How to Teach Reading to English Language Learners:

How I went from knowing nothing about phonics to a “code-cracking” expert, and how I helped my kids do the same!

A Guest-Post By Ariana Curcó, a Pre-K/Kindergarten Teacher in Monterrey, Mexico
If you’re anything like me and/or if you’re here, reading this, it’s because you’re doing everything you can to be a better teacher, to acquire new tools to do a better job, to find new and interesting resources that will make your teacher-life easier, and to be the best version of yourself for them—your kids. My name is Ariana Curcó; I have been using the Secret Stories for 8 years with both pre-k and kindergarten English Language Learners in Mexico, and this is my story.

Teaching Phonics to ESOL Students

I live in Monterrey, México, and I work in a private school that teaches all-English. Yes, you read that correctly—ALL English…..in Mexico! We have about an hour a day of Spanish, but all of our reading, writing, science, math and just about any other subject you can think of is in English. If you’re wondering why this is, that’s an easy question to answer—opportunity. Proficiency in English provides the best chance to succeed in life; better jobs and a better future.

I live in a privileged area where kids are given the best education possible. Parents spend lots of money on private schools and want the best for their children. With that being said, they also want the best teachers and to see results, fast.

I was in my second year of teaching pre-k and wanted to learn as much as possible, and so I started watching YouTube videos about morning routines, guided reading, phonics…whatever I could think of that I could use, I would watch.

Professional Development for Teaching Reading

Every year, my school would send teachers to different education conferences in the US, especially those that focused on the needs of English Language Learners (ELL / ESL/ ESOL), as well as literacy and early education. Unfortunately, I wasn’t chosen by my school administrators to go, but was willing to pay my own expenses so that I could have what I’d always heard was an “amazing learning experience”. And so, I did.

I went to Orlando, Florida to the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). I didn’t know what to expect. I was given several brochures during the registration process and that was it. I had to choose the sessions that I wanted to attend and take notes so that I could share with my colleagues back home. I was a newbie back then, and the teachers I went with were pros. I could see them reading the brochures and marking the sessions they would like to hear, and then making a schedule and finally having a plan. I had no plan, so I took the brochures back to the hotel, and when they went down for dinner, I stayed and studied and tried to make my “plan”.

As I was reading about all of the subjects, strategies and authors, I came across a sessions about phonics called “Cracking the Reading Code with the Brain in Mind: How to Sneak Phonics through the Brain’s Backdoor!” with Katie Garner. While the session wasn’t identified in the program as being for English Language Learners specifically, common sense told me that if I wanted to understand how kids learn to read and write, I needed to learn about letter sounds and phonics. I still remember clearly that this was the first session I wrote down on my “plan,” and I was excited.

The day came, I went in, and I sat down at the very back (I didn’t want anybody asking me to participate since I was a new teacher and felt I didn’t know what I was doing). Then I waited for the session to begin. Boy, did I regret sitting in the back.

As soon as Katie started speaking, I was hooked! I mean, who wouldn’t be? Besides her being awesome, knowledgeable, and a great speaker, the information and strategies she was sharing were incredible. I remember myself standing up and moving further to the front every time she turned around to change a slide, but I just couldn’t sit in the back; I needed to learn more, see more, and hear more about everything she was sharing. And just like that, everything clicked. It all just made so much sense, especially this part—

“The sounds that letters make when they get together is AS IMPORTANT as the sounds they make individually…..even for kindergartners!

Secret Stories® Phonics Letter Behavior

Teaching Kids the “Least Likely” Letter Sounds First

This was the first of many things that I heard which made me question everything I thought I knew about teaching reading. I mean, she was right. Both pre-k and kindergarten teachers dedicate themselves to focusing on the individual alphabet letters and sounds, but letters rarely make their individual sounds when they come together in words. Instead, they make completely different sounds that we never talk about, let alone teach! This means that when kids actually try to apply what we’re teaching them every day about letters and sounds to read real words, they will almost always be wrong.

In our daily alphabet song, we would sing “T says turtle, tuh-tuh-tuh,” but then every time we saw the letter /t/ in real words, it never actually made that sound, because of the frequency of word like: this, they, them, those, the, there, etc. Likewise, for the letter /y/, we would sing, “Y says yo-yo, yuh-yuh-yuh,” but then we’d move over a few inches on the rug to do morning calendar, and would see the letter /y/ in words like: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, January, February, May, July, etc. We read big books that were “by” so and so author, and we would tell the kids to pay attention to the sign hanging above the “Boy’s Bathroom”…..not to mention that our favorite words to read and write were: mommy, daddy, candy, and Happy Birthday!

