of my little ones explaining the phonics Secrets in her friend Crew’s name. (The only thing they loved more than learning how to read and write their own name was learning how to read and write the names of their friends!)

I also made cards for all of the high-frequency “sight” words and used the digital stickers to make the phonics sounds in them more accessible by showing the  connection in a concrete way.

decoding sight words

First we would read the words with the Secret phonics sound EMBEDDED; then we read them with the Secrets phonics sound up ABOVE; and finally we read them just the LETTERS for gradual release from the Secrets.

Sight Wordsdecoding sight word cardslearning sight words

The sound stickers were such a game-changer for my students that I began sharing what I was doing with other teachers in the Secret Facebook Group.  It was there that I discovered that the Decoding Sight Words with Phonics Secrets project was well underway! So at Katie’s request along with Shelley Mahn, we created a teaching tool to help show the connections between the so-called “sight words” kids need to know and the phonics Secrets they need to actually READ them! (I made the video to show exactly how we use it.)

One Secret is Worth a Hundred Words
In past years, I would have introduced just 1-2 sight words a week, and by the end of the year, I would have introduced all the required words for kindergarten.

NOT THIS YEAR! I was able to give my students ALL 35 of the first semester words at once.  They immediately noticed that they had the same phonics Secrets in them that were in their names and loved seeing which words they “shared” Secrets with!

I literally spread the pile of words all over our floor and let the kids just walk around and talk about what they saw. The first thing they noticed was which ones had similar Secrets. For example, words like: at, an, and, can, etc… all shared the short /a/ Secret and so they wanted to group them together, just as they’d done with their names.

sorting sight words with phonics secrets

After laying out all of the Secret Stories Flashcards and sorting all the words, we discovered that only 3 of the 35 words actually had to be memorized as “heart words,” as the rest were all easily decodable!

It was so powerful to see these beginning kindergarten readers realize that this giant stack of unknown words wasn’t so scary, as they could already read them!

We continued doing the same sorting activities with these words that we had done with our names before adding them alongside on our Secret Sound Wall. (Note: The names and words were only displayed on our Secret Story sound posters temporarily to illustrate the connection between the Secret phonics patterns and the sounds they make in words. Once these concrete connections between sound and print were made clear, the Secret Stories posters were all they needed to read and spell throughout the day.)

By the end of kindergarten, we’d not only gone through all of our kindergarten words, but first grade’s list too! When kids own the code, kids can read ANY word, regardless of which grade level list they’re on….and that’s why Secret Stories make all the difference!

Look for part 2 of  Sheryl’s post to come soon….
THE BEST IS YET TO COME!

sheryl teacher of the year

Sheryl Nicholson is a kindergarten teacher in Allen, Texas and is an active member of the Science of Reading Meets the Science of Learning Secret Stories® Facebook Group. She will be sharing more in “part 2” of her blog soon, so stay tuned!

FREE Block Templates for More “Speech to Print” Phonics Fun

Download this free Secret Stores® Block template from the “Files” section of the Secret Facebook Group, Science of Reading Meets Science of Learning (Just look for the “Files” tab at the top of the group page.)

Secret Stories Phonics Blocks

And for “ready-made” Secret Stories® SoR-based phonics fun,  check out the Secret Stories® Phonics Centers for Phoneme Grapheme FUN.

A guest post by Elizabeth George, a mother and “unexpected homeschool teacher” to a neurodiverse first grader with Autism.  

Phonics Flip Book

 

Teaching Neurodiverse Learners

Dyslexia, Autism, ADHD and More

I am the parent of a neurodiverse child, which means that my child’s brain is wired differently. This causes him to think, learn and sometimes behave differently. This catchall phrase, “wired differently,” includes everything from ADHD or learning disabilities (like dyslexia), to children who are gifted or autistic. It’s a term used to describe kids who move through the world in a less typical way.

If you’re like me and have a child whose brain is differently wired, you may have found yourself unexpectedly homeschooling during the pandemic. No sooner had we learned how to navigate special education advocacy, than our focus had to shift to the actual educating. Neither I, my husband, or our children knew for how this was going to go on. I’m not going to lie, it was a steep learning curve for all of us, but it was one we had to climb for my amazingly resilient, curious, anxious and autistic first grade son.

In kindergarten, it became apparent that dyslexia was mixed into our son’s learning profile. An education that began with a team of seven special education teachers, support professionals and trained therapists, was now down to just his father and me, along with my parents, who also live with us. Now, upon finding myself unexpectedly and solely responsible for the monumental task of teaching my struggling reader, I went to the experts. I read, watched, and listened to everything I could for several hours each night. What I found was that several years ago, there had been a “reading war” that no one had won. However, proponents of both sides (Whole Language and Phonics) did appear to have come to a truce, and that truce was known as Balanced Literacy.

Both sides, those advocating “phonics” (decoding letter sounds) and those advocating “whole language” (learning whole words by sight) seemed to make good points, and so in my confusion, I contacted the Education Department at the University of Texas. (Note to Special Needs Parents: Universities offer tons of free resources and training courses as part of their research. I’ve taken the Behavioral Tech certificate training for applied behavioral analysis (ABA), communication training for Speech therapists, and much more all for free. Google search your local university’s Education, Special Education, Child Development, Neuroscience, and Psychology Departmental Studies, which are usually listed on each Department page website.)

The Science of Reading

As it turned out, the University of Texas was doing a study on reading for kids with learning differences. Unfortunately, my son was too young to be eligible. I asked for an exception, but the professor in charge gave me access to his doctoral students to ask questions and find out about the most effective resources, instead. Lost and worried, I scheduled a call and received excellent direction from an amazingly sweet doctoral student in the UT’s Special Education Program. I was advised to evaluate of the effectiveness of any program based on whether it was aligned with the “Science of Reading,” a term I had never heard. So deep into the rabbit hole I went, researching everything I could find…and I’ll save you the weeks and/or months of research by giving you the following terms to speed your search:

Science of Reading
Scarborough’s Reading Rope
Simple View of Reading
Florida Center for Reading Research
National Reading Panel
Multisensory Instruction
Orton-Gillingham Curriculum
Phonemic Awareness
Orthographic Mapping

If your child’s brain is wired differently (ASD, ADHD, SPD, dyslexic, etc.) or if they are disabled, then you know that what works for most neurotypical children may not work for yours. The other sad fact is that there are many so-called “cures” and “quick-fixes” being advertised to parents of special needs learners. Most of us have fallen for one or more of these ads for apps, programs, books, diets, supplements etc.., promising speech gains, reading improvement, better focus, reduced meltdowns, and the like. For special needs parents, finding truly effective resources for your child is like finding the proverbial “needle in the haystack.”

