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

secret stories sound wall posters

Crystalizing “speech to print” connections for independent reading and writing in a way that even kindergartners can easily understand.

 

I love watching the kids use our Secret posters on the wall to read and write whatever they want. It’s amazing what our youngest learners can do and how easily they can do it when we just give them the tools they need and let them ‘play!’

 

 

Sound Walls, Word Walls and the Science of Reading 

The purpose of a sound wall is to clearly represent the connections between speech and print in a way that students can easily understand and use as a source of reference to read and spell words. It is a way to organize and display the different sounds (phonemes) heard in speech and the spelling/phonics patterns (graphemes) that represent them in print.

With advancement of new research on the science of reading, there is a clearer understanding of the roles that phonetics and phonology (i.e. “symbol to sound” relationships) play in beginning reading and spelling. Because learning to speak happens long before learning to read, teaching the connections between the letters on the page and the sounds they represent in speech is critical.

Unlike a word wall, which organizes words in alphabetical order so that students can find and copy them, sound walls are organized by sounds alongside the letter patterns that represent them.

The biggest difference between the two is that word walls give learners access to only a limited number of words, whereas sounds walls empower them with ALL of the building blocks of the code, so as to read and spell ANY word. But this is only if the sound-symbol connections are obvious and easy to understand. (And I mean for a five-year old!)

kindergarten writing

And this is what the Secret Stories® do, with all 44 phonemes accounted for, though some of the phonemes are treated as sound “defaults” (i.e. next most likely sound options) in order to streamline and fast-track MORE of the phonics code, SOONER.

th phonics story

With one glance, learners can instantly connect the phonics patterns with their sounds. Rooted in brain science, the Secret Stories® target “universal” social-emotional understanding by connecting letter-behavior to kid-behavior, making sounds easily predictable — even for kindergartners. The Secret posters are a “ready-made” sound wall that even that earliest grade learners can independently reference to read, write and spell.

How to Work Smarter, Not Harder

“The Secrets are so versatile and work great with our district-required sound wall. The kids reference the Secret Stories posters constantly to figure out words. The Secrets are the ‘backdoor’ in for sure!”

Secret Stories Sound Wall PIc

Working Harder

The following excerpt is from leading literacy expert, Dr. Timothy Shanahan’s recent blog post on using articulation sound walls (which use mouth pictures showing the lips, tongue and teeth in varying positions) to depict the phonics sounds.
.
“The (mouth picture/articulation) sound walls are proposed as memory supports, reminders to kids about how to articulate the proper phonemes (language sounds) for the proper graphemes (letters and letter combinations). …… as a practical memory aid, they’re weak (more useful for the teacher as a guide to presentation than to the kids as a guide to reading words).

I guess the idea would be that when a student comes to a challenging word, he/she could go to the word wall, find the right combination of graphemes and examine the pictures of the articulatory apparatus in the hopes that replicating that shape would lead to proper sounding out of that word.”

Articulation Sound Wall
“My take? That’s far too cumbersome as a memory aid — about as practically useful as the lists of 3-cueing clues that some teachers provide: If you come to a word you don’t know, look at the picture. If that doesn’t work, read to the end of the sentence….. The problem is that these steps are neither much like real reading nor practical as efficient scaffolds. Memory aids need to be easy to access or people just don’t use them.”  —Dr. Tim Shanahan  

Working Smarter

Alternatively, Dr. Shanahan confirms use of “embedded mnemonics,” or pictures to remind students of the phonics sounds actually improves learning, based on the research.

“Across various studies (Ehri, 2014; Ehri, Deffner, & Wilce, 1984; McNamara, 2012; Schmidman & Ehri, 2010) it has been found that such embedded mnemonic pictures can reduce the amount of repetition needed for kids to learn the letters and sounds, with less confusion, better long-term memory, and greater ability to transfer or apply this knowledge in reading and spelling.

If one relies on data – rather than reasoning – the answer is kind of a no-brainer — it is a good idea to use embedded mnemonics. It looks like, at least with regard to this feature, your previous program was better than the new one.”

SCIENCE OF READIN GSOUND WALL

“When it comes to teaching letters and sounds, no question about it, use embedded mnemonics. They work.”  —Dr. Tim Shanahan

Targeting “Backdoor” Routes for Accelerated Learning

Aligning Phonics Skills with “Universal” Frameworks of Experience and Understanding

While the Secret Stories® posters on their own are an ideal sound wall, they can also be used in-tandem with any existing sound wall or reading/phonics anchor charts, helping to simplify and streamline the sound-symbol connections. This is because the Secrets align with what kids already know, providing a faster and more efficient route for learners.

au aw phonics stories

…..rather than relying on “underdeveloped” auditory and cognitive processing centers for skill mastery.

sound wall lips

This is especially true for teaching vowel sounds. They can be easily prompted with emotion-based cues that literally “land” learners in the correct sound — as opposed to relying on inherently weak areas for early (and struggling) learners, which include: developmental/cognitive readiness, language processing, auditory discrimination and articulation capability. It’s so much easier and faster to just sneak these skills through the brain’s social-emotional “backdoor” and avoid these learning “landmines” entirely. (The same goes for accelerating mastery of the individual letter-sounds with the Better Alphabet® Song — which uses earlier-developing, muscle memory to fast-track mastery in 2 weeks to 2 months, while at the same time, telling Secrets!)

