Phonemenon: How all students can become phenomenal spellers.

Blog-students-spellersWe all enjoy brunch on Sunday, we have stayed at a motel, we have wondered about Brexit, we listen to podcasts, and we hate smog. These combo words, or portmanteaus as they’re known, are so useful. So, we’ve made one of our own to describe our innovative approach to teaching spelling at St Catherine’s: phonemenon.

It’s a bit of a mouthful, we know. It’s a deliberate mash-up of phoneme and phenomenon. ‘Phoneme’ means the sounds that we hear in English and ‘phonemenon’ refers to how all students can become phenomenal spellers.

So why do we need to shake things up? English is an alphabetical language where we use letters to write words. But it is not a phonetic language – there’s no easy match between sounds and letters. We have 26 letters in our alphabet, but we have 44 sounds, with hundreds of ways to write these sounds down. While phonics is important when learning to spell, teaching sounds alone is simply inadequate. In too many schools, phonics-based programs limit students. If the only tool we give young children to spell is to say, “sound it out”, we are making a phonological promise to them that English simply cannot keep (Misty Adoniou, ‘Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help. The Conversation, 2013).

We need to dispel the myth that good spelling comes naturally. Children need to be taught to spell in a way that suits their style of learning. Good spelling comes from good teaching that caters to the strengths of the child.

Learning to speak is an innate skill. As infants, we mimic the language of our parents and mirror the way their mouths move when forming sounds. However, reading, writing and spelling are taught skills. As research has shown us, spelling ability is not a measure of intelligence. We need to identify a child’s strengths and learning style, and then teach to those.

Most spelling errors I encounter in Stage 2 and 3 made by ‘poor’ spellers show a dependence on the ‘sounding out’ strategy. As only 12 per cent of words in English are spelled the way they sound, our students are set up for failure. I have taught students who have had excellent reading skills, creative writing abilities or an incredible capacity for critical and creative thinking, but they have been poor spellers. We need to stop and analyse the reasons why this is an anomaly, as it is clearly not a result of the child’s intellect.

At St Catherine’s, teachers have been designing innovative ways for students to access and unpack spelling. We want to teach all students to become phenomenal spellers.

So how do we do it? English is a morpho-phonemic language. It is the combination of the sound, the history and the meaning of the word that influences its spelling. The four cornerstones of the English language are orthography, phonology, morphology and etymology. By analysing these four threads, we can truly unpack the spelling of words.

So what does this look like in the classroom? As educators it is our role to nurture a curiosity about words so that students can understand the logic behind the way words are spelled.

This is how we do it:

  • We start with student strengths. By doing this we can identify if something doesn’t quite add up with their achievement in other subjects.
  • We look for meaningful ways to spark the conversation around linguistics and vocabulary.
  • We use explicit teaching of true linguistics, highlighting the importance of teacher and student knowledge.
  • We use quality literature and embed spelling across the curriculum.
  • We integrate technology by using online dictionaries, apps such as HP Reveal and Interactive IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). We mirror student work to the TV to promote peer feedback and use websites like Kahoot! so they can create their own spelling quizzes to apply and evaluate their understanding.
  • We adapt models of thinking to challenge all learners and ensure we are extending our high-potential learners in a mixed-ability classroom.
  • We give students a choice about how they document their work. They can use the whiteboard tables, poster paper or record their work neatly in their writing books. No one-size-fits-all workbook!
  • We teach students the IPA to help support their understanding of pronunciation or difficult spelling choices.
  • We have a strong focus on staff development, collaboration and mentoring. I run in-class demonstrations, provide team teaching opportunities and run lunch time and after school workshops. This ensures a consistent approach to spelling across the junior school.


How will this help your daughter? Teaching spelling effectively supports reading and writing development. Improved understanding of vocabulary aids reading comprehension, which enables a use of broader vocabulary in her writing.

