Chapter 5: Using MPC with different ages and stages

Nursery-reception, 4-5 years

Whatever the methods or media used, the training and experience which the pupil brings to the task will be a major factor in success. For example, in athletics a new style or technique is likely to make a marginal improvement possible, but the athlete’s enthusiasm and fitness, and the trainer’s skill are also very important. The most important aspect of early teaching is concerned with the ‘fitness of the athlete’. The skills of using spoken language freely and well, being able to see and hear differences and similarities, and getting interested in wanting to read are the most important things to attend to initially. There is no need to repeat the information and help available in a number of other books and courses, but it is important to attend to this aspect as well as to choose materials which suit your purposes.

Today, great stress is laid on the importance of early language skills in preparation for reading, as well as on all-round development. Of course they are important, and as much as possible should be done to teach them. However, it is possible that children whose language background is poor are at an increased disadvantage if they are expected to rely almost entirely on context cues in reading. One way to tackle this problem is to increase the learner’s language skill, but another approach is to make better use of other clues to words, so that reasoning may come into play more fully. Activities to train visual skills will possibly help children with poor visual discrimination and memory, but they are likely to make more progress using other skills as well, such as hearing and even touch and movement. All the senses should be given stimulus and practice in the pre-school child, for a multi-sensory approach gives a far better chance of success.

Sound discrimination activities are vitally important if an aid like MPC is going to be used, though they would also benefit children using other learning methods. Picture-sorting, a common visual activity, is more useful if children are helped to sort by the first letter sound, even before they know the symbol. ‘I-spy’ games, grouping things in scrapbooks according to first letter sound or even vowel sound, calling out groups of children whose names begin with the same sound, using music, rhythm and rhyme, all help to train the ear. Children with mild speech defects may be helped by such activities and should, of course, also receive whatever special help is available. Any child who can speak must be able to hear sound in order to reproduce it’ he doesn’t ask for meat when he wants a sweet, though he may say ‘sleet’ or something near it. What has first been done unconsciously and intuitively needs to become more conscious in preparation for using written symbols for these sounds. Children are often unaware of separate words and may think of phrases like ‘got-to-go’ or ‘in-a-minute’ as one unit. To read and write they must break up the flow of speech. Activities with labels and wall-stories, suggested in Chapter 2, are valuable ways of showing children word relationships, even before they may be expected to remember the details. Younger children in the 5- to 7-year-old range can learn from watching older ones matching words and letters, and start doing it themselves when they are ready.

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Infant classes, 5-7 years

Although MPC is a system which concentrates on individual sounds, fifty to a hundred words should be learnt as wholes before analysis by sounds is introduced. During this period children should be learning to write and recognise individual sounds, but only in readiness for later word-building. This age-range should start with sight-recognition of words and phrases. Word-attack skills should be introduced when they already have a basic sight vocabulary, since using individual sounds form the first might lead to the habit of stopping to build up each word more than should be necessary. An approach using the children’s own language should employ the same principle.

Since phonic work of one kind or another will inevitably be undertaken later, whether formally or informally, the sound-symbol bonds must be thoroughly learnt. What better time to learn these than while the letter-forms are being taught? The MPC Reading Workbook is designed to do this, and provides individual practice to consolidate learning. Informal ways of reaching the concepts of what sounds do in words and sentences, what they are and how they can be used, are as vital, at first, as learning number concepts before the use of their written forms. Young children enjoy repetition, which is the natural way a baby learns to practise vocal sounds. The same practice can be given, for a few minutes each day, using a means such as the cue-card. It will be well repaid later in an increased facility and freedom to decode new words. Some teachers think there is no place at all for repeating something until it is thoroughly memorised. If all teaching were of this kind they would have a case, but it is a mistake to ignore repetition altogether. Once the MPC sounds are fairly well known children should have some means of using them to help when they come to a new word in their reading, for instance in one of the ways suggested in Chapter 2. The cues will also be used for looking up words in small, marked dictionaries or the MPC Word List to help with writing.

Once an average seven-year-old level of reading has been reached it may be time to use cues for spelling rules and word study, rather than for reading, as explained in Chapter 4. All the other skills of reading – understanding the main point of a story, using the context – and, of course, writing all the attention, since enlarged experience in environmental work, stories read aloud, art expression, music and so on, all help the child to gain a balance of experience and enlarged vocabulary, as well as being valuable and interesting in their own right. It is vital that decoding ability should not be allowed to outstrip vocabulary and experience. Meanings of new words become very important, leading to the use of dictionaries. The child may, through learning to read quickly, begin all the sooner to ‘read to learn’. However, he should not attempt reading matter beyond his understanding even if he can decipher the words. There is a wide choice of fiction and information for this age level, and it is a good time to consolidate and enjoy the fruits of learning to read, while concentrating on mastering writing and spelling to some level of accuracy.