It’s no wonder I was having such a terrible time and was so confused!

sounds of y

Another “a-ha” moment for me was when I realized that I had been spending valuable instructional time focusing on teaching the reading, but not the reader. I was showing my kids words, but not giving them any of the tools they needed to actually read them— tools that would empower them to crack any word, not just the ones on a word wall.

I hadn’t given my kids the keys they needed to unlock words for themselves because no one had ever given them to me. As a native Spanish speaker and former English Language Learner myself, I simply didn’t know them and had never been taught. I realized that I needed to change my mindset and alter my teaching strategy right away, and I wasn’t going to wait. I started then and there.

When I returned to Monterrey, I talked to the homeroom teacher and told her everything I had learned. I shared all that Katie had given us in session to bring back and use in our classroom, and showed her some of Katie’s vlogs on YouTube. We started using some of the Secret reading strategies to see how we could apply them in our classroom without interfering with our required pre-k curriculum. This, it turned out, was a non-issue. The Secrets blended perfectly with everything we were already doing— storytelling, role play, music, singing, movement and dramatic play. It was a natural fit. Plus, all of the words in our environmental print that were displayed all around our classroom had Secrets in them!

Teaching Vowel Sounds to English Language Learners

The Superhero Vowels® at Play!

Phonics Stories Kids Already Know

Every Secret that we shared, the kids gobbled-up instantly. about the Secret Stories is that they are rooted in feelings that are universally familiar to all kids—regardless of their age, language background, or even whether or not they know the names of the letters. This is why they are so effective with very young children, and especially effective with English Language Learners. Kids just understand and connect with them instantly.

Everywhere around the world, kids are kids. They love Superheroes and know they must wear a disguise to keep from being recognized, like the Superhero Vowels®; they develop little crushes on each other, like au/aw; they sometimes play too rough and get hurt, like ou/ow; they stick their tongues when they don’t like someone, like th; they have to be quiet in the library, like sh; they like to play with balls, like al; they love to pretend they’re driving a car and slam on the brakes, like er/ir/ur; they know to do what they’re told if mom or a babysitter is around, like with Mommy E® and the Babysitter Vowels®; and they know that if you’re the line leader, you must be perfectly behaved, but when you’re at the end where no one can see you, not so much (lol!), like Sneaky Y®These are the stories that kids already know because they “live” them every day.

teaching digraphs - th

Familiar “Social-Emotional” Thinking Frameworks

It is within these already familiar, social-emotional frameworks that my pre-kindergartners began trying to figure out the sounds of letters in words all around us. I was in awe. For the first time, my little guys could really read. Sometimes, I couldn’t believe my own eyes. They were discovering so much so quickly, and every day, they begged to hear more Secrets. The power of Secret Stories instruction is incredible. I was constantly amazed by how engaged they were, even the ones who didn’t yet know all of their letters.

On that particular day in Orlando, by luck or by faith (call it what you wish), I happened to be in the perfect place at the perfect time, and I am so grateful.

Transitioning from Pre-K to Kindergarten

Having started my teaching career in pre-k, I moved on to kindergarten three years ago. My God, if I was amazed at what pre-K students could do, my kindergarteners  Blew. My. Mind.

Kindergarten ELL Phonics Instruction

So fast-forward 8 years, and here I am, still using Secret Stories. Our classroom test scores in reading and writing are always far above grade level, and our school actually tests students one grade level above—which means that in kindergarten, we are taking the FIRST GRADE end-of-year test. And just as a little reminder—English is their second language. (JAW DROP!)

Phonics Screeners / Reading Assessment

The snapshot below shows the end of year results from last year’s test, which is called CPAA. Our kindergartners took it in May, and it’s a Grade 1 test. I’m still amazed at how much they are able to learn and accomplish in kindergarten.

Kindergarten Assessment ELL Ariana's

The next picture is a snapshot from a kindergarten classroom at our school that, at the time, was not using Secret Stories. You can see the difference in the scores, especially in phonics and writing.

Kindergarten Assessment - ESOL 2

Below is a video of one of my kindergarten students reading back in December. She started the year knowing only a few letters, and by Christmas break, she was already reading above grade level—and remember, she’s is Mexican, so English is her second language!