Teaching spelling is complex and it is often a lack of word knowledge and an understanding of linguistics that causes teachers to shy away from teaching spelling in a creative way. Teachers are more inclined to test spelling, rather than to teach it. If we shift the literacy paradigm, if we teach spelling in a holistic manner, focusing on the four cornerstones of linguistics, our students will flourish.



Ms Katharyn Reid
Year 4 teacher Spelling specialist
B Ed (Hons) Primary


We have an ANT problem

PositiveThoughts-positive-psychology-ANTsNo one likes to admit they have a problem with ANTs, but the fact is, we do. The little critters get in where they’re not wanted and they stay there and it is really, really hard to get rid of them. You can try ignoring them, but they often get worse when that happens. You can even try getting friends to help out with the problem, but that won’t help either.

Frankly, the only thing that works is logic. That’s right, logic, and PETs.

At this point, you may think I’m nuts. In fact, thinking I’m nuts is one of my ANTs. You see, an ANT is not a six-legged insect that manages to find any crumbs your kids leave in their bedrooms despite you asking them not to have food in there. An ANT is an Automatic Negative Thought. And we are drowning in them. You see your boss’s name flashing on your phone and your first thought is ‘I’m in trouble.’ You’re about to speak at a presentation and you think ‘I am no good at this.’ You look at your maths homework and you think ‘I cannot do this, I suck at maths.’ They are ANTs. We all have them. Beating ANTs is a two-part process. The first step is to measure how bad the infestation is and figure out how many ANTs you actually have. Write them down. It may seem scary to write them down because then they are on the page, they are real, you can’t pretend they don’t exist. But when you write them down you will look at them and think ‘What a load of baloney, none of that is true.’

The next step is to write down your PETs. No, don’t list Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail, I mean your Performance Enhancing Thoughts. Easy to remember – performance enhancing drugs are bad, performance enhancing thoughts are good. Thinking of your PETs takes more time because we don’t think about them as easily as we do our ANTs. We don’t notice what we are good at. But for each ANT, write down a few PETs. I reckon three PETs for every ANT is a good ratio. This is a great activity to do with a close friend or relative, as we all know we are far more critical of ourselves than we are of others. Talk to your kids about your ANTs, ask them about theirs, and come up with PETs for each other.

Now put these PETs somewhere you can see them – in your wallet at the ready for when an ANT pops up, stick them to the bathroom mirror, even on the fridge. So the next time a pesky ANT comes wandering in looking for some self-esteem to steal crumb by crumb, you can whip out your PETs and push it right back into that crack in the wall.

So remember:

  1. Know your ANTs and write them down
  2. Find PETs to beat each ANT
  3. Keep your PETs at hand for whenever you need them



Mrs Daisy Turnbull Brown
Director of Positive Psychology
B Arts B Com Grad Dip Ed MA (Theology)

Follow our dedicated Positive Psychology Twitter account: @StCathsPosPsy


The importance of explicit instruction

Explicit_TeachingExplicit instruction (or direct instruction) is a teaching method whereby the teacher tells students what to do and shows them how to do it. The education researcher John Hattie notes: ‘The teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes them transparent to the students, demonstrates them by modeling, evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and re-telling them what they have been told by tying it all together with closure’1. It contrasts with the constructivist (or discovery-based / enquiry-based) teaching method, whereby students construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiential learning.

Over the past few decades there has been a move away from explicit instruction, which has been derided by some as outdated ‘chalk and talk’. Advocates of the constructivist teaching method argue that the teacher should be the more modern ‘guide at the side’ rather than the traditional ‘sage on the stage’. But, thank goodness, the tables are turning. A significant and growing body of research is showing that explicit instruction is far superior to the constructivist method as a form of teaching. Hattie states plainly that although constructivist enquiry may be ‘a form of knowledge,…a form of teaching…it ain’t’.2 Hattie’s opinion is supported by a 2014 Sutton Trust report that reviewed over 200 pieces of research, concluding that ‘enthusiasm for “discovery learning” is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction’. It noted that ‘if teachers want [students] to learn new ideas, knowledge or methods they need to teach them directly’.3

