Fast Track to Reading: Question and Answer with Peter Viney
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The new FAST TRACK TRAINING VIDEO with Peter Viney & Karen Viney is now available on Garnet Education’s FAST TRACK page.
Several of the questions below were used in the interview sections of the video.
The same video on YouTube is here.
Q: Is Fast Track to Reading a new method?
PV: Nothing is new under the sun, and all the elements of Fast Track have existed before. It’s a development of ideas in a programme I did twenty-five years ago with Bernard Hartley called Basic English Reading Programme. It’s designed for students from non-Roman alphabet cultures. The original programme was developed with Arabic, Farsi and Urdu in mind. These languages all have the concept of phonic representation, just with different symbols, arranged in a different direction. When it was rethought and radically changed recently, it was also used with students from non-linear, non-phonic writing systems, such as Chinese. The key concept is helping adults de-code English letters into sounds, and enabling them to read much faster.
The radical departure from other phonics systems is that this is done by focussing purely on decoding for much of the time. In other words, it doesn’t focus on the meaning of words, but decoding the sounds. This system very quickly improves reading speeds.
Q: Are adults willing to spend a whole English course decoding and saying words they don’t understand and won’t know how and when to use?
PV: It’s not a “whole English course.” It’s a programme targetted on an isolated skill; a skill which hampers the progress of many students from non-Roman alphabet cultures. Our experience was that students understand they have a problem, and are more than willing to isolate the problem and focus on it. You could not just teach through Fast Track to Reading in isolation. We never assumed that anyone would attempt that.
Q: So is it just phonics?
PV: Not at all. The most common words (“key words”) in English are often outside the most common phonic patterns (you, are, I, their …) or in a small set of their own (be, he, me, she, we). Readers need to see the most common key words as “pictures” like a Chinese character. You don’t phonically build up “y-o-u”, you. You see it and know it instantly. The programme recognizes this and has sections on key words, where the key words are constantly recycled and the audio CD for this gets faster as the programme progresses).
It also recognizes the problems students have with reading in different fonts, with the capital / lower case differences, as well as the varying shapes of letters like g and a in different fonts, in handwriting, in all capital signs. There are specific exercises with varied fonts and capitals / lower case, handwriting, print script in every unit.
There are lots of photos of real signs and notices in English. It makes it look adult, as well as exposing students to more letter shapes.
Q: There are a lot of words which are included for their sounds, but which are low frequency. Are we wasting adults’ time by getting them to learn these words?
PV: There’s a misconception in the question. No one is “learning” these words. they’re decoding the phonics and doing so at speed. Some phonics courses for children advocate using nonsense words to test phonic concept. So they might have dag / gad / deg / ged. The focus is on sounds. In this case, the students are adults. You need 25 to 50 words at least to practise a new point. If you were to “teach” all of these it would take days. If you explained them, no one would remember that quantity. I decided to avoid nonsense words and use words which exist. Frequency was not the consideration. It would be disastrously tedious if the teacher decided to “teach” every word used for illustrating phonics.
In each unit, ten or twelve words are picked out, illustrated and are the memorable examples of the point, to which meaning is attached. Meaning is attached to the realia … signs, notices, e-mails, screenshots and other realia. It’s a separate thing.
The introduction to the Student Book says it clearly, in English, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Mandarin:
• The course will not teach you the English Language. It will teach you how to read the Roman alphabet quickly and easily.
• You will not understand all the words. Don’t worry about this. You are learning to put the sounds with the words. This will help you later when you are learning the English language.
• Do not try to translate the words. This will make progress with the programme much too slow.
Q: The activities are quite traditional and repetitive – this can help teachers and learners feel safe and comfortable. But would learning be more effective (though ‘slower’) if it had more variety? How about group work, games, role play?
PV: I wouldn’t teach a unit for the whole lesson. I’d use it for a ten minute phase at the beginning and another five minutes for ending the lesson, with active work in the middle. It’s not even a case of boredom. It’s the level of concentration required.
The translated student introduction also says:
• Learning to read is a process that takes time, so don’t do more than one unit a day.
