Programme design: Toe-by-Toe and Dancing Bears
Toe-by-Toe: a revolutionary concept in 'special needs' teaching
In 1996, when I first saw an advertisement for Toe-by-Toe, I immediately ordered a copy. I had long been aware that poor readers almost invariably have poor short-term memory, and that they seldom make good progress unless they have daily lessons. In schools, this seldom is possible: at the Norwich comprehensive where I was employed to teach basic literacy skills, I had five minutes per week for each pupil on the special needs register. Hence, we needed material simple enough so it could by used by parents, classroom assistants, and our Duke of Edinburgh pupils.
Toe-by-Toe was a revolutionary programme. It was carefully designed to meet the needs of pupils whose decoding skillswere so poor that they merely guessed at unknown words without any serious attempt to decode them. Its sole focus was teaching decoding skills. We used it to good effect in school and with our private pupils for several years, but we soon discovered that it did not work very well with low-ability pupils, younger children, and pupils with more severe learning difficulties. We decided that we could write a much better programme, and since 2001 we have been trying out our ideas on some of Norfolk's most 'dyslexic' children.
Like Toe-by-Toe, our Dancing Bears is a comprehensive synthetic phonics programme which is designed so that the tutor and pupil simply work through it from cover to cover, picking it up each day where they left off the day before. Likewise, it is easy to use—in some respects, even easier. And of course, the overall objective is the same: to teach pupils good decoding skills. There, the similarity ends.
When Barnardiston Hall Prep School started trailing Dancing Bears, they were pleasantly surprised to find that most pupils looked forward to their daily session. By contrast, Toe-by-Toe was as popular as a dose of cod-liver oil. Dancing Bears has a more varied and interesting format, and exercises are designed so that pupils are almost invariably 'getting it right'.
Dancing Bears includes a very ingenious and effective initial section for non-readers, which makes it suitable for use with very young children and older pupils with severe learning difficulties. We have used it successfully with pupils who were written off as all but unteachable.
Automatic response at the phonemic level
Compared to Toe-by-Toe, our Dancing Bears has a far more highly-developed structure. Our aim is to produce automaticity of response at every level. Pupils practise flashcards with lettersand unambiguous digraphs (such as ar, ee, sh, oy, etc.) every day until the response is instant and automatic. This frees their attention for blending those sounds into words. Many poor readers have problems decoding because their response to letters is so slow that they cannot retain the sounds in their head for long enough to blend them into words.
Another great advantage of Dancing Bears is that all spelling patterns are rehearsed continually throughout the entire series. As a rough idea, we believe that items should—at a very minimum—be practised every day for a week, every week for a month, and every month for a year. Toe-by-Toe, by contrast, focuses intensively on one or two patterns at a time. Subsequent reinforcement is limited to the occasional page of text, and to the syllabification exercises—which are often omitted because of their complexity.
One of our main design principles is that the pupil should be induced to make the maximum number of correct responses in the shortest possible period of time. Since there is so much more review in Dancing Bears, pupils—especially the poorest readers—are working at a much easier level in relation to their present level of skill, and they are reading a far greater number of words. This is one reason why pupils and teachers find it much less of a slog.
Non-word reading abandoned
The main theoretical difference between the two programmes is that we believe that non-word reading exercises are of limited value because the aim of instruction is to produce in the pupil's mind templates of words and letter-strings that enable them to develop the skilled reader's automatic response to print. In Toe-by-Toe, the letter strings in the non-word reading exercises frequently bear little relationship to any found in real words. Of course, these exercises do have a purpose, which is to force pupils to decode instead of guessing. However, we achieve the same aim in our single-word reading exercises by including some words which will almost certainly be outside the pupil's vocabulary.
In any case, the problem of guessing is effectively controlled by the use of a cursor. A cursor is merely a piece of card, about the size of a business card, with a small notch cut out. The tutor uses this to force the pupil's eyes to scan print correctly. If a mistake is made, the tutor backs up the cursor and the pupil tries again. If pupils still can't read the word, the tutor sounds it out for them, and then goes back to the item after a very short interval. The cursor also seems to answer for other visual problems: since we started using them in 2000, we have not had a single pupil who required tinted lenses or overlays.
Variety is the spice of life
From the standpoint of tutor and pupil ennui, Dancing Bears wins hands-down. Exercises are more varied. New spelling patterns are introduced first as flashcards, and then on pattern pages where the pupil reads single words, and then reads sentences containing those words. We also use cloze sentences, where the pupil has to select one of three words, as in "Who shall we feed to the ship/shop/shark/?" We have two series of stories; at the beginning level, there are seven "Tim the dim cop" stories, and at the more advanced level there is the long-running saga of "Froid the pet snail" (which is set in a surrealistic tip of gargantuan proportions). These are all 'decodable' stories, and they have been illustrated by a talented Australian cartoonist. There are also timed reading exercises which encourage fluent reading—in Toe-by-Toe, pupils are so anxious to get theirthird tick that they often take forever reading a single word. Lastly, the odd word-search adds to the variety and helps lighten the day.
Perhaps the most original feature of Dancing Bears is our 'Wordbuilders'. It is certainly one of the most popular with pupils and tutors. A typical exercise goes like this:
firm... confirm... confirmed ...unconfirmed
This is shortly followed by the sentence, "We have unconfirmed reports of a space-ship landing".
This morphemic strategy works far better than the syllabification exercises in Toe-by-Toe, which were the one element which parents always left for us to do. Not only are the exercises complicated, but they are based upon the false premise that all syllables are closed syllables (ones ending with a consonant). In fact, about 40% of all syllables in a typical English text are open (ending with a vowel). Using Toe-by-Toe's rules, the 'e' in 'relation' should be a short vowel.
There is one more design feature which makes a big difference, especially with younger children and pupils with visual problems. Our print is not cramped, and there is plenty of white space. By contrast, when I started using Toe-by-Toe, I had to get stronger glasses. Even with older pupils, the improved 'readability' will often reduce errors and improve speed of response.
Dancing Bears is already in its fifth edition, and we are already storing up ideas to make the sixth edition even better. There is no programme so good that it cannot be improved. We learn from our competitors, and we hope they learn from us. Synthetic phonics is still in its infancy, and given some good healthy competition, future generations will wonder why learning to read was ever considered a problem.