Friday, February 28, 2014

The 'Grown-Up' Reading & Writing Phonics Secrets!

A Brain Based "Backdoor" Delivery Method for Critical Phonics Skills

Have you ever wondered why letters almost never make the sounds they're supposed when they get together in words?

Letters are like kids. They behave beautifully when they're separated from one another (like on the classroom alphabet train) but when they get together, all bets are off and entirely new behaviors emerge!
But there are secret reasons why letters make the many different sounds that they do! They are the "grown-up" reading and writing Secrets that explain WHY letters do what they do when they don't do what the should!
Secret Stories® Phonics "Secrets!"
Teachers who know them never have to tell their students, "It just is....It just does...You just have to remember!" They know the Secrets! And these 'grown-up' Secrets are SO big, students have to earn the right to hear them! (i.e. creative critical thinking, awesome answers, beautiful behavior, perfect patience, caring kindness, automatic attention, dynamic discussions, ready responsibility, keeping clean, collecting complements, etc...) 
Secret Stories® Phonics "Secrets!"
I once told my kindergartners that they were "too small" to be told such a "big Secret" that they had smartly spotted in a big book that we were reading, but that if they ate lots of vegetables every night for a week, their brains might be big enough by Friday to hear the grown-up Secret! (My parents LOVED this!)

"The Gown-Up Reading & Writing (Phonics) Secrets"

By framing skill introduction with learners' need-to-know, the information is marked for prioritized learning in the brain, forging deeper learning connections for easier skill skill retrieval. In this learner-driven context, the tables are turned to— "I've got it, you want it, and I'll decide if you can have it, but I wouldn't hold my breath, as this is a BIG Secret!" This turning of the instructional tide from "Brain Antagonistic" to "Brain Compatible" is the ideal context for brain-based learning to occur! And the result is a rapidly developing, student-driven cycle of learning— one with a natural and seamless momentum that catapults learners far beyond grade level lines, while always maintaining developmental appropriateness! 

"How to Spark a 'Need-to-Know' for Prioritized Learning"

So then let's get to it....

When I was teaching Kindergarten, I would always tell the "secret" about au/aw on the very first day of school during our first morning calendar time (just after I'd finished calming my criers, runners and screamers, and "rocking/restraining" my "1st day of K" needy ones— moms included- Lol!)

Secret Stories® Phonics "Secrets!"
  Au & aw have HUGE crushes on each other!
Whenever they have to stand right-up against each, side-by-side in a word, 
they get so embarrassed that they always put their heads down and say—

After telling them the Secret, I would say— 
"Just look at all of the words that have this grown-up reading and writing 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 (or how to find the bathroom!) 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 letter 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 the au/aw "second grade level" phonics pattern on the very first day of Kindergarten?  It came up! 

The word August was written boldly in big letters at the top of our morning calendar, which we went over daily, and this was our first opportunity to engage with text together. More importantly, had any of my little guys actually known the letter A and its sounds, not explaining it would have been like tossing a giant monkey wrench into all that they thought they knew when it came to these letters and their sounds. 
Secret Stories® Phonics "Secrets!"
I also told them that they were "big enough" to hear this important and grown-up Secret on the very first day of school because they were still awake (several had fallen asleep from previous crying and multiple escape attempts).  However, I did warn them "not to tell the sleepers!" I told them that if the sleepers were awake tomorrow at calendar time, then we could let them in on the grown-up Secret in the August, but until then, "Mums the word!"  

The two things that happened on our way to lunch....

1. A little boy (who had come to school with a note pinned to his shirt, by mom, telling me he was gifted) pointed to a sign above the fire doors and yelled, "Look! The letters that are in love are in that word! 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 when it was actually Leslie and had been playing with her shoes most of the morning) also yelled out, "Look teacher, look!" (pointing to the same sign above the fire doors) "Ahhhhhh.... ahhhhhhh.....We LOVE letters.......ahhhhhhh!" while simultaneously making the "in-love" gestures—arms to the side, head tilted, batting eyes—the whole works! 
These two very different, yet equally awesome outbursts demonstrate why telling that particular Secret on that particular day was ABSOLUTELY developmentally appropriate... for both students—regardless on which grade-specific, scope and sequence the au/aw phonics pattern actually falls upon! High, medium or low—the Secrets can be readily shared with all learners! And just because some aren't ready to "apply" it, that doesn't mean they aren't ready to know it!

