Thursday, June 5, 2014

Thinking Like a Doctor and "Working Through the Options"

Did you know that if you had a fever and cough, it could be the plague, 
or pneumonia...
or maybe just the flu?
Actually, it could be a lot of things.

Click for MORE on Thinking Like a Word Doctor!
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.  lucy

As medicine is not an exact science, doctors have to continually work through a series of options in determining the most effective. They make these decisions based on a hierarchy of likelihood of what's "most likelynext-most likely, and least likely" to be successful, given all that they know.

Like medicine, the English Language is not an exact science, and neither is phonics.  But by taking a similar approach when working with unknown words as doctors take when working with unknown patient ailments, a logical thinking-construct begins to emerge, empowering learners and their decision-making when working with text.  

First, it's important to realize that despite how it might seem, letters and the sounds that they make are not random.  You will never see the letter q say "mmm," nor will you ever see the letter say "ahhh," or tion say "rrrr!"  In fact, the apple will never fall far from the tree when it comes to the letters and the sounds they can be found making, and contrary to popular belief, letters don't just "lose their little letter-minds" and start making any old sound they please! All they do (and it's usually the vowels that do this) is make sounds that they are perfectly capable of making anyway... it just might be their next most likely ones! 

With this in mind, it's also important to note that before doctors can assess patients, they must first possess a general base of knowledge, so as to be able to know what's most likely.   Students must know the Secrets for the same reason,  as you can't think "outside of the box" if you don't know what's IN it!  

The ou/ow Secret

Ou ow play really rough and someone always get's hurt... "owwwwww!"
But, flying overhead is Superhero O, ow's all-time favorite superhero!
When ow sees him, they stop and yell out,"Oh! Oh!" 
And that's the other sound ow can make.

Knowing the above Secret for ou & ow, let's look at the word you.  The letters 'ou' aren't doing what they should, according to the Secret Still, their sound in the word you hasn't strayed too far away... in other words, we can still figure it out if we think like doctors!

A Hierarchy of Likelihood Approach to sounding out 'ou' in the word 'you':
1.  Try the Secret Stories sound for ou (as in house)
2.  Try the individual sounds for the letters o and u, long and short
3.  Try 'like-lettered' Secret Stories sounds- oooi, ous 
4.  It's the PLAGUE!  It requires a specialist! (i.e. must be memorized)

In this case, we got it on the second try..... The ou make the long u sound in the word you, which was  logical to conclude for a good "Word Doctor" who knows the options! See!  EASY-PEASY....  even for KINDERGARTNERS!  

"So why go to all that trouble to figure it out?  Why not just memorize it instead?"
Here's why- because it's this "figuring-out process" is where the REAL learning happens... not the learning how to read the word you, but learning how to think... how to "pattern-out" information so as to be able to critically analyze and think diagnostically determine the most likely successful option!  Thinking through, or patterning-out information in this way is what our brains were designed to do. It's how we learn best. Seth Godwin (author of Looking for Patterns (Where they don't Exist!)) writes,  "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." 

Our brains are hard-wired to look for patterns. The ability to classify incoming information quickly into categories 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' been seen before (i.e. "It just is... It just does... You just have to remember...." in response to learner questions about how to read or spell certain words.)

The "Critical-Thinking" Muscles!

On the flip side, just think of how many sight words can be crossed off the 'must-be-memorized' list! Consider that for every sight word a learner memorizes, that's one less opportunity for reinforcement of the critical phonemic sound skills that you work so hard to teach, and more importantly, it's one less opportunity for students to use their 'critical-thinking' muscles!

Now before you read any further, watch this short video.

It's easy for teachers to empathize with Ricky's struggle to read words like: boughs, through, rough, cough and enough. His plight could easily be that of any one of our kiddos in guided reading group as he diligently attempts to decode these seemingly 'un-decodable' words, and becoming 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.

However, in the same way that a doctor works through various options to heal a patient, so to can we to heal these words... or at least make them 'figure-outable!' (I know that's not a word but it gets the point across)  First you must know the following Secrets, in addition to the ou/ow Secret above.

The gh Secret
Gh will make different sounds, depending on their spot in line.

