English is a hard language to learn to read and spell. And hard means really hard. That’s because there is often no predictable relationship between letters and sounds, which is the challenge in phonics and early literacy tutoring. So when we learn to read and spell, we need to learn many words individually. That’s a huge memory load. And not all brains are wired for heavy loads like that.
Many children who are at the weaker end of reading and spelling abilities stick with what they know: sounding out. Because why not? It’s a strategy that sometimes pays off for English. A strategy is better than no strategy, surely?
When it’s a strategy that doesn’t work, it isn’t. So weaker readers and spellers get stuck. Or start developing other strategies that don’t work for English.
So how to help? The first step is to support metacognition: children have no insight into the workings of English, so it’s helpful to tell them there are words that we can’t sound out. The only strategy we can use is to learn them individually.
Once that’s clear, it’s about managing the memory load in phonics and earlyl iteracy tutoring with enough over-learning to make the words stick. Typical “weak” readers’ brains will need to see those words many, many more times before they stick. Typical “strong” readers’ brains will go “click” and they’ve got it.
That’s what Trick is all about: she signals to readers that their sounding out skills either won’t work, or will only partially work, so it’s better not to rely on them.
And to make the important bigger point: all words need to become sight words to achieve skilled-reader status. Skilled reading is reading every word as a sight word, even when it’s possible to sound it out.
Children love Trick. You can see that by what they say. They are hooked into her “origin” story of her thrilling escape from a terrible situation and her search for as many words as she can possibly find. Her robot brain is programmed to read everything, and she has lots of storage capacity to collect them.
And because show is always better than tell, she acts as a visual so children immediately know how to deal with tricky words. Add a robust spelling routine to the tricky word reading routines, and children will make steady progress working with Trick.
It's the children who experience the Jigsaw Phonics lessons, so let's unpack what they are saying about Trick the robot as well as Puzzle the Panda and Wug the alien.
Josh loved Trick's orgin story, the hook into learning. When children really care about the characters and are emotionally connected, their learning has meaning. So it stops feeling like learning and starts feeling like an adventure with a favourite character. And because lessons alway start with an emotonal check in, children feel seen, heard and valued.
It seems such a little thing to say, but it's key. Unless children can make meaning from what they are learning, it won't stick. And if children speak English as a second language, like Arkriti, learning what words mean is even more important. So all the Jigsaw Phonics lessons are designed to focus on specific words with visuals so children always learn what the words mean. And those words get recycled throughout subsequent lessons for revision and overlearning.
Harrison has spotted that the lessons are pacey. Not too fast, but they move fast enough so that children don't get bored. And with live marking, children get to correct their mistakes in real time so they can celebrate their wins immediatley. And still remember what they were thinking if something went wrong.
Abhay likes what Harrison likes: the instant feedback he gets in Jigsaw Phonics lessons. For any activity with answers in the lessons, there's always an answer slide that follows immediately. Children get instant feedback and tutors don't have to do piles of marking. No teacher manuals are needed either - teaching and learning is all happening instantly for both tutors and children. One Tutor Like a pro! member said, "the lessons are just so child-led ... it's like we work as a team."
In this case, Lena was talking about in-person lessons. But tutors use whiteboards for online tutoring as well. And here's the thing: online learning can, in some situations, be more helpful than in-person tutoring because the focus is on the learning, not on the noise, distractions and physical materials around. And "multisensory" in phonics is valuable as simply speaking, air-writing and writing with a pen. This avoids sensory overload for some children too.
Leon agrees with Arkriti here - as a non-native speaker, the focus of Jigsaw Phonics lessons is as much about vocabulary building as learning to read and spell. And all the pictures for each word mean that children spend no time guessing, and more time learning. All the words in the lessons are high-frequency words that primary age children really use, not just random words that fit spelling patterns.
But it's not just Trick children love! Just like Charlotte, they are hooked into their learning by the characters' origin stories. Puzzle is nervous about reading, but he's going to get a lot of help from Charlotte! And she's super-motivated to learn.
Wug is about alien words too, but Wug is also the Jigsaw Phonics mascot for children learning English as a second langauge. Wug often gets real words mixed up, so children have a lot of fun helping Wug get it right ... learning some nifty spelling and getting valuable pronunciation practice in the process.
If you want to tutor phonics and early literacy with characters children love so you can deliver exceptional lessons with ease, book a call to discuss how the Tutor Like a Pro! membership can help you to start your own tutoring business for more impact, income and fulfilment.
And equally importantly - help the children you tutor - because we’re all on the same mission of helping children learn to read.