Superhero Vowels - Brain Based Phonics

superhero vowels
Likewise, incorporating the Secrets with sound wall displays that use picture cues for words (rather than sounds) is also extremely helpful. For example, the picture of a saw on the card below depicts the sound of the au/aw spelling pattern. The picture of a girl on the card further down below depicts the sound for the  er/ir/ur spelling patterns. These “word-based” picture cues are commonly found on most phonics posters and sound wall displays, yet they add extra and unnecessary steps that can be difficult for some learners — especially very young learners and non-native English-speaking (ELL/ESL) learners.

This is because using them requires students to first recognize what the object in the picture is, and second, have the vocabulary to name it. Third, they must understand the alphabetic principle of letters coming together to represent sounds in words. Only then will they be able to properly segment the sounds that they hear (step 4) so as to successfully identify which sound actually corresponds with the letters/ phonics patterns on the card (step 5).
Similar to vowel sound acquisition (above), each of these additional steps rely on inherently weak areas for early (and struggling) readers: developmental readiness, cognitive processing, auditory discrimination, articulation capability, etc..
sound wall au aw
Additionally, there is the added spelling confusion that can arise for learners when seeing all three sounds — er, ir and ur — alongside the picture of a girl, as only one actually represents the correct spelling of the word girl.  Likewise, the same visual confusion would arise with learners seeing both au and aw to represent the sound heard in the word saw.
bad sound wall
And then there’s the problem of learners knowing which sound the picture actually represents — the initial, medial or ending sound. This can be especially difficult for beginning readers and ESL students who are often still learning individual letters and sounds and focusing more attention on initial and ending sounds. All of these reasons help to explain why, with traditional reading instruction, it takes 3-4 grade level years before learners acquire the “whole” phonics code needed to read and write.

Fast-Tracking Phonics Pieces of the Reading Puzzle

The pieces of the phonics code are like the pieces of a puzzle. Every piece is important. The more pieces you have, the easier it is to see how those pieces fit together and make sense.  The fewer pieces you have, the harder it is to see how they are connected, and the less it makes sense. Not to mention that it’s no fun to play with a puzzle that’s missing half the pieces! Seriously, what would be the point?
science of reading brain
Like the pieces of a puzzle, each piece of the phonics code is important. The more pieces kids have, the easier they can put them together and actually use them to read and write — and the more motivated they will be to do it! That’s why it’s actually harder to go slow when teaching phonics for real reading and writing! And with the Secrets, you don’t have to.
Kids need as much of the phonics code as possible, as soon as possible to “power-up” skill-transfer to daily reading and writing — the ideal place to hone them! Only then can learners begin to make sense of text that’s all around them across the instructional day. That’s why it’s critical to hang up ALL of the Secret Stories® posters on Day 1, as this ensures a comprehensive sound wall with access to ALL the code kids need to read and write!

The Secrets work with any existing reading curriculum or phonics program to fast-track more of the code kids NEED to read and write. Taking advantage of early developing, social-emotional centers in the brain, Secret Stories® crystalizes the connections between sound and print to empower beginning readers and writers. t’s a simple formula really….. the more phonics Secrets kids know, the more words they can read and write!

er ir ur phonics story

R-controlled vowels are traditionally taught at the end of first grade or beginning of second, but shared as a Secret, kids can have it in the first week of kindergarten!

I started teaching The Better Alphabet™ Song on Day 2 of school in August. I put all of the Secret Stories Posters up on Day 5.
On Day 6 my life changed.

I told a Secret, and from that moment on, my kindergartners wanted to know more and more and more. They were finding those Secrets everywhere! I had a student who entered into our class with no real gusto for learning letters or to read, according to his parents. This student became obsessed with looking for Secrets on the wall, finding those patterns in text, and writing them down. He would literally get a blank piece of paper and copy all of the Secrets he knew from the posters on the wall.

Kindergarten Writing

He would ask everyday if we could learn a new Secret, and if he saw any letter patterns in words that were on a Secret poster,  watch out! He had to learn it. I would have been impressed had he been the only one, but it was every student in the class! They all wanted to know the Secrets!

Writing is where I began seeing the most notable change. Students were drawing speech bubbles for an animal writing project in late September. Inside the speech bubbles were the words “meow” for cats, “hoot” for owls and “nay” for horses. Those tricky phonics sounds that my students typically did not even hear in words were now being incorporated into their writing using the Secret posters on our wall. They referenced them constantly to read and spell. My students didn’t just “know” the secrets, they were owning them!

In reading, we assess students three times a year using FastBridge to determine which need reading interventions. My students were tested and I did not have one student qualify as needing intervention. The Reading Team was curious and wanted to know more about the Secrets. We’ve just completed the second round of testing, and again, none of my students were in need of intervention help. I have taught kindergarten for 14 years and this has never happened.

My students continue to excel in reading and writing, and I am happy to report that all of my students know 100% of upper and lowercase letters, as well as the sounds associated with each letter symbol, thanks to the Better Alphabet™ Song  (even the child who came in knowing no letters and only yelled at me when I met him).  And it’s only January!

During parent teacher conferences, the Secrets were a conversation that kept coming up. Parents wanted to let me know how impressed they were that their child already knew about blends and digraphs. They wanted to tell me how often their child comes home and shares the latest Secret. The parents were loving the progress that they were seeing just as much as I was.

Today they earned a celebration, and the idea that my students came up with (on their own) was to eat a popsicle, watch a Curious George Episode, and dress up as a Secret Story.

ou ow phonics story

I am attaching a picture of me as “Mommy E” and a group photo that we took!

You can see a real joy for learning on the faces of these children, who are better because of your passion to make the reading and brain science accessible to teachers, and applying a creativity to make strategies that work!

