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Do you have ‘Literacy Conversations’?

This is the start of a short series about the language/terminology/jargon of phonics – but first a little news!

When I started That Reading Thing I worked in the overlapping sectors of alternative education and youth offending and I wrote the programme for teens who were almost all from the North End of Birkenhead. Since then, both the geography and the sectors have expanded beyond all hope and expectation. With the launch of That Spelling Thing, we’ve got tutors and teachers from the Outer Hebrides to the far south coast of England, all across Australia and dotted around the USA and Canada. Many of our TRT learners are still in areas of deprivation but you can find TST anywhere, including one of England’s top public schools. The people who access our trainings are professional teachers, support assistants, youth workers, parents, specialist reading tutors and community volunteers who are working in secondary and primary schools, post-16 and further education colleges, community literacy centres and private clinics – not to mention at a fair few kitchen tables.

That Reading Thing is still our gold standard one-to-one programme for older struggling readers who need a boost before they feel confident enough to engage in more formal lessons in a group or classroom. That Spelling Thing is much less prescriptive and is home almost anywhere as long as students (of any age) are beyond the emergent reader level.

However, I’ve been meeting teachers and support staff whose schools have literacy needs which can’t be addressed by That Reading Thing and That Spelling Thing as they are now. Budgets have been cut, it’s hard to schedule one-to-one in secondary school and there are LOTS of students who need help with their spelling who don’t necessarily need the full TRT programme. Subject teachers can see the need for improved literacy but find it hard to put a spelling programme in place. In response, we’re now in the mid-stages of creating “STaRT Anywhere” which takes the best of TST and TRT to teachers with small classes or groups of

So what’s this about a ‘literacy conversation’? I use that term to describe a key element in any programme we offer: the ability for everyone – students and teachers – to use the same language to talk about reading and spelling. In That Reading Thing we call it ‘talking off ledges’ with a rock climbing analogy. In That Spelling Thing we call them scripts or prompts. In both cases, it’s about giving direction conversationally without giving answers. It’s about allowing students to develop an internal dialogue which gives them confidence in the face of an unfamiliar word when you’re not around.

Here’s my question: how do you and your students/pupils/learners talk about unfamiliar words? What is the conversation you have when someone says:

How do you spell (insert word)?  or  I don’t know this word?

If no one is asking those questions, is it because no one is struggling? Or is it because struggling to read or spell a word is taboo? How do we start the conversations that smash taboos and tear down barriers to literacy?

What does your Literacy Conversation sound like?

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