Saturday, February 20, 2016

Too Many Cooks in the Phonics-Kitchen!

Dear Katie,
I have been a Reading Specialist for thirty years, as well as adjunct professor at Concordia University. I have enjoyed great success with the Secret Stories, and my first through fifth grade students have had such an easy time mastering them.  

Have you ever thought about adding more Secrets?  I have some super ideas for let's say the two sounds of ch? Ch likes to make noises like a train and a choir singing. 

We need some Secret Stories for:

And, finally what about some real books to accompany the Secret Stories? 
Laura B., Reading Specialist
And attached were the following letters from her students...
"We enjoyed the Secret Stories. This is my favorite, it is CH."
From Chole

"We had fun learning the Secret Stories. Can you write (more) stories?
My favorite is TH. "  Ella 

First of all, I LOVE these kinds of questions, so thank you to Laura, Chloe and Ella for asking them!

Questions like this provide the perfect opportunity for me to open up a big can of worms when it comes to traditional "teacher-thinking" about phonics skills, and reading instruction, in general.

First off, the ch-SECRET™
Why is there a Secret™ for the ch-sound in the word choo-choo, but not one for the sound ch makes in the word choir? 
The answer is simple!  
It's because the sound that ch makes in the word choir is an anomaly. It's atypical. It is not a pattern and therefore does not necessitate adding another "cook in the kitchen!" (i.e. another "phonics rule")

The original spelling of the word choir was actually "quyre" but was later changed to a more modern-appearing spelling. It's funny that the original spelling is so much more decodable!

Unlike with traditional phonics books and manuals, my rule-of-thumb when creating the SECRET STORIES® was to provide logical explanations (i.e. "secrets") for letters/letter patterns not making the sounds that they should, at least 5 times or more in text, as less than five times would not be perceived by the brain as a pattern.

Patterns occurring with the frequency of at least five times or more, however, do prompt the brain's inherent need to "pattern-out" (i.e. make sense of) the information, and therefore, would require logical explanations to do so.

Filtering often unnecessary and arbitrary phonics rules in this way not only ensures that there aren't "too many cooks in the kitchen" (i.e. too many phonics rules to learn) but more importantly, that we always have our eye on the ball when it comes to WHY these skills are taught in the first place! They are simply a means to an end, and that end is reading for meaning and writing for a purpose!

That said, with regard to just the hard C sound, as in words like: school, Christmas, character, ache, schedule, stomach, monarch, conch, etc... Laura may have a point, and a second, 'default' option to the existing ch-Secret™ may actually be merited! While not many, there are more than five! 

In the meantime, an ideal Secret™strategy is to remind learners to always try all possible sounds for the letters in question, which in this case, are c and/or h. Letter sounds are like apples, in that they tend to never fall too far away from the tree (i.e. stray too far from the sounds they should make, as per their individual and Secret™ sounds ).

By keeping this fact in mind, learners are quickly able to effectively "work through the options" for each letter, stretching their analytical thinking beyond just the Secrets™!  For example, they could try both the hard and soft c sounds, which in the case of the words above, the hard c sound (as in cat) would have worked. Had it not, however, they could have then tried the same thing with the h. With every attempt to re-attack the word, they are working their way through all possible options, until they have exhausted every possible sound (both individually and with Secrets™) that the letters in question, can make.

It's a game of critical analysis and diagnostic thinking that takes the form of "What else can it be? What else can we try?" much like the process that doctors work through when trying to diagnose symptoms that don't always "present" in the way that they should. I love finding opportunities in text for learners to engage in this type of thinking, as it's the epitome of thinking outside of the box, which is only possible when you first know everything that's IN it- which with the Secrets™, they do!
SECRET STORIES® Phonics-Secrets!

Now, let's attack that list of potential "new" Secrets™and see if we DO need to "add a few more cooks (i.e. phonics secrets) to the kitchen!"

First up-
-dge  (as in ridge, sludge, budget, etc...)
If kids know the ce, ci, cy/ ge, gi, gy Secret™ then the addition of the letter d should pose no problems, even if they initially try to read the word with the d-sound included. They will still be able to get the word. Therefore, creating a new "secret" for the dge-sound would result only in our having one more unnecessary cook in the kitchen! 
And if you're wondering about the Mommy e™ at the end possibly posing a problem... no worries, as by the time learners notice her, they will have already read the word (plus, there's no vowel there for her to yell at, anyway!)

Now that's not to say that it wouldn't be helpful for learners to have an awareness of this common spelling pattern, especially at the upper elementary grades where spelling proficiency is often required. Research shows, however, that experience is, by far, the best teacher, which is why (especially with early grade learners) the easiest way to fine-tune spelling is by reading, and knowing the Secrets™ ensures that they're equipped with everything they need to get that experience!

