(This post was originally posted on I Teach What’s Your Super PowerBlog, and excerpts pertaining to the Secret Stories® have been shared here, with permission from the author.)
Struggling Readers and the Phonics Divide
I had never heard of the Secret Stories until a teacher I thought highly of at a previous school swore by it with her first graders. It sounded interesting, but it was an “in one ear out the other” kind of thing, and I didn’t think about it again.
Fast forward to January of this year, and there was a CLEAR phonics divide in my second grade classroom between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” While some of my second graders were rocking and rolling with their sound knowledge, picking it up easily from the lessons embedded in our literacy block; others were still struggling with short /a/.
Enter Secret Stories…..
So here’s the quick version of Secret Stories: (not an affiliate link, I just love it!)
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.
My initial intention was to use the Secret Stories specifically with my struggling readers who had significant phonetic weaknesses as an intervention. However, my “small” group got waaaaay bigger than I planned because the majority of my students wanted to join in! Some of my strongest readers were strategically placing themselves around my group of struggling readers on the rug while pretending to read a book, just so they could listen in! Eventually, I invited anyone that wanted to join in, and I consistently had 12-15 kids in our “intervention” group.
Our reading intervention time consisted of reviewing previously introduced Secrets, introducing new ones, and them practicing them both orally and on white boards. On Fridays, we would “collect” all of the words with Secret Stories phonics patterns in them, which helped me know which ones I needed to reinforce. Incorrect answers are as informative as correct answers! If we had an extra minute or two during our morning messages, we would play “word detectives” and look for the Secrets in it!
I would ask things like,“Find a word with these two friends who are all about the balls….” or “Find a two-syllable word with a bad driver in it….” or “Find a word with that has a sneaky letter in it….” etc…..
Even though we didn’t start the Secrets until mid-year, I absolutely saw a 100% difference in both their reading and spelling. Next year, I will be starting with the Secrets week one!
As Secret Stories is not available as a “digital” download, it’s more expensive (about $100 for the book, posters and CD). But I was in a full on panic over having so many struggling readers in my classroom, and so I was more than willing to spend the money to make my life easier. If you don’t have the $100 to buy it personally and you can’t get your school or PTA to buy it for you, it would definitely be worth setting up a Donor’s Choose project.
Secret Stories allows me to quickly introduce a significant number of phonics skills in a short amount of time, and in a way that all of my students could easily remember and understand. Knowing the Secrets also gave us a common language that we could use when talking about the letters and sounds. “I’m looking for Secrets,” became one of our most-used print strategies!
Secret Stories is one of my favorite teacher-things, not only because of the growth that I saw with my students, but because of how much they love them and enjoy using them!
A Guest Post By Melissa Gregory —Kindergarten Teacher at Title I School in Ohio
Kindergarten- End of October
Who says kindergartners can’t have access to ALL of the code needed to read and write in a short amount of time????
By the end of the FIRST NINE WEEKS, these cuties are taking off in reading AND writing, and are so excited to be word detectives finding ‘secrets’ in every word they see!!!
Kindergarten Writing in Mid-November
I shared the above videos and comment with Katie back in October. It was my first year teaching kindergarten, and having taught first grade for the past ten years, I was just floored by what the kids were able to do. They loved for me to take the ‘Secret’ book and go through all of the grown-up reading and writing sounds that they know. They begged to do it every morning, and were the first ones to get mad and remind me if I got busy and forgot. They loved to pretend to be the Superhero Vowels when they were playing in the drama center (so cute!) On the 100th day of school, I asked them to write about their favorite part of kindergarten, and almost all of my kids said it was learning the Secret Stories! They had such ownership of their learning and were so proud!
My Journey from First Grade to Kindergarten
My name is Melissa Gregory, and I am a kindergarten teacher at a Title I School near Cincinnati, Ohio. This year was my first year teaching kindergarten, though I’d taught first grade for many years. I sent Katie the video of my class in late October, as I wanted her to see how fast my kindergartners were soaking-up all of the Secrets! These little kindergartners knew ALL of the them by the end of October, even though they were still learning their individual letter sounds with the Better Alphabet Song.
Having only taught first grade before, I had no preconceived notions about what kindergartners were “supposed” to do, and so we just “played” with the Secrets all the time. The Secrets were not only their favorite stories, but also their favorite “toys.” They didn’t just “know” them, they were actively using them to read and spell words! With every day came new growth and discovery, and being new to kindergarten, I felt like I was learning right along with them. I was just so excited that I had to share it, and from the moment that Katie posted our little video back in October on Facebook, we both began receiving so many comments and questions. Most wanted to know if the Secrets they knew in the video actually transferred to their reading and writing, and if so, how? So, Katie asked me to track of all of this year’s data and write this post.
This comment, in particular, sums up what many who saw the video back in October were curious to learn—
I am not understanding how this transfers into their reading & writing since it is done in isolation. Is there any assessment data showing how well kids can actually read? I show my students many videos and we sing many songs too, but I don’t see all kids accessing the information later in their reading and writing.
Thanks for any insight you can provide!
My background in first grade…. Having taught first grade in a large school district for the past ten years, this past year was to be my first ever teaching kindergarten. Our district had expanded from four Early Childhood Schools to six, and I was moved to a new building and placed in kindergarten. My new school was a Title 1 and Title 3 school, with both ESL and free and reduced lunch population.
I had been using Secret Stories in first grade for the past seven years, alongside the Lucy Caulkins Reading and Writing Workshop Model, which our district had adopted several years back. Secret Stories was a game-changer for me, as it gave my first graders more of the phonics “code” they needed to actually do reading and writing workshop! As a result, my students had always shown unbelievable growth—not just in their reading, but in their writing, as well. Knowing the Secrets gave them confidence to tackle new words in reading, write more complicated words in their stories, and even figure-out unknown words in their story problems for math.
As early grade teachers, our students are just learning how to “do” school, and so testing is not what is most important, nor should it define them. However, data is extremely important to principals, as well as to district and state-level administrators, as it provides a “snap-shot” of current student performance. If you were to look at my data from seven years ago and compare it to my data now, you would see a huge difference. Yes, I am sure that I have become a better teacher over time, but the truth is, I didn’t have my secret weapon, and so I couldn’t give it to my students. That’s what the Secret Stories are to me and my students. They are our secret reading weapon, and they continue to be the BEST gift I could ever give my kids!
Before I discovered Secret Stories, I had to do weekly word practice and a phonics focus, and so my calendar looked like this…
Sight Words, Word Families, and Phonics Rules (a.k.a. “Before Secrets”)
Everything was taught in isolation and nothing was authentic….or fun. Students would learn the sight words, word families and phonics rules for the week, and then we would move on with hope that they could retain those words and rules. There was no spiral-teaching, except for the weeks we reviewed, and those were only for the sight words, not the word families or phonics rules. I look back now and wonder how my class ever reached the levels required by the end of each school year? During the week, I would use rainbow word worksheets, word sorts, letter tiles and magnetic letters to practice the sight words, and I had a block of time set aside for word study each day.
Becoming Secret Word Detectives
The first thing that you notice when you start telling Secrets is how they naturally integrate with everything that you are already doing. They are literally everywhere! I no longer needed to set aside time for word practice or phonics “kill and drill,” as the kids were naturally using them ALL DAY LONG—in reading, in math, at lunch, in art…..anywhere and everywhere there were words, they found Secrets! Skill-reinforcement was “baked-in” to everything that we were already doing—across all subject areas, as the kids were constantly using them to read and write words. They loved being word detectives and spotting Secrets wherever they were hiding! My teaching became more authentic, which made learning easier and more natural for my students.
From day one, I had all of the Secret Stories posters hung in my room, and I started showing my kids how to use them. I explained that the Secrets were the “keys” they needed to “unlock” words, and I modeled using them for this purpose constantly. Whenever we came to a word that they couldn’t read or spell, I told them the Secret, and then showed them the poster and reminded them how they could use it to read and spell other words on their own. And off they went! During free choice time, they pretended to be the teacher, using the pointers to show and tell the Secret Stories, and then calling on their friends to make the sounds and show the motions. They referred to the posters constantly, sometimes to actually read or spell a word, and sometimes, just to “play” with telling their story and making their sound. I actually have the posters hung on both sides of my classroom so they can easily see them from anywhere, which just goes to show how much the kids use them!
Letters Behave Like Kids
The day I told them the first Secret Story, my teaching changed forever. Having a way to make phonics make sense just made everything we were already doing so much easier! Five and six-year-olds may not understand (or care about) letter sounds, but they do understand that letters behave differently when they are together with different friends, just like they behaved differently with different friends. In the Secret Stories, kids saw their own feelings and behaviors reflected back, which is why they loved hearing and telling them so much. The Secrets come from a place that kids can easily identify with and understand, like, for example: how a line leader is supposed to behave, when to (and when not to) be sneaky, not getting along with your classmate, being left out of a group, having to listen to your mom (or your babysitter!), and even what it would be like to have super powers! The Secrets make kids wonder. They made them curious. They make them think. But most of all, the Secrets make them want to know more Secrets!
My first graders had always learned the Secrets quickly, which is what made our Reading and Writing Workshop take off, but when I moved to kindergarten, I wasn’t sure how this would go. At curriculum night, I shared with parents that I was unsure about how kindergartners would do with Secret Stories, since I’d only used them in first grade. But I also told them that if their kids were going to be reading and writing in kindergarten, then they were going to need them!
Our end-of-year standard for kindergarten was mastery of: individual letter sounds, 25 sight words, and three digraphs- /sh/, /th/ and /wh/….and that was it. My first grade teacher-brain couldn’t help but wonder what in the world kids were actually supposed to be able to do with that?! However, I knew that, as a kindergarten teacher, I would be spending a lot of time on individual letters and sounds, and would need to focus on those first. I was even concerned that giving them the Secrets might be too much…..oh boy was I wrong!
Word Work Playground
The Daily Calendar
At the early grade levels, the entire day is a playground of word exploration and play! I actually shared the first Secret before I’d even introduced any of the individual letters and sounds. It was the Secret about au/aw, which I told them on the first day of school during calendar time. (I remembered seeing Katie doing this in a kindergarten YouTube video and so I thought I would do the same.) I asked the kids how many of them knew what a “secret” was. I told them that there were special secrets that could only be told to very special kindergartners, and that these secrets would help them to become better readers and writers. I also made sure to let them know that they could tell their parents (or loved ones), and that when they go home, they could pretend to be the teacher and teach the Secret Story to them.
School starts in early August, and we do Calendar Time every day, so since we would be “reading” the word August on a daily basis, it made sense to explain why the /A/ wasn’t making the sound it was supposed to (based on the sounds it makes in the Better Alphabet Song, which we also sang every morning and afternoon). To understand why, the kids would need to know the Secret about au/aw.
The picture below is not of me or my class, but I found it on one of Katie’s blogs, and it gives you the idea.
Whenever I told them a Secret, I would make a huge deal about how they were ‘grown-up’ reading and writing secrets, and that no other kids were allowed to know them! Then throughout the rest of the day, I would introduce other Secrets, as we needed them to read and spell words that we would frequently use or encounter (i.e. student names, high-frequency sight words, color words, math words, etc…). Then we could use these Secrets to crack even more words that we came across. Once you begin telling Secrets, there is a sort of “snowball-effect,” which quickly takes on a life of its own, as the kids start to drive their own learning!
Over the next two weeks, I had introduced them all authentically. I purposefully searched for ways to introduce them to the class that would be meaningful.
I introduced Secrets to help us read and write the names of students in our class. Kids love to talk about, explore and “play” with their own names, as well as their friends’ names. They especially loved keeping track of whose names had which Secrets in them, often alerting visitors to our class that they had a Secret in their name, but then refusing to tell them what it was….because of course, it’s a “secret!”
I introduced Secrets that we found in our read-aloud mini-lessons. And while I don’t have a picture of this from my own classroom, I did find this video of Katie doing the same.
Word Study in Math
When talking about Math Workshop, I introduced the Secrets that we needed to read those words (/th/ and /sh/). I really wanted the kids to see the Secrets as their own, personal keys to unlock any word—not something that was confined to our reading lesson. The video below demonstrates this point.