After purchasing a few different programs and curriculum, I was running out of patience and money….AND MY KID STILL COULDN’T READ. What’s worse, practicing all of these different programs with him had become a nightmare, and if I’m honest, our relationship was suffering. There is nothing worse for a parent than watching your child struggle and not knowing how to make it better.

In an attempt to find out why nothing I did was working, I started reading what teachers were posting in Facebook groups, like The Science of Reading – What I Should Have Learned in College. Surely, if anyone knows about reading, it’s teachers, right? Time and time again, they suggested the Secret Stories to jump-start reading, especially for beginning and struggling readers. They were very clear that while Secret Stories was only one piece of the reading puzzle, it was an extremely important one—which was giving kids easier access to more of the phonics code, faster.

Secret Stories Phonics on Facebook
In fact, the Secret Stories came up so often that I had to find out what it was, and see whether it might be the piece that my child was missing… or, if yet again, it was something that worked only for neurotypical kids. So I found the Secret Stories Facebook Group and  watched some of Katie Garner’s conference presentations on YouTube and within 30 minutes, I was hooked. No, not hooked…I was INSPIRED! (Katie is the creator of Secret Stories and she presents at conferences around the world, many of which are posted on YouTube.)

So, I proceeded to watch every YouTube video associated with her name to learn everything that I could, but it still had to pass the “taste” test by the boss—my very intelligent and anxious autistic son. By this point, he’d been through three different reading programs….and lots of tears. After so much failure and anxiety (his and mine), I gave him just a taste of one Secret Story. I told him the “secret” about the letters that were “in love,” which are au/aw. This one that I’d heard Katie tell so many times in the videos I’d watched and the image was also free to download on the website. I presented it just as Katie had explained, telling my son that I had a “big, grown-up Secret about reading,” and I really played it up, copying all of Katie’s acting gold!

HE….WAS…HOOKED!!

au aw phonics vowel pair

“Mom, are there more?”

Now if you’re a parent of a differently wired kiddo, then you know how extremely amazing it is to get your kid’s full attention with anything on the first try…we’re talking out the gate, pure interest! He actually said, “Mom, are there more?” I almost cried, but that wasn’t part of the script, so I held it together. Then cool as a cucumber, I told him that I’d check, but because these were “grown-up” reading Secrets, he may not be big enough yet to learn more, and so I would have to ask the Secret Stories teacher first. ;-)

The rest of the day, we circled the aw/au in every word that we found it, even food labels! Everywhere we saw those letters, we would use the secret to sound-out (decode) the words. The biggest win wasn’t just that my son remembered the phonics sound through the story, but that he was actually able to apply it…. AND enjoy doing it!!!

Excited about this turn of events, I staged my next test, which was to sing The Better Alphabet Song. I had heard Katie explain in the videos that the Better Alphabet isn’t really a song, but a muscle memory exercise that fast-tracks mastery of the individual letters and sounds in 2 weeks to 2 months. Rather than relying on under-developed “higher-level” cognitive processing for skill mastery (which typically takes a year in kinder), the Better Alphabet targets earlier-developing (and more easily accessible) muscle memory pathways (in the lips, tongue and teeth) to connect the letter names to their sounds and take them in fast. My son had already been working on learning the individual letters sounds for years now, so what’s two more months?

So, I set my plan up, telling my son that if we learned the letter sounds with the Better Alphabet, that would surely prove to the “Secret Teacher” that she could trust us with the rest of the Secrets. Honestly, as I’m typing this, I can’t believe it happened, but he BEGGED me to watch/sing it—over and over and over again. One week later, he had all of the individual letters and sounds down pat! And then he immediately started asking me if the teacher had sent the Secrets yet. That was it, I was sold. I ordered the Decorative Squares Kit and I was ready to live, eat and breathe these Secrets! This was what success looked like, and we could both taste it!

Homeschool Struggling Reader Autistic

(Note: The Decorative Square posters are actually part of the classroom kit, but if you don’t have the wall space to put up all of the big posters, you can get the Parent/Home Bundle instead, as it’s made specifically for home use.)

For perspective, I should share that I actually have two sons, and that my “neurotypical” four year old is just along for the ride, singing and watching the Better Alphabet on video along with his brother. That said, after two weeks, my four year old didn’t just know the letter sounds, he was using them to sound out three letter CVC words (i.e. cat, bit, dog, mom, dad, etc..). My mind was blown! I hadn’t even tried to start teaching him yet, aside from just reading to him. I was ecstatic about BOTH their progress, and now all of us were stalking the mailbox, waiting for our “Top Secret” Secret Stories book!

A “Backdoor” for Learning

Up to this point, I’d accumulated all of the ingredients that I needed to teach my son to read except the Secret Stories. I had Orton-Gillingham SPIRE Curriculum (since Secret Stories is not a “program”), Heggerty (for phonemic awareness, since isolating sounds in words was a particular weakness for my son), Usborne Books (for background knowledge, since kids can’t comprehend what they have no knowledge about), and even some extra “sprinkles” on top in the form of the Magic School Bus Science Club and Usborne Coding for Beginners with SCRATCH. But without the Secret Stories, these ingredients just wouldn’t “bake,” and my kids didn’t want to eat it. Knowing the Secrets gave them access to phonics skills in a way that their brains were ready to hear and understand.

The Secrets bypass the struggle. They are not magic, and Katie is not an actual unicorn (although it feels like she is!) She just uses neuroscience to carve a path for learning to read that goes straight through the brain’s backdoor, bypassing obstacles that many learners face when forced through the traditional “front”—especially those like my son.

social emotional learning

As Katie explains in this video clip, the brain develops from back to front—with higher-level, executive functioning/ processing centers taking far longer to develop than the early-developing “feeling” based networks. Like so many kids who are wired differently, my son’s executive functioning (which is what Katie calls the “front door”) is impaired. He struggles with the order of things, multi-step instructions, short term and working memory, auditory processing deficits, knowing left from right, and more. But the Secrets don’t rely on the front door like traditional phonics programs do.

 

phonics for dyslexics

 

Instead, they bypass executive functioning and attach to already existing frameworks of understanding—the part of his brain that knows how it feels to get hurt,
“Owwww!”….

ou ow vowel teams phonics

…..that understands why to stick his tongue out at his little brother when he’s being annoying, “Thhhh!”

