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How do good readers and spellers think about words?

How do good readers and spellers think about words?

These new apps teach struggling children the essential skills.

Literacy expert Betsy Sewell and app developers Minty Hunter and Bek Farr have pooled their talents to produce a series of New Zealand accent apps to help struggling readers and spellers.

“English is an alphabetic language,” explains Betsy, “which simply means the letters on the page represent the sounds of speech. It is very complex, with multiple ways of representing many speech sounds, but underneath this complexity there is a system that makes sense. Successful readers and spellers consciously or unconsciously figure it out.”

Betsy has worked with hundreds of children, and her observations are consistent with the international research findings. Children who find reading and spelling challenging almost invariably have some difficulty with finding this link between the printed and spoken word. Maybe the child cannot detect the individual sounds of words in speech, or simply does not realise that those letters on the page represent sounds. Maybe he or she does not know how to convert that string of sounds into a word. Some children can decode simple three or four letter words, but have no idea how to tackle those same words with a suffix added: miss might be straight forward, but missed is too long to deal with.

Reading research tells us that competent readers and spellers think in the sounds of words, and process the repeating units that most words are composed of: str, ust, ack, ake, con, ation and the like. These are teachable skills, but for many children it takes a great deal of practice before they become the default way of thinking, before the child is able to instantly and automatically apply them to their reading and spelling. There is no quick fix. Learning to read and spell is akin to learning a musical instrument: many hours of regular practice is imperative.

But how is this to be achieved in a busy classroom? How are parents to help their child develop these essential skills at home? Apps were the obvious answer.

There were some challenges. It had to be a classic New Zealand accent, the accent that children speak and hold in their head, rather than one of the myriad variants they are exposed to. That was easy. But how are the hours of practice to be made appealing to children? How is the child to learn independently, without the input of a busy teacher or parent? How are the children, and their teacher or parent, to know that progress is being made? What incentives will encourage children to stick at it? How is it all to be made engaging and rewarding, the sort of app that all children will ask to use? This became the challenge for Minty and Bek from Nectarine, the programmer and graphic designer of Wordchain, whose daughter had worked with Betsy.

Our daughter appeared to read quite fluently... except that she would be tired after three pages and not want to read any more!

Betsy assessed her and explained that she would see a word like 'jumped' and decode it, which took a bit of mental effort. Then she'd see 'jumping' a bit further on and not be able to connect the two, so she'd have to decode it from scratch again. It was this constant effort that was exhausting her, and all she needed was a better understanding of how words are composed to more easily decode them.

After a few weeks of using Betsy's programme, we had a morning when our daughter was late getting up for school. We went to investigate and discovered she'd woken early and was so engrossed in the book she was reading, she'd forgotten what the time was - she'd been lost in the joy of a book!

It was a complete transformation. That's why we got involved with creating Wordchain. We wanted other parents to have the same experience with their kids.

The result is a series of four comprehensive and engaging apps, designed to systematically teach children how words work, with many hours of practice at each stage. Each app supports multiple children, a whole classroom if necessary. Wordchain 1 begins with the simplest words, three letter words like dog, bus, but and had, and progresses to adding simple suffixes to this basic format - bigger, funny, tagged. It also covers the two letter blends at the beginning of simple words – stop, crab, flap or gram. Wordchain 2 and 3 build on this, with longer and more complex words, until at Wordchain 4 the user is coming to grips with the tricky vowels, such as ou and ur.

Wordchain is available from Google Play and the Apple store. The Wordchain website explains how these apps work, and much more.

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