Phonics Fun with Secret StoriesSecret Stories Mommy E to teach Silent E

Angela Wolfe, Kindergarten Teacher

Sound Wall = A Brain Based Phonics “Buffet” 

Imagine going to a buffet, only to be told that items would be served one at a time, with the waiter deciding “what” you can have and “when” you can have it.  This would effectively turn your buffet into a restaurant, defeating the whole purpose of why you go to a buffet in the first place, which is to take what you need with no waiting! At a restaurant, you’re at the mercy of the waiter or waitress who gets to decide “what” you can have and “when” you can have it.

systematic explicit phonics instruction
Reading & Writing Across the Entire Instructional Day
Text is everywhere, which means so are Secrets! With a Secret Stories® Sound Wall, students have access to whatever they need to read and spell words across the instructional day. That means that kindergarten and first grade students don’t have to memorize all of the sight words with phonics patterns in them they haven’t been taught. Instead, they can learn the Secrets they need to easily decode them, regardless of which grade level scope and sequence they’re “supposed” to be on!
sight words brain study

And with virtual learning, kids need access to the Secrets/ Sound Wall outside the physical classroom — wherever and whenever they are reading and writing. The Porta-Pics are an easy and inexpensive “portable” sound wall that kids can reference at home or anywhere outside of the regular classroom or resource classroom.

 

Phonics Sound Wall for Writing

Porta Pics Phonics for Reading

Prompting the “Need to Know” for Learner-Driven Instruction 

Secrets make things important to kids, fostering a “need to know” for prioritized learning and marking information for memory in the brain. Secret Stories® transform the phonics skills kids have to learn into “secrets” they want to know! And the more they know, the more they want to know….and they’re all on the Secret Stories® Sound Wall, just waiting to be discovered!

Phonics Connections

Secrets are like the piece of cake on a buffet that you don’t know you want until you see it! That’s why they should ALL be up on Day 1!

 

phonics posters

Kindergartners “Stalking” the Secret Sound Wall


For more Secret Stories® Word Wall displays and ideas, check out this post, and for answers to all of your Secret Stories® questions, free teacher-made resources and REAL teacher-talk, join the new Secret Stories® Support Group for “Teaching Phonics with the Brain in Mind” on Facebook! 

 

 

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

 

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

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

Dyslexia, Reading, Phonics & the Brain

Decoding in Reading - The Dyslexic Brain

Dyslexia

So what is dyslexia? Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is often genetic, and that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language. Dyslexic learners find it difficult to recognize and process letters and sounds accurately and automatically, and can also struggle with paired associate memory and/or orthographic memory. (For more on dyslexia, what it is, and what it isn’t, click here.)  It’s a neurological, often genetic disorder that makes

Some researchers in the field, however, believe that dyslexia is not always organic, but the result of ineffective reading instruction and a lack of phonics skill acquisition at the earliest grade levels. Regardless, the specific learning challenges, deficits and observed behaviors are very similar, as is the need for instruction to circumvent the inherent areas of learner-weakness and tap into alternative areas of strength. And these learners have many areas of strength! Dyslexia does not affect intelligence, as most students with dyslexia are of average or even above-average intelligence.

Dyslexic children, as well as dyslexic adults, are often the quintessential “backdoor” learners—looking for effective “work-arounds” to solve problems, and often exhibiting high levels of creativity in doing so. For dyslexics, the “front” door might be closed, but the backdoor is WIDE open!

They may not move from “A” to “B” to “C” as per the traditional learning path, but they somehow find a way….even if it means having to skip “B” entirely, circle “F” twice, and then work they way back around to “C!”  Traveling these unconventional paths allows them to observe more, think differently, be creative and build tenacity.

The key to helping dyslexic learners struggling to read is to provide them with an easily accessible, backdoor approach, so as to accelerate access to the phonics skills needed to read and write, and from the earliest possible grade levels.

The answers lie in the brain science.
(Before reading on, learn more about “backdoor” skill-access for struggling readers, here.)

Phonics for Dyslexia

Reading Intervention for Dyslexic Learners

Beth Guadagni M.A., a Learning Specialist at The Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education, explains how dyslexic children can make great progress with reading when they’re given appropriate, intensive, and high quality intervention early. The following is an excerpt from her original post, which can be found here.


There are lots of good interventions that can be very effective in improving reading decoding. Remember that early intervention is critical, so if you suspect your child may have real reading problems, it’s best to consult an expert without delay.
  • Multi-sensory instruction and teaching techniques that recruit a child’s sense of touch, as well as their eyes and ears, is one of the most effective methods for teaching letter-sound pairings to children with weak phonemic awareness or paired associate memory. Similarly, kids with weak orthographic memory may respond better to multi-sensory methods, like tracing sight words on a textured surface, rather than simply drilling with flashcards. Multi-sensory teaching allows students to absorb information through different channels and can be extremely effective. For very intensive multi-sensory instruction, look for specialists or centers that teach using Orton-Gillingham or Linda Mood-Bell’s curricula. 
  • For teachers and parents, one of our favorite interventions for students who struggle with weak paired associate memories (i.e. difficulty connecting the phonics patterns to their sounds) is Secret Stories by Katie Garner.  It pairs pictures of letters and letter combinations with stories that explain “why” the letters make the sounds they do. Our favorite is the explanation of the au/aw sound (They have crushes on each other, so whenever they’re together, they say, “Awww!”). This clever technique helps kids understand the “logic” behind letter sounds, instead of simply having to memorize information. Context, especially when it’s fun and already familiar, really help kids with poor paired associate memory learn quickly.

phonics for dyslexia paired associate memory

  • Many children with decoding difficulties, regardless of the cause, can comprehend more sophisticated material than they are able to read independently. It is important to give these students access to reading material that is at their intellectual level. Reading aloud while the child follows along is one way to do this. It also provides the added benefit of repeated exposures to words paired with correct pronunciation. Over time, this will help strengthen their weak paired associate or orthographic memories and improve their skills. For busy parents or kids who want a bit more independence, audiobooks are fantastic for kids to practice this on their own, as long as they can follow along with the text as they are listening.