….and that knows all about Superheroes, and that they are often in-disguise!

superhero vowels

The Secrets align letter behavior with kid behavior to make their sounds easily predictable. But here’s the interesting part, my son has a hard time predicting the behaviors of his neurotypical classmates and peers, so how could he predict these complex letter behaviors if they acted the same? The answer is, they don’t. In the Secret Stories, the behaviors are fixed, and this is comforting for him…. au/aw are always in love and say “ahhhhh”…. ou/ow always play rough and get hurt, “owwww!”…. and /th/ never gets along and always stick out their tongues and say, “thhhhhh!”

And for the rare times that the letters don’t behave as expected, there is always a “next most likely” sound option to try, based on the story. It gives him comfort to know that when letters don’t make the sounds they’re supposed to, it’s because there’s a secret in the word, and that it’s the letters that are misbehaving—it’s not because he is wrong or failing. That’s a huge shift for him, and it goes a long way in reducing his anxiety. Now he has a stress-free way to figure out the words.

Just two months into our Secret Stories journey, and my son went from struggling to sound out the word C-A-T, to reading the entire Usborne early reader series. He’s gone from tears and meltdowns at just the sight of a book, to reading an entire early reader to our whole family at the dinner table—WITH PRIDE! Now he’s noticing Secrets in words that are everywhere, and he’s even making up his own, like this one…. “E and X are wonderful friends, and when they are at the front of the line, E loans X his superpower so X can say his name, in words like: exit, exceptional & excellent!”

With each new Secret, his reading and spelling power continues to grow. The Secrets have given him access to the reading code in a way that systematic phonics drills could not. They reframe the structured literacy lessons in our OG program in a fun, multisensory way that he can easily remember. They make words understandable and “figure-out-able,” and he delights in the idea that he’s privy to the “grown-up” reading secrets! And at this point, our whole family is in on the act, with grandma deserving an Oscar for her portrayal of the “Excited Secret Stories Receiver!” ;-)

At the time of this writing, we are now a full FIVE months in, and he continues to amaze me with his progress. After reading the Writing Revolution, I started using stem sentences to reinforce learning other subject areas. For example,  Butterflies are amazing because…. Butterflies are amazing so….. Butterflies are amazing but…. and because of all the Secrets he knows, not only can he read the stems, but he can sound out all of the words that he wants to write on his own. He can use the Secret Stories posters independently to find the sounds (for reading) or the phonics spelling patterns (for writing) that he needs.

 

The ability to work independently is huge. When he was in school, he needed direct supervision and assistance to complete everything: coloring, art, workshops, etc…  An adult had to sit with him and help him write every word, as he owned none of the code. Now he owns all of it, and the Secrets are his to play with and use as HE chooses to express his thoughts and ideas. No longer is he just copying random words from a word wall, or waiting for someone else to tell him what to write. That ownership is critical to his academic self-esteem, and it constantly reinforces for him what I knew all along, that HE IS CAPABLE!

His Tools for Reading and Writing

Knowing the Secrets has done so much for him. He uses them to decode new vocabulary words in all of our subject area lessons, including one the life cycle of butterflies.
butterfly lifecycle

kindergarten writing butterflies autistic

 

He uses his them to write birthday cards, and to read his own birthday message written on the sidewalk (He even underlined the Secrets he used to read it!)

kindergarten writing autism
sidewalk phonics writing kindergarten

 

He used the them to write about the plan he made for our new garden.Phonics Writing about Gardening

Kindergarten Writing Autism

He uses them to advocate for what he wants.
kindergarten writing

He even uses them to write a love letters to friends that he misses.phonics for writing in kindergarten

 

And while he loves to use the Secrets to write what he wants, he enjoys building words and practicing spelling with the Secret Stories Digital Stickers.  While they can be used digitally, we printed ours out, cut them apart, and then put magnet stickers on the back. BAM! A low-pressure spelling game that he can use to build words without the added pressure of writing. We use these instead of letter tiles for all our spelling activities!

Secret Stories Phonics StickersPhonics Homeschool Reading

Phonics for Homeschool Reading

We even used them to make little flip books to reinforce the Secrets and practice decoding words.

Phonics Flip Book

Equal Access to ALL of the Phonics Code

Just like a ramp provides access to buildings for those who need it, Secret Stories provides access to reading for kids who need it, making them the most impactful accommodation on any 504 or IEP learning plan. The Secrets gave my son access equal access to the whole phonics code he needed to read and write.

Perhaps I’m a just pessimist, but I used to believe that there was a limit to the gains my son could make, and that even the Secrets would only get him so far. But now, honestly, I know that the sky’s the limit.

If I could go back in time and tell myself just one thing to do on that terrifying day that our school shut down and I became an unexpected homeschooler, it would be to find Katie Garner and the Secret Stories. These were the missing ingredients that my son needed to learn how to read.

Elizabeth George

 

Phonics Fun

A guest post by first grade teacher, Karrie Kehrig.

Teacher Overwhelm

It was the first week of October, and even though school hadn’t started until the end of August, I was already feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

As a hybrid classroom for distance learning, I have 22 students in person and 7 online, and teaching both groups well is anything but easy. We were only a few weeks into this school year when I experienced one of those special “teacher-moments” when you know that you’re doing something that is perfectly right and you can’t help but to smile! I’ll come back to this in just a bit, but first, a little background…..

This year is my 21st year teaching, though I took ten years off in the middle of my career to raise my three children. I began teaching in the late 1980s when whole language was all the rage, though I had grown up in Catholic schools where phonics was the focus. I have seen and lived through both sides of the teaching debate and the resulting “Reading Wars” over what works best when it comes to teaching reading.

Fast forward to the 2012 State Reading Conference….
If you’ve never been to a reading conference before, then you should know that you’re usually just hoping for a few nights away to clear your mind, and maybe one or two good ideas that you can bring back to use in your classroom. However that year, the Michigan Reading Conference changed my life forever.

If They Don’t Know the Phonics Secrets, How Can They Read the Words?

I will never forget that day. I was walking around trying to decide what speaker to go see, when I noticed a room jam-packed with people. I told my friend that we needed to go and see what all the excitement was about.

I walked in and Katie Garner was on the stage, talking about how au & aw were “in love,” and how they got so embarrassed when they had to stand together in words, they always put their heads down and said, “Awwwwww….” (as in:  saw, paw, cause, August, etc…) Katie further explained that this was a “grown-up reading secret,” and then she said something that really struck me, which was “If kids don’t know the phonics secrets, how can they read the words?”

phonics stories dyslexic

The more Katie talked, the more everything made sense to me. I just kept listening as she shared information about early brain development, and how the earlier-developing, emotional part of the brain could be easily accessed and “tricked” into remembering phonics skills through social-emotional (feeling-based) stories, especially “secret” stories!  This was really intriguing to me, as was the idea of being able to make sense of letter sounds and phonics for my students.