I am so impressed with her achievements, and how quickly she was able to learn all of the individual letters sounds (with the Better Alphabet Song) and start applying them with the Secrets to read. I honestly cannot imagine teaching children to read without being able to tell them the Secrets. They are the single most important tool that I use to teach reading and writing. I am grateful for them EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

Decoding Sight Words

We spot Secrets everywhere. All day long, kids will shout out, “I see Secrets!” and then they use them to try and sound out new words. They love finding them wherever they are hiding, especially in our new stories. They love finding them wherever they are hiding, especially in our new stories. They also love “catching” words that have Secrets in them throughout the day (and at home) and then adding them to our Secret chart.

Decoding Sight Words with Phonics

The short video clip below is of my kids going on a Secret Stories “hunt” in our new book.

And check out this little kindergartners writing below. I was so impressed with how much she learned this year. Back in August, she only knew individual letters sounds, and now she’s reading and writing like a pro! (If you need a little help reading it, I’ve transcribed it below!)Kindergarten Writing PhonicsA Cat and a Penguin Go to Space
Once upon a time, there was a  cat and a penguin in the jungle, and the penguin said, I want to learn the planets. 
But how are we going to space?
We can go in the rocket.
Let’s go in, okay?
10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1
Blast off!
Look, space is so beautiful.
Look, this is Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.
Wow, now I know the planets!

It’s amazing what kids can do when they have more of the code they need to do it! That’s the power of the Secret Stories, and that’s the power it gives beginning readers and writers. No matter what their first language is, if we can teach it, they can learn it!

Developing a “Deep-in-the-Gut” Phonics Skill Set for Teaching Reading

Throughout the years, I have seen many curriculums, phonics programs, and sadly, even many teachers come and go, but the only things that have remained constant are my precious Secret Stories book, CD and posters. Our curriculum offers wonderful opportunities for students to engage in reading and writing, but I am the one responsible for giving them the phonics skills they need to do it! I am so proud to say that I don’t have to rely on anything or anyone else, not even parent support. Secret Stories has given me a “deep-in-the-gut” level of skill-ownership that I can now impart to my students. That’s an empowering feeling!

There’s just one more video clip that I want to share. It’s actually of my own son just before he turned four. (Can you tell how much he loves the Secrets?!! :-)

Secret Stories makes complex phonics patterns simple, as well as the brain based process for teaching them. My wish is that by sharing my own journey and experience, my post here will become the “perfect time and place” for other teachers who needs to find their own power to teach reading, as well as to gain tools they need to do it.

Ariana Curcó
Kindergarten Teacher in Monterrey, Mexico

Phonics Instruction with English Language Learners


My Little “Rant” on Dual-Language & Bilingual Programs

dual language program english language learners

Remember what I said at the beginning of this post about opportunity? How we have to struggle to give our children the same chances as others because we are not native speakers or US citizens? Well, there’s something else that has been on my mind, and before I close,  I wanted to put it out there….

Last September, I had the chance to meet with Katie in Dallas. She was there for a series of ESC Region 11 phonics workshops, and I was glad to tag along (I think I might have actually begged a little!) She was kind enough to let me join her, and we had many interesting conversations. I was amazed at how differently we do things here in Mexico than in the US, particularly with regard to reading instruction for English Language Learners. I listened to what many of the Texas teachers who were at the workshop had to say and asked I many questions. I was surprised to hear that students in the US were experiencing similar disadvantages with regard to opportunity that we have here in Mexico.

It was so sad, scary, hard (I don’t know which word to choose) to hear that, in the US, English Language Learners were not given the same opportunities as the rest of the students. For example, did you know that in many schools, English Language Learners in Dual Language Schools receive only half as much reading instruction in English as native speakers, and that in Bilingual Schools, they may receive none at all….WHAAAAT?!? I felt confused. I think this is unfair, unreasonable and makes for great disadvantages in the future since they will be taking the same tests, applying for the same college spots, and vying for the same jobs. My thought of the “American Dream” was shattered.

Why? I still don’t understand the reason. Here, we are teaching them English so that they can have a chance, and there, you are cutting their time in half?

And just like that, I remember why I chose to become a teacher and take on the great responsibility that comes with it. We are here to give our students the best chances and opportunities, regardless of their gender, nationality, race, etc…. To make them feel that if they are willing to work hard, they can conquer the world……because, guess what? THEY CAN!

Even if it means that we, as teachers, have to work twice as hard to learn and acquire as many skills as we can to help them—we CAN do it all—and so can every single ELL learner! For teachers all over the world, our constant drumbeat is the same— “I believe in you; your teacher believes in you; and every single teacher—no matter where they are in the world—does, too! We are your teachers, and we will fight every single day to prepare you for what’s to come. We will never stop, because YOU are worth it!”

