HEM Guide To Resource News - December 2006
Interview with Dr. Blank
Interviewed by Mary Nix
HEM Newsletter Editor
Phonics Plus Five
Recently I learned about a reading program called, Phonics Plus Five that was created by Dr. Marion Blank, Mom to three and an award-winning psychologist from Columbia University.
I personally believe that children should learn when they are physiologically ready. An example of this philosophy can be found in the book, Better Late Than Early by Dr. Raymond and Dorothy Moore, page 36 in which they wrote:
“Most children’s eyes are not fully developed until at least age 8. Too much close work, watching TV, or playing video games can lead to near-sightedness. “Children’s readiness for academic achievement such as reading, writing, arithmetic, and language arts depends a great deal on the maturity of their sensory systems-vision, hearing, taste, touch, smell-on their motor coordination or ability to handle a pencil or chalk and to manipulate small things. It depends also on the development of their brains and central nervous systems, and on their ability to reason consistently from cause to effect-such as to be able to answer ‘why’; to make judgments of distance, time, and space; and to evaluate motives.”
I was pleased to see that Dr. Blank offers a list of readiness skills to utilize before starting her Phonics Plus Five program. I began the interview by asking Dr. Blank to list these necessary skills and to elaborate on them a bit:
Dr. Blank: Although they don’t receive anywhere near the attention they deserve, there are two sets of physical skills that lay the foundation for effective reading and writing.
One involves the visual realm and it covers the left-to-right sequencing skills that are required for scanning words and sentences. This seems so obvious that we often take it for granted. But what is generally not realized is that reading is the only activity that ever demands this skill. For example, a mug is a mug regardless of whether the handle is facing to the left or the right. That’s not the case with letters (such as b-d) or words (such as net-ten, post-stop, item-time). Because this skill is never demanded in daily life, children are not prepared for it when they start dealing with the printed page. This is one of the readiness skills that should be taught. Fortunately, it is easy to teach, and as in Phonics Plus Five, it can be taught in ways that are like games so the children enjoy the activity.
The other readiness skill involves the motor realm. Writing is an essential partner to reading-and writing requires that a child execute the fairly complex motor patterns needed to form clear, legible letters. While lots of effort goes into having young children learn to recognize letters, remarkably little effort goes into teaching them how to create those letters.
And the limited attention that is offered often creates difficulties for the children. For example, letters are commonly taught in alphabetical order with “a” first, “b” second and so on. But those letters also happen to be among the most difficult to construct-because they involve multiple, interconnecting strokes. By contrast, single stroke letters such as “o” and “l” are much easier. When the teaching is organized to start with the simplest and then to move on to the more complex letters, children easily master this realm. This is another of the readiness skills that should be taught.
Phonics Plus Five has been designed to provide simple, easy-to-execute programs that teach both realms. The teaching takes about 15-20 minutes a day and generally it is completed within 4 to 6 weeks. It is a short-term investment that has enormous long-term payoff.
Mary: I learned at your website that, “The basic requirement is that your child should, without strain, be able to work on activities for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.” It appears to me that you too would object to a child being “forced” to read or do more work that involves their eyes until they are physically able?
Dr. Blank: You are absolutely on target. An essential principle of good teaching is not to impose activities that children find taxing. The fallout from not adhering to that principle is enormous–both physically (in terms of causing actual strain) and psychologically (in terms of sapping the child’s motivation).
At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind the fact that young children can often achieve far more than is commonly assumed. We see evidence for this all the time. For example, young children who are raised in bilingual homes easily master two languages. Further, the “double” learning actually ends up enhancing their overall language development. Yet the same age children would not do well if the second language were taught in a classroom through traditional techniques. The key is offering the right environment and the right materials that enable the skills to flourish.
The analogy to a second language is useful because in many respects, reading is like a second language. It is the language of speaking transformed into the language of print. If the teaching is carried out in a manner that is appealing to the children and well-suited to their skills, the benefits are considerable. And just as the early learning of a foreign language proves to be beneficial, so too does the early learning of reading.
Mary: Once a child has accomplished the readiness skills, what is the next step?
Dr. Blank: The next step, often to the parents’ surprise, is to go directly into reading and writing. Once a child knows how to scan and remember the visual sequences of letters, he or she is able to read actual words; once a child knows how to smoothly create all the letters of the alphabet, he or she is able to write actual words.
