Early Reading Program

Summary

Reading programs which do not systematically and thoroughly introduce children to the fundamental principles of reading complicate the process of learning to read to the precise extent to which they obscure this information.

Methods based on language experience and students' thematic interest are generally nothing more than whole word approaches. They make no attempt to rationalise the process of learning to read on the basis of clearly defined principles which explain and systematise the mysteries of our alphabetic system of writing. 

The theories which try to justify whole-word approaches may sound impressive.  They have certainly beguiled a whole range of academics who are responsible for the training of teachers.  When the theories are applied, however, they do not achieve the things they promise.  No one would disagree with the proposition that teaching addition by asking students to memorise specific addition facts is madness; and yet, in the teaching of reading, madness like this appears

Introduction

There is help for children with reading difficulties but first the teaching of reading must be freed from chaos and disorganisation.  This can be done by adhering to certain basic principles.

Teachers of mathematics appreciate that there is a definite order or sequence in their subject.  They would not, for example, teach multiplication before they had taught addition.  Even the simple task of addition is broken down into small sequential steps, so that children first learn to add between the numbers 1 and 5 and then 5 to 10.  When these steps have been mastered, the idea of carrying numbers is introduced and, only then, do children begin to undertake addition with larger numbers.  Mathematics teachers also appreciate that even though instantly knowing the answers to simple additions or multiplications plays an important role in their subject, it is the grasping of the basic principles of mathematical processes that is of fundamental importance to the student.  Thus, if after a few years at school a student had memorised fifteen or twenty addition facts (that is, he knew by heart that 3 + 5 = 8 but did not know what 5 + 3 was), no teacher of mathematics would regard this as a significant achievement, because knowledge of a few specific arithmetic facts is not the goal of teaching mathematics.

The opposite appears to be the case in the teaching of reading. If after two years of schooling a student has memorised 10 or 20 words, thus enabling him to stagger through a handful of basic readers attaining a reading age of 6.5 at a chronological age of 7.0 years, the reading teacher will very often feel that quite a reasonable job has been done in teaching the child to read.  Teachers of reading do not agree on a definite sequence in the teaching of reading.  Those who subscribe to an organic approach find it quite acceptable to teach words such as television and dinosaur before the child can even read words like fat or cat.  No teacher of mathematics would dream of teaching addition before the pupil knew how to count and read numbers, yet many reading teachers do not consider it necessary that a student should know the alphabet before he is started on reading.  It is not unusual to find students who after two or three years at school can recognise words like Digger or funny but be quite incapable of reading bigger or sunny.  This is very similar to knowing what 3 + 5 is but not knowing what 5 + 3 is.

One student showed this problem quite dramatically by perfectly reading the sentence A black cat came to my house, but when asked to read the words lack, back or ack was totally incapable of doing so. Similarly, he failed to read any other words structurally related to came, my or house.  That is, he could not read words like lame and name, fly and cry, or mouse and louse.  Children such as this show quite clearly that they have failed to grasp the basic principles of reading.  They may be able to recognise a few words but do not understand the logic behind the alphabetic system of writing.  Without this logic they cannot generalise from one example to another and so cannot learn to read in an efficient way.

The basic problem

A significant number of children find themselves in difficulty simply because the teaching of reading, is chaotic and disorganised.  Teachers are bewildered and confused by the conflicting theories of reading which multiply and flourish freely, unrestrained by any need for validation.  The ultimate victims of this chaos are the children and their parents, and this perhaps explains why there is so little motivation and/or change toward order and commonsense in the teaching of reading within the profession.  Attempts to justify the obvious confusion in this area have led to the creation of myths that reading is a highly complex task and that different children learn to read in different ways.

From a neuro-physiological point of view, reading may indeed appear to be a complex activity, but then so is scratching one's nose or eating soup.  The delicate balance of opposing muscle contractions coordinated by neurological activity responsible for producing these movements is truly remarkable; yet no one would be willing to pay an admission fee to watch professional nose scratchers or soup eaters perform these neuro-physiological marvels.  In relation to human capacity these skills are quite trivial.  The same applies to reading.  It is a simple basic skill which most people learn so effortlessly that in later life they cannot even remember how they learnt it; and yet most members of the teaching profession (e.g. quoted in Widlake 1977, p. 184) try to tell us that:

... learning to read is the first major hurdle to be crossed in every child's school career.  It is an extremely complex task, involving not just isolated parts of the child but the whole child - eyes and ears, mind and emotions, feelings, experiences and attitudes', this task is so complex indeed that it is doubtful if anything he will subsequently learn will be as challenging or as rewarding.