 

  • Finally, practice, practice, practice! Accurate, fluent reading is the result of hundreds of hours spent with written words, so as to become automatic with letter patterns. We encourage lots of practice reading at home, but with a few cautionary notes. First, be aware that continued drilling without results can be very frustrating for your child, and may even be futile if the method he’s using isn’t one that’s best for his kind of mind. If he’s reading as often as his classmates, but falling further and further behind, ask his teacher or a reading specialist what other techniques he should try. Secondly, remember that reading, particularly for younger kids, should be a fun! Try to strike a balance: kids should not forgo reading because it’s hard, but reading shouldn’t feel like a grueling obligation either.

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Elisheva Schwartz on the Dyslexia Quest Podcast (links to broadcasts, below). I first became aware of this popular podcast on Dyslexia after listening to an interview with Harvard-trained neuroscientist and researcher, Dr. Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang, whose research on learning and the brain is incorporated into the Secret Stories “backdoor” approach to accelerate phonics for reading and writing.

In the two-part podcast interview with Elisheva shared below, we discuss learning issues that are associated with dyslexia, and why the Secret Stories® are often referred to as “Phonics for Dyslexics”.  To play, click the arrow under each of the descriptions, and for additional podcasts on the topic, visit www.elishevaschwartz.com. You can also access Secret Stories® free video library by subscribing on YouTube.


The Dyslexic Brain: A Backdoor Approach to Phonics for Reading – Pt. 1

Phonics for Dyslexics

      CLICK THE ARROW (ON LEFT) TO PLAY PT. 1

The Dyslexic Brain: A Backdoor Approach to Phonics for Reading – Pt. 2

Phonics for Dyslexia

      CLICK THE ARROW (ON LEFT) TO PLAY PT. 2

Finally, I wanted to share this review that I stumbled upon online. I am always so grateful when parents take the time to reach out and share their child’s struggles and successes, and while this one wasn’t sent to me directly, it was filled with some good information and helpful insight that I thought I would share.

How I Helped My Dyslexic Child Learn to Read

This book changed our life. I’ve taught my dyslexic daughter to read using the Secret Stories®.

After trying the regular phonics “programs,” Secret Stories was recommended by our homeschool support group. With the Secrets, we didn’t have to give up learning phonetically, despite my daughter having auditory processing problems.

We sat down with a print out copy of the first McGuffey Reader, and when we came to a Secret Story (i.e. letters not making the sound that they should) we looked it up its “secret” the book. The pictures that went with each Secret made them so easy for her to remember, not just the phonics pattern, but the sound/sounds. The Secrets helped her brain easily retain the phonics patterns and sounds that before she could never get, no matter what we tried or how many times we practiced them.

I’ve also begun using Secret Stories with my severely language-compromised son, and he giggles as we “make” the Secrets he knows out of his Theraputty (another great product) and make the words come alive! I’ve also used the Secret Stories in a fun way at our homeschool group—I made little capes with the Superhero Vowels® sewn onto the back to wear when the vowels “say their names!”

Seeing my daughter now want to read and write ALL the time is such a blessing, as it’s been a long road to get here! If she hadn’t learned the Secrets, I don’t think we would have ever made it to where we are now.

I wish every school would use Secret Stories along with their reading curriculum, as it’s so easy, and it covers all of the learning bases: kinesthetic, visual, auditory, and even emotion. It can help everyone, but especially those who don’t learn the “normal” way.

phonics for dyslexia


Learn more about how Secret Stories® can help struggling readers access critical phonics skills for reading and writing.

Phonics Stories - TH

 

phonics stories

phonics stories for reading

 

Phonics Stories

Learn the “secret” phonics stories that go with the pictures here!
…..and never miss a Secret (or a Secret-freebie surprise!) by subscribing to the Secret email blast here!


 

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 ;-)

Title I Teacher (a.k.a. “Secret Agent” Amy Mitchel) Goes Undercover…. and takes her “student detectives” with her!


My name is Amy Mitchell. I am a reading specialist and Title I teacher in Wyoming County, West Virginia. In all the years that I’ve been working with kids, I have never had more fun or more success than I’m having now, and neither have my kids! What’s the difference? I have discovered the Secret Stories!

I teach struggling learners, and sometimes it can be difficult to get them to pay attention, to learn, and to use that learning at the appropriate time. They do not always understand that a letter with two humps is an /m/, nor do they often care.  We “teach” them and we “tell” them, “This is a /m/ and it says “mmmm,” or this is an /l/ and it says “llllll,” and then we assess them and they have little to no recall of these “randomly appearing” symbols and sounds.

One such kindergartener was in my class last year. She was just adorable, but had such trouble focusing on lessons and attending to tasks, and knew only one letter on her first assessment…the letter /s/.  We taught and taught and taught….letters of the week and high frequency words, as per our scope and sequence in Journeys, along with every other creative way to practice letter sound skills you can think of.  By November, she had picked up a couple letter names and sounds, but really wasn’t getting it.