Next up, 
-tch (as in: scratch, itch, crutch, etc...)
Same as above.  
If learners know the ch-Secret™, then their initial attack with the t-sound just before it won't interfere with their ability to ultimately decode the word, even for kindergartners (and I can attest to this fact, as it's where I spent the majority of my teaching career!)

-que (as in: question, delinquents, frequency, queen, etc...)
Knowing the qu-Secret™ is all that's needed, as aside from that, the e just makes its regular, old sound. And if learners know about Mommy e™ and the Babysitter Vowels™ they will also be able to easily identify whether e will be making her long (Superhero Vowel™) sound OR her short & lazy one! (And keep in mind that the SECRET STORIES® don't apply to non-English words, like bouquet, applique, etc...) 

-ive (as in: dive, give, active, lives, etc...)
Even though Mommy e™ is right there, she'll sometimes just sit back and let the vowel do whatever it wants (even mom's aren't perfect!) which is why learners should be encouraged to "think like doctors" and always try a vowel's next most likely sound!
-old (as in: bold, cold, mold, etc...)
This one's easy, as no "secrets" are even needed! All of the letters just make their regular, old sounds. The only possible issue is that the o is making his long (Superhero Vowel™) sound, rather than his short & lazy one, despite no Mommy e™ or Babysitter Vowels™ in sight!  Even still, "thinking like a doctor" and trying o's next most likely sound makes it easy to get the word.

-olt (as in: bolt, molten, revolt, etc..)
Same as above.  

-ank (as in: bank, sank, ankle, etc...)
Same as above.  

-ost (as in: cost, post, lost, most, etc...)
Same as above, but because the o in -ost can be either long OR short, learners must again "think like doctors" and try both....just like any good "Word-Doctor" would do!
(making his Superhero Vowel™ sound & his 'short-n-lazy' sound) 
-ind (as in: kind, windy, find, Indian, etc...)
Same as above.  

-ild (as in: mild, wild, child, build, mildew, etc...)
Same as above.  

-onk (as in: honk, bonkers, donkey, monkey, etc..)
This is like those above, with the exception of words like monkey, in which the short o can sound more like short u. Rather than having to "hire another cook," it's much easier to simply teach learners how to "bend" vowels, when necessary, when a word doesn't sound quite right. A great tool for practicing this is the book Hungry Thing, by Jan Slepian and Ann Seidler, as well as the sequel, The Hungry Thing ReturnsListening to these stories, kids are able to practice trying to figure out what the words are that the "Hungry Thing" is trying to say. It's the perfect tool to fine-tune their powers of deduction when it comes to decoding text, as it encourages a more flexible "What else can it be? What else can I try?" approach to sounding out words.

-unk (as in: bunk, chunk, dunk, etc...)
No "secrets" needed, as the letters are doing exactly what they should!

-ink (as in: sink, blink, drink, etc...)
One of my favorite Secrets™is I tries E on for Size, and it's all that is needed to explain why sometimes has a tendency to make e's sound instead of his own!
SECRET STORIES® "I tries E on for Size"
-ture (as in: future, mature, lecture, etc...)
This one's easily taken care of with the ER, IR & UR- Secret™, as the t just makes its regular sound, and like some of the other patterns above, Mommy e™ is just hanging-out at the end, doing nothing!
-gn (as in: gnaw, gnat, gnarly, etc...)
Now while this one might seem to be "Secret-worthy," as it could be easily lumped in with the kn, wr & mb-Secret™, the words in which its contained are, for the most part, just too uncommon to make its inclusion worthwhile.  So while it does officially meet the 'five times or more' threshold, it would still be another unnecessary cook in the kitchen!  
-rh (as in: rhetoric, rhythm, rhyme, etc...) 
Same as above.  

-stle (as in: wrestle, castle, jostle, listless, etc...)
While this pattern is slightly more common than those above, it's still in very few words that beginning readers are likely to come across, so again it's a matter of not adding another cook to an already too crowded kitchen.

Here again, Mommy e™ is easy enough to ignore, and as for any concern that by making the sound for t, learners would be unable to figure out the word, I say, give them the benefit of the doubt!  It really doesn't take too much deductive reasoning (even for kindergartners!) to attempt to sound out a word like castle (with the t-sound) and figure out that the word is castle (without the t sound). Learners' ability to "work around" such issues establishes yet another litmus test for determining whether or a not a Secret™ is needed, and in this case, it's not.

Fostering a fluid and flexible thinking about letters and the sounds they make can transform daily reading and writing skill instruction into a virtual playground for critical-analysis and deep, diagnostic thinking!  

Plus, kids are excited to figure out what letters are doing, and why they're doing it! The power they gain over text grows by the day, and so does their confidence! 

But what really excites them most is when letters DON'T do what they should! They thrive on the challenges presented by having to think outside the box and work through all the options when working with text!  