With Lots of Love to My Teacher Friends Around the World!
Ariana Curcó  

If you would like to leave any questions or comments for Ariana, feel free to do in the comments, below. You can also find Ariana on Instagram @AriCurco.

I Teach What's Your Super Power

(This post was originally posted on I Teach What’s Your Super Power Blog, and excerpts pertaining to the Secret Stories® have been shared here, with permission from the author.)

Struggling Readers and the Phonics Divide

I had never heard of the Secret Stories until a teacher I thought highly of at a previous school swore by it with her first graders.  It sounded interesting, but it was an “in one ear out the other” kind of thing, and I didn’t think about it again.

Fast forward to January of this year, and there was a CLEAR phonics divide in my second grade classroom between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” While some of my second graders were rocking and rolling with their sound knowledge, picking it up easily from the lessons embedded in our literacy block; others were still struggling with short /a/.

Phonics Posters

Enter Secret Stories…..
So here’s the quick version of  Secret Stories: (not an affiliate link, I just love it!)

1. The Secret Stories have stories and posters for all of the different phonics skills and sounds.
For example, instead of teaching the r-controlled vowels as a phonics “skill,” I can tell my kids the secret about how er, ir, ur are terrible, awful, horrible, no-good drivers, and always have to slam on their breaks and say “Eerrrrrrrrrrrr!”  (like in the words: her, turn, bird, curve, etc…). Then we connect the sound with the action to engage the full body and anchor the sound-symbol connection into their muscle memory for easy retrieval.

2. The Better Alphabet Song– We sang this daily, twice a day, EVERY day for at least two weeks. Instead of singing the name of the letters, you sing, “A says- ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah, but it can also say- ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay.” It keeps going through all the letters and literally ALL of the sounds each can make individually, including the short and long vowel sounds (known as the Superhero Vowels®), the hard and soft sounds for /c/ and /g/, the combined /qu/ sound, and even all three sounds for /y/ (known as Sneaky Y®). There is a CD (or musical download) included so you’re not on your own with this.

3.  Because the Secret Stories isn’t a grade level “program,” it fits into what you’re already using. You DO NOT wait to introduce one sound (or Secret) a week, but instead, you give kids the Secrets they need to read and write words throughout the day. So you’re always looking for opportunities to use the Secrets they know while sharing more. (The ongoing constant use and reinforcement quickly establishes a deep level of skill-ownership.) The author’s point was, “Why should kids wait until February to learn about r-controlled vowels when they need them NOW?!!” Agreed.

Sounds of Y Phonics Poster

Small Group Intervention for Struggling Readers

My initial intention was to use the Secret Stories specifically with my struggling readers who had significant phonetic weaknesses as an intervention. However, my “small” group got waaaaay bigger than I planned because the majority of my students wanted to join in!  Some of my strongest readers were strategically placing themselves around my group of struggling readers on the rug while pretending to read a book, just so they could listen in! Eventually, I invited anyone that wanted to join in, and I consistently had 12-15 kids in our “intervention” group.

Our reading intervention time consisted of reviewing previously introduced Secrets, introducing new ones, and them practicing them both orally and on white boards. On Fridays, we would “collect” all of the words with Secret Stories phonics patterns in them, which helped me know which ones I needed to reinforce. Incorrect answers are as informative as correct answers! If we had an extra minute or two during our morning messages, we would play “word detectives” and look for the Secrets in it!

I would ask things like,“Find a word with these two friends who are all about the balls….” or
“Find a two-syllable word with a bad driver in it….” or “Find a word with that has a sneaky letter in it….” etc…..

Phonics Stories

Even though we didn’t start the Secrets until mid-year, I absolutely saw a 100% difference in both their reading and spelling. Next year, I will be starting with the Secrets week one!

As Secret Stories is not available as a “digital” download, it’s more expensive (about $100 for the book, posters and CD). But I was in a full on panic over having so many struggling readers in my classroom, and so I was more than willing to spend the money to make my life easier. If you don’t have the $100 to buy it personally and you can’t get your school or PTA to buy it for you, it would definitely be worth setting up a Donor’s Choose project.

Secret Stories allows me to quickly introduce a significant number of phonics skills in a short amount of time, and in a way that all of my students could easily remember and understand.  Knowing the Secrets also gave us a common language that we could use when talking about the letters and sounds. “I’m looking for Secrets,” became one of our most-used print strategies!

