Break the code with reading expert Nancy Young (Part 1)


“…the alphabetic code is a secret to many people (including many educators), and … not knowing this code prevents many children from learning to read and spell proficiently.” ~Nancy Young, educator and author

I have spent most of my life wondering how to break the code.

I learned to read and spell by memorizing words and just plain old guessing. It was hit and miss, try and try again. Today I’m a good reader, and I work with words for a living, but I still don’t come by it naturally.

Two years ago, my daughter started a structured literacy reading program (Orton Gillingham-based). I heard words like “phenomes” and “sounds and symbols.” I saw her learn how to decode words in a systematic way — not by guessing.

I wanted to help her learn, and I wanted to learn too.


Enter Canadian reading expert Nancy Young who is on a mission to teach kids and adults the secrets of reading and writing.

She doesn’t want it to be a secret anymore.

Most days she’s busy working with educators and students, but she realized the need to share her knowledge with a wider audience. That resulted in the creation of Secret Code Actions™ — Teacher Edition, followed by the Parent Edition (read my review here).

In part 1 of my interview, Nancy gives us the scoop on the Parent Edition: she explains the meaning behind the title, the structured literacy approach, who her book is for and how to use it.

DL: What age of child is the book suitable for? Can adults with dyslexia use it?

NY: The book can be used with preschoolers to strengthen reading readiness. Once a child is in school, the book can be used to build reading and spelling skills from Kindergarten through Grade 2, and to address gaps in skills from Grades 3 and up.

Adults with dyslexia can certainly use the book! The content may help dyslexic adults see the gaps in knowledge of the code, those areas in which they did not receive sufficient instruction or practice during their school years.

The presentation of information in snapshots, as code-based Clues and Alerts, is intentionally designed to make the learning manageable for any adult. For adults with dyslexia, this will be especially helpful. At this point the book is not available in audio format for adults whose dyslexia is more severe, but I hope that will happen before long.

DL: Is your book targeted primarily at children with dyslexia and other learning differences? Or will others benefit?

NY: Any learner of any age and any ability can benefit from the material in this book! The enrichment Clues and Alerts were specifically included to engage bright learners with dyslexia and to increase advanced readers’ knowledge of the English language. Parents will be surprised to see they are learning more about the English language too! I want learning to read and spell to be fun and fascinating for everyone.

DL: What do you mean by “Secret code” and “Secret code actions”? 

NY: The words “secret code” alert parents to the fact that the alphabetic code is a secret to many people (including many educators), and that not knowing this code prevents many children from learning to read and spell proficiently. The words also represent the need for, and fun in, being a word detective when learning to read!

English text is based on a code. Written words (the message) are made up of letters grouped in ways that represent the spoken sounds in words. In a nutshell, to read (gain meaning from text) and write (express thoughts through text) your child needs to know the alphabetic code well enough to be able to go from the symbol to the sound (reading – decoding) and the sound to the symbol (spelling – encoding) accurately, quickly and effortlessly.

Skilled readers and spellers do not guess; they know the “secrets” of the code.

The word “actions” was chosen to show that learning the code can be done through physical action. Code-based movements are presented throughout the book to make learning fun and to bring in the advantages of physical movement.

DL: What approach is used in your teaching method?

NY: Secret Code Actions™ is based on a “structured literacy” approach, the approach that research has shown to be advantageous for all readers as well as the most effective approach when teaching children with dyslexia.

A “structured literacy” approach means that children receive explicit instruction in the speech sounds (phonemes), the written symbols (graphemes) that spell these sounds, the units of meaning words can encompass (e.g. prefixes and suffixes), the many meanings and functions of words, and the syllable structure of words. Learning about these components should be a part of all general classroom instruction in reading and spelling. Sadly, they are often missing or insufficiently addressed due to a lack of teacher training on the need for these components.

DL: How do you suggest parents use your book? 

NY: I suggest that parents start by reading the first section of the book (“How to Use Secret Code Actions”), and then read the overview for each chapter. While reading, parents should think about the age of their child, their child’s knowledge of the code and, for children in school, what their child is learning (or not) in the classroom. The more familiar parents are with the layout and content of the book itself, the more easily they will be able to help their child learn the “secrets” of the code!

Parents can then include the activities in the book:

1) Woven into conversation and activities throughout daily life
2) Structured into a set learning time
3) Both spontaneously throughout the day and as part of a scheduled learning block

For children who are behind in skill mastery, parents should definitely consider setting aside a certain time on specific days of the week to help their child learn and practice skills. The book contains many suggestions as to how to do this. The Parent Edition link at my website has further supporting material which is free for parents who have purchased the book. More will be added to this link over time. Although my book is a resource, and not a comprehensive program, I have given lots of information that will help parents teach the code at home and know what to look for in the classroom.

Next post: Nancy Young talks about learning to read, and why it’s so hard for some; how schools should be teaching children to read, advice for parents and children, and her favourite book!

Obligatory disclosure: I received this book for free from the author without any obligation to write a review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. I was not paid for writing this review.

(Image credit: Used with permission from Adobe)

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