Part 1: Early identification of problems
Prevention is nearly always better than cure. This is particularly true for children who are learning to read and write. If children struggle, especially when whole-word memorising or mixed methods of teaching are used, they start to think that learning to read is too difficult for them and that they are not bright enough. This develops into negative feelings and can lead to a great deal of resentment and unhappiness. Then some of the more struggling children pretend that they do not want to learn to read and stop being co-operative at school and at home.
So how can reading and writing problems be prevented? In my mind, the best solution is to deal with the difficulties before they become serious problems. The first thing is to make sure that a synthetic-phonics method of teaching is the mainstream-school approach and that decodable readers are used to reinforce the skill of blending until reading becomes fluent and the blending of unknown words is automatic. It is counterproductive if synthetic phonics is taught in an intervention group while mixed methods are used in the main classroom, or vice versa.
Fortunately, when teaching with synthetic phonics, it is easy to identify the children who are at risk. We know that poor memory and weak auditory skills are the main causes of reading and writing problems, so after teaching one letter sound a day for two weeks, the memory problem is easy to spot. These children know far fewer letter sounds than the rest of the class and some hardly know any at all. Ideally, this is when extra support should start.
Generally speaking, in a class of thirty children there are usually about six children at risk. In poor social areas, there will be slightly more children at risk and in the affluent areas there will be slightly fewer.
Extra letter-sound practice
At this early stage, it is the learning of the letter sounds that needs some extra practice. This could be done while the rest of the class are busy on an activity. The teacher could take the slow-to-start group of children, who are potentially at risk of developing problems, and concentrate on revising the letter sounds that have not been mastered. It need not be a long session; if there is time, some letter sounds could be dictated, to remind the children of letter formation. A little extra teaching on most days is extremely effective. Progress should go at the speed with which the majority can cope.
Provide all the slow-to-start children with their own letter-sound box. Identify the letter sounds that each child knows and place them in his or her box. Then ask the parents to go through the box every day with their child. On the back of each card is a word that uses that letter sound, to guide any parents who are not sure of the letter sounds: for example, the /n/ card has the word net on the back [demonstration]. The sheets for the letter-sound boxes can be downloaded from the Resources section (or by scrolling down to the bottom of the screen in the section Preventing Problems, Part 1). The letter sounds should be printed on one side and the words containing the letter sounds on the other.
Children with poor memories need plenty of reinforcement before each letter sound is securely placed in their long-term memory. As fast as possible, and when appropriate, add more letter sounds to the children’s boxes as each letter sound is learnt.
These children should not miss any of the whole-class teaching; the aim is to catch up and keep up with the rest of the class. During the day, it helps if each child goes through the letter sounds in his or her box, either with the teacher, a teaching assistant, a parent helper or a buddy. The buddy could be a friend in the class who knows the letter sounds well.
At the end of four weeks, review the progress of the group. With the extra attention, some of the children may now be learning the letter sounds quite well. If they have also started to blend and segment, they will hardly need any extra support. By now the teacher will also know if there are any children who may have a good memory but have a poor auditory ability. These children find it difficult to hear the word after blending the letter sounds and usually struggle to hear the sounds in words. They, too, will need extra teaching, preferably in small groups.