Point to the picture that starts with “mm”


Jan Polkinghorne, tutor and IWB trainer


This article provides suggestions for maximising the use of your IWB in the teaching of phonics and spelling.


Published in speld (sa) newsletter Spring 2007


Debate has raged for years as to whether it is better to teach reading by the “whole word - look and say” method or to teach phonics in order to provide learners with a tool to help them decode new words. The debate then progressed to what type of phonics we teach: synthetic phonics, where sounds are associated with particular letters then blended together, or analytic phonics, which looks at whole words, finds spelling patterns and breaks the words into smaller parts. In 2006, the Rose Review of early reading was released in the UK which came down firmly on the side of synthetic phonics. The important thing about phonics teaching is that it provides a structured approach that provides students with the tools to attack words they do not recognise. This is essential for the 60% of students who need to be taught to read. This statistic includes children with low IQ, as well as those with dyslexia and speech and language difficulties.


Phonics teaching does not need to be boring. There is a growing selection of educational software serving both methods. SPELD SA has long been a supporter of the teaching of phonics, and has given strong support to Jolly Phonics which incorporates the synthetic approach. Jolly Phonics is in the process of developing a software version of their program which should be available late this year. RM Easiteach Early Steps to Literacy is another extremely good synthetic phonics program. The Phonics First and Reading Freedom software is a mix of analytic and synthetic phonics as is the THRASS program. Two phonics-based reading programs available for the computer are the Oxford Reading Tree, a British program, and our own Australian Fitzroy Reading Program.


Phonics teaching is not ‘drill and kill’. Good phonics teaching includes explicit explanation of spelling patterns and structures thus engaging a student’s cognitive reasoning skills; multisensory techniques (the use of a range of learning channels – listening, seeing, speaking, touching, doing); and overlearning. Practice in any skill actually changes the structure of the brain and creates or reinforces connections. For the student who has difficulty reading, creating the necessary connections is a bit like creating a path through the jungle. First, it requires much slashing of undergrowth (repetition) and then it requires regular use (revision). To this list I would like to add the need for the activity to be engaging. And yes, phonics teaching can be engaging. You only have to see a reception class doing Jolly Phonics to realise what fun it can be.

Interactive Whiteboards, now installed in many classrooms, also have the power to engage students. I was visiting a local primary school which had installed a number of Teamboards running Easiteach software. We entered the reception class where teacher Roz was working with a group of 5 year olds in a phonics lesson. “Who can find the picture that begins with “mm?” Roz asks the group.


A sea of hands shoots up. She points to a small boy up the back. As he touches the letter “m” on the board, it responds with the sound “mm”, and he drags the letter across the board to the large coloured picture of a mouse. He taps the mouse, which says “mouse starts with mm”, then squeaks, much to the amusement of the group. The whole class responds with a quick clap to acknowledge they agree with John’s choice. The sea of hands shoots up again, each hoping they will be next to have a turn. “I have been teaching for 35 years,” says Roz, “I am a bit of a techno freak. In fact, computers scare me. My IWB is the best thing that has happened in my class in 35 years. I wouldn’t be without it now. These kids were born in a technological age. They need the technology to turn them on to help them learn and it certainly does that.”

Further down the passage way Tim, the grade 2 teacher, is introducing the sound “sh” to his class. The whiteboard has a number of graphics on it. A line divides the board into two sections. Students are sorting the graphics into things which contain the sound “sh” in their name and those which don’t. As they tap the pictures the associated word is spoken. The next screen in the lesson shows how the two letters s + h combine to make the sound “sh”. Students actively drag the large letters together and they lock like a jigsaw puzzle piece. The next page on the board gives students the opportunity to drag the words to match the pictures while ensuing screens have cloze exercises with “sh” words missing and a dozen different ways to reinforce the work that has been introduced. The lively half-hour lesson concludes with a quick trip to a website via the IWB to play a word game involving “sh” words. “With the board I can easily involve students of all ability levels in a lesson,” says Tim. “Before we got the boards the students with learning difficulties were withdrawn for special help because they couldn’t keep up with what was happening in the class. Now the multimedia aspect of the boards means they can be just as involved as the rest of the class.”


In the Year 7 class, the spelling lesson for the day is looking at prefixes and suffixes. The students are deftly manipulating a spinning wheel on the board with a number of words on it which rotate past a prefix. They have to decide whether the prefix and word make a real word and what it means. All 30 students are involved in the process. If it is not their turn to spin they are writing the word in their book, looking up definitions or nodding or shaking their heads to agree or disagree with the choice that has been made out the front. Spelling was never like this when I went to school. “Would you believe they actually ask me when it is time for a spelling lesson now,” says Fred, their teacher.

As teachers, we need to take advantage of our students’ enthusiasm for new technology and their energy. We are fortunate. Many of us have access to computer programs and IWB software in our classrooms. Let’s maximise their effectiveness and use them to make the teaching of the skills fundamental to reading and writing multisensory, interactive, meaningful and fun.

Key findings from the final report of the Rose review into the teaching of reading March 2006 http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/Database/Primary/phonicsgov.html#final

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