Phonics Programs for Struggling Readers | The Secret Stories (2023)

When A Child Can’t Read

Phonics Programs for Struggling Readers | The Secret Stories (1)Thinking Outside the Box About Letters and the Sounds They Make

You can’t think outside the box if you don’t know what’s in it!

Secret Stories® ensures that all learners, regardless of age, own everything that’s “in the box” when it comes to letters and the sounds they can make—so as to prepare them for the incredibly difficult task of accessing higher level text.

Its brain based and accelerated approach to traditional phonics skill mastery makes Secret Stories® one of the most highly effective, reading intervention tools available for struggling, upper-grade readers, who simply have no time to waste.

By shifting instructional emphasis from skillpractice to skill understanding, Secret Stories® shortens the traditional learning curve for phonics mastery—eliminating time-consuming sight word practice, memorization of phonics rules, and always having to tell students, “It just is…It just does…You’ll just have to remember…” whenever they can’t sound out or spell a word.

Secret Stories® makes use of already existing, learner frameworks of social and emotional experience and understanding, creating a familiar thinking-construct in which kids can easily identify the most likely sounds of letters, even in unfamiliar text.

Phonics Programs for Struggling Readers | The Secret Stories (2)

Kids who know the Secrets understand thatfriendships between letters can change how they behave when they get together in words.

For example, the vowels behave differently when they’re hanging out on their own, versus whenMommy E® or the Babysitter Vowels®are nearby. Kids as young as pre-K and kindergarten can understand that Mommy and the Babysitters are the “triggers” for determining whether or a vowel will be “short and lazy” or use its superpowers to say its name—even in long, multisyllabic words!

Regardless of text level, there’s virtually no word that kids can’t crack when they know the Secrets. Aligning complex phonics skills to familiar concepts that learners already understand enables struggling readers to quickly gain power over text. Within this familiar context, inexperienced readers can predict the most and next most likely sound behaviors of letters in text as easily as they would the most likely behaviors of their own friends and classmates.

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Learning to Read vs. Reading to Learn

While reading at the beginning K-2 grade levels focuses mainly on decoding, the instructional momentum shifts to comprehension at the intermediate grade levels and beyond. Ideally, students will have crossed over the instructional hump by third grade, having “learned to read” so that they can “read to learn.” Ideally, students should always be learning to read and reading to learn if they are to develop adequate content and language knowledge to read proficiently.

Struggling readers, however, can have a difficult time making this transition, often expending too much effort on decoding the text, with little left over to actually digest it. This division of mental processing power can often give the appearance of difficulty with comprehension, whereas it can more likely be attributed to the lack of automaticity with text. Only when readers are able to decode text with little to no conscious processing does the brain have enough space and energy to fully attend to the higher-level process of comprehension (i.e. drawing inferences, making predictions, pulling information from text, etc.).

Secret Stories® Phonics Works with the Brain

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Phonics for Dyslexia – Learn More

Research validates the need for continued phonics instruction for struggling students into the higher grade levels, especially for ensuring encoding (writing) fluency.

“Children who can’t read much by age nine are in serious trouble. By then, teachers expect them to have finished learning to read and to start seriously reading to learn.” —Pamela Snow

Understanding written text is the product of decoding and listening comprehension. Decoding refers to the ability to convert print into sound and to read fluently. When decoding skills are poor, they will place important constraints on reading comprehension(Gough & Tunmer, 1986).

Given the time, energy and resources that are spent working with struggling, upper-grade readers on comprehension, it is important to know that these efforts often treat only the symptom and not the root cause, which is most often a lack of automaticity with text.

Secret Stories® activates every learning channel through multi-sensory instruction, strengthening learners’ ability to receive, store and retrieve information. By introducing information to the brain from as many angles as possible, more neural connectionsare created and strengthened. As a result, student learning is more holistic and multidimensional.

Many students have difficulty with one domain, but do better with another. By employing avariety of instructional strategies that engage multiple modalities andpathways for learning, information is more likely to be stored in the different learning networks, providing learners with more avenues for bothretention and retrieval.