Everyone in Katie’s session was given a free download pack with the anchor posters and activities used in the session. That was great, but I wanted all of it, so as soon as I got home, I immediately bought the Secret Stories Kit so that I could start using it in my classroom.

Looking at Words vs. Reading Them

When I first started using Secret Stories, I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t listen to Katie and only put up a few posters, as I just didn’t think that I would have time to teach them all. We have a reading series AND a phonics program, as well as writing, math, science and social studies curriculums that we have to follow, so my initial plan was to just use the Secret Stories as yet another curriculum. Oh boy, was I ever wrong!!

Secret Stories Phonics Posters

I quickly realized that the more Secrets I shared, the more words my kids could read and write on their own, and that the more they knew, the more they wanted to know! This was eye-opening for me, as I now understood why Katie was so adamant in the book about putting up ALL of the posters up on Day 1. We are working with words all day long across all areas of the curriculum, and the Secrets are IN those words! If kids don’t know the Secrets, how can they read the words?!

Typically in kindergarten and first grade, we just look at the words and say them, as we don’t actually expecting the kids to read them.

For example, we look at and say the words on our daily calendar every day, but kids aren’t actually reading them. How could they when in words like August, the letter /A/ is making the short /o/ sound, or in words like: January, May, July and Monday, the letter /y/ is making every sound other than the one that kids actually know? And so, we just point to the words and say them.

But where’s the instructional value in just looking at words day in and day out, or even worse, in all of the time we spend memorizing words because kids don’t know how to read them? When you can’t read the words, looking and memorizing are the only options, especially for beginning grade learners who don’t even know all of the letter sounds.

Phonics Instruction that Makes Sense

But with the Secrets, I can just tell a story about au/aw being in love in the word August, or about Sneaky Y® and the sounds he makes when he’s at the end of a word (as in: July, May & January) and thinks no one will see him!

All I have to do is tell a Secret and my five and six year olds instantly understand WHY the letter /y/ makes the many different sounds that it does, and not just on our calendar, but in every other word that they see….all day long!

Why wouldn’t I tell them the Secrets?
Especially since our daily calendar provides a perfect “built-in” opportunity to practice using them in a familiar context, so it’s a win-win! And likewise in math, social studies, and even at lunch! Text is everywhere….and so are the Secrets!

Once you start seeing them, you can’t stop….and your students can’t either! They will start finding them everywhere in every subject area across the entire instructional day and even at home! My kids point them out all the time– in math problems, science and social studies lessons, and even religious studies (as I teach at a Catholic School). We find Secrets in everything we do ALL day long.

Check out some of the Sneaky Y® words that one student found in his story with (which can be with any text).

Don’t Wait for the Reading Series or Phonics Program to Teach It

By putting up ALL of the posters, I was able to explain the sounds of letters in words that we see everyday, long before our reading series formally introduced them. This was a huge timesaver, especially since words like play and they were on our Week #1 sight word list, but the ey/ay phonics skill needed to read them wasn’t supposed to be introduced (by our reading series) until mid-January. That meant countless hours, weeks, and months of instructional time that would have typically been spent memorizing these words was now spent reading them….plus many more!

This realization that I didn’t have to “wait” until mid-January to teach the ey/ay Secret that my kids needed now was huge! By not waiting on the reading series to teach the Secret, my students were actually able to make better use of it—as now they could actually read it! They were finding the Secrets in every story, and they were so excited!

I really enjoy using Secret Stories with our reading series, not only because kids could actually read the stories that were in it, but because it provided endless opportunities to introduce more Secrets while reinforcing the ones they already knew. It also allowed me to shift instructional focus to comprehension strategies, as students were no longer overwhelmed with memorizing and decoding.

More than anything, I began to realize what a huge disservice I’d done to my students that first year by holding back so many Secrets and waiting for my reading series to introduce them. But we live and learn, and when we know better, we do better….which brings me back to October.

long a phonics sound

This is Cecilia’s writing from October, which was only about one month into the school year. It not only made me smile, but it showed me that despite all of the overwhelming stress I was feeling, there was at least ONE thing I was doing perfectly right!

The Phonics Code Kids Need to Read and Write

We were working on the short /e/ sound, and Cecilia needed to write a sentence with a short /e/ word in it. She did that, and so much more!

Not only did she spell the word wet correctly (Thank you Better Alphabet™ Song!), she was able to use the ey/ay Secret (these letters are just too cool, like Fonzie, and always stick up their thumbs and say, “Ayyyyyyyeeeee!“) to build the word rayn, too!

Even though the spelling isn’t technically correct (as she didn’t know the Secret for /ai/ yet), Cecilia “owned” enough of the phonics code to write the word that she wanted….and this was so much more exciting to me than the fact that she spelled the word wet correctly!

You see, my class learned about the ey/ay Secret in the first week of school when the word “play” came up in a story. Unlike my first year, I didn’t wait to tell it until mid-January when our reading series introduced it. Instead, I took advantage of the first opportunity I had, and I used that teachable moment to give my students a valuable piece of the code they would need to read and write every day. And use it they did.

Cecilia’s writing shows that she is starting to “play” with the critical sound-symbol (“speech to print”) connections that are the foundation for all reading and writing. She hears the long /a/ sound in the word rain, and she knows a Secret that she can use to convert that sound to print. With each new Secret she learns, her power as a reader and writer grows. She is able to make sense of the sounds letter make in words all around her, in books and on billboards. Text is everywhere, and she’s reading it!

This is such a tremendous accomplishment for a first grader at the beginning of October, and there is no doubt in my mind that as Cecilia learns more Secrets and gains more text experience, she will spell rain with /ai/ and not /ay/…… but for now though, I am smiling!  When kids know the phonics Secrets, they CAN read the words!

Karrie Kehrig is a first grade teacher at St. Lawrence Catholic School in Utica, Michigan. She has an MA in Early Childhood Education from Oakland University and a BS in Science from Siena Heights College. (Connect with Karrie in NEW Secret Stories® Support Group on Facebook here.)


I am so grateful to Karrie for taking the time to share this post and provide a glimpse into what hybrid learning looks like in her classroom this year!

And to “run” with Karrie’s point about just how powerful early ownership of the phonics code can be for beginning grade learners, I wanted to share some “end of year” kindergarten writing samples, along with some first grade writing samples further down, below. The Secrets are everywhere throughout their writing, as they are the tools they use to write about dolphins, kings and queens! For more on how to fast-track phonics for beginning writing, check out the video below, and subscribe on Youtube for more.

