News & Articles > Letter Tiles or Magnets: A Warning

(Exchange between Britta McColl and Wanda Sanseri)
29 Apr 2009

Wanda: You have designed a way to help your younger children learn to spell words ahead of their ability to write them. You sense that Liz and 1 question your planned approach and you want our concerns clarified in relation to your plan. I am happy to respond. I respect your careful planning and your teachable spirit. I know you want to do the best job possible with your dear children. You have had great success with your older students and are eager to teach the younger ones coming along next.

Britta: I agree with you both that writing is an essential part of SWR and that letter magnets should not be a long term substitute for writing.

Wanda: I believe letter magnets should not be a beginning substitute for writing. I understand that many young children do not have the motor skills for pencil and paper work but they can be given preliminary exercises in writing that use big muscles. If a child holds his arm straight (no bend in the elbow) and points with two fingers, he can use his whole arm as a big pencil and learn to make the shape of phonograms as he says their sounds. My sons used to enjoy taking a slightly damp sponge and making their phonograms on our blackboard. The damp impression of the letter they made was visible when they finished. We would also do letters with finger paints. Before they ever did pencil and paper work, they had many hands on opportunities to shape letters using big muscles. We had sidewalk chalk that we used. They would shape phonograms on my back. Something happens mentally when the child goes beyond simply seeing a phonogram, selecting the right phonogram on a tile or magnet, or even tracing a letter, to when he can actually form the letter by himself. An exposure to forming letters independently is of first importance. The practice of tracing letters or working with tiles is secondary. I am not opposed to doing some of all three in early stages, but I feel that the physical dynamic of learning to shape letters is primary.

Britta: Let me explain my intentions further with the letter magnets so that you can give me feedback on whether my plans will be workable.

I have just worked with letter magnets with my five year old son on a few occasions this summer and he has had a lot of fun spelling some of the first words from list A in the WISE guide. I have also been drilling phonograms and playing a few phonogram games with him, as well as having him trace cursive letters that I made from glue and sand.

Wanda: How have you been drilling phonograms? Have you done this only by sight or finger tracing? Phonograms can be practiced by the very young with sound alone. Once we introduce the link between the phonogram symbol and the sounds we need to start training in letter formation.

Phonogram drills should include having the student shape the letters, even if it is using big motor skills as I described earlier. From the beginning, the student should be taught to hear the phonogram and make it without seeing it as well as seeing the phonogram and reading the sounds it can make. Both "writing" and "reading" the phonograms are vital and should be learned from the start.

Britta: I officially start school on August 23rd. At this point I was planning on having him begin his first regular practice in writing with a pencil in cursive using Cursive First. (He had some spotty practice last year.) For the first two months of school I was planning on extensive handwriting practice with my son as well as him writing isolated phonograms from my dictation and working into the beginning words in list A of WISE GUIDE. During these two months of handwriting practice I was planning to dictate words to my son beginning in list A of WISE guide and having him choose the proper letter magnets and placing them down in proper sequence. This is a very active process and the mind must be fully engaged to make the proper choices.

Wanda: I recommend that you focus on the penmanship BEFORE starting list A. It should only take two or three weeks to introduce all single letters of the alphabet. I'm not sure why you are planning to take two months to do so. Granted, total mastery will take longer, but this can be done simultaneously with teaching the spelling list. We will continue to perfect our penmanship as we continue. We want a fast exposure to the basic alphabet (taught by phonogram sound, not letter-names) which will be followed up by long-term practice of these phonograms. I was taught to introduce at least three or four phonograms a day. The next day we would practice the phonograms from the day before and add new ones. I never used worksheets. If you are using the Cursive First sheets, realize that you do not need to fill in a full page of the A phonogram the first day you introduce it. Have the student do several the first day and come back to do one or more the second, etc. The student should also be able hear the phonongram and shape it without seeing it. Some of this practice can still be with big motor skills as I explained earlier. The penmanship introduction should not be done in an overbearing way.