Stories Activate Every Learning Channel and Act as Strong Memory-Holding Templates in the Brain

“When the newinformation is presented in a familiar storyform, the memory structure facilitates thebrain’s retention of that information.” —Dr. Judy Willis

Phonics Programs for Struggling Readers | The Secret Stories (5)Secret Stories® establish supportive conditions in the brain forlearning and remembering, acting as “memory enhancers,” providing a sort of mental map upon which newinformation is more easily laid.

By presenting phonics concepts in a story-based format, Secret Stories® receive a higher level ofpriority in the brain, using anemotional hook to engage curiosity and increase levels of learner engagement.Secret Stories® puts the whole brain to work, activating multiple areas of the brain, simultaneously.Research shows that the more widespreadthe connections, the deeper the learning.

Secret Stories® activates the social and emotional centers of thebrain that aid memory, and unlike directinstruction, skill content delivered throughstorytelling promotes the formation of multilayeredmemories that result in deeper learning experiences and easierskill retrieval. Additionally, the brain becomes more active when telling orlistening to a story, prompting higher levels of learner engagement.

“Thebenefits of embedding abstract skill content into stories is a greatpedagogical strategy because it increases learner-curiosity and thethought processes that support it. If a student is not interested in a topic,they probably don’t have enough knowledge or experience in that area todevelop the sense of curiosity.” —Dr. Mary HelenImmordino-Yang

It is neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things you don’t care about (Immordino-Yang, 2016).For those working withstruggling readers at the upper grade levels, it can be difficult to fosterlearner curiosity about letter sounds and phonics patterns. This is why the social-emotional “affective” learning domain is the ideal doorway through which to channelthese critical skills.

Struggling Readers and Reading Intervention

Students who can’t read fluently can stumble for years because school is built on the idea that after third grade, everyone can read; the work shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. To access complex text, students must possess both the “code-based” skills to read it and the “meaning-based” skills to understand it. Struggling readers who expend too much energy on decoding the text have little left over to actually digest it. Students who cannot read well fall further behind on all subjects— science, history, and even math.

Used as a reading intervention, Secret Stories® targets already primed, social and emotional learning systems to accelerate mastery of the critical “code-based” phonics skills needed to read and write, without impeding the momentum of on-grade level instruction. By aligning phonics instruction with familiar frameworks of learner experience and understanding, Secret Stories® sparks genuine interest and increases the level of learner engagement. In this optimal learning state, students can begin to drive their own learning and instruction, which is the evolutionary ideal (Immordino-Yang, 2016).

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Secret Stories® transforms phonics skills kids have to learn into “secrets” they want to know, making them important and something that kids care about.

“My students were almost frenzied in their demands to hear more and more of these secret explanations for words and sounds that had never made sense to them before, and these are the kids who act like they couldn’t care less 99% of the time! Just watching their faces light up as everything started to come together for them was incredible. What a FIND the Secret Stories are—if only I’d had them years ago! Every child deserves to know the Secrets!”
—Edie, Fourth/Fifth Grade SLD & Intervention Teacher

Teaching Reading to “At-Risk” and Struggling Learners

Amy Mitchell, Reading Intervention

Struggling Readers / Reading Intervention Feedback

Students were almost frenzied in their demands to hear more and more of these secret explanations for words and sounds that had never made sense to them before, and these are the kids who act like they couldn’t care less 99% of the time! Just watching their faces light up as everything started to come together for them was incredible. What a FIND the Secret Stories are—if only I’d had them years ago! Every child deserves to know the Secrets!

