Mastering the Alphabetic Code

Today, we share "Mastering the Alphabetic Code" which is available below as well as on YouTube at

This video is a presentation that outlines the key elements involved in learning to “master the alphabetic code”, such as phonemic awareness, phonemic knowledge, letter-sound correspondence, orthographic patterns, morphological patterns and automatic word recognition and construction skills.

It emphasises the need for teachers to develop scaffolded activities that provide learners with the skills to succeed.

The presentation slides can be downloaded at We highly recommend that you download the slides, since they contain many resources mentioned in the video. Please be patient during download. It's a large file, at least in PDF terms (20MB).

Please explore and enjoy! And send us a message if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

Keeping the eye on the prize

Photo by BrianAJackson/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by BrianAJackson/iStock / Getty Images

There is a niggling concern that I always have when I become too preoccupied with "the basics" of literacy, including components like phonemic awareness and phonics. Sure, these skills are essential, and it’s relatively simple to measure progress in such areas, but I can't help but think, "this isn't the hardest part about literacy, though. We still need to integrate this knowledge into more complex and more ambiguous acts of communication."

I have witnessed many learners who develop such basics, but who still go on to struggle with reading and writing. At the risk of sounding unfair, they often struggle with the patience, stamina, concentration, guidance or even time to become a strong(er) reader/writer - all of which comes through opportunities to manipulate the script.

It reminds me of this little picture that Wittgenstein once painted of someone who had learned to deliberate over a task, “every now and then there is the problem 'Should I use this bit?' — The bit is rejected, another is tried. Bits are tentatively put together, then dismantled; he looks for one that fits etc.. So I sometimes make him say 'No, that bit is too long, perhaps another one fits better.' — Or 'What am I to do now?' — 'Got it!' — Or 'That’s not bad”' etc. ..." In particular, the act of writing resembles this inner dialogue. It's not a straightforward linear task.

At the culmination of this passage, Wittgenstein rightly states, "thinking gives [the learner] the possibility of perfecting his methods." Learning to read and write effectively is a bit like this inner dialogue. Actual reading and writing involves quite intricate acts of problem solving. The learner needs plenty of practice chewing over texts and creating them, particularly after they have gained momentum with the basics.

Wittgenstein presents us with an similar image of teaching that seems to suggest how one initiates another into ways of working, “if a person has not yet got the concepts, I shall teach him … by means of examples and by practice. -- And when I do this I do not communicate less to him than I know myself. In the course of this teaching I shall show him … get him to continue an ornamental pattern uniformly when told to do so. -- And also to continue progressions. And so, for example: I do it, he does it after me; and I influence him by expressions of agreement, rejection, expectation, encouragement. I let him go his way, or hold him back; and so on. Imagine witnessing such teaching. None of the words would be explained by means of themselves; [they makes sense in the context of the practice ... of apprenticeship].” (Philosophical Investigations, #280)

Consequently, this places experience at the forefront of learning. In other words, the learner requires the practical experience to integrate component skills into meaningful, literate act(ivitie)s. In doing so, the learner becomes adept at manipulating the script, and the mentor teacher provides the learner with opportunities to exert this knowledge in engaging ways. Therefore, “the teacher’s role is to help the child by arranging tasks and activities in such a way that [advanced tasks] are more easily accessible.” (Verhoeven and Snow, 2001, pg 4-5)

This gradual initiation relates to something I mention in the recent grammar/sentence presentation. That is, the rules of grammar do not tell me why one sentence should precede or follow another, nor do they tell me anything about what should be the content of my ideas. They may help me formulate and re-formulate a sentence with greater ease - and this is of value - but this in itself does not dictate the logic or content of my communication. Often the sequence of my sentences is guided by convention, and convention is shaped by the expectations of my audience. And I must have had enough experience with this audience to have a sensible understanding of my idea and how to express this idea.

As Ray Monk (1999) would say, “the reason computers have no understanding of the sentences they process is not that they lack sufficient neuronal complexity, but that they are not, and cannot be, participants in the culture to which the sentences belong. A sentence does not acquire meaning through the correlation, one to one, of its words with objects in the world; it acquires meaning through the use that is made of it in the communal life of human beings."

A similar sentiment led Newton Garver (1996) to express the following comment.

“If Wittgenstein and Saussure agree in using ‘grammar’ descriptively, they disagree about ... other matters. One is that Wittgenstein’s grammar has to do with uses of language (discourse conditions and discourse continuation) rather than forms and their combinations (morphology and syntax) ...