As we practiced walking around our building, trying to learn where places were located, I would point out the Secrets in words that we saw on the walls. I asked parents to send in environmental print, and we would use the words they brought in each day to teach more Secrets. For example, to read the store name, Target, we learned the Secret about /ar/.
When we saw the word Walmart, we needed the /al/ Secret to crack it, along with the previously learned Secret about /ar/. Learning was authentic and continually spiraling. Secrets were shared and re-shared, with the kids never tiring of re-telling old Secrets and learning new ones. And all this was happing simultaneously to picking up the individual letters and sounds with muscle memory, via our Better Alphabet Song (sung twice a day, every day!) I actually caught one of my little guys, who was obsessed with this song, singing it to himself at recess, and I recorded it, as he was just so cute! It’s the video below.
Now I’ll admit that teaching all of the Secrets in the first two weeks of kindergarten isn’t what Katie says to do in her book, but my kids were so hungry to hear more Secrets, that I thought, why not? After all, they’re just stories….and who worries about telling kids too many stories??
I know what you’re thinking (especially if you teach kindergarten), but before you judge, just remember that I wasn’t “teaching” skills, I was telling stories! Stories that they loved and would beg to hear! Also, having never taught kindergarten before, I had no preconceived notions about what kindergartners could and couldn’t do. All I knew was that they kept begging me to tell them just “one more Secret”….and so I did! And every one that I told came back to me like a boomerang in our daily reading and writing—which would only motivate me to tell more! (I literally could not keep a secret- Lol!)
The more Secrets I told them, the more they wanted. The more Secrets they had, the more words they could read and write. Secret skill transfer to reading and writing was easy and natural, as it is only for these purposes that Secrets were shared, so kids automatically made this connection, unlike with an isolated phonics skill lesson. And unlike a phonics “program,” Secrets aren’t grade-specific, and there are no scripted lessons to follow, making it easy to work them into everything you do—any time, any where, and for any purpose….without any prep!
One of the first things that I discovered in kindergarten was that five-year-olds were just as excited to hear the Secrets as I was to tell them! The more excitement I showed, the more they showed, and the more they were learning without even knowing! Without any prompting, they were finding Secrets everywhere, and then telling each other their “secret” sounds. I was constantly amazed at how their little eyes lit up every time they spotted Secrets that they knew in words—from reading passages, to the cafeteria menu, to signs in the hallway. I was even told by parents that “Secret-spottings” were happening at home on newspapers, magazine covers, and even on signs! These little kindergartners were quickly realizing that everywhere there were words, there were Secrets, and that they had the keys to unlock them.
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 we were reading poems, they wanted to circle the Secrets. In read-aloud, they wanted to come up and put highlighter tape on the Secrets. Even in math, science and social studies, they were always “on the hunt” for Secrets. They were obsessed, and it was wonderful! It was so much fun watching their excited conversations about what the Superhero Vowels® were doing, and whether they would “say their name” or be “short and lazy” (if Mommy E® or the Babysitter Vowels® weren’t around). Both their reading AND writing just soared!
To see just how obsessed they were with the Secrets, check out this video that was sent to me by one of my parents of their child’s birthday party. In the caption, the father wrote, “The secrets really ARE everywhere!”
Secret Stories to Sound Out Words for Reading
When my students are reading and come upon an unknown word, I don’t tell them what it is. Instead, I tell them to look for the Secrets.
Several years ago, when I started teaching first grade and hadn’t yet discovered Secret Stories, my kids were usually unsuccessful when attempting to sound out most words, unless they were simple C-V-C words, like cat, bed, cut, etc… Now that my kids know the Secrets, they wouldn’t even start sounding out a word without first noticing the Secrets that are in it. For example, before they knew the Secrets, my first graders might try to sound out the word first like this, “ff-ih-ruh-ss-tuh,” making each letter sound individually. With the Secrets, even my kindergartners will automatically say, “f-ir-st,” because they immediately notice the Secrets and blends.
This is another reason why it is so important that all of the Secret Stories posters are up on your wall where kids can easily see them, as it’s the first place they’ll look when they can’t read or spell a word. It’s also important to encourage them to use the motions or action that naturally goes along with each story sound. Unlike a “program” (i.e. Zoo Phonics, Letterland, Jolly Phonics, etc…) the Secret Stories motions aren’t arbitrary actions that you have to know and remember, but just the natural physical response of engaging in the action/making the sound, like holding the steering wheel and slamming on the pretend brakes when saying, “Errrrrrrrrr” (for er/ir/ur) or sticking your tongue out and making a mean face when saying “thhhhhhhhhh” (for /th/).
We don’t just “stamp our brains” with the pictures, but with the sounds and actions as well! All children learn differently, and the more modalities we can incorporate in our learning, the more connections we make in our brains! Secret Stories’ multi-sensory instruction activates all of the senses—see it, say it, do it and even FEEL it— for deep learning, which is why the Secrets “stick” so easily, even for kindergartners. The visual below is actually from Katie’s session handout, but I wanted to add it here to show how a multi-sensory approach to instruction (especially for phonics) helps to forge deeper learning connections in the brain.
Kindergarten in December
The following videos are of students in my class, who you will see looking up at the wall behind them to find the Secrets they need to decode the words they’re trying to read. I always give them a little time before asking what Secret (or Secrets) they see. These clips are from early December, back when they were still learning how to actively decode new words. As their decoding ability improved, we were able to focus more on fluency, which you will see in later videos further down below.
*Note that these are “cold” readings of instructional-level text, which means that it offers some challenges, based on their current reading level, which of course, is different for each child. Most often, in guided reading, I intentionally select more challenging text (rather than easier books) so as to give them words that they might struggle with a bit, so as to help them stretch and grow as readers.
Teaching the Reader, Not the Reading
The Secret Stories reach every child. My ESL students and little ones on IEPs were able to pick them up just as easily as the rest of my kids. No matter how a child learns, the Secrets just make sense. Kids who aren’t yet developmentally ready to read still love to hear and tell the stories—talking about them like they would their favorite TV or video game characters. But for kids who are ready, these simple stories open up a whole new world of reading and writing for them to explore! Because the Secrets apply to everything we do in kindergarten, reinforcing them is easy and can be done with high, medium and low-level learners, simultaneously. While higher-level learners are able to transfer knowledge of the story to the sounds and letter patterns they need for reading and writing, lower-level learners are simply enjoying knowing and telling the story, not yet realizing the power that it holds.
The first time that I did a Running Record on a child in kindergarten after having introduced all the Secret Stories, I was in shock! Our reading was off the charts, and so were our scores. Once my kindergartners had successfully gotten me to spill all of the Secrets (yes, I blame them!) they were unstoppable. The best part of teaching kindergarten was watching the extreme progression from kids knowing little-to-no letter sounds to becoming full-fledged readers! The transformation was incredible. The second best part was seeing their excitement as they evolved as readers and writers. I only wish that I would have recorded this child at the beginning of the year when he still didn’t know all of his letters or sounds!
Kindergarten Reading Level – Late Fall
Kindergarten Reading Level – Winter
It was around this time in mid-December, just before the holiday break, that I sent Katie the following update….
I just completed our F&P (Fountas & Pinnell) assessments yesterday and today on my kindergarten class! Our kids have to be at a level D by the END of the year, and more than half of my kids are already there, with 10 reading between levels F-I! And most didn’t even know their letters and sounds at the beginning of the year!
Not having ever taught kindergarten before, I am just floored by their progress! I was in first grade for the past 11 years, so I was not sure how quickly kindergartners would learn the sounds and put it together in order to read fluently. Well, by December, they were reading and comprehending!!!!♥️If anyone ever wonders if the Secrets work in Kindergarten, they should hear these angels read and comprehend. I myself am amazed! Sorry, but had to brag about Secret Stories! I know all of the teachers out there who use it will get it! 🙂
PS We also do Maps Testing, and I can’t wait to see the difference in overall growth from September to December! I will share that when I get it.
Below is my kindergarten F&P data showing where we were in December, as well as their overall growth by the end of the school year.
“Fountas & Pinnell” Reading Level Assessments
Note that by the end of the school year, 50% were reading at “end of first grade” level, having passed level J (the highest level-assessment allowed for kindergarten by the district). This is compared to 6% of kindergartners, district-wide (including students from non-Title I schools).
Our district also uses MAP Testing with a projected RIT score to show where kids should be by the end of the year. Those who use NWEA MAP will better understand the data below. For those who don’t, the projected RIT score is for Spring. As you can imagine, several students had already surpassed the projected RIT score by Winter testing. Our administration looks at the percent of projected growth met, which should be around 100% by the end of the year. Anything above that indicates how much more a student grew than was expected from their RIT score.
On average, there should be about a 10-point growth from Fall to Spring. The assessment data below shows growth from both winter and spring. Keep in mind that these assessments are just a snapshot of the entire child, and do not inform what is good overall growth. They are most useful to ensure that all students are continuing to move—from the lowest to the highest. Average student growth on this assessment is traditionally between 80%-120% percent. My average student this year in kindergarten was over 200%.
Kindergarten “Map” Testing – Reading
As I stated above, while data is important, it provides only a snapshot of the whole child, especially in kindergarten. Secret Stories have improved my scores immensely over the years, so I no longer worry about testing, as we are always way ahead of where we need to be, midway through the year. Not having to worry about teaching the “reading” means that I can focus more on teaching the reader. That’s where I can invest my time and energy, not on sight word lists and reading “practice!”
Word Work Activities and Phonics Play
Midway through kindergarten, my class had become highly-skilled word detectives, and our “word work” was never limited to our reading block! We circled and highlighted Secrets in the stories and poems we read, put highlighting tape on our big books, and were always on the look-out for Secrets hiding both in and outside of our classroom! Reading and writing was never limited to an isolated “phonics” or “word work” time; it was immersed into every part of our day! Whenever Secret phonics patterns were spotted, we would circle or highlight them. Then we tap out the word, chunking each Secret Story sound together (instead of saying the letters sounds individually). For example, if we came across the word thirds in Math, we would highlight the letters /th/ and /ir/, and then tap and sound it out as, it out as “th-ir-d-s” (as opposed to “t-h-i-r-d-s”). We would even use a large magnifying glass to show how the Secret letter patterns should jump out at you before you start reading them!
Using a document camera, we would look at poems, like the one about leprechauns, below. We would then circle all of the Secrets we could find and read it aloud, together. If you walked into my room, you would see that no matter what paper I put in front of them, they would all find and circle the Secrets before I even mentioned looking for them.
Secret Stories Hunts
Another fun opportunity for phonics play is going on Secret Story “Hunts,” as this is a great way to strengthen beginning learners’ visual acuity to quickly recognize letter patterns in text. While we often do this at guided reading with our little books, we also like to “hunt” for Secrets in words all around our classroom. We can hunt for words that contain a specific Secret Story pattern, or for words with any Secret Stories patterns! We can also use a timer to make it into a contest to see who can find the most—although to win, they have to be able to READ all of the words that they “captured!” Another fun twist is to extend the hunt to the hallway, the cafeteria, the principal’s office, or even the entire school! The picture below shows the kids going on a Secret Stories Hunt around our classroom.
“Sentence of the Day” and Focus Words
We also have a “Sentence of the Day” book, which we make and do together every day. The students start at the carpet with me, and I introduce the sentence and our focus word.
For example, in the video below, the sentence was, “She is not in school today?” with the focus word, not.At the beginning of the year, I would have to read the sentence to them a few times, but at this point, they are doing a cold read of the sentences to me. We literally take apart the sentence. The students look for Secret Stories, punctuation, capitalization, plus anything else they happen to notice, and then we pull out one word, and think of more words that rhyme with it.
This is a great way to reinforce awareness that if they know how to read and spell the word not, then they can also read and spell the words lot, hot, rot, shot, etc… or, as in the next clip below, if they know how to read and spell the word will, they can also read and spell words like: hill, pill, fill, chill, etc… This activity is a powerful one, as it reinforces everything they know about reading and writing, and provides an easy to way to informally assess their ability to apply the Secrets. It’s also a great way to increase phonemic awareness, as well as recognition of word families for both reading and spelling, but without causing confusion between simple word letter patterns (like -op, -at, -it, etc…) with Secrets (which are the sounds letters make when they don’t do what they should!)
