Saturday, April 18, 2015

The CODE is the Same, Whether You're 6 or 60!

Regardless of age or grade level, the "code" needed for reading and writing doesn't change—only the text level to which it's applied! With that in mind, consider this great question from a kinder teacher...
Dear Katie,
I love reading your blog! I've used your free Zoo Keeper writing strategies with my kinder class and the children really related, always showing me “how many animals (i.e. sounds) they caught" in their spelling words!
I taught both 1st and 2nd grades for years, and now am in my seventh year of teaching kindergarten. As many of your letter patterns stories are, of course, geared toward 1st and 2nd, I was wondering if you had some that were more geared more toward kinder?
Also, at what point would you begin introducing the Secret Stories in kinder... after the majority know most of their letters?
You are such an inspiration- Thank you!
Marian M.

Dear Marian,

Thanks for the question! 

The simple answer is that whether you're six years old or sixty, the code doesn't change... only the text-level to which it's applied! And as with any code, you really need all of it to do anything with it! 
So the question is, how do we provide early learners with access to the whole code? Especially when it can take forever and a day just to teach just the basic alphabet sounds! 

The answer? 
By providing logical explanations where there would otherwise be none! You don't have to learn what just makes sense! 

The Secret Stories® are "secrets" about the letters which explain all of the crazy sounds they make when they get together—and even some of the strange things they do when they're on their own! Knowing them makes it easy for learners to predict their most likely (and next most likely) sound behaviors, even in words they've never seen! And as with all secrets, it's best to know as much as possible upfront!

And lucky for us, our brains are multi-processorshardwired to pattern-out various likelihoods based on all of the "ifs, ands and buts," providing the basis for understanding and establishing a thinking construct through which the best decision can be made.

And because the most powerful intrinsic motivator is our inherent need-to-know, it is this that becomes the driving force behind learners' quest to discover the letters' secrets! In this way, learning connections are deepened, as learning becomes three-dimensional, which is the polar opposite of rote skill-memorization!  

Think of three-dimensional learning as a locked box sitting in the middle of a 
county road.
Consider all of the questions that would immediately pop into your head when you spot it...
"What is that box doing in the middle of the road?"
"Why is it there?"
"How did it get there?"
"Could it have fallen off of a truck? 
"Did someone put it there on purpose?"
"What could be inside?"
"Why is it locked"
"Could it contain something valuable?"
"Who has the key?"
"Do they even know it's lost?"

The quest for answers is rooted in our desire to make meaning—an inherent need to make sense of things so as to be able to pattern-out that information for future use. This is the brain's natural way of doing things, and it's also the reason why we don't want to answer questions students ask about the unusual sounds letters make with, "It just is... It just does.... I just have to remember...." 
(The most commonly heard phrases in traditional reading instruction!) 

Recent brain science provides today's educators with new insights into how we can effectively mold our instruction so as to bypass areas of traditional learner-weakness (i.e. developmental readiness, attentiveness, processing difficulties, lack of skill base, etc…) and tap into areas of learner-strength (social-emotive awareness and understanding, muscle memory, etc...). We can do this by wrapping-up, or encoding skill-content in such a way as to prompt an alternate area of the brain to assume the responsibility for processing it (i.e. "taking it in.") 

Numbers, words, sounds, and even rules and behaviors, are all processed in different centers of the brain. Our ability to activate alternate pathways in the brain for easier and earlier learning means that learners are no longer 'held-captive' by developmental readiness, cognitive processing issues, attention deficits, we have literally tricked their brains into naturally acquiring them! And once acquired, even inexperienced kindergartners are capable of working their way through unfamiliar text, as new information is "glued" to an already existing and deeply entrenched framework for understanding. It is in this way that very early and inexperienced learners (as well as struggling intermediate level learners) become highly capable of predicting the "most likely, next-most likely, and If all else fails..." sound options for letters in text. T

This process is actually as easy for our kids as telling the substitute teacher what he/she is supposed to be doing in our absence! Kids know everything and are more than happy to share it—who the line leader is, who the line leader was, and even who the line leader should be. It's their world and they know it well! And it's this world—made up of the already understood, social emotive dynamics in our classroom—that forms the basis for early learners' understanding of the Secret Stories®. This easy and familiar framework for understanding establishes an ideal learning-construct through which learners are able to make meaning of otherwise seemingly random letters and sounds. In this way, learner decision-making when working with unfamiliar text is easily guided—even in kinder!  

