PHONICS TALK: The Dorbooks Newsletter
Volume 31 ~ June 2008
by Dolores G. Hiskes


THE COMPREHENSION DILEMMA: A Simple Solution

Today's exciting reading programs produce excellent reading scores in the early grades, but by 4th grade comprehension begins a downhill slide. This is so prevalent researchers have given it a name:*The Fourth-Grade Slump.* What to do?

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THE FOURTH-GRADE SLUMP

ONE PRIMARY CAUSE

OTHER FACTORS

UPCOMING WORKSHOP

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THE FOURTH-GRADE SLUMP
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Why does reading begin a downhill slide around fourth grade?

For one thing, that's the point when instruction shifts
from decoding and word recognition to fluency and
comprehension.

Many factors affect this phenomena, but this issue
will focus on decoding deficiency as a primary cause,
and present specific strategies to correct this deficiency.

Today's classroom reading programs go by many names,
*Balanced Literacy* being a primary one. Letters and
words are taught simultaneously, and if help is needed
students are given beginning and ending letters and
asked to try and decode the word based upon context
clues. Word substitution is OK if it seems to fit.

Everything seems to be fine at first, and test scores
rise. But by fourth grade there are no more pictures
for clues, and text is more complex. And even mis-
reading or substituting one or two words on a page
can change the meaning of the entire text!

In fact, most of these programs are *Implicit Phonics*,
whereby decoding is taught from the whole word to
the parts. As Louisa Moats wrote so eloquently in the
January 29, 2007 publication of the Thomas Fordham
Institute, they are nothing but whole language in
disguise! This article is titled *Whole Language High
Jinks,* and is well worth reading.

Perfect examples of implicit phonics are the words
laparoscopy and lobotomy -- they begin and end with
the same letters and have the same general meaning
in context, both being medical procedures. Please
spare us from a surgeon who reads using a whole
language methodology!

But come on now, does this kind of confusion really
happen? The New York Times reported increasing
numbers of sometimes-fatal errors resulting from
pharmacists confusing *Chlorpropamide* and
*Chlorpromazine*. One is an antipsychotic, and the
other lowers blood pressure.

Also, the makers of *Celebrex* (for arthritis) took out
ads in medical journals cautioning doctors to stop con-
fusing their product with *Celexa* (an antidepressant).

As Mark Twain said, *The difference between reading
and almost reading is the difference between lightning
and the lightning bug!*

Explicit phonics is the only way to teach reading with
absolute accuracy and fluency. With explicit phonics
individual letters are learned first, then blended into
syllables, and then built into words, phrases, and
sentences of gradually increasing complexity.

Explicit phonics works from the parts to the whole.
The above words would be read *lap-a-ros-co-py*
and *lo-bot-o-my.* There is no chance of ever con-
fusing one with the other.

Do not be swayed or fooled by high-sounding titles
like *Balanced Reading Program,* *Complete Language
Arts,* *Contextual Phonics,* etc. -- scrutinize the actual
content of the program itself.

As Mark Twain also said,

*There is nothing in the world like a persuasive speech
to fuddle the mental apparatus and upset the convictions
and debauch the emotions of an audience not practised
in the tricks and delusions of oratory!*

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OTHER FACTORS
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Poor vocabulary is another reason for the fourth-
grade slump -- if you don't know the definition of
the words you are reading, it doesn't matter how
accurately you are reading them! With ELL especially,
vocabulary development is supremely important.

As an exercise, try reading and understanding this
sentence yourself: *The CEO's comment that his
corporation was an eleemosynary institution was
nothing short of rodomontade.* (Thanks Melanson's!)
You might read it just fine, but do you understand it?

Television and the internet are other factors that can
impede reading if they are used as substitutes for
reading -- they do not seem to nourish the sustained,
linear attention that traditional print media do. TV
cultivates a short attention span and a purely
emotional response. Reading teaches us to think
in terms of abstract ideas, objective truth, and
sustained reflection.

Chemical pollution in food and environment is yet
another cause of poor school performance -- there
used to be a rose field next to the local grammar
school our children went to, and every week it was
sprayed with pesticides. Behavior problems and
school performance predictably sank to new lows
on those days. Chemical pollution is endemic.

And let's not forget noise pollution! U.C.Riverside
researchers found that classical music increased
clarity and vigor and decreased hostility and
hyperactivity; New Age music increased hostility
and tension and decreased energy level; Grunge
rock decreased relaxation and clarity, and increased
hostility and hyperactivity. They found music even
affects hormonal balance, such as the adrenaline
surge most of us feel when listening to *Jaws* music.

These are a few of the many factors that affect
reading and comprehension at all levels of society.

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UPCOMING WORKSHOP
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On Tuesday May 6th I will be presenting a work-
shop at the International Reading Association's
conference at the Georgia World Congress Center
in Atlanta.

I am part of the Phonics Special Interest Group
(SIG) that will make presentations from 9:00 a.m.
to 11:45 a.m. in Room B-302.

I will be speaking on *The Comprehension
Dilemma: A Simple Solution* and will enlarge
upon this subject by detailing fourteen key features
of an effective phonics reading program. I will
have handouts specifying these features, and
they will be posted on my website as well, after
the conference.

There will be a *Meet the Author* presence at
the Wiley Booth #2922 afterward, from 12:15 p.m.
to 12:45 pm, and I will be there to chat, sign books,
and demonstrate games.

I would love to meet as many of you as possible!
In some ways I feel those of us on this list are
*family,* and for me it would be an honor and a
treat to meet you up close and personal!

I will also have several games laminated and ready
to demonstrate, and you can see first-hand what
the games are all about and how they are played.

And I'm very sure the other wonderful offerings
from Wiley will keep you lingering and browsing
for quite some time!

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I do hope you are enjoying the glimpses of Spring
we have been having! We were just at Yosemite,
and while the dogwood are not yet out everything
is about to burst open, and the waterfalls are
thundering and absolutely spectacular. I found a
quiet place in a hollow under a huge ancient tree,
and sat for some time cross-legged on the old soft,
thick leaves and pine needles, thinking about how
fleeting and precious life is and how fortunate
we all are just to be alive and in relatively good
health. I am very, very grateful!

Hope to see you in Atlanta,
Dolores

Copyright Dolores G. Hiskes, 2008

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