Once we have finished, we then read the sentences three or four times (or more at the beginning of the year). Then the kids go back to their seats, write the word four times, and then write the sentence in their very best handwriting. When finished, students will raise their hands and read it to me. When first starting to read, I have them point to each word as they are reading it so that they can practice one-to-one correspondence, which some students continue doing through the year.
Merry-Go-Round Phonics Instruction
I can’t stress enough the importance of activating all of the modalities in learning practice—the visual, the auditory and the kinesthetic. Whenever we would spot Secrets, we would always reference the poster (visual) while making the sound (auditory) and doing the motion (kinesthetic). By presenting information to the brain from as many angles as possible, Secret Stories fosters deep connections that learners can’t forget. Katie talks about how Secret Stories offers kids a “merry-go-round” for learning that just keeps spinning, giving kids who need it more time “jump on,” and giving them never-ending opportunities to do so. We keep our merry-go-round spinning by always taking the time to re-tell the story, reference to the poster, and engage in the action with the sound. This constant reinforcement of what the Secret is, where it lives (on the wall), and the sound (or sounds) it makes helps to ensure that our merry-go-round never leaves anyone behind—regardless of where they are in the learning process.
Whenever we stand in line before leaving the classroom, one student gets to take my pointer and be the teacher, pointing to the different Secret Stories posters (or words on other posters) hanging in the room. Whatever words were pointed to, the kids would have to read as quickly as they could. This simple game actually had a big impact on their learning, and was well worth the extra five minutes it took to line up. It was during these short, little 3-5 minute windows that I first began to see them evolving into readers before my eyes! Their writing was also improving with each passing day, as they got better and better at using the the posters to transcribe the sounds they heard into readable words.
Using Secret Stories with the Reading and Writing Workshop Model
Our district has used Lucy Calkins’ Reading and Writing Workshop Model for the past 15 years. Before the Secrets, I would follow the Readers/Writers Workshop books like they were my Bible!
I was teaching first grade when I first heard about the Secret Stories from my sister, who was also a first grade teacher, as her school had just purchased them. She would rave and rave about them, telling me all about her school’s success. I was intrigued, but as with any new “program,” I was a little apprehensive. The last thing I needed was something else to teach, and I didn’t really want another book with more lessons that I would have to squeeze into my already overstuffed day. But once she explained how easy it was, and that it really wasn’t a “program” at all, I was all in!
I decided to purchase it with my own money and immediately begin introducing it to my first grade class. Some of my first graders at the time were already reading, while others were still working on letter sounds and sight words, though all of them were captivated by these little “secret” stories. A wave of learning began to rise across the different levels in my classroom, with everyone taking something away from each Secret that I told.
I could write a big word on the board, like for example, vacation or assumption, and while my stronger readers would use the Secrets to silently sound out the word, my lower-level readers would be equally excited to just look for the Secrets and tell their stories while acting out their sounds. Despite the different levels, we could all go back and blend the letter sounds and Secrets together to read the word aloud. To me, this is the epitome of what Katie refers to as, “Buffet-Style” Instruction, with all level learners able to come to the table and “eat” what they’re ready for! The result was a no-prep “multi-tiered” word work activity that not only reinforced the Secrets, but also that no matter our age or grade level, if we knew the Secrets, we could figure out 99% of the words we encounter! (And if you’re wondering how this would work with words that don’t follow phonics rules, that’s actually the most fun part….getting to be “Word Doctors,” which you can read more about here.)
Phonics Units of Study /Phonics Workshop Model
This school year, our district adopted the new Lucy Calkins TCRWP Phonics Units of Study/Phonics Workshop for kindergarten and first grade. This was another thing that I was concerned about when moving to Kindergarten, as I was unsure how to incorporate Secret Stories with a phonics program.
We didn’t receive our TCRWP Phonics Units Teacher Kits until October, so during a professional development on how to use them, we were told to begin on book 2. given that book 1 was geared toward the very first few weeks of kindergarten and we were now two months in. Once I got started, I quickly realized that my students already knew all the concepts—not only book 2, but in book 3, as well. So I had to jump ahead to book 4, and even then, I was able to skip several more lessons that my kids were already able to do.
The reason I was able to skip so many books was not just because we’d already learned all of the skills presented, but because we had been using them daily in everything we do. And while this might seem as though it would present a conflict, it’s actually quite the opposite! Because we didn’t need to engage in any of the phonics skill introduction or practice work in the program, we were able to take full advantage of the open-ended, extension activities for authentic reading and writing that the program offered. The Phonics Units turned out to be a perfect “playground” on which we could flex our Secret Stories “muscles” in a variety of ways for reading and writing!
In the Phonics Units of Study, Lucy Caulkins stresses that in order for beginning learners to be able to transfer phonics skills to reading and writing, they need faster access to them. But unlike the Phonics Units, which deliver phonics skills by grade level across kindergarten, first and second, Secret Stories fast-tracks the WHOLE code in kindergarten by giving kids a way to understand letter sound behavior—so they don’t need to memorize everything, or learn through rote practice. So then, why wait? The more tools we bring to the table, the more value we can take away….and that goes for any reading series or program!
Prior to adopting the Phonics Units of Study, our district required kindergarten students to know 25 sight words by the end of the school year, while first graders had to know 115 before moving on to second grade. In December, I decided to go ahead and test those students who were ready on all of the first grade words, even though our district only requires the 25. Suffice it to say that I actually had to contact our central office and complain (in a nice way) that the online entry system would not allow me to enter anything above a “99” in the field for kindergarten because it only registered two-digit numbers. (They changed it for me! :-)
So here we were, barely half way through kindergarten, and most of the kids could already read all of the 115 first grade words or more! (You can imagine how cocky they were, especially the ones with first grade siblings!)
Kindergarten Sight Word Mastery (Baseline & Mid-Year Assessment)
I’ve always loved using Secret Stories with Writers Workshop, as the two really do go hand-in-hand! Each day I do a mini-lesson and I model, model, model! Then, before students go back to their seats to begin their own writing, we spend a few minutes discussing what they notice in my writing—highlighting, circling, or using highlighting tape to mark all of the Secret Stories that they see. When they are doing their own writing, they are using the Secret Stories posters constantly.
As they tap their arm to segment the sounds that they hear in each word, they know which Secrets make each sound, and can refer to the posters to see how to write it, or just to self-check. Each student also has a Porta-Pic in in their desk folders for easy access that they can refer to anytime they are reading or writing. Kids can take them home for reading and writing there (since they won’t have access to the posters) as well as to their resource/pull-out classrooms (for those who go).
The following video clips show our Writers Workshop time at the beginning of the school, as well as midway through the year. You will notice that at the beginning of the year, students focus more on drawing the pictures and just trying to get some letters down on the page, whereas by the end of the year, they are writing books.
Kindergarten Writing Workshop – Fall
Kindergarten Writing Workshop – Winter
Play-Based Learning & Phonics Fun
During center choice time, my students love to use the puppets and pretend to be the teacher teaching the Secrets. Recently, one student asked if we could make Superhero Vowel puppets. This led to an entire STEAM lesson, and ended with our making puppets for all of the Secrets, and even putting on our own puppet shows!
I divided students into groups of four, and each group had to design and create their own puppets using supplies from our classroom, and then create a skit. Once they made their puppets, they worked with their partners to rehearse their skits. Then each group presented their puppet show to the class. Once all of the skits were finished, students sat and shared their puppets and the sounds that they made.
Play-based, cooperative learning is so much more valuable than any scripted lesson, not to mention a lot more fun! With the Secrets, kids already own the skills, so the real learning lies in their discovery of how to use them. In early grade classrooms, there are endless opportunities to “play” as readers and writers! And I believe that this is why the kids love learning the Secrets so much—because they give them more to play with! They associate the Secrets with fun, play, and stories!
Here are some short clips from our Secret Stories puppet-play—
/ch/ and /ed/
Short and Long Vowel Sounds (a.k.a. Superhero Vowels & their ‘Short & Lazy’ Sounds)
The 3 Sounds for Y (a.k.a. Sneaky Y®)
Reading fluency is key as phonics skills become second nature, and one way to encourage it is through song! We love to read, write and SING our way to fluency! First, we read a book about our favorite animal, then we write about it, and then we sing about it! Check out this talented little one sharing her “All About Animals” writing about raccoons, to the tune of “Party in the USA!” It’s adorable!!
As a teacher in a Primary K-1 building for over 13 years, when students would leave, I wouldn’t get to see them again unless they come back to visit. When they did, I would always ask them to read to us, and then I would let my little ones ask them questions. Once question that they always ask is, “What did you learn that helped you the most?” and the response is almost always, “Secret Stories.” I love knowing that I have given them a gift that continues to help them grow as readers and writers, long after they leave my classroom.
Teacher Expertise in Phonics Secret Stories
The best way to start Secret Stories is to jump right in and don’t overthink it!
Secret Stories give beginning grade learners easy access to all of the code they need to read and write long-before they will be formally introduced by your reading series or phonics program (as per traditional grade level scope and sequences). THIS IS NOT A PROBLEM—it’s a gift!
All you have to do is tell the story and then plug in its sound (for reading) or the letter patterns (for spelling/writing). Telling a Secret to explain strange letter behavior will never (I repeat, NEVER!) conflict with anything else you are doing—no matter what reading series or even phonics “program” you are using! It’s simply giving meaning to letters and sounds that would otherwise have none—and thus, would need to be repeatedly practiced as “skills” (instead of stories).
While Secret Stories is systematic and explicit with introduction of “most-needed” (highest-frequency) first, you can also share and use Secrets as you need them throughout the instructional day! Never limit them to just language arts time, because remember, they’re not a “program,” they’re tools for both you and your students! Secrets should never be taught in isolation, but immersed into everything that you do, and talked about everywhere you go (which kids will naturally do anyway whenever they see words!)
Remember to take advantage of every opportunity to make your students’ learning authentic, but don’t wait too long to introduce all the Secrets. And to all my fellow kindergarten teachers out there, DO NOT WAIT for kids to know the individual letter sounds before you start telling them Secrets! That’s like waiting for kids to learn Bob’s name before introducing them to Tabitha, just because her name has a /th/ in it!
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!
There’s an elephant in your classroom.
And it’s huge.
You sweep by it every day in your classroom, several times in fact, and probably without ever even noticing. It’s most conspicuous during morning calendar time, as that’s its favorite time of day.
If you can’t see, watch this.
So now that you’ve spotted the elephant, it’s time to get rid of it!
Think of Secret Stories® as your “elephant-exterminator!” The Secrets are the logical explanations for letter sound behavior that learners’ brains crave! They are the reasons WHY letters “do what they do” when they don’t do what they should!
Giving Beginning Readers Easy Access to “High-Leverage” Phonics Skills
There is perhaps nowhere that elephant exterminator is needed more than on our morning calendar, especially when it comes to the letter Y!
It’s literally everywhere, and not once can it be found making the ONE sound that beginning grade learners are told to expect it to, which is “yuh!” as in: yellow, yes, you and yak.
Instead, it makes different sounds, one that seem belong to other letters, like in the words: January, February, May, July, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday,
Y is literally everywhere, yet not one time does it ever say, “yuh!”And the classroom calendar isn’t the only place these elephants like to roam.
We can see their tracks on the “boy’s” bathroom and in the books that we read “by” so and so author. They are even hiding in many of our favorite words, like: mommy, daddy, candy, etc…
It seems we have elephants running around everywhere!
Making Phonics Make Sense
When you don’t make sense, it’s time to tell a “Secret!”
Time to load-up on that “secret” elephant-spray so that we can make the sounds of Y make sense, and in doing so, give kids a much-needed reading and writing tool! (If you want to read more on this “elephant-extermination” process, read this article.)
And now, there is a “new and improved” elephant spray in the form of a power-packed guided reader that’s all about Sneaky Y® and his sneaky shenanigans! It’s called Sneaky Y’s Secret and it explains how Sneaky Y® got to be so sneaky! (Special thanks to Susan Eklove for the adorable text and Poco & Pop for the beautiful illustrations!)
If you are subscribed to the Secret News Blast, you should have already received a free download link for the Sneaky Y® Guided Reader in your email. If not ,subscribe now and never miss a Secret!