Secret Stories is one of my favorite teacher-things, not only because of the growth that I saw with my students, but because of how much they love them and enjoy using them!

Teaching Superpower

I Teach What's Your Super Power?

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

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

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


My name is Kelli Gunkle and I am a first grade teacher turned second grade teacher in Daytona Beach, Florida. I have been teaching for 5 years in a low-income, DDD, turn-around school with many struggling readers. If you are not familiar with a school climate like the one I teach in, you may have some questions about what all of that means.

In a nutshell, 90% of our students are on free and reduced lunch. We have been a D status for 3 years which placed us in “turn-around” status. This simply means that if we do not earn a C or better we will be taken over, closed down, or turned into a charter school. I tell you this to paint a tiny picture of the environment that I truly have the pleasure of working in.

read to self secret stories

People often look at statistics and status’ and use those as reasons not to be somewhere. I look at statistics a little differently. All of what I told you above is why I teach at my school. It’s why I get up everyday and teach my heart out. It’s why I don’t have time for the cute stuff.

My first year of teaching, like most teachers, I was very aware of the perfect classrooms. Don’t get me wrong, I love anything that is aesthetically pleasing….who doesn’t?! More and more though, I was seeing too many “cute” activities and too little rigor. Activities that would get people to “pin, pin, pin” or “like, like, like,” but none that had much substance to move our struggling readers.

I am lucky enough to work for one of the best principals in our county, and under her training, I have learned a lot about choosing rigor over looks. The experience of working for this amazing woman taught me how to properly vet materials for quality before giving them over to my students. I don’t choose the craftivity; I rarely, if ever, even do them. Instead, I choose what I know is going to give my students the maximum instructional value, because our school just doesn’t have the time to “fluff” anything up.

Enter in the Secret Stories…. The past fall, I was looking for something— anything that could help fill the gaps in phonics with my struggling readers who were at least a grade level behind in reading. I was given the opportunity to loop with my class, and so was well aware of the gaps that they had. I went into this year knowing the holes that would need to be filled, but not knowing HOW I was going to fill them.

Through countless search attempts, I stumbled upon the Secret Stories website and started reading all of the reviews. I was hooked. The minute I read that students were ASKING to learn about letter sounds and phonics patterns, I knew it was what I needed for my kids. And while the Secrets may be cute, they are all “meat” and no fluff! And so, unbeknownst to anyone at my school, I ordered the kit, put up the posters, and let the magic unfold! I call it magic because that’s the only way to describe what happens once you let the “genie” out of the bottle and start telling the Secrets.

With the current status of our school, we are a revolving door of district, state, and management company personnel going in and out of our rooms on a weekly to monthly basis. We have extra trainings, new strategies, brand-new curriculum, and countless other responsibilities that all teachers have. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to learn one more routine, strategy, or program to implement in my classroom. My kids don’t have the ability to take anything else in. THAT is why I love Secret Stories so much. It runs itself!

The minute I told my students the first Secret, and that NO ONE could know what I was about to tell them— especially all of those people in suits that kept coming in and out of our classroom—they were hooked! They have been begging for more phonics Secrets ever since!

If you were to come into my classroom, you would be welcomed by one of my favorite sights—our Secret Stories phonics posters! My classroom is all pastel colors, so this set was perfect. My kids use these posters ALL DAY LONG to reference how to both sound-out AND spell words words. (Ignore the feet in the first pic, as it was a long day! ;-)

Secret Stories Guided Reading

guided reading group

I wanted my kids to be thinking about the Secret phonics patterns outside of reading block as well, so we started “catching” the Secret sounds wherever and whenever we came across them throughout the day! This could be during a math lesson, during I-Ready lessons, or during our read-to-self time. Whenever they find a Secret, they can “catch” it and add it to our collection.

Phonics Games Word Work

phonics for reading

i ready reading assessment

I bought a shoe rack, added the Secret Stories cards from the back of the book to each pocket, and on the side, placed a container for half-sized index cards and markers. This gives them everything they need to catch Secret phonics patterns and sounds during centers, small group, etc.

Word Work Word Study Secret Stories

Word Study Word Work

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

Secret Stories Sneaky Y

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

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

Teaching Vowels Sounds

When practicing test-taking strategies, we use the Secrets to help identify the phonics patterns and figure out new words in the text. This helps them to become more familiar with the text before they read it.

secret stories reading test assessment

That way, when they are taking tests, they know to look for phonics patterns in unfamiliar words to help them. This makes them feel more comfortable when they working with more complex text, especially my struggling readers.

