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"Packaging Your Wisdom With Melissa Savonoff"

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Megan Walker: Hello, and welcome to Market Savvy Conversations. My name is Megan Walker and today my very special guest is Melissa Savonoff. Hello, Melissa, how are you?

Melissa Savonoff: Good. Thank you, Megan.

Megan Walker: That's good. And Melissa is a pediatric OT and she has a program Ricardo Reading Mouse(R), which we're going to talk about today, underneath the banner of her practice, which is called Triumphant Shout. So Melissa, did I get that right? And tell us a bit about yourself?

Melissa Savonoff: Yeah, that's good. I have a company called Hosanna Triumphant Shout Children. And under that I have my clinical practice for pediatrics, which I work part-time. And I've been doing so since 2005, and that is called Triumphant Shout. And then probably about six or seven years ago I developed a little bit of a early literacy range, which you can see behind me there. I've got an ABC picture book, Ricardo Reading Mouse(R) and a word grid, which I developed to help little preppies mainly learn their CVC words. So it's got 230 of your short vowel sound words in it, all with the picture. And that came to be, I homeschooled all my five children and I've been doing that long term and that just seemed to flow along with what I was doing there.

And also my pediatric practice, I was getting a lot of children with handwriting difficulties, reading and spelling issues. So the read, write and spell flows with the handwriting and the improvement of handwriting as it relates to reading and spelling. So the books are in the Brisbane City Council and the Logan City Council libraries. And I've done a lot of online workshops and in-person workshops through all the libraries. For help your child learn to read, write, and spell, and then adjusting learning environments to sensory needs. So I've done trainings for librarians and teachers and different things like that. So I just love to see children and families empowered and equipped and with the knowledge that we have as OTs and yeah, it's very exciting. And since COVID there's been lots of, I guess, home-based learning. So my books fit in well with supporting parents with that, and then moving into the online space versus seeing children in a clinical practice seems to work flowing into an online course.

Megan Walker: Every time I talk to you I learn something new about you. I can't believe I just heard for the first time that you have five children. I shouldn't be stuck at that point, but that's amazing, wonderful.

Melissa Savonoff: Yeah, well, the youngest two I'm still homeschooling. Rachel's 11 and Daniel's 15, but the others have all passed through my hands, so to speak, and two are at university and one's a carpenter. He did his apprenticeship, so yeah.

Megan Walker: Fantastic. That's amazing. Tell me with your reading program, was that as a gap in the market that you thought not, I don't want to say anything negative about curriculum, but were you looking at that and thinking, "There's as an opportunity to add more in here." Is that how it came about?

Melissa Savonoff: Yeah, there was basically, because I've used the Australian standard curriculum for all of my children. Prior to it becoming the Australian curriculum it was the Queensland Curriculum. So I've used and just kind of meshed in different things. And then seen children in my private practice from probably 50 plus different schools, privately, public, all the different combinations. There was the school readiness that I'd done work with children in school readiness. And a lot of people thinking, "Well, six weeks before school, I'll get my child ready," but actually starts from birth. Talking, singing, reading. And there's the first First 5 Forever that I've been involved with the librarians who run that in my area and doing the trainings in the libraries for parents so that you're equipped prior ... You're reading and talking and singing with your child and making them print aware and print knowledge and different things that can be low cost.

Melissa Savonoff: And I actually have a little program that I've written called, Let's Get School-Ready, which is on my website. And that's three or four hours of training, I guess, or programs that can give parents that support of, "What can I do? I don't have to spend millions of dollars at every toy sale to support my child." So lots of low-cost support. And getting your child ready for school so that the brain, basically in a nutshell, I was finding that the early learning needs of children, the parents weren't knowing what to do exactly. And kindy teachers were telling me that they're finding more and more children coming to kindergarten that can't toilet, can't do so many things. They're not as independent as they were. And I mean, there's a whole lot of things going on. And so I developed that little training there for parents to help support them moving into school.