In closing, remember this “cool dude” from the video up above?
He’s not really Fonzie, but a kindergarten teacher from Washington State, and I he’d sent me the following email, along with that adorable video clip….
My name is Daniel and I teach kindergarten in Washington State. Last year my school district adopted a new reading curriculum and when my team examined the leveled readers before the start of the school year, we were initially in shock. We had no idea how our students were expected to read the new complex text introduced so early in the curriculum. After our initial reaction started to subside we got very motivated to create and find innovating and engaging methods for teaching more advanced phonics skills.
Around November I stumbled across a pin on Pinterest with the Secret Story posters for the R-controlled vowels, etc… I had seen it before and I thought it was a neat idea, but I had never clicked on the link. When I clicked on it and found your website and realized the scope of how many secret stories there were, I got really excited and shared it with my teaching partners who shared in my enthusiasm. They were the perfect solution to our problem! We made up a few secret stories on our own before convincing our school to purchase them for our grade level, but by January we had them and made the full commitment to implement them.
By the end of the year, we had by far the most students reading the Beyond Leveled Readers in the district, and many students needed even more challenging text. By the summer I started presenting about the Secret Stories to other teachers in my district and adjacent ones, and ever since I have been trying to share this amazing resource with as many teachers as I can.
After last year’s success, we wanted to step it up a notch this year, so we decided to create a video where we acted out every Secret Story. It took us 2 months to complete, but we are proud of the result. We’ve had our students watch it many times and they are making even more connections to the stories. Sometimes it is a gesture that one of us did that resonates with them, or remembering who acted out the story that helps the students remember the sound. It has proven to have been a very useful project and new resource.
We had a lot of fun doing it, and we would be honored if you had some time in your schedule to watch it. Thank you so much for this amazing resource and inspiring us to want to be the best reading teachers for our students as possible!
Until Next Time,
PS The registration deadline for the week-long South Dakota Kindergarten Academy this summer is fast approaching, and the preK/Kinder days have sold out. For all those who were unable to get into the PK/K workshop, you are encouraged to sign up for the 1st/2nd grade workshop, as the strategies and content covered in both sessions are applicable across the primary grade levels!
For information on bringing Katie to your school or district for workshops, click here.
https://www.thesecretstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/elephant-2Bin-2Bthe-2Broom.png496372Katie Garnerhttps://www.thesecretstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Secret-Stories-Phonics-Method-Logo-1-copy.pngKatie Garner2017-04-22 03:00:002021-02-04 10:08:14How to Teach the Sounds of Y (a.k.a. Sneaky Y®) so kids just GET IT!
I have been a Reading Specialist for thirty years, as well as an adjunct university professor. I have enjoyed great success with the Secret Stories, and my kindergarten through fifth grade students have had such an easy time mastering them and their reading levels have soared! Have you ever thought about adding more Secrets? For example, what about for these patterns, below?
Laura also sent a little note from Ella, who’d asked me to write more stories, and also to let me know that her favorite Secret Story was the one about /th/…..which is just too cute!
“We had fun learning the Secret Stories. Can you write (more) stories? My favorite is TH!” From Ella
I LOVE questions like these, so thank you to Laura and Ella for reaching out to ask them! Questions like this provide the perfect opportunity for me to open up a big can of worms when it comes to the way we traditionally think about phonics and reading instruction, in general.
Secret Stories® is not like traditional phonics, nor is it like any phonics or reading program. There are no “grade level walls” that delay access to the code kids need to read and write The Secrets simply put meaning where there would otherwise be none, so as to shift instruction from brain-antagonistic to brain-compatible.
How to Predict the Most Likely Sounds of Letters in Unknown Words
Take -le, for example, as in words like little or middle. There is no Secret for the –le sound because it’s not necessary in to read the words— not if learners know that the /e/ at the end won’t talk anyway. (Mommy E® is supposed to tell any vowel that’s one letter away, “YOU SAY YOUR NAME!” However, I like to tell kids that “Sometimes mommy’s there, but she’s just too tired to care!” ex. have, because, riddle, etc…)
Likewise, if a phonics pattern is so rare that it would be of minimal use to elementary grade level readers, then it is not addressed with a Secret. In such cases, experience is the best teacher, so the key is to get enough real skills under learners’ belts so that they can get up and running with text, and allow text experience to fine-tune learners’ skills. An example of this would be the silent t in words containing the -st or -stle pattern, as in whistle or listen. This sound spelling applies to so few words that it doesn’t merit the time and space it would take up in beginning or struggling readers’ brains. Moreover, learners how know just enough Secrets to read the rest of such words would likely be able to make the adjustment to figure out the word.
The key to being able to successfully give beginning grade learners everything they need is not to burden them with anything they don’t need. (Sorry for the double negative, but hopefully you get the drift!) In simpler terms, don’t get caught up in the minutia! The ultimate goal is GET KIDS READING by not taking 3-4 grade level years to deliver the “whole” code they need to do it!
By using brain-based connections to make phonics make sense, we can accelerate learner-access to the “whole” code that’s needed to read and write—rather than divvying it out in grade-level “bits and pieces!” This allows beginning grade learners to start gaining valuable text experience years earlier than they otherwise could. And READING is a far better teacher than we will ever be!
In addition to providing logical explanations for letter sound behavior that the brain craves, Secret Stories®also accounts for their “next-most likely” default sounds — all of which are embedded into the sound posters. Because these defaults follow the same social emotional “feeling” based logic that drives learners’ own behavior, even inexperienced, beginning readers (and upper grade struggling readers) are easily able “think-through” the alternative sound behaviors of letters in unknown words instead of just having to memorize them (as exceptions).
Filtering-out the fringe and streamlining the most common letter sound behaviors offers kids a new way of thinking about phonics. Instead of the binary “rule/exception” approach to phonics, Secret Stories® aligns letter behavior with kid behavior, making sounds easily predictable. It is within this “hierarchy of likelihood” that young and inexperienced readers are easily able to logically deduce the most and next-most likely sounds of letters, even in words they have never seen before.
Finally, there is one more point I need to make before I specifically address why there are no Secrets for the words above. Just as apples won’t fall far from the tree, letters won’t stray far from their sounds! This handy saying can be used to help both students and teachers, alike to convey the flexible thinking that’s needed to effectively work-through the most and next-most likely sound options.
Working with text requires learners to “think outside the box,” which they cannot do if they don’t know first know what’s IN it. The Secrets equip learners everything that’s IN the box so they can more easily think outside it. Rather than having to memorize words that are exceptions in order to read them, students can use higher-level thinking and problem solving to figure them out, stretching their analytical thinking and problem solving capabilities far beyond just phonics skills for reading.
Activating Social-Emotional Learning Channels for Higher Level Thinking
When learners are equipped with Secrets, they actually enjoy engaging with text in this way, as daily reading and writing is transformed into a virtual playground for critical thinking and deep literacy learning!
By anchoring abstract letter sound and phonics skills into social and emotional frameworks that are already deeply entrenched within the learner, they become personally meaningful and relevant.
Now Let’s Play “Word Doctor” with the Words Above!
Let’s start with the simplest one, which is ck. Both letters are simply making their correct sounds, and because their sounds are identical, this spelling pattern is easy to sound out. Thus, no Secret is needed!
Next up is -dge (as in ridge, sludge, budget, etc…)
Therefore, creating a new Secret for the –dgepattern is unnecessary andwould only result in our having “one too many” cooks in our kitchen! That’s not to say that knowledge of -dgeas a spelling pattern wouldn’t be useful to upper grade learners, abut the primary goal is to get kids reading. All of the research shows that reading is by far the best teacher for fine-tuning spelling, and kids who know the Secrets will be able to that experience, tenfold!
-tch (as in: scratch, itch, crutch, etc…)
Same as above.
If learners know the ch Secret, then initially attacking it with the t sound before the ch won’t interfere with a reader’s ability to ultimately decode the word, even for kindergartners.
Knowing the qu Secret is all that is needed here, along with recognizing that as with -dge, the e at the end makes no sound. And keep in mind that when working with words not of English origin, Secret Stories® will get you close, but not all the way, as the same rules don’t apply, as with words like: bouquet, applique, etc…
-ive(as in: dive, give, active, lives, etc…)
The first word, dive poses no problem at all, as Mommy E® is doing just what she should, which is in telling i (who’s one letter away)to say his name! However, in the other words— give, active and live — Mommy E® is just “too tired to care,” as sometimes mommies are! Which is why sometimes, she’ll just sit back and let the vowels do whatever they want… because even moms aren’t perfect! It’s words like these that require kids to put on their “Dr. Hat” and think-through to the next most likely sound!
-old (as in: bold, cold, mold, etc…)
This one’s easy, with the only possible glitch being that the letter ois making its long (Superhero) sound instead of the short and lazy one it’s supposed to when Mommy E® or the Babysitter Vowels®´aren’t around. Even still, simply encouraging learners to “think like doctors” and trying the next most likely sound for o will enable them to get the word.
Learn the “Secrets” about Mommy E® and Babysitter Vowels® in the video below.
-olt(as in: bolt, molten, revolt, etc..)
Same as above.
-ank(as in: bank, sank, ankle, etc…) Same as above.
Superhero O and his “short and lazy” disguise!
-ost (as in: cost, post, lost, most, etc…) Same as above, as o should short and lazy, since there is no Mommy E® or Babysitter Vowel® in sight, so again, learners need to “think like doctors” and try both sounds to be sure, just like any good word doctor would do. -ind (as in: kind, windy, find, Indian, etc…) Same as above. -ild (as in: mild, wild, child, build, mildew, etc…) Same as above.
-on (as in: Monday, money, done, etc..)
In all these words, the short o sounds more like short u, or schwa sound. The letter o makes this sound in many words, like: come, of, love, some, done, etc. Other vowels will often “default” to the schwa sound as well in words like: what, was, was, want, above, about, pencil, etc. When vowels make this sound, it’s because they are thinking, which is why they’re called the Thinking Vowels™, and their sound is easily prompted with a simple “head-bop.” With this simple secret trick, even kindergartners can easily decode otherwise “undecodable” words! You can read about the Thinking Vowels™ here.
-unk (as in: bunk, chunk, dunk, etc…)
No secrets needed, as the letters are doing exactly what they should! -ink (as in: sink, blink, drink, etc…)
One of my favorite Secrets is I tries E on for Size,and it’s all that’s needed to explain why i will sometimes make e’s sound instead of his own!
Secret Stories® “I tries E on for Size”
-ture (as in: future, mature, lecture, etc…)
This one’s easily taken care of with the ER, IR & UR- Secret, as thet just makes its regular sound, and like some of the other patterns above, Mommy E® is just hanging out at the end, doing nothing!
Not only can beginning kindergartners LEARN it, they can TEACH it!
Reading Hard Words Can Be Easy, If You Know the “Secrets”
As mentioned earlier in this post, this pattern occurs too infrequently to mandate having another cook in our kitchen. And even though Mommy E® is at the end, she isn’t interfering with how the word is sounded out, as she’s too far away to reach the vowel and make it say its name, anyway. And as for the silent t, even if learners did include it when sounding out the word, they should still be able to “get” (recognize) the word. It really doesn’t take much deductive reasoning (even for kinders!) to sound out a word like castle (withthe t-sound) and be able to figure out that the word is actually castle (without the t sound)
Fostering this fluid and flexible thinking about letters and the sounds they make is what helps to transform daily reading and writing into a playground of critical thinking and deep learning opportunities! And while the kids enjoy seeing the Secrets work, they have much MORE fun playing word doctor when they don’t— trying to figure out what else the letters might are doing and how best to tackle them! And as the more they engage, the more powerful they feel when working with text, and the more their confidence grows across the instructional day! they over text grows by the day,
This is easy to see when watching these first graders at work, trying to account for why the i is long in words like light, right and fight, when there is no Mommy E® or Babysitter Vowel® there to make it say its name! (This clip of Mrs. Mac’s class is one of my favorites!)
Former early grade teacher turned Harvard University Neuroscientist, Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang sums up what is evident in the short video clip above, which is that, “It is neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things you don’t care about.” These kids really care! Not about long and short vowels, but about mommies, babysitters, vacations, the behavior of other kids, etc… all of which are woven into the Secret that they are passionately debating in the word light.