Edie, Fourth/Fifth Grade SLD & Intervention Teacher in Massachusetts

I just wanted to send you an email to let you know how much you inspire me and motivate me to keep chugging along with my son. He’s our first, he’s in kindergarten, and this year has been such a challenge. He’s never really been interested or curious about reading or writing, no matter how we present it. When his teacher sent home flashcards with letters, we found it just wasn’t working for him. The letters and sounds, no matter how long we worked on them, just weren’t sticking. I was concerned so I went looking for a better way to teach him his letters and sounds. I found it! I watched Katie Garner’s keynote on YouTube and the information shared made SO MUCH SENSE to me (and I’m not a teacher).I immediately sought out Secret Stories. The day it arrived, we immediately started on the “Better Alphabet Song,” and now, not only can he sing the song on his own, but he can identify ALL of the letters and sounds independently! He has even started teaching his three year old sister (what better way to master a subject than to teach it to someone else, right?). I’ve also continued to sprinkle in the Secrets as we read/write together and he LOVES THEM! He naturally gravitates toward storytelling so this couldn’t have been a better fit for him. I have told histeacher about the Secret Stories, as well as another teacher who presented at our school’s literacy night, and other moms whose kids are struggling, as well. I just wanted to say thank you from the bottom of my “still-struggling-to-help-my-son-but-feeling-a-lot-more-hopeful” heart!

Meghan, Kindergarten Parent in Ohio

Since your workshop, I’ve seen these strategies in action in many schools, and the SAI/Reading Teachers have all been praising the results with their students throughout this year. I’ve recommended you to several principals, and just wanted to let you know what a ‘hit’ the ‘Secret Stories’ were becoming here! Thanks so much!
Sandra, S.A.I Director/ Supplemental Educational Services in Florida

The Secret Stories were the reason that my dyslexic son learned to read with delight rather than drudgery. He’s in third grade now and we review the stories often, and he is thriving, thanks to you!
Julia, Parent in Michigan

We had a third to about a half of our students reading at or below grade level at the beginning of the year. Within three months, 90-to-95-percent are at or above grade level…. the Secret Stories is the only tool that has proved a success…When kids cannot decode words it makes learning pretty much impossible because they’re concentrating on decoding instead of comprehension. Once they can decode, we can teach to learn, instead of teach to read.
Alana, Elementary Principal in Nevada

Seeing my daughter read all the time now is such a blessing. I only wish that the schools where we live would use The Secret Stories, as it covers all the learning bases: kinesthetic, visual, and auditory- allowing access for everyone who wants to learn how to read!

Susanna, Parent in Texas

I just wanted to say THANK YOU! I have 12 RTI tier 2 & 3 kinders in my class. We have struggled ALL year trying to learn the letters and sounds with our county’s curriculum. During the winter break I finally said “Enough!” and went searching for some other way for my “other” learners to be able to understand the letter sounds. I decided to purchase the vowel pack and downloaded the sampler. I printed them and introduced them. I added the Better Alphabet song to my morning calendar routine. I can not begin to tell you how amazed I am in the number of letters and sounds my kids have picked up in the past 4 weeks! They have learned more letters and sounds this past month than they had learned all year! Even my teacher-friend next door to me is starting to use it in her class because she’s seen such a difference in the kids she is tutoring from my class!

Kim, Kindergarten Teacher inAlabama

The occupational therapist for our district just came to me in happy, excited tears over Secret Stories! An district leader brought her in to talk to me because she was asking about Secret Stories, as her students were all excited about it! She said they were telling her all about Superhero Vowels as if they were “Superman,” and how they have “short and lazy” disguises, like “Clark Kent!” She said, “I am so excited about this, and I think it could be “world changing” for my kids that need OT in writing!” She was tearful and sooo very happy to learn about Secret Stories, and hugged me and thanked me for just knowing so much about it. I’m so glad to be a small part of spreading this wonderful resource to kids who need it most!
Amy, Title Teacher in Virginia

Ican’t say enough about the Secret Stories! My students always feel so smart when they learn complicated phonics patterns (as “secrets”) that often their older siblings don’t even know! There’s nothing else like it— the kids just see it and get it! The phonics stories take no effort for the kids to remember, and they also provide lots of cues for me, so that when a student is having trouble reading or writing a word, I can give a quick hint to the story (“secret”) and the student instantly knows the story for the phonics pattern or sound they need. I can’t say enough about the difference they’ve made!