For any children with such problems that they have not been able to reach an average standard, a thorough recognition of phonic sounds and their symbols will be invaluable in any remedial work. It is frightening to find such children, after two or three years in school, having learnt only a few words by sight recognition and very few sounds. Surely they could learn forty-five sound-symbol bonds if enough time were given to it. They could then make rapid reading progress using MPC. Numerous experiments have shown that learning the sounds and their symbols is the only real barrier to progress. Once this has been done, the rest is easy.

In teaching the two MPC symbols, the cross and the substitution, it is important to present them not as yet another thing to learn, but while explaining the structure of a word. For instance, if a child comes to the word ‘beautiful’ the teacher would say something like this, putting in marks at the same time: “We don’t sound the ‘e’ or the ‘a’ (putting the cross over them) and the ‘u’ (adding the bar) sounds its name. Now can you put this part together? There are only two sounds ‘’. Can you get it? Try the rest of the word. (Substitute ‘' above the second ‘u’.) Now start the sentence again.” The child will then probably be able to read the word. If not, another approach would be to get him to leave out the word and find what is being described, then go back to ‘beautiful’ and use a mixture of context nad phonic cues to find out what it is.

Children quickly understand how MPC can help, and find its logic attractive. It is very hard on them, after being encouraged to use reason in thinking things out and solving problems, to be presented with some thing as illogical as the English spelling system. The fact that MPC gives a guide that can be trusted in every case is really appreciated and a great morale-booster.

It is vital that word-building in this way should be encouraged only once it really is helpful, so that it does not become a burden, hindering the understanding of what is written. In the early stages practice with sounds can be done in an enjoyable activity or game (see Appendix 1), separate from other reading, until the required maturity is reached.

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Junior children, 7-11 years

For many children there is a change of school at 7-plus. Ideally, close contact between schools would prevent any problems connected with the change from arising. If MPC was used in an Infant department the children concerned should be allowed to continue with it and stop using it when they are ready, at least with their reading. The best results are achieved when a child has learnt the spelling rules using MPC, so that it can be used for an understanding of word structure and spelling, giving time for this to be internalised and the prop discarded. Children who are moved from a school using MPC to a Junior school which does not use it are at no disadvantage. Any learning of sounds is equally valid in MPC and t.o., the children will not be used to writing in a different script, and they will not have to change their print in reading.

On the other hand, if a Junior teacher who likes MPC has children from an Infant school which did not use it, there will be no difficultly in introducing it where needed. The children should already know most of the phonic sounds, which are the basis of MPC, and some revision of these with the introduction of the two marks, the cross and the substitution, will allow its use. MPC shows sound-spelling relationships clearly and so might at least be used when explaining something involving this from the blackboard, or compiling lists of different ways of spelling the same sound. Unfortunately, MPC is of no help in deciding whether to use ‘their’ or ‘there’, ‘-tion’ or ‘-sion’, ‘-ight’ or ‘-ite’ in writing, although it is a great help in rading such sounds with the right pronunciation. A very interesting and imaginative form of word study can, however, be undertaken using the MPC Spelling Workbook as explained in Chapter 4. The extent to which this would be advisable depends on the children and their skills.

An analogy can be made between learning the skills of literacy and finding your way in a new town. If you have a good aural memory, instructions of the ‘first left, second right’ variety can be used. This is hopeless for those who can’t remember what is said, but they may manage if the same instructions are written down. Others, with good pictorial memory and understanding, may do better looking at a street map. Some may use cues, like a pub on the corner or an uphill slope or a shop. Even better, some may learn by being accompanied a few times. However the process began, after a time one just knows the way, forgetting how this knowledge was acquired. Similarly it is in the early stages of teaching reading that method is important. After a time the skill comes naturally. In most cases different ways of teaching achieve very similar results in the end. The main difference will be found in the less-able learners, more of whom are likely to fall by the wayside if the method doesn’t suit them or if they have been discouraged.