Now for the final part of Laura’s question regarding what books are best to use with Secret Stories®. That one’s easy— anything and everything! Books, magazines, posters, road signs, cafeteria menus, logos, etc…. literally everything with text is fair game!
Secrets are easily introduced and reinforced with any text, and are especially helpful during guided reading. I have created a limited set of Secret Stories® Guided Readers to help teachers when working with guided groups and helping learners use the Secrets to decode text. These are especially helpful as they include an additional version with the Secrets in the text to help build learners’ visual acuity for easier pattern recognition, as well as teacher notes for added insights (similar to those made in this post) to help guide teachers through the process of helping learners when decoding trickier words. It’s as if I were sitting right beside you and your students at the guided reading table! :-)
Access the Complete Set in the Guided Reader Description
For a list of upcoming conferences, or for information on scheduling a school or district professional development workshop, click here.
https://www.thesecretstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/IMG_0318.jpg998979Katie Garnerhttps://www.thesecretstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Secret-Stories-Phonics-Method-Logo-1-copy.pngKatie Garner2016-02-20 19:42:002022-09-21 16:32:12How to Avoid Having “Too Many Cooks in the Phonics Kitchen!”
I love reading your blog! I’ve used your free Zoo Keeper Writing Strategies with my kinder class and the children really related, always showing me “how many animals (i.e. sounds) they caught” in their words!
I’ve taught both 1st and 2nd grades for years, and now am in my seventh year of teaching kindergarten. As many of your letter pattern stories are, of course, geared toward 1st and 2nd, I was wondering if you had some that were more geared more toward kinder?
Also, at what point would you begin introducing the Secret Stories in kinder… after the majority know most of their letters?
Before I answer it specifically, I want to prepare you for the paradigm shift we’re about to take when it comes to what kindergarten can do and when they can do it, and I think these links will help! So here are a couple of guest posts by kindergarten teacher, Kjersti Johnson (post 1 and post 2) along with a couple of eye-opening, kindergarten-related video clips here and here.
So let’s get started by opening up a can of worms about WHY we do WHAT we do WHEN we do it when it comes to the “code” that kids need for reading and writing!
If you really think about it, what are kids supposed to do with just bits and pieces of the reading and writing code? How can you read OR write about your pet mouse with only a third, or even two-thirds of the code? And that’s all most early grade level learners have to work with, given that it takes multiple grade level years to teach it all…. and that’s if they’re on grade level! The individual letter sounds (which kindergartners spend an entire year learning) provide very little bang for the buck when it comes to using them to reading and writing, as they are actually the least likely sounds that the letters will make when they get together in real words! This makes the brain’s job as a “pattern-making” machine extremely difficult, as it seems that letters are never actually doing what they’re supposed to!
And simply adding the blends and a few digraphs to the mix in first grade doesn’t help all that much, which is why kindergartners and first graders can barely read or write anything! At least not anything that hasn’t been “memorized” (ENTER SIGHT WORDS, STAGE RIGHT!)
While teaching kids in kindergarten and first grade to memorize words instead of reading them might feel like a necessity for beginning grade teachers, this rote memorization is far from the ideal—from either a developmentally or from a brain-based perspective. (You can read more about this here or by clicking the link under the picture below.)
Moreover, the less skills kids bring to the table, the less value they take away from daily reading and writing experiences in the classroom.
Imagine that you’re a Morse Code operator, just assigned to a naval ship.
But there’s a problem.
You are only in the first year of a three year Morse Code training program, which means that you barely know even one-third of the code. Yet you are expected to send and receive messages on day one.
You think to yourself…… “How can I possibly be expected to accurately send and receive messages with not even one-third of the code? What about all of the sounds I haven’t learned yet? How will I be able to figure out what the incoming messages say? And worse still, how can I send messages if I don’t know the code for all of the words? Should I just leave those parts blank, or just fill up the page with the parts of the code that I do know? Or maybe I could just forgo what the captain wants me to send and just write what I can spell instead?”
I like the sub. It is big. It is fun. It is really fun. I like it so so much. I really really like the big fun sub a lot!
These are common strategies that beginning (and struggling) learners will also use in order to get around all of the parts of the code that they don’t know or haven’t yet been taught— of which there are many!
A scope and sequence cannot accurately predict which parts of the code learners will need to read their favorite book or to write the stories they want to tell. The /th/ digraph is considered a 1st grade skill by grade level scope and sequence standards, even though /th/ can be found on every line of every page in every book! In fact, kindergartners will encounter the /th/ pattern literally hundreds of times on their very first day! (And don’t even get me started on the letter /y/!) The bottom line is that just like with Morse Code, you need ALL of it to do ANYTHING with it!
So the burning question is how to provide our earliest grade level learners with access to the “whole” code when it takes an entire for many kids to just learn the alphabet? The answer lies in the brain science. Brain science lights a path straight through the brain’s backdoor via the earlier developing, social and emotional “feeling” networks. By targeting phonics instruction to the affective learning domain, we can bypass areas of inherent early (and struggling) learner weakness (i.e. the higher level, executive processing centers) and tap into alternative areas of strength.
Secret Stories® does this in a variety of ways, beginning with channeling the individual letters and sounds through muscle memory (i.e. body intelligence) for accelerated mastery in just two weeks to two months— and that’s for kinder and PK! (And we’re not just talking the “basic” letter sounds, we’re talking every possible sound that a letter can make by itself, from hard and soft /c/ and /g/, to the long and short vowel sounds, to the positional sounds of /y/, and even /qu/…. and all while they eat their shoes and lick the carpet. (And if you actually teach preK or kinder, then you understand exactly what I mean— Lol!)
Individual Letter Sound Mastery in 2 weeks to 2 months!
During the two week-two month time frame while the individual letter sounds are seeping in via muscle memory, they are also learning about the letters’ “secrets”, (i.e. Secret Stories) which are what they do when they don’t do what they should! The Secrets explain all of the crazy sounds that letters make when they get together, and even some of the strange things they can do when they are by themselves!
Shared as short little stories that are easy to remember and understand, they are ready for immediate use in both reading and writing! And because Secret Stories® aligns letter behavior to learners’ own behavior (by way of already familiar “social and emotional” frameworks) they can easily predict their most and next most likely sound behaviors, just as they could predict the behavior of their own classmates.
Our brains thrive on patterns and making things make sense, and the Secrets make letters make sense!And the earlier the grade level, the MORE they are needed, as they have virtually nothing else to read or write with! Kinder will naturally pick up and remember the Secrets BEFORE all of the individual letter sounds have taken hold, as the time frame for muscle memory to kick in is between two weeks to two months, whereas the Secrets are instant! Stories are easy for kids to remember because stories are HOW kids remember! And stories are developmentally harmless, so when they are ready to plug it in and use it, they can… but until that time, it’s simply a story!
Shifting early grade reading/ phonics instruction from brain-antagonistic to brain-compatible requires that we FEED the brain, not FIGHT it, and Secret Stories Stories® are its favorite treat! They can (and should!) be given all day long, throughout the entire instructional day—anytime and anywhere they are needed to help read or spell a word. Every Secret you give them is one more “tool” in their tool belt that they can bring to the reading and writing table, so as to bring more value away!
The Secrets are not bound by the traditional “grade level walls” for phonics instruction that limits learner-access to the code. To share only certain Secrets at certain grade levels would presume that learners at lower grade levels don’t need them, and how could that be true if they are reading and writing across the instructional day beginning in kindergarten? Nor can we possibly say WHICH Secrets a learner will need to read the book he picks from the library or to write a word in a story he wants to tell.
Like the Morse Code operators, kids need ALL of the code, so NEVER wait to share a Secret!
Share them simultaneously with the individual letter sounds, whenever and wherever they are needed, whether it’s on the morning calendar or on the lunch menu! Remember that to a Morse Code operator (or to a beginning reader/writer) a /th/ is going to come in a LOT more handy than a /t/, so never hold back the tools that you know kids need to read and write every day!
Why Wait If We Don’t Have To?!!
Why hold back what kids so desperately need every hour of every day in our classrooms when they are working with text? If the brain science provides a “secret” backdoor passage through which we can so easily sneak phonics skills, why wouldn’t we use it?
At this point in the year, you might want to ‘go all the way’ and try the “Letter Runs” with them! Here’s the link to that- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHUwuuXsh-0 ……….and don’t forget to try it BACKWARDS!!
(you can also switch from ‘long’ to ‘short’ vowel sounds throughout to keep the challenge high :) as well as change the tune to: Happy Birthday, The Star Spangled Banner, etc…
Looking forward to hearing how they do!
I attended the Illinois Reading Conference last month and couldn’t get into either of your sessions! I couldn’t even get close to the doorway :(
Folks were setting chairs out on both ends of the corridor to hear you, but unfortunately my ears are too old to hear from that far away so I gave up! I’m hoping to have better luck seeing you at the Natl Elementary Principals Conference this summer.
You should know that your ‘Secrets’ are an ongoing topic of conversation at our school and have had an incredible impact on our student achievement this year. As a school administrator, it’s been truly amazing to witness the progress made at each grade level, especially by our most at-risk. I’m just in awe, as are our parents (which is always a good thing!)
My teachers were so disappointed that I couldn’t get into your session, as they promised the kids that I would take a picture with you to show them. Apparently the teachers that came to your sessions last year tried, but it was too crowded and you had too many people around you afterwards. I told them that this year was even worse, given that I couldn’t even get through the door!
Hopefully I’ll have better luck seeing you in July!
I know… it was CRAZY! The committee tried to avoid the overcrowding problem that happened last year by putting both sessions in the ballroom but I think their overall attendance this year was just too high, which ultimately is a good thing (but understandably frustrating when you can’t get into what you want to see).
I will most definitely be at the Principal’s Conference in July and I’ll even save a seat for you, just in case ;)
Thanks for your kind email, and please let your teachers (and students) know how happy I am to hear of their progress (and we’ll definitely take that picture, as well!)
I am so glad I am subscribed to your blog so that I can find and appreciate programs like this. As a first year teacher, this information makes me see things in a new perspective. I would love the opportunity to use this program in my classroom for my students. I would love the opportunity to share this approach with others given the scientific research that has gone into this. Thanks so much to the developer(s) of this program and the difference it is going to make in teaching.
You’re so welcome, and as a new teacher, you would probably get a better perspective/ context if you watch the VLOGS, starting with #1 here….https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziT4bautiGk ……
I am gearing up to make the next set before I have to leave town again for conference, with the focus being on “What to do when a “Secret” doesn’t work?!!” as that’s actually where the fun begins for learners with regard to their daily interactions with text becoming a virtual “playground” for critical thinking!!
In the meantime, don’t hesitate to ask, should you have any questions, and thanks again for your comment!
I just discovered Secret Stories and the Better Alphabet Song today and I’m in love! I love how engaging it is and how it can meet so many different learning styles! I really like how you put so much thought into the position of the mouth when you did the action for short a on the you tube video. I’m always looking for new ways to make learning meaningful and fun for my kids (why I was on this blog) and feel like I have hit the jackpot with this find! I wish I could go back in time and could have done this with my class since day one. We review letter sounds and phonograms daily- and I’m embarrassed to admit but it b-o-r-i-n-g the way I’m doing it now and definitely something I want to improve on. This is just what I needed and will totally transform how I teach phonics. So excited to make something that was not so fun into something I know my kids will not only love doing but truly benefit from.
LoL…. I remember feeling the same way when I’d stumble upon something that would completely change the way I teach! I’d always feel SOOO badly for my previous classes, who I sometimes felt, learned ‘in spite’ of me….especially my very first year – ugh :(
I remember wanting to buy my whole class t-shirts with- “I survived Mrs. Garner’s 1st Year Teaching!!” written across the front!! ;)
It’s funny you mention this, as often readiness issues are more pervasive with Title I learners, for a variety of reasons.
These ‘work-around’ strategies (i.e. motor/ muscle memory for individual letters and sounds; social/ emotive connections/ cues for complex pattern sound retrieval) are crucial for learners struggling with cognitive readiness.
For these learners, in particular, the ability to GIVE these core reading and writing skills, rather than having to wait on ‘developmental readiness’ in order to TEACH them, truly makes all the difference!!
