The Inspirational Educators Series

Meet Clare from Tiny Steps Make Big Strides

Meet Clare Wood from Tiny Steps Make Big Strides. She is the owner of a literacy clinic in Perth, Western Australia. She also makes awesome literacy resources and blogs about all things early literacy in her spare time. Keep on reading for some brilliant advice on learning to read, teaching spellings and the key lingo of the minefield that is phonics!

Clare, Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed for the Inspirational Educators series. I’m a huge fan of your early literacy advice – I’m constantly taking notes! What prompted the focus on literacy?

I have always loved reading and all things books. At school I noticed, not everyone had the same feelings as me when it came to books and reading. I had several friends who struggled and couldn’t see the magic, and this left a lasting impression on me. Being able to read opens the door to a world of opportunities, breaks the poverty cycle and positively impacts all. In my clinic, I work with families and teach effective literacy instruction without breaking the bank. The resources I make are based on the latest science of reading and downloadable to be cost effective for all.

Being able to read opens the door to a world of opportunities, breaks the poverty cycle and positively impacts all.

Claire Wood, Tiny Steps Make Big Strides

What should come first? Learning the alphabet or learning phonics?

Great question Sian, I get asked this a lot. In the beginning the sounds are truly important, cat can’t be sounded out with letter names it’s the sounds that build words. Phonics and sounds awareness is crucial for early reading.

Manipulating sounds is proven to aid fluent reading and teaches children all about segmenting words into sounds and blending those sounds back together to make words. All children benefit from phonics instruction, phonics focuses on the relationship between the printed word and sound. Some children will need lots of work breaking words apart into individual sounds. Teaching the letters in groups means words can be built from the
beginning and rhyming strings can be made – this is a great way to explore sounds, letters and words and lays the path for written language. Kids do get lots of exposure to letter names through the alphabet song, hearing people spelling out words with letter names etc.I teach my students that the alphabet names act as categories for the sounds and alternative spellings to sit in.

The most crucial part is making the learning fun and playful. Pictures or objects that represent the basic sounds aid development – So ant instead of alien and no giraffes – they are
cute, yet giraffe starts with the letter (g) and this symbol represents the /j/ sound, so can be confusing. Sound hunts and lots of sensory play are brilliant ways to playfully exposure kids to letters and sounds before going to school.

It’s almost time for the start of a new school year (in the Northern hemisphere at least!) what
advice can you give to parents about the ‘learning to read’ journey?

You are so right Sian, learning to read is certainly a journey that happens over several years rather than weeks or months.

The biggest message I always tell parents is letters don’t make sounds, we do! Letters represent the sounds. Let’s take the letter (a) – there are 7 ways that this letter either on its own or with other letters represents the /ay/ sound as in table, crayon sundae snake snail straight break there are a further 4 ways that the /ay/ sound can be heard without an (a) vein, eight, ballet, grey. It also represents the basic sound /a/ So that’s 12 possibilities for the letter (a).

Daily reading together is a must! Enjoying stories is such a great way to start the reading journey. Taking this time can give children a positive mindset about reading.

Providing a literacy rich environment is a great way to promote daily reading and opportunities to explore the alphabet, words and sounds through puzzles and games.Resources don’t have to break the bank, we often use book and toy libraries and just buy books and resources we love.

Playing listening games is a great way to explore the sounds of our language. Simple games that stretch words to pull out all the sounds or manipulate words to create new ones build sounds awareness and this is crucial for fluency and decoding. I have lots of five minute games in a listening games post that playfully breeds sounds awareness.

The terminology behind reading can often seem confusing, especially for parents who may have been brought up without phonics. What are the key words that parents need to know?

There is so much terminology to get your head around, the big five for me would be:

Phonological Awareness –The ability to recognise and work with sounds in spoken language. This
is a broad skill that takes time to develop. Being able to manipulate alphabet sounds to build and
explore words leads to fluent reading. Activities such as rhyming and making word chains such as
at, bat, pat, pit, pig changing just 1 letter at a time or adding and taking away are all excellent
ways that pave the path for reading success.

Phonics is a method for teaching reading and focuses on the relationship between the printed
word and sounds associated with the letters that make up the word. Explicit phonics instruction
that teaches a systematic plan helps most children to read. Some children will struggle and they
must build their sounds awareness skills to access phonics instruction.

Decoding – The process of segmenting an unfamiliar word into sounds all the way through and
blending them back together to read the word.