An experiment comparing scores in pre-reading activities with progress after nine months at school showed that children could make reasonable progress if they were strong in some areas, such as language structure, visual discrimination or sound discrimination, even if they were weak in one of the other areas. Those who were far behind were weak in almost all areas. It is unlikely that MPC can do much for these children. They need to improve their powers of learning by practising the kind of activities they should have done before starting school. However, because MPC can use interesting material which is not graded in too restrictive language, whole-word learning, use of context, sounds and reasoning in almost equal quantities, the chances of success are increased.

One warning should be given about MPC. It is usually hard to interest children in conventional word analysis of the kind used in Tansley’s Sound Sense. On the other hand, a teacher who recently used MPC for word analysis says the children find it so enjoyable that they are inclined to do too much! This is perhaps the only drawback to the scheme.

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Junior children with reading difficulties

The various terms ‘remedial’, ‘slow-learning’ and ‘backward’ really only describe some of the different kinds of difficulties. Since this book does not purport to deal with all the related problems of diagnosis and treatment it will pass over many points which are vital to teachers, hoping that, if they feel their knowledge is deficient here, they will attend a course or read some of the many books on the subject.

Some Juniors with below-average attainments are only just seven on transfer and have not had as long in the Infant school as others. This is sometimes overlooked in assessing them. A few of these will also have had considerable periods of absence or have moved school several times. They need to receive extra attention in following the usual programme so that any gaps in their skills and knowledge may be filled, e.g. by teaching phonic sounds. Some may be slightly brain-damaged and deficient in ability in one or more areas, often particularly in hand-eye co-ordination or perception. For these, I would recommend training the weak points and using the strong ones. Some have major or minor physical defects which are not always diagnosed. For instance, if a child has one weak eye he may be able to see and yet soon get tired of making the effort. Catarrh often causes temporary deafness or partial loss of hearing. Examples of cultural deprivation may range from the child who is well cared-for physically and emotionally, but whose language is limited and interest in books small, to one from a shocking home, who is maladjusted, insecure, antisocial, lacking in proper sleep, and so on. In a few cases children have been poorly taught, often because a system was adhered to which didn’t suit the particular child, or because there was not enough systems. These children may have widely differing needs, different capacities and potential, different strengths and weaknesses. No one idea will work for all of them. The teacher must decide whether MPC is worth trying, either with a group or an individual, and attention must be paid to many aspects other than the methods used to teach reading.

For one reason or another these children will have a small sight vocabulary and lack skill in decoding new words. A good deal of remedial work is therefore concerned with developing decoding skills, learning sounds and blends, and trying to use them to attack new words. It is necessary to find books which practise these skills, as well as books which are of Junior interest, but of Infant reading standard. Although there are now many of these on the market, they are inclined either to concentrate on interest, like the Griffin and Pirate series (E. J. Arnold), or on phonics, like the Royal Road Readers (Chatto & Windus). The Oxford Colour Readers (O.U.P.) concentrate on picture cues while the Dr Seuss books (Collins) combine comic-strip type humour for phonics with humorous picture cues. Variety is important, so that the reading material suits the child’s own needs and interests. This can be ensued if the children make their own books by dictating them or drawing the pictures for them.

Of course, MPC can be added to any book, kit, reading-card or homemade written matter. Any of the ideas described previously to avoid marking the books could be used, and any method of learning sounds. For children who take a long time to memorise anything, learning and using the forty-five MPC sounds is much simpler either than trying to remember many ‘sight’ words or using standard phonics, learning a large number of blends and groupings before the system ‘works’. Moreover, the teacher has a much wider choice of materials with which to try to arouse interest.

If the class normally uses work-cards, harder words on them can quickly be marked with MPC so that the poorer readers can decode them without feeling inferior. The slow child is often ashamed of his poor ability and does not ask for help when needed. MPC enables him to progress alone, giving him an independence highly valued by most children. They also like having their own small cue-cards as memory-aids. If slow children in a normal class can help themselves, more time will be spent in reading, and their attitudes towards learning will be improved.

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Secondary children needing help

These children usually understand and remember sounds and cues very quickly. MPC can then be used on material suitable for their needs and interests. This might include reading matter from newspapers or magazines, forms, labels, signs and all the ‘real-life’ written material they so badly need to read. It should be remembered that small print is difficult to cue. One way round this problem is to print enlargements and simplified texts to go with magazine pictures or sports news, mark them with MPC and paste them in. It is less damaging to the self-respect of a backward child of secondary age to be seen with an adult paper, even if he is reading something pasted into it instead of the printed text, than to have an obviously babyish book to read. If short, simple sentences and words mainly of one or two syllables are used, material is less likely to be too difficult, and it can still be varied and mature in content. Cued books are especially useful here, enabling more varied reading to take place.