So many of the problems that Title I learners face stem from the fact that in the first few years of school, they are ‘slaves’ to their own developmental readiness, resulting in their having to continually play on an uneven playing field!
By using brain research findings to circumvent these pitfalls, we can actually avoid these deficit areas in the brain entirely, targeting the stronger, more capable areas instead!
(Hope this makes sense…. have had glass of wine!!! :)
I am a HUGE Secret Stories fan….I use your very first Secret Stories set! Every year, my students amaze me with their writing and reading and they looove their “stories”.
I am so glad to view your videos and your updates here. I learn something new everytime. Thanks so much !
I have only taught Kindergarten…30 years total. I can’t remember exactly how long I have had my set of Secret Stories…maybe since 2000/2001?? .they are just part of my routine. Like I said….my kids constantly amaze me with their progress.
My best teacher friend went to your workshop …she was so impressed, she came back and told me all about this great new program. I was so excited I purchased the set with my own money and have been using it ever since.
Hello. I have a question. Why don’t you do all three A sounds– A as in apple, A as in gate, and A as in about? I have a chant that I made up years ago with the sounds, but it has all three common A sounds that beginning readers come across in their reading. Just wondered why three Y sounds, but not three As. Thanks for letting me know. Kathleen
Great question! And the answer actually lies in the ‘rule-of-thumb’ I used when creating the “Secrets” in the first place, which was to “avoid having too many cooks in the kitchen” when it came to identifying the most useful phonics rules!!
(and by useful, I mean ‘only what’s necessary to be able to read and write,’ given that the goal is to give learners at the earliest grade level EVERYTHING they need to jump into working with text…. both reading and writing!!
Because the brain will require an explanation for anything encountered on a fairly frequent basis in text- there could be ‘no stone left unturned’ when it comes to accounting for the various letter patter sound possibilities. This, however, is different from teaching “rules for rules’ sake” (i.e. the less useful and/ or less frequently occurring phonics rules/ sound patterns).
My rule of thumb was to account for only those patterns/ sounds that occurred ‘5 times or more’ in text, given their likelihood to be encountered often enough by learners to require an explanation.
Patterns/ sounds occurring LESS than five times would are either put in “Word Jail” OR ‘rehabilitated’ …. so as to avoid having an ‘overcrowded prison system’ / overcrowded word wall, both of which are equally ineffective ;)
As for your specific question regarding the letter a and providing the ‘uh’ or ‘schwa sound’ being taught/ included in the “Better Alphabet Song” as an additional sound option…. this would be an example having ‘too many cooks in the kitchen,’ in that there is too little value/ purpose in teaching it.
What I mean by this is, if a beginning learner knows the SECRETS, he will attack a word like ‘about’ or ‘around’ with a ‘short a’ sound, as he knows that Mommy e isn’t ‘one letter away’ and thus can’t make a ‘say its name.’ Attacking these words with the short a sound will STILL result in learners (even lower level Kindergartners!!) still being able to ‘get the word.’ In other words, they will still recognize that the word is ‘about’ or ‘around,’ regardless of the fact that they attacked it with the short a sound …… The presumption is that learners can and will apply at least a “grain of common sense” in recognizing the word, and my experience with the ‘lowest of the low’ kindergartners proves this out!!
By taking into account the differences between how words can sound, depending upon how they are sounded out, I was able to determine which required SECRETS and which were, for lack of a better term….”figure-out-able!!” LoL!
With the Sneaky Y, all THREE sounds had to be accounted for, as they are all vastly different (y as in yellow, y as in July, and y as in mommy) ….. Each are entirely different sounds and thus, each must be accounted for with logical explanations as to what / why causes each to occur.
Again, with the ultimate goal being to GIVE learners EVERYTHING they need to read and write at the EARLIEST grade level, so as to allow EXPERIENCE to be the best teacher….. it was necessary to think in terms of training “ER Doctors” ….. preparing them for what’s ‘most likely’ to roll through the door, while spending less time preparing them to handle the “plague” ;)
I hope this helps to clarify the basis for the SECRETS, and I promise to get into more detail about exactly this in upcoming posts…. you’re just one step ahead with your great question!!!!
Thanks for this. I get the frequency point. We could never teach beginning readers all the sounds that letters CAN make in this isolated way– look at the VERY many sounds that ‘o’ can make when paired with ‘h’ when ‘ho’ comes at the beginning of a word! :) The only reason I added the ‘a’ sound heard at the beginning of words like around and about as a third sound in my chant, was because my guys weren’t getting that kind of word by knowing just the first two possible ‘a’ sounds… but maybe it was not the isolated sound that ‘a’ makes in that case that was the issue, but the fact that they were saying “ar…” as the beginning ‘sound’, instead of the necessary two syllable “a-r…” When they kept saying ‘ar, ar, ar” instead of ‘a’ when starting words like around, they got stuck. They seemed to get it better when they had that third ‘a’ sound to try. Thanks for sharing why you do it this way– always more food for thought– I can teach 100 years and I’ll still be growing my own brain :)
https://www.thesecretstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/secret-2Bstories-2Bphonics-2Bbrain-2Bpattern-2Bmaking-2Bmachine-2Bletters-2Bsounds.jpeg7681024Katie Garnerhttps://www.thesecretstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Secret-Stories-Phonics-Method-Logo-1-copy.pngKatie Garner2015-04-18 00:41:002021-01-20 01:03:22Breaking Down the Grade Level Walls of Traditional Phonics Instruction
It Takes More Than Individual Letter Sounds to Read and Write!
I sneakily took this pic at the end of snack the other day….
These 6 kids were engrossed in telling the Secrets (and trying to figure out the ones we haven’t learned yet!) The little guy in the stripes has become our unofficial “Word Jail Warden!” He can spot an ‘Outlaw Word’ a mile away! We will start ‘paroling’ some of them soon!”
Kjersti Johnson- Kindergarten Teacher
Phonics on Steroids: “Warp-Speed” Access
to the Reading & Writing Code in Kindergarten!
A Guest Post by Kindergarten Teacher Kjersti Johnson
As teachers, I think we have all had that moment when we sit down with one of our students and they completely knock our socks off! This post is all about one of those moments.
Yesterday, I had just gotten my afternoon class of kindergartners settled into our Dailies….they were spread around the room, some reading, some writing, some listening to books on iPod shuffles, and a few shopping for new books.
I looked around to see who I would confer with (one of my favorite times of the day, by the way!) I started with Abel.
Now let me tell you about a little kindergartner named Abel.
He is one of the sweetest little guys I know. He has an amazing smile, and he is also VERY excited about learning!
He is an English Language Learner who entered kindergarten knowing 7 letters and 0 sounds. He worked SO hard the first weeks of school to learn his ABC’s and by October, he knew ALL 52 upper and lowercase letters! (the Better Alphabet Song was a huge success!)
So back to yesterday……
I sat down next to him and asked him to read to me. That’s when he pulled out Arthur’s Halloween.
I looked at him and said, “Oh, this looks like a great picture read. Can you tell me a story to go with the pictures?” This is kindergarten after all, and it’s a tough book! He gave me a strange look, and then…….He was READING it!
Later in the day, I had him read it again so that I could video it, and here he is reading Marc Brown’s Arthur’s Halloween.
ELL Kindergarten in October—”Spotting Secrets” in Arthur’s Halloween
Then we got to “making”…. and guess who was able to use the Babysitter Vowels® Secret to figure out whether /a/ would be long or short?!
He knew it wasn’t right when he first read it, but then he remembered the Secret! (and please excuse me telling another student, TWICE, to go color their work! ;-)
Rough-housing /ou/ and /ow/ saying “Owwwww!” No worries.
Secret Stories® Phonics ou/ow Secret!
“Look and spooky”….?
Knowing the Secret, he switched sounds for /oo/ like a pro!
Secret Stories® Phonics /oo/ Secret
I was BLOWN away! And so I made poor Abel read that page to everyone I could find! I was so proud of him! (and by the way, he is determined to read the whole book now, and I have no doubt that he will!)
This morning, I shared the video with my principal, our Dean of Students, and our LAP teacher. The question of how and when I use the Secret Stories in my class came up, and I thought to myself, “When don’t I use them???”
The Secrets aren’t limited just to “reading” time. We use them ALL DAY LONG, which in half-day kindergarten, is only about 2 hours and 40 minutes. (Oh, did I forget to mention that I teach half-day kinder?!) That’s not very long, which is why getting the most bang for the buck in the short amount of time we have is critical. Secret Stories® makes what used to seem impossible EASY! (It’s like phonics on steroids!)
We use yellow and blue for “popcorn” words. We “butter” the new ones and put blue dots under the ones that we already know. Then we use a green highlighter to find Secrets.
And honestly, I have to say, now that the kids know the Secrets, I spend almost no time at all on memorizing sight words, except for the small handful that really break the rules and have to go to jail, as most of the words the kids can just read.
We look for Secrets in Science….
Look at the picture above to see how many variations of the word hibernate we found when reading our big book in our whole group Science lesson! One of the kids spotted the er Secret, then another spotted the /or/ and /ing/Secrets, and we were off! Next came the Babysitter Vowels®, which they used to help them figure out whether the vowels would be long or short. Some students knew the Secret sounds immediately, and others had to check the posters first before sounding out each part, but they were all able to read all of the words— and write them!
No one was left out of the reading and writing fun because we all had one thing in common— we all knew the Secrets! That day, we did more reading and writing in Science than in our designated reading and writing blocks, combined! What better way is there to show beginning learners what these Secret skills are actually for!
My favorite thing is what happened the following day when I was working with a small group and heard Abel yell from his seat across the room, “Mrs. Johnson! Mrs. Johnson! Look, I found the word hibernate in my book!”
And sure enough, he had.
Even for an ELL Kindergartner in October, sounding out the word hibernate with the Mommy E® was easy!
We use Secrets when we write…..
See the /ow/ and /ing/ in snowing and the /ou/ in mountains!
We look for Secrets when we read the directions on our math papers.
Words like draw and count with the “letters who love each other” (au/aw) and the “letters who don’t” (ou/ow) can’t fool us!
I almost never have to read the math story problems to my kids anymore because they can do it all by themselves using our Secrets!
Secret Stories® has opened up so many possibilities…..there seems to be no limit to what my kindergartners can do. It has really changed everything.
And while I do still have kids that are just chugging along at their own pace, like sweet little Abel, they are ALL sucking up the Secrets— even those who are not always ready to apply them. And that’s okay, because I know they have the “keys” in their pocket that they will need to unlock the words they want when they are ready, just like Abel did.
I can’t thank Kjersti enough for that deep dive into all of the wonderful things that she’s doing in her kindergarten classroom. I will be doing a part 2 “follow-up” to Kjersti’s post, so stay tuned! (You can catch another post by Kjertsti here!)
For a list of upcoming conferences, or for information on scheduling a school or district professional development workshop, click here.
https://www.thesecretstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/sample_er_ur_ir_color.gif502600Katie Garnerhttps://www.thesecretstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Secret-Stories-Phonics-Method-Logo-1-copy.pngKatie Garner2015-01-17 00:57:002021-01-10 15:07:08“Phonics on Steroids” for Kindergarten Reading and Writing
Yes! It IS possible to teach those tricky long and short vowel sounds in just 5 minutes, if you know how to cheat the brain!
Learn all about the “BETTER Alphabet Song” for fast-tracking individual letter sounds, plus the Superhero Vowels® (and their short & lazy sounds!) for easy retrieval of those hard short vowel sounds!
When memories are supported by greater coordination between different parts of the brain, it’s a sign that they are going to last longer. The greater the distribution of signaling, the stronger the memory takes hold in our brain. Secret Stories® triggers multiple areas of the brain to engage simultaneously, sparking what is referred to as “multi-layered” memories for deeper learning and easier skill retrieval.
What’s “Used Together Becomes Fused Together” in the Brain!
This week, I am excited to welcome back Renee McAnulty (a.k.a. “Mrs. Mac”) who’s been kind enough to take time out of her busy “beginning of the year” schedule to do a guest blog post with her new crop of first graders as she starts with the Secrets! (And in-conjunction with her post, I want to also dive more deeply into some “loopholes for learning” that brain science provides, so keep an eye out for brain-icon (shown on the left) with these red text-blurbs!
