Chapter 2: Ideas for adapting and using MPC

How can you, the teacher, use MPC? There is no set scheme for its use because so many teachers have found its flexibility to be one of MPC’s great advantages. However, this book is accompanied by the MPC Word List, which contains over 6000 cued words, the MPC Reading Workbook and the MPC Spelling Workbook (see Appendix 2). As their titles suggest, these are designed for individual use by the pupils to aid and reinforce their learning. These two workbooks and simple dictionary provide a phonic scheme which can be used to extend and accompany other work in reading. The skills learnt from using these books will aid both the sight learning of common words and the attack and spelling of new ones.

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An aid to spelling and pronunciation

In contrast to the limited choice of reading material found in set reading schemes, any passages can be marked with MPC. The boundless range thus offered means that learners can absorb the relationships between spelling and pronunciation, using MPC to aid in the decoding of new words, while reading really interesting material. No formal phonic instruction is necessary once the forty-five sounds and the skill of blending have been learnt. Spelling-pronunciation relationships can then be learnt as are grammatical forms, mainly through unconscious absorption. For example if ‘’, ‘’, ‘’, ‘’ are continually encountered when reading, the deduction that ‘igh’ is pronounced ‘’ seems inevitable. At the same time the pupil is taking an interest in what he is reading, other context cues are present and, because there is no hold-up over difficult words, fluency is being developed. Moreover, MPC continually highlights the relationships between sound and spelling.

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An aid to finding out new words

What does the pupil usually do when stuck on a word? He can ask, “What’s that word?” and be told. Sometimes, instead of saying the word, the teacher might encourage a guess from the context: “What could it be? What is she doing?” or, “Well, what is that in the picture?” The pupil might be told to read on and then might also say, “Try and build it up. Say the sounds.” Unless the reading book is carefully graded for phonic difficulty, insistence on a thorough attempt at building may easily result in ‘t-h-o-r-o-u-g-h’. This is not much help unless many rules and blends are already known, because the single letter-sounds are not always a good guide.

The wise teacher will probably suggest a guess from context, checked by the main consonant sounds, as a useful compromise. For instance, if a pupil reads ‘He wanted a bike’ when the text is ‘He roda a bike’, the ‘r’ and ‘d’ in ‘rode’ could be pointed out and another guess suggested. However, this approach requires good language experience in the pupil and good teaching ability in the teacher, as well as time and individual attention. A pupil soon loses interest if he has to keep stopping, and in many cases will not be able to read at all unless the teacher is hearing him.

The situation will be very different if the pupil knows the sounds and cues of MPC. He will not use the cues for words he knows, but coming to ‘’ will be able to say it straight away, without asking anybody, or losing the meaning of the sentence by stopping. It is just as effective as if the teacher was beside him saying, “You don’t sound the ‘e’ but it makes the ‘o’ sound ‘’”, and is certainly quicker. I have heard children using MPC get the word almost immediately without even having to say the sounds aloud.

Experiments show that MPC not only aids fluency and independence, but also, because it leaves the word-shape unaltered (unlike i.t.a.), constantly presents the sound-symbol relationship to the child.

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Methods of presenting MPC without printed materials

Of course, good teachers have all sorts of ways to prevent children getting stuck or discouraged. Some see that all or most of the new words to be met are learnt beforehand through flashcards, games and drill in which interest is provided by the competition or puzzle element. These may be individual or group activities (see Appendix 1). Cues can be used in preliminary work of this kind if books cannot be marked. One way of doing this is to write the same word on both sides of a flashcard and add cues to one side. The cued words can be shown first and their structure pointed out, e.g. ‘should’ is made up from ‘’, not ‘s-h’, and ‘ould’, pronounced ‘’. This is easily seen when cued. The structure could be made more obvious by asking the pupils to find smaller words within the word, e.g. in ‘become’. They may already know ‘be’ and ‘come’, but if not, the marks will help them to remember how they sound, e.g. ‘’. In marking a word like ‘become’ it might be more accurate to put ‘’, but it is best to use the letters which are already there as far as possible if this gives a sufficient guide, e.g. ‘’. It must be stressed once again that there is no absolutely right or wrong way of marking any word. The teacher must use MPC as it is most helpful to her pupils, discarding and adapting as necessary. Separating words or syllables with strokes also helps to make the structure more obvious, but would probably prove rather distracting if done on books.

