Friday, February 28, 2014

The 'Grown-Up' Reading & Writing Secrets!

The 'grown-up' reading and writing SECRETS (a.k.a. Secret Storiesare the reasons why letters/ letter patterns make the sounds that they do!  They are why grown-ups know how to read and spell tricky words even when their spellings make no sense!  However, these SECRETS are 'magically forgotten' after learning how to read and write, which is why grown-ups know the tricky words but can't explain how they know them, saying things like "I don't know, it just is.... It just does.....You just have to remember!"  They've forgotten their SECRETS!!!!

Only teachers were blessed with the ability to remember all the SECRETS so that they could tell them to their students!  But these 'grown-up' SECRETS are SO BIG that students must be "big enough" to get to hear them!  Students can prove they are big enough to hear a SECRET in lots of ways: creative critical thinkingawesome answersbeautiful behaviorperfect patiencecaring kindnessautomatic attentiondynamic discussionsready responsibilitykeeping cleancollecting complements (in the hallway, cafeteria, specials, etc...) and pretty much any other behavior you would like to elicit from your students, so be creative!
I once told my kindergartners that they were too small to be told a SECRET they'd spotted in the big book we were reading, but that if they ate lots of vegetables every night that week, their brains just might grow enough by Friday to hear it! (parents LOVED this!)

Purposely framing introduction of these critical phonics skills in the context of "I've got them, you want them, and I'll decide when and if you can have them!" creates the ideal scenario for brain-based learning to occur.... and in a subject area that's not exactly 'brain-friendly!'  In this new context for learning, students drive their own instruction on a 'need-to-know/ want-to-know' basis, applying those SECRETS they do know to decode (read) and encode (write/ spell) words throughout the day... all the while, remaining constantly on the lookout for 'new' SECRETS in the words they can't read, and then begging to hear them! 

The result is a rapid, student-driven cycle of learning with a natural and seamless momentum that catapults students beyond individual grade level lines, and yet is always developmentally appropriate!

So let's get to it....

When I was teaching Kindergarten, I would always tell the au/aw SECRET on the very first day of school during our first morning calendar time. I did this, of course, only after I'd finished 'rocking/ restraining' all of my '1st day of K' criers, yellers, runners, screamers, etc... (and that's just the moms!!  LoL)
 A&U have a HUGE crush on each other! 
(A&W do too, but their not in the word August!) 
Whenever they have to stand right-up against each other in a word, 
side-by-side, they get soooooooo embarrassed that they always tilt 
their heads down and say, "ahhhhhhhhhhhhh...." 

".....Just look at all the words around our classroom that have this SECRET!  'Autumn, awful, awesome, Austin'.....  If you didn't know the SECRET, you wouldn't be be able to read these words, but now you know the grown-up reading & writing SECRET....."

Now granted, I taught this SECRET knowing full well that most of my little guys barely knew their own names and likely wouldn't be able to recognize the letter 'A' if it fell from the sky and landed on their head. (I've actually had this happen before when the 'A' from my wooden Pottery Barn Kids alphabet train fell down on a little guy's head, causing him to yell- "Hey, that 'number' just hit me!") 

So what was my reasoning for teaching this advanced phonics pattern on the very FIRST day of Kindergarten?  Because it came up! 

The word August was written boldly in big letters at the top of our calendar that we would be reviewing daily, and this was our first opportunity to interact with text together.  More importantly, had any of my little guys actually known the letter 'A' and the two sounds it was supposed to make, not explaining why it sounded the way I did would have been like tossing a giant monkey-wrench into all they thought they already knew!

As to how I explained their being 'big enough' to hear such an important and grown-up SECRET on their very first day of school, I told them it was because they were still awake (several had fallen asleep from previous crying and escape attempts).  I did however warn them "not to tell the sleepers!"  I told them that if they were awake tomorrow at calendar time, then we'd know for sure they were big enough to be let in on our SECRET!

Re-thinking WHAT we do and WHY we do it!

Why is it that we don't teach individual letters and phonics chunks simultaneously? 

All things being equal, neither is any more or less important than the other, and both are equally important for decoding even the simplest words in a beginning reader and writing the simplest words?

Take 'th,' for example...
Every book a learner picks up will include words like: the, this, that, they, them, those, then, etc... Words with the 'th' sound outnumber words with the individual letter 't' sound TEN-TO-ONE.... unless the book is "Tommy and his Turtle Trot to Toronto!" (which is quite unlikely!) 

And yet, only the individual 't' sound is identified on the scope & sequence for learning in Kindergarten, while the predominant (and therefore more USEFUL!) 'th' pattern isn't identified for instruction until the 1st grade!

And on the flip side, imagine trying to write even one sentence without the 'th' sound..... it's virtually IMPOSSIBLE!