So I was delighted to read a recent NSW Government paper entitled ‘Cognitive Load Theory: Research that teachers really need to understand.’4 In short, the paper discusses the importance of short-term (or working) and long-term memory to cognitive load, and the implications this has for learning and therefore teaching. It notes that cognitive load theory ‘provides theoretical and empirical support for explicit models of instruction’ because explicit instruction ‘accords with how human brains learn most effectively’. It is heartening to see the government advocating explicit instruction as a teaching method and, moreover, outlining clearly why it is superior to the constructivist teaching method. The report also gives several examples of explicit instructional techniques that can be used in the classroom. All our heads of department have a copy of this report.

Perhaps one reason the NSW government has published this report is to try to stem Australia’s declining results in the OECD’s PISA testing, a regular program of testing of reading, mathematics and science across 72 countries. Asian countries regularly top the rankings across all three areas, whereas Australia’s results have declined steadily over the years.Andreas Schleicher, director of PISA, notes that Chinese students, who learn in a school system that favours explicit instruction, are much better than Australian students at higher order skills such as reasoning, critical thinking and non-routine problem solving.6

Of course teaching is a complex job, and an effective teacher is more than just a practitioner of explicit instruction. But research is clear on two things. First, the most important school-based influence on student achievement is the quality of the teacher, in particular the teacher’s content knowledge and the quality of instruction. And second, the explicit instruction teaching method is highly effective.

Teachers are our greatest resource. They are our sages on an incredibly important stage. And when you have good quality teachers who employ good quality teaching methods, the result is good quality learning.


Dr Julie Townsend, Headmistress
BA (Hons) Cert Ed PhD MBA (Ed Ldship) MACE MACEL




1.John Hattie, Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievementRoutledge, London, 2009, p.206.
2.See (2012).
3. What makes great teaching?: Review of the underpinning research,  Robert Coe, Cesare Aloisi, Steve Higgins and Lee Elliot Major, October 2014, p. 23.
4. NSW Government Centre for Education, Statistics and Evaluation, ‘Cognitive Load Theory: Research that teachers really need to understand’, August 2017.
5. See
6. See

What did we all learn over the holidays?

Holidays_ImageArticle2As the school year begins we are all inundated by back-to-school sales, programs and press but no time goes towards reflecting on the holidays that were. And while many parents (myself included) breathe a sigh of relief when students return to school, it is important to savour what we’ve learned during the break.

For my family, Alice learned to walk, I learned to be patient with her walking (the former happened shortly after the latter), Jack started swimming properly and learned that saying ‘please’ only works if it is in the correct tone.

But we also observed how much our children grew in the holidays – both physically and emotionally. Jack grew about three centimetres in the space of two months. While I thought this was due to his diet of Bolognese and Vegemite sandwiches, it turns out it’s more about family time and a decrease in family stress. Last year Professor Timothy Olds discussed this phenomenon of children growing more during the school holidays because “There’s a change in diet, but also less stress.”

However, many of us notice that our children develop emotionally during the holidays and benefit from the increased focus from their parents. During school time we can end up spending only a couple of hours with our children each day, between the drop-off and pick-ups, dinner and bedtime. And that time is hardly ‘focused’. Two thirds of conversations between parents and children are about daily routine. (Around half of it involves the word ‘shoes’ in my family.) Professor Panksepp, a neuroscientist from Washington State University, found that two emotion systems are energised when families are more relaxed – the play and the seeking systems. By playing with your children, their brains produce morphine-like effects. Similarly, the seeking system can be exercised when adventuring. These two systems reduce stress and make us more relaxed. The more you can do this with your children, the more likely it is playing and seeking will become part of their personalities and your children will become more creative and independent.

Another thing that improves our wellbeing over the holidays is being outside, and we are incredibly lucky that in Australia the majority of holidays can be spent outside even during winter. Spending time outdoors for even 20 minutes has been shown to increase children’s attention and concentration levels. In fact studies have shown that the more time you spend with your children out of your normal routine, namely on a holiday (at home or away), the more you are triggering their frontal lobes and improving their ability to regulate stress, increase concentration, and their ability to learn.

