WHY PHONICS WITH FEELING READERS?
Phonics with Feeling readers are grounded in the principles of Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP), which has been shown to be the most effective method of teaching reading, leading to the best outcomes in both the short term and the long term (for details on the SSP approach see What is Phonics? and for links to relevant research see https://fivefromfive.com.au/publications).
Phonics with Feeling readers provide intensive decoding practice, with a carefully sequenced introduction of sound/letter relationships and ‘tricky’ words. If the appropriate preparatory work is done, and the correct sequence is followed, children should be able to decode around 95% of the words in any story.
On the first pages of each reader there are ‘Before Reading’ activities to introduce the sound/letter pattern/s being introduced. There are explanations for the adult, as well as advice about what to focus on while reading.
There are plenty of good decodable reader series now available, so how are Phonics with Feeling readers different?
As the series title suggests, the key difference is in the goal of providing stories that engage young readers at the level of the feelings, or emotions. I wanted to provide good, systematic, decodable texts, without neglecting the many forms of enjoyment that stories can provide.
Children who have experienced the joy of having had picture books read to them by adults are likely to have high expectations when they begin reading for themselves. Sadly, it seems that they are sometimes disappointed - anecdotal evidence from teachers and parents suggests that children are sometimes not enthusiastic about their first decodable readers. Many parents are not enthusiastic about them either, which feeds into the child’s lack of enthusiasm. If children are going to learn to love reading, it’s really important to ensure that their first experiences of reading are interesting and entertaining – and make them want to read more!
I’m aware that, at this point, I’m sounding like a proponent of the ‘balanced literacy’ approach (see Schools and Reading). But I’m absolutely not swapping sides here, and I’m aware that it’s very difficult to construct a coherent story using only seven or eight letters and a couple of ‘tricky’ words. I applaud the efforts of the educators and writers who have managed to do this in one way or another, often making thirty or more little ‘stories’ out of the first letters introduced.
The purpose of decodable readers is to introduce children to connected text (phrases and sentences). But this can also be done using apps and hands-on activities that allow for a stimulating and interactive approach (see Teaching Resources). Then, when children do start reading decodable readers, they have the knowledge and skills to read longer and more complex stories - stories that have the potential to motivate them to read well and to read more.
Narrative interest and coherence
What makes children (and most adults!) want to keep reading is the desire to find out what happens next. So, a good plot is important. Stories need to be coherent – the various elements need to hang together, with a clear thread that leads the reader through the phases of the story towards a satisfying conclusion.
Children shouldn’t be exposed to poor prose – for example, writing that switches tense – from past to present and back again - for no reason other than to include the target words, or avoid words that aren’t yet decodable.
There needs to be the space in which to build characters who may be good or bad (or both), funny and silly or sad – and have the ability to make children feel with them. Engaging with characters and their dilemmas and triumphs allows children to imagine other ways of being in the world. In this, the emotions play a central role – a role that has been widely recognised as vital to effective learning in all kinds of contexts.
Every language has its typical rhythms, which children learn by listening to the spoken word. Written prose and verse rely on those rhythms, but also mix them up for effect. Much of the pleasure of reading comes from these ‘sound effects’, emphasised by rhyme and alliteration and assonance and onomatopoeia. The value of this is beautifully expressed by Maryanne Wolf and Stephanie Gottwald, when they argue that children’s literature
creates an invisible, tiny sound laboratory where the line between music and speech is blurred and the little phonemes of oral language are better heard.
One of the single most important predictors of reading performance is a child’s awareness of phonemes. There is little that consolidates this phoneme knowledge more for the young child than hearing words that rhyme and play with the ear and mind. Later on, there is little that propels this same knowledge even further than reading the words that contain these phonemes. It is a wonderful example of the great, continuously reciprocal relationship between the various interrelated aspects of oral and written language.
Focus on the Extended Code
Most decodable series focus on the Foundation Code, with the Extended Code covered in relatively few books. Often several letter patterns representing the same sound (for example ee, ea, e_e, y), are introduced in a single book, which may be confusing for children, especially for those who have reading difficulties.
Phonics with Feeling readers begin at a more advanced level than other decodable series do. Much of the preparatory work is done with apps and hands-on activities, and the first five readers provide an overview of the Foundation Code. This means that 40 readers can be dedicated to the Extended Code.
The challenge at this stage is mastering letter patterns made up of two or three letters. In many cases, a single letter pattern (grapheme) represents more than one sound (e.g. the ou in shout, soup, rough) - and a single sound can be represented by several different graphemes (e.g. the oo sound is also represented by ue, ew, ou, u, ui, u-e, ough).
Phonics with Feeling readers begin by introducing one sound/letter relationship (PGC) at a time. The goal is to avoid confusion, as well as to allow children to slowly and systematically build up ‘mental maps’ or schemas. Through these schemas, children are able to anchor the sounds they are familiar with to the sequence/s of letters that represent those sounds.
Focus on sound/spelling knowledge
In the later readers a number of letter patterns (graphemes) representing a single sound are introduced. By this stage children will be familiar with the most common spelling/s of a particular sound, and will be able to take on board several less common spellings for the same sound. In this way the focus of the books shifts gradually from reading skills to the spelling skills essential for writing.
The stories in Phonics with Feeling readers are longer than those in other series, which means that a lot more of the words with the target sound/letter pattern can be included in each story. The relevant words are listed at the end of each book, for practice and revision. In this way, the books can be used as a spelling resource, building sound/spelling knowledge as sound/letter relationships are compared across the series. So, for example, when ea as in meat is introduced in Squeak and Squeal (Set Three, Book 3), the story about Neela and Sheela (Set Two, Book 2) can be re-visited, to compare the list of words spelled with ee with the list of words spelled ea. Later, when ea as in head is introduced in Heather and Fred, (Set Nine, Book 3), the Squeak and Squeal story can be re-visited to distinguish those words from the new words with the same spelling but representing a different sound.
The names of key characters in the stories are based on the relevant sound/letter pattern where possible, so that a story and a character can be associated with a particular sound to help with recall of sound/spelling patterns.
These readers do not shy away from including some challenging vocabulary if the words include the relevant sound/letter pattern. So, for example, words like gloat and hoax, zeal and reveal, assume and dispute can be found in the stories. These words are decodable, and their meaning can be explained in a specific context. And – I’ve found – children enjoy the challenge of learning something that other children – or even adults – don’t know!
Although the readers are designed so that the child can decode the stories with minimal support, the extra length means that the child and adult can read alternate pages, which provides the opportunity to model fluent and expressive reading. When the adult is reading, the child should follow the words on the page. On subsequent readings the child and the adult can swap pages.
Comprehension and Reflection
The longer format also allows for more space in which to develop more complex and challenging themes. The themes and issues are designed to promote discussion – in this way developing comprehension and the ability to reflect on aspects of the story, and to connect them to personal experience. Questions at the end of each book are intended to stimulate these kinds of conversations.
With most decodable series, the first 20 - 30 books are very short, and there is no reason to revisit them once children have mastered the relevant sound/letter relationships. This brings to the fore the problem of cost: one is paying a substantial amount for ‘disposable’ books. This may be acceptable in school settings, where the books will be re-used by multiple pupils, but for families the value-for-money is questionable.
My goal in creating the Phonics with Feeling series has been to create stories that are worth re-visiting, and books that are affordable - allowing a family to own the whole series.
To make these readers affordable, the illustrations have been done in black and white. Children can colour in the pictures, bringing another layer of enjoyment into the process.