Secret Stories® Phonics "Secrets!"
The au/aw Secret is not a skill to to be "taught," but a story to be shared, just like any other story that young learners enjoy hearing and retelling— especially the stories that involve the social interactions and goings-on in their own classrooms!

Even very young students are experts when it comes to things like: who the line leader is, who the line leader was, who got fired from being the line leader and why! This is because the brain develops back-to-front, and while the higher level, executive functioning centers are in the front, the social-emotional "feeling" networks are in the back. It is this affective "feeling" domain that I refer to as the "brain's backdoor" and it is this area that both early and struggling, upper grade learner-instruction is most easily targeted. 

"Sneaking Skills through the Brain's Backdoor"

By cloaking the skill as a secret and wrapping it up in a a social-emotional disguise, we can take advantage of our brain's plasticity by activating the affective "feeling" networks to process, store and retrieve it.  In this way, the information is immediately acquired and ready for learner-use!

Secret Stories® Phonics "Secrets!"

That's is not to say that all learners will immediately apply the Secrets for reading and writing, as doing so requires a certain level of developmental and cognitive readiness be attained, but like Lulu, learners can possess the visual acuity to easily recognize the pattern in text and the ability to instantly recall its sound. And these are the "keys" to what will quickly become reading and writing! In this way, even the earliest grade learners can enjoy open and accelerated "buffet-style" access to the whole reading and writing code, so as to take what they need, when they need it—and use it when they are ready! 
"Accelerating Early Learner-Access to the WHOLE Reading & Writing Code"

Now, if you're a kindergarten teacher, I bet I know what you're thinking... 

"Great, so my kids will know the au/aw sound, but they still won't be able to recognize the letter D!"
No worries, as that part is just as easy! We don't even need any Secrets for the individual letter sounds, as when letters make the sounds that they're supposed to, all is right with the world! That's not to say that teaching the individual letters and sounds is easy—which is why we don't teach them, we give them! Just like with the Secrets, we can follow the brain science to access a more easily-accessible "backdoor" route for skill mastery by way of muscle memory!

"How to Be More Interesting than a Shoe When Teaching Letters & Sounds"

The individual letters and sounds are easily acquired simultaneously with Secrets by tapping into muscle/motor memory via the the Better Alphabet Song. For early (and ELL) learners, muscle memory is a far more reliable pathway for letter sound skill mastery than is the traditional pathway of cognitive processing! Acquisition time is just two weeks to two months, and that's for both preK AND kindergarten! And during this timeframe, you're also tossing out Secrets (as they come up) throughout the instructional day—continually adding to learners' ever-expanding tool-boxes for reading and writing!

"The 'Better' Alphabet Song"

Re-thinking WHAT we do and WHY we do it!
Why is T more important than TH?  Why do we teach t first when th is far more likely to be encountered by beginning learners in text? All things being equal, neither is any more or less important than the other, as it really depends on what words learners want to read or to write! Even early learners need access to the whole code in order to do what they want to do with it— to read the books they're interested in, and to write the stories that they want to tell! As the great Dr. Richard Allington says, "Three to four years is way too long to wait for access to the whole code!"  All the more reason to serve up the code on a buffet, rather than as a waiter/waitress, divvying out grade-specific "bits and pieces!"
Secret Stories® Phonics "Secrets!"
Click to hear the TH Secret!
But we don't need to "teach" the th phonics sound pattern when we can give it to learners, instead! Consider how many more times learners will encounter words with the th sound: the, this, that, they, them, those, then, etc... as compared to words in which actually makes the sound that beginning learners would expect.  Unless the book that a learner picks up is entitled, "Tommy and his Turtle Trot to Toronto," the th sound will most likely outnumber the t sound almost ten-to-one!

Yet, it is the t sound that's found on the scope and sequence for kindergarten instruction, despite the predominant (and therefore much more useful) th! The much more common th sound pattern will does not appear until first grade's scope and sequence, somewhere around late fall/early winter.