If people truly believe that learning to read is the greatest challenge and highest reward in life, then all existence since the age of eight must be an unbearable anti-climax.

Definitions

As with mathematics, the fundamental emphasis in the teaching of reading should be on the principles of reading, rather than word recognition.  This is not to say that word recognition is unimportant.  A student who sounds out every word he is reading is certainly not an efficient reader.  Similarly, the pupil who still uses his fingers to do simple additions or consults table charts when doing long multiplication problems is not an efficient mathematician.  Word recognition, like fluency in basic mathematical processes, is the end result of rehearsing the basic principles of the subject, not the starting point.

The skill of reading is the fluent use of the rules by which print is converted into language.  Reading is quite distinct from comprehension which is directly related to the language development of the reader.  A person may be able to read an article on the advantages of one electronic circuit design over another but fail to understand very much of the content, not because he cannot read but because he does not know the technical meanings for the words used in the text.  In English the set of rules by which print is converted into language is somewhat more complicated than in phonically more regular languages such as Italian.  English has more rules and greater departures from the rules than Italian.  Nevertheless, English is far from being chaotic and any student who knows the rules when learning to read has a great advantage over one who does not.

Five principles of reading

The first principle of reading that must be grasped by the beginning reader is that language is made up of units called words.  Most five year olds who enter school speak quite spontaneously and automatically without fully realising that their speech can be organised into parts called words, the sequence of which can be described by concepts like before and after, first and last, in front of and next to.  About 90 per cent of children starting school who can count (based on experience with school entrants in Adelaide's northern and southern suburbs), do not know how to respond to a question like "How many words are there in the sentence - Mary had a little lamb?", no matter how the question is phrased.  About 40 per cent of children have no idea that it is the print on the page that generates the story when someone is reading to them.  Most think that it is the pictures.

Teaching word concept to a child can also involve the modification of the child's perception of his own language.  A child may have concepts of tua, inta, wenta, adda and forra which need to be translated into an awareness of to a, in to, went to, had a, and for a. Children for whom this is not clarified may fail to relate the written form of language to their own speech, and so initially perceive reading as a somewhat abstract and meaningless task.  Consequently, their first impulse may be to reject reading, as rejection is the most common human response to anything that appears hard to understand.  Thus, if a teacher holds up a flash card and tells the class that the word written on it is the, the child, who may not be completely aware of the vague da he uses in this own speech, may fail to relate the two and become bothered and frightened by the fact that pressure is being put on him to learn weird noises of which he has no understanding.

The second principle of reading to be understood by the beginner is that words themselves are made up of smaller units called letters and that the same letters reappear in different words.  Phonic concept allows the child to see relevant structural similarities between words and to ignore the irrelevant similarities: e.g., applecart and applicant have irrelevant similarities, whereas applecart and middlemarch have relevant similarities.

This perception gives him the ability to see patterns in written language, organise written language on the basis of these patterns and, consequently, learn in an efficient way.  Phonic concept is the most important principle in reading for it is the logic through which the reader can see how the spoken form of language is related to the written form.  An understanding of this relationship minimises the need for rote memorisation a thousandfold.  Without this knowledge, learning to read would be like learning to add by trying to memorise thousands of specific additions without knowing the principle of addition.  The phenomenon of dyslexia which seems to baffle many members of the medical profession is nothing more than the result of children trying to learn to read without having mastered phonic concept, i.e., children learning to read in an extremely inefficient way.

The third principle of reading is knowing the alphabetic symbols, the sounds they represent and the important rule governing them.  Letters, unlike objects, require an awareness of directionality for correct interpretation and have very critical specifications for their reproduction.  For example, most people would agree that the f'ollowing symbol [a stick figure] represents a man reasonably well, even though there are a number of fundamental errors in it such as one leg coming out of the other and the arms being lop-sided.  All the basic elements of head, trunk, arms and legs are present and in this type of symbolic representation near enough is good enough.  Most people would not agree, however, that @ was a good representation of the letter d. Even though all the elements are present and the ball is on the right side, there is too much ambiguity present.  The letter could also be a poorly formed a or q. In other words, when it comes to the reproduction of letters, near enough is not good enough.