For example...
Let's pretend that I am a kindergartner, and you my substitute teacher. 
I will happily let you know that... 
"Johnny is not allowed to be the caboose of our line! He always hits and kicks people when he’s at the back cuz he thinks you can’t see him. That’s why our teacher makes him walk at the front with her where she can see him. That way he'll behave and do what he should!"   

This above scenario doesn't just depict student behavior, but letter behavior too! 
For example, did you know that...
Sneaky Y® got sick and tired of walking around every day, making the same sound over and over, especially when he found about the Superhero Vowels™ and their power to say their names! 

He decided to sneak into the closets of superhero e and i  and to take their superhero capes (which is where their powers lie!) so that he could use their powers to make their sounds!  So now whenever he is at the end of a word (where he doesn't think anyone will see him!) he will always be sneaky, and he will always be wearing either his e or his i cape, so that he can use their super powers to say their names, like in: candy, mommy, July, by, etc… 

But, when he's at the beginning of a word (where he knows that everyone can see him!) he's like  the line leader, and so he'll always be good and make the sound that he should, like in: yellow, yes, you, yak, etc...
And just in case you’re wondering about words like: they, day, play, etc…?  

That's not Sneaky Y®, that's ey and ay, and they're just TOO COOL (like Fonzie!) and so they always stick up their thumbs and say, “Aaayyyyeeeeee!" 

For more on Sneaky Y® download the Sneaky Y® mini-anchor and story cheat-sheet and watch this short clip.

And for more on how to start sharing SECRETS simultaneously with the individual letter sounds, click here and here!

For a bird's eye view of the the SECRET STORIES® in kindergarten,
check out this 
post by kindergarten teacher, Kjersti Johnson!

Understanding the brain and how it works empowers teachers, to teach SMARTER, not harder! And by taking advantage of the latest neuroscience—specifically that pertaining to brain plasticity and the affective learning domain, we can alter both where and how the skills that we teach are stored and retrieved within the brain, empowering students to learn smarter, not harder—regardless of age or grade level! 

And to close, I am including an insightful comment from a kinder teacher in response to this post on the SECRET STORIES® FaceBook page

"This is one of my favorite concepts to teach. The kids....simply just get it. 

One of the hardest things to explain to teachers using this way of teaching is to not focus on the idea of grade levels anymore. 

It's like a scientific miracle- we just address things that come up! 

The Secret Stories "experts" in my first grade class have moved passed all the 1st grade standards, as well as the 2nd and most of 3rd in reading. We are now strictly focusing now on analyzing text. 

Whereas my strugglers, who've just recently discovered that they have "shiny keys to unlock words" are just having a blast unlocking more and more "secrets"!!!! 

Differentiated instruction has never been easier thanks to Secret Stories!



  1. Hi Katie
    I started using some of the secret stories in my classroom this year and have been amazed at how quickly my students picked up the secrets, will incorporate them all into my classroom next year for sure. Thanks for making learning fun.

    1. So glad to hear that you've seen such a difference with the SECRETS that you have shared, thus far!

      I always encourage teachers as the year winds down (and especially if they are the first or only one using the SECRETS) to go ahead and start "tossing out" as many as you can over the last few weeks, as every ONE that you GIVE them, is one MORE that they will have and be able to "put to use" the following year!

      Even if taken as only fun and simple 'stories' and nothing more at the time, having been exposed to them will put a sort of "catcher's mit" in place, so as to draw connections when they ARE ready to use them for a purpose the following year!