Susana, SPED Teacher in Kansas

One week into the Secret Stories and I have already seen a difference in my sons learning! I’m amazed. He read to me without struggling and getting frustrated and even sat down and wrote out sentences for his classwork without asking me for help on how to spell a word!!! I can’t wait to see what happens over the next month! His confidence has soared and he’s sounding out word after word after word. I’m crying by the way! One month ago he crawled under his bed crying and calling himself stupid for not being able to sound out words. Today he is looking around to see if there’s a word he can try to sound out! Thank YOU!!!!

Jill,Parent in Idaho

My entire class is at least onelevel above grade-level in reading, with most 2 or 3 levels above, and it’s only January!!! And their developmental spelling is improving every day!
April, First Grade Teacher in Kentucky

Secret Stories is a game-changer for so many kids here in Dubai! Being that all our kids are ELL / English Language Learners— many learning multiple languages, including standard English—at the same time, the Secrets ARE THE WAY TO GO!

I did a little “action research” project this school year using the “Better Alphabet Song,” and by the week of November 3rd, 98% of my kindergartners knew ALL of the letters and sounds! The one student that didn’t get 100% knew 23 out of 26 letter sounds, having begun school knowing only 1 letter! I am just so proud of all the hard work my kiddos have done, all the while having FUN singing, dancing and just being kids!!
Kendra, Kindergarten Teacher in Dubai

I purchased your program and can say that I HAVE NEVER BEEN MORE HAPPY WITH A PURCHASE FOR MY CLASSROOM!!!!!! I got moved up from kindergarten to 1st grade this year and thought there was NO WAY that I would be able to move my kiddos to a level J at the end of the year.Well, it’s only December and of my 15 students, 8 are already there, with the others right on track to be there for sure!

I know that I could never have made this much progress without the Secret Stories. I have almost taught them all by just following the natural progression of curiosity in my students, and it’s been amazing to see how much they could take in.While my students use the Secrets on different levels, they ALL know the stories, and as they are ready, start applying the sounds to read words.

I was recently approached by the Reading Recovery coaches at our school who pull some of my students for intervention.They wanted to know what I was doing in my room. Of the five 1st grade classrooms they service, my students stood out as “amazing decoders” in their ability to use decoding strategies to read unknown words.As a result, they are ready to be released from Reading Recovery, having successfully “recovered” to grade level!

Without having had the Secrets in the background to help them read, I know that this would not have happened.They are now going to start using the Secrets with their other intervention students as well. What a powerful reinforcement that my colleagues arecoming to me for answers!! Especially our Reading Recovery “gurus” in the district!

Sorry for the long email, but I am just so excited to have found this resource for my students. They are amazing kids and are so excited to spot the Secrets wherever we find them!
Lisa, First Grade Teacher in South Carolina

My intermediate teachers were amazed at the common sense of the Secret Stories- to explain away all of the inconsistencies in our language by simply telling learners the ‘secret’ behind the pattern. It’s just so simple!”
Barbara, Reading First Literacy Coach in Pennsylvania

Students were almost frenzied in their demands to hear more and more of these “secret” explanations for words and sounds that had never made sense to them before! (and these are the kids who act like they could care less 99% of the time!) Just watching their faces as everything started to come together for them….What a find your Secret Stories are! These tools should be a part of curriculum everywhere. What a gift to our children’s future!
Edie, Fourth-Fifth Grade SLD Teacher in Massachusetts

After just two days of teaching with the Secrets, I realized I could no longer teach reading or writing without them! It is absolutely amazing how easily kids remember them!

Virginia, At-Risk Kindergarten Teacher in Illinois

This book changed our life. I taught my dyslexic daughter to read using the Secret Stories, after trying the regular phonics programs, and finallyhaving it recommended by our homeschool support group.We didn’t have to give up learning phonetically, despite my daughter’s auditory processing problems. We would sit down with her favorite book and she would immediately begin pointing out all of the Secrets she knew! Her brain was finally able to retain not just words, but the phonics patterns and sounds within them, as she was able to reapply the same patterns and sounds in new, unknown words, as well! With the Secret Stories, we finally had something she could work with!I’ve now begun using Secret Stories with my severely language-compromised son, and he giggles as we make the stories out of his Theraputty (another great product) and make the words come alive. I’ve also used the Secret Stories in a fun way at our homeschool group – I made little capes with the Superhero Vowels sewn onto the back to wear when they “say their names!”