You can also download the FREE Secret Stories® Fairy Tale Writing Pack (used in some of the writing samples below) here or by clicking on the pic below.

Kindergarten Writing Phonics

kindergarten writingKindergarten Fairy Tale Writingkindergarten writing
Kindergarten Writing spring

Kindergarten Writingkindergarten writingkindergarten writing


To see more kindergarten writing samples click here, and to see the compounded skill progression of the Secrets in first grade, click here.

first grade writing

First Grade Writing

If kids don’t know the Secrets, how can they write the words?


How to Know if Your Phonics Instruction is Really Working

by Kristina Weller​, author of Writing and Laughing Blog


Yeah, I know. Super sexy blog title!
You’re probably here because of that burning question: How do I know if my phonics instruction is actually working?

Well, I have two answers for you, but first, a little background….

Teachers College Reading, Writing & Phonics Workshop Model

I am an extremely lucky teacher. I have the autonomy to choose my curricular materials based on what I know works for kids. I know how fortunate I am to be sitting in this seat, and I am grateful for it every single day.

As a collective group of educators, our school took a long, hard look at available phonics programs before making our choices a couple of years ago. As a grade level guide, we chose the TCRWP (Teachers College Reading Writing Workshop) for K-2 Phonics by Lucy Calkins. We were already using the Units of Study for Reading and Writing K-6, were familiar with the workshop format, and relished how the Units of Study frameworks instilled a love and appreciation of rich and meaningful text in young readers and writers.

While attending the Colorado Reading Conference (I’m a big fan of CCIRA!) a few years ago, I attended a featured session by Katie Garner and was super intrigued by her backdoor approach to fast-tracking phonics skills by teaching them in a way that is solidified through social-emotional centers in the brain. Even writing that sentence now makes me smile! And remember… this is phonics I’m talking about!

Phonics: that one little piece of the reading puzzle that has the power to completely derail everything if it’s not internalized and transferred.

Yeah. No pressure.

I could write multiple blog posts to further expand upon why the Secret Stories® are so amazing, so feel free to reach out for more information if you’re curious. I promise you – it’s a game changer.

How I Knew My Core Phonics Program Wasn’t Enough

The reason why I sought supplemental support for my core phonics program, and specifically, more information about the Secret Stories, is that I kept coming across “disconnects” between the rich and meaningful text that my first graders were interacting with all day long, and the pacing of my TCRWP phonics program.

Days of the week are pretty common words in early books. In the book that my first graders are reading in the video clip above, they came across the word Saturday. Now, here’s the thing about Saturday… according to the TCRWP Phonics Program Scope and Sequence, my first graders wouldn’t be learning the phonics lesson for the sound of /ay/ until Unit 3, Session 4, and they wouldn’t be introduced to the “r-controlled” vowels (specifically the /ur/ option) until Unit 5, Session 3, which is more than halfway through the school year.

If you’re a first grader who is working hard to decode the word Saturday in a level 8 text at the beginning of October, and you want to keep your momentum and confidence up, then you need to know those two phonics rules! You can’t spare the time to wait around until they happen to come up in your phonics program.

With Secret Stories, kids don’t need to wait, nor should they have to! Not only would these two little “secrets” be needed to decode the word Saturday, but just think about how many other words they unlock: her, were, turn, bird, birthday, way, play, they, etc…

Secrets are just little, easy to remember, brain based stories that explain the sounds letters make when they get together, with posters to help kids remember for independent reading and writing. Below are a couple of videos that explain these two “secrets” mentioned above.

ey ay phonics story
phonics story ER, IR, UR

Katie’s description of Secret Stories’ “dual track” approach to phonics instruction really materialized for me this year. It’s a systematic and explicit approach to teaching phonics. It’s also sequential, yet nothing is off limits or held back from kids when they need it. There is a recommended order of what to teach when, which is weighted by the highest frequency phonics rules, but there are no “walls” to delay access to what kids need, when they need it.

I am the Teacher, Not My Phonics Program

The beauty of this dual-track approach is its acknowledgement that I am the teacher, not the “program!” I can give my kids more of the code they need to read and write faster. My hands aren’t tied by a scripted, yet random order of skill introduction. With the Secrets, I have an easy way to immediately give my kids what they need, the moment they need it, with no designated waiting time just because the book says so. I am their teacher, not the program.

The long and short of it is that I have used the Secret Stories in my classroom from the very first day of school this year, and each and every day that’s followed—whenever and wherever they are needed.

Yep. I’m playing it fast and loose over here. Whenever a student needs it, I provide it. How cool is that?! This is a very different approach to the traditional idea of just following each lesson in the order it appears in the book and doling-out the phonics rules across each grade level trajectory. Seriously, why wait?!

Advancements in brain science have carved an accelerated path for phonics skill acquisition that leads straight through the social-emotional “backdoor,” so why not take it? The truth of the matter is that despite how it might sound, my phonics instruction isn’t loosey-goosey, but research-based and incredibly intentional.

By posing phonics skills as grown-up secrets, I naturally activate my students’ need to know, marking the information for memory and prioritized learning in the brain. In that moment, their brains are fully firing and ready to grasp onto this new information. And because it’s delivered through stories that are anchored in already understood social-emotional constructs, it sticks!

Supplementing My Phonics Instruction with Secret Stories

I teach my core phonics program—the TCRWP Phonics Units of Study with fidelity, and I love how child-friendly and full of joy each lesson is. Then I use the Secret Stories to fast-track, support and supplement this core instruction. This blended approach is the perfect mix for my students.

So how do I know that this unique approach is actually working?
Besides seeing the evidence of what my kids can do, here are those previously-promised answers:

Answer #1:
When we got to the “silent e” lesson in our TCRWP book, which was the first session of the second unit, my first graders already knew about it! That Secret had already been needed, given, and used. They’d known about it, identified it in other texts, and had been using it in their writing for weeks.

In fact, we had to put headphones on Rasheed (our TCRWP stuffed lion phonics guide… #joyfulphonics) so that we could secretly make a plan to pretend NOT to know the rule. That way, Rasheed could still “teach” it to us and it wouldn’t hurt his feelings that we already knew the “secret” about Mommy E®. Talk about feeling empowered!

Mommy E and Silent E and Babysitter Vowels

Those first graders “allowed” Rasheed to talk them through that lesson as if it were something they’d never ever heard about before. They were on top of the world and so proud of their knowledge…..and I had absolute proof that what I taught STUCK. Not to mention that I’d been able to give it to them months sooner, when it was needed to access the text in front of them.