In some secondary schools all pupils are given the same topic worksheets or assignments, the remedial teachers preparing simplified versions for those who need them. If the slower children know MPC the cues can be added to the worksheets instead of rewriting the whole assignment. A secondary teacher who tried MPC with her less-able children reported that they learnt it ‘almost at once’ and that it worked ‘like magic’.

When children are being taught by a variety of teachers in a number of different curriculum areas it has to be recognised that reading progress in each subject is the responsibility of all teachers. It cannot be confined to one or two special teachers. Even English language teachers have to teach the appreciation of literature and improved style in written work with the majority, and so find it hard to help a few with basic skills at the same time. As with Juniors, MPC allows more working without help once marks have been added to the words likely to cause trouble. Books printed with cues would probably be most useful with older children, because they would benefit from longer passages and a greater variety of vocabulary which it would be time-consuming to mark by hand. Some bright children might be able to add cues accurately, thus aiding their own spelling and analysis of word structure. These books could be used for slower ones. Since larger print than usual may be needed for cues to be clear, marked bookmarks or a marked dictionary of harder words at the back of a book might be more practical. A tape of the cue-card which could be borrowed and run through by a child who was well-motivated to learn would make progress possible and require very little extra teacher time. A teacher who tried MPC with some severely retarded readers of 12-13 told me that it took only few minutes to explain the system. If a child was stuck with a word, pencilling cues over it enabled him to read it immediately. A cued dictionary, such as the MPC Word List, would have enabled him to look a word up and then read it. The small amount of initial instruction needed to teach MPC and so enable backward secondary children to learn for themselves is a clear advantage.

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Adult illiterates

Although this title is commonly used, my own experience of two years evening-class teaching of basic literacy has shown me what a variety of needs it can cover. I originally took on the work intending to experiment with the use of MPC with these students. Although I used some aspect of it with most of them, either for reading or spelling, it was a spectacular success with only a small proportion. I had to abandon any idea of carrying out a set programme of learning sounds and cues together and then using them with all pupils, because it was obviously not in their best interests.

Of weaker ones, with a reading age of 6-7 years, the majority knew the alphabet letter-names and seemed to think learning phonic sounds was babyish in some way. As they were so insecure and likely to stop coming at the slightest setback I could not tell them that the letter-names were practically useless and they should learn something else. I therefore tried another tactic of getting them to deduce sound from the letter-names, which some seemed able to do, and continued telling them whole words and trying to increase sight vocabulary. MPC, introduced as a spelling activity, was not viewed as so childish. One very successful idea was to tape a radio programme likely to interest most of them, such as a report on food prices or a sports commentary, play it to them and at the same time write up words that occurred in it on a board. We then used it for discussion to help them talk and think about it. Next I would see if they could read the words I had put up. Usually one or two knew each word, so I used cues to point out the sounds and how letters formed the phonic sound of the word, with some of them unsounded with digraphs, etc. this worked very well and those who could not read the words at first soon learnt to do so after a few tries.

In this case, a number of students were West Indians, who had been taught at school by learning letter-names first. This would be less likely to occur with those who had attended British schools. However, I found that some of these pupils had not ‘missed out’ on education in the popular sense, but were brain-damaged or handicapped in various ways. Some had been to E.S.N schools where they had been well taught to have achieved what they had done so far, and also given the desire to learn more. These usually know most of the phonic sounds and only needed some revision of digraphs to begin using MPC providing they had the necessary reasoning power. On the other hand, a small proportion were intelligent people who had long spells in hospital as children, where either no teaching was given or they were too ill to take it. Several had taught themselves to read but were worried about their spelling. Some had never learnt the alphabet order so that they could use a dictionary, and really only needed that in order to help themselves. MPC may thus certainly be useful with adults, but must be applied with discretion according to need.

The best approach with very poor adult readers is to aim at the recognition of the hundred most common sight-words, while at the same time working on word-attack skills with the MPC Spelling Workbook. A reading scheme using MPC might well be useful in some cases, using adult material. It would have the great advantages of providing phonic practice on normal adult vocabulary, and giving practice in seeing the relationship of sound and spelling in the course of reading interesting material in context. Once sounds are learnt, any marked books can be used.