When they are at the FRONT, they're glad! 
There, they make the hard g sound, saying....
 "Good!  This is Great!  We're Gonna Get to Go first!"
(as in the word 'ghost')

When they are in the MIDDLE, and surrounded by lots of other letters, 
they are silent and are too afraid to say anything.
(making no sound, as in the word 'sight')

When they are at the END, they're none-to-happy, and are always complaining.
Here, they make the f sound, saying....
"We're so Far away, it'll take Forever to get to the Front!"
(as in the word 'rough') 
The 'gh' Secret (Fun & Funky framed version)

The oo Secret

oo makes a sound similar to the one owls make... "Oooooooo! Ooooooooo!"
(students should cup their hands around their eyes, like 'owl eyes' when making this sound)

But it can also make another sound. Can you hear it?
"Look at the cook in the nook with a book on a hook... he's cooking' up snook...take a look!"
"Look in the nook!  There's a cook with a book on a hook and it looks like he's cooking a snook!"
"I see a cook with a snook in a nook and he has a book on a hook... LOOK!"
(Have fun with this one, letting the kids mix up the words any which way they like while sharing this Secret over and over again in lots of different ways.  Doing so allows them to both  hear and feel this alternative (and difficult to describe!) sound.
The 'oo' Secret (Classic/ Resource-Size version)

Now let's take a look at these seemingly non-decodable words, but this time, "thinking like doctors" as we work through a SECRET STORIES® hierarchy of likelihood...


The ou IS making the sound that it should, based on the Secret, so that part's easy. 

The gh however, is NOT.  It should be making the f-sound, but since it isn't, we'll just try one of the other sounds it can make.... and that's all it takes! The gh is silent (which IS one of the sound options shown in the Secret, above) and knowing this, we can now we can read the word!


The ou is NOT making the sound that it should, nor is it making the sounds of either of the individual letters, o or u, but it IS making the most likely sound of its cousin, oo! (and by cousin, I mean another  Secret that it looks related to, as per both having one or more 'like letters,' in this case, the o.

The gh, like in the previous word, is silent, and NOT making the 'f' sound as it should when it's at the end of a word. Once again, by simply trying one of the other two sounds it can make, we can read the word!  (just remember, the phonics rules are, at best, like "best betting odds for Las Vegas" and often work only six times out of ten... that's why knowing all of the other possible sound options is so important!)


Like in the word you (from way above), ou is NOT making the sound that it should, but by simply trying the individual sounds for o and u, we can still get its sound!  In this case, ou is making the short u sound

Thankfully, the gh is doing exactly what it should at the end of a word!


The ou, as it did in you and rough, is NOT making the sound that it should, but it IS making one of their individual sounds, in this case, the short o sound.

Again, the gh is doing exactly what it should be!


Once more the ou is not making the sound that it should, but it's doing the next most likely thing, based on our hierarchy of likelihood (see way above), just as it did in the words yourough and cough.  In this case, it's making short u's sound.

Once again, the gh is just doing exactly what it should!
(See, that's why phonics rules (i.e. the Secrets) are like the 'best betting odds...'  they don't always work, but they are the most likely options!  That's why the real trick is knowing what the "next-most likely" ones are!

The following video clip shows a group of first grade "Word Doctors" applying some critical analysis and diagnostic thinking to the word "light," which they can already read,  and yet are determined to account for WHY the "i" is making his long, superhero sound...especially since there is no Mommy E® or Babysitter Vowels® in sight!

A Brain Study on "Sight Words vs. Decoding" by Stanford University...
Beginning readers who focus on letter-sound relationships, or phonics, instead of trying to learn whole words, increase activity in the area of their brains best wired for reading, according to new Stanford research investigating how the brain responds to different types of reading instruction. This is the first evidence that a specific teaching strategy for reading has direct neural impact. In other words, to develop reading skills, teaching students to sound out "C-A-T" sparks more optimal brain circuitry than instructing them to memorize the word "cat." And, the study found, these teaching-induced differences show up even on future encounters with the word. 
You can read more in this post, or access the study direclty, here.

Patterning IS Thinking

The following excerpt is taken from 12 Design Principles Based on Brain-based Learning Research by Jeffery Lackney, Ph. D.

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 rememberedthat will be learned. 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 meaningLearning 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. The implications of applying the findings of neuroscience related to coherency and meaning suggest that learning be facilitated in an environment of total immersion in a multitude of complex interactive experiences ..." 