Answer #2:
While at a parent-teacher conferences at the beginning of November, I heard another teacher tell a parent that she wasn’t surprised that her student couldn’t read words with the “ou/ow” sound (like: now, how, our, hour, slow, blow, etc…), as she hadn’t taught it yet. According to the scope & sequence, that phonics rule wasn’t supposed to be taught yet.

Phonics Story Poster for OU OW

Understand that this is in no way a bash against another teacher. It is simply an example of evidence that struck directly into my heart and confirmed that I had made the right choice for my students by shifting my instructional approach.

Secrets in Daily Reading & Writing

I am not the “gatekeeper” of phonics skills and my program shouldn’t be either. To think of it another way, I am not the waitress who holds back the dessert until you’ve eaten all of your greens. The Secret Stories provide for a “banquet-style” availability without having to “eat” this before that. You don’t have to “wait” to teach the /th/ Secret until the fall of first grade, as you tell the Secret to kindergartners on the very first day of school. (It’s not like they don’t already know to how to stick their tongues out at each other….and it’s not like they won’t need it to read and spell words like: the, they, them, those, etc….)

secret stories th digraph

Your name ends with a /y/ and you don’t understand why it makes a long /e/ or a long /i/ sound? (Like in Lily, Lily, Ely or Ty?) Let me tell you the Secret about Sneaky Y®.… (Remember when I said that I could talk about the secrets forever? I’m serious. Just ask me questions!)

I know that I am incredibly fortunate as classroom teacher, as I get to choose a curricular resource like the TCRWP Units of Study as my Tier 1, core instructional guide. The lessons are fabulous mixes of joy and knowledge, and my students are pumped when it’s time to learn with Rasheed! I love that.

AND….. I am beyond thrilled that I’ve found the Secret Stories to use as my “secret sauce” to offer-up MORE of the phonics code sooner! With the Secrets, I can focus my instruction on teaching the READER, not the reading. And the more Secrets my kids know, the more they want to know! My days at school are filled with examples of this learner-driven instruction. Engagement is sky-high, with my students continuously finding and wondering about more Secrets in the words in their books. They’re accessing the rich and meaningful text that fills our classroom and our core curricular materials, and they’re able to maximize the value of our time with that text because they can actually READ it! The phonics rules are already embedded in their brains—though they don’t see them as rules. To kids, they are simply the tools they need to read and write. And they love them. (Seriously? I could keep going on like this for pages!)

So, that’s how I know that my phonics instruction is working.

P.S. If you’re curious why “ou/ow” might end up in the hospital, then just reach out and ask, as you shouldn’t have to wait until Unit 4 to learn the sound that those guys make! ;-)
Kristina Weller – Writing and Laughing Blog

Phonics Story OU OW

Pics by @HappyChatterClassroom and @RoarKallie on Instagram.


Special thanks to Kristina Weller for sharing this post, and if you have questions for Kristina, or would just like to know more, you can find her in the new Secret Stories® Support Group on Facebook!

Secret Stories Facebook Group

I will be compiling several of the creative teaching ideas, pics and videos that have been shared in the new group over this past week to send out in the next Secret email, including this teaser below! However, if you can’t wait, you can dive in now by clicking above, or on the picture below! :-)

And if you’re not subscribed, you can do so here!

Phonics Reward Bucks

Until Next Time,

 

Website

 

Secret Stories Guided Reading

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.

read to self secret stories

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” 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.

Phonics Games Word Work

phonics for reading

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.

Word Work Word Study Secret Stories

Word Study Word Work

Watch the video below to see how we use this to “catch” Secrets!

Secret Stories Sneaky Y

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.

guided reading group

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.

Teaching Vowels Sounds

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.

secret stories reading test assessment

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.

Secret Stories Sneaky Y®

To see how we use Thinking Maps with Secret Stories, watch the video below.

Secret Stories Mommy E / Silent E

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!

Love of Reading with Secret Stories

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!

If you have any questions, or would like to reach out, you can find me in the Secret Stories® Support Group on Facebook, as well as on  and

Happy New Year!
Kelli

From Learning to Read, to Reading to Learn: A Third Grade Update

HELLO SECRET STORIES ……AND HELLO THIRD GRADE!  🙌🏻😍🙌🏻

Teachers Phonics Posters

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!❤️

And it’s still September….phonics for writing

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!

Here is little sample batch that you can download and try, so you can see how they work. There is also a video down below that shows the complete set, which are available here. 

Secret Stories Phonics Task Cards

digital phonics task cards

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


I shared the above videos and comment with Katie back in October. It was my first year teaching kindergarten, and having taught first grade for the past ten years, I was just floored by what the kids were able to do. They loved for me to take the ‘Secret’ book and go through all of the grown-up reading and writing sounds that they know. They begged to do it every morning, and were the first ones to get mad and remind me if I got busy and forgot. They loved to pretend to be the Superhero Vowels when they were playing in the drama center (so cute!) On the 100th day of school, I asked them to write about their favorite part of  kindergarten, and almost all of my kids said it was learning the Secret Stories! They had such ownership of their learning and were so proud!

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—

Hi Melissa,

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”)

gregory- weekly words and phonics focus

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!

Phonics Posters for Reading

Digraph Posters - Phonics

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!

Teaching Kindergarten…

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.

Secret Stories® Phonics au/aw

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.

Student Names

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!”

Phonics in Kindergarten

Read-Alouds 

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.

Environmental Print 

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/. Kindergarten Writing

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??

Phonics Flashcards

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!

Non-Conscious Learning 

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.

phonics program kids love

My “original” Secret Stories book….well-loved and well-used! Kids loved to play with it at centers.

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.

Multisensory Phonics Instruction

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.

“alarm”

“fire”

“wait”

“made”

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.
—Melissa

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).

Fountas & Pinnell Kindergarten Reading Level

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

Kindergarten Map Testing

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!

word detective word work

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.kindergarten writing

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.

Phonics Patterns in Text

“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.

kindergarten writing

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.

Reading “Hop-Scotch” 

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!

Sight Words

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)

Kindergarten Sight Word Mastery

Writers Workshop 

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.

Phonics Cards

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!

phonics posters - vowels

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.

kindergarten writing

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—

/th/

/ch/ and /ed/

Digraphs

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

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!

Melissa Gregory
Kindergarten Teacher
Melissajg24@gmail.com

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!

secret stories phonics song

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

phonics program

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….

Persuasive Writing in First Grade

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!

