Surprises & adaptations
The principles and practices of this approach to literacy are inseparable. Starting with a learner’s voice is both a tool for improving literacy and a foundational principle that puts the learner at the centre of the method. We can see from the projects’ final reports how teachers adapted the principles and practices of the toolkit for their diverse learners in classrooms, vocational workshops and an extracurricular spelling club.
We also learned and discussed the importance of some key principles, including the following:
Start with learner voice
“For post-16 learners, it is often particularly useful to start from oral language (using their own regional accent). Ask them to:
• say whole meaningful words that are in the learner’s vocabulary
• identify the sounds
• and then attach written symbols to those sounds.”
(ETF, 2019, p41)
This activity connects speech to writing for learners who have often struggled to memorise words visually. When I suggest this to tutors in the sector, there is sometimes a “not likely” response. One vocational tutor felt it was setting learners up to fail because they didn’t speak clearly. However, the projects showed how most learners, even when it was challenging, were willing to try this approach.
One success was a learner in a prison workshop who created a syllable matching activity based on his own syllabification of vocational terms. They may not be not exactly what I would say but they reflect the learner’s own best way of remembering how to spell the words and that’s the beauty of giving learners the power to start with their own voices (see Novus report).
Words as Puzzles
If it’s a complex word, treat it like a puzzle. Write the graphemes on a board or on sticky notes and have learners assemble the sounds into syllables. Then have them write the whole word and decide which part they need to work on remembering.
(ETF, 2019, p68)
If learners need more support with syllables and graphemes, the puzzle approach is a safe way to learn complex words. Limiting the graphemes takes away the likelihood of making a mistake.
A maths teacher used puzzles for teaching how to spell the names of shapes and found that students not only learnt to spell the terms but could also recall the names and identify the shapes more accurately than before the puzzle approach (see Education and Training Collective report).
Puzzle pieces (ETF, 2019, p73)
Others found that learners could make gains by focusing only on the syllables without worrying about the individual sounds. This was a surprise and I’d like to see further research into how this compares with grapheme puzzles for learning complex vocational vocabulary (see Novus report).
[Basic Code Plus provides] an idea of what a simple to complex and explicit to incidental sequence could look like. The order is important at the very beginning because it’s carefully scaffolded to build confidence in your least confident learners. As they progress, the need for structure is less.
(ETF, 2019, p46)
The toolkit suggests using this approach for learners working at Entry Level 1 or below and I was sure we had paced it just right so that people would be neither bored nor overwhelmed. However, the Haringey spelling club found they could accelerate that process when there was a low tutor-to-learner ratio. They could start with a cvc (consonant, vowel, consonant) word like ‘fun’ and get the learners to spelling ‘misunderstanding’ within the hour, a process I had envisioned would take several weeks.
They also devised their own lesson structure of starting with a text and moving towards the word level work, whereas I would have travelled in the other direction. This was a great example of how professionals can take the principles of the toolkit and create something that works both for them