"You can't FIGHT the brain.... You will LOSE!"
Critical literacy skill-acquisition for reading and writing becomes natural and EASY when taught with the brain-in-mind!  If you'd like to take a peek at some more Secrets, download the FREE Secret Stories Chunks Sampling!

a/aw Secret Stories Sampling pack
eu/ew Secret Stories Sampling Pack
And for all those who don't have the Secret Stories Classroom Set (or if you do, but would like variable size options in a reproducible format) I would encourage you to check out the Secrets of the Superhero Vowels, also on TpT.  It's a great place to start!

The Secrets of the Superhero Vowels pack
The vowels are the "meat and potatoes" of our language.  You can't read or write anything without them, and they are also the FIRST thing to check when words don't 'sound-out' like they should! Just as a doctor checks your eyes, ears, nose and throat when something is wrong, a good reader checks the a, e, i, o u!  These are the 'eyes, ears, nose and throat' of words, and they offer the best 'window' into what's most likely causing the problem when all Secrets have been applied, but the word still isn't 'sounding-out' the way it should. A reader should check the vowels and ask himself, "What else could it say? What else could I try....?"
SS Vertical Alphabet

The Secret Stories Vertical Alphabet (left) also has the Superhero Vowels depicted for daily reference and practice when singing through the skills, rapidly manipulating them to  music with the Better Alphabet Song and the Letter Runs!

Well, that's it for now, but keep an eye out for next month's Secret Sessions and get your military gear ready, as the topic will be S.B.T. (a.k.a. "Situation-Based Training") for a critical thinking "thrust" to your reading and writing instruction! It's one more  new and researched-based way to 're-think' WHAT we
do and HOW we do it! 

Upcoming Post...."Situation-Based Training" (a.k.a. S.B.T.) to Navigate
 Learner Decision-Making with Unfamiliar Text!
I'll also be doing a video on this as well, so if you're subscribed to my VLOG on YouTube, you should receive an email notification!

Featured 2017 Nat'l Title I Conference Presentation


  1. Amber O.May 29, 2014 at 10:36 PM

    Okay… I have the book, the CD, the posters, the complete set (thanks to your monthly drawing!) and I am very excited to start using it with my new group of kiddos this fall. My question right now is: what do we say to our young readers when they go through a "word diagnosis", like we would have to do for all those words above? How do we encourage them to keep trying different sounds until they hear a word they know, and then try that correct-sounding word in context to make sure it makes sense? Before, when I instructed small groups, I would just tell them the word and then add it to their sight word list or practice it a few more times as a "sight word" in a group or individually until I felt it was memorized. Bad practice, I realize now, but having them keep trying sounds they know seems exhausting! I know it will help them much more having to figure it out on their own, but I just wonder if you have a bag of tricks or phrases you use to keep them from getting discouraged and just giving up! Thanks for this post and any further tips/advice on this issue!

    1. Great question! But it comes from a traditional 'skill-based' instructional context... one in which letters, patterns and sounds have to be "taught" and "learned." When I write these blog posts, I sometimes forget to account for the paradigm shift that occurs when sharing the skills rather than teaching them, as you would have to do in traditional instruction, in piece-meal-fahsion from K through 3rd.

      With the Secrets, you can just 'give' them the skills/ tools they need.... literally... AS they need them, so as to effectively acquire "everything needed" in-tandem with WHEN it's needed. As you now have the kit, you'll see that it's really THAT easy! Even if you are in your last couple days of school, try out a few Secrets with the kids and you'll see what I mean :)

      The 'social-emotive' neural pathways used to "acquire, store, and apply" the Secrets are the same as those used to tell the sub "who's supposed to be the line leader.... who can't sit by who.... who should never eat peanuts, etc.." In other words, the 'options' they are working through are just as familiar to them as the back of their own hand, regardless of whether they are PreK or remedial middle school. That's what's so awesome about teaching with the brain in mind, especially in phonics skill instruction, which is literally 180 degrees in defiance of how the brain learns.

      As for how to initiate the 'diagnosis' process....MODELING, MODELING, MODELING! All the time, across all subject areas. Take advantage of the fact that students read and writing ACROSS the curriculum, and throughout the instructional day. When I do school inservice with intermediate grade teachers, the Secrets are actually 'buried' within their content area instruction, so as to be shared in varied contexts every day, as opposed to primary grades, who have the luxury of focusing on reading and writing skills, specifically.

      If you want to get an idea of how the modeling would look, you can check out the super short video clips on the Secret Stories website, under the heading "LIVE in the Classroom" here.......

