Q&A

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS…

*Note: Many of the following questions are addressed in more detail on the SECRET STORIES® Blog, which can be accessed by clicking on the applicable links, below.

What is SECRET STORIES®? 

Secret Stories® is a brain-based solution to the age-old problem of how to teach meaningless phonics skills in a meaningful way— creating a backdoor for learning that accelerates access to the code and increases early learner-momentum in both reading and writing! 

SECRET STORIES® is not a program, but an open-ended, cross-grade level, teacher tool-kit that provides the logical explanations for letter sound behaviors that the brain craves. These logical explanations are shared in the form of “secret” stories. They are the “real” reasons why letters do what they do when they don’t do what they should! SECRET STORIES® cloaks phonics skills as “secrets” to explain the behavior of letters when they get together, aligning with the way in which learners think and learn on a daily basis in their own classroom.

Based on a foundation of emotional connections and social experiences, each story becomes a strong memory-holding template and provides a much-needed framework for memory construction. By targeting instruction to the earlier developing, affective (feeling) domain, abstract letter sound skills become inextricably linked to the social and emotional frameworks of understanding that are already deeply entrenched within the learner, making them meaningful and relevant.

Working seamlessly with existing reading curriculum and instruction, SECRET STORIES® increases early learner-momentum in both reading and writing by breaking down the grade level walls of phonics skill introduction that delay learner access to the code. It fosters a systematic, yet learner-driven “buffet“ style approach to skill introduction that aligns perfectly with the brain’s “need to know” so as to actively engage students in the learning process. This allows learners to begin driving their own instruction, as they seek-out “secrets” to help them read and write words that are encountered throughout the instructional day.

Is SECRET STORIES® research based? 

(Note: A white paper on SECRET STORIES® will be available for download in early February of 2018.)

SECRET STORIES® is not a program, but a supportive framework to existing reading curriculum and instruction that is explicit, systematic and multi-sensory in its approach, and based on the brain’s system for learning.

—It is explicit in that sound-spelling relationships are directly taught and constantly reviewed and applied to real reading and writing throughout the entire instructional day.

—It is systematic in its approach to how and when skills are taught, based on the brain’s system for learning.

—It is multi-sensory in that it employs a variety of instructional strategies that engage multiple modalities, including the visual, auditory and kinesthetic pathways for learning. SECRET STORIES® also makes use of alternative, neural pathways for learning by targeting instruction to the earlier developing, social-emotional “feeling” networks, or affective learning domain and attaching meaning to letter sound behaviors that would otherwise have none.

 For additional information, click on the “Research” tab at the top.

How does SECRET STORIES® differ from traditional core reading and phonics programs?

Current and traditional methods of phonics instruction do not adequately make use of the brain science and are ineffective at successfully engaging the whole brain for enhanced memory and learning.

The typical timeframe allotted for phonics skill introduction in most core reading and phonics programs spans three to four grade level years, which is too long to make learners wait for access to the whole code. It is also common practice for early learners to spend an entire kindergarten year on mastering the individual letters and sounds, despite the research that shows the ability to identify all of the letters and sounds by Halloween in kindergarten is a primary predictor of later student reading success. Implementation of a core reading and/or phonics program by which learners acquire only bits and pieces of the code, dispersed over multiple grade level years, does not provide beginning grade level learners with the tools they need to fully engage in the reading and writing experiences across the instructional day from the earliest grade levels,  nor does this planned “fragmentation” model of instruction equip them with the tools they need to read or write about what is personally meaningful to them.

This accepted practice of delaying learner-access to the whole code needed for reading and writing puts those at the earliest grade levels (K & 1) at the greatest disadvantage. This disadvantage occurs because learners at the beginning grade levels acquire only minimal access to letter sound and phonics skills, severely limiting their ability to partake in the many rich, literacy experiences that are woven throughout the instructional day, beginning in PreK. This disadvantage is compounded by the fact that the small parts of the code they do know— which are the individual letters and sounds— will often appear contradictory to the sounds that letters make (together) in actual text. Our language is ripe with letter sound inconsistencies, and will appear even more so to beginning grade level learners since the letters in isolation almost never seem to make the sounds that they are supposed to when they come together in real words.

SECRET STORIES® disguises phonics skills as grown-up reading and writing “secrets” that learners want to know, rather than as phonics rules they have to learn— making them easy to teach and understand. Unlike some phonics programs that attempt to explain the sounds letters make using unknown, imaginary characters in arbitrary stories, SECRET STORIES® are rooted in the learners’ own social and emotional experiences and understanding. It it this already existing understanding that drives their decision-making and behavior every day in the classroom (i.e. behaving at the front of a line vs. being sneaky at the back like Sneaky Y®,  doing what mommy or your babysitter says when they’re nearby (like Mommy e® and the Babysitter Vowels®), not getting along with a friend, being in love, etc…)

Aligning complex phonics skills to that which learners already understand enables beginning and struggling learners to quickly gain power over text, minimizing the learning curve by eliminating the need for repetitive, skill-based practice. In this way, even very young and inexperienced learners are easily able to predict the most and next most likely sound behaviors of letters in text— even in words they have never seen before— just as they would the most likely behaviors of their friends and classmates.