Anna, Parent in Kentucky

Our fourth grade team just shared the ‘ous’ secret and our lowest kids immediately got it. ThenBOOM!They were using it! Kids just soak them up! Now it seems like there are Secrets looming around every corner, in every lesson, and our kids want to know them all!!
Janis-Tameika, Fourth Grade Teacher inWashington D.C.

I knew that my primary teachers would love all that I brought back from your session at ILA, but I was thrilled to see the intermediate grade teachers using it, as well! They were so interested in the cognitive research and common sense approach to explaining all of the inconsistencies in our language.

Barbara, 3th/4th Grade Intervention Teacher in Pennsylvania

Ten years ago last October, I suffered a major stroke which left me with aphasia. Through therapy and much hard work, I now feel confident conversing with parents. A friend of mine is a 6-year survivor of a completely different kind of stroke. She is experiencing aphasia, but I’ve also noticed some gaps in her reading-ability. Working with her using your “Secret Stories” has started to make a major difference in her reading-ability, and I am requesting a parent set of your program to allow me to work with her. I will continue to update you on her progress as well as that of my students. Thank you, Katie, for making this program so readily available and so easy for teachers like me to grasp. It adds an entirely new dimension to my program and to my friend’s life as a stroke survivor.

Follow-up email—

These Secret Stories are enabling my lowest readers in third grade to crack the codes, learning to read and write each word better every day, Thank you! As I mentioned in a previous email to you a while back, as a 10 year stroke survivor myself, I frequently get together with a friend of mine who had her stroke 6 years ago. My friend had a different type of stroke in which she had completely ‘lost’ the ability to read. I worked with her using the Secret Stories and saw much progress – she is able to read parts of words, and your stories help her pick-up on skills she had lost due to the stroke. I will pass this program on to other stroke survivors with your permission. What a difference this has made in so many lives!The reading specialist at my school lent me her copy of the Secret Stories to use over the summer with an LD student that I’m tutoring.
Pat, SLD Teacher inNebraska

The reading specialist at my school lent me her copy of the Secret Stories to use over the summerwith an LD student that I’m tutoring. Your program is amazing, he loves the stories, andI can finally seehimactually “getting” the whole decoding thing. Therefore, I’m personally purchasing the program! Congratulations for creating a decoding program that finally works!
Carla, Reading Specialist/Tutor in Wyoming

Your presentation at Parent’s Night was just outstanding, and I couldn’t wait to get back home and try out some of the ideas that you shared with my son. After only a month, what a difference it has made in his learning—I’m just amazed! He reads to me without struggling and getting frustrated, and even sat down and wrote out sentences for his classwork without asking me for help on how to spell a word!!! I can’t wait to see what happens over the next month. His confidence has soared and he’s sounding out word after word after word. I’m crying by the way! One month ago he crawled under his bed crying and calling himself stupid for not being able to sound out words. Today he is looking around to see if there’s a word he can try to sound out! Thank YOU!!!!

Terry, Parent in Alabama

Wow Katie! THANK YOU so much for blogging! This has changed our world. I homeschool my six year old son. The Secret Stories and all your vlogs are the reason my son is excelling—literally immediate results! What an answer to prayer! I was becoming discouraged until a teacher friend introduced me to your website and vlogs! Thank you so much for sowing lasting seeds into all of our little learners! And the best part is NO MORE SIGHT WORDS!!

Thank YOU!