      Thanks so much for the great question, and I would love to hear back if you get the chance to play around with some of the Secrets before school ends this year!

  2. What great info! I am your newest fan and I hope to have the chance to see you in person at an upcoming conference sometime this year!
    Jenny Tisdale

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  4. Okay, here goes.
    First of all, I am your number one fan!
    I attended both of your workshops at the Colorado Conference and could have gladly attended ten more times. I just couldn't get enough of what you were saying! Everything just made so much sense and completely made me rethink all that I do with my little guys in the classroom. Anyway, I literally could not stop talking about you and the Secret Stories for the rest of the day, so probably to shut me up, the teachers I had come with agreed to come with me to see your next session, after which we were ALL obsessed!

    Our primary teachers now use the Secret Stories across the board and our intermediate grades will be starting next fall. I just wanted you to know that as amazing as I thought the secrets while listening to you at the conference, they're even BETTER!!!

    Thank you Katie and Mrs. Jump for putting these incredible teaching tools into the hands of teachers who haven't had the chance to experience them!

    And Katie, any chance that you will be doing an institute at CCIRA this year? If so, I will need to start harassing my principal now so that I can go!

    I tried to edit and add on to my previous comment but it wouldn't let me so I had to repost this, but I was also wondering what you thought about preK starting the secrets before the kids get to k, as ours haven't yet, but I know you do mention them in your video blogs

    1. First of all, THANK YOU for the so, so, VERY kind words! They really are very much appreciated, and I am so happy that you got a lot out of my session.... BOTH of them! LoL! I've been told that I talk so quickly that it actually takes two times listening to catch it all ;)

      As for your questions, I will be at the Colorado Conference, I wouldn't miss it, as it's one of my favorite venues and always crazy crowded... in a good way! As far as doing an institute, I'm not sure if I will be able to get in in time, as I fly in from another venue and the timing might be tight. I should know for certain sometime this summer once all of my contract dates are finalized w/ exact dates & times. Just keep an eye on the schedule listed on the Secret Stories website later this summer when it gets updated again.

      With regard to preK, YES! Both four AND five year olds have identical acquisition times (2 weeks to 2 months) for the individual letters and sounds when acquired through motor memory, as compared to the standard full year or more when relying on cognitive processing, given the inherent developmental readiness issues at that age.

      You can share this information with them.... about the Better Alphabet Song/ individual letters and sounds, and encourage them to just try it out. I think It's always best to see things with your own eyes rather than trying to convince them, although I appreciate your trying to do so!

      I actually posted free pieces on TpT and made the vlogs so that anyone interested would be able to try out a few of the strategies & techniques and see the difference in when sharing these skills with the brain in mind, as opposed to the traditional way.

      I hope this helps, and again I thank you SO much for your post, and I hope to hear more, especially as your upper grades begin implementing in the Fall!

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  6. We are all big fans of the Secret Stories at our school. Everyone from kindergarten through second grade will have it next year, and I'm very excited about that! I found the article very interesting because I've been one of those teachers who has ended up giving words to children when I thought the Secret Stories could not be used. I will definitely let my students know in the future that sometimes they need to try other sounds for the vowels, rather than the traditional Secret Story sounds. It's definitely a different way of looking at things, and I'm excited about trying it. I'm going to try it over the next week and a half of school and am anxious to see how they do. Katie, you make such a difference in students' lives. My students have done very well in reading this year, and I feel that I owe it to you and the Secrets! Thanks for all that you do!

    1. Diane,
      Thank you so much for your lovely message, as knowing that the Secrets are making a difference in your classroom and at your school is so wonderful to hear!

      As to encouraging kids to try alternative sounds, I think I will actually be doing the next post on how this works, but in a bit more detail, as it's actually SO MUCH EASIER than I think it might sound.... especially to those who do not use the Secrets and can't fathom their students even knowing ONE sound for some of the Secret patterns, let alone MULTIPLE ones!!

      These video clips provide a glimpse into how this flexible 'critical-thinking' model would look in Kindergarten.....

      Hopefully this will help show how easy (and incredibly powerful) this technique actually is.... especially with the earliest grade levels :)

  7. Our school has been using the Secret Stories all year in our pre-Kindergarten through 5th and we've seen a remarkable improvement across the board, with our primary K-2 grades actually scoring almost an entire YEAR above grade level on their end of year RRRs! I want you to know that I will be downloading every single one of your blog posts this summer and making them into packets for all of our teachers to have at the beginning of next school year, they will be beyond excited! I can't wait to get more "inside-info" into the secrets!
    THANK YOU!!!!!!