Having gone through a few cued words in this way, the children will enjoy trying to remember them when shown the uncued side of each flashcard. I have found from experience that this really amuses and interests them. Moreover, because they have built up and can reconstruct the words for themselves, the children will remember them far better than if they had simply been told them by the teacher.

Another variation on this idea is to give children the words of a new book written on small cards, again cued on one side and not on the other. I found this most effective with a group of backward seven-year-olds. They put their words in a tin and, after going through them once at school, took them home. The MPC marks are so simple parents learn them very quickly and can then help their children with them. If the sounds are already thoroughly learnt the children can work out what the new words are. They then really enjoy the puzzle of trying to read the uncued words and only looking at the other side if they are stuck. Some children using MPC in this way were overheard saying:” No, don’t turn it over yet. I think I can get it.” I think I know what it is but I’m not telling yet. I’ll turn it over first and see if I’m right (Turns it.) Yes, I’m right. It’s --------.” One child, whom I met in the street during the holidays, said, “ I don’t half like them words. I do ‘em every night.”

Of course, the way one teaches and the relationship one builds up with pupils will affect the result, but there does seem to be something about using MPC which appeals as a kind of game. The child is motivated not just by wanting to win a competitive game, but also by an individual challenge which stimulates thought. Moreover, MPC is not separate from reading.

Having studied individual words in this way, the child is delighted to find that the next book in the reading scheme can be read fluently. This achievement provides further encouragement.

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Work with infants

One experiment was carried out with a middle and top Infants group over the nine months from the autumn half-term till July. Bookmarks, made from thin strips of a card on which new words were written with cues, were duplicated to provide a thorough and systematic progress through a whole reading scheme. Most published readers give lists of new words encountered. The words in these lists were arranged to fit the size of a bookmark, so the first one covered pages 1-10, the second pages 11-24, etc., according to the number of words needed. Large print was used for the letters, so that they could be cued easily and be seen clearly by the children. A set of wall pockets was made to hold the bookmarks in sets, there being three or four bookmarks for each book. When a child finished a bookmark, it was put back in the right pocket and the child could sign his name on a list attached, which acted as a simple and effective means of recording progress. When he had a new book mark the teacher went through it with him, seeing that he could work out the words. There was no difficulty if the sounds were thoroughly known; the child could look up the cued version of a new word on his bookmark instead of having to ask the teacher. However, because normal reading methods were being used alongside MPC, some children were reading books before they had learnt the sounds properly, and so needed help. This is also a good way of using cues without marking books.

From this experiment, I feel that most children under six are better using whole-word learning and making sure of the sounds in various ways so that they can analyse later. Some are still at the intuitive stage and not ready for exact analysis, but are in various stages of pre-reading. They may use MPC in an unanalytical way. For example, when confusing ‘’ with ‘’, as so many do, they may say to themselves “’here’ has a cross at the end. I’ll remember it by that. “This does no harm, whereas forcing the child to use the cues properly is more likely to confuse than help. Children are bothered by ‘funny marks they can’t understand’, so professional judgement is needed as to when to start.

My own experience leads me to think that, while the child can start learning individual sounds very young, analysing and synthesising are linked with the ability to perceive the relationships between a whole and its parts. This ability can be assessed using Piaget’s tests with something like wooden beads of two colours. See what answers a child gives when asked, “Are all the red beads made of wood? Are all the wooden beads red?” Or do the experiment with two equal-sized pens. Put them one above the other and say, “Are they the same length?” Then move one part to the side and say, “Are they still the same?” Children who can only take one side into account, or one factor at a time, are going to be more confused than helped by phonic analysis. Yet knowing letter-sounds, and so with what sounds a word begins or ends, will help their reading by giving them extra clues to the words.