      That's the great thing about telling the SECRETS.....
      YOU have nothing to lose, and THEY have everything to gain :)

  2. I just started using secret stories with my class. They really enjoy them and are remembering the secrets!

    1. That's great to hear! Hope you'll stay in touch and share their progress :)

  3. I have been using Secret Stories with my KinderBears for a loooong time! I love to watch my kids write and use the Stories. It is great to "see" the thinking going on when they are writing.

    1. I would love to see some of your kiddos writing! If you ever have a chance to send some pieces, via email, or even want to post them directly to the FaceBook page, that would be awesome!

      I would also looooovvveee for you to consider doing a guest post, as well, as given that you've been using the SECRETS for so long, you've probably developed quite a few new ideas, tips, and tricks for kinder!! If you think you would be up for it, shoot me an email at ..... would love to hear from you :)

  4. The Porta Pics Pack would be a great addition to the Secret Stories we use in my kinder class.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, and the Porta-Pics really are a BIG help, and not just in the classroom, but they're the best way to connect students (and parents!) to the SECRETS, at home, as well!

      As kids refer to them constantly when reading and writing, it's so helpful to give them constant and easy-access to the sound patterns EVERYWHERE they go, especially for pull-out/ resource students!

  5. I just started using the Secret Stories with my daughter. She loves them! The Porta Pics Pack would be great to have for her! :)

    1. Just to clarify, the porta-pics are actually a set of 25 placards.... so she would have had enough for herself, plus 24 friends!! Lol!

      So glad to hear that she is enjoying them :)

  6. Hi Katie! I bought Secret Stories in the middle of the year and started using them with my kinders immediately. I wasn't sure they would get them but I had my "aha" moment when they did and then started asking me (more like begging me) to tell them another one. They were hooked and so was I!! I couldn't wait to see how it would work from the very beginning of the year and can I just say....WOW! My kinder kids are reading really well and their writing is phenomenal! I love that they know how to hunt for secrets in words if they don't know the word. Then when they use those Secrets they are able to decode it with ease. They know to apply those rules and next sounds if it doesn't sound correct initially. This is hands down the smartest thing I ever invested in. It's easy to use with all level of learners and you can utilize it in a variety of ways in your classroom and every subject. A million times thank you for sharing your secrets and making it so fun for them to learn all the secrets!

    1. I love how you describe in such an easy-to-understand way HOW your kids use the SECRETS as ‘tools’ and the process they go through when doing so! I especially liked what you said about how how your kinders don’t not only look for SECRETS in unknown words they want to decode, but are also easily able to apply their "next (most likely) sounds” when words don’t sound correct initially.

      THIS is the reading behavior that I get most excited about, especially with the little ones!!!

      While it can seem to teachers not familiar with the SECRETS, that this ability exceeds early-learners' developmental capability, it becomes immediately apparent that knowing the SECRETS gives even the littlest and/or severely struggling learners real power over text… and watching them “wield" that power is where the fun truly beings!

  7. Hi! I've only had a chance to use some of the samples, so far but let me tell you my THIRD GRADERS loved them! They will never forget why IR, ER, UR make the ER sound and they love it when we retell the story in phonics class. I can't wait to get a full set of the Secret Stories to use in the future!

    1. Well, congratulations…. you’re getting them, as you are the winner!!! And as you will quickly see, the SECRETS will (and should) “pop up” ALL DAY LONG, as opposed to during a designated "phonics or reading” time. Once you begin sharing them to explain away what students often perceive as "random inconsistencies,” whether in a student’s name, a word on the Math page directions, a sign in the hallway…. virtually ANY time throughout the instructional (and even recreational!) parts of the day! I hope you’ll touch base with a progress update once you get going, as I’d love a ‘birds-eye’ view into your 3rd grade classroom :)
      And congratulations, again!

