Dr. Marion Blank, Ph.D. is currently Director of the A Light on Literacy program at Columbia University . In her new book The Reading Remedy , she focuses on the high rate of reading failure and the role that current methods of instruction play in causing the problems. Using a linguistic model, she proposes a dramatically new approach to analyzing and teaching reading. In this interview, Marion Blank responds to questions about the reading problems in our nation and the ways in which they can be addressed.
1. In The Reading Remedy, you cite government figures showing that approximately 40% of normal, healthy children are failing in learning to read. Is this really the case nationwide?
The figure is so unbelievably high that the immediate feeling is "It can't be true." Unfortunately it is. For example, in a report on the past decade titled Reading : The Nation's Report Card, the National Assessment for Educational Progress found 37 percent to 40 percent of fourth graders to be reading "below basic levels."
Bob Clecker, in an interview you had with him a few months back, accurately captured the situation when he said, " Most of the general public, our leaders, and the media do not realize the extent and seriousness of the problem ."
So, it is not surprising that for most families, the figures have little meaning. It isn't until they hear the frightening message that their own child "has reading difficulties," that the problem becomes real. But even then the realization does not sink in. The expectation is that children learn to read. So, when that does not happen, the logical conclusion is that somehow their child is not up to par. In other words, they see the failure as a problem with their child and they are unaware that they are part of an epidemic.
But reading failure rates of the magnitude being reported are not signs of problems in the children. They are signs of problems in the teaching system. Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, was right on target when he said that America should "view the educational inadequacies of millions of its daughters and sons not in terms of organic problems inherent in the children but rather as the fallout from unsound, inept or ill-conceived instruction by adults."
2. Why factors in current instruction are the ones responsible for so much failure?
Current instruction invariably represents one of two systems. The most powerful one is phonics -which teaches the sounds of words; the second, less influential but still prevalent, method is whole language -which concentrates on stories (the stories others have written and the stories the children themselves write about their own experiences). Of the two, phonics yields somewhat better results. Even at its best, however, it does not make a significant dent in the reading failure rate.
The problem is not that the skills taught via phonics and whole language are unimportant. They are vital. The problem is that they are not enough. Each system concentrates on only one skill when effective reading and writing requires six skills. So even when children are trained in both systems, they are missing four of the six key domains needed for effective literacy. With a foundation so riddled with holes, success is inevitably problematic.
3. What are some of the signs that key skills are missing?
In my work with children that has spanned many decades, I regularly see youngsters who dutifully do what phonics and whole language say they should do, but whose reading and writing are plagued by problems. The following are just a few of the difficulties:
4. Why have phonics and whole language each focused on only one skill?
There is an old joke about a man under a streetlight who is scanning the ground around him. A passerby stops to ask what the problem is. The man responds, "I lost my keys and I'm looking for them." The passerby replies, "Where exactly did you lose the keys?" He answers "On the other street." Astounded, the passerby asks, "Why are you looking here?" To this, the man says, "Because that street is dark and this one has a street light."
Sadly, this anecdote is not off the mark when it comes to reading instruction. For a host of reasons going well back in our educational history, the light in reading has been on decoding (figuring out the words) and comprehension (understanding the message that the words in combination convey). In practice, these two areas have been translated as phonics (the sounds of words) and text (the stories children read and create). To continue the metaphor, no other area holds a candle to these two. To the degree that other areas are acknowledged at all, they are seen as ancillary skills that receive minimal teaching time and that are not meaningfully integrated into the reading instruction.
5. What led you to propose that there are six skills involved in reading? And what advantages are there in viewing reading in this way?
As I became aware of the many skills children were failing to master, I tried to see if there were patterns into which they could be categorized. That led me to turn to my training in spoken language where very complex skills are categorized into a relatively small number of categories. First there are the physical skills of hearing and mouth movements that are the basis for perceiving and producing spoken language. Next, there are the more conceptual categories that characterize language itself. These are phonology (the sounds of the language), semantics (the meaning of words), syntax (the grammar or structure of sentences) and text (the extended messages that convey meaning). Putting it all together, one ends up with six categories.
Reading , of course, is language-albeit in a different medium from spoken language. In the teaching of reading, as I discussed above, only two categories dominated. I began playing around with using the six categories of spoken language and seeing how they might handle the behaviors I was seeing.
The categories in spoken and written language are naturally not identical. For example, while the physical skills in spoken language are hearing and mouth movements, the comparable physical skills in reading are seeing and hand movements.