I do not recommend teaching any spelling words to young beginners without the student writing (either with big muscle movements or with actual pencil and paper). After he has "written" the words from dictation, then if you like you can do a magnetic letter activity. I noticed that you consider the magnetic letter activity active, but I called it passive. We are both right depending on the perspective. Physically picking up the needed letter is more active than just looking at a word already written. Picking up a letter is, however, passive in comparison to hearing the sound and physically making the shape of the letter from your mind. It is the difference between a fill in the blank test and a multiple choice test. With a multiple choice test you need to decide if you will use a, b, c, or d. With a fill in the blank test you have to draw the answer completely from your head. It is much harder to answer who was the first president of the United States on a blank line than it is to just indicate the right selection in a list of choices. When we teach spelling first, we are doing so in a way that trains a child for the harder, more active level of thinking. We need to do a lot of coaching in the beginning. If the child doesn't remember how to form the letter or what phonogram makes that sound, we kindly show him. We demonstrate excitement as he does it on his own. We wean him as we go.

I don't know if I am clearly explaining the distinction. With the magnetic letter approach you are missing an important link in the brain. When the child forms the letter in a physical way as he says it, he is establishing neuro-connectors that are not in play when he says a sound and simply selects a magnet that represents that sound. I sense that you are eager to do the magnet activity so that you can get him to spell words faster. That is a noble cause. I want you to get to spelling quickly too. That is why I suggest speeding up the time you plan to take in teaching basic alphabet. He can participate verbally as you build the Consonant/Vowel Chart on the board. He helps you sound out the phonograms he has already learned to say and shape. He helps you sound out sample words that illustrate the various vowel sounds with the letters he has learned to say and shape. Do not expect him to write this information himself on paper yet. You are setting the stage for future language work. You are interactively providing secrets in language learning. You are seeding in him a desire to learn more.

In the first three weeks that you are primarily working on penmanship skills, I suggest that instead of doing Section A words, that you focus on ear training. Lida Williams in a book on teaching phonics written in the 1800's suggests an action game for ear training.

She has a listening and doing activity where she sounds out a word slowly and the student says the word and then acts out the meaning. c-l-a-p, b-ow, j-u-m-p, p-u-s-h, m-ar-ch, s-w-ee-p, f-l-y, s-i-t, d-r-i-n-k, s-t-a-n-d, s-l-ee-p, s-t-r-e-tch

Another day might be find the color: r-e-d, g-r-ee-n, b-l-a-ck, wh-i-te
Another day might be put the toys in the basket: t-o-p, c-ar, d-o-ll, d-o-g
Another day might be touch your: n-o-se, ch-ee-k, f-oo-t, b-oo-k.

She says that not all children can readily do this but a few minutes of brisk, lively drill, given regularly each day will accomplish wonders.

Britta: The advantage of [teaching spelling with magnetic letters] is that my son will be gaining confidence and skill while still refining his handwriting. ... In my mind this does not put him behind and the magnet practice for the first two months of school will only build his phonetic mind and give him a sense of confidence once he must produce everything in writing.(OK maybe I'll let him do some magnet spelling forpractice AFTER a dictation...on a practice day....but all dictations from Oct. 23 and on will be done with him writing.)

Wanda: I was not concerned about the magnetic letters putting him behind on a time table. I don't expect everyone to end the year at any particular point. Students vary. My concern is having his first training the more passive form. I am also concerned with eye tracking as he scans back and forth looking for the correct magnet. What you do first establishes the way you want his mind to think. Getting this initial training right is the most important thing to me. We want him to form spelling words a phonogram at a time which he learns to sound out and writes without seeing. I don't think the best way to build this dynamic is by using magnetic letters. Do we want his first time building a word to be consumed with selecting the right letter from a number of visible choices? It is not a problem to use magnets once he has learned a word and practices rebuilding it by pulling out the right letters as he needs them, but I fear it can be a problem if this is your initial introduction to new words with a young beginner. Using magnetic letter or letter tiles is a tempting short-cut which I am sure he enjoys but it has potential problems in the long-term. His confidence will be built just as strongly (if not more strongly) using my alternative suggestions.