“But Mrs. Mac, we don’t have TIME to go home!”
A Guest Post By Renee McAnulty
Mrs. Mac’s First Graders Discovering the Secrets!
Happy “New School Year” Folks!
I hope this post finds you well and enjoying a great start to a brand new year with your own new munchkins! The title of this post is actually a quote from one of my adorable kiddos at the end of the first school day, following my announcement that it was time to go home. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all there was to do in this brand new first grade classroom, one of my sweet little boys said, “….but Mrs. Mac, we don’t have time to go home!” Now while I might feel this way on a regular basis, hearing one of my little guys actually say it out loud just made my whole week… so of course, I wanted to share it here with you!
After a long summer, I was actually excited to come back and to meet my new class! And I was even more excited to start telling them the Secrets that would transform them into successful readers and writers! I was literally having “Secret Stories-withdraw!” I was actually thinking over the summer about what my next guest blog post should be, based on the feedback and questions I’d received from my last one, and then it hit me! What is the one question I am constantly asked, “Where do I start?!?!” (And if you want to watch Katie talking about this, you can check out her official “How-To” for Starting with the Secrets here, or by clicking on the video, below.)
So with this in mind, I thought I would invite you to take a peek into our humble little classroom and meet my amazing new bunch of munchkins! They really are ADORABLE, and of my thirty new first graders, I currently have just two that have been identified as “readers.”
That said, my goal for this school year is to take you deeper into the process of using Secret Stories® from the very beginning of the year to the very end, as I share with you my students’ progress. I know that Katie has said this many times (and you will also see it said many times in my posts) that there is no “wrong way” to share the Secrets! They are simply the “tools” kids need to read and to write and are easily tailored to meet the needs of you and your students. Secrets are shared whenever and wherever they are needed—which at the primary grade levels will literally be ALL day long!
You will see what the Secrets look like, as well as how we use them in whole group and small group instruction, during Daily 5 and Cafe, and of course, during guided reading. Throughout our year together, we will be applying the Secrets to crack text in almost everything that we do! We will leave “no stone unturned” when it comes to all of the crazy sounds that letters can make, especially when they get together, as now we know the Secrets that explain their “misbehaviors!”
So sit back, relax…. and we will show you how we get started…..
The “Better Alphabet Song” for Individual Letter Sound Mastery
First up is the Better Alphabet Song, which you learn all about here, as well as in the short video clip, below. One quick note though, IGNORE (read “Don’t do!) the Zoo Phonics hand motions, as these were a carry-over from earlier in the year before we started Secret Stories. Allowing the kids to do the motions with the Better Alphabet Song actually ended up hurting more than helping, as the key to fast-tracking the letter sounds with the Better Alphabet Song is for kids to have their eyes “glued” to the letters AS they are singing their sounds. It is this visual connection, in addition to the muscle memory retrieval of the sounds that cements skill transfer for reading and writing. The random animal motions/gestures from Zoo Phonics actually distracted their visual focus on the letters as I was pointing to them, which disrupted the “sound to symbol/ symbol to sound” connection that they needed to use the letters to read and write words. Plus, they didn’t need them anyway, as they were no longer having to think about the sounds the letters made, as they were already in their muscle memory! The only exception is with the Superhero Vowels and their short & lazy sound-cues/gestures, as those ARE actually important, as they immediately prompt the otherwise “vague” sounds of the short vowels and make them super easy for kids to get!
With our Zoo Phonics Song, it could take up to one year for some kids to acquire all of the individual letter sounds, whereas with the Better Alphabet Song, it took LESS THAN ONE MONTH! But, the secret is in the “eye glue” and “muscle mouth!” Kids have to always “SEE what you SING, and SING what they SEE” so that they are ready for use in reading and writing! Katie talks about the importance of this “See It/Say It” connection in the video below, as she describes how the Better Alphabet uses muscle memory to fast-track individual letter sound mastery to 2-weeks to 2-months.
What’s great about Secret Stories® is that you can use it with literally anything that’s already in place. It just makes whatever you’re already using that much MORE effective…. like times TEN!! (Secret Stories® ultimately eliminated a lot of the “stuff” that was no longer needed, as my kids didn’t have to “practice” what they could already read… which leaves more time for the FUN stuff, like actually using the Secrets to read and to write!)
Secret Stories® targets the earlier-developing and more readily accessible affective (feeling) networks for short vowel sound mastery by engaging learners in dramatic actions/feelings-based cues/gestures that literally “land” them in the sounds! In this way, it becomes possible to bypass areas of inherent early (and struggling, upper-grade/ELL) learner weakness (i.e. auditory processing, articulation, language delays etc…) and tap into alternative areas of strength. This “backdoor-to-the-brain” approach to skill mastery is a hallmark of Secret Stories® and is just one of the ways that it accelerates early learner-access to the code, starting in PreK!
One of the great things about encouraging the kids to tell and retell the Secrets is that doing so provides continuous opportunities for everyone—high, medium and low-level learners— to pick them up and start using them at their own pace. While my more experienced students immediately
“get” the short vowel sounds by simply retelling the story (some of which are literal dissertations!) my slower (and non-native English speakers) are actually accessing the short vowel sounds from a different place, relying more strongly on the visuals (posters) and dramatic action cues/gestures to retrieve the sounds.
The bottom line?
ALL of my babies get the sounds!
The Secrets are like little “bridges” that all of my little ones can easily and effortlessly find their way across— regardless of developmental readiness issues, academic level, language background or past experience… and that’s why they’re so AMAZING!!! The kids never tire of telling the Secrets and literally talk about them all day long…. which is actually one of the reasons I love Secret Stories® so much, as like most first grade classes at the beginning of the school year, my kids are academically “all over the map!” I am also in a very transient area where students are moving in and out throughout the school year, making it extremely difficult to catch them up on all of the reading/phonics skills they don’t have/missed. Using the Secrets have made this a non-issue, as any skills (i.e. Secrets)they missed will continue to be shared and re-shared throughout the year, as we use them to crack text every day!
“What’s used together is fused together in the brain!” Secret Stories® multi-sensory approach to phonics skill instruction activates auditory (story), visual (graphics), physical/kinesthetic (cues/gestures) and affective (feeling-based) learning channels to forge deeper connections between otherwise meaningless skill concepts.
Secret Stories® activates multiple areas of the brain simultaneously, triggering the formation of multi-layered memories, which are supported in different parts of the brains and naturally easier to retrieve. Research shows the “greater the distribution of signaling between different parts of the brain, the stronger the memory takes hold,” which is why each time they tell a Secret, it becomes more deeply embedded within them!
For me, the Mommy E® Secrethas been gift from God, as my biggest challenge as a first grade teacher has always been trying to teach the kids to differentiate between long and short vowels in their writing— a challenge that I am sure many of you can relate to, as well!
After teaching them the long vowel sounds with silent e, my kids would add a silent e to everything, ALL THE TIME, which drove me absolutely crazy! But now that they know the Mommy E® Secret, this is no longer a problem, as now it just makes SENSE!
Kids can relate to the idea that “When the cats away, the mice will play”….. or in Secret Stories terms, “when Mommy E® is away, the vowels will play,” which means that they will be “short and lazy,” rather than stand up tall and say their name! (You can watch Katie explain the Mommy E® Secret here,and then watch my little ones share their version, just below!)
Using Writing as a “Window” into the Mind of a Reader
One trick that we use all the time that I want to share is how we transfer the Secrets into our writing. Applying the Secrets in writing from the very beginning really helps the kids grasp the inherent connection between reading and writing— one that beginning readers don’t naturally perceive.
My little trick is called “Chin-In” and the kids love it! The process is simple…
I ask students to draw three lines (on individual white boards, paper, etc…) and then I give them a three-letter word, like cut. I then ask them to segment-out and write each of the letter sounds they hear on a different line, reminding“there are three letters in the word and that is why we made three lines.” After the kids have finished writing the sounds they hear on the lines, they cover their word so no one else sees it. Then, when I say “Chin it!” they all hold up their words so that I can see them. This allows me to see right away who understands how to apply the Secret and who doesn’t.
Quick, easy, and to the point! All I have to do is make some quick notes, and BAM! I know with whom and on what I can work in small groups!
When I teach the Mommy E® Secret, I have the kids draw FOUR lines, telling them, “The last line is for Mommy!” They know when Mommy E® is at the end of a word (or one letter away from another vowel, where she can easily reach it!) she will always make the vowel do what it should and say its name!
The four lines for Mommy E®words serve as a visual reminder that there can be letters in words that you don’t hear. This is a tremendous help, especially with ELL and non-readers, as they all LOVE to draw the arrow from the Mommy E® to the vowel that she’s telling to say its name!
As a super bonus, Katie includes a list of words in the back of the Secret Stories book for each Secret sound/letter pattern. These lists are great! Not only for measuring student proficiency with specific Secrets in guided group, but also as a sort of Secret Word Bank from which you can quickly pull words for targeted activities or instruction, like the Mommy E one with my class, above.
Although I always try to use examples from the words around our classroom and in text that we read, the lists in the back of Secret Stories® book do come in super-handy when my mind draws a blank and I’m unable to think of words to reinforce a specific Secret!
Babysitter Vowels® (a.k.a. “Open Syllable vs. Closed Syllable”)
The most beautiful thing about this logical learning process is that I get to see these babies grow so quickly from writing and spelling simple three and four-letter words, to writing multi-syllabic words with “10 letters-plus” in a matter of only a few months!
And I waste no time in extending the Secret they know about Mommy E® with the one about the Babysitter Vowels®, which catapults their reading and writing to a whole new level! Kids in kindergarten understand the Babysitter Vowels® just as easily as they do Mommy E® because they are both based on the same “Do what mommy (or the babysitter) says!” …..even if they aren’t yet ready to understand it in “V-C-V / V-C-C-V” terms!
The Superhero Vowels®, Mommy E®, Babysitter Vowels® (and Sneaky Y®, which I didn’t talk about, but you can read about here!) are what Katie refers to in her sessions as “high-leverage” Secrets, as they provide beginning readers and writers with SO much bang for the instructional-buck! You can watch her speak about these in the video clip below and then start playing around with these in your classroom, too!
And thanks to Katie’s ongoing invitation to post here throughout this school year, I’ll have the chance to share our amazing transformation into “grown-up” readers, writers and spellers with all of you!
Thanks so much for reading, and I look forward to answering your questions, so please post them!!! Sincerely, Mrs. Mac
I want to thank Mrs. Mac SO MUCH for sharing so many of the wonderful things that she does in her classroom, and I can’t wait to watch how her class grows as readers and writers over the course of the year!
You can also check out the Secrets of the Superhero Vowels® & MORE! Bundle on TpT, which includes all of the Superhero Vowels® graphics in multiple size options, as well as Mommy E®, Sneaky Y® and the Babysitter Vowels®—all of which impact the sounds that the vowels make in words.
The “bundled-pack” even includes all of the anchors that are contained in the Beethoven Blends “Blender Pack”so as to provide additional practice by incorporating the blends with the changing vowel sounds.
Once you start telling Secrets, there will be no turning back— for you OR your students! They will start questioning EVERYTHING about letters and the sounds that they make…. because they know that you have ALL their Secrets! Whenever and wherever your students spot letters not doing what they should, they will demand to know its “secret”…..so be prepared!
Just after finishing this post, I received the following from Mrs. Mac….
A “Post-Script” from Mrs. Mac
I had to share! Today was the first day that the Secret Stories showed up in their writing INDEPENDENTLY!!!! I had three different students raise their hand as if it were an emergency— one had discovered a Sneaky Y while writing the word tricky, and the other two heard and identified the “er” and “ir” Secrets when writing the words dirty and number ……. And sooooo it begins….(insert evil laugh here) ;)
And this is exactly why I love Mrs. Mac…. she gets AS excited as her kiddos! She is truly their biggest cheerleader and her enthusiasm for reading and writing is contagious!!!!
https://www.thesecretstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/6-learning-loopholes.001-copy.jpeg7681024integritivehttps://www.thesecretstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Secret-Stories-Phonics-Method-Logo-1-copy.pngintegritive2014-09-15 19:37:002020-07-06 22:10:26Teach Long & Short Vowel Sounds in 5 Minutes with the BETTER Alphabet Song & Superhero Vowels®
Because doctors know that the plague is the least likely cause of your symptoms and that the flu is the most likely, they will probably go with the flu first, and then work their way through the alternative options, as needed.