And in the libraries I have been doing those trainings in supporting the library staff. Because a lot of librarians are the front where people go in to get library books and they can help parents select extracurricular reading and different things for home. And so I noticed that the ABC books were not just introducing your first initial consonant, there were a lot of complex sounds for children. So if you had English the second language, which is a demographic in my area a lot. Giraffe starts with a G, but it's a J sound. And a lot of your ABC picture books, if you actually have a look at them, you've got I for ice cream, which is a long vow. They're not all consistently short vow and they're not all consistently your hard sound of your consonant.

So my picture book has all your initial sounds and it's just very simple. It's two pictures per letter and upper and lowercase, English alphabet. And then I was getting a lot of children with spelling difficulties, handwriting learning. And the curriculum that my older boys did that I used for them for their early years, what they were doing in year two I was then finding now that my younger two that are 11, 15, their curriculum was introducing those same words in prep. And so there's a two year, and disparity, I guess. And a lot of the children I was seeing back in say 2005 when I first started in pediatrics. And prior to that I was in acquired brain injury and mental health. So, always had that interest in the brain and how it works. Coming in, seeing children that once the curriculum changed, we were getting referrals once for children entering into year one.

Then when the prep curriculum came in, oh, little pre-preppies have got to be ready and assessed for prep. So then when the Queensland Curriculum came in for kindergarten approved program, as occupational therapists working in pediatrics we were then getting referrals for more little ones getting picked up that were pre-K. So suddenly you're doing assessments for six or seven-year-olds, five or six-year-olds, four or five-year-olds, three or four-year-olds. And a lot of children are still developing. They may not need a diagnosis or have a diagnosis or have anything that's developmentally out. But parents are feeling a lot more anxious and stressed and pressured to get their child ready for kindy, ready for prep, ready for school. And it's like, what a little year two student, my older boys were doing in their, their spelling and their grammar and their punctuation was now introduced to prep.

Megan Walker: Wow, no wonder.

Melissa Savonoff: Yeah. So that two year developmentally, boys are eight or nine before they're ready to settle. If you look at brain neurological stuff, girls can take in visional and auditory instruction when they're five or six, often boys could be seven, or eight, or nine. So you've got a whole different thing going on. And yeah, so somewhere along the mix of that I was getting children just to write in an exercise book if they didn't need speech and because not going into the speech therapy role or psychology, but just for helping with the visual aspect and handwriting, putting their spellings into sound groups and putting them just in exercise book. And I just came up with this little word grid that has all the ... It's categorized by chapter. And you've got all the upwords or the, all your word families are graded by the last letter. So the D, B, no G, and it's got 230 of your short vowel words and they're all in a little grid and you can just read across bat, cat, mat. 

Megan Walker: Oh, fantastic.

Melissa Savonoff: Yeah. Preppies can just have it as a resource so they can have it in learning hubs and an extensive vocabulary and it helps them just go across. And I've got apps with it as well. But the apps are currently unavailable because I need to update to keep up with Google and Apple. So, my handwriting really flows into that because a lot of schools are reducing the amount of time and instruction given for handwriting. So, handwriting's really what makes the letter stick in the brain. So the brain imagery for touch typing and keyboard doesn't light up as much as it does for handwriting.

Megan Walker: Yeah, wow.

Melissa Savonoff: And I discovered that when talking to teachers, they just want to do what's best, obviously for their children, the students. They're getting pressured by curriculum in every way. And it's like, "What can I do that's quick and easy?"

Megan Walker: Yes.

Melissa Savonoff: And so what I've been doing in my therapy sessions for children to help them improve their handwriting is evidence-based and very quick and easy. And it's very measurable and observable. And it was developed, our program was developed back in Queensland, by a Queensland special-ed teacher and guidance counselor who's retired now. She did a lot of research on automated handwriting and the benefits for written communication. And if you don't have your print script automated, so you can't automatically write the letters of the alphabet from A to Z within the correct pace that you need to, for example, and then you learn cursive, but this isn't automatic, you're juggling two things. So by year eight she found in her research that a lot of children were mixed scripting. It wasn't solidified the print, they added cursive, so they were mixed scripting. So cognitively children are like, ah.