Secret Stories Sneaky Y®

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

Secret Stories Mommy E / Silent E

The Secrets have changed the way I teach phonics and, if I’m being honest, I will never go back to phonics-based routines in order to teach my students how to read. They do not need to memorize; they need to WANT to READ!

Love of Reading with Secret Stories

The Secrets have given my students a “need to know” the sounds, rather than me having to force them to learn them. Now, they are ASKING me to teach them….they want to know ALL of the Secrets!!

In a profession where we have no time for the cute stuff, the Secrets have found a way to be adorable AND rigorous. What an amazing accomplishment!

If you have any questions, or would like to reach out, you can find me on , and

Happy New Year!
Kelli


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

Secret Stories Phonics Task Cards

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


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

Secret Stories Guided Reader Like a Snowball

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

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

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

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

January 2020

1/28-

1/29

February

2/5

2/7

2/18

2/28

March

3/14

3/26-3/28

April

4/1- 4/3

4/21- 4/22

4/28- 4/30


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

Love,
Katie

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

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!!!

I shared the above video 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 Super Hero 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!


 

How to Teach First Graders About Persuasive Writing

Teaching persuasive writing is not easy, and getting kids excited about doing it, especially first graders, is even harder….but not when there are leprechauns involved!

Persuasive Writing in First Grade

Now you might be thinking, “This lady is crazy! Look at that mess! Why would anyone purposely ransack their own classroom for the sake of a persuasive writing lesson?”
And maybe you’re right.

But in our little first grade classroom, reading and writing activities provide the perfect “playground” for adventures like these! Knowing the Secrets empowers my kiddos (many of whom are ELL) to read what they love and write the stories that they want to tell! And unlike average first graders midyear, they aren’t the least bit reliant on sight words to read and write, as they OWN the code!

My name is Renee McAnulty, and I am a first grade teacher at Cottonwood Elementary School in Hesperia California, and you may remember me from previous guest posts on Katie’s Blog.

Increasing Student Engagement with Persuasive Writing

I am that teacher who is constantly trying to come up with creative ways to get my kids completely engaged in our lessons. When it comes to teaching beginning readers and writers, the first (and most important) step is to ensure that they have the tools they need to read write with! And that’s not easy, given how little of the code (i.e. phonics skills) the average first grader has of the code at this point in first grade, as per the grade level scope and sequence in our reading series.

Add to that the constant pressure of trying to compete with video gaming, YouTube, high energy tv shows, etc., focusing students’ attention on reading and writing tasks can be challenging! My special recipe includes the “4C’s” — Creativity, Critical thinking, Collaboration, and Communication….along with a “sprinkling” of Secrets! Combining all of these ingredients has completely transformed what reading and writing looks like in our classroom. We have actually become so strong in our abilities, that we sometimes have to use writing to get ourselves out of sticky situations, like the one that happened last week.

Before I explain the chaos, keep in mind that we are first graders, and as such, we have very BIG imaginations!

—We believe in magic.
—We believe in fairies (and actually have one living in our classroom at the moment)
—We believe in elves (and host an Elf-exchange program with the North Pole each December)
—And we believe in leprechauns.

In fact, did you know that leprechauns are responsible for messing up classrooms all over the world? If you don’t believe me, Google it, as their mayhem is well-documented.

This is why I had my munchkins create leprechaun traps. We even put on a “leprechaun exhibit” for the entire school to show off our creative traps, and to encourage others to do the same.

After making and setting our, we left them out overnight, and when we returned to our classroom the next morning, it was pure chaos! The leprechauns had not only escaped from our traps, but they trashed our room, and we had to clean up all of their mess…and they made a BIG mess!

First Grade Literacy Centers

First Grade Mess

First Grade Writing Activity

First Grade Fun

Still in shock, but with a full day of learning ahead of us and no time to waste, my little munchkins started cleaning the giant mess as fast as they could. Then, without any warnings, our principal entered the room (which I will admit, “may” have been pre-planned! ;-)

First Grade Leprechaun Classroom

His face showed his shock….and his disappointment. How could these precious first graders, who love their school, treat their classroom like this? He was speechless. The kids immediately tried to explain what had happened, “We didn’t do it! It was the leprechauns!”

The look on his face said he was not buying it. (Our principal had some theatre training and is a very good actor!) The kids could tell that he was thinking, that WE really did this! They tried their best to explain, but to no avail.