Nevertheless, the six categories are incredibly helpful. For example, they help us understand the difficulties I mentioned earlier that children have in the decoding the "little" words such as who, he, was, of . Traditional phonics attributes the problems to the fact that these words are "exceptions," that is, they do not follow the rules. If they were to behave as they should, who might be spelled as "hoo," he as "hee," was as "wuz," of as "uv" and so on.
But that explanation is not sufficient. Other much less frequent words such as bread , love , go do not pose the same difficulties even though they, too, do not "follow the rules." The label of "exceptions" is also quite misleading since the words that have been called "exceptions" actually form the majority of words on any page of print. Think about it-children are being told that most of the words they see on a page are "exceptions." How can one reasonably characterize a majority in this manner?
A linguistics approach yields a much more satisfactory explanation. Using that approach, we can cluster the words of our language into two major groups-content and non-content words. Content words-- by far, the largest group with hundreds of thousands of members-represents the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that we use. By contrast, non-content words are all the other words. Their numbers are minute--totaling less than 200 in all. Their power, however, is enormous since they are "glue" that allows us to combine words into meaningful sentences.
To see this, simply look at the question you just raised-the one where you said, " What led you to propose that there are six skills involved in reading ?" See if you could even begin to approach formulating that question without words such as what, you, to, that, there, are, in . These words fall under the category of syntax--one of the six skills I referred to earlier. They also happen to be the "little" words that are so difficult for children to decode.
Research on spoken language has shown us that the two groups of words are mastered in different ways. Non-content words develop later than the content words, they are processed in a different part of the brain, and their mastery requires much more conscious effort on the part of the child. From my studies, as well as that of others, it is clear that these factors hold in reading as well.
If we apply this information to teaching, the effects are profound. In place of casting these words as bothersome, anomalous "exceptions" that receive scant teaching time, we need to give them a major role in the instructional process. That is what I have done in my Phonics Plus Five reading system.
6. Can you provide another example of the six skills and how it can, or should, affect the teaching process?
Visual skills are another overlooked area. We can get a sense of what the children are missing by considering the skill of left-to-right sequencing. From early in life, as in these pictures, we regularly see material set out in this manner.
But in all these cases, sequence has no significance. That's why, we "see" the different clusters in each row as equivalent-in one case, "a mother bird and her babies," in the other, "a group of kids." As long as the elements remain the same, differences in their sequential arrangement play no role in the way we identify that visual material.
The start of reading brings a dramatic change. Then, as in the clusters below, even though the letters are identical, different sequences are seen as totally different words.
Since children spend the first years of their lives ignoring left-to-right sequencing, it is only reasonable to expect them to be unprepared for it when they start reading. It is also reasonable to expect that it should be taught. But since the skills go unrecognized by both major teaching systems, neither gives it a place in the instructional process.
The neglect of visual skills is particularly ironic given the key role this area played in the pioneering work of Dr. Samuel Orton in the 1920's. He maintained that difficulties in sequencing (including reversals such as seeing b for d , or saw for was ) were central to severe reading problems. Gradually, the idea was discounted as people realized that many children, not simply those with extreme problems, showed signs of sequencing difficulties. The idea took hold that failures in sequencing were a normal part of development-a valid notion. But that was not all. Since it was judged a normal part of behavior, it was assumed that the children will "pick it up" on their own-an invalid notion. Nevertheless, that notion took hold with the result that a critical skill required for reading does not get taught. As happens with many skills, some kids do pick it up without instruction. But with no systematic effort made to assist those who are having difficulty, many children are left behind.
7. You devote a lot of attention to what you term are "hidden abilities?" What are you referring to here?
There was an additional bonus from using spoken language as a guide. In that realm, it has long been known that people use extraordinarily sophisticated rules, without any awareness of what the rules are. For example, imagine that someone has said, " I saw a girl. She was sitting ." Then imagine questioning that person by asking, " Why did you say 'she was sitting' and not 'her was sitting '?" Generally, the person will be stymied. The most that is likely to be offered in the way of an explanation is " It sounds right ."
A basic fact of language use is that we regularly produce and comprehend complex structures while having little or no means for explaining what we do. This extraordinary skill rests on a vast set of hidden abilities that enable us to intuit the rules underlying the system. The end result is that we can use the rules effectively without ever consciously knowing why or how.
Although they have been sorely neglected, hidden abilities permeate effective reading. For example, consider the following sentences:
We ought to record that he broke the record .
Each of those sentences contains a pair of identically spelled words (homographs) with each member of the pair automatically assigned a different pronunciation. This process is not carried out consciously, but rather through a set of hidden abilities which take account of the following.
