THRASS – A Phonics-Based System

“Phonics is one essential part of a comprehensive reading program that includes good literature and the development of literacy in the broader sense, but it must be taught well.”
Jennifer Buckingham, The Australian, 8 December 2015, Retrieved from http://www.acara.edu.au/news_media/testimonials_2015_12.html 5 June 2016

In 2014, I was in the final year of my initial teacher education (ITE) and thus was required to complete an internship. In my program, that meant a ten-week stint during Term Three. I had completed two professional experience placements prior to this (four weeks each in a Year Six and a Year One class) and was looking forward to this next opportunity to embed myself into a school, learn from a supervising teacher and perhaps actually see a unit of learning through to completion. When I walked into my classroom for the first time there were a lot of things that surprised me; each student had an iPad under the school’s Bring Your Own Designated Device (BYODD) program, the room was in a non-traditional format utilising beanbags, stairs, low tables and cushions rather than rows or groups of tables, and they were using a system for teaching spelling that I had never heard of previously, but which, after having the underlying concept explained to me, I wondered why that was the case.

1b9The system is known as THRASS (Teaching Handwriting, Reading, and Spelling Skills) and the two-day course was led by a teacher from Melbourne. The underlying principle of THRASS is an explicit understanding of the phonemes (speech sounds) in the English language and the graphemes (spelling choices) chosen to represent those phonemes in writing. As a child, I was taught, like most of us, that within the English language, there are twenty-one consonants and five vowels (a, e, i, o and u), with a number of spelling rules such as i before e, except after c. This understanding of what a consonant and a vowel is is actually incorrect. Additionally, many of the spelling rules have more exceptions than they do words that conform to the rule.

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THRASS utilises the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which follows the primary definition of what is a consonant and a vowel, which I have shown in the below image. There are in fact twenty-four consonants and twenty vowels within English. Additionally, THRASS posits that there are no spelling rules, only patterns in the language which we can use to help us in understanding how a word is spelled and pronounced. This requires a significant shift in thinking and some people, myself included, struggled to wrap our heads around this new knowledge.

ConVowel
The primary definition of consonant and vowel according to dictionary.com. Retrieved 18 May 2016

 

THRASS takes the forty-four recognised phonemes in the English language and places them on a chart, divided into a consonant section and a vowel section, with the most common graphemes (spelling choices) for each phoneme shown with a pictorial example. You can see what that looks like in the below image.

b
The /b/ box from the THRASS Chart. Copyright 1998, Denyse Ritchie & Alan Davies. Used with permission.

The /b/ phoneme is typically represented by one of two graphemes, (b) or (bb). Though there are other graphemes, such as (pb) as in cupboard, these are not as common, and so are represented on the THRASS Chart with an asterisk and are referred to as Grapheme Catch-Alls (GCAs). This means that some phonemes have only one grapheme on the THRASS Chart, whilst others may have several, depending on the commonality of the phoneme and the related graphemes.  Take the below image as an example.

Schwa
The Schwa box from the THRASS Chart. Copyright 1998, Denyse Ritchie and Alan Davies. Used with permission.

Please remember in reading this, that we are concerned with the phoneme, the speech sound in our understanding of the THRASS Chart; we are interested in what we hear rather than what we see. As indicated in the previous paragraph, /b/ only has two graphemes on the THRASS chart. However, the above image is of the most important phonemes in the English language, the schwa (which surprisingly does not have its own letter representation). The graphemes shown in the above image are the most common spelling choices for the schwa phoneme. Again, as with /b/, the graphemes in the schwa box are not a conclusive list of potential graphemes. Indeed, in the THRASS Phonics Handbook (page eighteen of the catalogue), there is a total of seventeen different graphemes for the schwa phoneme, including those on the THRASS chart.

We were shown some videos of students who have been learning with THRASS, and the confidence and abilities of those students were incredible for their age. TO see some amazing examples of what students as young as Kindergarten can achieve with THRASS, please visit the THRASS Institute – Australasia & Canada’ Facebook page.