Now back to my K class & the two things happened on our way to lunch....

1. A little boy (who'd arrived at school with a note pinned to his shirt, from mom, telling me 'he's gifted') pointed to a sign above the fire doors, yelling out "Look! There's the letters that are in love! I 'Aaahhh-to-maaa-tik...... aah-to-maa-tik...... AUTOMATIC!'  Hey, I can read that word!!!!"

2. A little girl (who thought her name was Lulu, but it Leslie) also yelled out, "Ahhhhhh.... ahhhhhhh.....we LOVE letters.......ahhhhhhh..." while simultaneously making the accompanying gestures....arms clasped, head tilted, eyes batting.... the whole works! 

These totally awesome outbursts in line demonstrate why telling that SECRET on that day was absolutely developmentally appropriate... for both students, and regardless on which grade level's scope and sequence it's actually listed!  Whether high, low, or anywhere in between, learners naturally apply what they know in their effort to do/ get what they want, and just because they may not be ready to 'apply' something for its actual purpose, doesn't mean they aren't ready to know it!

The au/aw SECRET is not a 'skill to to be taught' but simply a 'story to be shared' just like any other story students enjoy retelling about the "social goings-on" in the classroom.  All students are experts when it comes to knowing the 'social dynamics' of the classroom (i.e. who the line leader is, who the line leader was, who got fired from being the line leader, what the principal she was going to do to him, etc... )  This is because our brains develop back-to-front, with the 'social/ emotive' content being stored in the rear portion. (I refer to this area as the 'Brain's Backdoor' and I access it CONSTANTLY in my teaching!!!!)

The au/aw SECRET resides in that same social/ emotive area of the brain and this is why it too can be so quickly owned and easily retrieved by all learners! This is not to say that all learners will apply the SECRETS for purposes of reading and writing upon hearing them, as  to do so would require a level of developmental  and cognitive readiness that, like Lulu, not all learners have acquired.... and that's okay!  What's important is that when Lulu IS ready, that SECRET phonics pattern will already be visually familiar and easily recognized in text, and its sound instantly recalled!

Offering 'Lulu-like' learners ongoing opportunities to interact with (i.e. hear, tell, identify, make the sound for) the SECRETS before they are developmentally ready to use them for actual reading and writing provides a sort of stepping stone to future efforts to  decode ("See a SECRET- make its sound!" for reading) and encoding ("Hear a sound- find its SECRET!" for writing).  Providing opportunities like these not only accelerates overall momentum in both reading and writing, but also equips beginning and low-level learners with the critical tools they need to fully partake in the many rich literacy experiences and opportunities that abound throughout the instructional!

And if you happen to BE a kindergarten teacher,  I bet I know what you're thinking... 

"Great, so now Jonny will know the au/aw sound, but he still won't be able to recognize the letter D!!!"

That part is easy.... I promise!!! The individual letters and sounds are learned SIMULTANEOUSLY, using the SECRETS to explain away all of the inconsistencies that naturally emerge when teaching the letter sounds.  And if you're wondering whether or not there are SECRETS for the individual letter sounds, as well, the answer is absolutely not!

Think about it, why would we need a SECRET to explain a letter doing exactly what it should?!! That's not to say that processing all of the individual letters and sounds is easy, especially for early or ESL learners, which is why we'll be using something called "motor-memory" to do the job for us!  As for exactly how this is done, well you'll have to check back for the next Secret Session! (but if you just can't wait, you can get a sneak-preview HERE!)

For now, if you'd like to give teaching the SECRETS a whirl, you can download my Fairytale Fun/ Valentine Writing pack FREE!  (I'll also be uploading a couple more 'free surprises' on TpT next week, so be sure to 'Follow' there  for notification of their postings!)

Until next time,
 Click Here to Follow My Blog!

PS Below are three students' writing samples (each with front & back) from that first day of Kindergarten.  These are representative of my 'higher' students at the time, with the first two able to identify and write some beginning letter sounds, and the third, while seemingly the most impressive having written "Sean's writing" so very neatly, seems less so upon finding out that it was actually written by Angel, a non-English speaking student who just happened to be seated right NEXT to Sean and his 'one-on-one' assistant!  (I counted Angel's among the top three for his resourcefulness!)    

To see more student writing samples from various times throughout the Kindergarten and First Grade Year, click here or on the pictures above!


  1. My students refer to the Secret Stories posters constantly! They are BY FAR the most- used resource in my entire first grade classroom!! You and Deanna are both just so amazing!
    Thank you both so much.... what an inspiration this is!!!!!!


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  2. Wow, thank you, that's so wonderful to hear! And your students' frequent and ongoing use of the SECRETS is actually a testament to YOUR teaching and the abundance of opportunities you obviously provide to engage with text!

