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Picture Embedded Mnemonics (Shanahan blog post response)

This was my response to a recent blog post by Shanahan. https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/a-question-i-hate-should-we-use-pictures-embedded-mnemonics-when-teaching-phonics

Absolutely 'the research these days shows just the opposite' ie using picture clues to remind children of the sound - s for snake, a for apple etc. When compared to no clues this will, for the most part, be true, as demonstrated by Ehri (1984) The clues can 'reduce the amount of repetition needed for kids to learn the letters and sounds, with less confusion, better long-term memory, and greater ability to transfer or apply this knowledge in reading and spelling' in the earliest stages of learning to read. What happens when there is an overlap in the code being taught - letter/s are used to represent phonemes eg s for sip, sugar, was...and phonemes can be represented in different ways eg sat, cent, grass, castle, psychology etc - it depends on the words. How will they react when there is a picture of an egg (e for..) on the letter a (any) or an orange (o for...) on the letter a in the word 'was' etc. Research tends to be quite a long way behind what many 'action researchers' have found - who are comparing types of mnemonics. It's like research comparing no systematic phonics to systematically taught phonics- of course the systematic phonics data will be better. But what about comparing different types of systematic phonics. As teachers we are constantly reviewing and adapting what is out there. We aren't often listened to though.


I used to use the type of mnemonics you mention - these have been around for years. However they do rely on children learning the associated picture, and this being consistent across the school (or as long as needed) or they go into a different classroom and need to remember different prompts. But, and more importantly, they rely on the child having decent phonemic awareness and understanding how the phoneme links with that word. I have visited numerous classrooms where children see the letter a and immediately start running their fingers up their arms and repeating a a a a a a a (there are ants running up). I then ask them why they do this and they say 'a for ant' and I say - but why? They don't understand it's because a is the first grapheme in the word ant, and the associated phoneme is æ. And most Aussie kids don't actually use the phoneme æ when they say that word. If I was to ask a child for the actual sounds they give ('sound it out') they don't use that sound. So the 'a' for ant' and action is learnt, and the child may look at 'sat' and follow the linked sounds through - but can't blend them as the focus for the teacher has been 'learning the letter sounds' and not actually doing anything with them.


I have also visited numerous classrooms where the children were 'sounding out' cat as 'Clever Cat, Annie Apple, Talking Tess' - yes but what is the word? No clue. And I have asked JP children to give me the actions for a word they have seen - eg 'cents' and they get really confused about which action to use - even though it should just be a snake in the grass for the first and 5th phoneme. They know there is a 'c' and aren't sure whether to click castanets (some aren't really sure what a castanet is) So it relies on really good instruction regarding the focus - if I ask for the sound action, think of the word we associate with ONE grapheme. I had a major issue with this. For example that phoneme /s/ - there are about 14 ways to represent it. So 's for a snake' is great in the early stages when the code is scaffolded and they are limited to the letter s representing that phoneme. Progress can seem great at first, and then it tends to fall apart a bit - and these programs only cover about 100 high frequency graphemes as it is. There is so much to learn, in such a limited amount of time, that we need everything to be as clear and easy to understand for ALL children (including those who don't speak English as a first language, or don't speak at all)


So although they can be useful, I have been doing something else that makes sure the children only think of the phoneme- as they would if they knew phonetic symbols. Initially it was for my non verbal ASD kids- they needed to show me the phoneme they could hear when I said words, and show the order. Manipulatives needed to represent phonemes - and most didn't use Cued Articulation. So my 'phonetic symbols for kids' are fun characters that represent a phoneme - they have NO LINK with a word, that happens to have a link to a spelling choice for that phoneme somewhere in it. I say 'somewhere' as many of the mnemonics these days use a prompt and the target phoneme is not at the beginning - eg there may be a bee for the i: sound, hair for eə If you have poor phonemic awareness and can't easily isolate those sounds in the middle of words it can cause a real issue - so if using the type you are referring to, I would much prefer them to link with the first sound.


Using phonetic symbols for kids also mean that they don't get 'blinded by letters'. If they have been so used to seeing the letter s with a snake on it (think Letterland Sammy Snake) then the word 'sugar' on their 'cereal' in the morning may be a shock. My mnemonics mean that letters don't 'make sounds', they represent speech sounds when in a word. If they see the word 'any' with our phonetic symbols for kids on them, they can easily see it is ɛni: I upload clips of 3 year olds reading irregular high frequency words (often still taught as whole words - called 'sight words') this way, figuring out any words quickly, because they can see the sound representations, and then they work with the word to store in long term memory. I do it to show people how easy it is when you simplify the system - a representation for a phoneme, and that's it. Children who speak little English understand (and many who know the IPA love it as we do have the phonetic symbols by the character, even though we don't teach them)



I couldn't teach all (but 5%) of my students to read before they start school with the type of mnemonics this teacher is probably talking about. She doesn't mean a picture for a sound, she means a picture for ONE grapheme representation of a phoneme in certain words. That is often lost when talking about this. I do exercises to demo this when teachers training as the system of teaching phonics does seem so simple at first, and things like a mnemonic that links with a 'letter sound' seems like a fun idea - and it is, but it can be done even more effectively.


Please note that I teach very young children to read before they start school as an early intervention, to avoid them becoming instructional casualties - and also as I want them reading for pleasure early. The school system of book bands and reading levels can kill that. And when they can read they can read more - and avoid all sorts of other issues at school. But as they are reading so young, it is also useful for educators to see the clips as they often come to me knowing no letter names, and having not used any phonics before at all. So no 'unlearning' - and can be taught using a fully differentiated approach (not one of 25 kids and only 1 teacher). I'll be uploading learning stories of these kids - showing them on day 1 and then 6 months later...and I do hope researchers take note! It's a great way to truly see a wide range of different children learning quickly and easily, when many can't even articulate all of the phonemes yet. I'm about to put a shout out for parents of toddlers, and will be videoing their learning stories. Its the parents I teach more so than the kids.

I also have teachers send me data from when they used the mnemonics you mentioned - and probably the programs this teacher is mentioning - but now have new data, and it's considerably better. Of course this data isn't taken 'seriously' by scientists as it's just teacher/ school data. I wish it was, as I think researchers could learn a lot by knowing what is happening in classrooms. I'd love a researcher to study the kids I teach to read and spell before they start school! And I'd love them to study not whether using picture /embedded mnemonics is more effective than not, I'd love them to study which type.


In the meantime I will continue to do everything I can to ensure that every child I work with is reading for pleasure by 6 - even if my methods seem to baffle a lot of people. I have found that the only way to counter that is to show children reading early, for pleasure. Trying to argue using words, or even research, often just ends up with everyone hot and bothered. And I'm too old for that sh*t now lol.


Thank you for your informative and thought provoking blogs.


'Miss Emma'


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