Phoneme – The smallest unit of sound within oral words. So in the word cat we can hear three
phonemes (sounds) /c/ /a/ /t/ but shoe has two phonemes /sh/ /oo/ There are 44 phonemes give
or take for accent that are represented by the 26 alphabet letters. Phoneme awareness is being
aware of the individual sounds within words.

Grapheme – A single or multiple letter unit in print. So the word cat has three letters and three
graphemes (c) (a) (t) The word shoe has 4 letters and 2 graphemes (sh) (oe) Graphemes are the
printed letters that match the sounds (phonemes) we say.

Fluency – Reading fluently is not just about reading quickly. Fluent readers have accuracy and
recognise words automatically, reading effortlessly with a natural rhythm. In the beginning it is
very normal for little ones to have to sound out words and read slowly with no rhythm. Fluency
will build as your child develops their sounds awareness knowledge.

Let’s talk spelling! Many schools (including my son’s) seem to still favour the ‘memorise for a test’ approach – could you talk us through your approach?

The explicit teaching of spelling is so underrated. Spelling is often not taught very well because it is not linked to reading and writing. Teaching the three together links the sounds, spelling and written form.

When you spell words, you read them also – but you don’t spell words as you read them. Spelling needs recall and recognition of sounds and letters – this is a 2 for 1 decoding and phonemic awareness in the same activity. Lots of schools still use the Look Cover Write Check method, but this is all about memorizing whole words and visual memory. When we learn to read, we are not using our visual memory to store words. Our brains don’t store words – our brain stores the sound to symbol correspondences in our long-term phonological memory and we automatically access this information to read effortlessly. Because of this research my spelling plan is mapped out so all children develop and practise manipulating sounds, segmenting and blending words at every
session.

I have a spelling mat and template I use with my own children and clients. I would love you to give it away free to your followers to spread the word on research-based spelling instruction.

  1. Spelling lists should be devised through sound patterns such as the /ay/ sound.
  2. Sort the words by alternative spelling of the sound
  3. Highlight the target sound in each word.
    As we do this we are segmenting the words and blending the words back together.
  4. Make the words using a movable alphabet then write the words sounding them out all the
    way through as you do.
  5. Add words to sentences orally to aid and develop comprehension.
  6. Lastly, we write the words in the loaded sentences we just verbally made.

We love the strategy – Think it, Say it, Write it, and it comes from a British program, Big Talk for Big Writing – I love their materials – discussions are such a fruitful part of the teaching and learning process.

I absolutely LOVE your watercolour illustrations. They are so beautiful. Do you have a background in art?

Thank you for that lovely feedback Sian. No, I don’t have any formal training, I have always been a doodler and made lots of resources when in the classroom and when my own kids were learning to read. My eldest though often now says – mum we got post it notes, and I say – yes you were my test group!

Selling my resources and the literacy clinic are new ventures. I couldn’t find any resources that were cost effective and research based, so I started making my own. I work with some children who truly struggle, and I want my resources to be beautiful and calming and be able to sit in a home as well as a classroom.

Is there a particular educational style that influences your own?

I do love the Montessori method. I am not trained in Montessori, yet, I take lots of inspiration from the teachings. Playful learning and hands-on activities that instil independence, self-care and responsibility are my guiding principles.

Everyone has a favourite teacher. Who was yours?

My first year of school teacher Mrs Wilcox was amazing, so gentle and playful, she had a way with
words and told stories beautifully.

Obviously, Instagram only shows us a snippet of people and their personalities. What three words would your friends use to describe you?

This is so true! Real life is a lot messier than the squares. I love this question and thought it would be fun to actually ask some of my friends the question. Every single one of them came back with the word passionate. I think this could be because, I often link everything back to reading and literacy. As for the other 2, organised came up as I am always sorting, the many moves we have done has instilled the practice of decluttering just in case this is not our last stop! And friendly, I really like to help others, and love to do this in my literacy clinic and informing parents through my blog and social media posts.

Finally, how can we find out more about Tiny Steps Make Big Strides?

My website contains my blog and store of early literacy downloadable resources: www.tinystepsmakebigstrides.com

Instagram www.instagram.com/tinystepsmakebigstrides
Facebook – www.facebook.com/tinystepsmakebigstrides
Twitter – www.twitter.com/tsmbs_literacy

To get the free spelling resource mentioned in the Instagram post, please subscribe to the Tiny Steps Make Big Strides email list.

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British primary school teacher and mum of 2.

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