C is for cat - and for ceiling too

20th September 1996 at 01:00
Maureen O'Connor finds out what makes the THRASS approach to literacy different from other methods.

The trouble with being Messianic, as many have found, is that some people take exception to the message. Alan Davies, begetter of THRASS (Teaching Handwriting, Reading and Spelling Skills) and lecturer at the Manchester Metropolitan School of Education at Crewe, has put some backs up during his crusade to get his methods accepted.

He is unapologetic. He is convinced that what he is saying is vital to improving literacy standards. And, he says, more and more people agree with him.

THRASS is not a reading scheme, Davies is quick to insist, although it is enough of a scheme for there to be a primary special needs pack already available from Collins Educational, and work is continuing on materials for early-years teachers. THRASS is a phonic method of helping children "decode": an essential part of learning to read, but not the only part. Davies believes it is a more logical and comprehensive phonic method than the traditional approach of linking one letter to one sound, the c-a-t approach.

THRASS is premised on the fact that, although there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, there are 44 sounds in use in standard English. Davies says this can come as a revelation to teachers and children brought up to attach one sound to one letter, and he claims it is the key to a lot of difficulties children have when they are learning to read, write and spell English.

His approach distinguishes between letters and sounds, or phonemes, many of which can be written in a variety of ways. Take "C for cat", for example. The letter "C" has other pronunciations (ceiling, cello); and the phoneme represented by it in "cat" can be written four different ways: for instance, in book, school, sock and queen.

With a highly irregular word like "knight", there are three sounds but six letters, and "sounding out" each letter individually is likely to lead to total confusion. That, Alan Davies says, is the flaw in the one-letter, one-sound approach adopted by some teachers using "phonics".

He argues that children should learn from the beginning that sounds can be written in a variety of ways. By dividing words into graphemes, the single letters and groups of letters representing single sounds, THRASS from the start teaches all the different ways a sound can be written down. So "knight" is divided into kn-igh-t - a digraph (two letters), a trigraph (three letters) and a graph (one letter). Children must learn that the sound "n" can be written n, nn or kn, the sound "i" can be written i, ie, igh or y, and "t" may be t or tt. Nor should they leave out the ubiquitous "uh" sound which can be spelt so many ways, as in teach-er, sug-ar, Chesh-ire, doct-or, nat-ure.

THRASS has charts that link together all the different ways of representing a single sound in combinations of letters, and words that illustrate the different graphemes.

Alan Davies also insists that children should be taught the upper-case and lower-case versions of letters from the beginning, to avoid what he sees as another cause of confusion, particularly for children who have difficulties with reading.

So far, the thrust of training sessions have been directed mainly towards special needs teachers, whose clients often find decoding particularly difficult. But there is increasing interest both in this country and abroad in using THRASS as another tool in the armoury for all early years children learning to read. This term, a secondary school on Merseyside is giving all of its Year 7 intake a quick course on the THRASS way to boost reading skills.

The rationale behind THRASS seems logical enough, and much in line with current pressure to ensure a phonic element in early reading. Yet reactions to THRASS are polarised. Alan Davies can point to an enthusiastic response from teachers all over the country, including reception class teachers who say that the techniques are soon absorbed by five-year-olds, and special needs staff, who claim "phenomenal" improvements in reading levels as a result of introducing THRASS.

The head of a Lancashire special school where Alan Davies had presented a full-day training programme wrote afterwards: "We believe that the integrated multi-sensory approach to the teaching of handwriting, reading and spelling is the way forward in this school. It can be employed alongside all reading schemes and provides for ideal teaching and learning styles for our pupils in terms of reinforcement, practise and overlearning."

Teachers on other courses frequently make the point that THRASS should not be confined to primary age or special needs children but extended as part of whole school reading policies at primary and secondary level.

THRASS is now being taken up widely in Australia, which has similar literacy concerns to those in this country. Here, the only local authority to attempt an evaluation so far is Sheffield. The report by its Reading Recovery Team last year concluded that "almost without exception, the pilot teachers felt that THRASS should be used as an early intervention approach where the gap between children encountering reading difficulties and their peers was not too wide".

Sheffield adviser Carol Sheehan says the Sheffield pilot scheme in 12 schools was extremely successful, with children showing general, and sometimes spectacular, progress in reading, writing and comprehension. THRASS is now being promoted across the authority.

She says: "What is exciting is that all our schools are beginning to see the potential. And there have been behavioural gains as well as literacy gains as disturbed children begin to find that reading makes sense for the first time."

There are no problems, she says, in using the approach with even the youngest children. "We use the sound boxes to offer spelling choices, and they learn the target words. It doesn't take long for them to begin to see the connections and understand the logical framework."

THRASS courses will be held in Nottingham, October 11; Birmingham, October 12; London, October 17-19; Cheshire, October 22; Manchester, November 8; Lincolnshire, November 13; and Kingston-upon-Hull, December 2. Details: Alan Davies, tel: 0161 247 5191, e-mail: a.e.davies@mmu.ac.uk

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