Saturday, March 29, 2014

Writing is a Window Into the Mind of a Reader

Okay, so imagine that you are a first-year Morse Code Operator who was just newly-assigned to a Naval War Ship. Your job is to "decode" all incoming messages and relay them to the captain, as well as  "encode" outgoing messages, as dictated by the captain. 

clipart by Phillip Martin 
But there's a problem.  
As you've only just begun your first year in a three-year Morse Code Training Program, you only know one third of the code! How can you possibly be expected to accurately send and receive messages with just a third of the code? What about all of the sounds that you haven't yet learned? 

If you must send a message for the captain, how will you account for all those sounds you don't yet know? Should you omit them, or just use random pieces of the code you do know as a substitute for the parts you don't? Or maybe you could just forgo the message that the captain wanted you to send and just "write what you can spell" instead.  
     Dear Captain, 
     It's a big sub.  I like it.  I like it so much.  It's  really fun.  
     I really really really like the big fun sub!

These are the common strategies employed by beginning (and struggling) readers and writers when attempting to work around all of the sound skills (i.e. phonics patterns) they don't know. 

Regardless of the fact that th is considered a first grade skill by traditional, grade-specific scope and sequence standards, even beginning kindergartners will encounter this common sound pattern more than hundred times on their very first day! It's literally found in every book, on every page, and in every sentence! (And don't even get me started on all of the crazy sounds of Y!) 

Neither teachers nor grade level curriculum can predict which letters/letter patterns  beginning learners will need to know in order to read the books they're genuinely interested in, or to spell the words they need to write the stories they want to tell. 

When writing, learners will often compensate for all of the sounds/sound patterns they don't know or haven't learned yet by one or more of the following:
deleting the letters/sounds in the words they want to write
—substituting letters/sounds they don't know with those they do 
—altering what they want to write to what they can write (below)

Now lets take a look at some kindergarten writing samples, starting the first day of school, prior to knowing any Secrets (i.e. Secret Stories®).

These first two kindergarten writing samples were from the 1st Day of School

*The next two are from mid-September (at approximately the '1-month' mark)
Students were given the written prompt- "In the Fall..." 
(with verbal instructions to write what they like to do in the Fall)

*These next three are from mid-December
(Writing Prompt- "Why I Love the Holidays!")

*This next grouping is from the Spring (and yes, they ARE kinder! :)

*For more writing samples (or to view larger) CLICK HERE
(By this point, the kids know so many SECRET STORIES® that many were too long to post!)

It's ironic that many kindergartners will persevere through daily reading and writing activities for the better part of the year knowing only a handful of the 26 letters and sounds and virtually NO phonics patterns. With so few tools brought to the table, early learners take only minimal value away from the many rich, literacy experiences we provide throughout the day.

But it doesn't have to be this way, with kids at the earliest grade levels having to "work harder, rather than smarter!" (and their teachers, too!) In an ideal world, most would agree that readers and writers (like Morse Code Operators) should own as much of the code as possible, as soon as possible....because neither can do much with only half the code!

So why does traditional core reading instruction require learners to wait three to four grade level years for access to the whole code? 

Ideally, students learn to read in PreK-2nd grade so that they can read to learn in 3rd-5th grade. And while this seems like a logical progression, if you dig a little deeper, the inherent flaws are obvious! 

Learners who fall behind at the earliest grade levels often begin third grade missing entire chunks of the code needed to to read and to write. These learners often get stuck on the hump— still in the process of learning to read while at a grade level where they must read to learn. It is extremely difficult for a learner to draw inferences, make predictions, and glean information from text while also trying to figure out "What sound do those letters make?" This division of processing power often results in what can appear to as an problem with  comprehension, when the underlying problem is a lack of automaticity with text. 

Additionally, because learners must wait until the third grade before gaining access to the whole code, they are constantly having to "work around" the letter/sound patterns they haven't yet learned, severely limiting their ability to read the books that they are interested in and write the stories they want to tell. And because the more tools learners bring to the table, the more value they are able to take away, this void in learner-skill ability makes it difficult for many students to fully partake in the rich, literacy experiences that we provide throughout the course of the instructional day.  

So how can beginning grade learners could enjoy open access to the whole reading and writing code when most students take an entire kindergarten year just to acquire the individual letters and sounds? Is it actually possible to teach individual letter sounds AND all of the complex phonics patterns simultaneously from the earliest grade levels?  

The answer is no, we can't teach them.... but we can GIVE them! 

The Brain Develops "Back-to-Front"

The brain develops from back to front, with the social-emotional affective or "feeling" networks coming on board first, and the higher-level, executive processing centers taking the longest to fully develop. Teachers who possess a general understanding of the brain science can use this information to take advantage of the brain's hardwired system for learning so as to bypass areas of inherent learner-weakness (developmental/cognitive readiness, processing/learning delays, etc...) and tap into alternative areas of strength.

