Shining a Light on Literacy: How Jigsaw Phonics Tutoring are Helping Educators Understand How to Teach Language, with Sandra Pyne: Podcast Transcript

Ludo Millar
Hello, and welcome to the Qualified Tutor Podcast, the podcast that brings you the latest in the world of tutoring EdTech and education and hopefully inspires in us a big change that each and every one of us is capable of.

Qualified Tutor is an industry-leading tutor training organisation and an online tutoring community for 1000s of tutors around the world. This podcast is the voice of this community, where we aim to hear from tutors, teachers, entrepreneurs, coaches, business experts, students, tutor printers, and more from the world of tutoring about what inspires them every day, how they can help tutors like you and what they’ve learned about tutoring along the way.

The question is, what will you learn today?

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Ludo Millar 1:06
Hello, and welcome to the 121st episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. My name, dear listeners, is Ludo Millar, the host of this podcast. Welcome back to our regular listeners. Welcome to any of you for whom this is your first time listening to the Qualified Tutor Podcast. And of course, a huge welcome to today’s guests Sandra Pyne. Sandra, welcome to the Qualified Tutor Podcast.

Sandra Pyne 2:21
Thank you very much for having me.

Ludo Millar 2:23
It’s a sweltering day here in East London. And I believe, we’ll get onto it in just a second where you are too, but you’ve got a real story and a journey behind it where you’re based, your work and your life. So before I ruin that for our listeners, let me just give a brief introduction to Sandra. So Sandra started her career as lexicographer at Oxford University Press compiling dictionaries for learners of English as a second language – a really, really cool and interesting, language-focused job there. And then Sandra moved into teaching and built up a great deal of experience as a primary school teacher and tutor across all subjects as well as a literary specialist. Sandra then spent 15 years or so as a teacher at a pretty cool and innovative state bilingual international school in Berlin, where she was head of English special educational needs and admissions. Now in her time as a teacher, Sandra qualified as a dyslexia and literary specialist, and today is really a very well experienced assessor of dyslexia, and a specialist dyslexia tutor.

Now in amongst all of that, it’s the most wonderful roll call of roles and positions, four years ago, Sandra stepped out of the classroom as so many listeners and members of the Qualified Tutor Community have done, stepped out of the classroom to create her company Fruit Salad Publishing, which publishers literary resources for younger learners. Now in 2022, Jigsaw Phonics Tutoring is launching, and it’s a membership for tutors, and teachers and educators who would like a roadmap to starting their own tutoring business with a focus on early literacy. Now as I just mentioned, Sandra is based in Berlin, the company is based in Wales itself and these days Sandra living in her camper van is able to drift and dot and travel around Europe. So Sandra, for our listeners and myself, where are you currently based for this podcast?

Sandra Pyne 4:37
I am currently based at home just outside of Berlin but that is a little bit boring. I know because getting ready for the heatwave. But my favourite office of all my offices that I’ve had this year was January in Andalusia when I was sitting under the peach blossom in 20 degrees of sunshine, doing my work. That’s why I love travelling around in the camper van.

Ludo Millar 5:02
Jack Simmonds, a member of the Qualified Tutor team, is also a camper van enthusiast and has been traveling around southern Britain. So it’s really an option for any of you sitting in your office at home listening to this thinking, Gosh, I’m hot. Gosh, I’m not liking working, living in a city any more, then a camper van life really could be for you and Sandra, perhaps through the tales and stories that you tell, over the next 25 minutes or so, it might become clear that the camper van life is very conducive to being a tutor and an online educator in today’s market. So I gather, Sandra, that you have been able to come across some school reports or at least a tale that you remember from the days of your youth, is that right?

Sandra Pyne 5:55
I’ve been slightly re-traumatised looking at the school reports for tales of my youth. And one thing that really, really sticks out and it stands out was way back in the day. I’m from Bournemouth in Dorset. So I went to school down on the south coast. And we had the lovely Jurassic Coast on our doorstep. And we had a school trip to the Jurassic Coast. And it was getting towards the end of the day, it was time to go home and I was on an old beach and I grew up on the beach, I knew about the beach and I was 10 or 11. So just at that age where you start to get a little bit more self aware. And we were on our way- we had been reading Mariana’s Treasures at school, we were looking for fossils on the beach, and I somehow slipped and fell bum first into a rock pool. And the teachers thought it was the funniest thing. I nearly died. I thought the whole world was looking at me and I thought the only reason a kid on the beach has got a wet bum is because they’ve wet themselves. And I was just mortified and got over it, got home. Everything was good, dried off.