SECRET STORIES® ensures that teachers are equipped with the knowledge and tools needed to provide the early, intensive and expert literacy instruction that’s required to teach all kids to read. Teachers who can harness the power of the brain are better able to deliver high quality, literacy and phonics instruction—circumventing areas of inherent learner weakness, activating alternative areas of learner-strength, and engaging more neural pathways for stronger learner-connections and deep literacy learning. This is what SECRET STORIES® accomplishes.

Weaving abstract letter sound skills into stories makes them interesting— activating the brain’s positive emotional state and hooking the information into a strong memory template. SECRET STORIES® brain based approach to phonics skill acquisition makes it one of the most highly effective, reading instruction concepts available to educators, eliminating time-consuming sight words practice, memorization of phonics rules, and always having to tell students, “It just is….It just does….You just have to remember…..” when they can’t sound out or spell a word. Simply put,SECRET STORIES® makes phonics make sense.

What phonics patterns have “secrets?” 

To accelerate early learner access to the whole code, it is important not to have “too many cooks in the phonics kitchen,” which is why some letter patterns don’t require secrets (For more on this, click here.) 

SECRET STORIES® patterns include:
qu
sh
th
ph
ch (2 sounds)
wh
au/aw
ou/ow (two sounds for ow)
eu/ew
kn/wr/mb/gn
ea/ee/oa/ai/ue/ui
Sneaky Y®
Superhero Vowels® (and their “short & lazy” sound disguises!)                                                 Mommy E®Babysitter Vowels®  (i.e. How to know whether a vowel will be long or short)
oo (two sounds)
ey/ay
oi/oy
al
ce/ce/cy & ge/gi/gy
gh (3 sounds)
er/ir/ur
or
ar
ous
ion
ing/ang/ong/ung
ed (3 sounds)
ie/ies
sion/tion/ation
‘i’ Tries ‘e’ on for Size!

Note that the individual letter sounds (and blends) do not have secrets, as they are making the sounds that they should. They are instead, acquired through muscle memory, via the Better Alphabet Song, which takes approximately two weeks to two months for mastery in both PreK and Kindergarten. At the same time, they are also learning SECRETS. (For more on this, see “Individual Letter Sound” question, below.)

How does SECRET STORIES® help learners to acquire the individual letters and sounds?

The individual letters and sounds are acquired through muscle memory (a.k.a. body intelligence) via “The Better Alphabet Song,” a process which takes approximately “two weeks to two months” for mastery, while simultaneously, learners are also learning SECRETS  so that they can begin forming and reading words early on.

The Better Alphabet Song triggers non-conscious, muscle memory for letter sound skill retrieval by engaging the mouth muscles in such a way as to follow a familiar pathway from the letters to their sounds. This includes both long and short vowel sounds as well as the hard and soft consonant sounds, which are sung in order of what’s most likely (the “hard” sound) first.

Incorporating movement and muscle memory into learning enhances recall and aids in the transfer of new information to long-term memory. Muscles hold memories, whereas early learners’ cognitive processing centers  (the area of the brain targeted by traditional instruction) are often less reliable at doing so. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort, decreasing the need for focused attention.

SECRET STORIES® harnesses body intelligence by taking advantage of muscle memory as an access point for  accelerating mastery of individual letter sound skills. This is crucial, given the traditionally slow pace of individual letter sound instruction at the earliest grade levels, which often takes an entire kindergarten year or more to acquire. By tapping into learners’ muscle memory as a “backdoor” alternative pathway for skill acquisition, this timeframe is shortened to an average of just two-weeks to two-months.

By activating muscle memory for effortless, non-conscious sound-skill retrieval— rather than relying on underdeveloped, cognitive centers to process, store and retrieve it— SECRET STORIES® allows teachers to “give” skills, rather than teach them!

Is SECRET STORIES® grade-specific? 

No, as the code doesn’t change, regardless of age, and regardless of grade level, learners need the whole code in order to do anything with it. SECRET STORIES® is as equally powerful in building the foundation of PreK-2 level learners as it is in “plugging the holes” in skill ability of upper grade learners. Text levels may change with each subsequent grade level, but the code does not, nor do the tools that learners need to crack it!  