And as for the final part of Laura's great question, with regard to "real books" to accompany SECRET STORIES® instruction, I always recommend just that...... REAL books!  

Unlike scoped & sequenced phonics "programs" that divvy-out just bits and pieces of phonics skills over multiple grade level years, the SECRET STORIES® are shared in-context of daily instruction and across all content areas... whenever and wherever learners are engaging with text....even a cafeteria lunch menu offers new Secret™opportunities!  And the result of sharing the Secrets™ on a need-to-know basis, is that learners can apply them to whatever text is at-hand, including "real books!"  

Now that's not to say that breaking things down into smaller pieces, like in guided group time, isn't even more ideal, especially for assessment purposes. And for such purposes, there are guided reader sheets in the back of the SECRET STORIES® book, as well as a new digital series of SECRET STORIES® Guided Readers, to which I will be continue adding new titles. These readers are especially helpful as they not only spotlight specific Secret™ patterns in the text, but they also contain trouble-shooting dialogue (much like what's in this post) where needed, so it's as if I were at the guided reading table alongside you and your students!  

(And through the end of this month, the SECRET STORIES® Guided Reader, Like a Snowball is FREE, so be sure to grab it now!)
On a different note, but equally important note, I received the email from the mom of an adorable little boy who had been diagnosed with high functioning autism. Her frustration and despair was heartfelt, and her words really struck a chord in me, both as a mom and as a teacher, and so with her permission, I wanted to share it here.

Hi Katie,
My son is in grade two and is not reading. He has a diagnosis of high functioning autism. When I asked my son’s doctor last week what I could do to help my son with reading, the doctor said, “He has autism, he might never read.” It feels that I am getting the same message from his school.

I struggled in school with a severe learning disability. The learning disability was not discovered until I was in grade 8. I spent many years, sitting in classrooms and not knowing what was going on. When I was diagnosed in grade 8, my parents were told I was "mentally retarded” and that I would never be able to succeed in the local public school.

My son told me that he sits in class and just looks at his work sheets for the entire class. I have spent many nights googling different ways to teach my son to read. I am a single mother and it seems hard sometimes not to have another person to share my worries with.
I just stumbled upon your method yesterday and I printed out some of your stories and read them to my son and showed him the pictures. He remembered the sounds right away.

I have been watching your videos on YouTube and they have been unbelievable. This is the first time in along time that I have felt extremely hopeful.

About one month later...

Hi Katie,
I can't thank you enough for your book. My son has started reading!
He loves the Secret Stories. He thanked me last night for getting the Secret Stories for him.

Last night, I asked him to read the word "cookie" using what he learned from the Secret Stories. His first response was, "I can't read such a big word."

I told him to try.
He sounded out the word right away.
He then said, "Mommy, I read the word cookie! I can't believe I read such a big word!"

Katie, your program is unbelievable.
It really should be used in all schools to teach kids reading.

PS My son loves drawing in his sketch book. He brought the Secret Stories with him to swimming and was drawing and practicing the stories before his class.  Here is a picture of him sketching the secrets in sketch book.

And here's a wonderful picture of this adorable little guy with his "secret" sketchbook" at swim practice!  
Apparently, ER, IR, UR-Secret™  is his favorite SECRET STORY!
For teachers, it just doesn't get any better than this.
Although this last one comes close, as it's from an actual kiddo!

It was written by a second grade ESE student in South Carolina to his literacy coach, Sheila Smith (with whom I'll be presenting institutes and sessions at next week's SCIRA Conference in Hilton Head) and she'd forwarded it to me, knowing that I would appreciate it as much as she did. And for all those who share the Secrets™with their students, I know you will, as well!
"I am thankful for (your) teaching me about words and Secret Stories
and words that don't follow the rules..."
(from a 2nd grade ESE student to his reading 'pull-out' teacher)

And since it's been a while since my last post, I thought a giveaway might be in order, so be sure to enter the Rafflecopter Drawing for the latest SECRET STORIES® Classroom version, the NEW Space-Saver Kit!
Identical to the Original and Fun & Funky Class Sets, the SECRET STORIES® Space-Saver Kit comes with smaller, placard-size posters, ideal for smaller-sized classrooms! These have been so popular that they've been hard to keep them in-stock, but I was able to snag one for this giveaway before they were gone!

Here's how to enter:
1. Follow me on Twitter 
2. Follow the SECRET STORIES® on Facebook
3. Follow this blog and leave a comment below to confirm that you are :)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

PS  In addition to presenting at the South Carolina Reading Conference on the 25th/26th this coming week,  I'll also be presenting two workshops at the California Gifted Conference in Palm Springs on Saturday the 27th. If anyone is planning to attend either, please let me know, as I would love to meet up :)

Thanks so much for reading, and until next time...
Katie Garner
For more on the Secrets™ and other brain-based teaching topics,  just 'click & follow' below!