And then it was of course near the end of the school year, the school reports were coming out. And then the teacher had written at the bottom of my school report how happy he was to crown me Miss Rockpool of the Year, and I had to explain to my parents what would have gone on and I was just mortified all over again. And it seems like nothing now and it’s a kind of a nice memory now, but at the time. I just remember that that age being 10 or 11 and just being super self conscious, but I can recommend Lyme Regis, I can recommend Mariana’s Treasures, but I can’t recommend being 11 and falling in a rock

Ludo Millar 7:43
Be careful of the rock pools. I think students often fear their school reports but I’ve never heard it put like, for that to be the reason why you can’t bear to read your latest school report. So that sounds like an amusing, perhaps at the time dramatic tale. But yeah. Do you think then that your youth and your childhood experience at school is what has led you to what you do now? To why you do what you do now?

Sandra Pyne 8:21
Not so much at school, I think. But I was always really interested in language. And it was when I got to university, I went to university to do a linguistics and phonetics degree. And I come across so many people who still seem to have a little bit of difficulty with reading and spelling even though they’ve made it to university. And I was very curious about why this would be, that it is so easy for some people and it’s not really that easy for other people. So that’s when my interest really kicked off.

Ludo Millar 8:54
And then after that, was it that interest in language that led you to become a teacher?

Sandra Pyne 9:04
That was a lot of it. Yeah. And I’d always done a lot of volunteer tutoring for adult was for functional literacy skills. And I’ve done a lot of research on reading and spelling as part of my studies for children, and I’ve done a lot of TEFL teaching as a student, so it just seemed to be a natural thing to move into the classroom.

Ludo Millar 9:25
So why did you get into tutoring then?

Sandra Pyne 9:28
Because I qualified as a dyslexia specialist, and I did a lot of individual tutoring because I assess students and then I developed tailored interventions for them that I then taught them and I moved around. I’ve always been an international teacher so I’ve always been in Berlin and I moved around various international schools. They asked me to come in specially to help the students have a specialist at their own schools.

Ludo Millar 10:01
Yeah, now, as an avid listener of this podcast itself, as I implore all fellow Qualified Tutor Podcasts guests to be. But you know that we like to approach the conversation around our guests’ background and how they came to do what they do now with the framing of your why, finding out what your why is. Do you think that you have a why, Sandra? And if so, what would that be?

Sandra Pyne 10:29
I definitely have a why. And I think it’s really important to have a why because things get a little bit confusing and chaotic and difficult, especially if you decide to go in the business direction, which is what I’m doing. And my why is, because I really would like to do what I want to do. There’s a professional why and a personal why and the professional why is that I really want to help children learn to read, and the personal why is I really want to be able to live and move around Europe in this phase of my life. So this gives me the opportunity to do both.

Ludo Millar 11:06
That is really the freelance educator’s tale, isn’t it, is having the flexibility and the freedom to help students and children in the way that you want to, and design the programme designed by yourself. I think that’s amazing, Sandra, and you have this wonderful twist to it. It’s all about phonics, and it’s about literacy, with you and your work, so I’m going to ask a potentially tricky question here. But I believe it’s one that you will be an equal match to, Sandra. Why then is literacy in English so hard? Why, despite the prevalence and quality of good teachers, is reading and spelling just so difficult for some?

Sandra Pyne 11:54
It’s a really good question. And teachers are doing a really, really good job teaching children to spell and read. But the reality is, is that our brains are not designed for spelling and reading, absolutely wired, in most cases for us to learn language, but they’re not really wired for us to learn how to read. And that’s where it’s difficult. It’s a man-made skill, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to code spoken language as written language. And I think if you ask children, or people, how good are you at coding, it kind of starts to be a whole other question. And I think the assumption has been that just because we can speak and we can talk, then the reading and the writing and the spelling should be just as easy. And it’s really not the case.

And the other reason is that English is just really difficult. And we don’t give enough time and thought to that, I think, and in terms of all the European languages that we have, English is not just the most difficult, it really is a complete outlier.

Because we have letters and sounds that just don’t match in any reasonable way. And some languages just do. So if you’re teaching Finnish children, or if you’re teaching Spanish children or Italian children, literacy, you can get done in 3-6 months what it takes about 3 and a half years for teachers to do. So there’s a huge, huge discrepancy in the language that we’re teaching. And teachers know exactly how to teach children to read. And what they very often say is, how do you fit it in? There isn’t enough time. How do we get it all done? How do you do that reading with small groups? hHw do you do that individual reading? And that’s the point: teachers know what they’re doing. But I think the difficulty of English is really underestimated and they just need more time, which I think is where tutoring can be quite helpful because of those children who do need that extra little bit of time. And especially for the younger learners who are a little bit too young maybe to start learning right off the bat when they get school.