THRASS represents a tool that can provide students with skills and strategies to build confidence and competence within literacy. If students are spending less time trying to work out how to spell a word, they can focus on their writing. If students are able to confidently work out how to pronounce a word and understand the meaning of it, then they are able to focus on reading and comprehending the text as a whole and make various connections. THRASS, as part of a balanced literacy session, utilising the Four Resources Model as outlined by Luke and Freebody in 2002, can assist with this.

four-resources
Adaptation of the Four Resources Model by Luke and Freebody (2002). Image retrieved from tinyurl.com/jfdswm2 on 24 June 2016

I began using THRASS with my students at the beginning of the year. However, it was not a strongly embedded component, as I did not quite understand how to utilise it well enough. Since attending the course, I have embedded it as a core part of the class literacy session, and the students have begun to grasp the system and see the benefits. We are very much still in the process of learning the chart, however, I have seen some lightbulb moments occurring already.

 

There has been a conversation in the media about the need to return to phonics-based teaching for literacy (for example; here) and THRASS represents a fantastic way to achieve that. However, we cannot return to explicit phonics instruction, as it has never left. Explicit instruction in phonics often underpins the pedagogy of foundational teaching in reading, writing and spelling.

If you have never heard of THRASS prior to this, or want to find out more, I strongly recommend visiting the THRASS website and attending a Foundation Course. The two-day course is fast-paced but well worth attending to gain a solid foundation from which to embed THRASS as a strategy in your class. I have seen the potential of what THRASS can allow students achieve and understand, and while it has elements that may be sour to many that profess a progressive education philosophy, it works. There is a longitudinal research project beginning next year with Murdoch University, including the THRASS Foundation course within that institution’s ITE program and tracking the learning outcomes of those pre-service teachers and their students over the coming years, as well as other research supporting THRASS from previous studies.

I hope that this article has sparked a curiosity within you to at least investigate what THRASS is about by visiting their website and doing some research of your own. I have included below some links to other useful resources and websites, and I would be happy to engage in a discussion with anybody who is genuinely curious about learning more. Additionally, there are a number of schools who have implemented THRASS as a whole school system and I daresay that a school visit would be able to be arranged through THRASS to see how they are implementing it (I would also be happy to arrange for interested educators to come and visit my classroom).

Some musings about NAPLAN

Last week, students across Australia in Years Three, Five, Seven and Nine were required to sit the annual NAPLAN testing. NAPLAN is ostensibly inflicted upon students to assess their growth over the eighteen months since their previous NAPLAN (or to serve as a benchmark if it is the student’s first NAPLAN). This testing process has a significant number of flaws and causes stress, anxiety and frustration, amongst students and parents, but also amongst some teachers. This year was my first involvement with NAPLAN, as while I am teaching a combined Year Five and Six class this year, last year I was employed in an RFF capacity and had only been in that role for a few weeks when NAPLAN arrived, and thus felt only a minimal impact as a result.

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An example of a note sent home by a teacher to reduce stress in students. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/j6u8uoe on 16 May 2016

 

I remember sitting the Basic Skills Test in Year Five sometime in the early 1990s (though I have no recollection of sitting it in Year Three), and my recollections of it was that it was a low-key test, where my parents received a booklet which talked about grade-level expectations, and indicated where my results across the various tests sat in relation to my peers at my school, and then either across the state or across the country, I cannot recall which. My teacher, Mr. Davies, who is one of the reasons I entered the teaching profession simply told us that we had to sit this test to assess our progress and to just give it our best effort. Mr. Davies was a fantastic teacher, and as far as we knew, the test had little importance beyond what it told him about our results. We sat the test, I rushed through it as I always did (and still do) with multiple choice tests, and then went outside and read a book while I waited for my classmates to finish. Mum and Dad received the results sometime later, we chatted about them, Mum asked if I rushed through the test (cue the head hang, “Yes Mum, sorry, I just wanted to read my book”) and life moved on.

I do not doubt that there was more to it than that, however, from my perspective at that time, as a ten-year-old boy, was that it was just something we had to do, but not something that was particularly important. Things have changed, however, and not for the good. My students seemed to do ok. I had two or three students who were a little anxious, but otherwise, they did not seem overly concerned. There were, however, students across the Central Coast, from conversations with other teachers, who could not cope and actually made themselves sick, including one student in Year Three. Additionally, there were students who would ordinarily write a high-quality narrative, with excellent character development, a complex plot twist, and a clever resolution, who simply froze because of how little time they were given.

