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Reading and Writing: The Slinky Effect

by Connie Hebert
 | Oct 06, 2015

ThinkstockPhotos-56381621_x600As I was walking on the beach one day, I found a Slinky toy sitting on the sand. I smiled because I remembered playing with one as a kid. The interesting thing about this toy is that it can’t properly move in or out, up or down, or side to side if any part of its coil is dysfunctional. It can’t operate freely if there are any kinks in its design. As I played with the Slinky, I reflected on how similar it is to the reading–writing process.

Let’s examine a few kinks that prevent kids from flexibly moving in and out, up and down, and side to side, independently:

Not enough practice

As kids learn to read, they must read and write constantly to become better at reading and writing. Without practice, they lack proficiency, confidence, and independence with a variety of genres. Without practice, they struggle to read on or above grade level. Kids need to practice with a Slinky!

Not enough text levels

Kids who are learning to read must be taught to read using increasingly difficult text levels. Without the right books, they begin to develop inappropriate behaviors for coping with—and avoiding—texts that are too hard, frustrating, and complex. Without the right books, an incremental staircase on which to learn, practice, reinforce, and master internal strategies, they will not be able to read independently. Kids use a staircase to operate a Slinky!

Not enough sight words

Readers must have a strong base of sight words that serve as lifelines while learning to read. Without enough sight words under their belts, kids’ brains have to figure out every word, which slows down the process. What’s the best way to teach kids how to read sight words quickly and accurately? Have kids write them, fast. Kids learn swiftly to manipulate a Slinky, automatically!

Not enough phonemic awareness and phonics instruction

The code must be cemented into the brains of young readers in order to decode accurately and read fluently. Without phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, kids lack proficiency with the code needed to read and write. They must know how the code works, which takes knowledge, practice, application, and mastery. There’s no way around it. Kids can’t make the Slinky perform without the coils!

Not enough background knowledge

Talk to kids. Read to kids. Write to kids. Ask good questions that encourage kids to think, share, learn, and express themselves. Without enough background knowledge, readers may be able to decode words, but they have difficulty comprehending what they mean. Kids can’t make the Slinky work in different ways if they don’t watch, learn, and interact and experiment with a slinky!

Not enough daily reading and writing instruction

Teachers are essential. They are not optional. Kids must be taught by teachers who know how to teach reading and writing. Without daily reading and writing instruction, the process of learning to read and write is difficult, delayed, frustrating, tedious, and self-defeating. A Slinky can’t be easy and fun for kids to play with if it doesn’t come out of the box often!

In order to read and write with proficiency, accuracy, independence, and confidence, kids must receive the following:

  • Practice
  • Text levels
  • Sight words
  • Phonemic awareness and phonics instruction
  • Background knowledge
  • Daily reading and writing instruction

So what exactly is The Slinky Factor? If there are any kinks in the coils that make up the system for reading within the brain, kids won’t learn to read properly. How do we identify the kinks? We do this by observing kids read and write, by assessing what they can do and what they need, by using formal and informal assessment data to drive instructional decisions, and by fixing the kink immediately.

If a kid is not getting enough practice, we should increase the amount of time he or she actually is reading independently, daily. If a kid isn’t being taught using increasingly difficult quality texts, we need to buy more books and use them for instruction. If a kid can’t read common sight words with ease and accuracy, we should increase the amount of time kids read and write until sight words become automatic. If a kid has had limited exposure to letters, sounds, onsets and rhymes, common chunks, oral and written language, and working with words, we should use every resource to teach him or her the code. If a kid has been isolated from books, travel, life experiences, environmental print, and role models, we should plan as many vocabulary activities, book handling opportunities, questioning strategies, literature experiences, and storytelling moments as we possibly can. If a kid is not receiving daily reading and writing instruction, we should ask why not, and fix that—fast.

When was the last time you played with a Slinky? Maybe it’s time to get one as a reminder of what happens when there are no kinks in the Slinky…and what happens when there are.

Headshot C. Hebert 2015Connie Hebert is an international literacy consultant and the author of Catch a Falling Reader, Catch a Falling Writer, and The Teachable Minute. She can be contacted at



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  5. Artemis | Oct 08, 2015

    Artemis Oct. 2015

        You continually add creative ideas to keep everyone  aware and informed Dr. Connie !

    I have read all your books and recognize the "kink" idea as one more tool  to help me

    understand what the student must be taught to master the art of reading and writing.

         I wish you many more hours "on the beach" picking up more keen

    observations.  Thank you.

  6. Dr. Connie Hebert | Oct 07, 2015
    So glad I could add to what you already know and do with young readers. Thank you for your positive feedback! My first book, Catch a Falling Reader (Corwin Press) might be useful to you as well. See 'red flags' in the introduction...important for K-1 teachers to watch for. Keep learning & growing! Thanks again...Dr. Connie
  7. Alanna | Oct 06, 2015
    I really enjoyed your comparison of the slinky to our students learning to read and write. It is incredible how alike the two can be. The "kinks" that you mentioned are so significant in a child's ability to read and write. I teach kindergarten and we focus on so many of these aspects of the reading and writing process every day. However, I never acquainted background knowledge with comprehension until you mentioned the connection in your blog. It makes perfect sense, now that I think about it. That is the one "kink" that is the most difficult for me to solve and you offered great insight. Thank you! 

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