I tried making reading cards on which a piece from a newspaper was pasted and printed out in large type below, with cues added. Pupils could take a card home and practise on the cued script, then try reading the cutting on its own. Another idea, explained in Chapter 3, was to help a pupil to make his own book about his job or family, or about cars or some other interest. Word matching and word analysis using cues was practised on each bit as it was written. Wall labels and comic strip pictures with captions were also used with the virtual non-readers in the way advocated with Infants, but made more relevant to their interests. Whereas schoolchildren are a captive audience, it is important to keep adults coming happily, and other considerations must sometimes be sacrificed to this one. They thought a great deal of these books they had made themselves, in some cases never having expressed themselves in writing before. One man who started a little story about his childhood kept reading a few lines over and over to himself with a sort of creative pride which was quite touching. A woman who had not been able to write to her son abroad wept over the first letter she managed to get down on paper with a good deal of help. Another pupil, who had learnt to read in English in school in Pakistan, could read even irregular words like ‘neighbour’ without difficulty, yet hardly understood any word meanings. If anyone ever ‘barked at print’ he did. Speaking and extending his English vocabulary were his first needs. He learnt very quickly, using children’s picture dictionaries at first, and was soon persuaded not to be satisfied with reading unless he understood it.

Since this is not a book on teaching adults these matters are only touched on to show how important it is to be sensitive to the needs of one’s pupils. Although I think a knowledge of MPC may well add to the tutor’s range of skills and resources, it must only be used where useful and not be expected to meet all needs. The older the pupil, the wider the variety becomes. When teaching adults on a one-to-one basis, simply pencilling MPC over words on which people get stuck is very useful. It helps the pupil to see the sound-spelling correspondence and is a reminder if he reads it again to himself.

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Overseas students learning to read English

This category also covers a wide range of needs. At present I can only suggest in what ways MPC might prove useful.

It is likely that it would be a very good method for intelligent English speakers who have never before learnt to read or write the language. They would learn the sounds and cues very quickly and then, if given cued reading books, could teach themselves a great deal and learn with very little help. This would be a great advantage where resources were limited and very formal teaching methods necessary. A short spell of direct formal teaching would quickly be followed by independent reading. Another great advantage is that the basic sounds could be taught with an English accent and then applied to words. The MPC Spelling Workbook would be very useful in doing this. The main problem would probably be that although such pupils speak English it is really their second language and that therefore their reading technique might soon outstrip their vocabulary. However, if less time were needed for learning the mechanics of reading more time could be given to extending experience and vocabulary in various ways.

English has an advantage over some languages in having such things as invariable adjectives and relatively simple declensions. However, word meanings such as ‘go on, go off, go away, go to, go after, go with’ give trouble because they are so varied. Irregular spelling is another source of difficulty. The use of MPC in such cases would be very much a matter for the teacher’s discretion. It would be quite permissible, for instance, to point out the number of unsounded letters by using the cross over them when giving explanations, or to use the bar and slur in the same way to show pronunciation where needed, without using the full system. One or two teachers who tried MPC stated that some of it seemed unnecessary with their pupils but they had used some aspect of it where they found it useful. This is fine and must be emphasised as one of the advantages of the system. It can and should be used and adapted in any way required. The teacher is the best judge of what her pupils need, and has no need to feel guilty if using MPC in a different way from one that has been advocated, provided it works. For instance, one person who tried it said that the cue-card had several things on it which the children didn’t understand, e.g. they didn’t know what an acorn was. The obvious thing to do would be to alter this picture to ‘ape’ or ‘ace’ or anything the pupils did know. Similarly, objects have different names in different places, e.g. a van may be called a truck; there may be no thistles or roses or owls. So you alter it to something else. There is nothing sacrosanct about the pictures which are used to aid sound recognition, though the sounds themselves should remain largely the same, as they have been carefully considered. Deviation from them might be necessary if, for instance, teaching in a Scottish accent, where ‘bot’ and ‘foot’ have the same vowel sound. There may be no need then to use the two forms on the cue-card. Some may feel that the sound ‘ear’ should be included on the cue-card, and should therefore add it.

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Students of language structure

It is becoming increasingly common to include the study of language structure in various courses on language and communication. The International Phonetic Alphabet is a rather complicated designation of the English sound system. Some symbols, being unlike English forms, need some practice in learning and can easily be misinterpreted when used for just one or two lectures. MPC provides a simple and reliable alternative which is readily understood by the non-specialist.

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