I do not know what approach other teachers took in the lead up to NAPLAN, whether much preparation was in class, or set at home; nor do I know how much preparation my students’ put in outside of school, of their own volition (or at the behest of their parents). Personally, I sat down on Monday afternoon to talk to them about it for the first time (I had studiously avoided mentioning NAPLAN) at any point prior to that), and the reaction was immediate. Some students I could tell were worried about it, some were ambivalent, and some were annoyed that they had to complete them due to the time they took out of class. My Year Six students were ecstatic, as they would be spending the time undertaking Peer Support Training with another teacher and myself.

I talked to them about NAPLAN for a little while, telling them about my own experience with the Basic Skills Test, and then made it very clear that as far as I was not worried about their NAPLAN results, as long as they put in their best effort. I reminded them of the formative testing in literacy and numeracy that we had completed at the beginning of the year, and that we would be completing those assessments at the end of this term and again at the end of Term Four, and that I was focused on the growth they showed across the three iterations of those tests. I reminded them that NAPLAN did not know or care whether they had slept well the previous night, or had eaten breakfast or not, or are more athletically inclined, or anything else, other than the results that they put on their paper and submitted for NAPLAN.

We talked about the way they get feedback on their learning outputs in class, through the marking systems we use, or through one to one conversation during class time and that I do not get to see what they write and so cannot give them feedback, or know how they went, other than the number which is given for each test result. I could see some of the tension leaving some of my students, and my Year Six students were helpful as well, talking about their experiences and that it was not as hard or as stressful as they thought it would be.

I have a great group of students.

Whether or not we like NAPLAN, it is here, and it is here to stay, though I do not doubt it will evolve over time into something else (such as the move to digital completion which has been discussed for some time). There is a body of research about the impact that it has across the education sector and in the current education environment, where we continually here about the fourth-grade slump and the drop in results across PISA and TIMMS, short-sighted politicians are looking for a quick fix that will get them votes at the next election. There is talk about planning for the future, but I sincerely doubt that it actually means anything, given the way that politicians lie in order to get the support they need.

Students across the country have teachers who know and understand that NAPLAN is relatively meaningless, a single snapshot in time which takes twelve weeks to develop, and where the original negative (student submissions) are not available for checking. NAPLAN is a broken and flawed tool which causes stress and anxiety in students and teachers and from anecdotal reports, some parents far above what it provides in return. I await the result of this year’s NAPLAN test for my students, which will mean little as the text-type for the writing test was a different text-type to what they were required to write when they were in Year Three, making the data comparison invalid from every point of view I can think of.

What was your experience with NAPLAN this year? How did you, your students and your students’ parents cope? Do you prepare your students with pre-testing or give them a speech similar to what I gave to my students? Is your school one in which NAPLAN is a highly important test, or is it largely disregarded? I would appreciate hearing about  your experiences with NAPLAN and the strategies you employ in your context to survive the infliction of NAPLAN each year. As always, thank you for reading.

The Hundred Languages

Ordinarily, Monday afternoon is the day that I post a new FTPL video, such as this one, and ordinarily, I would open an article with a quote that has either some relevance to the article topic, or education in general. Not today. You may recall that I recently wrote about my troubles with engaging with reading for professional development and that I would begin reading Invent to Learn by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager. I have read the  introduction, and I have begun writing an article based on that portion of the book, but I felt that the last page of the Introduction was deserving of an article in its own right.

If you do not yet have a copy of the book (a state you may rectify by clicking here), the Introduction concludes with a poem, which I have found online and included in full, below.

The Hundred Languages (1)

No way. The hundred is there.

The child
is made of one hundred.
The child has
a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
of playing, of speaking.

A hundred always a hundred
ways of listening
of marveling, of loving
a hundred joys
for singing and understanding
a hundred worlds
to discover
a hundred worlds
to invent
a hundred worlds
to dream.

