If you follow my daily (yes, I post daily, as Instagram has trained me well!) then you know it’s like a running “stream of consciousness” for me. (If you’re not on Instagram, I used to be you!!!) However, now that I’ve made the leap, you can find me …. and I highly recommend that you do too, as that’s where I consistently share some of the BEST “bang for the buck” teaching ideas for making the hard stuff (like phonics) easy for young and struggling readers!

Instagram is also where I came across the Kelli, a second grade teacher in Daytona, Florida, who I want to introduce you to tonight. Her posts showing how she uses the Secret Stories with struggling readers in her classroom were so detailed and insightful that I knew they would save other teachers a TON of time and spark a million more ideas! So, without further adieu, here’s Kelli…..


My name is Kelli Gunkle and I am a first grade teacher turned 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.

My first year of teaching, like most teachers, I was 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.

Enter in the Secret Stories…. The 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 with my class, and so 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.

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! ;-)

Secret Stories Guided Reading

guided reading group

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 ready reading assessment

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

I also use the Secrets heavily during small group time. As I mentioned above, our school is in “turn-around” status, so it is incredibly important to fill as many gaps as possible in the primary grades before students move on to 3rd-5th. In small group, we have learning targets and success criteria for the skills we are working on. The success criteria helps my struggling readers to see what steps they need to take in order to master their “I can” targets.

They know that they must achieve these smaller goals in order to obtain their greater goal. To that end, they rely on the Secrets when reading their word lists, as well as whatever they are reading for their weekly text.

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 on , and

Happy New Year!
Kelli


For those of you who happened to catch a glimpse of the Secret Stories® Task Cards on and that Kelli was working on…..

Secret Stories Phonics Task Cards

…….you can download the fist little “batch” here. Once more is finished, we’ll let you know!


In addition to this, I’ve also posted a free Secret Stories® Guided Reader for fun some fun winter reading with your kids when you get back from the holiday. It will be free through this week, so be sure to download it now!

Secret Stories Guided Reader Like a Snowball

And finally, here are some of the cities that I’ll be in over the next couple of months, some of which require pre-registration.

For those in or nearby Ft. Worth/Dallas Texas, I will be speaking at ESC Region 11 at the end of January, and you DON’T need to be in Region 11 to come! Just click below for info on how to register.

Likewise, for teachers in Colorado, I will be at CCIRA again this year and presenting three sessions, with two already full, so hurry and register to reserve your spot in the third one. Just click on the link below for registration info.

The same goes for Illinois teachers in/around Kane County.
*Note that district professional developments days are not listed below, as they are not open to the public. You can find a complete list of all upcoming speaking dates
, as well as information on how to bring me to your school or district

January 2020

1/28-

1/29

February

2/5

2/7

2/18

2/28

March

3/14

3/26-3/28

April

4/1- 4/3

4/21- 4/22

4/28- 4/30


I wish you a very happy and healthy New Year, and remember to hit “reply” to this email and add me to your contact list so that you don’t miss what’s coming up NEXT….in about two weeks!

Love,
Katie

PS Never miss a Secret (or freebie Secret-surprise!) by subscribing to the Secret email blast here!

Helping Older Readers Who Struggle

A Guest Post by Anna Hardway, M. Ed.

older struggling readers

I know if you are reading this, you are probably a teacher of older students, or a parent of a struggling reader who has been told that their child “can’t read.”

If that’s the case, you are probably reading this late at night, having wrung your hands, scratched your head, and said your prayers….while continuing to search for answers. I know this because I have been you. 

I never thought about becoming a Reading Specialist at any point in my college career. I started reading when I was three, so OBVIOUSLY I knew everything about reading, right? Nope, not even close.

My second year of teaching, I was plunked into a Title I Intervention position in a K-8 school. I had cruised through “intervention” with my K-2 students, as at that age, they absorb pretty much everything. My work with struggling readers at the upper grade levels, many of whom were struggling with dyslexia, was an entirely different story.