Enter the Secret Stories…
I met Katie Garner at our state reading conference in November where she was doing the keynote and some break-out sessions. In the breakout, Katie showed us “The Better Alphabet Song” which is supposed to “give” (not “teach”) all of the individual letter sounds using  muscle memory, so as to take just 2 weeks to 2 months to acquire, both for kindergartners and preK (which I also teach). Katie also shared some “Secrets,” which explained the sounds letters make when they get together. She explained that the Secrets should be “tossed out” as needed, so that kids understood why letters weren’t always making the sounds that they should, and that this should happen in conjunction with kids learning the individual letters, via the “Better Alphabet.”  That way, kids would be able to make sense of what they were seeing in text throughout the day.

The Better Alphabet Song

Secret Stories Phonics Better Alphabet Song

When I got back from the conference, I found and watched every video I could (some many times) that Katie had online, and on my first day back, I just jumped in! It was the last week before Thanksgiving, so feeling that I had nothing to lose, I took right off implementing it in my classroom visits,  I started singing “The Better Alphabet Song” twice a day, just like Katie said to, and  I made sure that they were using their “muscle mouths” (were REALLY working their lips, tongue and teeth when singing, so as to “cement in” the sounds)…..

 

Secret Stories Phonics Program Better Alphabet Song- Mouth Muscles

…..AND that they were using their “eye glue” (i.e. keeping their eyes “glued” to the letters that I was pointing to as they were singing them. Katie had stressed over and over that to really forge the connection between the symbol and sound, kids had to “see what they sing” and “sing what they see,” as otherwise, they’ll be able to sing all the sounds but won’t be able to use them for reading and writing. 

I also started sharing some Secrets, even though I honestly didn’t think it would make much difference kids who still didn’t even know their basic letter sounds.

I went into class for a 45 minute time slot daily and told them Secret Stories and sang “The Better Alphabet Song” twice in that time slot. I showed them Secrets in their sight words, and we found other words with the same Secret. That’s all I did differently.

The SECRETS to Teaching Sight Words

Secret Stories Phonics Makes Teaching Sight Words Easy

The regular teacher of the little girl about whom I was so worried was out on maternity leave, and they had had substitute after substitute, so aside from my daily 45 minute visits, there was no stability. But when I came in, she would lean in to hear the Secret Stories I told. She LOVED the Secrets. Despite not yet knowing their individual sounds, she obsessed with their “secrets!”

Fast-forward to the week before Christmas break when it was time to assess again and this sweet little girl now know 14 letters and sounds! Growth!!! And it had barely been three full weeks— one week before Thanksgiving and these two weeks before Christmas!

Phonics Screening Assessment/ Phonics Check

So back to the assessment…
What I found most surprising when testing this little girl, beyond the fact that she now had 14 letter sounds, was what she said when I asked her about the letter /y/.  She didn’t know the name of the letter, but when I asked her about its sound, she answered in a profound way that shows the power of the Secret Stories for any learner, especially those who are struggling.

She said, “I know when it’s the line leader it says ‘yuh, yuh, yuh’ cuz it’s being good, but when it’s at the end, it says ‘e’ or ‘i’ cuz it’s being sneaky.” She couldn’t remember the letter name, and yet its three positional sounds, which aren’t aren’t even supposed to be taught until second grade! I was amazed. (If you don’t know the Secret Stories, and aren’t yet privy to who Sneaky Y® is, click here!)

Secret Stories Sneaky Y® Phonics Poster

When you teach reading to early grade learners, it’s so easy to lose sight of the big picture, given the grade-specific phonics skills and their incremental assessments, but ultimately, what really matters is that kids are able to sound out words for reading and writing. Knowing what the letter /y/ is called doesn’t help you read or write words, but knowing the different sounds it’s likely to make depending on where it is in a word, does.

The “story” part of the Secret Stories appeals to a different part of the brain, a part that develops much earlier. It gives them a place for the letter sounds to “stick” and a different pathway for recall. It’s just incredible how it works.

Secret Stories Brain Based Phonics Instruction

At the year’s end, that child knew ALL of the letter names and sounds….and some Secrets!!! I was sold completely. Soon the Secrets were spreading with such success that our school board came to observe the Secret Stories in action during a meeting in our building. They loved it! News spread fast and soon other schools were wanting it, so Katie came and trained our whole district.

Phonics Workshop/ Phonics Training

Katie Garner Phonics Workshop

Now that it’s county-wide and everyone loves it, it’s spreading even more! We are adding our PreK and Head Start classes!

Fun Phonics Lessons with Secret Agent Mitchell

With inspiration from a friend and Pinterest, I decided that I would develop the theme of the “Secret” stories and made myself into a “Secret” Agent. When I first went into each classroom to introduce myself (and the Secret Stories), I dressed up in my Sherlock Holmes costume, trench coat, and had an oversized magnifying glass, all while the “Pink Panther” theme song played!

Since I traveled from room to room, I even decorated the cart that I pull with signs that said, “Top Secret” and “Keep Out” signs, with caution tape around it! I told the kids that all the Secrets I have inside are TOP SECRET and can only be accessed by me, or someone who is granted “clearance!”

We talked about what secret agents do, and how they must be trained to watch out for bad guys who try to trick them into doing things they aren’t supposed to do. Then I told them that letters sometimes try to trick us, and that it’s usually the vowels that try to do this, but that if we were good detectives, we can catch them, find out what they’re up to (i.e. discover their “Secret”) and unlock the hard word.

I read them a story of a trickster letter named Sneaky Y®, who was guilty of “breaking and entering,” as well as stealing and then impersonating others.

We even used a magnifying glass to find that sneaky guy when he was hiding behind a tree with a spy glass (telescope) and spotted him in lots of words as well. They LOVED it! (You can find the story that I’m reading to them about Sneaky Y® here.)

Of course, I had to mention that sometimes, letters are caught not doing what they are supposed to, and even breaking the “Secret” rules, so then they must go straight to jail!