When I was teaching kindergarten, I would always tell the "secret" about au/aw during calendar time on the first day of school, when reading the word August. I would explain they they were in love and had HUGE crushes on each other and would always get embarrassed and say, "Ahhhhhhh!" 

The au/aw Secret wasn't a skill to be "taught," but a story to be shared! By cloaking the skill as a secret and wrapping it up in a social-emotional disguise, we can take advantage of the brain's plasticity by activating the affective "feeling" networks to process, store and retrieve it. In this way, the information is immediately acquired and ready for use! I call sneaking through the brain's backdoor!

Accessing the affective "feeling" domain for critical phonics skill mastery means that even the earliest grade level learners can enjoy easy and accelerated "buffet-style" access to the whole code.

But what about those individual letters and sounds? 
Do they have Secrets?

Nope! They don't need them, as Secrets explain what letter do when they don't do what they should, and the only time letters DO what they should are when they are making their individual sounds!

That's not to say that teaching them is easy....but we're not going to teach them, we're going to GIVE them!

The Best Use for Music, Based on Brain Research 

Repetitive pitch, rhythm and intonation (i.e. songs) are also processed in back part of the brain, which is why young and struggling learners are easily able to acquire skill content captured in a song.

Teachers use music to teach lots of things, especially at the early grade levels—Months of the Year, Days of the Week, even the Fifty Nifty States— we sing them all! But what happens when a student is asked to name the month comes before July?  What do they have to do to get the answer?  

They have to sing it... all of it... the WHOLE entire song! And if they don't pay attention while they're singing, they have to do it again....and again...and again! 

This is because skills that are "stored in song" are processed by the more primitive, rear portion of our brains, capable only of storing the information as a whole, exactly as it went in (like a 'read-only' disc). This more primitive area of our brain is capable of regurgitating information, but cannot manipulate it (i.e. take it apart, twist it around, and then put it back together.)  It is the higher level, executive processing center at the front that processes information at a higher level—able to pull information apart and put it back together in new and different ways— which is what is required for decoding (reading) and encoding (writing/spelling). 

This is why the traditional "ABC Song" is of no help to learners in acquiring letters and sounds!

Cheating the Brain and Changing the Game

Early learners can quickly and easily acquire all of the individual letters and sounds in just two weeks to two months by accessing muscle memory for sound skill retrieval,  rather than relying on the later-developing, cognitive processing centers for mastery.

Using the Better Alphabet Song (track #1 on the Secret Stories® CD) the individual letters and sounds can be given (not taught!) through the lips, tongue and teeth, circumventing the traditionally relied-upon "cognitive" processing channels.

"But wait a minute! I thought you said that rote singing was NOT a good way to teach letters and sounds?"  


But not if we cheat the brain's system and beat it at its own game! 

Understanding the brain's system for learning allows us to stay one step ahead (like a good chess opponent!) so as to take full advantage of what works (i.e. content embedded in song and  muscle memory for easy sound skill retrieval) while avoiding all of the pitfalls (i.e. "auto-pilot" singing and inability to process/take apart information information embedded in song.)

Unlike traditional "skill-based" songs that learners have to sing from beginning to end in order to access the information they need, the Secret Stories® Better Alphabet Song is akin to 26 "mini-songs" in which the tune starts over for each letter/sound set. Thus, it is not necessary to sing the entire song from beginning to end to access the skill (i.e. pull the letter/sound needed to read/write). 

By simply starting the tune over after every sung letter/sound set, we can "override" the brain's system for taking the sung content in as a whole. Breaking the skill sets apart into the equivalent of 26 mini-songs allows learners to sing/retrieve the sound they need (to read/to write) without having to start from the beginning. 

In this way, even preK learners are able to easily acquire the letter names and ALL of the possible sounds they can make—in their most likely order (c as in cat OR c as in city).

How to Teach the Individual Letters & Sounds in 2 Weeks to 2 Months!  

The "Better" Alphabet—  A Quick Glimpse!
And by popular request, I created a Secret Stories® Vertical AND Horizontal Alphabet Chart like the one used in my VLOG!  


And finally, a quick word about the short vowels....
Unlike the other individual letter sounds, the short vowel sounds cannot be acquired using the muscle memory technique, as their sounds are too close in both sound and shape. With little variation in muscle movement between them, it's not possible to rely on the muscles for retrieval, which is why they have Secrets to prompt their sounds! Teaching ("giving") them takes less than five minutes...and you're DONE!  (Yes, it really is that easy.)

I'll talk more about the vowels (as well as Mommy E® and Sneaky Y®) in my next post, or you can skip right to my VLOGS....

Just click here... 
  ...and here!

If you don't have the Secret Stories® Classroom Kit 
(which includes all of the vowel anchors/stories)  you can try this digital "appetizer" of Superhero Vowels® 
(and their short & lazy "sound" disguises!)
Secrets of the Superhero Vowels® Mini-Pack

Secret Stories® phonics "secrets!"
The SECRETS of the Superhero Vowels®
And if you've never tried the Secrets, you can download this Secret Sampling pack of mini-anchors FREE, and start sharing them with your class tomorrow!