That’s important. You use it “little and often.” It’s better to use it in short focussed bursts.
The activities are necessarily basic, because you can’t perform (say) a role play on ship and chip, versus sheep and cheap. You can’t ask students to “discuss” hard g and soft g. If I thought about it, I could probably compose a dialogue, but this material is designed for adults who understand (a) that they have a problem in decoding letters in English at speed (b) that they need to do some pretty mechanical work to solve the problem.
Three examples. I have an ankle injury at the moment. The exercises the physio has given me are all simple and repetitive. He didn’t suggest I play football (I’m too old anyway), or perhaps take up skiing or ballroom dancing to strengthen my ankle. Exercise through a sporting activity might be a good idea once it’s better, but I can’t make that leap yet.
Another, driving my grandkids to school. My granddaughter has a tables test in arithmetic on Fridays. We go over it. She counts forward. Six times seven is forty-two … Seven times seven is forty-nine. The teacher believes this helps concept. It does. But in the end, we cope with tables by chanting them, not working them out. She chants with me in the car. She gets them all correct in the test. She calls my method “Just knowing it.” Behaviourism has acquired a negative aura in language teaching. However, some things require “just knowing it.” De-coding phonics is an example.
The third example is practising scales on a musical instrument. You have to be able to put your hands on the guitar where you want to without thinking … “A. Let me see, now that’s the fifth fret on the lowest string …”
The adult learners who need to learn to read faster, or need to learn to read in the first place, are generally from cultures where rote learning and repetition is standard practice, particularly relating to religious texts. Value is placed on interpreting the written word accurately. Reading is a solitary activity too. You don’t “discuss in pairs how to pronounce great v cheap.”
Q: How useful is it for learners to read onomatopoeic words such as, toot, zoom, whoosh?
PV: Well, they’re fun to read aloud. People read comic strips and play video games with this stuff in. I think it greatly helps concept and provides variety (and we’re only talking about the unit on the “oo” sound).
Q: Some of the words seemed culturally insensitive to me.
PV: Not if you’re interpreting the phonics, rather than teaching meaning. In fact, we did eradicate some obvious examples from units, such as pig, ham, pork. While I think Muslim students really do need to know the meaning of these words so as to avoid the meats described by them, there is an issue with people seeing them in print when students take books out into the world, and erroneously taking offence. When we devised the original “method” years ago, we found that English has so many rude or problematic words with a –ck ending that we had to go to great effort to avoid them, even if meaning is not involved.
Q: Wouldn’t it be better to integrate the phonics element into a fully-rounded general course for Arabic speakers?
PV: If we were starting with a clean slate it would be. We’re not. The vast majority of students have experience of reading, abut their reading ability is at a different level to their speaking ability, or understanding of vocabulary, or understanding of grammar. When we first discussed this, Terry Phillips said that he had been learning Arabic for twenty years, and really would still benefit from something like this. If you have ten Arabic speaking adults in an elementary or a pre-intermediate class (and let’s go beyond just Arabic to Chinese, Farsi, African languages as well), they will be all over the place with differences in decoding speed, and ability to cope with reading. This course has a limited aim, to even out and improve their decoding skills. We’d then need something quite different as a second level approaching actual texts and dialogues. Even the students who are in Britain (say) and are totally unable to read, know some words already and can say things.
It’s excellent for self-study for students at a higher level. Ten minutes work a day will rapidly improve decoding and reading speed.
We have never claimed that this is a suitable course for starting from scratch with children. It isn’t. A friend has used sections with native speaker adult dyslexics too.
Q: What about higher-order thinking skills? Is there a cognitive element? I’m thinking of analysing patterns, grouping spelling patterns, using analogy, creating word banks or mind maps?
PV: See the Teacher’s Guide by Roger Scott. With lower level students, we have done the organization. Students will deduce the pattern. The Teacher’s Guide gives ideas for higher level students, and discusses possible activities.
Anna Phillips has also prepared notes on the special problems of Arabic speakers in each pattern, and these are online at Garnet education.
Q: I’m not sure about the order of presentation of sounds. Can I re-order it?
