Chapter 3: Teaching the sounds and the skills of bending and using cues

It should now be apparent that a thorough learning of individual sounds and symbols and the ability to blend are essential before MPC can be properly and effectively used. It would be interesting to see whether simply drilling the sounds, teaching how to blend and use cues and then starting on cued reading material would work. After only a short period of drilling there would be complete freedom to read anything. However, this would be very unsophisticated and is not advised.

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Teaching the basic phonic sounds

In Infant classes the normal or current programme of early reading should not be interfered with, but learning sounds and their symbols should take place at the same time, perhaps as a separate activity. Children should be shown how to form letters properly, not just left to copy sentences written by the teacher. This is a good time to teach the concepts represented by the symbols which they are learning to write’ to show that a number of words begin with ‘b’ and not just one on a chart, that although the second at the beginning of a word is a good guide to it, the sound may also occur in the middle or at the end of a word. Traditionally, children of three and four have had alphabet books which taught them to say one letter at a time while looking at a picture connected with it. If they learnt the phonic sounds in this way it would certainly do no harm. But other considerations must be remembered: interest, meaning, concentration, left-right sequence, language development, and the need to improve visual and aural discrimination and memory. Exercises may help any skill, but it is far better if the skill can be combined with other activities or learnt, at least in part, incidentally. It is like comparing the old method of learning music by practising scales first with modern methods. The scales may be a good thing later, but could put the child off music altogether if done without meaning.

One way of teaching sounds with the maximum amount of meaning is to write labels for the classroom which contain all the MPC sounds, making matching sentences, matching words and also matching sounds of the same size. There is thus meaning in every part. For example, I made labels on which the following sentences were written with cues:

In line with the theory that the two main aspects of literacy are fact and fiction, a wall-story was the next idea which I treated in this way. The children had heard and enjoyed The Gingerbread Boy so a wall-story was made (rather a long one, as some children were seven). A picture accompanied each sentence.

This was a popular piece of equipment. The children enjoyed reading it, some more or less learning it by heart and then learning to pick out the words. Once children also got the idea of finding sounds, they became very interested in trying to match them and would often do it on their own. With MPC every sound can be matched accurately, and there is no confusion between ‘a’, ‘’, ‘ah’, ‘au’, etc. Children can see for themselves if there is a discrepancy between sound and spelling. Given suitable stimulus and encouragement, much can be learnt from these matching activities, each sound being in context both in a word and in a meaningful sentence.

Because they take some time to make, it is tempting to leave one wall story up for too long. It is advisable to change the story every week or so, since once the freshness has gone it can easily be ignored and lose its value. We replaced The Gingerbread Boy with Jack and the Beanstalk, treated in the same way, with matching sentences, then words, then sounds. The sentences were:

1) Jack sold the poor cow.
2) He got some magic beans.
3) They grew into a great beanstalk.
4) Jack climbed up to the giant’s house.
5) Fee, fi, fo, fum, yelled the giant.
6) Quick! Hide! Said the giant’s wife.
7) Where is my goose? Fetch her.
8) She laid a very large egg.
9) Oi, mother. Bring me my axe.
10) Down fell the giant with a crash.

This also contains all the forty-five MPC sounds. When working out sentences of this kind a few sounds are difficult to fit in, usually ‘x’, ‘j’ ‘oi’ and ‘qu’, which are not so commonly used. A little alteration may be necessary to include these. Here we change ‘Hi, mother’, to ‘Oi, mother’ because ‘oi’ did not appear anywhere else. It is better, though, to teach the less-used sounds in some other way than by contriving unnatural sounding phrases.

Even with quite a lot of matching practice most children still need daily repetition for symbols to be thoroughly known. It is rather like learning multiplication tables. All kinds of activities ensure the concepts are understood, but there is still the need to repeat and memorise later. Once the concepts of what sounds are, and what they do, are known, the cue-card should be gone though daily, with picture mnemonics, until the pictures can be discarded. Any other means liked by the teacher, such as card games, Breakthrough phonic folders (Longman) or Stott apparatus (Holmes-McDougall) can easily be adapted for MPC.

