Duz Ackurit SPELLING Matir?
Four Meny Thee Ansor Iz NO! Butt R Thay Rite?
by Marion Blank
Back in the days of George Washington, as had been true for millennia, doctors had one overarching "treatment" in their arsenals. Leeches! A good bleeding was the answer to almost any illness-- fever, bad coughs, seizures, heart disease, obesity, even mental illness. Poor George, who was reported to have laryngitis, was said to have lost over three quarts of blood in his final days–an amount that helped speed his departure to the afterlife.
Washington's treatment was by no means special. Patients around the world endured similar fates as they were—with the best of intentions--administered the prescribed treatment of the time. Bleeding was THE way to help balance a patient's body fluids, or "humors." Doctors believed in their logic more than in the evidence. That was enough to keep them using the wrong solution.
Ironically, the problem was not in the use of leeches per se, but in the indiscriminate use of these blood suckers. In recent years, leeches have actually proven to be of value in treating selected conditions such as skin grafts and reconstructive surgery.
The parallels to reading may not be immediately apparent since the two conditions seem so different. But if we delve a bit, the commonalities begin to stand out. Of course, we do not know the precise failure rate of leech therapy, but all indications are that it was astronomical. We do know far more about the failure rate in teaching reading and it IS astronomical. As government figures from the National Center for Education Statistics tell us, approximately 40 percent of bright, capable children have trouble learning to read. (See http://nces.ed.gov/) The figure is so incredible that most people cannot wrap their minds around it. The feeling is "This can't be true." But it is.
And like the physicians of yore, the failure in reading is due to the use of inappropriate techniques. In the words of Chester Finn, a distinguished leader in education and public policy, "...the educational inadequacies of millions of (our nation's) daughters and sons (should be viewed) 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 the two systems that dominate reading. The most powerful one is phonics--which teaches the sounds of words; the second, less influential but still prevalent, method is whole language—which emphasizes books and the stories they tell. The battles between the two systems have been fierce--bitter enough to be referred to as "the reading wars." As with leeches, the defense of each is based more on belief than on facts. Still of the two, phonics does yield 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 sounds of phonics or the books of whole language are unimportant. They are vital. The problem is that they are not enough. Even when combined, they overlook a range of skills that are essential to effective reading and writing.
One such skill is visual sequencing. To understand its role, look at the pictures below and name them. If you're like most people, you are likely to use the same word for the three pictures across each row—with something like "sneakers" for the first, "birds" for the second, and "kids" for the third.
The names stay the same –because the elements stay the same. Admittedly in all cases, there is a change in order of those elements, but that change is deemed to be insignificant. From early in life, we learn that left to right sequencing doesn't matter.
It is only when we start reading that the premise no longer holds. Even though the letters may be identical, if they are in a different order, they represent totally different words. As examples, consider
art-rat top-pot item-time live-evil
Remarkably, left to right sequencing is significant only in reading (including the reading of numbers). Since children have spent the first five years of their lives ignoring this dimension, they are not prepared for it when they start reading. It is only reasonable to expect to teach it to them.
But sequencing is not on the agenda of either the two dominant teaching systems. So it is not taught—despite widespread evidence that it should be. You see some of that evidence when you spot children using their fingers to track the words they are reading. If questions are raised about the problematic nature of this behavior, the answer is "to not be concerned" because, with maturation, the children will somehow get past it. Some do, but many do not. The failure of instruction translates into the failure of the students.
Another quite different but equally overlooked area can be found in a group of "little words" in our language that cannot be sounded out through the available rules --words like was, who, he, they, of, what, were, do. If they played by the phonic rules, was might be spelled as wuz, who as hoo, he as hee, they as thay, of as uv and so on. As a result, children are taught to regard these words as "exceptions" and minimal teaching time is spent on them. After all, with English estimated to have about 1 million words, why spend much time teaching a tiny group of "exceptions?"
But if we change our metric from the number of words in our language to the number of words on a page, the exceptions are no longer exceptions. In fact, they are the "rule" since about 100 of these little words make up 50% or more of any page of print-- regardless of whether the book is for a first grader or a college student. This small, seemingly insignificant set of words actually forms the connective tissue of our language. Without them, we simply cannot create meaningful sentences. That's why they represent practically every other word we read-- or write.
That, of course, is not the message children receive. Instead they are given the rather bizarre message that the majority of words they see on any page are "exceptions." It simply makes no sense and it leaves them unprepared to handle literally every other word on a page. The primary effect of the teaching is to create major obstacles to effective reading.
At this point, you may be shaking your head in bewilderment, thinking, "It can't be this bad." That is why the government figures are so important. They force us to go beyond the "logic" that the two major reading camps would want us to believe and consider the facts. The facts are that forty percent of our children are failing and their failure is the inevitable outcome of the limited teaching they are offered. Hopefully, the situation will not have to get even worse before we finally acknowledge its catastrophic nature.
Recognition of problem is a key step in moving on to productive change. Where might the change come from? In some cases, it will come from innovative schools. For example, Miami-Dade Schools recently announced that they are experimenting with new visually-based technology that allows "struggling students" to develop the scanning skills that they see are lacking in their students. As might have been expected, officials at the school attribute the need for this technology to the students' failure to practice reading—and not to their own failure to have offered any instruction in this skill. Still it is a step in the right direction.
In my view, based on decades of working with families, the greatest likelihood for change rests with parents. No one is more committed to children's success than are their parents. And they have shown what they can do once they are knowledgeable and mobilized. In the field of learning disabilities, for example, parents have been prime movers in getting the educational system to significantly modify instructional practices. Home schooling parents have been an equally powerful force in the educational scene.
I believe parents can have comparable effects in reading. Part of the reason they have not done so is that, like the rest of the population, the widespread nature of reading failure has effectively been hidden from them. That leads parents of children in difficulty to think that theirs is an isolated situation. Not knowing the extent of the problem, they believe that they –rather than the system—are the ones who have somehow failed their child.
news is that once we allow ourselves to see the full complement of
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Dr. Marion Blank, Ph.D. is the Director of the A Light on Literacy program at Columbia University. Dr. Blank has spent over 40 years studying how children learn to read. She has lectured extensively around the world, served as a consultant to government bureaus abroad, authored the widely used Preschool Language Assessment Instrument, developed an award-winning computer program that teaches reading, and written over sixty articles and six books on language and literacy. Her alternative method has helped thousands of children learn to read, and her latest book, The Reading Remedy, and her new reading system, Phonics Plus Five, makes the ideas behind her comprehensive program available to every parent. More information is available at http://www.phonicsplusfive.com.
You may contact Professor Blank through her PR firm at email@example.com.