As soon as I began working with 3rd-8th grade struggling readers, I realized there was SO MUCH that I didn’t understand. I wanted to help them, but had no idea where to start, as many were just too far behind. It was at this time that I began working on my Master’s Degree in Special Education, as solving this problem would require more knowledge and tools than I currently possessed, and I was determined to help these kids!

When I had initially started working with struggling readers at the upper grade levels, my first reaction was to blame every teacher that they had ever encountered in earlier grades. How could a sixth grader in a regular education classroom be reading at SECOND grade level?

Being in a small school at the time, I got to know each of those teachers. Every one of them had been frustrated with the same children—not knowing how to help them, but trying to do their best. They simply didn’t know how to get there.

It was then that I started down the path of blaming parents, society, and culture in general. That’s a bleak place to be. This disposition didn’t last long, as soon I had my own son—who in first grade had decided that he would rather cut holes in his shirt rather than learn how to read. He was interested only in things that had wheels or made noise—neither of which applied to the average book. And so, his “go-to” reading material was anything with “schematics” (think assembly instructions for a bookshelf with diagrams for pictures!)…at six years old!

While my son may have been perfectly fine with the “Encyclopedia of Cars” and “Build Your Own Bookshelf” directions, I had to have something to “read” with him that was at least a little more enjoyable. Thank God for the “Look Inside/See Inside” books, as they were our regular bedtime “stories.”

Accelerated Reading Intervention

After finishing my master’s degree and becoming a Reading Specialist, I understood the importance of beginning grade level screeners and various other forms of assessments used to identify vulnerable learners so as to catch them before they fall. Research shows that the ability to identify all of the letters and sounds by Halloween in kindergarten is a primary predictor of later student reading success. Yet, for many at-risk, or vulnerable learners, achieving letter sound skill mastery often extends well beyond the kindergarten year and into first gradedelaying instruction of critical first grade phonics skills.

While spending the entire kindergarten year mastering individual letters and sounds is not an uncommon practice in today’s classrooms, it is unnecessary, as brain science offers preferred pathways for learning that fast-track individual letter sound instruction. The Better Alphabet Song is a perfect example of how easy it can be to put science into practice, as it targets earlier-developing, muscle memory pathways for faster skill acquisition, rather than relying on under-developed, executive processing centers.

And this is only the beginning, as we can use brain science like a road map to “cheat the brain” into learning more complex, phonics skills as well! For example, the Secret about the Babysitter Vowels® makes sounding-out longer, multi-syllabic words easy, as it provides an instant “compass” to know whether vowels will be long or short. Watch the clip below to see how the Mommy E® strategy extends into higher-level Babysitter Vowels®.

I became obsessed with Secret Stories in my instructional practice because it got my kids exactly where they need to go quickly and efficiently, and it also confirmed what every good reading specialist already knows, which is that “time is of the essence!” The Secrets aren’t program for teaching the “reading,” but tools for teaching the READER! 

The Science of Reading and the Brain

Current and traditional methods of reading and phonics instruction and intervention do not adequately make use of the brain science and are ineffective at successfully engaging the whole brain for enhanced memory and learning. Secret Stories drastically differs from traditional core reading and phonics programs in that it aligns instruction to work naturally with the brain, rather than in opposition to it. Secret Stories moves phonics instruction from brain-antagonistic to brain-compatible so that it makes sense to older students, who have long felt confused and left behind. It engages more neural pathways for deeper learning connections by introducing information to the brain from as many angles as possible. Secret Stories’ multi-sensory approach to learning is holistic and multidimensional, with more systems and modalities utilized that strengthen struggling learners’ ability to both receive and retrieve the information. 