The awareness of what the critical characteristics of a letter are, should be emphasised by teaching each letter in the context of other shapes which have the same features but in the wrong combinations or proportions.  Thus, the letter b should be taught with all possible combinations of stick and ball which are not instances of b, each possible combination reinforcing the strict rule that a ball and a stick form the letter b only when the stick is attached to the ball on its left hand side, and when the stick is twice as tall as the ball and does not go below the base line on which the ball rests.  The use of ruled books would be of great value ' in enabling the teacher to define the critical specifications of the letter in terms of the parameters of the page.  All b and d confusion and letter reversal in young children is nothing more than the failure to master this rule.  Reversal problems are entirely unconnected with maturation or brain damage.

The fourth principle of reading is the skill of putting together discrete letter sounds into continuous or blended forms: i.e., joining the sounds s-t-r-i-n-g-s into the monosyllable strings.  This skill is called blending and it presents no difficulties to any child who has mastered phonic concept, and has been systematically trained to blend by beginning with vowel-consonant and progressing to consonant-vowel-consonant combinations, and so on.

The fifth principle is syllabification.  It involves understanding that long words are made up of smaller words or units called syllables.  Thus, a word like extracting can be broken down into the units ex-trac-ting.  Children who do not understand this, or who have had insufficient practice at it, often try to read polysyllabic words in one gulp, rather than piece by piece.  Blending and syllabification are the basic processes in learning to read.  When these two skills are thoroughly practiced, they lead to the instant and accurate recognition of words which is necessary for fluent reading.

The sounds of English

The five principles outlined above apply to any language that uses an alphabetic system of writing.  The extent to which the principles are applicable and consequently simplify the task of learning to read are determined by the degree of phonic regularity within the language.

The sound system of English may be loosely organised into three basic categories, plus the category of all the words that do not fit the three basic ones. 

The first category is made up of all the words that can be read by knowing only the 26 letters of the alphabet plus th, ch, sh, ph and the four sounds of y. Words such as constructing, ship, funny are examples from this category. 

The second category is made up of words that include long vowels, instances of the c and g rule, or digraphs. 

The third category consists of small groups of words which have special rules of their own.  For example, the family of alm or igh words.  There are some words such as one and laugh which do not fit into these three categories.  They are the closest to hieroglyphs in their defiance of rational definition.  There is no logic which enables the reader to see how the spoken form of these words relates to the written form.

The language of the first category is structurally the simplest because the relationship between the spoken and written forms is simple and direct.  There is one-to-one correspondence between the two: all the letters that are written are said.  The language of the second category is more complex from this point of view because the relationship between the written and spoken is no longer in direct correspondence, letter by letter: some added interpretation and rules are necessary for understanding how the written and spoken forms are related.  The language of the third category shows some added complexities in this area.

It is axiomatic that a person beginning to drive a motor car is not taken to a busy speedway track for his first lesson, just as the student beginning to learn maths is not given long division.  We all accept that the most rational way of going about teaching a beginning starts with an analysis of the task to be learnt.  On the basis of this analysis, the task is always presented so that the simplest parts come first and the hardest last.

If mastery of the task involves the grasping of three concepts and concept C requires an understanding of concept B, which in turn requires an understanding of concept A, then concept A is always taught first, concept B next and concept C last.  For this reason, the beginner in reading should not be exposed to the language of all three phonic categories at once.  Introducing words such as television and dinosaur before the child can even read ab, eb, ib, ob, ub is a violation of the most fundamental rule of rational teaching.

Children for whom this rule is violated have no system for remembering words.  They forget the next day the words they were shown the previous day and readily confuse words that look similar.  As a result of this, they are often labeled dyslexic, perceptually handicapped, afflicted with SLD, slow learners, mentally immature, word blind or anything else that happens to be currently fashionable.  Children who exhibit these difficulties are, in fact, nothing more than victims of irrational teaching.

Mastery of category 1 vocabulary should be achieved by students before category 2 or 3 vocabulary is introduced.  Category 1 words can themselves be arranged in order of difficulty starting with vowel-consonant blends, moving through consonant-vowel-consonant words and monosyllabic words with initial and final blends, to polysyllabic words such as pragmatically.