Learners cannot think outside the box when working with unfamiliar text unless they first know what’s in it, and SECRET STORIES® ensures that learners— regardless of grade level— own everything that’s IN the box!

Is SECRET STORIES® appropriate for older, struggling readers?

Absolutely!

The accelerated access to the code that SECRET STORIES® provides is even more critical for older learners who cannot afford to wait. Children who can’t read much by age nine are in serious trouble, as by then, teachers expect them to have finished learning to read and to start reading to learn. 

While reading instruction at the primary grade levels focuses mainly on decoding, the momentum shifts to that of comprehension at the intermediate grade levels. Ideally, learners will have crossed over the instructional hump by third grade, having “learned to read” so that they can “read to learn.”

Oftentimes however, struggling learners can have a difficult time transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn, with too much emphasis placed on decoding text, and not enough left over to digest it. This division of mental processing power often results in the appearance of a comprehension deficit to intermediate grade teachers, when it is more often attributed to a learner’s lack of automaticity with text. Only when learners are able to decode text with little to no conscious processing does the brain have enough space and energy to fully attend to the higher-level process of comprehension (i.e. drawing inferences, making predictions, pulling information from text, etc…)

Research validates the need for continued phonics instruction for struggling students into the upper elementary grade levels, especially for ensuring encoding (writing) fluency. When decoding skills are poor, they will place important constraints on reading comprehension, which is why there is such a strong concurrent correlation between decoding and reading comprehension.

Given the time, energy and resources that upper grade teachers spend working with struggling readers on comprehension, it is important to know that these efforts often treat only the symptom and not the root cause, which often is a lack of automaticity with text.

The “backdoor” delivery system for accelerated phonics skill mastery that SECRET STORIES® provides equips older learners with the tools they need to read and write, but also equips teachers at the upper grade teachers, who often feel unprepared and ill-equipped to teach reading, the knowledge and tools they need to provide them.

Primary Grades (PreK-2nd): SECRET STORIES® provides for simultaneous acquisition of individual letter sounds and phonics patterns, so as to empower learners with a comprehensive skill base for reading and writing from the earliest possible grade levels so as to form and read words early on.
Intermediate Grades (3rd-5th & above): SECRET STORIES® provides teachers with a quick and easy means for “plugging holes” in learner-skill ability without impeding the momentum of on-grade level instruction. For learners who are on grade level or above, knowledge of the SECRETS enhances spelling ability and strengthens accuracy in decoding complex vocabulary in higher level, advanced texts.

Are SECRET STORIES® strategies aligned with research-based practices?

Yes, both with early literacy research and brain based instructional practices.

SECRET STORIES® is an explicit, systematic and multi-sensory approach to reading instruction and intervention that is based on the brain’s system for learning. It employs strategies that are built upon how our brains actually learn best by engaging multiple modalities and pathways for learning.

In addition to providing visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning channels for easier skill acquisition and retrieval, SECRET STORIES® also makes use of alternative, neural pathways by targeting phonics instruction to the earlier developing, affective (social-emotional “feeling”) domain. The brain develops back to front, and the earlier-developing, affective feeling networks are more primed for learning than are the slower developing, higher level, executive processing centers.

SECRET STORIES® activates early learners’ affective learning networks by drawing on their social and emotional interactions and experiences. This process helps them to construct meaning for increased understanding. Meaningful learning happens by creating emotional connections to what might otherwise remain abstract concepts. SECRET STORIES® creates emotional learner-connections to letters and sounds, creating a backdoor for learning that accelerates access to the code and increases early learner-momentum in both reading and writing.

Fostering deep learning and understanding depends on making emotional connections between concepts, as emotion guides our learning. If something is emotionally stimulating, it is marked for memory and prioritized learning in the brain. Sense and meaning are also among the major criteria that the brain uses in deciding what to encode into long-term memory, and one of the greatest challenges that teachers face with phonics skill instruction is how to teach something that doesn’t make sense in a way that does.

The brain seeks meaning and relevance, learning best on a need-to-know basis. Yet, traditional phonics instruction offers only rules for letter sound behaviors with no meaning, and the individual letter sound skills that are taught at the earliest grade levels are often irrelevant to the sounds letters actually make in text. Moving instructional practice from what is fundamentally brain antagonistic to brain compatible requires that students know how, and for what, information is to be used. It is vital to align instruction with that which is important to learners. Information presented should be grounded in personal meaning or future relevance. Durable learning happens when content sparks interest and when it is relevant to a child’s life.

It is neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about, and knowing the letters’ “secrets” makes kids care. In this way, SECRET STORIES® transforms learner apathy into learner engagement by connecting letters to real life.

How does SECRET STORIES® use music to increase learners’ text automaticity for reading and writing?