I’ve told them about the “Thinking Vowels/Head Bop” trick, which allows some words to be “re-habilitated” (i.e. decoded) and not have to go to jail. I love that idea and so did they!

Even my classroom requires the highest level of security clearance, and may be accessed only by a scanned image of my handprint! No one else’s handprint will unlock the door, since I am the “Top Secret Agent!” (Not that they don’t love trying to “scan” their own handprints for unauthorized entry!)

Secret Stories Program "Detectives"

Of course, the walls are covered in Secret Stories® posters, but I also hung silhouettes of secret agents to “guard” all the Secrets in my room. One can be seen “guarding” the Secret Stories® Better Alphabet Chart, keeping safe “every letter, every sound, every day.”

Our Secret Phonics Posters

Another one of my agents is always keeping an eye on our Secret Stories phonics posters.

Secret Stories Phonics Program Detective Classroom

I have other agents watching our “Keys to Comprehension” (Zimmerman and Hutchins) and writing charts because decoding leads to “cracking text” for reading and writing. which only build upon one another. All of this leads to even more phonics fun and “Secrecy!”

I even transformed my big storage cabinet into a “secret vault” with a safe lock that can be accessed only with a “secret code” and scanned fingerprint!

I tell the kids that inside the vault are lots of ways to practice our Secrets with reading and writing. In truth, it contains all of my existing  reading resources—different learning games for phonics practice, sentence building, and sight word practice —all of which leads us to discover more Secrets! And that’s another thing I love, which is that Secret Stories work with anything and everything because they are teacher tools, as opposed to another phonics “program.”  

A Scope and Sequence for Phonics Programs and Instruction

As a Title I teacher, I do classroom visits, as well as “pull-out” groups. I bring kids to my “Secret Agent” room and tell them they are now “commissioned” as detectives to find “Secrets” in words, so as to unlock their sounds and read them. Our reading program refers to our secret mission simply as “decoding,” which doesn’t exactly excite kids. If we just stick to the script of our reading series and follow its slow scope and sequence for phonics skill introduction, kids in kindergarten and first grade would have to wait years for the “keys” to the code (i.e. Secrets) to unlock the words they see every day!

Secret Stories Phonics- NO MORE SIGHT WORDS

And upper grade, struggling readers might never get them, as they often missed the boat (or as Katie says, the “bus”) at the earlier grade levels when these critical code-skills were introduced.

In fact, the sounds that letters are actually the most likely to make (when they come together in words) aren’t even introduced in the scope and sequence until late first or even late second grade! How tragic! Especially when we have kindergartners easily unlocking words that would have been challenging to our second graders in previous years. It’s just amazing.

First Grade Phonics Programs— Scope and Sequence

Teaching Beginning Writers

And Secrets aren’t just for reading. They are equally useful in getting secret agents to WRITE, as this only increases their fluency and automaticity. Katie talks about the inherent connection between reading and writing in brain, particularly at the beginning grade levels.  The same Secret Stories posters we use to identify the sounds we need in reading are equally helpful for writing, as kids know that they can find any sound they need and just copy down the corresponding Secret pattern.

I use white boards often to build words and play with phonemes and letter/sound substitutions while making it fun and fast to practice letter formation and encoding to the point of automaticity. To kick it up a notch, and keep with my Secret Agent/Detectives theme, I use “invisible ink” tablets so that we don’t leave any clues behind about our Secrets! (Of course we really WANT the Secrets out! Everywhere! But the idea that they are OUR Secrets just makes kids want them MORE, and adds to the fun and secrecy!)

Secret Stories Phonics Lesson with Mommy E®

The Dollar Store has these little tablets that you can scribble on with a plastic stylus and pull up to make the writing disappear, and these work GREAT for this type of writing and word building practice. That is the same tablet outside my door that when pressed firmly with a hand leaves the perfect “scanned image” of a handprint. So much fun!

When my kids see me in the hallways, at lunch, or even out in town, they love to blow my “secret” cover as they point, giggle and say, “She’s a Secret Agent!”  They are sure to tell me any new Secrets they’ve learned in their classroom, or any new words that they’ve found with a new Secret in them. (And putting some Secret Stories phonics posters up around the school, in the hallways, etc… is a great way to spur conversations about Secrets!)

Secret Stories Phonics Posters in the Hallways

Secret Stories Phonics Posters- TH

SECRET STORIES Phonics Posters ER, IR, UR

Secret Stories Phonics Posters ING, ANG, ONG, UNG

SECRET STORIES PHONICS POSTER EU/EW

SECRET STORIES Phonics Poster "Blends"

 

 

 

 

In the lunchroom, kids even sing the “Better Alphabet Song” at the lunch tables! One kindergarten classroom sang “Happy Birthday” to their teacher on her actual birthday with the letter sounds instead of the real lyrics! (You can see the “Letter Runs” song here sung to the tune of Star Wars, as you can sing it to any tune the kids like!) Secrets are always there, always teaching.

Secret Stories Phonics Program Letter Runs to Happy Birthday!

To close, I thought I might share some of the messages I received after Katie came and trained our teachers to get them started. We have had a few collaboration sessions on how to implement what she taught us, and since then, I’ve received some of the following messages from other teachers in other schools in my county who I’ve helped implement this amazing tool….

“You can hear Secret Stories all over our building!”

“Everybody has embraced the Secret Stories and they use them every single day….singing ‘The Better Alphabet Song’ and sharing Secrets, decoding their names and every word they see. They love it!”

“I’m so thankful you introduced this [Secret Stories] to us! Thank you!”

“They [Secret Stories] are so easily incorporated!”