The child has
a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture
separate the head from the body.
They tell the child:
to think without hands
to do without head
to listen and not to speak
to understand without joy
to love and to marvel
only at Easter and at Christmas.

They tell the child:
to discover the world already there
and of the hundred
they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:
that work and play
reality and fantasy
science and imagination
sky and earth
reason and dream
are things
that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child
that the hundred is not there.
The child says:
No way. The hundred is there.

I showed this poem to Mrs C21st this afternoon and asked her for her impressions, wanting to find out if they echoed my own. She replied “yep, that was school” which was essentially my own initial emotional response to the poem. It is a sad indictment on our education system, I believe, that the above poem is an indicator of what schooling has been reduced to. It is a narrative that we have seen play out in the nightly news and the election cycle over the last few decades as schooling gradually moved towards the data-driven standardised-testing focus mechanism that it now appears to be. Many teachers do work hard to include facets of tinkering and play in their teaching, and I believe, I hope, that we will see a balance found between the need for data to drive the political cycle, and the needs of our students and their futures.

I am looking forward to diving into this book over the coming weeks, and to challenging my own perceptions and beliefs about tinkering, the makerspace movement, its application to education and education in general, and would very much like to hear what your thoughts and responses are to the poem above.

(1) Loris Malaguzzi (translated by Lella Gandini) as cited in Libow Martinez, Stager (2015), p. 8, Constructing Modern Knowledge Press. Retrieved from http://www.innovativeteacherproject.org/reggio/poem.php 12 October 2015

Reading for Professional Development

“The best advice I ever got was that knowledge is power and to keep reading.”
– Attributed to David Bailey

As a child I would read at any opportunity, even if it was only a few lines, I would grab the book of the moment, read the few lines I had time to read and then keep going. This often occurred, much to my mothers frustration, in the morning when I should have been getting ready for school, and would conveniently forget that fact, and become absorbed in the story. I grew up with a plethora of solid Australian authors to choose from, with my two favourites being John Marsden and Morris Gleitzman. Mum introduced me to Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum. Eventually Timothy Zahn re-introduced fans world wide to the Star Wars universe with the release of his Heir to the Empire trilogy, which for me served as a re-ignition of a much loved saga.

Somewhere along the way, between then and now, my reading habits changed. Growing up, I was a voracious reader and would often fall asleep with an open book late at night. At some point, my habit of reading for a while before bed every night changed to a habit of reading if I had time before bed, which evolved into it being too late to read, maybe tomorrow night.  I still read, just not as often. I found that I had fallen too far behind in the release schedule of the Star Wars novels and I did not know where to start in order to catch back up. I dived into Middle Earth, reading The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and the various titles in the Unfinished Tales from Middle Earth series.

Then I got to university, and my reading habits changed again. I had to read. The texts that I was required to read in order to complete tasks were often written in dry and dense language that is often associated with academia, and I began to churn through three of four journal articles a day, purely for the purpose of completing the assignment. Though I (occasionally) found the various texts I was reading interesting in themselves, they often simply served to aid in the completion of an assignment. Reading for pleasure became something that I did not have time for.

I had long disdained e-books, I am not entirely sure why, other than a love of the smell of books and the feeling of holding a book and turning the page, but I had not engaged with Kindles and the like at all. I then discovered, quite accidentally, fanfiction.net and turned to it for five minute bouts of reading while I ate breakfast. I have, over the last twelve months, made a conscious effort to return to ensuring I read for pleasure. I have worked through the Magician series by Raymond E. Feist, and I have read through each of the immense books that George R.R. Martin has published thus far in the Song of Ice and Fire saga.

I was left with a dilemma. I had engaged in various avenues of ongoing professional development; attending FutureSchools in March of this year and participating semi-regularly in various education chats on Twitter however, I had not made any effort to engage with literature for professional development. Something about the nature of reading journal articles for university assignments had deadened an enjoyment of reading for professional development, and though I had skimmed a handful of journal articles, I had not engaged fully with any form of professional development through reading.