Tutoring is really a good option for them to catch up on the things that teachers can do very well but you don’t have time to do.

Ludo Millar 14:21
So you’ve set up Jigsaw Phonics Tutoring. I assume then that that is as a way to further that mission you just said there, which is tutoring is a great route for assisting teachers in areas such as phonics and helping with literacy. Can you tell us a bit more about about how Jigsaw, your business, helps children to read?

Sandra Pyne 14:46
Well, we are as we speak now launching a membership and the idea of that membership connects back to the question that you asked me in the beginning, which is what is my why and my why is to help more children learn to read. And the way to help more children learn to read is to get more tutors out there who are really absolutely confident in the knowledge that they have, and the way that they deliver lessons and some of the materials that they’re using. And that’s what we’re all about, to give them that knowledge, that confidence to help them do what we all want to do, which is to help children learn to read.

So it’s a combination of business training, marketing and communication training so that they can get their businesses quickly, financially and legally viable. And then there’s the academic side, which is the materials and the training that they need, so that they can be sure that they’re delivering lessons that are really well structured for children so that they get the outcomes that everybody wants. 

Ludo Millar 15:52
I’m very interested to know, Sandra, did you believe, in your educational career to date, up until you launched Fruit Salad Publishing four years ago, now Jigsaw, did you feel that running your own education business was the goal for you? Or when you were at dyslexia assessor and a specialist dyslexia tutor, did you think that that was what you were going to do forever?

Sandra Pyne 16:19
It’s a really good point. There are seasons in life, I think, where you decide, am I going to do this forever? And it would have been easy. It would have been nice. I could have done it forever. But then I thought, do I just want to do that really creative thing by myself? Or actually, there’s also Barbara in the office in Wales, do I want to get out there and just use all the experience, all the knowledge I’ve had over all these years to do something slightly different and taking the experience that I’ve had as a tutor, because I’m not just a dyslexia tutor, I also tutor phonics to small groups. And I also do some exam preparation for children here in Germany, I do that kind of tutoring. So I wanted to take all the phonics knowledge, and the literacy knowledge that I have, combined with all the experience that I’ve had tutoring and turn it into something that I think was something I wanted, when I was starting out.

This is often the story, isn’t it, we start these things because we didn’t have it ourselves. And that’s what Jigsaw Phonics Tutoring is all about. It’s there to give teachers and educators that business and marketing and communications roadmap along with the academic side, so they can be really confident that they’re on the right route in their next step.

Ludo Millar 17:37
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, with those kind of origin stories of so many, especially education businesses, is a perceived lack or flaw in the education market that someone wishes to plug, something that they didn’t have at a particular point in life. So I really think this membership could be that problem solver for many small education business leaders who are looking to grow.

Now, if that’s okay with you, Sandra, we’re just going to turn to a topic that you’ve talked to me about before, this topic of pre prepared lessons and how that fits in with the wider tutoring markets and the development of that and about which many tutors are frankly quite skeptical about: pre prepared lessons. Obviously, many aren’t and swear by them, but can you give us a little insight into how you see it and then how Jigsaw Phonics Tutoring sees it?

Sandra Pyne 18:39
Well, part of the membership that we are opening includes 90 pre prepared phonics and literacy lessons. And it’s really a hot topic, lots of teachers or tutors, they say, ‘I like to prepare my own lessons. I like them to fit my own students. I like to follow my own line of thought’. But phonics is just a little bit different because the two key words with phonics are cumulative and structured, and that means that when you’re teaching early literacy, you really want the students to build on knowledge that they already have. So you have to play a little bit of word Jenga, you know, when you teach phonics, you start with a certain number of sounds, and you need to fit them together to make words that children will be able to decode. And that is really a very meticulous, kind of forensic work to build lessons up so children and never seeing something that’s completely brand new. But that’s where I think the value of these pre prepared lessons is. Teachers can be very sure that they’ve got a structured cumulative program that isn’t going to wrong foot students who really need that extra reassurance that they’re not meeting something that they’ve never met before that they have to try and decode a word that they don’t know the individual sounds to. So that is what I think is the value of having a structured programme to teach early literacy.

Ludo Millar 20:12
And so why did you go down that route then for your membership?