“I love it so much! Thank you!”

“When I’ve been testing my kids on letter sounds, they use the sound cues to remember the short vowel sounds (short & lazy) and their [superhero] arms for the long vowel sounds.”

“Best part of my day is walking down the K-2 hallway and hearing the kids singing ‘The Better Alphabet Song!” Thank you so much for bringing this to our county!” –Principal

And my absolute favorite was from a collaboration session with teachers about how using Secret Stories is going in their classrooms, now that they’ve had a chance to get started, and it’s from veteran kindergarten teacher, Deanna Bailey:

“When Katie came and showed us those writing samples, I was really intimidated! I’m just going to be honest. I thought, there is no way I am going to get my kids there by the end of kindergarten! BUT…after using them in my room with my students, I can now say to anyone who feels this way…. The intimidation needs to go down and the expectations need to rise up…a lot!’

What a testament to the power of backdoor learning with the Secret Stories! Expectations are rising in Wyoming County, and with them, our reading levels, test scores, and most importantly, our enthusiasm for reading and writing!


THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU Amy Mitchell!
I have nothing at all to add to your wonderful post, except to share a the two videos, below. They were taken at the district workshop that you mentioned, and I wanted to include them with your post because they bring to much the excitement that you shared about working with your students. I loved watching them, and I especially loved reading about all of the wonderful things that are happening in your district, particularly the point Deanna in regard to shifting our mindset about what kids can do, and when they can do it! That’s really the only “tricky” part of using Secret Stories®…..to change the way you think and allow the brain to do what it does best…. which is to MAKE SENSE of what being learned. Simply put, that’s all Secret Stories® do— they make PHONICS make SENSE, so that you can get on with the real reading and writing FUN!


Addendum to Original Post

If you follow @TheSecretStories on Instagram, you might have seen the post below, but it’s worth sharing here, just in case! It was originally posted by Brandie Kennedy @DeepInTheHeartofFirstGrade. Phonics Word Detectives - McLetters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We decided to add a twist to our Secret Stories® fun! When learning about different sounds, we receive a mysterious letter from “Detective McLetters,” who is always on the hunt for letters and the sounds they make!

We play the “Mission Impossible” music, and the kids know that there is a letter hidden somewhere in our room! Then we read the letter to learn the Secret Story that Detective McLetters has discovered! Today, we were introduced to the ‘two cool dudes,’ AY & EY! We also learned who Fonzie was as well for reference.👍🏽  —Brandie KennedyPhonics Word Detective Mr. McLetters

I hope to be able to share more from Brandie soon!

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

Does it ever feel like every day is a new day in Johnny’s head?
What I mean is, have you ever spent an entire week teaching something, only to have some kids look at you like they have NEVER seen it before on the following Monday? With so many skills to cover in so little time, teachers have to ensure that what they teach actually sticks.
Imagine that you are a bus driver and that the skill you are teaching is a stop along your route. Some of your students make it to the stop in time to catch the bus; others do not and so they are left behind. So what happens to the kids who miss the bus? Will there be another bus coming up behind it that they can catch? And what happens if they’re still not ready? How many more chances will they have to get on board?

Now instead of a bus driver, imagine that you are a merry-go-round operator, and the skill you are teaching is one of those pretty horses on the merry-go-round that keeps on spinning round and round. Opportunities to jump on are constant and ongoing, as it’s literally impossible to “miss” the merry-go-round!

Secret Stories® Phonics "Merry-Go-Round" Memories for Phonics Skills that Stick
Consider this same merry-go-round analogy as a framework for what brain science tells us makes memories stick, which is to provide spaced repetition at designated intervals (see below) so that the newly learned information just “keeps coming back,” and can therefore be more easily transferred into learners’ long-term memory. Once there, the information is theirs forever—never to be forgotten or fall prey to the “summer-slide!”
Skills that are traditionally introduced in a linear fashion over multiple grade level years (like letter sounds and phonics patterns) can be the most challenging to “bake” using the above recipe. With so many skills to cover, so little time to teach them, and so many students who are not developmentally ready to learn them in kindergarten, teachers in first and second grade are often trying to reinforce skills that many learners don’t even have.

If teachers in preK or kindergarten introduce a letter of the week, what happens when a student misses “D” week because he’s out sick? Worse yet, what if he is out for two weeks and misses both “D” and “E” weeks?  What if a learner isn’t developmentally ready for kindergarten and hardly picks up any of letter sounds the letter sounds introduced that year?

Click on the video above for individual letter sound mastery 
in 2 weeks to 2 months via early learners’ muscle memory.
Will the first grade bus have time to circle back around through each of those individual letter sound “stops” that he missed in kindergarten? If it does, will it be at the expense of making all of the necessary first grade stops— th, sh, ch, ph, wh, gh, etc..? And as he gets further and further behind having missed so many stops, how will he compensate for the skills he doesn’t have? Will he have to memorize even more sight words in order to make up for all of the skills he didn’t get that are in all of the words he can’t read?

When it comes to reading and writing and the skills kids need to do it, this conversation becomes critical. Traditionally, the “code” that’s needed to read and write— from the individual letter soundsblends and long and short vowels,  to the silent e/Mommy e®), Sneaky Y®digraphs, vowel combinations and VCCV/VCV/Babysitter Vowels®— are all “chopped-up and divvied-out” for formal introduction across multiple grade level years (PreK-2nd), which means that kids simply cannot afford to miss even ONE bus along the way….not if they’re supposed to be done “learning to read” by the end of second grade and ready to “read to learn” by third.

