How It All Began – Lexonik Flex

a light bulb on a blackboard with a chalk thought bubble around it

Why was Lexonik Flex developed and what does it involve?

The first intervention developed by Sound Training for Reading was Lexonik Advance, which has proved to be highly successful in the UK and across the world. This intervention mainly targets mainstream students in primary and secondary schools. Lexonik Advance supports both their decoding and vocabulary development, with the average reading gain of 27 months in only 6 one-hour intensive teaching sessions. The methodologies and support offered by Lexonik Advance are suitable for any age and/or ability of learner but the highly prescriptive delivery model means it isn’t viable in other institutions, outside of a classic school setting, which is why Lexonik Flex was developed.

Based on the same principles as Lexonik Advance, Lexonik Flex was designed to be more flexible, hence its name, and accommodate organisations with a fluid client base or one with irregular scheduling.

All Lexonik’s intervention programmes and professional development courses are based on years of action research carried out by the company’s Founder, Katy Parkinson.

Lexonik Flex is a fast, focused and fun programme, enjoyable for all ages and abilities. It stretches everyone, allowing them to achieve success at a higher level than they are currently achieving. The teaching sessions are very intensive and highly effective, and for this reason must be delivered by experienced, trained professionals to small groups of no more than four.

Lexonik Flex is based around the following five key areas:

  • Setting high expectations – build self-belief and aim high
  • Phonological awareness – awareness and manipulation of the sound structure held within speech
  • Vocabulary – developing root-word knowledge and an understanding of how prefixes and suffixes alter meaning
  • Metacognition – the awareness and understanding of how you think
  • Automaticity – direct teaching, repetition and speed is key if learners are to master their own learning.

Set High Expectations – aim high and they will achieve!

A great deal of research has been carried out by Stanford University’s Dr. Carol Dweck, Lisa Blackwell Ph.D. and their colleagues (2007), which found that people’s mindsets – how they perceive their abilities – played a key role in their motivation and achievement. I truly believe this to be the case.

We must believe in our learners, have confidence in them, show them how they can improve, and yes, praise them for their effort – but never give false praise. Their effort must also show improvement; if effort is being praised yet there is no improvement, I would suggest that the support being provided is at fault and not the learner’s ability. When they can see improvement for themselves, their self-belief, self-confidence and motivation to succeed automatically improve.

Learners need to be shown explicitly how to improve. They need to be provided with scaffolding – a method which they can take away and build upon independently – and they need instant feedback. But the instant feedback needs to be of use to them:

What was good about a piece of work? What would make it even better and take it to the next level?

If there are errors or misunderstanding, learners must be shown why there was an error and what can be done about it. That way they can see progress and learn quickly from mistakes. If learners learn quickly they will see progress and the upward spiral begins!

Phonological Awareness – sounds like fun!

Phonological awareness involves the detection and manipulation of sounds within speech, both of which are crucial for the development of reading at all stages from reception onwards. Adams (1990) describes five levels of phonemic awareness in terms of abilities:

• to hear rhymes and alliteration as measured by knowledge of nursery rhymes

• to do oddity tasks (comparing and contrasting the sounds of words for rhyme and alliteration)

• to blend and split syllables

• to perform phonemic segmentation (such as counting out the number of phonemes in a word)

• to perform phoneme manipulation tasks (such as adding, deleting a particular phoneme and regenerating a word from the remainder).

Phonological training in Lexonik Flex begins at the syllable stage and does not include any phoneme matching or onset and rhyme tasks.

The terms phonemic awareness, phonics and phonological awareness are often used interchangeably; however, these terms have very different meanings:

  • phonemic awareness focuses specifically on recognising and manipulating phonemes, the smallest units of sound
  • phonics requires learners to know and match letters or letter patterns to sounds and to use this information to decode words
  • phonological awareness relates only to speech sounds, not to alphabetic letters or letter strings; it does not require knowledge of written alphabet letters or letter patterns.

Phonological awareness is an important determiner of the success in learning to read and spell. Effective readers have strong phonological awareness, whereas poor readers are weak in this area. The levels of phonological skill in preschool children strongly predict how well and how quickly children will develop reading skills. In addition, interventions aimed at improving phonological awareness lead to significantly improved reading skills, proving that phonological awareness can be taught.