The teacher should thus concentrate on plenty of spoken language, some whole-word and sentence reading, paying attention to pre-reading skills and to learning of sounds and letters representing them. When the sounds are known and understood MPC can be used for rapid progress and independence.

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Work with older slow-learners

For the majority of poor readers of seven or over, sight-learning of whole words is not the answer. They must acquire some skills of word-attack. They are often discouraged and difficult to interest or to persuade to concentrate, and will, of course, have all sorts of problems and reasons for backwardness, which may need investigation. This aspect will not be examined here, as it is thoroughly dealt with in so many other books. It should be stressed that if any teacher is so inexperienced as to think that one method or idea is going to wipe out all problems she will be disappointed, and I would be the last to suggest that MPC or any other idea will do this. However, they may help in some cases and the teacher should therefore be aware of all possible approaches. Of course, much training and skill is still necessary to know what to do and when and how to do it.

MPC’s advantage for slow or backward Junior or Secondary children is mainly that phonic experience can develop through reading in context, with only the forty-five sounds-symbols to be memorised. Memory, which is so often faulty in these children, can be supplemented by reasoning when MPC is used. The infallibility of the scheme is a great relief to such pupils, and boost their confidence immensely. Years ago, when I was trying to help slow Juniors, I had to keep apologising to them for the irregularities of our spelling. I tried to teach them to think, and then they would say, for example, “ You told us the ‘e’ at the end makes a vowel ‘say its name’. Why doesn’t it in ‘gone’ and ‘have’?! All I could say was, “ I’m sorry, but it doesn’t always work.” Some children can remember a certain number of exceptions to rules, but after a certain pint they just give up. An E.S.N school reported to me that the whole atmosphere there had changed since they started using i.t.a. May boys who had given up trying and become disruptive found that they now had a chance to succeed, and changed their attitude completely. For children such as these to have to learn changed spellings later is an unnecessary burden when MPC can have the same regularising benefits without altering normal spelling. A teacher who had just explained MPC marks to a boy who already knew most of the phonic sounds reports that, after trying it, he came running out to her shouting, “It works” another teacher remembers a boy in a similar circumstances saying to her, “Why ever didn’t you tell me about this before?”

In The Improvement of Reading (McGraw Hill, 1967) Strang quotes a youth at a clinic, who said, “There’s one thing I don’t like, when you’re reading out loud and you come to a word and you can’t pronounce it and the teacher tells me what it is.” The older and, possibly, the more intelligent the slow reader is, the more he resents his inferiority and lack of independence. Once he has learnt the MPC sounds and symbols and can use them, he can read marked material without reference to the teacher, because he can find out words for himself. This boosts confidence and also means he can work without constant attention and help, which usually results in a lot more being done and experience gained.

Slow readers who have poor sight memory but are not too weak on reasoning or sound discrimination are most likely to be helped by MPC. Once they have learnt the system they can read marked workcards, which will sometimes enable them to do the same work as better readers. It may also be helpful to mark difficult words as they are encountered, either in the book or on a piece of fairly stiff plastic which can be held over the page and marked in felt-tipped pen. This is a good idea if you want to use MPC in books but cannot mark them.

Teachers who can mark books may be unable to do so through lack of time. This problem can be solved by adding cues to any word which children need help when hearing them read. If this is done continually, books will soon have cues marked where necessary without any extra time having been spent doing it.

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One of the advantages cited by advocates of i.t.a. is that it enables young children to write freely, as they spell entirely by sound. There is not doubt that such free writing is inhibited by the irregular spelling of traditional orthography. One of the greatest problems when teaching writing in t.o. is thus helping children with words. Usually they have to be written by the teacher in individual wordbooks, and it is difficult to avoid a queue waiting for this to be done. It is some help not to have too many children writing at once, but if others are doing maths, need conversation or help with making something, there is still a question of priorities. Teachers try to make children be as independent as possible by encouraging them to try their own version, to look up words on lists or in simple dictionaries, or by writing up words likely to be needed beforehand. Another good idea is to give each child a plain sheet of paper and a paperclip to attach it to his wordbook, and only to help with a word when he has made an attempt on the paper. If the word is right it is quicker just to say so, or there may be only one letter to alter.

