How to help struggling readers catch up with visual phonics

by David Morgan | 21st October 2022

Around the world there is a post-pandemic tsunami of reading frustration for millions of children. Reports in the USA, in the UK and in Australia all point to the same grim reality. Bright children everywhere have fallen behind the expectation for their age.

What can you do to get your children back on track?

This is a hugely important question, of course, because a child’s whole academic future depends on good literacy. If they are not happy reading, your children will have one arm tied behind their backs. Here is some data from the National Literacy Trust on that.

However, I have good news if you have any frustrated children, who are guessing short, common words and struggling to spell, despite weeks and months of spelling lists. Read on to hear about a route out of this nightmare.

First, let’s understand what has happened.

Phonics and the pandemic

Most schools are now using phonics to give children the fundamental building blocks of reading. Phonics teaches the sounds that letters represent in words, so that a child can read any word by “decoding” it. In normal years, that works pretty well for most children.

However, recent years have been anything but normal. So a lot of children will have ended up with holes in their phonics understanding. What most children will do then is to switch to a memorisation technique, where they try to recognise what the whole word looks like.

Bright, visual learners and guessing

Bright children are particularly drawn to the whole word sight memorisation technique because they often have a great visual memory. So it seems to work okay at first, but as the number of words increases, it gets harder and harder.

The funny thing is that it is the short, similar words that then become hardest for them. If you are reading a book about elephants, then a word that looks roughly like eXxylxxXx is probably the word ‘elephants’. 

But what about short words like ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘these’ and ‘those’. They all look mighty similar! That is when the guessing kicks in.

If you have seen regular guessing or errors with short words, that is good news! At least we know what is going on.

How to help struggling readers

So what is the solution…?

Doing more and more of the same is not normally a solution in these situations. The wheels tend to keep digging deeper into the sand until the child’s confidence collapses.

The approach that has been getting the most success for these children is a method called “visual phonics”. It uses a presentation of text called “trainertext”. In trainertext there are little icons for each sound in a word above the word. You can see more about trainertext here.

Academic studies have shown children catching up 2+ years of reading age in just 120 short sessions.

If you want to give it a go, you can use the online visual phonics system called Easyread, to see if it starts to help your children. Easyread is extremely well reviewed and has a ten lesson free trial. You will normally begin to see an impact even in the free trial. 

The Easyread System is ideally suited to children aged 6-11 who have plateaued with their reading or spelling progress. It has a mix of online materials and direct help from literacy experts.

David Morgan has an honours degree in mechanical engineering and a masters degree in education. David was a founding trustee of The Shannon Trust, started David Morgan Education, launched Helping Children to Read and invented pictophonics. In his spare time he likes to ski, sail and walk the hills.

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