Shaywitz (2003) strongly supports the idea that explicit phonological awareness training is essential for, and should be provided to, secondary aged students. This is true for any age of learner with a reading deficit. The relationship between phonological awareness and reading acquisition is complex, and there is strong evidence to suggest that difficulty with manipulation of verbal sounds inhibits the ability to read.

Chard & Dickson (1999) believe that phonological awareness can be developed through carefully planned instruction. Teaching programmes, therefore, need to include activities that focus on the sounds in spoken English. As learners progress, focus needs to be given to phonological awareness in relation to the words they are encountering, in order to develop a more sophisticated phonological ability at the appropriate level.

Lexonik’s methodology insists upon active learning and focuses on developing the learners’ phonological skill so that they can use phonics effectively and read unfamiliar words, at the same time realising the immense importance of building vocabulary knowledge.

There has been further debate about the method of teaching phonics, in particular, over analytic phonics and synthetic phonics. The analytic method, as it suggests, encourages the reader to look at the word as a whole and break it down, taking clues from recognition of the whole word. Thus, reading becomes about memorising the look of the whole word. I believe this to be a hit-and-miss approach, which encourages ‘guessing’ as a first reading strategy. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that we find many of our older learners struggling to decode.

The synthetic method begins with the individual sounds and builds these sounds into words. This method teaches sound very rapidly. The synthetic method used in the Clackmannanshire study in 2005 was found to be the most effective, yet received criticism from some educationalists because of its lack of impact upon comprehension levels (Johnston & Watson, 2005).

Lexonik begins with the synthetic approach (encoding), teaching learners to process sound very quickly, but almost immediately moves to the analytic approach (decoding). The programme then teaches learners how to analyse words to extract meaning, encouraging learners to become more actively involved in their own learning. Equal importance is placed on both decoding for reading and decoding for meaning.

Building Vocabulary Knowledge – A word in your ear!

The most compelling reasons for providing learners with instruction to build vocabulary is the contribution that vocabulary knowledge makes to reading comprehension. Indeed, one of the most enduring findings in reading research is the extent to which learners’ vocabulary knowledge relates to their reading comprehension (Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Becker, 1977). The National Reading Panel (2000) concluded that comprehension development cannot be understood without a critical examination of the role played by vocabulary knowledge. Given that learners’ success in school and beyond depends, in great measure, upon their ability to read with comprehension, there is an urgency to provide instruction that equips learners with the skills and strategies necessary for lifelong vocabulary development.

Without this instruction, the well-known ‘Matthew Effect’ (Stanovich, 2000), is set in motion: ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’. In terms of vocabulary development, good readers read more, become better readers, and learn more words; poor readers read less, become poorer readers, and learn fewer words. Within the workplace, vocabulary plays a vital role at every level. From basic health and safety in the workplace to effective communication with colleagues, not to mention the reading and vocabulary demands of applying for and securing employment in the first instance.

Research emphasises that vocabulary development is a vital part of all content learning, but it is often ignored. The link between vocabulary knowledge and comprehension is undeniable. While wide reading increases a learner’s vocabulary significantly, professionals supporting that learner, at any age, must realise that direct and explicit instruction in vocabulary must be recognisable and become habitual. For this to happen with older learners, they must be shown a method which allows them to become self-reliant. Learners will inevitably have vastly different levels of word knowledge and may have had little opportunity to develop their language skills at home. Professionals must therefore build word-rich environments in which to immerse their learners and must teach and model good word-learning strategies.

Research suggests that although many learners acquire vocabulary early on in life through activities at school, this cannot be left to chance, particularly in the case of children with poor vocabularies. Practical ideas to support vocabulary development can include pre-teaching of key vocabulary before reading a text, and checking the understanding of vocabulary meaning, but this is not enough. Teaching words ad hoc, or even attempting to teach lists of unconnected vocabulary is not an effective way to develop and expand vocabulary knowledge.

Rather than teach individual words, we should teach learners how to make links between unknown words and to look for the meanings of common prefix, root words and suffix definitions. This method of instruction will empower them to develop their own vocabulary knowledge and learn independently.

Teaching the meanings of root words, prefixes and suffixes instantly promotes vocabulary knowledge and therefore must be taught, and this is a key component of Lexonik.

Lexonik recognises the need to teach vocabulary explicitly, along with the need to revisit the same words repeatedly to ensure the learning of any new vocabulary takes place. We also recognise the importance of targeted questioning to encourage learners to think about word definitions. By providing explicit teaching around prefixes, suffixes and root words, learners are taught how to expand their own vocabulary knowledge, and they really enjoy doing it.