Can you imagine trying to write even just ONE sentence without the th sound? It's virtually IMPOSSIBLE!

"Why t is No More Or Less Important than th!"

Until next time,

PS Be sure to grab this FREE Secret Stories® Sampling and start sharing sharing the Secrets in your classroom!  You can also grab the free Common Core Literacy Posters with Secret Stories® phonics anchor-supports, as well as the free made--to-match Science Posters!

FREE Secret Stories® Phonics "Secrets!"
(made-to-match Math & Essential Questions sets also available)

(see description for links to all grade level sets)


  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!!!!!!
  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!

    1. 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.

    1. 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 ;)

A New Secret Stories® Blog!

Welcome to the new SECRET STORIES® Sessions Blog!

A handful of times each month, I'll be sharing of some of the most popular Secret Stories in FREE DOWNLOAD format, making decoding and encoding a breeze.... plus lots of teacher-favorites, including brain-based tips & tricks for gaining easy-access to some of the 'hardest' reading and writing skills!  You can download the FREE Secret Stories Sampler (below) now for a preview of what's to come!


Take away the SECRETS™ to making the hardest-to-teach reading and writing skills EASY to teach and to learn!

  1. I can't wait to get more of these!! What a fun way to teach phonics concepts. My kids always struggle with decoding and spelling, but I can totally see these tricks making things click, I can't wait to get started!
  2. I am so excited about this, especially the freebies!! Thank you both!!
  3. I'm so excited to implement this in my classroom!!!! Ecstatic to see more freebies soon!!!! Thank you both for sharing so much with us all!!!!
  4. Will you also be posting some of those cute phonics stories here as well? Can't wait!
  5. I'm always excited to see new things! Thanks for sharing!
  6. I'm always excited to see new things! Thanks for sharing!
  7. I love the Secret Stories! Our teachers use the all the time. They really encourage student engagment. Katy... When are you going to be in Texas? I have several friends that would like to see your presentation. Also...Do the stories come in Spanish? Our ESL population is growing.


    1. This comment has been removed by the author.
    2. I should be coming down to Texas in late spring and again in early summer, as well as sometime at the beginning of next school year.

      You can stay updated by following my new blog at the Secret Stories- ..... or my direct schedule page..... which is updated regularly!!

      As for offering the Secret Stories in Spanish, there are some things I can share with you if you want to email me directly at -

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  9. I've been obsessed with these for a while now! Our principal promised to buy them for our whole team in the spring (K & 1 already got theirs) so we're all keeping our fingers crossed! I'm so thrilled to find this and get started and can't wait to learn more!
    Thanks so much to you both!


    1. I'll keep my fingers crossed too!!

  10. My youngest son's grade 1 teacher introduced him (and me!) to your Secret Stories several years ago. I am now a K-3 CCR teacher, and love finding resources that help my students retain information. I was delighted to stumble across a link to the Secret Stories blog when I checked out Mrs. Jump's blog this morning! I serve up to 35 students, with a huge range of needs, and have already filled my available wall space. Is there any way that you could create a Secret Stories app? Even my most challenged students are able to navigate their iPads, and putting resources into their hands helps them take more ownership of their learning. I'm so glad the two of you are collaborating!


    1. YES!! That is definitely in the works! I will be posting about new things coming up on my Secret Stories Blog- and you can "follow" for notifications of new posts there.

  11. WOW! I am just too excited for words!!!!! I can't believe the two of you will be collaborating and sharing here! Katie, I'm sure you have no recollection of who I am, as I was only one of hundreds of teachers attending a professional training event you led in my district during my first year of teaching in 2008. Your passion, enthusiasm, and unprecedented creativity literally left me speechless (and for anyone who knows me..this is a rare occasion!) You were such a firestorm of ideas and information that I was instantly mesmerized! I jumped right into the Secret Stories my first year and now I couldn't imagine teaching reading or writing without them....they've been a "God-sent!"

    And Deanna, I've been following your blog for over a year now and LOVE LOVE LOVE your products on TpT!! The idea of both of you together sharing your ideas here with all of us is just a dream come true for me!! I know I probably sound goofy, but I'm so psyched I can't help it!!!!!