Leprechaun Fun in First Grade

Our principal is a very busy man, and he just doesn’t have time to listen to nonsense. However, despite his busy schedule, he is also very reasonable and very fair. So, he gives the kids their most important assignment to date, to explain to him, IN WRITING, why they are not responsible for the mess. If they can prove that the leprechauns were the real culprits by citing evidence and research, as well as the reasons that they believe that it was them who did this, then he might be convinced to believe us.

The kids wasted no time. They thanked him and then went to work cleaning the classroom. They un-flipped the tables, sharpened the pencils, and began writing.

1st Grade Classroom Destroyed by Leprechaun

Not Your Typical First Grade Writing

Now was not the time for, “How do you spell Leprechaun?”
Our reputation was on the line! It’s moments likes this when basic kid-writing simply with simple sight words just will not do. We were not going to be able to convince our principal that we were innocent with:
“I like leprechauns.”
“Leprechauns are cool!”
“I really really really like them.”
“Leprechauns are fun!”
Thankfully, we were armed with our Secret Stories and could write exactly what we wanted, no needed to say!

How incredible is that? We know how to write!
In fact, our writing is being requested by our principal!
Why? Because he can read it!

One of the many perks of kids knowing the letters’ “Secrets” is that they can not only read almost anything, they can write almost anything too! And so without any hesitation at all, the kids started to write….and write….and write.

First Grade Writing

Why did they write so much?
Because they could, and because it was fun!

This awesome (albeit messy) writing adventure was the perfect mixture of play, passion and skills! It wasn’t just fun, it was exciting! Who would think that words like these would ever be used to describe a first grade writing assignment?!!

Our First Grade Persuasive Writing

How to Teach Writing to First Graders


How to Teach Writing


Persuasive Writing Activity


First Grade Persuasive Writing Activity


How to Teach Persuasive Writing to Beginning Writers


First Grade Persuasive Writing


Teaching Beginning Writers


First Grade Writing


Teaching Persuasive Writing in First Grade


When the last of the writers finished up, I sent our class reps to the office to schedule a meeting with Mr. Mauger so that we could read our letters and plead our case. It was just after lunch that he called us in. The kids gave him their letters and showed him some of the research they had done online.

Then he read all of our letters.

 

After some persuasive conversation, our principal finally said that he believed us. The kids were so relieved, and so very proud that they had once again written their way out of another sticky situation! (You can read about our trauma over Rocky, the school mascot, here!)

When we got back to our classroom, we sat down and chatted about everything that had happened. I told them how proud I was of them. “Munchkins, because you are officially readers and writers! You wrote exactly what you wanted to say, and didn’t even have to ask me how to spell anything! You had the power and the confidence to write your own thoughts down on paper!” (A quick side note here— If you use Secret Stories, but don’t know about/use the “Zoo Keepers & M&M” strategy, you need to watch this and then download it NOW! It’s free, and really help kids understand that they must “capture” as many letters (and Secrets!) that they hear in the words they are trying to write. It’s a great tool for ensuring Secret Stories skill-transfer to writing. It also makes beginning writing much easier to read, and to enjoy! You can read more about writing with Secret Stories here.)

You might be thinking that such a huge production for a silly little writing lesson is unnecessary. And sure, I could have just passed out a worksheet with a couple of  leprechauns on it and a few lines for writing, while listening to the sighs and moans as I explained what the writing topic was and how many sentences they “had to write” in order to be “done.”

The whole lesson probably would have taken no more than twenty minutes and then we could have moved on to something else….all the while keeping our classroom neat and clean! But where is the fun in that?

The truth is that by next year, these kids won’t even remember learning to read and write, just like they don’t remember how they learned to walk and talk. These are tasks that they perform automatically with no effort at all.

Reading and Writing Fluency

And this is my goal for them as readers and writers—that every day, they will become more fluent! They may not recall the actual learning process, but they will never forget the day that a crazed group of leprechauns tore up their classroom, and how they had to rely on their writing abilities to persuade the principal that they were innocent of the crime!

Leprechaun Fun in First Grade Writing

The Importance of Play in Learning

I hope you enjoyed this peek into our first grade persuasive writing adventure, and I hope it inspires you to infuse more “play” into reading and writing activities in your own classroom!