How the Brain Learns to Read

Weaving abstract letter sounds into stories makes them interesting, activating the brain’s positive emotional state and hooking the information into a strong memory template. In this way, learning is non-conscious and effortless, as high-leverage phonics skills are acquired through “backdoor” (social-emotional) learning channels that are more easily accessible. Additionally, cloaking phonics skills as “secrets” makes them important—something that all learners are curious about and want to know—making them meaningful and relevant, and therefore, easy to teach and learn.

phonics stories for reading

The Secrets naturally “plug the holes” in struggling learners’ skill ability, as they can be given whenever and wherever they are needed to read and write unknown words—across all subject areas and throughout the entire instructional day, including at home. The more Secrets learners know, the more they can read and write independently, using the visual pictures to recall sounds and spelling patterns, as needed.
When working with remedial readers, the ultimate goal is for them to be able to apply information, ideas, content, skills, and strategies to various situations, and not to be dependent on others for information and ideas. The organization of Secret Stories provides the continued support that’s needed, while increasing students’ personal responsibility for their own learning. By the time students are in fourth grade, the window of time for learning to read has begun to close, as instructional momentum shifts away from “learning to read” land focuses squarely on “reading to learn.” For some students, my own son included, the traditional “front” door approach to reading instruction is not enough—they need more. They need to gain accelerated access through the “backdoor!”

Secret Stories accelerates access to ALL of the code-based, phonics skills that struggling learners need to read and write—regardless age or grade level. With its “backdoor-to-the-brain” approach, complex phonics patterns are made simple, as is the brain based process for teaching them. This makes Secret Stories one of the most highly effective, instructional tools available to educators and parents, alike.

For older, struggling learners who have tried so hard for so long, Secret Stories is the missing “piece” of the elusive reading-puzzle. Its “backdoor” approach re-ignites their interest, curiosity, and most importantly, their desire to unlock the mysteries of text!

teaching older struggling readers


Guest Blogger, Anna Hardway, M. Ed., is a 20-year educator and currently a consultant on various education topics such as Reading, Curriculum, Assessments and Development Strategy. She has worked inside public education, and has worked for Save the Children, as a Director of Programs for Early Literacy and Rural Education.  She has also developed education recovery programs in the aftermath of disasters such as the Oklahoma Tornadoes of 2013, South Carolina Floods of 2015, West Virginia Floods of 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017.  If you would like to reach her, please email edconsulting.ahardway@gmail.com

Secret Stories® Phonics — The Brain Loves Novelty!

Using Music to Cement “Sound-to-Symbol” Connections in the Brain

I’m often asked why the Secret Stories® musical brainteaser exercises (on the musical download that’s included in the kits) aren’t exactly songs, as there is no instrumental accompaniment, no fun lyrics….just simple and instantly recognizable tunes with constantly changing “sound-symbol” manipulations! They are the fastest way to “glue” the sound-to-symbol (“speech to print”) connections together and build the automaticity needed for easy and effortless reading and writing!

If you use the Secrets in your daily reading and writing (phonics) instruction, you may have wondered why the Secret Stories® musical brain teaser “songs” sound so differently from other educational songs sung in early grade classrooms? Like everything else that is Secret Stories®, it’s about getting the maximum brain-BANG” for the instructional buck! 

phonics songs

Note that the previously included CD is now a music DOWNLOAD!

As teachers, we’ve all seen how easily and effortlessly students can sing through skills when they’re set in a song. Like, for example, the old “ABC Song,” assuming that you don’t mind the inclusion of that imaginary letter, “elemeno!” Kids sing daily songs as if on “autopilot,” which they are. The words literally roll off their tongue, and with no thinking required!

And this is good, right?
Not necessarily, as it depends what the skill is and how kids are going to need to use it.

Familiar and repetitive songs are perfect for fast mastery of “set” skills that are finite and sequential—in other words, skills that need only to be parroted back, “as is,” like the days of the week, months of the year, names of the planets, fifty nifty states, etc…  Such skills are easily acquired through song and stored in learners’ muscle memory, which works much like a  ‘read-only’ disc. This means that while the information is easily regurgitated, it cannot be altered or manipulated….which is fine for naming the days of the week, but not so helpful for manipulating letter sounds and phonics patterns to read and spell.

