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Suddenly guessing words/suddenly seemingly no longer able to decode

(14 Posts)
Meita Sat 13-Jun-15 15:18:40

DS is (or rather has been, until recently) a good reader for his age. But recently (last three weeks or so) he has begun guessing words rather than reading them. A lot. Complicated words as well as straightforward CVC words.

I remind him not to guess, to look at the letters. Which he then does, but he confuses the letters. E.g. he uses unrelated vowel sounds for the vowels (he repeatedly said 'Reck' when reading the name 'Rick' yesterday, despite after the first time me having stopped him and said to read again, look more carefully, and him eventually getting it right.) The other thing he does is mix up the order of the consonants e.g. 'bell' gets pronounced 'lebl'. With multi-syllable words and especially words that he doesn't know yet (e.g. his school reading book had the word 'decibel', that is, words that he hasn't seen in print but also doesn't know what they mean) he comes out with wild guesses only loosely based on the letters in front of him. It has occurred to me that he seems to be trying to incorporate letter/sounds from subsequent words but that may be down to randomness paired with confirmation bias on my part.

This has begun to frustrate him, and confuse me! And starting to worry.
He has been reading 'green' books (stage 5)(non-phonics books) since February half-term. He gets a new book every day. About after Easter break, I felt he was starting to be really confident with them. There were none of the problems described above. He would approach words with his phonics knowledge, do a little bit of adaptation e.g. when reading 'read' he'd start saying 'reed' then hesitate because it sounded wrong (in context) and then correct to 'red'. He is still on the same books but suddenly really struggling with them. He now has the last of the 'green' books held by the school and will be moved onto orange by default on Monday.

A bit of background: He started reception reading stage 3 books (yellow). He had learned the basic phonics stuff from Reading Eggs levels 1-40 (after level 40 Reading Eggs turns decidedly multi-methods so we dropped it then) and from being taught by me, then we read the Songbirds books together, with me teaching him the phonics as we encountered them.
School soon put him onto yellow, then moved him up to blue after half a term, and up to green as I said in February. They have lots of phonics books but with them being changed daily, they do run out, at which point they switch over to old-style ORT books. So he started each level reading phonics books, then moved to ORT books. Except the green books where they skipped the phonics books and moved straight to the ORT books. By this point I didn't mind much as he was able to decode most of the words in the books anyway.

However the school phonics teaching has been poor. To start with, they were taught the sounds with the 'schwa' i.e. 'muh' instead of mmm which causes no end of trouble. Explains why 'clean' gets read as 'Coleen' and such. But mostly, they just stopped teaching phonics in January, after having reached one letter pattern per 40-ish sounds. So when DS moved to blue books in November, I taught him the necessary phonics (alternative spellings) at the same time as he was being taught the main spellings at school alongside with the rest of the class. When he moved to green he didn't get phonics books so I just followed the path of explaining new phonics if and when they came up. So it has been very unsystematic since February - school focusing on learning 'tricky words' and me just explaining random phonics things when they popped up in books.

I am hoping that Y1 will bring a new teacher and a new focus on phonics. Meanwhile I am unsure about what to do. There is no issue about falling behind - he is still well ahead of the class average. But I am worried about him developing 'bad habits' what with the guessing and all, and also confused/worried about his 'going backwards' and struggling with words he used to find easy. I wouldn't mind him just not making much progress, but going backwards is concerning. I would love to just leave it all to school but this current year, school seems to have made things worse/harder.

Any ideas, advice?

TheTroubleWithAngels Sat 13-Jun-15 16:13:24

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

mrz Sat 13-Jun-15 16:52:13

Is he in reception?

Meita Sat 13-Jun-15 18:04:36

Yes, reception. He is also still 4 so I am really not worried about his progress stalling a bit. I didn't go to school until I was 7 and feel quite strongly that I don't want to push the 'academic' side of things - there is plenty of time for that. His learning to read before school was 95% driven by him, though of course I made the resources available and gave him positive feedback. Hence when I realised they had stopped doing any phonics at all at school, I wasn't too concerned.