  8. I am new to grade 1 and have discovered that the kiddos who struggle with reading need something to attach the sounds to in their brains. Many of my early strugglers don't comprehend letters as sounds, but a bunch of nonsense characters on a page. I have taught the "better" alphabet song, and have taught them about superhero vowels, they know all about sneaky Y and I have told a few of the stories like AW and AU, and they really hooked into them and remembered!!!! I would love to have the rest so they'd be more ready for grade 2- they could reference them during reading! They are awesome!

    I have considered buying them many times before but the shipping to Canada is crazy!

    1. I’m so glad that you’ve been able to use the ones you have, and I know that shipping to Canada IS extremely expensive! I have been working with the office to try and come up with some way to facilitate easier access to the material for teachers in Canada, but the current conversion rate is so high, there isn’t much that can be done :(

      If you have a friend that you visit in the US, perhaps you can have them purchase it for you and then pick it up when you visit, as I know that’s what many of the teachers there are doing. Strangely, it costs almost the same to ship to the UK, Australia, Japan, and even the Middle East!

      PS Im contracted for a speaking series that kicks off in Calgary in January 2016. I believe the other events are in Seattle other states in the northwest region. Here is the link, just in case you’re interested....

  9. I have recently found the "secret stories" info and am wondering if I could use this with a child younger than kindergarten or should I wait until they start kindergarten?

    1. Great question, and yes! You can most definitely start sharing SECRETS prior to Kinder, although the primary focus with preKinders will be on the music to access motor memory for individual letter sound/skill acquisition.

      In addition to repetition with the "The Better Alphabet Song," the musical CD has lots of other mini-musical brainteasers with which to increase learners’ automaticity with the sound skills. From there, as they begin applying the sounds of the letters they notice in words (on signs, menus, night time stories, etc…) the actual “SECRETS" can be shared, so as to explain WHY those letters aren’t "making the sounds they expect!” Sharing SECRETS in-conjunction at the SAME time that learners are acquiring the individual sounds through music encourage them to view text analytically, and actively take-note of what sounds letters are and aren’t making, and WHY!! This is what gets the ball rolling and really sparks their curiosity so as to drive their own instruction :)

      Fostering learners' innate drive to "actively question" and "problem-solve” letter sound options in text makes them better THINKERS….. as opposed to just accepting that it “doesn’t make sense!”

  10. I've used this a little this year, but want to go full throttle next year. I am a little curious about if the book contains an approximate order in which you release the secrets. Thanks!

    1. "If I only had a nickel..."
      Lol! That's the most-asked question of all!

      It's so easy to forget that as teachers, we are literally "trained" to think linearly.... although luckily (or not, depending on my principal!) with my own class, when it came to teaching the "code," I don't think that I EVER taught ANYTHING the same way twice.... including the order I taught them!

      The best way to explain it is to compare teaching the SECRETS to making a sandwich....

      First and foremost, the individual letter sounds are the "bread," and they will be easily and naturally acquired by simply singing that "Better Alphabet Song" ( ) twice a day, every day, for at least two weeks.

      And of course, you can't even think about making a sandwich without any MEAT!.... and the Superhero Vowels™ are the MEAT in your sandwich.

      And as the vowel sounds are of no use if you don't know whether they are making their LONG or SHORT sound, its a must that Mommy e™ be included, right from the get-go, as well! In addition, of course, to Sneaky Y™ (who's just so darned prevalent (in almost ALL calendar words, before every author's name in books, as well as in our all-time fave words like "mommy, daddy and candy!) that you just HAVE to address him from the start, as well!

      Once those SECRETS are out of the way, (I usually end up telling them on DAY I of Kinder, along with the "au/aw" because its August on the calendar!) the blends (which are easily reinforced with the "Beethoven Blends" and all of the other musical exercises) are also worked into our musical exercise fun, in addition to whatever other SECRETS happen to come up!