The same wall-story technique could be used without MPC, but would have to use matching letters, even if their sounds did not correspond, or be confined to those that did correspond, perhaps just consonants. This does not have the same value as MPC in pointing out the relationship between sound and spelling in, for instance, the word ‘’, where the vowel sound is irregular.

The way in which MPC includes the digraphs ‘ch’, ‘sh’, etc. in the early learning is also an important advantage. They are not more difficult to learn if taught as one sound, and not knowing them is a source of trouble. In one school which I was comparing with my experimental class I found only single sounds had been learnt, and was told they ‘hadn’t come to the others yet’. The linking of digraphs with a slur aids their assimilation as one sound, but it is important that younger children should realise that the slur is not part of the symbol. It should therefore be drawn more faintly or in a different colour. Though colour makes cues more attractive to the younger ones. It takes longer to do and is not really necessary. There is no reason, however why a teacher should not use different colours if she wants to do so in marking apparatus or books for those starting to learn to read with MPC.

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Adaptations for older slow-learners

These examples of the matching labels and wall-stories were made for older slow-learners and adults, and also include all the sounds.

1) A crow sat on a high branch.
2) She had just found some cheese.
3) The fox looked up at her there.
4) Why are you so quiet? He said.
5) I am sure you can sing very well.
6) So the crow made a big noise.
7) The cheese fell out of her mouth.
8) The fox soon ate it and ran away.

The next one was made up for an adult class using a small, rather bare room.

1) The window is made of glass.
2) Our tables are wooden ones.
3) The walls are plastered now.
4) These are light metal chairs.
5) This is a square shape.
6) These tables have been joined together.
7) You can keep things in here.
8) We sit where we choose.
9) Cards go in this box.

The labels could be arranged in place at the start of a session. they may sound dull, but their down-to-earth, everyday nature appealed to these slow-learners as something that made sense. The labels could be fixed with Blu-tack and removed to be put away again. This is one way of coping when using a room once or twice a week, which is also used by other classes.

Comic strip stories can be adapted in the same way to provide the interest of fiction. A sixteen-year-old slow reader, who showed very little interest in the books available, frequently brought in comics, whose lurid picture stories he followed avidly. I realised that what he needed was action. With his help I produced the sentences below, made out on cards for the Language Master (Bell & Howell) so that he could put them through and hear them in order. Then I got him to match words and sounds, written on separate cards, and put them in place on the sentence cards, using paperclips. When he could do this, and had done other preliminary work, I gave him a tape of the cue-card to which he could listen as he pointed to each sound.

This particular boy had previously managed to learn most of the alphabet sounds, and capital (but not small) letters. If he had been taught MPC from the start I have no doubt that he could have read, using cues, in spite of his very limited memory.

1) This man went shooting tigers.
2) The tigers were very fierce.
3) They had gone far into the jungle.
4) The tigers were not frightened.
5) A tiger can kill a man.
6) Here is a big one coming now.
7) I’ll fix him, says the man.
8) He points his gun carefully.
9) Whizz! He has missed the tiger.
10) The tiger is chasing him now.
11) The man is climbing a tree.
12) But tigers know how to climb trees.
13) He has nearly got his paw to the man.
14) The man uses his gun quickly.
15) This time the tiger falls down dead.

It is not easy to get excitement and a sense of urgency into such simple writing, but it is worth the effort if it arouses interest. MPC gives the great advantage of allowing phonics to be studied using this kind of material, instead of ‘The dog sat on the log’ variety. To maintain interest, of course, a series of stories would be needed, so that not too much time is spent on one story and its analysis.

The following strip story is suitable for any age. This also includes all the MPC sounds.