A child could also write using MPC sounds on the loose sheet in his wordbook to be altered if necessary by the teacher, or ticked if correct, e.g. ‘’. If a child can remember and spell words like ‘tea’ and ‘came’ it is not necessary for him to put a cross over the unsounded letters when writing (though this is a help when reading). I do not think it would be wise to encourage children to write using MPC sounds alone when they did not know the correct spelling. Fluency would certainly be increased, but this would result in ‘It was my birthday yesterday and eight friends came to tea’ being written ‘’, which I would not advocate. If a child had no means of finding the right spelling, MPC would enable him to record the sound accurately, but spelling should be as normally correct as possible from the start, even if it is a bit harder for children to achieve.

In writing, MPC can be used to aid in looking up the correct spelling. Learning the alphabet order is important at this stage, but a child may still look up, for example, ‘quiet’ under ‘c’ or ‘a’, or not be sure if it is the word he wants because of irregular spelling. The MPC Word List which accompanies this book contains over 600 of the words most commonly used in early spelling together with cues. They are indexed under initial sound as well as initial letter, so that, for example ‘phone’ is found under both ‘p’ and ‘f’. Spelling and MPC is discussed more fully in Chapter 4.

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Language-experience approaches

Many teachers prefer not to use a set reading scheme for beginners, but to let them make up their own reading material in some way; Breakthrough to Literacy (Longman) materials may be used, or children’s pictures with captions and simple sentences written at their dictation and made into books. Wall-story techniques, as explained by Goddard in Reading in the Modern Infants School (ULP, 1958), use a similar idea for group teaching. MPC can be used with any of these approaches.

My own experience here has been mainly with adult illiterates, for whom I found it impossible to provide printed material at a level which did not insult their intelligence, yet which was simple enough to read. They therefore dictated sentences about their jobs, their cars, their families or anything else they liked, which I wrote down on strips of card. They copied these into their books or had them typed on a jumbo typewriter when available. Then they cut up the cards into words, which they used for matching and making other sentences. Some record of words known was needed. One good way to do this was to tick them off in a 500-word book or on a Ladybird Key Words list, adding them if they were not on the list. Then, when the pupils were judged ready, cues were added to the books or words to show the sound-symbol relationship.

In some cases, cues were quickly understood and could then be widely used. In others, much work of an intuitive nature without analysis was needed. The older the pupils, the more diverse their problems and needs. Some, whose reasoning is very poor, need much preliminary work before word attack is possible. Yet I taught one man who was quite intelligent, with a reading age of about seven and no idea of the sounds. He raced ahead using MPC, which he understood at once.

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The range of ideas suggested here will have given some idea of the great scope and flexibility of MPC. To try it, there is no need to invest in any new or expensive materials. It can be used in full or in part as needed. It could be used for only some children in a class, without disruption. If a child started it and then changed to a school or class where it was not used, the child might miss it, but would not be at a disadvantage. It makes spelling better, not worse. There is no need for a sudden changeover from using it, just a gradual disuse. By the time a reading age of a about eight is attained MPC should not be needed, except for some spelling practice and analysis of spelling rules (see Chapter 4). It allows phonic practice using reading matter which is not graded for phonic simplicity and which can therefore be in completely natural language. However, it should be remembered that children can cope much better with two-syllable words than with words of three syllables or more. Vocabulary should be largely within the child’s spoken vocabulary; words may be pronounced but not understood when they are easy to read.

MPC is most readily used to aid reading independence when there is some mental maturity and ability to analyse. It would thus be ideal for reasonably intelligent adults who speak, but cannot read English, as in some of the developing countries. For such pupils cued books would be very useful, enabling independent reading to take place quickly. Chapter 5 deals more fully with the use of MPC in various situations and with different age-groups.

It must be emphasised that MPC cannot be used effectively until the sounds have been properly learnt. After that, rapid progress is possible. Preliminary attention to learning the sounds and cues is therefore vital, and is dealt with in the next chapter.

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