By carefully following this sequence and teaching the next step only when the previous one has been mastered, the teacher shows the student, very clearly, how the spoken and written forms of language are related; that learning to read is not the rote memorising of groups of strange symbols which look more alike than different; that there is a logic behind our system of writing; and that, when the logic is fully grasped and practised, reading becomes a simple and uncomplicated task.

In terms of school programming and 30:1 teaching ratios, it takes about two years to give the weakest children in the class mastery of the reading principles within category 1. Two more years are sufficient to give mastery of using the reading principles within category 2 and 3 vocabulary to any child who has mastered category 1. It must be emphasised that these estimates apply to children who come to school poorly equipped to cope with formal teaching: the children who are usually referred to as slow learners.  Most children will take much less time to master this.

The Dolch list organised into phonic categories

To demonstrate the ease with which English lends itself to the type of phonic analysis described above, the words of the Dolch List (Dolch 1950) have been arranged into the three categories of phonic complexity.  The Dolch List is a collection of the 220 most frequently used words.  About 60 per cent of all written matter is made up of words found in the Dolch List.

Category 1

Words which require only the knowledge of the 26 letters of the alphabet, the consonant digraphs, th, ch, ph and sh and the four sounds of y for their phonic comprehension.

a

am

an

ant

as

at

if

in

is

it

its

jump

just

get

best

big

black

bring

but

let

long

seven

shall

sing

sit

six

can

cold

cup

did

drink

much

must

not

tell

ten

than

that

then

them

thing

from

of

off

old

on

this

upon

up

us

get

had

has

help

him

his

hold

hot

pick

well

went

when

which

will

wish

with

yes

fly

by

carry

why

pretty

my

every

myself

many

buy

very

try

funny

Category 1 words which require the additional concept of silent letters.

giv e

don e

hav e

littl e

liv e

How far can a word deviate from the category before it comes totally unrecognisable in terms of that category?  It would be quite absurd to create a special phonic category for a word such as basket, even though it is pronounced barsket.  Basket is such a good approximation to its spoken form that it can easily be worked out, knowing nothing more than category 1 rules.  The same applies to words like many, done, every, and pretty.  The following words show these minor deviations from category 1 rules.

 

full

want

fast

was

wash

what

into

some

ask

come

Practical experience has shown that children who have mastered category 1 principles do not have the slightest difficulty in working these words out.  They make the intermediate step of saying the word exactly as it is written and then, realising what word in their own language it best approximates to, pronounce it accurately.  The words are therefore regarded as still belonging to category 1 although somewhat in the grey area of the category.

Category 2

Words which require the added knowledge of long vowels, silent e rule, c and g rule and the 18 digraphs for their phonic comprehension.

Long vowels

I

be

blue

both

kind

she

so

me

no

find

open

only

go

goes

we

going

he

Silent e rule

ate

like

came

made

make

take

these

five

those

use

gave

here

white

write

Digraphs

about

after

again

always

awe

are

around

away

because

been

before

better

brown

keep

know

see

look

saw

say

show

sleep

soon

clean

down

draw

may

never

new

now

eat

far

first

for

found

or

out

our

over

own

three

today

together

too

under

good

green

grow

her

how

hurt

play

said

wait

were

work

yellow

Category 3

Word families which have their own family rules include:

all

slight

walk

call

fright

talk

small

light

fall

sight

ball

night

stall

wall

As can be seen from this, the three categories described account for more than 90 per cent of Dolch words, which are the most common words in the English language.  A child who is taught to read by a system which emphasises the regularities of the language and shows him how large numbers of words are constructed on the basis of a limited set of principles or rules, assimilates the written form of language in an organised and efficient way.  As a result, the task of learning to lead is greatly simplified for him and the ability to spell correctly follows naturally.

Remedial reading

The fact that children who appear to have persistent and unremediable reading difficulties are simply children who are trying to learn to read without understanding the principles behind reading is well illustrated by the following exercise.