Teaching Metacognition – we all need to think about this one!

One of my trainees, at the beginning of a session, said, “I just LOVE this. It really makes you THINK.“

I took this to mean that she was beginning to understand the real key to ‘learning’ and not just learning to read; she was engaged in metacognition, engaged in the thinking process and engaged in her own learning.

Metacognition can be defined simply as thinking about thinking. Learners who think metacognitively know what to do when they are unsure of an answer. In other words, they have found a way to figure out what they need to do for themselves, making them an independent learner, not waiting to be spoon-fed or at a loss when not provided with the answer. The use of metacognitive strategies ignites one’s thinking and can lead to more active engagement and improved performance, especially among learners who are struggling. Understanding and controlling cognitive processes may be one of the most essential skills for learners to have in order to develop their own understanding. It is therefore imperative that we teach metacognitive skills.

In Daniel Willingham’s brilliant book Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009), he talks a lot about thinking and makes statements such as: ‘The brain is not designed for thinking. It is designed to save you from having to think, because the brain is actually not very good at thinking.’ He then goes on to explain that the human loves to learn and is extremely capable of learning, as long as there is effective scaffolding around the thinking process. I wholeheartedly agree.

Metacognitive strategies allow learners to plan, control and evaluate their own learning, and have a crucial role to play. Although the metacognition taught within Lexonik relates mainly to reading and vocabulary development, learners should and are able to transfer these skills more broadly. We combine various thinking and reflective processes, which our trainers demonstrate to our learners.

Preparation and planning are important thinking skills. Learners need to be given very explicit learning goals and to be provided with strategies in order to achieve them. The clearer the goal, the easier it will be for learners to measure their own progress.

To be effective, learners need to be explicitly taught how to select and apply appropriate learning strategies for any given context. This allows them to think and make conscious decisions about the learning process. Applying this thinking process to reading means that when learners come across vocabulary they do not know, they should be able to attempt to work out the meaning for themselves.

The Importance of Automaticity – We simply don’t want to waste time thinking about it!

Fluent readers appear to recognise most of the words they read automatically and this automaticity frees cognitive space, thus allowing the reader to gain meaning from text. This implies that good readers are also good decoders. In fact, fluent readers characteristically seem to be able to decode, not by guessing from context or prior knowledge of the word, but by a kind of automatic identification that requires no effort.

Gough (1972) believed that when word recognition becomes automatic, the reader is not conscious of the process. Many adults do not realise or acknowledge that they use phonics to help them to read. It is only when they are faced with vocabulary which is well outside their knowledge base, that they realise that they do in fact use their phonic knowledge because previous sight knowledge is not available to them.

Most fluent readers read quickly, automatically recognising words and maintaining a flow that allows them to make connections and pick up on inferences. They find themselves able to fully understand the text they are reading.

So if this is what fluent readers can do, the opposite is true for the weaker reader.

It would seem that weaker readers are hindered by a number of factors that do not allow them to develop fluency. This prohibits them from performing the complex tasks expected of them during the whole reading experience.

It may also be true that progress for many learners may be hampered because of miscommunication between teacher and learner. Yoshimura (1999) suggests that teachers assume that it is the learner’s responsibility to practise a new skill until they have acquired proficiency. However, many learners seem to think they have practised enough after only a few attempts, even if they fall short of being fluent and proficient in the task. Because of this miscommunication, many weak readers do not reinforce the skill sufficiently to become fluent. I agree with Yoshimura: we must ensure learners are encouraged to practise repetitive tasks rigorously until automaticity has been reached, but we must ensure that this is done in a manner which is acceptable to the learner.

Adams (1990) discusses the importance of repetition and the need for less proficient readers to be taught and consistently exposed to multiple sounds for letter combinations. This helps the memory to link sounds automatically to letter patterns, and increases learners’ ability to recognise words automatically. Lexonik ensures this automatic stage is reached in a fun and motivational way. Activities and procedures are constantly repeated until automaticity with syllable recognition is achieved. This is why activities are always timed; learners have to ‘beat the clock’. This empowers them to move the decoding process out of the working memory, freeing up cognitive space so that reading comprehension can take place.

Automaticity, memory and reading are very closely linked. Weakness in working memory can cause difficulties with decoding and reading comprehension. Specific memory-related difficulties will increase with the challenge of reading.