Letters and sounds exist for one reason—using them to read and spell words. The ability to sing through the letter names in order serves no practical purpose for reading and writing. Beginning learners must be able to actively manipulate these sounds and symbols in a “free-form” and flexible manner in order to use them as “tools” to read and write.
Unlike the “traditional” Alphabet Song, the Secret Stories Better Alphabet™ Song does empower beginning learners with this ability, taking approximately 2 weeks to 2 months for simultaneous mastery of BOTH letter names AND sounds—which are cemented together through muscle memory.  (For more on the Better Alphabet™, see links at bottom.)

The “Unfamiliar and Unexpected” are the Brain’s BEST Friends!  

Singing through the virtually endless letter sound combinations in a variety of constantly changing, musical exercises is the best way to ensure that learning not only remains novel, but that the stress-level is kept low, while the challenge remains high! It’s also the best way to forge critical “sound-symbol” connections in the brain and increase automaticity for using them in both reading and writing! 
red divider

Following is an excerpt from an article written by Belle Beth Cooper on Novelty and the Brain.
Why Getting New Things Makes Us Feel So Good: Novelty and the Brain

We all like novelty! In fact, our brains are made to be attracted to novelty. And it turns out that it could actually improve our memory and learning capacity!

The Brain Loves Novelty for Phonics Instruction

It’s actually hardwired into my brain—and yours—to appreciate and seek out novelty. Anything that’s new, different or unusual… we can even be drawn to novelty without being conscious of it. Of course, this makes a lot of sense—we wouldn’t get much done if ordinary things captivated us constantly!

The cool thing about this is how intricately novelty seems to be associated with learning, which means we can use this knowledge to our advantage for learning new things and improving our memory.
It’s been thought before that novelty was a reward in itself, but, like dopamine, it seems to be more related to motivation. Our Dopamine pathways become activated whenever we are exposed to novelty, and only completely new things will activate our midbrain area. Studies show that the plasticity of the hippocampus (the ability to create new connections between neurons) was increased by the influence of novelty—both during the process of exploring a novel environment or stimuli and for 15–30 minutes afterward.
As well as increasing our brain’s plasticity—and therefore the potential for learning new concepts and facts—novelty has been shown to improve the memory of test subjects. Studies suggest that dopamine (a “reward” chemical in the brain) levels increase in the context of novelty. Each new stimuli gives you a little rush of motivation to go further, to find more new stimuli that will generate more dopamine rewards.

Here is a graph that shows activity in your brain on this:

Secret Stories® Phonics —"The Brain Loves Novelty"

According to a study conducted by Dr. Emrah Duzel from University College in London:
Subjects performed best when new information (i.e. constantly changing musical manipulations) was combined with familiar information  (i.e. letters/sounds) during learning. After a 20 minute delay, subjects’ memory for slightly familiar information (i.e. letters/sounds) was boosted by 19 per cent if it had been mixed with something new during learning sessions.

This research suggests that we use the brain’s increased plasticity wisely by setting aside time to learn right after novel stimuli, as learners’ brains are more open to making new connections during and right after this time. So why not take advantage!

Dr Düzel pointed out additional benefits that could come from his research:

“We hope that these findings will have an impact on those with poor memory. Current practice aims to improve memory through repeatedly exposing a person to information. This study shows that it’s more effective if you mix something new with the old. You actually learn better, even though your brain is also tied up with new information.
red divider
So what does this mean for teachers? And how can it benefit our phonics instruction?
It means that you can significantly improve knowledge retention and make new ideas and concepts (like letter sounds and phonics skills) stick by introducing novelty into the learning process. And doing this is easier than you think!

Above is just one example of MANY research studies showing the significant impact that novelty has on the brain, and for purposes of teaching and learning, novelty can take many forms! Incorporating novel experiences into daily learning doesn’t mean having to continually add on new skills and information to what you’re already teaching!