Nine children with severe reading difficulties were chosen from a particular primary school and given three tests.  The first test was reading 10 polysyllabic category 1 words with a time limit of one minute per word.  The second test was reading a passage from the Tempo 3 Reader (Groves and Stratta 1965).  The Tempo 3 Reader is written entirely with category 1 words.  Each student read for one minute.  The number of words read and errors made were recorded.  The third test was the Schonell R1 reading test (Schonell 1970) to obtain a reading age.  The results were as follows:

Student

Category 1 words (no. correct out of 10)

Reading rate on Tempo 3 (words/minute)

Errors on Tempo 3

Reading Age (Schonell R1)

1

2

30

13

7.3

2

2

58

6

7.7

3

0

21

9

6.9

4

1

6

2

6.4

5

0

21

10

5.5

6

0

17

8

6.2

7

0

78

3

9.2

8

3

59

4

9.2

9

1

31

2

6.8

Means

1

36

6.3

7.2

The results show that none of the children had completely mastered the principles of reading within Category 1. They could not blend or syllabify fluently nor read material written at this level with ease or confidence.  The minimum speed for fluent reading was taken to be 80 words per minute.  Only one child came close to this rate.

A group of parents was shown how to teach and reinforce the principles of reading, how to correct mistakes when listening to children read, and how to keep records of progress.  Each child was given intensive practice at the category 1 level of reading in an effort to achieve total mastery of this level.  The criterion for mastery was set: reading category 1 prose a rate of 80 words per minute with less than five errors, and reading any polysyllabic category 1 word within five seconds.  When this had been achieved, the child was taught the rules governing category 2 vocabulary and given reading practice on readers which corresponded with that category.  They were taught for a period of three hours per day for two weeks.  At the completion of the program, four weeks were allowed to elapse before the children were retested.  The following results were obtained:

Student

Category 1 words (no. correct out of 10)

Reading rate Tempo 3 (new passage)

Errors on Tempo 3

Reading age R1

Improvement in reading age

1

8

82

2

8.0

0.7

2

10

133

1

8.5

0.8

3

10

45

4

7.6

0.7

4

10

71

2

7.2

0.8

5

10

71

4

7.1

1.6

6

8

29

4

6.9

0.7

7

10

133

0

11.5

2.3

8

10

103

0

10.2

1.0

9

10

86

2

7.8

1.0

Means

9.5

84

2.1

8.3

1.1

The results show that for the total group word attack skills at category 1 level improved by nearly 1,000 per cent, reading rate by 250 per cent and reading age as measured by the Schonell R1 reading test by 13 months.  These results, obtained after two weeks of intensive teaching, are comparable with those achieved in remedial classes in one year.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this program was the high level of motivation that appeared in the students who had had a history of low motivation and misbehaviour in the classroom.  The reason for this is not hard to find.  Children who experience failure often do not understand the true reason behind it.  They think, as indeed the people teaching them may, that they are failing because of some personal inadequacy.  When they are exposed to a rational and sequential system of teaching, which directly teaches the rules and skills necessary for efficient performance, they clearly see the connection between knowing the rules and having the skills and being able to do the task.  They begin to understand that their poor performance was not caused by any inherited personal limitations, but by their lack of knowledge of strategy.  Their self esteem appears and they approach the task of reading with confidence and enthusiasm.

Conclusions

Reading programs which do not systematically and thoroughly introduce children to the fundamental principles of reading complicate the process of learning to read to the precise extent to which they obscure this information.  Methods such as Organic Reading, Language Experience Approach, and Breakthrough To Literacy are nothing more than whole word approaches.  They make no attempt to rationalise the process of learning to read on the basis of clearly defined principles which explain and systematise the mysteries of our alphabetic system of writing.  From this point of view, they are chaotic and disorganised.

The theories which try to justify whole-word approaches may sound impressive.  They have certainly beguiled a whole range of academics who are responsible for the training of teachers.  When the theories are applied, however, they do not achieve the things they promise.  No one would disagree with the proposition that teaching addition by asking students to memorise specific addition facts is madness; and yet, in the teaching of reading, madness like this appears to pass unnoticed and unchallenged.

References

Dolch, E. W. Teaching Primary Reading.  Champaign, Illinois: Garrard Press, 1950.

Groves, P. and Stratta, L. Tempo Readers 1-15 (A series of phonically graded readers).  London: Longman, 1965.

Schonell, F. J. and E. F. Diagnostic and Attainment Testing (4th ed.) London: Oliver and Boyd, 1970.

Widlake.  P. (Ed.) Remedial Education Programmes and Progress.  London: Longman, 1977.