The key to effective teaching, however, is to have the material designed so that it offers steady success. Anyone who works with children knows how devastating it can be when errors begin to dominate the learning process.
I am not talking about occasional mistakes. In limited quantities, mistakes are a normal part of learning. But when mistakes become a major force, their meaning is different and pernicious. Then a child falls into the grip of feeling both helpless and anxious.
Yet no major instructional system gives any thought to this critical, and ubiquitous, problem. If you want to “see” just how invisible it is, simply open a book on teaching reading and search the index for entries such as “handling error,” “overcoming mistakes,” “dealing with wrong responses.” They are nowhere to be found. The entire focus is on the skills that the children need to learn. The very incorrect assumption is made that once the identified skills are “taught,” the children will acquire them. But real progress is not possible unless error is recognized, controlled and overcome.
Phonics Plus Five is unique in being designed to limit error and to offer simple techniques to get past whatever limited errors do occur. Within a couple of weeks, the child is reading books and feeling total mastery of the material. The result is tremendous self-esteem based on real achievement.
Mary: You state that Phonics Plus Five is “the ONLY system that teaches all 6 skills required for reading success!” Could you expound a bit on those six skills?
Dr. Blank: The discussion above on the visual and motor readiness skills covered two of the key skills. The remaining four skills deal with different facets of language: specifically, 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. It’s not possible here to cover all areas, so I will try to show their importance by highlighting one area-the area of syntax.
It is well known that many children, even when they are able to read a wide variety of words have difficulty with the “little” words-words like is, there, who, he, was, of, what. 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, and 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” are the most frequent words in the language and they 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 broader language 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-represent 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, “Could you expound a bit on those six skills?” See if you could even begin to approach formulating that question without words such as could, you, a, on, those. These words fall under the category of syntax–one of the six skills I mentioned above. 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.
Mary: You have also have authored a book, “The Reading Remedy”. Which came first, the book or the program?
Dr. Blank: I have been working for over forty years on developing effective reading programs. The book was written only recently. So the programs came first.
Parents do not have to understand the philosophy behind the programs in order to use them effectively. Just as you can drive a well-designed car without understanding its mechanics, so too can you use the programs without understanding all the various components that have gone into their design.
But in the course of my work, parents frequently ask me to explain various practices that I use. For example, one time, as I was showing a parent how to do handwriting with his kindergartner, he said, “You’re using lower case. All my son does in school now is in capital letters. Why are you doing it differently?”
In response, I showed him a children’s book-the sort his child was using– and asked him to estimate the percentage of lower to upper case letters of a page. Of course, as in all books, the lower case occupied over 99% of the text. I then explained, “When you teach a child to write upper case and to read in lower case, he ends up with two different systems. It is easier and more effective for a young learner, if the letters that he reads match the letters that he writes. Teaching lower case letters first accomplishes that goal.”
As I began answering the parents’ queries, I saw the delight and interest they showed as they understood more about reading and how it should be taught. So that made me decide to write the book. There is nothing more satisfying to a teacher than enabling people to gain understanding. I hope the book will achieve that goal for the many parents that I cannot meet in person.
Mary: You mention that this program can also be used for special needs children. Do you think that perhaps some who have been labeled with a reading disability may simply have missed one of the six steps you speak of?
Dr. Blank: You’ve asked an extremely important question. To answer it satisfactorily, we need to step back and see what is happening in the world of “reading disability.” Although the headlines and the TV tell us constantly about the reading crisis in our nation, most people simply are unaware of the extent of the crisis. The reality is that reading problems affect approximately 40 percent of the population!
The figure is so incredible that most people cannot wrap their minds around it. The feeling is “It can’t be true.” But 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 while only 29 percent to 32 percent at that grade were “above proficient levels.”
Reading failure rates of this magnitude are not signs of problems in the children. They are signs of problems in the system—namely, the system of reading instruction that the children receive. Chester Finn, a distinguished educational leader, highlighted the issue when he said 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.”
That instruction invariably is 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 teaches stories. Even when both systems are combined, a child is being given training in only two of the six essential skills. Some children can fill in the gaps on their own-because of special talents that they possess. Just as some kids are “natural athletes,” some kids are “natural readers.” But it is wrong for the system to rely on children filling in the gaps that are not taught. It is our responsibility to provide children with the full range of skills they need.