    1. Wow! Thanks so much for the very kind words!!! I'm so pleased to know that it has been of such value to you in your teaching, and I hope that what is shared here will provide even greater insight and ideas!!
      Thanks so much again for taking the time to share!

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  13. Very excited about this collaboration! I teach K in a high poverty, Grade F school and I believe this system could really help a lot of our students!
  14. Love these! I have used them with all my students. They are great for my EL students as well.
  15. Wow - very excited to find these - so glad you are working together - my first time to see them.
  16. Ok, I am a newbie to the Secret Stories. Not a newbie to Deanna. ;) From what I have read and seen so far, I am beyond thrilled! How close are you to Indiana? My team is 6 teachers strong....and I mean strong! We teach in a Title I school, lots of poverty, lack of parent support. I'm excited that we made an A last year. {We worked our tails off for it too!} We're always excited to begin something new for our babes. Our motivation and excitement is contagious....can't wait for more of you!


    1. That's just awesome! Your team sounds incredible!!! As for Indiana, I although I live in NC, I do travel out there to speak at your state reading conference..... and I think I'm actually scheduled to do a a pre-con institute and a couple of 1/2 day workshops there next year. My speaking schedule is updated regularly here- .... and btw, your enthusiasm IS contagious.... you've got ME excited!!!! :)
    2. Awe, thanks! You should *really* be with all 6 of us when we are together talking about our kids and our plans. It's kind of embarrassing. {In a good way, of course!} I'll check your schedule. I'm not going to the reading conference, unless I surprise myself with a little road trip!

  17. I am so glad I found these and can't to see lots more!
  18. Thanks so much for all of the great comments and questions posted! I'm excited about and grateful for the opportunity to share ideas and resources here with you on Deanna's AWESOME blog!!!
  19. Oh my goodness, what an AWesome resource!!! I am a firstie teacher and can't wait to use these with our word work to reinforce the concepts. Just can't wait for THe success to come rolling in:)
  20. Oh my goodness, what an AWesome resource!!! I am a firstie teacher and can't wait to use these with our word work to reinforce the concepts. Just can't wait for THe success to come rolling in:)
  21. I am so excited that you two will be collaborating! I always "stalk" Deanna's page for fresh, fun & funky ideas. :) This is the first time I've heard of Secret Stories, but totally love the idea! It is completely logical and makes total sense. I've never taught the letters in alphabetical order, and of course get parents that always ask why... I use the Recipe for Reading order of teaching letters. I am eager to learn more about your Secret Stories and follow your collaboration! I am going to try out the sample stories with my kiddos next week! Thanks for your passion and inspiration!
  22. I am so excited that you two will be collaborating! I always "stalk" Deanna's page for fresh, fun & funky ideas. :) This is the first time I've heard of Secret Stories, but totally love the idea! It is completely logical and makes total sense. I've never taught the letters in alphabetical order, and of course get parents that always ask why... I use the Recipe for Reading order of teaching letters. I am eager to learn more about your Secret Stories and follow your collaboration! I am going to try out the sample stories with my kiddos next week! Thanks for your passion and inspiration!
  23. Looks great! I've been searching you tube and your web site to find out as much as possible about this program. I've been checking out your workshops also. Is the alphabet chart available somewhere?
  24. Thanks! As for the alphabet chart, I'm not sure which 'alphabet chart' you mean? Are you talking about the large rectangular plastic one I was holding up/ referencing on my VLOG for the "Better Alphabet Song?"
  25. The one that hangs in your classroom when you are doing the Better Alphabet Song.
  26. Oh, that one..... you know, I have no idea?!! Most likely from the "ReallyGoodStuff" catalogue, as most everything I purchased for the classroom was from there. The only thing that's important to look for, however, is that the pictures shown actually correlate with the letter sounds.... i.e. the letter 'o' should NOT be depicted with an orange or an oyster, nor should the letter "x" have a xylophone next to it!! You just want to make sure that whichever one you use has graphics that depict the the INDIVIDUAL letter sound and not a sound the letter makes within a phonemic pattern, which sadly has become quite common.