  1. This post just shows how often we over complicate our phonics rules :). While I do hope to win your amazing pack in the raffle, I will regardless soon own it :) I have just started in a class of 5-7 year olds who are so below level it's not funny. I have been introducing your secrets based on my TPT purchases, and as soon as I have my pennies saved I will get the whole book because boy do they need it!!! Thank you for the opportunity to win :)

    1. I just saw your your comment and wanted to share a link to a post that I think will be very helpful to you, given your situation-

      Thanks so much for sharing, and I can't wait to hear how things progress with your new class!!!

    2. Oh, yes that's a blog post that started me on using Secret Stories as a sub (with success), which is why I know it will work so well in my class. We are only 4 weeks into our school year (New Zealand), so thankfully I have the time to make this work for them :)

    3. So glad to know that you'd come across it and that it was helpful, as Mrs. Mac is awesome, and I love her guest posts. Please do keep in touch and let me know how things are going with your new group as you get going!

  2. My kids enjoy the secret stories! It makes my heart happy when they are reading or writing in their journals and bring up a "story"....or better yet, tell one to a friend that needs a little help.

    1. Kids are definitely the best teachers when it comes to sharing the Secrets!!!!

  3. I am extremely excited to use this in my first grade classroom! I know it's late in the year, but I have some struggling readers that will benefit from these stories.

    1. Absolutely, and better late than never! Whenever I do school in-services for teachers at the end of the school year, I always encourage them to "tell some Secrets" in the last few days, as every ONE that you share will become one more TOOL in their reading and writing arsenal that's ready for use next school year!

  4. I am extremely excited to use this in my first grade classroom! I know it's late in the year, but I have some struggling readers that will benefit from these stories.

  5. Katie, I saw you when you were here in Calgary this year. You were the highlight of the conference. Needless to say your Secrets have opened the door for many of my struggling students.

    1. Dear Kim,
      That's so wonderful to hear!!! I LOVED doing the Calgary Summit, and my head was spinning for days afterwards, as I learned so much from so many, while there! So glad you could come, and so pleased to know that your strugglers are doing so well with the Secrets!

  6. Hoping to get the opportunity to use this new version in my classroom where wall space is at a minimum and students still need this valuable resource.
    Thanks so much.

    1. It's definitely nice to have the multi-purpose placard size visuals, although personally, I still prefer the larger visuals for primary classrooms, given how constantly kids must refer to them throughout the day. What's nice about the space-saver placards is that they can be 'on-hand' rather than 'on the wall,' which is ideal for those times when you want to introduce or revisit a Secret, but don't want to "run across the room and point up high" to do it ;)

  7. I LOVE the Secret Stories. I use them everyday in my Kinder classroom. They are the reason my students have shown so much growth!

    1. That's awesome!!! I am so glad to hear that :)

    2. and btw, I would love to invite you, as well as the other posters, to let me know if you would be interested in sharing more in a guest blog post!
      just drop me a message, if so :)

  8. These sound great! Yes I am following you! Thanks for the chance!

  9. I loved this post. It was full of great info. I follow using Bloglovin.

    1. Thanks for letting me know, as I sometimes miss followers that aren't following directly through the site.

  10. I'm a this post!

  11. I'm intrigued by your Secret Stories. I have shared your th story with my kinders and found that it was a good hook to help them remember. I am looking forward to learning more. You should join Simply Kinder on Facebook. While you cannot directly promote your products, their are thousands of teachers sharing ideas. Just a thought. @sundanceteach

  12. I just recently began using your Secret Stories & I have enjoyed them (along with my students) so much! They get so into the stories & really eat them up! This is my 7th year as a reading interventionist, & I can really see a difference already! Thank you!

    1. That's awesome, and thanks so much for letting me know :) And as you're now kind of a resident-expert with the Secrets, given how long you've been using them, I would love to have you guest post sometime and share your tricks and tips in using them with your students!

      If interested, please reply with your email, or message me with it and I'll send you an invite to post, via blogger :)

  13. I have been using Secret Stories for about two months now, and my students love it. They are always asking for new stories about the posters. I have first graders, but one of our 5th grade teachers has started using this in her classroom, along with one of the special ed teachers. The kids are excited. Thank you.

    1. That's my favorite thing of all to hear!
      All those upper grade teachers who make it a priority to 'plug those gaping holes' in skill ability before sending their kiddos off to middle school are true heroes!!! And I only wish that there were more of them!

      When I do school in-services (usually initiated by/for primary grade teachers) I always ask for time with the 4th & 5th grade teachers, as well, as there are some EASY ways that they can incorporate the Secrets™ so as to "plug holes" and yet, NOT interrupt their on-grade level pacing and instruction.

      Upper grade learners actually benefit even MORE from the "backdoor-approach," as do their teachers, who often perceive phonics as anything BUT their area of expertise.

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