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When Kids Can't Read
I write a lot about education issues in my weekly column, and tomorrow I"m off to a homeschooling convention to give two workshops.

One thing that gets me incensed is when schools don't teach children to read properly. I am not a whole language advocate. I believe in phonics. Whole language turns English into Chinese, with children having to memorize each word. Phonics teaches children to sound out letters so that they can read anything. Many people say a blend is best, and to a certain extent I agree. Some words, for instance, just have to be memorized, like "through" or "because" when children are very young. They are common words, and the rules for these just don't get studied that early.

So I read plenty of education blogs, and I came across this gem at Joanne Jacob's site:

The Chancellor’s New Clothes tells the story of a severely dyslexic student who succeeded in school with the help of note-taking aides but failed in his career because he can’t write.

The educational community failed my friend. We didn’t want him to feel bad about himself when he was in school, so we gave him a false view of his abilities. We decided that it was better for him to feel good about himself while in school and then be miserable for the rest of his life.


Personally I think this is appalling, and all too frequent. I know many students, children of friends, who use computers to write everything in the classroom because they have dyslexia. Yet some of the studies I have read shows that the rate of dyslexia is correlated with the teaching method of whole language. When you don't teach children to read the letters, you end up with kids who get the letters mixed up and can't read.

My husband used to test for learning disabilities in his pediatric office, and he'd often have grade 4 or 5 students in there who could read the word "beat" but not "meat". They had never been taught to read meat, so they couldn't figure it out. They didn't know basic things, like "m" says "mmm", when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking, so "ea" says "eeee", and "t" says "t". It's not that difficult.

Yesterday, when I was preparing for my seminars on Friday, I looked up the learning objectives for grade 1 and 2 in Ontario, my province. Here's what it said:

By the end of grade 1, students will predict the meaning of and solve unfamiliar
words using different types of cues, including:

- semantic (meaning) cues (e.g. familiar words, phrases, sentences, and visuals that activate existing knowledge of oral and written language)
- syntactic (language structure) cues, e.g. predictable word order, predictable language patterns, punctuation
- graphophonic (phonological and graphic) cues, eg. blending and segmenting of individual sounds in words; visual features of words such as shape and orientation;
sound-letter relationship for initial, final, and medial sounds; onset and rime;
common spelling patterns, words within words).

Teacher prompt: It looks right and sounds right, but does it make sense?
In grade 2, Teacher prompt: “The word does have the same beginning sound, but does it make sense?”


Do you notice a problem? The only reference to anything remotely resembling "sounding out the letters" is in point three, where it says "onset and rime", which means first letter plus letter patterns, so c-at, for instance, and the sound-letter relationship. But these obviously aren't stressed, because the teacher prompt for a child isn't "let's figure out what these letters say", it's "does it make sense?".

What it does stress is looking for visual cues, like the shape of a word, or the pictures on the page to figure out the context. This context-oriented reading is supposed to help kids with reading comprehension. What I've found, though, is that most kids I work with in homeschool will read by 5 quite well. Then they'll figure out the context by 6 1/2 or 7 very fluently becuase they're comfortable with letters. I've taught many children to read, and not just my own, because some parents are uncomfortable with how the school system is doing it, and wanted a phonics approach. Over the summer their kids learn to read, and then no matter what the school teaches the next year, they're okay.

It's not the bright kids who lose out. They'll figure out how to read anyway. It's the kids who are average or struggling who lose out. It's just silly, because reading really isn't that hard to teach. So if your child is struggling with reading, take a look at how they're being taught to read. If they don't know the sounds of letters, there's a problem. If they're not being taught things like "final e makes the vowel long", or stuff like that, you're going to have to teach it. But do teach it. We can't afford to lose another generation because they can't read.

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5 Comments:

At 9:54 AM , Blogger Fuschia said…

We taught our oldest two girls to read using a popular (with homeschoolers anyway) phonics program. When number three "came of age" I tried the same thing...no deal!
A friend gave me "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons"...I LOVE it!!! You are not even supposed to teach them the letter names until they have learned the letter sounds.
Now, I'd love to tell you that she just took off like a shot and is now way above grade level...nope. She is almost 10 and still sounds out her words, sometimes laboriously. But I am confident that we are giving her the best tools to succed...without the benefit of a strong phonics foundation, and the freedom of homeschooling, I'm sure she'd be in a world of trouble!!
And just to tell you how great God is: she goes to church and asks her 9 yo friend to read papers to her with NO sense of shame (she has no idea she's "behind")...just one more reason I'm thankful for the opportunity to school them at home!!

 

At 5:51 PM , Blogger Jaybird said…

I must be the world's worse homeschooling mother then since I have a dyslexic 4th grader who is still struggling with reading. (Even using a phonics approach.)

I can't imagine the struggle he has with phonics, considering that a [b} says buh and a [d] says duh and a [p] says puh. For him, all three of those letters look interchangeable.

Just wanted to let you know that, for some, it *is* that difficult.

Of course, I am just be an overly defensive mother bear.

 

At 11:10 PM , Blogger Barb, sfo said…

I have 3 children who all attended different schools for kindergarten. My oldest is a Reader. I think he came by that all on his own. The second one is not a reader, and she does not have the phonics skills to help herself, never having learned those in school. She can't spell either. Whole language did her no good whatsoever.
The youngest is in kindergarten now and can read better than some second-graders I know. He can sound out just about anything, only getting tripped up on the "weird words" as he calls them, that don't follow the common rules he already knows.
Phonics worked for him. I can't believe what he can read.

 

At 8:22 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

To Jaybird:

That must be so hard and frustrating!

I didn't mean to insinuate that there is no such things as learning disabilities. There definitely are, and some kids definitely struggle.

The only comfort I can give you is that your son would probably be even worse off if he were in school! So be proud of what you're doing, even if it is a hard slog!

 

At 9:49 PM , OpenID runningtherace said…

I unfortunately had a parent withdraw her daughter from my class because I told her I would not recommend she move on to the 7th grade until she got professional reading instruction and testing for disabilities. Her daughter could not decode her own writing, even though it was neat, and often misspelled her own name. The mother was too embarassed to acknowledge the problem. It enraged me to tears because her sweet daughter loves to learn and loves stories. How much will she miss out on because her mother refuses to admit her daughter is not perfect?

 
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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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