So to get back to your question, yes, many children labeled with a reading disability have missed one or more of the six steps. But it is really more accurate to say that we have failed to teach them one or more of the steps. Once we begin to offer complete systems of instruction, those “disabilities” fade away.
Mary: How would your program help a child who might be labeled as having attention deficit disorder?
Dr. Blank: I’m so glad you used the phrase “labeled as having attention deficit disorder.” Far too many children are being given this label. Regardless of the diagnosis that might be appropriate, one of the major symptoms the children display is an inability to tolerate tasks demanding attention to tedious detail. If they could be said to have a mantra, it would be “It’s boring.”
As far as the children see it, the design of most reading instruction is the epitome of boring. For example, the complexities of English spelling mean that most words cannot be sounded out by applying to one sound to one letter. Try that with even simple words like home, bread, ship, chair and see what you end up with.
To overcome this problem, children are taught to use rules-in fact, to deal with the words only up to third grade, children have to memorize almost 600 rules. Children who are labeled as having attentional problems simply will not or cannot do this sort of extensive memorization of rules.
Fortunately, there is no need to go this route. The programs in the Phonics Plus Five system are designed to allow the children to intuit the rules underlying effective reading without ever having to explicitly carry out memorization. When this is the approach taken, both reading and writing are experienced as easy and fun to do. The way is paved for achieving the competence that the children want and need.
Mary: And how might your program help a child who is dyslexic?
Dr. Blank: To illustrate the value of Phonics Plus Five, I’ll concentrate on one of the many symptoms that plague children with dyslexia. Research has consistently shown that dyslexic children have trouble with “naming;” that is, they find it difficult to come up with the words they need to label objects and persons.
All of us experience this to some extent with the annoying “tip of the tongue” phenomenon. That’s the unpleasant experience of wanting to name something but being unable to come up with the word. It seems to be stuck on the “tip of your tongue.”
In spoken language, the naming problems generally do not pose too much of a problem because the children can easily get around most difficulties. For example, if a child wants a marker and can’t come up with the word, he or she can point and say, “Please can I have that?” or say, “Pass me that thing.”
In reading, however, those maneuvers don’t work. You can’t look at a word and decide to call it “thing” or “that.” Further, the sounding out that the children are encouraged to do only exacerbate the problems. Essentially each sound you have to come up with is like a separate name. In sounding out a three-letter word like cat, for example, a child has to come up with kuh-aa-tuh. Now one word has three “names” that have to be blended together. Parents and teachers are familiar with the phenomenon and the anguish it causes the children. But all the programs they have been given fail to overcome the problem.
One technique that does help is overlearning, This term refers to the idea of learning an association so well that it is easy to recall. Phonics Plus Five has been uniquely designed to capitalize on this. All the teaching of words involve numerous repetitions of the same word-a key to overlearning. At the same time, the material is designed to provide enough variety so that the child’s interest and attention are maintained. This is just one of the components built into the system to ease the learning of children with dyslexia.
Mary: How do you see your program meeting the need of home educators?
Dr. Blank: Home educators want to provide the full range of skills their children need to become proficient readers and writers. Generally this means pulling together elements from many different programs-since no one program offers all that they have been seeking. This takes a lot of time and effort: the parent essentially becomes the curriculum designer.
One of the tremendous advantages of Phonics Plus Five is that it presents, in a single kit, all the key skills that are necessary for effective literacy. This includes reading, spelling, writing, vocabulary building, and comprehension. Further, all the teaching is done through tightly integrated programs so that each skill reinforces the other. Finally, over and above the specific teaching, the system is designed to help children learn to work in an accurate, diligent manner. This approach carries over to all the work the children do-leading them to be far more focused and effective.
One of the most gratifying aspects of my work has been the compliments I’ve received from home educators. I’ll let the words of one parent convey what I mean. The following is from a parent who wrote to me a few months after working with my system.
“Dr. Blank. Your system is the answer to my prayers. As a homeschooler, I was desperate and determined to find materials to help my son read and comprehend better. Your methods proved to be just what I was looking for. Everything you offer worked and was so easy to do! In very little time, my son has become a strong confident reader.”
Mary: Dr. Blank, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to explain your approach and your program with our readers. I have certainly learned a great deal from you and I know that others will as well. To learn more, visit: http://www.phonicsplusfive.com/