This term I am making a commitment. I purchased a copy of Invent to Learn by Gary Stager and Sylvia Libow Martinez whilst at FutureSchools, and had started to read through it on the train ride home that afternoon, yet having just been offered a temporary contract, I began to focus what spare time I had on developing a program to suit the specific role I had been assigned, and had, unfortunately, not returned to it. I also recently purchased a copy of Hacking Education by Mark Barnes and Jennifer Gonzalez, which I have not even opened. So in order to return to reading for both pleasure and for professional development, I commit to reading through a chapter a week, beginning with Invent to Learn, and using this platform to solidify my learning, the ideas and inspiration, the challenges and the professional avenues I wish to explore, as a result of the reading, with one blog article each week, beginning next week, devoted to the previous week’s reading.

Gratitude Challenge – Day Two

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Ordinarily my articles open with a quote that somehow pertains to the theme or message for that day. However when I sat down to write today’s article for the Gratitude Challenge, I realised that I would not be able to select a single quote that encapsulated how I felt about today’s topic of gratitude, which for this particular iteration of the Gratitude Challenge, is a treasured possession. Hence, this article is sprinkled with a variety of quotes, all sourced from this page, and are merely the tip of the iceberg about how I feel about books.

“We read to know we’re not alone.”
– William Nicholson, Shadowlands

The treasured possession which I am grateful is my book collection. The photo below is merely one of the bookshelves that Mrs C21stT and I have filled, and the bulk of the books in our burgeoning library came from my collection. I am immensely grateful for books and everything they bring with them. They are a source of joy and comfort, and can induce feelings across the full gamut of emotions.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

I was fortunate as a child, as I believe many of my generation were, that my mother read to me every night before bed, up until the age of four, or thereabouts. My memories of her reading Little Golden Books to me before bed, or buying me a book from the checkout when we did the groceries (I cannot remember the name of the series; they were square shaped, roughly as wide as a small envelope) when I had been well behaved were things that I distinctly remember looking forward to. Further, my mother was an avid reader, so our house was full of books and reading books for fun was modelled to me from a young age by not only my mother, but some of her closest friends. My Grandparents were also avid readers, and the top two shelves in the photo above are actually some of the books that Have been handed down to me since Pop’s vision declined to the point that books need to be audio books.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”
― William Styron, Conversations with William Styron

As a child, I moved house quite frequently (when I moved out of home at twenty-two years old, I was moving out of my twenty-second house) and though I managed to make casual friends at each new school, it was my books that provided me with the friendship I craved, the adventure I wanted and the succour that I needed each time we moved house and I changed schools. When we finally returned to my home town and I was enrolled in what would be my school for years three to six, I set out to devour the school library, and made a solid effort of it.

“You get a little moody sometimes but I think that’s because you like to read. People that like to read are always a little [messed] up.”
― Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

I am blessed that Mrs C21stT is also an avid reader, and we both have dreams of our own house with a dedicated library and we have been searching for ways of maximising the number of books that we can realistically have, because as Rudyard Kipling has been attributed as saying, “a man can never have…too many books.” 

“Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.”
― Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

I think I aptly expressed how grateful I am for my books to the class I was situated in for my internship, a Stage Three class. There was a heartbreaking dearth of books in the classroom, with nary a bookshelf to be seen, and only a few books that were not dictionaries or textbooks on the shelves. I went through my own bookshelves and pulled out a wide range of books, around thirty all told, and made them available to the students to read.

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”
– Attributed to Charles William Eliot

I introduced them by asking who wanted to do particular things; go into space, time-travel, explore the ocean floor, hike in the remote parts of the world, win wars, create amazing inventions, meet the genres as personalities, be invisible etc. Every student’s hand was up at least once. I then told them that I had done every single one of those things, and more, and rattled off in which book I had achieved which thing in the previous list. The student’s devoured those books over the remaining two months of my internship, books including The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, Dinotopia by James Gurney, The Pagemaster by  David Kirschner, Ernie Contreras and Jerry Tiritilli (though it must be acknowledge that authorship of this book is apparently controversial according to this Wikipedia entry and a range of others from varying genres and at different difficulty levels.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”
– Attributed to C.S. Lewis

I am immensely grateful for my books and for the vast array of emotions which they engender and I would challenge you to get involved in the Book Week Celebrations that will be held in your local school from the twenty-fourth to the twenty-eighth of August tin year

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft