Getting Started with The Phonetic Zoo

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Spelling is sequential.

When students look at a word, they see it as a whole, so the correct sequence can be missed. This is why most workbook spelling programs don’t work. Auditory input and then spelling the word out loud, letter by letter, ensures accurate storage of the correct sequence in the brain, which allows for correct retrieval and accurate spelling.

The Phonetic Zoo is a teacher-guided, phonics-based audio spelling program.

After a short introductory lesson, students independently take spelling tests until mastery of the list is achieved. Students learn spelling rules incrementally, which will help with future spelling, and personal spelling lists ensure that all a student’s spelling needs are addressed.

The spelling program is for students in third grade and above and consists of three levels (A, B, and C). If you are not sure what level to start with, take the Spelling Placement Test. Once you know what level, simply purchase the Starter Set for that level. It has everything you need to begin. When you are ready for another level, all you need to purchase is the audio portion for that level (Audio CDs or MP3 files).


Each Starter Set of The Phonetic Zoo spelling program includes

  • Phonetic Zoo Teacher’s Notes spiral-bound book (PDF e-book also included)
  • Set of large Lesson Cards
  • Set of small Zoo Cards
  • One set of Audio CDs or MP3 files (Level A, B, or C)
  • Spelling and the Brain video seminar (link to streaming video)


How to Use

How does The Phonetic Zoo teach spelling?


How to Use The Phonetic Zoo

You will find that all your materials, along with your own personal CD player (or MP3 player) and headphones, will fit conveniently in a shoebox. Putting the large flashcards on a ring and keeping the Zoo cards together in a rubber band or small plastic bag will keep them from becoming misplaced.


1. Watch the Spelling and the Brain streaming video.

This will reinforce the foundational concepts mentioned above and familiarize you with the “how to” of the program described below. Although there is no reason to prevent your students from watching the video with you, there is also no particular reason why they should. The video is for the parent or teacher.


2. Present the rule of Lesson One to your student(s), using the large lesson card.

The lesson cards can be used for two primary purposes: 1) for you to use as you preview and review the lessons with your student and 2) for your student to use to study independently if he wishes. All the words for all three levels of The Phonetic Zoo are contained on the lesson cards, so they are useful for working with students of mixed ages and abilities.

Read the rule out loud from the back of the card and have your student read and spell out loud the three words on the front of the card which correspond to the chosen level. Briefly discuss how the animal name shown on the front meets the rule of the lesson. The teacher’s notes include a deeper explanation of the spelling rule, some history behind the rule, and additional commentary to add to your understanding of spelling.


3. Give the student the corresponding small Zoo Card.

The front of the Zoo Card includes the lesson title and animals whose names illustrate the spelling rule. On the back of the card is the rule or jingle that accompanies each lesson. The Zoo Cards will serve not only as a reminder of the rule and animals which correspond to it, but also as a motivational tool because as your students progress through the lessons, they will see their animal collection grow. Students may wish to display their Zoo Cards on their bedroom or classroom wall, or they may wish to use the cards as zoo cage doors. Complete instructions and zoo cage templates are included in Appendix 5 of the Teacher's Notes.


4. Set up the child with headphones, paper, and pen.

Why headphones? Students who use this program with headphones will reap the greatest benefits. The sound and the experience that headphones provide are close to the ear and to the brain. There are no distractions or auditory interferences. It is a personal and intimate activity and greatly assists in making the goal of mastering a spelling lesson even more of an individual challenge. They will develop a strong sense of ownership of the program and enjoy the change in routine it provides. Use headphones!

Paper. Students should prepare their paper by numbering 1-15 on the left side, double-spacing (leaving a blank space between lines). Since college-ruled notebook paper usually contains 32 lines, students should be able to fit all 15 words on one side of the paper. It is helpful for the child to write the lesson number and which attempt it is. A spelling test worksheet is available as a PDF download with The Phonetic Zoo Teacher's Notes (see the blue page). 

Pen, not pencil. For a detailed explanation on the benefits of pen over pencil, see the article "Convert to Pens."


5. The student listens to the introduction on Disc One, Track One.

The student will need to listen to the introduction just once. Once the introduction is complete, be sure that he knows how to skip to the track he needs for that lesson. Corrections for each lesson are on a separate track. The student can look on the back of the Phonetic Zoo CD case to see which disc and track number correspond to each lesson.


6. The student takes the test.

At first, the lesson may proceed too rapidly, and the student might be frustrated by not being able to keep up. Explain that this is normal and encourage him to pause the audio at any time. Each lesson is less than 10 minutes long. Even if he misspells many words the first time through, don’t worry. Tell him to relax. Speed and accuracy will improve with repetition. Place the emphasis on how many are right, not on how many are wrong. Be enthusiastic about his progress.


7. The student makes corrections on the test using the next track of the CD.

After the student has written all fifteen words, he listens to the next audio track. He should write the correct spelling of the word next to his attempt at the word. Thus, his spelling test will have each word written twice.

Determine a method to mark which words were spelled incorrectly—perhaps a single strike-through or an X adjacent to each incorrect word. You may find that your student might not always catch all his errors. That is okay. After he has finished with his corrections, you may check as well and silently write in the correct spelling next to his attempt. Smile a lot and don’t feel you have to continuously point out his errors. Frequency will do its job. Gradually his speed and ability to write the words and letters he hears will improve.

Strong visual learners may be happier to correct their lessons by using the list on the back of the card along with the recorded corrections on CD.


8. The student takes the test every day until he achieves 100% twice in a row.

Our goal is excellence in spelling100% twice in a row ensures mastery of each list. Interestingly, this goal is not usually discouraging to students. Instead, it becomes a challenge to pursue.


9. The students takes Personal Spelling tests (Lessons 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, & 47).

This is a vitally important part of The Phonetic Zoo spelling program. Every fifth lesson is a Personal Spelling lesson. The lesson cards for these lessons have blank spaces, and the verbal instructions on the audio direct the student to collect words for the Personal Spelling lessons. These words are to be gathered from previous lessons and errors in written compositions as well as vocabulary from other subject areas. For your convenience, each Personal Spelling lesson in the teacher's notes contains extra word lists based on additional spelling rules, and Appendix 4 lists 240 frequently misspelled words. These are also excellent choices for Personal Spelling lessons.


10. Students take the final exam.

There is a final exam at the end of each level. Each is quite long, using words from each rule. The scoring guide indicates whether the student has accomplished the goals of the program and is ready to progress to the next level or should repeat this same level again. In preparation for the final exam, you may want to spot check the student with words from different lessons, using the lesson cards to help. The instructions for taking and evaluating the final exam are included in the teacher’s notes.

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How does The Phonetic Zoo Teach Spelling?

Why do we call it The Phonetic Zoo? When you have a room full of crazy and unpredictable people, you might say, “It’s a zoo in here!” Our English spelling rules seem to be as crazy and unpredictable as any language on earth, and in trying to master them, one might feel that they are like wild animals: crazy, illogical, and challenging. Since children love animals, the stranger the better, we managed to find a few animals for each lesson whose names match the spelling rule, jingle, or hint. Thus, The Phonetic Zoo.

Good spelling demonstrates literacy, education, and intelligence. It is important. These days, spellcheckers on our computers can save many an embarrassment, but a computer is not always available, nor is it a replacement for full comprehension. Consequently, spelling remains an important skill, and The Phonetic Zoo can help your students achieve excellence in spelling.

To teach The Phonetic Zoo, you will need these items.

  • Phonetic Zoo Teacher’s Notes spiral-bound book (PDF e-book also included)
  • Set of large Lesson Cards
  • Set of small Zoo Cards
  • One set of Audio CDs or MP3 files (Level A, B, or C)
  • Spelling and the Brain video seminar (link to streaming video)

Although you can begin immediately by reading the How to Use The Phonetic Zoo section above, be sure to plan a time to watch the Spelling and the Brain video to familiarize yourself with this method of spelling instruction.


A Multi-Sensory Approach

The Phonetic Zoo is based on Mrs. Anna Ingham’s effective Blended Sound-Sight Program of Learning. Mrs. Ingham discovered more than fifty years ago, long before psychologists and educators began to talk of auditory learners and visual learners, that all students learn best when what they see is reinforced by hearing and when what they hear is reinforced seeing. Thus the “blending of sound and sight” is the most effective educational approach to language arts study.

With determination and persistence, Mrs. Ingham fought the great battle against whole language extremists in Canada, almost single-handedly, and schools that have used her program consistently have virtually eliminated reading problems. We have developed a spelling program which effectively recreates Mrs. Ingham’s Sound City spelling rules using the theme of animals and a zoo.

Although not all of the possible spelling rules are presented in The Phonetic Zoo, enough of them are provided in a fun way such that students will learn to look for patterns and discover other rules as they explore spelling. This program provides your student with enough rules to be successful but not too many to be discouraged.

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A Brief Review of Basic Neurophysiology

Spelling is the correct retrieval of sequentially stored, virtually random bits of information. Therefore, there are two activities involved in spelling: correctly storing information in the brain and correctly retrieving that information. Those who teach spelling should not only understand how the brain works but must also use that understanding to create an optimal learning approach for students who may have very different learning styles.

The brain acquires information through the sensory pathways: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. Once information gets to the brain, it is stored when brain cells (neurons) send electrochemical impulses to other brain cells. Connections are made, and circuits are then reinforced by three variables: frequency, intensity and duration. In simpler terms, humans learn best by seeing, hearing, or feeling things that are either very frequent, very intense, or very long-lasting. There is no other way.

A student who is strong visually will be more able to learn spelling from textbooks and worksheets since his visual pathway may be the most reliable, and visual input will be the most accurate for him. A student who is strong auditorily will be more able to learn spelling from hearing the rules and words, something that a textbook is unable to facilitate. A student who is strong kinesthetically wants to feel and move, anchoring information to the brain through the body.

Most toddlers are primarily kinesthetic, secondarily auditory, and lastly visual in learning style. Most older people are exactly the opposite. For young students just learning to read, write, spell, and do arithmetic, auditory input is still extremely important and must not be neglected by the teacher. Unfortunately, textbooks and worksheets are exclusively visual and often do not provide the most efficient method of study.

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Spelling is Sequential

Words consist of letters, but if you do not have your letters in the correct order, your spelling is incorrect. Virtually every teacher or parent has seen children who will write a word like waer or gril or turtel in which they did get all the letters, but because the order was wrong, the word is hard to decipher. Spelling is sequential because the order of letters (not just getting the right ones) determines the word. How can sequence be taught most effectively?

When you see a word, special for example, you are forced by nature to see it all at once. Since the letters go into your brain simultaneously, there is no sequential storage of the information. Vision is a global sense. There is a spatial storage but not a sequential one. Consequently, if a student has even a mild dyslexia or difficulty in processing abstract visual information, we cannot be assured that the information is being stored properly (i.e. correct sequence) in the brain. All the letters are seen at the same moment.

However, when a word is spelled out loud, s - p - e - c - i - a - l, the letters go into the brain one at a time in a precise sequence. In fact, the spelling of the word can only be received in sequence. Therefore, since spelling is sequential in nature, auditory input is the best possible way to accurately store spelling information in the brain. Words correctly stored will more likely be correctly retrieved.

Coupling the auditory letter-by-letter sequencing with the presentation of letter groups and the unique sounds they make, The Phonetic Zoo effectively helps students learn to spell.

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Maximizing Frequency

Information is stored in the brain through sensory stimulation given with frequency, intensity, and duration. As the same type of stimulation is given again and again, the neural connections which store that information are strengthened. With enough frequency the connections become permanent, and learning is complete. In teaching spelling, the real trick involves the accurate transmission and reception of the information with enough frequency to make the knowledge permanent and second nature. However, consistency is difficult to attain.

The use of audio recordings, combined with flashcards and dramatic images, provides for a consistent and organized presentation of information in a format that allows individual study and an individualized rate of progress through the materials. Students can listen repeatedly, hear the same thing consistently, do the same test each day, and continue until a perfect score has been achieved. For the best possible effect, require that the score of 100% be achieved twice in a row. This will ensure that each student learns the lessons thoroughly through maximized frequency.

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How long will it take to complete all 47 lessons?

This will vary greatly from student to student. We do not suggest any specific timeline for completion, but we do insist on a goal of complete mastery. Therefore, the student should continue to repeat the same lesson every day until a score of 100% is achieved twice in a row. Some lessons are harder than others. While one student may achieve the 100% score twice in three or four days, others may take five, seven, even ten or more days. This is not a problem. Simply do a lesson every day, and you will see progress. 

Using the Zoo Cards to review past spelling rules as they apply to new words will help students retain the spelling information stored in their brains. The instructions to create a phonetic zoo, which uses the small Zoo Cards as cage doors, is located in Appendix 7. The necessary pages to create the zoo are available in the download. By displaying the zoo in a classroom, teachers will have a ready-made review center easily accessible to students looking for spelling reminders.

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If you have any problems or questions as you begin to use The Phonetic Zoo materials, do not hesitate to contact Customer Service. We are committed to your success with this program, and we will do everything in our power to assist you in implementing it effectively. 

Need to replace a broken or scratched disc? Call us toll free at 800.856.5815 and let us know which disc you need and where you originally purchased it, and we will send you a replacement for a $15 fee.

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If you use this program and your children do not dramatically improve their spelling, we offer a 100% satisfaction, no time limit guarantee on everything purchased directly from IEW. To view our refund policy or request a return label, click here.

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Special Thanks to

Dean Anderson, Livingston, MT (our superb recording engineer)
Marcia McCarry, Livingston, MT (another fine voice)
Scott Oplinger, Moscow, ID (marvelous graphics assistance)
Shirley George, Edmonton, AB (important spelling rules advice)
and most especially to
Anna G. Ingham, C.M., Yorkton, SK (who made it all possible)
and all Blended Sound-Sight staff and teachers everywhere.

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