Sandra Pyne 20:16
Because it will save teachers a huge amount of time. I mean, to put those kinds of structured cumulative lessons together to select the words that you need, so carefully, so that you can really make sure that the children can make the progress that they need to make is a lot, a lot, a lot of hours. And teachers don’t have to do that. They’ve got it there. And there are many ways they can use the lessons, they can just take the lessons as they are, they can use them, and of what they’re teaching, and add on extra things that they might like each but they know that they’ve got the basic backbone of a structured literacy programme that they can teach.

And what’s also really nice I think about our programme is that we have 3 little characters that the children can get very emotionally connected to. And what those characters do is they they support metacognition, they show children how they need to read or spell the words that they are looking at. So we’ve got a little panda character that tells children that they can sound out their words, phonetic words that they can read, without needing to memorise them in any way. We’ve got the little robot character, the tricky words character, so children know that their sounding out won’t work. And then we’ve got a little alien characters, children know that they’re not reading or spelling real words when they come across the full alien character. So it’s a structured programme with extra help with metacognition for the children.

Ludo Millar 21:53
I would ask you to go further, Sandra, but I think we’d be undercutting your membership programme with that. I feel like those three characters you’ve built up to associate certain categories of words in the children’s mind, I think that’s so, so powerful. So I won’t ask you to reveal the secrets of your theories and processes here. But listeners, you’ve been given more than a teaser, more than an idea of why there’s so much value to that phonics membership.

And also, I should say that, you know, really, although phonics is certainly a pretty core central topic to tutoring English, the concept of being literate, of having good literacy skills is not just, it’s not exclusive to tutors of English. And in fact, there was a brilliant talk by our own Andrea Gadsbey at the Love Tutoring Festival 2 just gone at the end of June, about literacy across the curriculum, and how an important understanding of how words work and the meaning of them, is necessary for comprehension across the subjects. It’s not just for English, and actually, that applies, therefore, to tutors of subjects as well, not just the students. So if you are tutor of a subject that’s not English, and you’re thinking, ‘I don’t think literacy applies to me’ know that understanding how words work and their meaning is important for comprehension in every single subject.

Sandra Pyne 23:25
That’s exactly true. I was at that talk, and it was really, really good. And I think you can split literacy into two levels, you can do the learning to read part of it, which is what we are all about, which is the phonics. And then you’ve got the reading to learn part, which comes after you’ve done that. And I think that’s exactly true. I mean, all teachers are literacy teachers. And, you know, you can either have the important approach, I think, to take once you’re past, the learning to read and you’re into the reading to learn is just to take that morphological approach, to break those complicated words down into the chunks of meaning and get children interested in what the language is doing. And they will also remember that you chunk it up, you give it meaning, that’s the way to do it. That’s exactly right.

Ludo Millar 24:18
But also as someone with a linguistics degree myself, I’m also deeply fascinated it as a kind of very scientific study of English itself and other languages. So Sandra, you’re absolutely right, you’re speaking from a place of real experience and expertise because of your degree, and then all the work you’ve done, but also, I think, you’re really helping to show that it’s not just for tutors of English or teachers of English.

Now, another topic that we hear a lot about and we get a lot of questions about as part of our community and I’m sure you do too, Sandra, is this idea of teaching phonics and whether that is more effective in a group setting or in one-to-one tuition, can you effectively teach phonics in a small group setting. So I wondered if you could just shed some light on your insights into small group versus one-to-one tuition?

Sandra Pyne 25:20
I can. I think there is definitely a place for both. And if I speak from my experience of tutoring dyslexic students, I can give you an example, if I am going in to support a dyslexic student, as I quite often do, I’m thinking of one of my students who was dyslexic, he was autistic, and he was visually impaired. And autistic students often have special interests and his special interest was weather, extreme weather. And it was involved in extreme weather, because he had some visual issues, he needed everything produced in large print. So I would prepare the lessons around his interests in ways that he could access the most successfully, visually. And that really needed a one-to-one situation that wouldn’t work well in a group. So I think when there are really very specific needs, one-to-one works incredibly well.

On the other hand, I also teach in small groups, and I also teach online. And that works well, if there are students who need some catching up, if they don’t have those very specific issues that some students do have, it works just as well in a small group. And quite often better because there’s a different energy in a small group, they enjoy being with each other, they’ve got partners to work with. It’s a completely different story.

And it’s really, really interesting how the value is perceived when I go into schools and teach these one-to-one lessons. The hourly rate that I charge is perceived to be really rather expensive. But by the time I’ve travelled there, prepared it, travelled home, debriefed any other teachers who are in the school then any of the admin surrounding that, it doesn’t actually turn out to be as well paid as it looks to be if you just took the hourly rate.