In each pair, one of the homographs is preceded by the word the . This cues the reader to expect the next word to be a noun -because the regularly precedes nouns. So the reader automatically gives the word the pronunciation it has when it is a noun. With the other homograph, the preceding word is to . This cues the reader to expect the next word to be a verb-because to regularly precedes verbs. So, the reader gives that word the pronunciation it has when it is a verb. These rules have never been taught to us; unbeknownst to us, they emerge and guide our reading.
The concept of hidden abilities has never been considered in teaching reading. Indeed the exact opposite has happened. It is assumed that automatic reading comes only from learning lots of explicit rules. Just to get to third grade reading, almost 600 rules have to be memorized. The demand is not only incredible, but it makes reading unbearably slow and tedious.
The irony is that good readers do not have to learn the rules. Their hidden abilities allow them to read smoothly and automatically almost from the outset. The children who experience difficulty are the ones who are saddled with memorizing the rules. The end result is that in addition to their reading problems, they have to deal with a huge memory demand that they frequently cannot meet.
For teaching to be effective, it should be designed to foster the development of hidden abilities. Fortunately, when the materials are structured correctly, this is what happens.
8. Are you saying that children do not need to memorize the rules that seem to be the backbone of decoding?
We have lived with the notion of rules for so long that it is difficult to conceive of life without them. It is even more difficult to believe that the memorized rules do not guide the reading process in the way we have been led to believe.
For example, if you pose the question, "What sound does " ph" make?" the immediate response is " f. " It would seem that the rule has triumphed. It was ingrained into us and as the instructional process demands, it instantly pops into mind when requested. Nevertheless, when we see words like " uphill " or " shepherd, " we do not pause for a moment to consider whether they should be pronounced " ufill " or " sheferd ." That's because good readers correctly rely not on the rules they had to memorize, but on the far more sophisticated, unconscious rules that have been spawned by their hidden abilities.
The unquestioned acceptance of rules, however, is a powerful force and one that unfortunately keeps us from seeing not only their limitations, but also their disadvantages. For a start, for many children, the memorization of hundreds of rules is simply not going to happen. So, vast amounts of teaching time are spent in a wasteful manner.
Equally important, many of the rules interfere with the development of skills critical to fluent reading. For example, consider the silent e rule-one of the bedrocks in early reading instruction. It is the one that says with words ending in "e" such as home, the preceding vowel makes a "long" sound (or as it is sometimes phrased, " it says its name" ). But a beginning reader cannot know that the silent e rule is operative until he or she gets to the end of a word and sees the final "e." This happens after he or she has gone through the process of sounding out each letter and then, at the end, realizing that the resulting word does not "make sense." At that point, the child has to invoke the rule and scan back in a right-to-left direction to start the word all over again. The intermixing of left-to-right and right-to-left scanning disrupts the acquisition of the automatic left-to-right scanning strategies required for effective reading. The disruption is significant, but with visual skills off the radar screen, it isn't even seen as a blip in the process.
9. It is intriguing to envision a world where children do not have to memorize lots of rules, but without those rules, how are they going to be able to figure out new words?
The key to the smooth decoding of new words rests with a host of hidden abilities that enable us to understand the way combinations of letters function in English words. To get an insight into the process, it's useful to analyze what we do in decoding a word we've never seen before. To do that, let's take the nonsense word thop .
In decoding this new word, virtually everyone instantly and unquestioningly comes up with a pronunciation that rhymes with " hop " and starts with the soft "th" sound (like the "th" in " thin " and " thank " ). It's seems so obvious.
But English has two "th" sounds-the soft, or unvoiced "th" that has been selected; and the heavier or voiced "th" heard in words like the, this, there, although, then. Now it so happens that the voiced "th" far outnumbers the unvoiced "th," Pick up any book, for example, and it won't take you more than a sentence or two to find a voiced "th" word like the and this . On the other hand, you're likely to search long and hard, before finding a page with an unvoiced thin or thumb . So why isn't there a moment's consideration given to the other "th" sound, which is encountered far more times than the "th" sound actually chosen?
The answer rests with hidden abilities . Years of experience teach our unconscious minds that the voiced "th" is associated with non-content words-words like the , this , and there, while the unvoiced "th" is associated with the content words like thin , thank , and thimble . These hidden abilities also tell us that new content words (such as astronaut , dotcoms , and cell phones ) are steadily being created, while non-content words are not. So, totally out of awareness but with perfect ease and accuracy, we classify the new word thop as a content word and assign it the pronunciation that goes with those words.
There is an old proverb that says, "T he fish is the last one to discover water. " It captures the idea that we can be unaware of some of the most powerful forces around us. This is certainly the case in the area of decoding. Sophisticated phonological skills are vital in decoding words; but those skills are part of our hidden abilities.