1) Meet the Smith family.
2) Mrs Smith is cooking the dinner.
3) Mr Smith is washing the car.
4) Jimmy is going to school.
5) Mary is playing in the garden.
6) Baby is crying in the pram.
7) The dog is asleep in his box.
8) Mrs Smith says, Dinner is ready now.
9) Mr Smith says, Quick! What have you got for us?
10) Jimmy says, I though we were having chops.
11) Mary says, I thought it was a joint of beef!
12) The baby is having some milk.
13) The dog has got a bone.

Workcards were used to aid analysis of this story, for example:

Find these silent letters e n m h y a k o gh
(They can be found in were, dinner, Jimmy, school, playing, ready, quick and thought, as examples.)
Find these different sounds for letter a: o (was, car, Mary); o sounding u (some); o sounding oo (cooking)
The marks make these easy to see and provide an interesting puzzle element for children ready to do some analysis.
Appendix 1 contains further simple games designed to give practice in memorising the sounds and early sight vocabulary, so reinforcing learning.

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Starting MPC with children who know most of the phonic sounds

These children should already know the short vowels and single consonants, which are exactly the same in MPC and t.o.:
a e i o u as in cat, get, tin, pot, cup
b c d f g h j k l m n p r s t v w x y z are all exactly the same.
Consonant blends of digraphs may or may not be known, but should be checked: qu, ng, (as in they), (as in think), sh, wh and ch. The vowel blends are ah, er, ow, (as in boot), (as in foot, except in Scotland) and . The bar is understood to show the letter-name, , , , and . If MPC is used it is not necessary to know any other alternative sounds or blends, like ‘oy’ or ‘aw’, ‘igh’ or ‘ai’. These will follow later, but could be learnt by using substitutions over them at first. Thus, if you decided to use MPC with slower Juniors and found they already knew the usual simple phonic sounds, reference to the cue-card would probably be all that was needed before they could begin decoding any marked word for themselves. The cross indicating silent letters and the substitution are quickly understood.

Limitations to MPC’s use are found in some cases where a child’s sight memory for words is so good that analysis seems unnecessary and rules seem to be deduced automatically. There is then no need to interfere with a natural reading ability. The use of MPC for some spelling analysis might be useful in such cases, and would probably be enjoyed and quickly understood to improve insight into language. The other limitation is when children have such poor reasoning power that analysis only makes things seem more impossible and does not sustain their interest. MPC works extremely well with fairly mature children who can reason but who do not memorise easily. Teaching skills such as selection of the right time and place, how long to stay on one thing and what will keep up interest as well as reinforce what must be learnt, must be exercised with MPC as with any other teaching aid.

There are many useful aids for teaching phonics, such as those in Phonics and the Teaching of Reading by J.M. Hughes (Evans Brothers, 1972), and there is no need to repeat here what is readily available elsewhere. However, the more complex forms, such as ‘ea’, ‘final e’, ‘-tion’, can be left till later, and reading using MPC can be done without them. These rules and exceptions could then be deduced in the course of reading in the same way. It is hoped, as rules of grammar are absorbed in the course of learning to speak. It is probable that better learning will take place if rules are pointed out and reinforced, but this can be done once reading is already fluent using MPC (see Chapter 4).

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Learning to blend sounds

The other consideration is blending, which is a problem in MPC just as it is in any other phonic work. It is quite common to meet children who know the sounds and yet cannot put them together. Many writers stress that to add a vowel to consonants, which is difficult to avoid when trying to be heard across a classroom, creates unnecessary difficulty. ‘Ber-a-ter’ does not sound ‘bat’ and this should be remembered. One group with this fault was helped by the verses shown below. These were put up on the wall in large print and we read them through until they were known.

My d-a-d dad
Is s-a-d sad
For the pain in his tooth is so b-a-d bad.

Some m-e-n men
Kept a h-e-n hen
And when it had chicks
They had t-e-n ten.