Whereas if I teach a small group of children, it’s not perceived by other people paying for it to be a too expensive, it’s perceived to be really good value. And for a tutor from a business point of view, it’s actually a very good business model. It just allows you to do more of the other things that you might like to do as well as the tutoring, which I think is what a lot of people are looking for, that balance of not working all the time but having some extra time to do other things. So that’s that’s been my personal experience.

Ludo Millar 27:58
And that point there is an amazing exponent of how Jigsaw Phonics’ membership looks out for the business of small education businesses, not just the academic side and the pedagogy. So, as many listeners know and I’m sure you too Sandra, we very much intend to serve the business aspects of tutoring companies as well as the pedagogical and research-informed, effective learning strategies side of [independent] tutors and agency tutors. So yeah, I think I think that’s really important, that profitable value of small group tuition but also the constructive value of having partners as you say.

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Ludo Millar 28:54
And now a word from last week’s guest, Linda Ugelow.

Linda Ugelow 28:58
I realise that everything that we do in life can be applied to some other area of life. And it’s really fun to make the connections. I really love how Ludo is very down to earth, very straightforward, very conversational, just a real guy who shares his experiences and our conversations and is not afraid to, not concerned with being polished but more about being helpful. I would recommend for a future podcast guest to ask a lot of questions in order to- from Ludo about the audience, in order to get a very clear idea and stimulate your own ideas about how you can be of service and helpful to everyone who listens.

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Ludo Millar 30:08
Now, Sandra, we just coming to a close here. But there’s one more question that I’d like to ask you, as we often do here at the QT Podcast, looking forward. So there are so many wonderful things you’ve done. And in the last few years, it’s really taken off another level, you’re into a new season, as you would put it, of your life and your career. What next for you? What’s next for Sandra Pyne?

Sandra Pyne 30:37
Well, from a business point of view, it’s launching the membership. Helping, as I said before, teachers and educators to really get their tutoring businesses started with a focus on early literacy. And for me personally, I think it’s packing up the camper van at the end of the summer and heading off down to southern Spain and not having to sit through another northern European winter.

Ludo Millar 31:03
Is that because the winters in Spain are more amenable?

Sandra Pyne 31:08
They are wonderful. Blue sky, sunshine. You can have peach blossom in January. If you’re just outside of Berlin, you get grey sky, no peach blossom and no sunshine.

Ludo Millar 31:21
And there’s no longer a desire to jump in the lake.

Sandra Pyne 31:25
Not at all. [LAUGHS]

Ludo Millar 31:28
Well, thank you so, so much for coming on. I know there’s so much that you wanted to talk about. I know you’ve contacted me in the past about the things that you’d like to discuss, you know, whether as part of the community, at the festival or on the podcast, so I’m very glad that we’ve been able to give our listeners that real expertise-informed view of phonics and literacy. And I believe this was your first podcast appearance, is that right?

Sandra Pyne 31:58
It is. Hopefully, [it went] alright.

Ludo Millar 31:28
Hopefully the springboard for many more in the future, because there are a lot of different areas of tutoring that need to hear the things that you’re saying, Sandra.

Sandra Pyne 32:10
Thank you very much for having me.

Ludo Millar 32:12
Yeah, well, it’s a real pleasure and it’s brilliant to speak to someone like you and to continue the really strong thread of phonics through from the festival, Andrea’s talk and through onto this podcast here post-Festival. I have actually one final question, Sandra. Do you have a favourite letter or sound?

Sandra Pyne 32:40
Ooh, that is a really good one. I like the sound ‘a’ or the letter a actually for lots of good reasons, and I think it’s just a really good explanation of what goes on in phonics. I mean, when we teach phonics, we teach a sound ‘a’, which is great, in words like ‘at’, but works very badly in words like ‘apron’ or ‘apricot’. And is not anything like it looks if you see the word ‘wash’. So this is really a really good example of how English is just really, really difficult to teach and how teachers out there are really just doing an amazing job with what is a really, really difficult language.

Ludo Millar 33:30
That’s a wonderful rallying cry to end, Sandra. If you’d like to find out more about Sandra or Jigsaw Phonics, you can head to jigsawphonicstutoring.com. Sandra, thank you very much for coming on.

Sandra Pyne 33:46
Thanks, Ludo.

Ludo Millar 33:48
Okay then, cheerio and see you all next time.

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Ludo Millar

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