Megan Walker: Two languages.

Melissa Savonoff: Yeah.

Megan Walker: Wow.

Melissa Savonoff: So we do standardised assessments that look at handwriting speed and accuracy, and as an OT take on the global or the holistic approach of the child, the tasks, the environment, work with what's happening. And there's a lot.

Megan Walker: Yeah.

Melissa Savonoff: How do we manage that in a individual case? So, that's what our job is. And then working with the parents and the teachers to work what's best for that child. And in the end it usually ends up benefiting the whole classroom.

Megan Walker: Absolutely. I've seen that. It's like it's an asset to have a child with some challenges in a classroom because everyone benefits.

Melissa Savonoff: Yes.

Megan Walker: Tell me, Melissa, your vision now. I mean, I'm listening to you and I'm going, "Wow, everyone needs to know about this."

Melissa Savonoff: Yes.

Megan Walker: That's your vision as well. Tell me more, what would you like to achieve with what you now know and what you want to deliver?

Melissa Savonoff: Yes. Well, I would love that in, even though it's not part of the standard curriculum as much as what it should be, the benefits of having explicit early integrated handwriting instruction that's not necessarily just isolated to your handwriting lesson, but be can be incorporated with reading and spelling. So children need to be able to hand write their spelling to have it solidified and not just type. And so incorporating that. So busy teachers don't need to have the additional prep time of, "Oh it's another whole thing. But while we're doing learning and reading, let's write the words out as we're sounding them. And let's write the words out as we're spelling them." So you've got your different memories of letters. You've got your letter name, your letters sound, and the letter form. So those three things really solidify the letter and you can't really distinguish and separate them, but there's been a lot of research and focus on reading programs and spelling and handwriting's that got the digital age.

We don't really need it. Is it relevant, but the support in the neural pathways and in actually how you retain and remember. How many times do you write down if you're to remember something? I was talking to a kindergarten teacher yesterday actually. And she said, "Ah, I write things down. If I write them down, I remember them." And I was telling her about the course. And it is invaluable. If you're at uni, like my two older boys are at uni, I've been encouraging them, "If you want to study, write stuff down, don't just do it on the computer. Because you'll retain it better." So you've got both ends of the spectrum for learning is retaining short handwritten notes, versus at prep when they're first learning. So encouraging teachers to just take time to monitor and check that your children can write the correct formation of the letters from A to Z lower and upper case.

And there's a very quick little strategies and processes that I have in my course that make sure that teachers will monitor that and can incorporate it into reading and spelling very easily. And the lady that developed the program and did the research at the University of Queensland did it all through her school district. Back in the late '90s and early 2000s. And she had the speech therapist, the OTs, the teachers, the parents, all on board. And they didn't introduce lines to the students for their handwriting until possibly year two once all the children could write all the letters correctly and they had that instruction. And it's not that time consuming once it's put in place to just monitor and make sure the children are actually writing the letters.

Regardless of their ability in that way, as long as they can hold a pencil they don't have an intellectual disability or a physical disability that's too hindering, then they can learn to form the letter with that write instruction. And then their grammar, their punctuation, their spelling blossoms, because they're not going, "Oh, how do I write the letter T? Oh, hang on. What's the capital? Oh." And at a classic example, I always say to teachers and parents is, "The cat sat on the mat." And the children will act the cat. They'll say the cat, they'll draw the cat, but if they can't write the letter T they go, "Hmm. Oh, what was that again? I can't remember." Because all the cognitive power is to how to write the letter T and they get stuck. They can't even get past the rest of the sentence.

Megan Walker: Oh, wow.

Melissa Savonoff: So that, it's amazing.

Megan Walker: And so the product that you are creating?

Melissa Savonoff: Yes. So the product that I have is an up-to-date evidence-based short online course for teachers to teach them the simple strategies that they can put into place straight away in their classroom. Takes a couple of minutes and it's done. And so what I've been doing with children in my home programs for occupational therapy is three or four times a week, five or 10 minutes at home, practicing the letters of the alphabet and putting in place those things. And it's that simple. And the evidence supports, in the course I talk about how you can put that into your literacy centers and how parents and teachers can benefit from that and see the children flourish with their literacy.