First Grade Literacy Centers

First Grade Mess

First Grade Writing Activity

First Grade Fun

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! ;-)

First Grade Leprechaun Classroom

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.

Leprechaun Fun in First Grade

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.

1st Grade Classroom Destroyed by Leprechaun

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.

First Grade Writing

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

How to Teach Writing to First Graders


How to Teach Writing


Persuasive Writing Activity


First Grade Persuasive Writing Activity


How to Teach Persuasive Writing to Beginning Writers


First Grade Persuasive Writing


Teaching Beginning Writers


First Grade Writing


Teaching Persuasive Writing in First Grade


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!

Leprechaun Fun in First Grade Writing

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.

Renee McAnulty
(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!

Flip Grid for First Grade

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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phonics “Secrets” to Support Reading and Writing at Home

“The Best Gift I Have Ever Given” was originally posted on Tara Settle’s popular teacher blog, Settle on In. With permission from Tara, it’s re-posted below, along with some background.

Update Note: An “unlisted” parent-share page has been created to help teachers share information about how Secret Stories® are used to read and spell in the classroom, and how they can best support reading and writing with them at home. Here is the direct link, which you are welcome to share with parents in your classroom. https://www.thesecretstories.com/learn-more/free-phonics-resources-for-parents/

Phonics for Guided Reading

Tara Settle – 1st Grade Title I Teacher Tara Settle from Settle On In
If you have read my previous post, then you know that I am a passionate advocate for Secret Stories and the accelerated access to phonics skills they provide beginning grade learners for reading and writing. In fact, I am always telling teachers that I meet about the Secrets and the huge difference that they make.

Secret Stories is a brain-based approach to fast-track phonics skills for reading and writing, giving kids the logical explanations for letter sound “behaviors” that their brains crave! It’s not a program, and no additional time is needed to teach it. The Secrets are simply teacher tools that make phonics make sense to kids, so that they can have more of the code to read and write with. (And if you’re a K or 1st teacher, then you know how important this is!)

I love the spirit of teachers. We are all in this together—not for us, but for the kids. That is one of the things that I truly appreciate about being a teacher, as well as our need to share great ideas with one another! And so, now that the hustle, bustle, and chaos of the Christmas classroom season is over, I wanted to share something that helped me so much during the year, and was actually the inspiration behind this post.

As I work in a Title 1 school with many extremely low level students, we rely on our Secret Stories. It is simply the best tool I have ever used in my classroom to turn my students into readers! I will never teach without the Secrets again, period! I bought them with my own money one summer because I was so desperate to help my struggling students. As a teacher, I was so frustrated because I felt I was failing them year after year, no matter what I tried. Yes, they were learning to read, but I knew they needed to make more progress in first grade, especially given the new demands and standards.

Fast-forward “post-Secret Stories” and I no longer feel this way! I finally feel like I am providing the best approach to help all of my students master reading, and it doesn’t even matter which reading series we use! As long as the kids know the Secrets, they have access to ALL of the phonics tools they need to crack the code—regardless of which book our district adopts. I honestly feel this way, and that was how the BEST GIFT I have ever given came to be this year….and I am so excited to share this idea with all of you, my fellow teachers!

I had recently watched a Secret Stories Sunday YouTube LIVE with Katie and one of the Title 1 teachers mentioned having held a parent event at their school and giving out the Secret Stories to parents on something called Porta-Pics

We actually used these in our classroom, but we call them “Code Crackers,” or our “Code-Cracking Cards!” I had been pondering what holiday gift to give my first graders, and it suddenly hit me….I could give them the entire “Secret Phonics Code” to take and keep at home! This would literally be the BEST GIFT I could ever give my kids!

Code-Cracker Cards - Porta-Pics for Phonics Games

Why hadn’t I thought of this before???
Oh yeah, money and cost, duh!
Porta-Pics would cost about $2.60 per kid (as the class set is $65), but I figured and schemed my way around this problem!

At our Title 1 school, each teacher receives $100 to purchase items for the classroom. I already had a set of Porta-Pics that I used in the classroom, so I could give those to my kids this year, and then use next year’s Title 1 money to replace them for next year’s group… and I’d still have $35 left over! :-)

So I did it! And truth be told, I really would have paid for them out of my own pocket, once I realized what a dunce I had been all these years, teaching Secret Stories, but never giving the Secrets to the kids to keep and use at home. What had I been thinking? This was another “a-ha” moment in my teaching life.

The last part of my gift was to try and make sure that the parents understood what a precious gift their child now owned. The children needed help from a trusted adult to protect this treasure! (No kidding, I really feel this way, too!) So I typed up a note to the “trusted adults” and taped it on the back of each Secret Stories Porta-Pic “treasure” code card.

How to Teach Phonics at Home
Honestly, I even teared-up a bit as I taped each note on each gift. I explained to the parents that this was the BEST GIFT I had ever given my students. I didn’t want to brag, but I wanted them to understand the power of this gift to help their child.

It sounds strange to say (although all teachers will understand) but I was actually saddened that I had never given these phonics code-crackers to my past students. I had taught them all of the the Secrets as we worked our way through our  Journeys Reading Program, but I never gave them this piece of additional support for home. This class, however, would have help “on-hand” and ready for use at home whenever they needed it, so that they can be the teacher and educate their parents about the “stories” that help them read. The parents, in turn, could learn along with their child, and have a “real” tangible tool to support their children as readers. Maybe the Secret Stories will help take away some of the frustrations that children and parents feel in trying to improve their reading levels, fluency, sight word knowledge, and so on, and so on…
Now can you now see why this is the BEST GIFT I have ever given my class?

And if you are saying to yourself, “Well, Mrs. Settle, Christmas is over, so I will try to remember this idea next year.”
I say to you, “Why wait?!!” 

I am seriously disappointed that I waited so long to think about giving this precious gift to my students. Don’t make the same mistake. You could give them as a New Year’s Gift or a Valentine Present. Better yet, hold a parent event in your classroom and let them know will be giving out a special treasure to all those who come! Make it pirate-themed event with Porta-Pics as the “gold” that’s given at the end of the party. Find ANY reason to get this tool into your students’ hands at home to support their reading adventure!

And if you don’t use Secret Stories, you should!
I NEVER (well, almost) have to say to a child trying to read an unknown word…. “It just is… it just does… you just have to remember,” or worse, “I just taught that last week!”

All I have to say is, “Is there a Secret in that word?” and they immediately look to the posters and find the sound (or spelling) they need. Even without the posters (in the hallway, library, lunch line, etc…) a simple “Secret” gesture is all it takes to prompt the sound! What more can you ask for?