Candy, Parent in Maryland

I wanted to update you on my son’s progress after about five months of using Secret Stories. He is THRIVING!!! He is not the same reader he was five months ago. I am actually reconsidering my assumption that he is dyslexic like me because his improvement has been so drastic in such a short period of time. He decides words much more fluidly now. He went from struggling through the first set of BOB books to reading the Toad and Frog series in just five months! Most importantly, my son finally enjoys learning to read. He used to avoid reading at all costs. Now he can’t wait to decode words using the secrets he’s learned. He gets really excited when he finds secrets in words while we are out shopping and he literally tells random people at the park about the secrets he’s learned. He can spend a solid 20 minutes telling our friends and family about his Secret Story cards on the wall when they come to visit. I’m going to try to get a video of him explaining the cards and send it to you. He has so much enthusiasm and excitement about each of the secrets. You have no idea how happy it makes me to see my son finally falling in love with reading. I truly believe you have changed my sons life for the better. Thank you so much for developing this phenomenal program! I am telling all my friends about it.
Jill Parent in Virginia

My son is in grade two and is not reading. He has a diagnosis of high functioning autism.When I asked my son’s doctor last week what I could do to help my son with reading, the doctor said, “He has autism, he might never read.” It feels that I am getting the same message from his school.I struggled in school with a severe learning disability. The learning disability was not discovered until I was in grade 8. I spent many years, sitting in classrooms and not knowing what was going on. When I was diagnosed in grade 8, my parents were told I was “mentally retarded” and that I would never be able to succeed in the local public school.My son told me that he sits in class and just looks at his work sheets for the entire class. I have spent many nights googling different ways to teach my son to read. I am a single mother and it seems hard sometimes not to have another person to share my worries with. I just stumbled upon your method yesterday and I printed out some of your stories and read them to my son and showed him the pictures. He remembered the sounds right away.I have been watching your videos on YouTube and they have been unbelievable. This is the first time in along time that I have felt extremely hopeful.

(Follow-Up Email)

I can’t thank you enough for your book. My son has started reading!He loves the Secret Stories. He thanked me last night for getting the Secret Stories for him.Last night, I asked him to read the word “cookie” using what he learned from the Secret Stories. His first response was, “I can’t read such a big word.”I told him to try.He sounded out the word right away.He then said, “Mommy, I read the word cookie! I can’t believe I read such a big word!”Katie, your program is unbelievable. It really should be used in all schools to teach kids reading.Happy New Year!
Parent of Autistic Child in Canada

They are really helping my students. I teach first grade and wanted to share the following letter sent to me by one of my parents about their child’s progress……”I see a huge difference from last week and this week in David’s reading. I know that this may seem extreme, but we went over his vocabulary words yesterday and he got everyone right except for 1 or 2 that he needed some help on. When he was trying to figure the words out, I could hear him whispering some of the “secrets” to figure them out. This is amazing since I am usually ‘sweating it’ on Thursday night to still try and get him to comprehend these words. Something that I thought might be helpful to me and the other parents is if we could have the “secrets” at home too, so we are all teaching the kids in the same manner. They have already made an impression on my child, as I am seeing results already! “I tell everyone I know about your book. My oldest son has had a hard time with reading and The Secret Stories have made a world of difference with him.
Ashley, 1st GradeTeacher (sharing parent note) in Alabama

I tell everyone I know about your book. My oldest son has had a hard time with reading and The Secret Stories have made a world of difference with him. My youngest son has learned to read because of the stories. Thank you so much for what you have done!”
Carolyn, Literacy Facilitator and Parent inRoanoke, Virginia

The Secret Stories are sooooo easy, even for me, with an intermediate-background! I love how it fits with whatever I am teaching, in any subject, even though I teach 4th/5th grad. I truly believe this is not only helping my students tremendously in reading, but in their written expression, as well! Such effective, and yet easy-to-use tools!
Elise, Fourth Grade Teacher inFlorida

I bought your book about a year ago and absolutely LOVE it!I run a multisensory reading support programme at a couple schools in South Africa, working one-on-one with struggling learners, many diagnosed Dyslexic.They just adore the Secret Stories! I even have an ESl child who keeps pointing out Secrets – in our sessions and in class – and then comes and asks, “Is there a story in the ‘Book of Secrets’ for this?” (his own little name for the book!) I love the way it encourages the children to look out for Secrets and pay attention to spelling patterns around them.I have been using the Secret Stories in addition to the school’s reading curriculum. After having such success (and fun!) with the Secrets, I wanted to ask about further training.
Epanie, Multi-Sensory Reading Support Director in South Africa

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