Megan Walker: So good, amazing. That's wonderful. And how far along are you with your progress of, yeah?

Melissa Savonoff: I'm up to the beta testing stage, which I've got a handful of OTs and teachers that are willing to do that with me. And through your kind instruction and suggestion I'm doing that partly live and partly recorded. So for their schedule and mine I'm sending some lessons that I've recorded for them to look at.

Megan Walker: Brilliant. Oh, wonderful.

Melissa Savonoff: Yeah.

Megan Walker: Yeah. And then when you get their feedback and then what's next?

Melissa Savonoff: And then hopefully upload it and then add it to my website, which is my Ricardo Reading Mouse website, which is learn to read, write, and spell. And then market it to busy educators. So that it's about an hour of their time that they will no doubt see the benefits of with that evidence-based instruction in that explicit handwriting in their students. And they'll see, and you can monitor. Because they do reading assessments as well. I'm really keen to see, because I've heard that the reading fluency improves with the handwriting automaticity. So when their letters are automatic, the reading fluency. So I'd love to ask teachers if they could do a pre and post, not nonofficial type research. And so if you've got some children that are struggling, could you tell me what their reading fluency scores are? Let's get their handwriting automaticity scores because you get a rate of a letter per minute and it rates per year level.

Melissa Savonoff: So, say for year four you should be doing 50 letters a minute in your automaticity. And then we could track that and I chart it with graphs and things when I'm doing my OT and it's very observable and measurable.

Megan Walker: Oh, amazing. Wonderful. And then we need more people to take it on board and then the wildfires to-

Melissa Savonoff: I know and just have it.

Megan Walker: And so Melissa, in putting together your programs and you're in the process of doing that and getting more people aware of what you're doing and hopefully getting a lot of people to sign up. Tell us about what you've learned along that journey of face-to-face delivery to online delivery. And that might be helpful for other people.

Melissa Savonoff: Yes, I have learned so much from you, Megan, which is been really supportive.

Megan Walker: Oh, thank you.

Melissa Savonoff: It is, because you can feel you're alone out there. As an allied health professional our training and expertise is not in marketing and it's not in course creation or sales, but it's in that care and provision of services for people. And in this day and age there's really that need people want to learn from their own home and they're safe with COVID and all of those things. So, I guess what I've learned is that what we do have as allied health professionals is very valuable and there is so much that people would benefit from our knowledge and our services. And being confident that we do have the skills and don't shrink back and go, "Oh, maybe I'm not good enough. Or maybe I can't do it." But with your support and that support of a community of course creators that are allied health professionals and are taking that step, we can support one another and get our course out there before the audiences that will really benefit from it.

Megan Walker: Fantastic.

Melissa Savonoff: Yeah, so it's been really supportive and I'm really excited.

Megan Walker: Oh wonderful. Just can't wait to, more and more people will find what you're doing and find out about it and it'll just benefit them and it's amazing work. So how can people get in touch with you if they want more information?

Melissa Savonoff: Yes, you can get in touch with me via my website, which is, which I'm sure Megan will put in the feedback.

Megan Walker: Yes. See links below.

Melissa Savonoff: And just contact me via that. Or if you know me through Facebook, I have handwriting for OTs, handwriting tips for teachers, handwriting groups that I run. You can message me through Facebook and I'd be happy to help and support your students with their classroom needs. And as parents and also therapists that are interested in handwriting or anything related to child development, I love to work with.

Megan Walker: Brilliant. Melissa, thank you so much for your time.

Melissa Savonoff: Thank you.

Megan Walker: It's been so interesting talking to you as always. Can't wait to hear about your ongoing success. So thanks so much again.

Melissa Savonoff: Thank you. Really appreciate your support. 

Links and further information

Find out more at: and learn about Melissa's online course "Handwriting Automaticity Matters" - Simple, evidence-based instruction to help improve your students’ handwriting and overall literacy abilities! 

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