Start with the pattern of sounds

13th September 1996 at 01:00

Morag Stuart leads a page on literacy with a review of the Thrass Pack.

The Thrass (Teaching Handwriting Reading and Spelling Skills) Primary Special Needs Pack claims to provide "a new approach to the teaching of literacy to children with (specific) learning difficulties". Many such claims are made, but this one is justified.

The pack consists of a teacher's manual, an audio cassette, and four copymaster books (one each for assessment, reading, spelling and handwriting), which also contain a Thrasschart and a Thrassword chart.

The teacher's manual is clearly written and attractively laid out. It provides a simple introduction to the theoretical basis of Thrass, which results from many years of psychological research into the processes involved in printed word recognition and production.

The novelty of this approach, for me, lies in its reversal of the usual methods of phonic teaching. Thrass starts not with spelling patterns, but with speech sounds. (And, of course, so do children: witness the recent wealth of research literature linking speech sound awareness, alphabet knowledge and success in learning to read and spell.) Children are taught to hear, count and blend speech sounds in different positions within words, and to relate speech sounds to the most common spelling patterns which represent them in print.

This knowledge is summarised in the Thrasschart, photocopiable for each child, which displays consonant and vowel spelling patterns for all the 44 speech sounds of English in its 44 boxes. By following the cassette tape, children can learn to match speech sounds to their possible spelling patterns.

It is this aspect of the programme which the authors emphasise: children are initiated into the uncomfortable truth that there is no one-to-one correspondence in English between letters and speech sounds; rather, there are more speech sounds than letters, which therefore have to be grouped and permutated to represent sounds. And there are often several different permutations which can represent the same speech sound. Thus, although working with a limited set of words, children learn most of the spelling patterns they need in order to read and spell most English words correctly. They are also taught the correct linguistic terminology, making learning a "grown-up" activity; and enabled to understand the logic (for logic there is!) underlying the English writing system.

If it sounds a little dry, it isn't. The authors emphasise that Thrass is intended to form only one aspect of the teaching of reading, writing and spelling to children finding these things difficult, enabling them to be taught essential basic skills and concepts. I think children will enjoy the structure of the programme which becomes familiar and helpful; the small steps which ensure successful learning; and the discovery that what they have learned can be successfully generalised beyond the confines of the programme.

A few quibbles: in the teacher's manual, the authors seem not to know the difference between the noun, practice, and the verb, practise: the publishers should proof-read for this in any subsequent editions. In the assessment book, the authors claim the assessments can be used before, during andor after the programme. However, some parts of the grapheme assessment cannot be done until the child has gone through the programme. As a result, grapheme assessment shares the same problem as phonographic assessment - that is, the language used in the instructions is taught during the programme, rendering both somewhat opaque as pre-programme baseline assessments.

More seriously, if you intend to use Thrass (and I certainly recommend you should) be prepared to set aside some private study time to read the manual and to learn how to use the materials. There are new ideas here, and you will need to be familiar and fluent in them before trying to implement the programme.

At Pounds 70, the pack represents extremely good value for money, with photocopiable master sheets for all the suggested activities: it will last you for years.

Morag Stuart is a senior lecturer in psychology and special needs at the University of London Institute of Education

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