Secret Stories is the missing piece to our “1,000 piece” puzzle!
Weaving “play” into literacy learning is so critical at the early grade levels, and Secret Stories transforms every reading and writing experience into a virtual playground! The Secrets are are play as far as kids are concerned! They can’t stop talking about them and actively “hunt” for them in words throughout the day. They role-play their sound behaviors to get the sounds/spellings they need to read/write.

This may sound odd to those who don’t use the Secrets, but it almost feels like my class and I are on an endless vacation of reading and writing adventures! I say “vacation” because we’ve long since surpassed all of our “required” first grade reading level objectives—with most of the kids reading (and writing) far above grade level, and those who would normally struggle, performing strongly on-grade level.

Our little first grade classroom has become a reading and writing playground where deep learning and critical thinking opportunities abound! (I actually saw a video clip of a kindergarten teacher trying to explain the same thing, and it’s exactly the way that I feel.)

When kids know the Secrets, they “own the code” and have everything they need to read and write what they want. And this is so important, as standard curriculum leaves so many holes. Before I started using Secret Stories, my first graders struggled to read and write anything, aside from the sight words they had memorized.

Teachers need tools, and so do kids! It drives me crazy when I hear teachers who are struggling to teach their kids their kids to read that they “don’t have time for one more thing!”

The Secrets aren’t one more thing. They are EVERYTHING that kids need to read and write, and everything that teachers need to teach them how to do it. They answer all of the questions about why letters make the sounds that they do when “jump off our alphabet chart and into the real words” that we see every day.

Kids can’t help but ask “Why?” anytime they spot Secrets in a word they cannot read. They literally “beg” to hear them, and this is when you realize that you are no longer driving the learning train.  The kids are. They have taken over and are seated squarely in the driver’s seat and leading the way in their own learning!

We have time to relax and take literacy lessons to new heights that were never possible before in first grade. I know I sound like a broken record when I say that I cannot imagine teaching in a world without Secret Stories, and when I look back, I honestly have no idea how I ever did.

Renee McAnulty
(a.k.a.”Mrs. Mac’s Munchkins”)

PS I wanted to share a quick “techie-tool” that we use to tie in our technology component, called Flipgrid. The kids recorded themselves reading their letters to Mr. Mauger, and then he recorded his response. The kids love it, and we can even share the links with our parents!

Flip Grid for First Grade

And here is a rough screen recording of one of my littles reading her letter to Mr. Mauger along with his response. (The sound isn’t great, as the kids were all recording at the same time and so there is a lot of background noise.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phonics “Secrets” to Support Reading and Writing at Home

This was originally posted on Tara Settle’s popular (and totally FREE & AWESOME!) teacher blog, Settle on In, entitled, “The BEST GIFT I Have Ever Given. It’s about the holiday gift that she gave to her students this year, and I asked Tara if she would be willing to share it here, along with some background, and she agreed! (Note that I have added the links for convenience.)

Phonics for Guided Reading

Tara Settle – 1st Grade Title I Teacher 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Code-Cracker Cards - Porta-Pics for Phonics Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To help you understand why I am so passionate about Secret Stories, there are some free Secrets in the “Appetizer Pack” which you can download and start using RIGHT NOW with your kiddos, plus lots of strategies that you can watch and then do for FREE on Katie’s YouTube Channel.

Free Phonics Posters by Secret Stories

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

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

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


A Post-Script….

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

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

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

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

Phonics Activities

phonics games

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

Phonics Games with Secret Stories Posters

Phonics Flashcard Games

Secret Stories Phonics Instruction Program

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

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



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

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

*PREVIEW*PREVIEW*PREVIEW*PREVIEW*PREVIEW*PREVIEW*PREVIEW**PREVIEW*

This is Jen Foster (@GoodMorningMsFoster on Instagram- https://www.instagram.com/goodmorningmsfoster) who teaches  first grade teacher in Malaysia, and she and I have a special surprise in store for you that will be announced this weekend, so stay tuned to Facebook or Instagram for a big “reveal!”

 

 

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!

Until Next Time,
Katie
www.KatieGarner.com
www.TheSecretStories.com

PS There are LOTS of great reading conferences coming up in November where I’ll be speaking, so if you’re interested in going to one, please check my schedule, as I would love to meet you in person!

PSS I just had to share this creative way that another teacher, Jessica Granada, a second grade teacher from Los Fresnos, Texas, found to display her new Secret Stories® “Decorative Squares” phonics posters….

Secret Stories Decorative Squares Phonics Posters

HOW COOL IS THAT??
Decorate your classroom ceiling with this FREE “appetizer-pack” of Secret Stories Phonics Posters!