Oh, and one more thing, my first graders can now READ all of their sight words, which means we skipped the whole “memorizing” thing! And not only that, but every time they learned a Secret to read a sight words, they could use it for a hundred more words, which meant no lost time, and no words lost! Can you imagine? (This is why teachers who use the Secrets always say they could never go back to teaching without them…. it’s just waaaayyyyyyy too much work and with so little to show for it!)

So, visualize the “happy teacher dance” that I did when I gave my kids BEST GIFT EVER this Christmas, and listened to them “ohhhh” and “ahhhh!”  To say they were surprised would be an understatement! They were overwhelmed at the idea of getting to take the “grown-up” reading and writing Secrets home with them! (I later learned that some students had hung them next to their bed so that they could practice tell themselves the stories at night, and some kept them magnetized to their fridge in the kitchen, so brother and sister could use them for homework too, as our whole school uses Secret Stories).

So, there you have it, the BEST GIFT I have ever given my students!

Happy New Year!
Mrs. Settle
www.settleonin.blogspot.com

PS I sent this Seesaw video home to parents just before and after holiday break. It will give you an idea of the concrete connections that I’m talking about, as well as how pull my parents in on the Secrets!


A Post-Script….

Christmas Pajama Day
We played the “I Know My Secrets” phonics game before I told them they could take Porta-Pics home. This is one of our favorite activities for phonics and reading, and the kids love it! (Katie has since talked about how to play this game and lots of other “secret” phonics games and activities that you can play with your class in her Secret Sunday YouTube Live.  (Just be sure to click on “Show Chat Replay” in the upper right corner when you watch the video, as some of the best stuff is happening in the conversation between teachers as Katie is talking!)

Working with a partner, one student points to a Secret (picture) on the Porta-Pic, and then the other has to tell the Secret Story and make its sound. If they are able to recall the phonics story and sound correctly, they can put a colored chip on that Secret.
Students take turns and I usually set a timer for three minutes to keep the game going quickly.

The beauty of this phonics activity is that if one partner doesn’t know the Secret, the other has to “teach” it before they can move on. We play several rounds and whoever wins the most rounds from each partner group wins a prize!

We played lots of Christmas party games, but “I Know My Secrets” was still the most popular party game of the day!

Phonics Activities

phonics games

We play a lot of the Secret phonics games that Katie talked about in her LIVE talks, and I have made a concerted effort this year to get the Secrets “off the walls” and into the hands of the kids! As we wouldn’t ever want to really take our posters off the wall because we are constantly using them to read and write throughout the day, we use additional sets of placards, square posters and flashcards (as all are available without the book if you already have the kit). This has opened up a whole NEW level of learning fun!

Phonics Games with Secret Stories Posters

Phonics Flashcard Games

Secret Stories Phonics Instruction Program

Plus, it helps to “connect the dots” for students who know the Secret Story, but need to see a concrete connection to the words that it’s in. Now I can bring the words and the Secrets together, as needed, which I actually do for every story in our Journeys Reading Series. Having extra sets of visuals that I (and students) can easily manipulate while keeping our “real” Secret Stories posters on the wall where they “live” (i.e. where kids can easily find them) has been a game-changer this year!


Thanks so much to Tara Settle at Settle On In  for sharing more about the creative ways she uses the Secrets in her classroom!  

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and slightly “late” New Year!
Katie Garner
https://www.KatieGarner.com

PS If you don’t have Porta-Pics to send home, the Secret Story “Take-Home” Tags are an easy way to  keep parents in the “learning-loop” and let them know which phonics Secrets their kids are learning OR have already mastered! With the Secret Sound Image/ Digital Sticker on the front and word examples on the back, they are perfect to send home and spark conversation and questions about the Secrets. (They also make a great “mini-book of Secrets” for fun home/summer review!)

Brag Tag Hunts

Phonics Reward Tags

Science of Reading Phonics Skill Sound Wall Award

And for those with access to an iPhone or iPad at home, there’s also a new Secret Stories App!

Secret Stories Phonics App

Secret Stories® Phonics App

secret stories phonics app

Join me LIVE on Youtube for “Secret Sundays” at 5pm EST for Brain Based Phonics for Accelerated Reading and Writing Instruction!

Secret Sundays - Episode 2

If you tuned in last Sunday for the very first Secret Sundays LIVE at 5 on YouTube, then you know it was a blast! (And if you didn’t, you can catch it by clicking on the video below.)

And if you tuned in for, what was supposed to be “Rewind Wednesday,” which was supposed to be a replay of Sunday’s episode on Facebook Live, but with me “chatting” live in the comments section throughout, then you know that was a complete debacle. Ugh!

Well, not a total debacle….at least, not once everyone from the THREE live groups (yes, I accidentally streamed three at the same time) all found their way into the one that I was actually in. But from that point on, it was smooth sailing! :-)

And finally, the UNPLANNED and totally IMPROVISED "Wednesday Rewind!”…..3rd time’s a charm! Lol 😊

Posted by Secret Stories Cracking the Reading Code on Wednesday, December 12, 2018

So, if you’re up for a challenge, try and join me this weekend for the second episode of Secret Sunday LIVE at 5pm on YouTube for “Cheating the Brain for Easy & Early Access to Hard Phonics Skills!” You will discover the “secret” ingredients to cooking-up a powerful, brain-based phonics “stew” in your classroom! In this short 30 minute timeframe, you will learn how to align core tenets of brain based learning with your existing phonics instruction to accelerate access to the WHOLE code that kids need to read AND to write!

I will also be doing another giveaway for a FREE Secret Stories Classroom Kit OR (if you already have it) any other item of your choice from the Secret Stories® website—from the Flashcards, to the new Decorative Squares, the Manipulative Placards or a class set of Porta-Pics….it’s your choice! To win, just share this link to the live broadcast on your Facebook or Instagram page anytime between now and the 5pm broadcast, and then be sure to follow and tag! I will also be sharing a free download link to one of the most popular items in my TpT store— one that’s never been offered for free—to ALL who tune in to learn on your precious Sunday! :-)

Secret Stories Phonics Kit

Secret Stories® Phonics Flashcards

Secret Stories® Decorative Squares Phonics PostersSecret Stories® Phonics Manipulatives Placards

Secret Stories® Phonics Phonics for Homeschool

So I’ll see you all on Sunday….same time, same place!

Talk soon,
Katie
https://www.KatieGarner.com

PS And YAY! I actually did it!!!  I gave you a “heads-up” more than an hour in advance! Lol ;-)