As medicine is not an exact science, doctors must often work through a series of options to determine what treatment will be most effective with their patients. They make these decisions based on a hierarchy of likelihood to determine what is most likely, next most likely, and least likely to be successful.
Like medicine, the English language and is not an exact science, and while phonics is the key to learning how to read, it’s often takes a binary form, with words either falling under the “rule” or the “exception.” However, by targeting instruction to earlier-developing, “feeling” based centers in the brain and aligning letter behavior with kid behavior, their most and next-most likely sounds become easily predictable, even for kinders….and even in those “so-called” exceptions!
A good word doctor who is armed with the Secrets can “treat” these so-called exceptions in much the same way that doctors treat their patients. And in doing so, a critical-thinking playground begins to emerge as beginning and struggling readers gain power over text.
First, it’s important to realize that there are only so many different sounds that a letter or letter pattern can make, and their not random, even though they may sometimes appear so. Just like the saying, The apple won’t fall too far from the tree,” letters won’t stray too far from their sounds! For example, you will never see the letter q say “mmm,” or the letter k say “duh,” or the tion pattern say “ing!”
Contrary to popular belief, letters don’t just lose their little ‘letter-minds’ and run amok! All they do (and it’s usually the vowels that do it!) is make sounds that they are perfectly capable of making— but it just might be their next-most likely ones! Watch the video clip below to see what I mean!
When working with patients, doctors must ask themselves, “How many different ways can I look at this? How many different ways can I solve it?” Beginning and struggling readers must also employ this kind of diagnostic thinking when attempting to sound out unknown words, asking themselves, “What else can it be?…. What else could I try?” Engaging in this type of analytical, problem-solving is often referred to as “thinking outside the box,” and the key to doing it effectively is to first know what’s IN the box!
Thinking Outside the Box to Decode Words and So-Called “Exceptions!”
This is why knowing the Secrets is so important for beginning and struggling readers, as the Secret Stories® equip them with everything that’s IN the box so that they are more easily able to think outside it— something that working with text demands!
The ou/ow Secret….
Ou & ow play really rough and someone always gets hurt and says— “Oooowww!”
(as in words like: our, round, how, now)
But, flying overhead is Superhero O, who happens to be o & w‘s all-time, favorite superhero, ever!
If ow ever spots Superhero O flying overhead, they stop dead in their tracks, and yell—
“O! O! O!”
…which is why ow can also say O! (It’s “default” sound)
The Secret (and default sound for ow) makes sounding out most words with this common pattern easy, even for kinders, which means that words like: how, now, about, around, etc, commonly found on sight word need NOT be memorized! As with the Secret, kids can just READ them! Plus, kids can learn the ou/ow Secret in an instant, even if they haven’t mastered all of the individual letter sounds yet, as it still makes sense. Memorizing a sight word however, can take some students forever… especially those with little to no home support, as they are less likely to use it enough to make it stick. And even more importantly, knowing a sight word allows learners to read one word, whereas knowing a Secret empowers them to read and write thousands!
Now let’s consider a word like you.
The ou isn’t doing what it should, according to the Secret. Still, the sound it IS making in the word hasn’t really strayed too far away… at least not so far that a good word doctor couldn’t easily figure it out! And here’s how…
A “Hierarchy of Likelihood” Approach to Decoding (a.k.a. Thinking Outside the Box)
1. First, try the most likely Secret Stories sound for ou (as in house)….. NOPE, it didn’t work!
2. Next, try the individual sounds for the letters o and u ….. BINGO!!! We got the word!!
In this case, we got it on the second try.
Now, had we not struck gold on our first “out-of-the-box” attempt, we could have worked our way further down the list of possible sound options and turned this puzzle into a sort of problem-solving/critical thinking game….
3. Try the sounds of other Secret Stories patterns with o or u, like the Secrets for oo, oi/oy or ous. For example, in the word could, the ou is making the default-sound for oo (as in book) and kids who know the oo Secret might try that sound as one more possible option.
And of course, you can also pull out the handy “Head-Bop” Trick in a pinch to help kids easily figure out those otherwise non-decodable words, like: of, come, love, some, what, was, etc.. (You can read more about this trick here.)
4. It’s the PLAGUE! It requires a specialist! When we’ve exhausted all options and have no more tricks up our sleeve, we must surrender to the word, which means we have to memorize it!
Why Not Just Memorize Tricky Sight Words?
Here’s why— because it is within this “figuring-out” (a.k.a. analytical/critical-thinking) process that deep learning lies! Not just learning how to read, but learning how to think! Our brain is a pattern-making machine, and this patterning process of thinking-through all available options is its natural way of doing things. “If not this, then that…” Our brain is continually patterning-out the best available options in everything that we do.
We think, “I’ll park in the front, but if I can’t find a space, I’ll try the back, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll try the next lot over. If I can’t find anything there, then I’m giving up and going home, as I’m too tired to walk that far.” We don’t think— “I’ll park in the front, but if I can’t find a space, then I don’t know what I’ll do!” (This is similar to the way in which kids often handle words that are exceptions, which is to throw their hands up in surrender the minute that letters don’t do exactly what they should in a word.)
“Human beings are pattern-making machines. That’s a key to our survival instinct— we seek out patterns and use them to predict the future. Which is great, except when the pattern isn’t there, then our pattern-making machinery is busy picking things out that truly don’t matter.”
The Brain is a Pattern-Making Machine
Our brains are hardwired to look for patterns, and the Secrets are patterns— not abstract letter patterns, but patterns of behavior that are designed to mimic learners’ own behavior. The ability to classify incoming information quickly into categories (based on the patterns we know) means the brain can use easier rules to deal with the new input, which is less stressful than always having to deal with things that haven’t been seen before. Knowing the Secrets equips inexperienced beginning and struggling learners to identify the best course of action when sounding out new words, and not knowing the Secrets means having to say, “It just is… It just does… You just have to remember….” when they can’t read or spell a word.
Another benefit to reading words rather than just memorizing them is that it sparks more optimal brain circuitry, as evidenced by numerous studies, including a recent one by Stanford University Professor, Bruce McCandliss, which you can read more about here.
Just to be clear, some words are just better to memorize, as mentioned when discussing the word could, up above. But most are not, especially if they now the Secrets and can easily read them! Consider that every sight word that a learner memorizes is one less opportunity to reinforce their “sounding-out” (decoding) skills that you work so hard to teach, and more importantly, one less opportunity to flex their “critical thinking/problem solving” muscles!
Now before you read any further, watch this video.
It’s easy for teachers to empathize with Ricky’s struggle to read words like: boughs, through, rough, cough and enough. Like many students in our guided reading groups, Ricky diligently attempts to decode what seem to him to be ‘un-decodable’ words and becomes understandably frustrated in the process. Ultimately, Ricky just closes the book and gives up, convinced that the sounds letters make just don’t make sense. Many of our students feel the same way.
How To Think Like a “Word Doctor” to Decode Text
In the same way that a doctor works through various options to heal a patient, we can do the same to “heal” the words that are stumping Ricky…. or at least to help make them more “figureoutable!” ( I know it’s not a word, but I really like it!)
Gh will make different sounds, depending on where they are in line (i.e. in a word)
When they are at the FRONT, they’re glad!
There, they make the hard g sound, saying….
“Gosh, this is Great! We’re going to Get to Go first and Get in before anyone else Goes!”
(ghost, ghoul, ghastly, etc…)
When they are in the MIDDLE, and surrounded by lots of other letters,
they are silent and are too afraid to say anything and make NO SOUND at all
(sight, thought, straight, etc…)
When they are at the END, they’re not at all happy and they always complain.
Here, they make the fff sound, saying….
“This is no ffun! We’re so ffar away it’ll take fforever ffor us to get to the ffront!”
(rough, enough, cough, etc…)
Now let’s play “Word Doctor”….
No problem with the ou as it is doing just what it should (see ou/ow poster up above)
But gh is a different story, as it is not making the sound that it should, which is “fff.” So let’s try one of the only TWO other sounds that it can make, and voila! We got it! The gh is silent! The gh Secret is everything that’s IN the box when it comes to all of the possible sounds that gh can make, making it easy for learners to deduce the next most likely options when it doesn’t do exactly what it should!
Like in the word you (mentioned at the top of the post), ou is not making the sound that it should, but by simply trying the individual sounds for both o and u, we can easily get the word! In this case, ou is making the short u sound. And thankfully, gh is doing exactly what it should when it’s at the end of a word!
Just as with the word rough, ou is not making the sound that it should, but is making one of their individual sounds, instead. This time, it’s the short o sound. And again, the gh is doing exactly what it should.
Once more the ou is not making the sound that it should, but it IS doing the next most likely thing, based on our “hierarchy of likelihood” (way up above at top of post), just as it did in the words you, rough and cough. In this case, it’s making the short u sound. And once again, gh is doing what it should.
Now this one’s a little trickier— bordering between being “fun to figure out” and “just easier to memorize,” I would probably go with the latter, but it is gratifying to know that with a little “out of the box” thinking, we CAN crack this word, should we chose to!
The ou is not making the sound that it should, nor is it making the o or u sound, but just like the word you that was mentioned at the top of this post, it is making the most likely sound of its “cousin” oo … and by cousin, I mean another similar Secret that looks like it could be a possible relative, as it shares a common relative, which is o. (The sound for oo can be seen in the oo poster way up above.)
And then we have the same problem with gh that we had with a couple of the other words up above— nothing that a good word doctor can’t fix, as gh is just being difficult and refusing to talk, as is his prerogative. However, it does require an extra analytical step to crack the word, which may be one too many to make it worthwhile. Thus, it merits the time, energy and space in the brain that’s required memorize.
This video clip shows a group of first graders playing “Word Doctor” and applying some critical analysis and diagnostic thinking to the word light. While they can already read the word, they bothered by the fact that i is bothering to say his name when there Mommy E® or Babysitter Vowel® in sight!
Pattern making is pleasing to the brain. The brain takes great pleasure in taking random and chaotic information and ordering it. The implications for learning and instruction is that presenting a learner with random and unordered information provides the maximum opportunity for the brain to order this information and form meaningful patterns that will be remembered. Setting up a learning environment in this way mirrors real life that is often random and chaotic.
The brain, when allowed to express its pattern-making behavior, creates coherency and meaning. Learning is best accomplished when the learning activity is connected directly to physical experience. We remember best when facts and skills are embedded in natural, spatial memory, in real-life activity, in experiential learning. We learn by doing. facilitated in an environment of total immersion in a multitude of complex interactive experiences.
Hmmmm…. that sounds a lot like the class in the video!
The Superhero Vowels® and their “Short & Lazy” Sound Disguises
For a quick overview of the Superhero Vowels® and their “short & lazy” sound disguises, watch the video below.
And the last little doctor tool that I want to share before signing off is about the vowels, as they are the most likely culprits when words just won’t sound-out correctly! Vowels are the “eyes, ears, nose and throat” of a word, which is why good word doctors should always check them out first! They offer the best window into what’s most likely wrong. Sometimes it’s an issue with a Secret (as with the words we’ve seen in this post) but other times fixing the problem requires having a few “vowel-fixing” tricks up your sleeve— something that every good word should have!
Learn more word doctor strategies, including, the “Thinking Vowels/Head-Bop” and the “Hungry Thing” to crack tricky vowel sounds here and watch the video down below!
How to Decode “Undecodable” Words So Kids Don’t Have to MEMORIZE Them
https://www.thesecretstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/64-word-doctor.001-2.jpeg7681024Katie Garnerhttps://www.thesecretstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Secret-Stories-Phonics-Method-Logo-1-copy.pngKatie Garner2014-06-05 02:30:002022-07-16 09:39:41Thinking Like a Word Doctor to Decode “So-Called” Exceptions to the Phonics Rules
Do You Like Secrets?
Subscribe for FREE “secret” goodies, including Secret Session posts, professional development videos, teacher chats, beta product downloads, and links to FREE resources!