Britta: Thank you so much for your carefully thought out response to my questions. You pointed out many holes in my "well reasoned" (tee hee) plans that I had never considered. The first thing I have done is to print out your answers to me so that I can study and implement them as needed. I especially liked all of your suggestions for practicing writing outside of tracing letters. Such as the writing with a damp sponge on a black board and writing with sidewalk chalk outside. I believe that I have read these same ideas in SWR, but they did not "stick" as they did today when you wrote them to me personally. I think I am a bit nervous about teaching Cursive First with my 5 year old and a this causes me to hang on to my old habit of simply having my children trace letters. But as you pointed out, long term, this will create a weakness in writing. It's time for me to break out of that habit of the past and having him write from hearing as you described. “An exposure to forming letters independently is of first importance. The practice of tracing letters or working with tiles is secondary. I am not opposed to doing some of all three in early stages, but I feel that the physical dynamic of learning to shape letters is primary.”

Wanda: How have you been drilling phonograms? Have you done this only by sight or tracing?

Britta: Yes, only by sight or tracing.... This next part that you wrote was especially what I needed to hear just now. “Phonograms can be practiced by the very young with sound alone. Once we introduce the link between the phonogram symbol and the sounds, we need to start training in letter formation. Phonogram drills should include having the student shape the letters, even if it is using big motor skills as I described earlier. From the beginning, the student should be taught to hear the phonogram and make it without seeing it as well as seeing the phonogram and reading the sounds it can make. Both "writing" and "reading" the phonograms are vital and should be learned from the start.

Britta: I officially start school on August 23rd. At this pointI was planning on having him begin his first regular practice in writing with a pencil in cursive using Cursive First.

Wanda: I recommend that you focus on the penmanship BEFORE starting list A. It should only take two or three weeks to introduce all single letters of the alphabet.

Britta: Wow! I'll take this on faith from you. I really thought it would take much longer, especially with cursive, but I will try your large motor suggestions.... side walk chalk....damp sponge on black board. You so very clearly explained the distinction in active vs. passive with magnet letters. Your multiple choice vs. fill in the blank example really helped me. Also, the eye tracking concern with choosing magnets is a very good point that I had not thought of. It is not so much that I was eager to get my son spelling quickly as I have never had a child be able to write after 3 weeks of instruction.

Perhaps it has been my reliance on tracing dotted lines for penmanship instruction. You said you never used a worksheet for penmanship instruction and maybe I just need the confidence to "move out" and start teaching penmanship.

BRITTA’S NOTE- 4 YEARS LATER (ie 2008):
It really was a leap of faith for me to take Wanda’s suggestions and get going with the large motor writing. The results were so stunning and amazingly quick that I started to film what I was doing with my son. You see, I hardly believed what was happening, and thought it best to capture it on film just in case there were other skeptics like myself out there! (Big smile!)

Also, it is a good thing I quit the letter magnets and went to penmanship practice with my son, as I found out 3 years later (last year) that he has a mild eye tracking problem and doing the magnetic letters, I believe, would have made it worse. As it is, he is reading and spelling at or above grade level and this can be rare with an eye tracking problem. I think that the proper teaching with SWR can help over come many eye tracking problems.
Yes, there are all levels of these problems, and some may need professional help. But in the case of my son, he never had any therapy, other than SWR taught by me at home, and is really doing stunning in his spelling and reading at this time.

Parts of this film are shown in my DVD- You CAN Do It-SWR. Here is a film clip from You Tube and you can purchase the complete DVD on my web site and/or at Wanda’s, Liz’s or Silvia’s web site and other places.

For an example of Large Motor writing and some words taught by dictation go to: (I am sorry it is fuzzy to view, YouTube does that, my DVD is not fuzzy.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM0KVLYIZSw

Wanda Sanseri & Britta McColl