Research shows that in order for a learner to truly own a skill, he must be able to manipulate it quickly and effortlessly (i.e “Twist it, turn it, flip it and flop it,…every which way to Sunday!”) so as to know that they know it! The auditory exercises on the SECRET STORIES® CD (with the exception of the Better Alphabet Song) are intended to serve this purpose, acting as musical brain-teasers and designed to bolster learner-automaticity with newly acquired letter sound and phonics skills— from individual letters and sounds, to complex phonics patterns. The musical exercises prompt learners to rapidly move from ‘sound to symbol’ and ‘symbol to sound’ — mimicking both the decoding (reading) and encoding (writing) processes.

The musical exercises are fast-moving and rigorous musical puzzles. Unlike traditional skill-based songs, they can not be sung on “auto-pilot” with no conscious thought required, as they are constantly changing, and thus continually challenging learners to “think fast!” Utilizing music to not only acquire skills, but to actively manipulate them is the key to increasing learners’ overall automaticity with text, and is crucial in helping them to transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

How does SECRET STORIES® address sight words and “so-called” exceptions… And what about writing?

Over-reliance on sight words at the earliest grade levels is most often due to the lack of phonics skills that have not yet been taught, as per their grade-specific introduction. This gross lack of skills in comparison to the reading level that early grade learners are expected to attain ultimately results in learners having to then memorize hundreds of sight words prior to the end of second grade, with teachers focusing far more on teaching the reading than the reader.

In contrast, learners who know SECRET STORIES® are able to decode approximately 95% of the most commonly memorized sight words by applying what they know about letter sound behavior so as to think outside the box and determine their next most likely sounds. Once learners know what’s in the box, the real fun begins in thinking outside of it!

The typical exceptions in language pose no problem for learners who know the SECRETS, as they provide learners with everything in the box.  Knowledge of the SECRETS allows young and experienced learners to easily identify the most likely and next most likely sound behaviors for letters in text— even in words they have never seen before. In this way, early and struggling learners are empowered with the ability early on to read words rather than having to memorize them.

Research shows that writing is the ideal window into the mind of a reader, as reading and writing are identical processes in the brain, up to the approximate age of seven, or until one’s ability to manipulate the code becomes automatic. This means that, neurologically speaking, the reading and writing processes, particularly at the earliest grade levels, reinforce one another.

This inherent connection between reading and writing can be observed as beginning learners attempt to decode and encode unfamiliar text— identifying the symbols needed to denote the sounds they hear in words they are trying to write, or attempting to identify the correct sound for letters in words that they are trying to read.

This naturally reciprocal “sound–to-symbol” / “symbol-to-sound” relationship is broken however, when rote memorization of sight words becomes the primary means through which learners are able to engage with text, as they are no longer actively manipulating the sounds and symbols in order to read and spell. As a result, early learners whose skill base consists primarily of memorized sight words derives minimal benefit from the reciprocal nature of these two processes  the brain, as they no longer reinforce one another.

Traditional reading and phonics programs require beginning (and struggling upper grade) learners to spend countless hours memorizing hundreds of sight words, often with little or no instructional time left to acquire the building blocks needed to read and write thousands.

How does SECRET STORIES® prompt higher level thinking and problem solving?

SECRET STORIES® instructional emphasis is on teaching the reader. not teaching the reading.  Learners do not need to memorize what they can  read.  SECRET STORIES® simultaneous acquisition of both individual letter sounds and SECRETS gives beginning grade level learners access to as much of the code as possible, as soon as possible. Doing so allows them to form and read words early on and make more sense of their daily experiences and interactions with text, so as to be able take the maximum value away.

“It just is…It just does….I’ll just have to remember…”  is quickly replaced with, “What else could it be? What else can I try?”  Through this higher-level thinking process, daily reading and writing instruction is transformed into a virtual playground of critical thinking and diagnostic problem-solving opportunities!

SECRET STORIES® provides learners with the deep level of skill ownership required to successfully navigate unfamiliar text. This, in turn, sparks the higher-level, cognitive networks to engage. It is within this higher-level thinking and deep learning context that learners are able to critically analyze and diagnostically deduce the most likely sounds for letters in text. This deeper level of thinking and learning is a natural learner-state that is a hallmark of SECRET STORIES® instructional framework and lesson design.

Even the earliest grade level learners are able to think deeply about things that they care about. And it is within this instructional context that students are not recalling sight words and memorized phonics rules, but are actively engaged in deducing letter sound behaviors based on a variety of scenarios that are meaningful and relevant to them. With implementation of SECRET STORIES®, this engagement is ongoing across the entire instructional day in all content areas, as literacy permeates the curricula. The result is a transformation of daily reading and writing experiences into a virtual playground for critical thinking and deep literacy learning.