Secret Stories® phonics "secrets!"
Secret Stories® phonics "secrets!"
Secret Stories® phonics "secrets!"
Secret Stories® phonics "secrets!"
Secret Stories® phonics "secrets!"
Secret Stories® phonics "secrets!"

And for more on using writing as a window into the mind of a reader, check out this clip from my featured presentation at the 2017 National Title I Conference. You can also view the complete presentation here on the Secret Stories® YouTube Channel.

 Until Next Time!


  1. I can't wait to play The Better Alphabet song with my students tomorrow. Thanks for sharing!

      Katie GarnerApril 1, 2014 at 2:34 PM

    1. 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- ..........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!

  2. So many great ideas and a great song!!!! Definitely going to try this with my kids! Thanks!!!
  3. The Morse Code Operator is a great analogy! Thank you for this post. :)
    lorepuckett at gmail dot com
  4. I subscribed!! I will be trying this with my kiddos as well!
  5. 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!


    1. 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!)

      Looking forward to meeting you in July,

  6. This is incredible. I appreciate the work that has been put into programs like this and the accessibility of them to other educators and parents. Thank you and well done.


    1. Thank YOU and I'm so glad you found the post here on Mrs. Jump's Blog!!

  7. This was an amazing find. Thank you Deanna Jump for sharing this! I am purchasing the alphabet vertically as I write this. I am so inspired by this motor memory approach. Thank you!


    1. So glad you found the post, and be sure to use the vertical alphabet for the "Letter Runs" too... they're so much fun!! I put the link in the answer to the first comment at the top :)

  8. 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.
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  10. 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.... ......

    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!
  11. I'm excited to have a song to share with my kiddos. I would love to win your kit as I am always looking for ways to reach my struggling readers.
  12. This comment has been removed by the author.
  13. 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.


    1. 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!! ;)

  14. I think this sounds fabulous and I will be trying this out with my title students. I notice that my title students DO NOT know their alphabet-ever, nor their sounds. This should be the answer!


    1. 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!!! :)

  15. I think this sounds fabulous and I will be trying this out with my title students. I notice that my title students DO NOT know their alphabet-ever, nor their sounds. This should be the answer!
  16. 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 !


    1. Oh my! You HAVE been using them for a while then!!

      I'm so glad you found the videos and updated info on the Secret Stories website, as I've really been working hard to 'flesh-out' the basic strategy-base.

      I'm curious if you've been in the same grade level since you started using them or if you've moved around a bit?
    2. 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 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.

  17. I will be sharing this with my new teammates of next year's Kindergarten. Soooo excited!
  18. 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


    1. 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!!!!
    2. 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 :)

  19. This sounds awesome! I've been looking for a way to help my kinder. Can't wait to try it!
  20. What a great idea! LOVE this and can't wait to use it with my kinders! Thanks for sharing!
  21. This article really intrigued me! As I was reading the "why" of certain discrepancies, I was picturing specific students I've had along the way. thanks for sharing


    1. Getting learners to ask "why" is actually our goal,
      as the "WHY" equals "CRITICAL-THINKING!"

  22. I LOVE secret Stories! My students Love hearing the stories behind each letter or letter pair.


    1. It's so funny how even the high kids love to know WHY..... it goes to show that our brains really do crave "a place for everything, and everything it its place"

  23. I LOVE secret Stories! My students Love hearing the stories behind each letter or letter pair.
  24. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise on learning the letter sounds. This is my first exposure to the Secret Stories. Our school is looking for something to use in grades K - 2 to do a better job of teaching phonics. I will definitely pass this informative blog entry on to the curriculum committee.


    1. Thanks for commenting, and so glad to be able to share them here on Mrs. Jump's Blog!

  25. This was a first introduction to Secret Stories and will immediately begin implementing the practice with my 3 littles who haven't yet become proficient with ABC sounds.
  26. I really enjoyed reading this article. I avoided the ABC song, and instead taught my students sign language for each letter. That, combined with writer's workshop, the students could recognize, write, and sound out each letter in one month. Success!
  27. I am so happy to know there is someone else who knows that singing the ABC song is NOT the answer! I have taught K for 20 years and have used lots of other ways to teach letters and sounds to my students. Motions and movement is great and so is teaching "facial recognition"! How the face looks when you create a sound. My students learn to recognize, write, and sound letters fairly quickly. I can't wait to get your materials! Thanks!
  28. I just found your blog and it seems like perfect timing. I have been looking for a better way to teach phonemic awareness and phonics to my students.
  29. The Secret Stories are great! I can't wait to try them out with my kindergarteners.
  30. I love your vlog and all that you share! I have sent your website link to all my colleagues. Thanks so much!
  31. Katie you are a joy to listen to and learn from. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of the Secret stories. I'd love to win a classroom kit!