    1. Wow, I didn't even know that you could download blog posts?!! But that's great, as that's what they're there for! So happy that you are finding them useful!

      Congratulations on your students' performance! That's so exciting, and you and your fellow teachers (and students!) should be very proud!!!

      I actually tell teachers that when sharing all of the SECRETS at one grade level (which is what you do) students at the primary grades will test, on average, approx. 1 to 1.5 years above grade level. This is due simply to aligning skills that are inherently NOT brain-freindly' with how our brains actually learn best, which is to feed its natural inclination to 'pattern-out' NEW information in such a way that it can be easily connected to what's ALREADY owned. Learners' ability to think through the various options when phonics rules don't 'exactly' apply is key to this, as otherwise, logic is lost, and so is the ability to 'pattern' (i.e. make sense of the skills).

      Whew, that was sort of a mini-post all to itself! Anyway, thanks again for the great news and very kind words!

  8. So much great info and I will definitely be sharing ALL of it with the rest of the teachers at my school, as we all use the Secret Stories and we absolutely love them, and so do our kids! They will be so excited to find out about your new blog, as we're already dedicated vlog followers!

    I only wish that there were more educational authors willing to take the time to share their personal insight into the strategies they create and connect with the teachers using them. The information you share is not just informative, but it's inspiring! Just reading this post makes me want to jump back into my classroom and take our Secrets to a whole new level!

    1. I'm thankful that you found it as well! That's why I encourage those interested and already following Deanna's awesome blog to follow my blog to follow mine if they want to get all of the posts, as I will be doing more posts on my blog than the couple per month I'm doing here.

      I will actually be adding to the VLOGS as well, and now have them linked/ posted directly on my blog, which makes it easier to know when new ones are posted, as I will announce it.

      As for connecting with the teachers using the Secrets in their classrooms, I LOVE LOVE LOVE getting opportunities to do so, as that's how I can see what works easily and what requires a little more info to ensure maximum effectiveness! I especially love getting to be in their classrooms when I'm out for school in services and even more so, getting the chance to interact with their students directly!!

      As for being inspiring, first of all, THANK YOU :) If nothing else, I think teachers need to be inspired if they and their students are to be successful, and some schools/ districts support teacher-inpsriation much better than others, especially in the current times. Getting teachers excited enough to jump into a new way of 'thinking and doing' is always my primary goal.... especially in workshops and sessions at conference! That, and making sure that they have everything they need to jump right in and try out some of the strategies the following day in their classrooms.... as nothing beats seeing your own "little Johnnys & Suzie's" do things in reading and writing that they have never even been close to doing before! LoL.... even while TYPING this I'm getting excited ;)

      Anyway, thanks so much for posting and letting me know that the info is helpful, it's much appreciated!!

  9. I am a follower of your blog and will be a first time kindergarten teacher next year! I do not know why I cannot comment, but hopefully I can still be entered. Thank you!

    Alison Gray |

    1. It's kind of hard unless you have a google or blogger account. I have opened my blog up so as to allow for anonymous commenting, although if spam begins to come in, I might have to change that. My only advice is to type a letter or two in the box and then hit the 'preview' button, as then you will be able to see the options for posting in the window. Then you can delete the letters and type your comment. Does that make sense??? :)

  10. I would LOVE to win a new Secret Stories set! My set is well used and much loved!!

  11. So glad to hear it, and with everyone going on vacation and so few posts this month, the odds are definitely MUCH better!!

  12. I would love to win a your Secret Stories kit. I teach first grade and I know my kids would love it. I have been promoting it with my whole team. I'm working on our PTA to buy it for us. Fingers crossed that I win!!

  13. I can't wait to begin using what I've learned about the "secrets"!!!

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  15. I've always loved the secret stories.

  16. I just discovered your blog, program and video and I love the thinking behind your program. Although I teach K, I feel your program could easily be used to help older students who are struggling. By the way, researching your program got me thinking about strange spelling phenomena and yesterday my husband and I sat around researching and discussing the etymology of the "ie" in words like friend and fiend. We are totally nerds!

  17. I would love to win a class set! I just discovered your blog. I am so excited to use some of your ideas and resources this year with my kinders.