For some children, these skills come easier than for others. But given the right tools, every child can figure them out.
10. You recently wrote an article called Errors: The "invisible" 800-pound gorilla blocking the road to learning ? I presume it is a metaphor or simile-for what?
Years ago, when I first started observing classrooms, I was drawn to a simple, but pervasive interaction. A teacher would ask a question, call on a child to answer it and the child would be unable to come up with a satisfactory response. The pain and humiliation that the children experienced were palpable.
I am not referring here to occasional mistakes. Those are an unavoidable part of the learning process. But for many children, the mistakes are frequent. In that situation, they assume a different and pernicious role. Then a multi-dimensional force takes hold that includes a sense of helplessness, the anxiety of being exposed and the repeated shame of making mistakes in front of others - including powerful authority figures and one's peers. I chose to call this force error dynamics .
Children are keenly aware of what is happening. That's only reasonable. Think back to your experiences in the classroom when you did not know the answer and prayed the teacher would not call on you. Remarkably, that fear lingers on-- for years after our school days are distant memories. It's why adults avoid sitting in the first row in a lecture hall-they want to make sure that just in case the speaker asks a question, they are not the ones who might be called on to answer.
Amazingly, this force goes virtually unrecognized by both teachers and parents. That's why I chose to use the term "the invisible 800-pound gorilla." It is a potent force that steadily erodes the teaching-learning process and yet it goes virtually unnoticed by the adults who are in charge of the process.
Children who are experiencing difficulties in reading are only too familiar with error dynamics. For reasons that have yet to be explained, all teaching tasks are set out on the assumption that the children will do them correctly. Yet, the seemingly simple act of asking a child to read a page aloud can often result in an error rate of 30% or higher. For the child, the experience is not an opportunity to rehearse reading skills; instead, it is proof that reading is never to be. It's part of the reason why so many children readily say that they "hate reading."
If teaching is to be successful, it is vital that the instruction be organized so that (a) the rate of error is reduced and (b) when errors do occur, they can be addressed effectively. The control and handling of error is a major component of all the reading programs I design.
11. Is the issue that we should be more forgiving when kids make mistakes? I often find myself making errors, stuttering, and having difficulty finding words. Are we overly concerned with diagnosing kids ?
It would be wonderful if the problem could be resolved simply by greater acceptance. Few people are more caring and committed than people who elect to work with children. The problem is not that they treat error in a harsh manner. The issue is that children who experience high rates of error see them as incontrovertible proof that they are "stupid." Once that feeling takes hold, its grip is tenacious. The child's self-esteem plummets, often never fully recovering.
For example, parents and teachers sense the children's vulnerability and with the best of intentions, try to bolster their egos via compliments such as, " But you are really smart ," and " Look at how many things you do well ." Unfortunately, the comments rarely achieve their intended effects. As one student put it, " If I were really smart, they wouldn't have to keep assuring me of it. "
Acceptance is vital. But we cannot provide children with what they need until we have the techniques in place so that error becomes an infrequent occurrence and success -true success-becomes the dominant reality.
12. Who are the children for whom your Phonics Plus Five reading system is designed?
Phonics Plus Five is aimed at children in the general school population, or those who will be going to the general school population. The program is designed primarily for three groups:
young children who are 4 years of age and up whose parents want them to get into reading in a smooth, problem-free way that assures success from the very outset.
children in the early primary grades of school whose parents want them to attain the highest possible level of skill in reading, writing, and comprehension so that they shine in all aspects of literacy.
children in the primary grades who are, often inexplicably, experiencing difficulty in learning to read.
13. Do you have a website or an 800 number to get more information? Or for people to order your Phonics Plus Five system or your book?
Yes. My website is www.phonicsplusfive.com . My toll free number is 866 DR BLANK (866-372-5265). Both the complete kit and the book can be ordered online at that site.
14. What question have I neglected to ask?
Oftentimes, people ask me " What led to your passion for teaching reading ?" As I began to ponder that question, I realized that it started way back. I was just beginning to read when I saw that my grandmother, whom I cared about deeply, was unable to do so. She had been raised in Eastern Europe and had never had the opportunity to go to school. She could not even write her name. She was resilient beyond all measure, but her illiteracy was a continual source of shame.
Even then, I was a determined soul and I was committed to reversing that state of affairs. My grandmother was marvelously obliging and she graciously allowed me to start teaching her "all" I knew. Sadly, within a short time, she became seriously ill and the "lessons" ended. Nevertheless, that experience deeply affected me. I did not know it at the time, but I had started on the path that I was to follow the rest of my life. I could not have chosen better. The journey has been extraordinary in every possible way.