So as we discovered at the end of the school holidays, Alice was talking a lot more, as well as walking; Jack was negotiating a lot more (a mixed blessing, it’s fair to say), swimming, and riding his bike. A small part of me started thinking they would develop like this constantly if one of us didn’t work (and the back to work mother guilt set in), but in fact, it is not about the quantity of time spent with children, but the quality.

It may seem a bit cruel to remind everyone of how important holidays are, now that they have ended, but by appreciating what we have all learned over the holiday break – whether it be through reading, watching, doing, or playing, we are more prepared for 2018, and can approach the year with more experience and optimism.

So even during term time, find a day in a weekend to go on a family adventure, have a day with no plans where you just play with your children, and continue to connect with family for everyone’s benefit. By removing yourselves from routines and having time to relax as a family, you and your children develop the ability to relax and even become smarter!


Mrs Daisy Turnbull Brown
Director of Positive Psychology
B Arts B Com Grad Dip Ed MA (Theology)

Follow our dedicated Positive Psychology Twitter account: @StCathsPosPsy





A recipe for good teaching

Image_article_BernardineStudents have definite opinions when it comes to what they need in a teacher. How can we make sure we deliver on teacher excellence?

As leaders and managers in schools, we know that teachers also need to have time for self-reflection and personal and professional growth. If our focus is on providing relevant support to teachers with a good understanding of resilience and its beneficial impact on psychological wellbeing, then support structures for teachers are strengthened and our teachers can flourish.

Teacher feedback in recent PESA (Positive Education Schools Association) studies has indicated the importance of wellbeing and resilience to daily life both at home and at work. CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders, Aasha Murthy, encourages us as teachers and leaders to “Focus on the root cause of success rather than on failure.” The real source of power for all of us is confidence which is all about belief.

Both students and teachers need to connect with others in a meaningful way that allows skill development and is facilitated by a growth mindset. If we are able to learn and apply new skills, we build our self-efficacy which reinforces self-confidence. The implication here is that we have spent the bulk of our time on buoying the spirits of our students but with a tweak in how we approach our teachers, we could magnify the success and wellbeing of everyone on the learning journey.

Of greatest importance is that students need to feel confident about their teachers. At the ACEL Wellbeing conference this year, feedback from students on their teachers was illuminating. One Year 6 student said “Teachers need to be consistent and confident in their skills and they need to care about us.” A Year 7 student explained that as far as he saw it, “Confidence is all about belief. Self-belief means that you can rely on yourself because you are being supported by your family, school and friends.”

When the students were asked if they could give us a ‘recipe for good teaching’, their responses were insightful, provocative and affirming in that we are all in pursuit of the same end: an increased sense of self-belief and successful endeavour.

Here’s what the students told us:

  • Provide positive reinforcement – to improve our self-esteem
  • Set achievable goals – give us things we can do
  • Stop using labels – avoid using them about us
  • Believe in us and we’ll believe in ourselves

When asked what qualities are important in a school leader, the students responded with:

  • A leader who cares about us and who knows us
  • One who does everything with us and wants to get to know us
  • A kind-hearted person who looks on the positive side
  • It’s important to have a good connection with students
  • One who is interested in the student voice. Ask us what we want
  • Open opportunities for all students at school – help students love to learn

I’ve attended numerous conferences on how to develop teacher capacity and quality and how to improve assessment and results for students but this honest and unique forum of students has resonated with me. I am investigating how best to enhance teacher quality through our appraisal for development program as well as examining approaches to teacher professional learning. With these student observations as a starting point, I find that they have indeed ‘flipped’ the learning process for me. After all, the better we understand each other’s needs, the better our schools will be for everyone in them.


Bernardine Knorr
Head of Teacher Excellence
BA Dip. Ed. M Ed. Leadership MACE MACEL

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