Novelty can be easily achieved by simply framing “slightly-familiar” content in new and unique ways. This causes our brains to notice and recognize it more easily because it’s been offset by the new way in which it’s being presented. (In other words, it not only keeps it fresh, but makes it more exciting!)

A Novel Approach to Decoding and Encoding with Musical Practice and Play

If this sounds confusing, but I promise, it’s not once you see it in action.
And it’s not just the musical brain teaser exercises in the Secret Stories® that make use of this “novelty-effect,” but the Secrets, themselves! Transforming phonics skills kids have to learn into secrets they want to know makes them important to kids—marking them for memory and prioritized learning in the brain (Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, 2018). This is especially true when framing them as “Grown-up Reading and Writing Secrets” that kids must be “big enough” to hear!
phonics stories dyslexic
Every Secret is a new story about the “secret” behavior (or misbehavior!) of letters….and the higher the grade level, the more significant this “novelty-effect!” Older, struggling learners have had their share of disconnected and often confusing phonics instruction. Feeling as if they’ve already “been there and done that,” most have spent countless hours across multiple grade level  years trying and failing to acquire the phonics skills they need to read and write. For these struggling, upper grade learners, framing these seemingly boring and meaningless letter sound skills as novel “secrets” that explain all of the sounds letters make when they get together, sparks their natural curiosity and reignites their interest—motivating them to want to know and learn more as things finally start to make sense!
red divider
Following are some short video clips showing the Secret Stories® Musical Brain Teasers in action for fun and novel phonics play and practice! These little brain-based ditties are best done in bits of downtime throughout the day (think “instantaneous singing!”) while waiting for the bus, or for the music teacher to come, or for the lunch line to move. (To access the musical download, find the code on the inside back cover of your Secret Stories® book.)
The Beethoven Blends AND Beethoven Blends ‘In-Reverse!’

Beethoven Blends Musical Phonics Practice

Click Here for the Digital Version of the Secret Stories® Beethoven Blends on Teachers Pay Teachers

red divider

Apples & Bananas to the EXTREME!

The “Letter Runs” – Forward, Backward, Long & Short!

This song is almost never sung the same way twice, as you can do it backward AND forward, and even sing it to different tunes— from the Star-Spangled Banner to Happy Birthday—all while continually switching the vowel sounds back and forth, from long to short! (So many ways, so little time! ;-)


This class can even sing it “Jedi-Style!”
(Note: You can’t see from the way that the teacher is facing in the video, but she is pointing to each letter as it’s sung, so as to  ensure that kids always “SEE what SING and SING what they SEE!” This is key to forging the the letter-sound connections in the brain. However, when doing the rapid-paced Letter Runs forward and backward, it’s much easier when using a vertical alphabet. (The one pictured beneath the video is included is included in the Better Alphabet Anchor Pack, shown further down below.)
Secret Stories Letter Runs

Vertical Alphabet (in the Better Alphabet™ Anchor Pack below)

And then there’s the Better Alphabet™ Song for fast mastery of individual letter sounds in just 2 weeks to 2 months! (Video version below.) During this time, kids are also learning Secrets that explain WHY the letters aren’t always making the sounds they should!
Better Alphabet Song

Click Here for the “Video-Version” of the Better Alphabet® Song

red divider

Better Alphabet Song Posters

Click Here for the Better Alphabet™ Classroom Anchors

red divider

Better Alphabet Song Mini Mat Anchors

Click Here for the Better Alphabet™ Digital Mini-Mats for Individual Student Reference & Home Use

red divider

And if you don’t already have the Secrets, but would like to try sharing them with your students to fast-track your phonics instruction, you can download this mini-sampler poster pack FREE! 
Free Secret Stories® Phonics Posters

Click Here to Download the FREE “Appetizer-Pack” of Secret Stories® Phonics Posters

red divider

 


Katie Garner Secret Stories Linkedin pageSecret Stories BlogSecret Stories Facebook PageSecret Stories Youtube PageSecret Stories TwitterSecret Stories PinterestSecret Stories Instagram

 

Secret Stories Banner Bottom