What's strange is how everything was fine until recently. So yes maybe optician. (Incidentally, he seems to suddenly not hear very well, so have been planning a visit to GP for hearing test. Could that be related?)

I have been thinking of going back to the 'easy' books and have actually tried him on some. He struggled with yellow ones.
But going back to satpin and such, the problem arises that he insists on saying 'suh' as that is what his teacher said.

TheTroubleWithAngels Sat 13-Jun-15 18:37:18

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Meita Sat 13-Jun-15 19:06:53

They did a different set of songs. Sausages are sizzling, s s s. Except that as much as I say ssssss, DS insists that his teacher must be right, and says 'suh'.

For some time that wasn't really a problem. DS would chant/sing the songs, complete with the schwa as taught at school, so sausages are sizzling, suh suh suh, but when sounding out would go back to saying 'sss' as learned from Reading Eggs/me. But not anymore - nowadays when sounding out, he insists on saying 'suh' and along with that, obviously finds it harder to blend. Especially words with consonant clusters. He was just starting on consonant clusters about a year ago now, and took to them easily.

I tell myself that there are only a few weeks of school left until there will be a new teacher (school is probably hiring a new teacher for Y1 so I don't know who it will be) so maybe I can just let things go for now? But even the TA has now noticed that he has started guessing (I thought for a while that maybe he was only doing it 'for me' as he was being lazy/tired after school) and I really don't want it to become a habit!

mrz Sat 13-Jun-15 19:24:02

If the school stopped teaching phonics after one term in reception I would be concerned. Do they teach any phonics in KS1 (it's not unusual for to stop after reception but it is unusual for a school to stop after one term).
Everything you've written suggests phonics teaching is very very poor and ineffective. They are using phonics books at the beginning of each level but then running out and sending home books based on book banding colours that won't match phonics knowledge so he needs to guess. It's highly likely he's being encouraged to guess from initial letters and pictures because that's how the old ORT books work.
As you discovered Reading Eggs aren't compatible to UK phonics teaching methods and if you have an iPad I would highly recommend the Sounds Write app .
The Songbird books are great alongside a high quality phonics programme but don't offer systematic practice or rigour.
You said the school has plenty of phonics books can I ask what they use?

Meita Sat 13-Jun-15 21:07:39

Ok I realise I have no idea if the 'no more phonics teaching' thing is basically just a 'no differentiation' thing. They could still be teaching phonics to the children who are at stages one, two and three, and I wouldn't know anything about it. All I do know is that DS hasn't been taught any alternative spellings (or beyond) except unsystematically by myself, despite being given books intended for practicing alternative spellings.

They have been doing some writing and children are encouraged to use their phonics to write, so can't complain about that.

But mainly since mid January/beginning of February they have started on 'reading and spelling tricky words' and focusing on capital letters, finger spaces, full stops, alphabet, letter names.

I don't think children have been encouraged (by staff) to guess or use pictures. Initially the TA thought that DS was using the pictures to guess, and she would cover the pictures but quickly realised that he was actually reading. He does enjoy looking at the pictures, and tends to spend a good little while studying the pictures before he starts reading a page, so I can see where they got the impression from. However I take your point that the books themselves encourage guessing, and I might have not been as vigilant about it as I should have been, assuming that he was reading when he was actually just good at guessing correctly.

Phonics books used:
Giving the books DS had in yellow band as an example.
Floppy's phonics, 6 books
Jelly & Bean, 3 books (they have more but some tend to be missing)
Songbirds, 6 books
Then moved to ORT Biff Chip and Kipper books, 19 books

They also have Collins Big Cat phonics books and Project X phonics books, at least in the lower book bands.

Blue band:
Floppy's phonics, 6
Songbirds, 12
then countless ORT books, at some point switching to other non-phonics books (Big Cat, Project X), then to green band (non-phonics) ORT books, then to other non-phonics books.

Meita Sat 13-Jun-15 21:15:22

On the side, this teacher has only been at the school for nearly 2 years now. So the current Y1 are the first children taught by her in reception who are taking the phonics test. Additionally, their Y1 has been disrupted by numerous teacher changes. I think there is a good chance that this year's phonics test will yield some 'interesting' results...