"Considering uses rather than forms is a deep rather than a superficial departure from classical linguistic methodology ... Studying uses of language makes context prominent, whereas the study of forms lends itself naturally to analysis.” (Garver, 1996, pg 151)

Maybe I am stating the obvious. Perhaps, I am not making a strong point here. But I write this against the backdrop of the proposal to introduce the Year 1 Phonics Check here in Australia. Whilst I have no objection of teachers getting good data on what their students can and cannot decode, we should always keep our eyes on the prize, which involves the integration of this knowledge into meaningful acts of reading and writing. I often ask, “how can I create opportunities for learners to integrate their skills into meaning making? How do I support and motivate them to take risks and challenge themselves?” We should always offer students opportunities to “use their expanding knowledge of language and their growing powers of influence to figure out [how to read and write] texts.” (Wolf, pp 131)

There you go. I’ve had my say. It’s not a critique of anything. Just an observation.



Garver, N. (1996). Philosophy as grammar. In H. Sluga & D. Stern (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Wittgenstein (pp. 139–170). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Monk, R. (1999, July 29). Wittgenstein’s Forgotten Lesson. Propsect Magazine. Retrieved from

Verhoeven, L. and Snow, C. (2001). Literacy and motivation: bridging cognitive and sociocultural viewpoints. In Verhoeven, L. and Snow, C. (Eds.), Literacy and motivation: reading engagement in individuals and groups (pp. 1- 22). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers

Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Philosophical Investigations (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.

Teaching According to the Stages of Literacy Development

Today, we have added yet another new presentation to The Literacy Bug's YouTube channel. The presentation is entitled Teaching According to the Stages of Literacy Developmentand it can be found below or at the following link:

Like its predecessors,  Teaching According to the Stages of Literacy Development clocks in at just about one hour long. So grab your popcorn, sit back, watch/listen and enjoy. The presentation slides are available, so download them here.

This presentation explores the changing nature of literacy across the various stages of literacy development. In so doing, we discuss how instruction must change as learners consolidate core skills and prepare for new skills and expectations. Teaching routines for the various stages of literacy development are also discussed. Please explore and enjoy!. 

To be exact, the presentation sets out to meet the following objectives:

  • to emphasise the developmental nature of literacy;

  • to emphasise how literacy instruction and learning changes across the lifespan, particularly as certain skills are consolidated and new skills and expectations arise;

  • to outline literacy as both a cognitive and social achievement that involves both the mastery of skills and the exploration of content; and

  • to outline the various texts and routines that are applicable to Chall’s Stages of Literacy Development.

(If you are new to The Literacy Bug, feel free to visit our popular page on the Stages of Literacy Development.)

Let us know what you think. It's another longer presentation. We hope to produce some shorter ones in the future.

Below is the audio from the presentation. Whilst it includes references to the visuals, the audio may well make sense on its own. If you would prefer to listen, feel free to play online or download for offline use. Also, it might help to download the slides, and you can follow along as you listen.

We hope the presentation is useful and thought-provoking. Please explore and enjoy!

Podcast #5: A Response to "Encoding, Decoding and Understanding (Print) Language"

Welcome to another episode of The Literacy Bug Podcast! This week I respond to the recent blog entry called “Encoding, Decoding and Understanding (Print) Language”. In the mentioned blog entry, I casually glossed over the importance of oral language comprehension in the role of literacy development. In glossing over oral comprehension, I did not neglect or undermine its significance. In fact, I acknowledge the complexity and significance of language comprehension in propelling the need to encode and decode anything in the first place. In this podcast, I explore that which was left unexplored: the intricate relationship between print processing, language development and cognitive processing. Please listen, explore and enjoy! We aim to bring many more episodes in the coming weeks. (

Traversing the Topical Landscape of Reading and Writing

In Philosophical Investigations (1958), Wittgenstein characterized the philosophical remarks that comprise his book as journeyings across a landscape. McGinley and Tierney (1989, p. 250) adopted that representation in depicting reading and writing as ways of traversing a topical landscape: 

“After Wittgenstein (1953), we also take the theoretical position that a topic of study is analogous to a landscape about which knowledge is best acquired by ‘traversing’ it from a variety of perspectives. However, in our system, different forms of reading and writing represent the ‘traversal routes’ or cases through which an individual can explore a given content domain. As the combined assemblages of several cases provide multiple routes for acquiring knowledge, we argue that more complex or diverse combinations of different forms of reading and writing provide a learner with the means to conduct a more critical examination of a topic by way of the multiple perspectives or ways of ‘seeing’ and thinking that these reading and writing exchanges permit.”

I am quite confident that I will be using the above quote in the near future to characterise my approach to literacy since it shares the sentiment of A Teacher for All Seasons.

McGinley, W., & Tierney, R. J. (1989). Traversing the topical landscape: reading and writing as ways of knowing. Written Communication, 6(3), 243–269.

Elements of the Writing Process: A Schematic Diagram

On Tuesday, 19 November, I presented a schematic diagram for the reading process. In this entry I provide a similar diagram on the writing process. Imagine a scenario in which a teacher is establishing an opportunity for purposeful writing. The teacher would need to orient the students to the situation of composition; deconstruct the content, form and audience; model an example jointly with the students; give space for independent construction; and encourage reflective practice.