    And the fact that your students DO take the time to reference the SECRETS when they read and write only further indicates that the literacy opportunities you provide are personally meaningful to them..... so congrats to you again!!! 


    1. Your stories are fabulous. I teach a group of 26 first graders with very diverse needs. Your program is both visual and auditory and the children "hook on" to the stories easily. They can imagine the t and the h that sticks out their tongues when they stand together because they have learned the story behind the sounds. My ESOL students love to retell the stories and feel excited to apply what they know when they are reading. Last year, I bought your program. I don't have your new posters but they look great. Thank you for finding a method that reaches so many students.
    2. And thank YOU for taking the time to post and let me know!!
      Building that excitement is more than half the battle so keep up the great work and definitely keep me posted here and/ or on the Secret Stories blog..... You might just be a monthly winner of a new Secret Stories kit!!! I'll keep my fingers crossed for you!

  3. I am so excited I just read your Secret Stories posting on Deanna Jump's Blog! I can't wait to get your program so I can use it in my Kindergarten classroom!! I'm always thrilled when I find one more piece to use in my room to add to the foundation of "bricks" they need while keeping them engaged and excited! Thank you to both of you!


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    2. I love the "foundation of bricks" analogy and you are so right!
      The SECRETS simply provide a way for learners to 'own EVERYTHING yesterday' when it comes to ALL that is necessary to read and write, thereby shifting focus to the REAL goal of the game....reading for meaning & writing for a purpose!

      Requiring learners to wait until the 3rd grade for comprehensive sound-skill ownership (especially when we're requiring students to begin reading and writing in Kindergarten) just makes NO sense..... not if there's a developmentally appropriate/ 'backdoor-way' for learners to own them all from the get-go!

      Prolonging introduction/ acquisition of these critical skills over a period of multiple YEARS is what causes learner-focus to remain on the 'bricks' rather than on getting 'up and over the wall' where the REAL fun begins!!!!!

      Okay, I'm jumping down from my soapbox now ;)

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  5. I teach preK (4 and 5 year old class) and my little guys just eat the Secrets up! I also used your Better Alphabet Song (from your CD) and honestly I was was blown away that the little ones were actually able to pick up the individual letter sounds so quickly! It's just unbelievable what they can do with these and how much it changes everything you do in the way that you teach!
  6. Sounds like you could write my next 'Secret Session' post!!
    That's awesome to hear and I'm thrilled to hear that you're using the SECRETS in preK, as so many times I will see preK teachers shy away everything but the music pieces on the CD and it just kills me!

    Telling SECRETS in preK & K is like taking your class to a buffet- those who are are hungry for them will eat them and those that aren't will still enjoy going along for the ride, establishing a sort of "catcher's mit in the brain" in preparation for future recognition & instruction!!

    Thanks so much again for posting and I hope you will share more about your experiences so as to inspire other preK teachers to take the leap in rethinking what's possible at that level!
  7. I have not seen your secrets before, but it looks like a wonderful way to teach how and why these blends make the sounds they do! I'll certainly be using much of your intel! Thanks so much for sharing ~ I think my kids are really going to latch onto these tips and be much better readers for it!
  8. I have not seen your secrets before, but it looks like a wonderful way to teach how and why these blends make the sounds they do! I'll certainly be using much of your intel! Thanks so much for sharing ~ I think my kids are really going to latch onto these tips and be much better readers for it!
  9. I have not seen your secrets before, but it looks like a wonderful way to teach how and why these blends make the sounds they do! I'll certainly be using much of your intel! Thanks so much for sharing ~ I think my kids are really going to latch onto these tips and be much better readers for it!


    1. Thanks for the wonderful comment, and I hope you will keep in touch regarding use of what's shared, as I would love feedback on your experience at your specific grade level in the classroom!! :)

  10. I love this! What a great way to introduce/teach those pesky digraphs!


    1. .... and vowel combos, and blends, etc..!! As we move forward with Secret Sessions I'll be sharing the 'secrets' for EVERYTHING that happens in language at least '5 times or more' so as to ensure learners have logical explanations for why letters do (or don't!) make the sounds that they do... so stay tuned!

  11. So cute! All kids love secrets. Wonderful way for kids to remember this sound.


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    2. Thanks for posting! Would love to know what grade level you teach and for how long you've been using them?

  12. I found you through Deanna jump and I am very intrigued by this!
  13. That's great, I'm so glad to hear it!! Things will only get 'more intriguing' from here... I promise ;)
    LoL.... so many new things to see when you take learners through the brain's 'backdoor' rather of the traditional front ;)

1 comment :

  1. i think such a game-teaching is very interesting for young ladies and gentlemen ! follow and find out some secrets of students!