I do not know if phonics are taught in KS1 - I should rather hope so! I can't imagine the school getting good enough phonics test scores if Y1 phonics teaching isn't a big improvement over YR.

(And just for the record: I feel that phonics/learning to read is not everything school is about. DS is mostly happy and his teacher is brilliant at other things, and that matters too IMO.)

mrz Sat 13-Jun-15 21:32:18

Have you asked why he is guessing rather than decoding the words?

Meita Sat 13-Jun-15 21:38:49

erm.... blush

Usually though that kind of question will lead to a 'I don't know!' answer. But I'll try anyway! Thanks, sometimes I need reminding of the obvious smile

mrz Sat 13-Jun-15 21:49:47

If he's given books containing words beyond his current level of phonic ability (as these ORT clearly are) his only available strategy is to guess. He may or may not have been taught to initial sounds or picture clues to "work out" what the word is but it's unusual for children who can decode confidently to start guessing.

Meita Sat 13-Jun-15 22:35:34

Well, yes.

I have been reading with him, mostly, and whenever he came across a word for which he didn't know the phonics yet, I would not just let him guess, but intervene. E.g. 'bread' I would say 'as you know, often the ea letter pattern makes an /ee/ sound, but sometimes it makes an /e/ sound. So what would that word be if they made an /e/ sound?' He would work it out and I would try to point out other instances as they came up e.g. head. Other things that are way off yet, and/or rather rare, I would just say 'in this word these letters here make an <..> sound' and then move on.

Of course this has been far from systematic. So he has been picking up bits and pieces of stage 4/5 phonics but couldn't say that he was confidently applying them. And I have lost track of what he does know and what, on the other hand, he may have been told once or twice but not properly learned.

So perhaps he has been fooling me into thinking he was applying his (incidentally taught) phonics when he read an 'ea' word making an /e/ sound, when in fact he was just cleverly guessing.
And with more and more non-phonics books, we have been encountering ever different yet-unknown GPCs, and the sheer number of them - each one only briefly discussed - might have been confusing him so much that he doesn't trust his basic phonics knowledge anymore. After all I have been telling him 'this letter/letter combination sometimes makes that sound' for lots of letter/combinations, and things might have started to appear pretty random to him.

Hm. This seems plausible to me and might explain the feeling of 'going backwards'.

Now just to decide if I'll hope for his new Y1 teacher to sort things out, or if I should work on it with him myself. Going back to the basics and building up from there. I'm loathe to make him do school work after a long school day/on the weekend/in the holidays... but it's a long time until September yet, in which he can potentially make this guessing thing into a real habit.

Ferguson Sat 13-Jun-15 22:57:36

It is very unfortunate that even after many years of Phonics teaching, some schools are STILL not getting it right.

I'll offer a couple of suggestions:

ONE - Don't push him too much, but an inexpensive and easy to use book, that can encourage children with reading, spelling and writing, and really help them to understand Phonics, is reviewed in the MN Book Reviews section. Just search ‘Phonics’ and my name.

TWO - When I worked with less able Yr2 children, who were finding learning to read particularly difficult, we often used a SoundWorks kit, which consisted of a set of wooden letter blocks, which the child used to build simple words. The theory was that, for some children, it is easier to SPELL words than READ them, which is a later stage.

It started with three-letter words, with a vowel in the middle - "a" glued onto a board.

The child then looked at the individual letter blocks, and was asked to make the word "c a t". Then he was asked, how do we change "c a t" into "h a t", which letter do we need to change? Then change "hat" into "ham" (with an emphasis on the "mmmm" sound).

Work slowly, and pronounce the sounds accurately and clearly. This approach was used with our Yr2 children who had been unable to make progress with more conventional methods of learning to read. It is rather time-consuming, and ideally needs resources to be made, but it does work very well.

So, if you can find or make suitable letters, and make a card with "a" glued in the middle, your child may enjoy building the words. Use letters that are occurring in words in the books he is bringing home, and then go on to make cards for the other vowels if it seems to work with "a".

I agree not to overdo it with 'teaching' him, but if he is happy to do a bit of work occasionally, see if any of the above help at all.

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