Closing the distance on all of the “missed stops” (i.e. phonics skills) in such a short amount of time is extremely difficult and rarely happens with traditional methods of instruction. Instead, kids who missed buses along the way must learn to compensate for the “holes” in their skill ability by memorizing more sight words and becoming better guessers, as the instructional focus is no longer on teaching the reader, but on teaching the reading. Struggling readers will carry these gaping holes with them through subsequent grade levels, where they become stuck on the instructional hump between learning to read and reading to learn.

The critical skills that kids need to read and write must be banned from the bus. They belong on the merry-go-round! And if you are using Secret Stories® to underscore your existing reading curriculum and instruction, then the merry-go-round is already spinning around in your classroom, though you probably didn’t even notice it. 

Secret Stories® Phonics Secret "AU/AW"

Every time you tell or retell a Secret, you are giving students another opportunity to jump on! 

Secret Stories® Phonics Secret "ER, IR, UR"

Each time you ask if there is a Secret in a word they are trying to read, or if they hear a Secret sound in a word they can’t spell, the merry-go-round is spinning…. solidifying a “deep-in-the-gut” level of skill-ownership for those who have already jumped on, while continually circling back for those not quite ready.

Secret Stories® Phonics Secret "EU/EW"

Using Secret Stories® to underscore existing core reading instruction makes it impossible for anyone to miss the bus because the Secrets just keep coming back— shared and re-shared, told and re-told, used and re-used— as students read and write across all content areas and throughout the entire instructional day.

Secret Stories® Phonics Secret "TH"
The Secrets are the ‘life-blood of our classroom, always within reach and ready for use, whenever and wherever they are needed”  (Thank you, Tara Settle, for that great description!)
Underscoring core reading curriculum and instruction with the Secrets naturally provides for the spaced repetition and staggered reinforcement that research shows “makes skills stick.”  It’s not intentional, but automatic, and it continues with each subsequent grade level at which the Secrets are needed. The code doesn’t change with each grade level year, nor do the phonics skills kids need to crack it! Kinders are expected to read and write words like the, she, now, girl, boy, play, etc… even though they contain phonics skills that sit on the scope and sequence for first and second grade. Three to four grade level years is just TOO LONG to make learners wait for access to the whole code!
Secret Stories® Phonics Secret "OUS"

By targeting phonics skills to the earlier developing, affective “feeling” domain, Secret Stories® empowers learners as young as kindergarten with high-leverage phonics skills, like  Mommy E® and the Babysitter Vowels®, providing the much-needed “trigger” for determining whether a vowel will be long or short. And the same Babysitter Vowel® Secret that beginning readers need in order to decode words like making or motor, upper-grade readers can use to crack words in higher level text hibernating or migration

Secret Stories® Phonics "SECRETS" — Making Phonics Make SENSE!

And that merry-go-round just keeps on spinning— providing ongoing and never-ending opportunities for all kids to hop on when they’re ready!  And hop on, they will because Secret Stories® transform the code from skills they have to learn into “secrets” they WANT to know!

 

FREE Secret Stories® Phonics Mini-Poster Sampler Pack

Teaching phonics is not intuitive, but many things that great teachers naturally do are! Today’s educators can take advantage of the advancements in new technology and brain science to hone their teacher-instincts and streamline instructional practice.

An awareness and understanding of the brain science as it relates to best teaching and learning practices calls into question not only what we do, but also how, why, and even when we do it. It empowers us to go further— to be better, stronger and faster (think the Bionic Man!) and to hone our best teaching tools to perfection! “Neuroscience speaks loud and clear to educators, but it is up to us to heed its message!” (Dr. Kurt Fischer, Harvard University)

Secret Stories® Phonics— Cracking the Reading Code with the Brain in Mind!
If you would like to dive deeper into the research behind Secret Stories® and the process of targeting phonics skill instruction to the affective domain for accelerated mastery, you can download the white paper by Dr. Jill Buchan, here.  (Dr. Buchan is also the author of the 2 Sisters Daily CAFE / Daily5 white paper.)

Finally, I want to let everyone know that I have dragged myself out of my comfort zone to learn about and become more active on Instagram. If you’re already on Instagram, you can find me @TheSecretStories, and if you’re not, you can get started with me! I’ve learned (and posted!) there every day over this past week, and have really enjoyed the more personal level of engagement and interaction that Instagram offers. I will continue to post there daily (cuz it’s a lot easier than composing a semi-well worded blog post— Lol!) sharing the latest research, live videos, YOURS and other teachers classroom pics and vids, as well as some behind-the-scenes conference and PD fun!

My hope is to create a special space where we can communicate, collaborate, grow and share as a Secret Stories® tribe, as well as continue discussions started in emails like this one. I really hope that you will join me! (And if you do, be sure to use the hashtag #SecretStoriesReading and #BrainRead in your post so that I see it.

Until Next Time,
Katie :-)

PS I will be doing multiple featured sessions at the Michigan Reading Conference next weekend, and the North Carolina Reading Conference the weekend after that, followed by the Montana State Title I Conference, where I’ll be doing a morning keynote and multiple breakouts. And if you would like to check out my spring/summer speaking dates, or schedule a school or district PD/workshop, just click here.

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Secret Stories® Makes Phonics Make SENSE!
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Try a “taste” of the Secrets with YOUR class 
and see the difference they make!
Click to Download the FREE Secret Stories® Mini-Sample Poster Pack!

 

Katie Garner Education Keynote Speaker and Secret Stories® Phonics Author
For a list of upcoming conferences, or for information on scheduling a school or district professional development workshop, click here. 

 


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Secret Stories® Phonics — Cracking the Reading Code with the Brain in Mind!

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