PV: You can try anything with higher levels, but at lower levels the programme builds systematically from unit to unit. Sometimes the choice of presentation order might seem arbitary, or debateable. In the end, with this sort of programme at lower levels, following the sequence is all important. The review factor is meticulously built-in.
Q: I have low-intermediate students. They’re going to find the first ten or fifteen units insultingly easy. Do I skip them?
PV: You know your class. It might be the best solution. But if they’re low-intermediate level, they can understand enough English for you to be able to explain the system to them. Tell them why they’re doing it. Get them to run through the early units at high speed so as to get a feel for the way it works, then slow down and progress as normal.
If you speak the students’ language, you can (and should) explain the rationale even to beginners. This covers most situations where the material will be used.
Q: I work in the UK. I have classes of mixed nationalities. I can see this would be effective with all-Arab classes in the Middle East, but how do I use it? I have fifteen in a class. A current class has three Arabs, one Iranian, two Chinese and nine Europeans / Latin Americans. How can I use it?
PV: There is a deliberate self-study element. Reading is a solitary skill. The audio CD has every word recorded. I suggest taking the non-Europeans aside for a lesson and showing them how it works. Then they can operate independently. I would suggest a regular meeting where they reassemble and do a complete unit with you, then get asked to do one unit a day alone before the next meeting. They really need a copy each. This is only fair to the students, who are supposed to follow the same general course as speakers of European languages, but are hampered. Everyone in the UK and North America teaching these students knows the issue. Everything’s going great in the oral phase of the lesson. Then you ask them to read something in pairs and do a task based on a text, or acting out a dialogue. Suddenly the student from a non-Roman alphabet culture finds it taking twice as long to read as the speaker of a Roman alphabet language they’re paired with.
Q: I’m an American working in the Gulf. What about the voices on the audio? Aren’t they British?
Q: I work in North America. The recordings are in a British accent. Will this cause me problems?
PV: If there were enough demand we could re-record with American voices. The voices on the audio are Karen Viney, Terry Phillips, and me. In other words, experienced teachers, not actors. But we’re talking about isolated words, not dialogues or extended texts. Given the wide range of accents from all over the world that learners will meet in any North American city, it’s a very minor issue. We were careful to avoid words with a radically different pronunciation, but in New York or Toronto, you will hear accents from a Russian, a Mexican, an Iraqi, a Nigerian, a Jamaican, a Pakistani, a Korean, a Chinese, a South African and an Australian all in one day. You have to be able to hear the basic word however it’s presented by accent. The base word on the tape is fine. If they follow that model, they’ll be comprehensible. If you’re an American or Canadian or Australian working with them, even better. The wider range of accents students are exposed to, the better their listening ability is.
Q: I teach groups of refugees. Many of these have had such disrupted lives that they are unable to read in any language, let alone English. Will it help them?
Our original idea was decoding for speakers of other linear, phonic languages. It was extended to be used with people who read in pictographic languages. We had not tested it with people who did not have the concept of reading at all. It’s being trialled with these groups now. First, there is no problem with interference, so that reading from right to left is not ingrained, as it is with Arabic speakers. A more suitable programme could no doubt be devised. It hasn’t been, and teachers end up teaching adults with primary readers. I believe Fast Track is the best available option at the moment. Some teachers have suggested using it in conjunction with primary readers.
Q: Fast Track does not address writing. Why not?
Students are asked to write some things. They trace letters because there is a kinaesthetic aspect in feeling the shapes of letters. They copy out and rewrite words in exercises. When we originally developed the programme, we had a parallel handwriting course. With the new programme, we decided that the main source of input would eventually be a keyboard. That’s why we expose students to capitals and lower case from the outset, and why unit titles are isolated computer keys. That’s why we have so many screen-related items of realia. We also assumed that print script for production would be as far as most students would want or need to do. Receptively, they have to see cursive handwriting, of course, although it is getting less frequent.
One addition we suggest from our writing courses of long ago is kinaesthetic. It is very useful with speakers of languages that have a different linear direction to spend a few minutes on left to right pattern practice at the start of the session. This can be drawing zigzags or loops from left to right along lines. It kickstarts the brain into moving left to right.