Young S-i-d Sid
Made a b-i-d bid
But he lost all his cash
So he h-i-d hid.

Jimmy g-o-t got
Much too h-o-t hot
So he covered his head
With a p-o-t pot.

In the s-u-n sun
With a g-u-n gun
Bill shot at a target
For f-u-n fun.

Children should, of course, learn style and appreciation of literature once they been taught to read. This kind of idea is used as a step on the way and more or less in desperation when confronted with children who are hard to teach and difficult to interest.
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Learning sounds in context


One cannot always know enough about the experiences of such children to judge what has lead to this kind of problem, or whether better methods would prevent it. However, it is likely that learning sounds within words rather than in isolation, as suggested earlier, would help. The method outlined here has proved very effective in achieving this.

The principle is to provide a simple, illustrated sentence within the child’s interest and experience, which is read first. Two letters are picked out below it. The teacher sounds these and points out where they occur in the sentence. In order to emphasise meaning the child is then asked a relevant question, which necessitates making some prediction or association. Below this are a number of random repetitions of the two symbols, from which the child has to pick out the letters and discriminate between them, with help if necessary. For example:

Figure 6

In this case the teacher might use the following approach: “ Do you know what those two letters say? What words are they under? Read the sentence until you come to the first one. What word is it? What does it begin with? That’s the sound ‘m’. What word is that letter under? (dog) What sound does that start with? (‘d’) Now point to the ‘d’ sounds underneath. Point to a ‘m’, now a ‘d’.”

Generally, the teacher should read the first sentence, or help the child to do so, if he can, and then point out the sounds. After this preliminary work the child can be left alone to complete some follow-up activity, e.g. Colour these pictures and write the letters under the pictures they belong to.

Figure 7

The MPC Reading Workbook is based on this idea and provides practice in forming letters as well as in recognising them. Follow-up activities designed to reinforce learning are also suggested. Different sentences could of course be used according to the age and ability of the children, while older slow-learners could use them for individual work, with a tape.

Blending can also be taught by pointing to sounds on a large cue-card and moving about to make words, first of two letters, then of three, e.g. at, in, up; cat, win, pup. Children may then try this individually or in pairs and see how many words they can make, if possible in sentences.

Other simple ideas to give variety and aid memory are jingles like this which could be put on the wall and illustrated. These contain all the MPC vowel sounds.


Doors slam a Donkeys bray
Hens peck e Pigs squeak
Bells ring i Babies cry
Corks pop o Cocks crow
Knives cut u Cats mew
Dogs bark Trousers tear
Cows moo Cooks cook
Wolves howl Pots boil
People talk Machines work

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Relating MPC to an existing reading scheme

The use of cues can be revised using flashcards based on your existing reading scheme. Write the same word on both sides of a card, cueing one side only. Help children to learn the words using cues, then to try to remember them without cues. The cards can be held up for work with a group, or given to pairs or individual children. Knowing the first hundred most common words is a great help in making a start, since these form a large proportion of all reading matter. It is vital to go through them with the children and show them how the cues are cued before they can be left to do it themselves. Words with more than two syllables should not be used, since these require a skill in breaking down words which should be taught later.

Once this decoding ability has been acquired it is possible for it to outstrip understanding. This makes it even more essential that attention should be given to general language, knowledge and experience of all kinds as well as to reading. The teacher should encourage the use of dictionaries in which word meanings are simply explained, and see that, even if children can read for themselves, they are questioned about what they have read or allowed to discuss it, and not just left to get on alone. Even when children become expert at word attack, their reading matter needs to be graded for content difficultly and vocabulary. It must be emphasised that no one stops learning to read. Even the most expert can improve their speed, vocabulary, ability to skim, to find main points, to summarise and evaluate, and so on. If children do make good progress in the early skills, it is vital to build upon and continue this work, so that the initial progress is not lost later.

Goto Chapter 4.

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