The working memory is an especially significant area for learning to read, but the information required by the learner to help with comprehension is held within the long-term memory.

Working memory involves cognitive processes that maintain information in the mind during active processing of information. It enables the coding, processing and recording of current information, whereas long-term memory holds everything we know and can do.

Distinguishing and combining speech sounds and then linking them with letter patterns are necessary skills for reading development, and phonological working memory plays a key part in this. This refers to a process of receiving, analysing and processing sounds within spoken language, allowing the learner to remember the connection between spoken and written language. The establishment of memory pathways makes it possible to remember, on hearing a speech sound, which letter pattern matches the sound. Should the activation of this memory trace in the working memory take a lot of time, it slows down the reading event, makes the memory trace vulnerable to mistakes and, above all, ties up capacity.

As the reading skills become stronger, the functioning of the phonological working memory becomes automated. When this happens, the working memory has more capacity left over to support the understanding of words and text.

If a reading intervention is to be successful it must improve the quality and speed of decoding, so that reading comprehension can take place. Lexonik Flex develops working memory by providing fast, effective delivery of phonological awareness training.

Lexonik Flex is intensive, effective and great fun. It ignites enthusiasm within our learners. It makes them curious about language and allows them to understand language at a deeper level. Crucially, for many learners, Lexonik Flex will be the first literacy based programme they’ve participated in that has resulted in progress.

As one Lexonik learner said after completing the course…


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References and further reading

Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Anderson, R. C., & Freebody, P. (1981). “Vocabulary Knowledge”. In J. Guthrie (Ed.), Comprehension and Teaching: Research Reviews. Newark, DE: International Reading Association (p. 77-117).

Apthorp, H. (2006). “Effects of a Supplemental Vocabulary Programme in Third Grade Reading/Language Arts”. Journal of Educational Research, 100 (2). p.67-79.

Becker, W.C. (1977). “Teaching Reading and Language to the Disadvantaged”. Harvard Educational Review, 47(4), p.518-543.

Bell, T. (1998). “Extensive Reading: Why? and How?” TESL Journal [Electronic], 4(12). Available:, [8 Feb 2009].

Biemiller, A. (2003). “Vocabulary: needed if more children are to read well”. Reading Psychology, 24(3-4), p.323-35.

Blachowicz, C., and Fisher, P. (2002). Teaching Vocabulary in All Classrooms. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Chall, S.J. et al (1990). The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind. Harvard University Press.

Chard, D.J., & Dickson, S. V. (1999). “Phonological Awareness: Instructional and Assessment Guidelines”. Intervention in School and Clinic, 34 (5), p.261-270.

Dean, G. (2000). Teaching Reading in Secondary Schools. London: David Fulton.

Department for Children, Schools and Families (2008). Teaching Effective Vocabulary: What Can Teachers Do to Increase the Vocabulary of Children who Start Education with a Limited Vocabulary? London.

DfES, (1999). National Literacy Strategy. London Press.

Dweck, Dr. C. (2006). Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. Robinson

Fitzgerald, J. (1995). “English-as-a-second-language learners’ cognitive reading processes: a review of research in the United States”. Review of Educational Research 65.

Gough, P.B. (1972). “One Second of Reading”. In Kavanagh, J.F. & Mattingley, I.G. (Eds.), Language by Ear and by Eye. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hirsch, E. D. (2006). The Knowledge Deficit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Johnston, R., & Watson, J. (2005). The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment. Edinburgh: Scottish Executive Education Department.

Johnston, R., and Watson, J. (2007). Teaching Synthetic Phonics. Exeter, UK]: Learning Matters.

Lewis, M., and Wray, D. (2000). Literacy in the Secondary School. London: David Fulton.

Marzano R. J. (2004). Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What works in Schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching Children to Read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Reports of subgroups. NICHD.

Ofsted (2004). Reading for Purpose and Pleasure : An Evaluation of the Teaching of Reading in Primary Schools. Ofsted Publications Centre, London.

Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia. New York: A.A. Knopf.

Smith, S., Simmons, D., and Kame’enui, E. (1995). Synthesis of Research on Phonological Awareness. Eugene, OR.

Stanovich, K. (2000). Progress in Understanding Reading. New York: Guilford Press. Willingham D. J. (2009). Why Don’t Students like School? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Yoshimura, F. (1999). “Theory into Practice: How can we apply automaticity theory to the English language curriculum?” JALT Journal, 7(2), p.2-6.