      When I moved up to first grade, my principal requested (since I never knew which SECRETS I would be teaching until I taught them!) that I keep a "movable card" clipped to the current page of my plan book, and on it, I keep a running tally of all of the SECRETS I'd taught..... adding to it as I went.

      This actually worked extremely well, as she had the documentation she needed as to which skills had already been covered, and I had an easy way to track the SECRETS I'd already introduced in whole-group (as oftentimes additional were introduced in guided group).

      As the kids get so far ahead so fast, it's easy (and more fun!) to remain flexible with their introduction, and base introduction and instruction of the SECRETS around "what's going on" (what sound skills are most needed) within the classroom, and the students will be sure to let you know "what they need, when they need it," as they know that YOU hold all of the SECRETS :)

  11. Love the "secrets" My remedial K students are rocking the superheroes

  12. Hi, Katie! I love the Secret Stories! They have helped my students grow as readers. My littles look forward to hearing new stories, and have sometimes asked to hear a Secret Story instead of reading regular stories at story time. The Secret Stories have helped my students find the letter patterns in words. It makes me smile every day in guided reading when my littles read with extra emphasis on their, "Secret" words. Ex: He chEWs gum. It is hER tURn. (Heavy emphasis on the upper case letters ❤) My littles are super proud of their reading successes, and so am I.

    1. I apologize, as I somehow missed your comment! Thanks so much for posting it, and I LOVE hearing how your little ones are eating-up the SECRETS in their writing!! Please keep in touch, if you would, as they continue to progress, and I would love to see a pic of some of their writing if you ever have a chance to capture something! You are always welcome to post any pics directly on facebook, or send via email to if easier!

      Thanks so much again for sharing this, and I apologize that I missed it the first time :)

  13. My kinders beg to learn more secrets.

    1. Yea!! That means you're doing it exactly RIGHT!!

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  15. My Kinders love hearing the secret stories and it has definitely helped with their reading and writing. I have Kinders doing 2nd and 3rd grade level reading and writing thanks to this program!

    1. Isn't it just amazing to see what the little guys can do when they are let loose with everything they need.... rather than just the 'bits & pieces!' Please consider trying to capture small moments on video, or even snapshots of their writing, when you get the chance! And as I'd mentioned to one of the posters above, if you're interested, I'd love to have you guest blog and share more :)

      Please email if you're interested, and so glad to hear how well your kids are doing!

  16. I use some The Secret Stories concepts with a group of students aged from 6-11 who are dyslexic and it is showing great results, it's giving them concepts they can latch on too and remember, I also randomly use parts of the secrets when I sub in various classes...I find it amazing how I can let them onto a secret once and weeks later when I get to sub in the class again they can quote the secret back to me. To me that is the power of Secret Stories, the fact with one teaching of a concept it can permanently stick. I look forward to one day owning the full information pack with all the resources :)

    1. Oh my gosh, I LOVE that you share the SECRETS when you are substituting with different classes! That is truly the best way to get other teachers to take notice, as the students are ALWAYS the best messengers.... especially the extreme "strugglers!'

      That's actually my favorite way for awareness about the SECRETS to spread across a school, although it's often a resource teacher, working with students who are considered to be, based on testing, to be the "lowest of the low."

      For these learners, the impact is immediate and extreme, as well as impossible not to notice! Regardless of grade level or language background, these are my absolute FAVORITE with which to share the SECRETS!

      What a blessing you are to the many different students with whom you come into contact in your position!

      (and as mentioned above, I would love for you to consider doing a guest post about your "adventures" as you share the SECRETS intermittently with weeks between, and at the different grade levels!

      Please email me at if you'd be willing to share more :)

  17. I really want to start this at the beginning of next year. I plan to use as much as I can for what's left of this year.

    1. Definitely DO!
      Every SECRET you share this year is just ONE MORE that they'll be armed with next year!

  18. Congratulations to the winner, and thanks to everyone for the great comments and questions posted- here, on Facebook, and through email! I promise to respond / answer all later today one I hop onto my next plane later this afternoon!