PHONICS TALK: The Dorbooks Newsletter
Volume 32 ~ September 2008
by Dolores G. Hiskes


In this issue we will relate what magic and comprehension have in common, and how this impacts *No Child Left Behind.* We will also inform you of two upcoming workshops, and share some fascinating tidbits about the number 8 and the Olympics.







Recently the New York Times featured an article explaining
the scientific principle behind the spectacular success of
many great magicians.

Dr. Michael Bach, a vision scientist at Freiburg University
in Germany, observed that the brain can focus conscious
attention on only one thing at a time, at the expense of others,
regardless of where the eyes are pointing. In imaging studies
there is evidence that the brain suppresses activity in
surrounding visual areas when concentrating on a specific
task. Thus preoccupied, the brain may not consciously
register actions witnessed by the eyes. Magicians know
this, and take full advantage of this phenomena!

Scientists are hopeful that analyzing how magic works will
further accelerate research into perception.

So how do magic, comprehension, and Reading First
relate to each other?


Most of the reading programs in this country provide
texts that even in the beginning are only partially
decodable, and students are instructed to read for
meaning long before decoding skills are automatic.
They are taught to reason, visualize, infer, predict,
and paraphrase at the same time they are still learning
how to decode with some degree of fluency.

As Dr. Bach mentioned above, the brain can only
focus on one thing at a time. If students are still trying
to learn how to decode words and this skill is not yet
automatic, they cannot focus on the other, more
complex, skills at the same time.

We don't learn ice-skating dance routines until we
first learn the mechanics of ice-skating well, and in
my experience we should not teach comprehension
(along with reasoning, visualizing, inferring, predicting,
etc.) until decoding skills are automatic and fluent.

I've watched too many tutoring sessions in schools
with specialists who begin asking complex questions
about the text while the student is still struggling
to read it accurately. The student just guesses the
best he/she can, and if it's anywhere near the
meaning needed they are praised for a correct answer.
And these are good phonics programs!

As Hamlet said, *Ah, there's the rub!* Because
if existing programs and teacher training reflect the
above, of course reading skills will suffer. *Reading
First* is a giant step toward literacy, but it's only
as good as the programs and methods available,
and to me is a work still in progress.

It's a desperately-needed step in the right direction,
and deserves to be kept and improved upon as
needed. Joe Morton, Alabama's education superin-
tendent, calls it *the most effective federal program
in history.* Let's work to improve it -- not throw out
the baby with the bathwater!


A reading specialist recently asked me *Is it your
position that if students are able to read accurately
and fluently that they will be able to automatically
comprehend the material they read?*

Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no. I have a video tape
of a three-year-old boy reading fluently from the back of
my book with great emphasis on feeling and meaning
(so much so it made me chuckle with amusement!), even
stopping to ask questions now and then about what
might come next. His Mother had only taught him how
to read with it, but nothing about comprehension.

However, now let me share the story of a 4th-grade girl
who could also read anything in the book -- but had
absolutely no idea what she was reading! She had never
connected reading with meaning.

Her teacher had called me because she was totally
frustrated about what she should do, and I ended up
taking the child back, back, and finally back to the first
sentence in the book: *Sis sat.* She did not have the
slightest clue as to what it meant.

I finally asked her what *Sis* meant, she replied *Oh,
you mean sister?*

Then I asked her what *sat* meant, and she said *You
mean like sat down?*

Then I asked her again what *sis sat* meant, and all of
a sudden the light went on -- her eyes just shone, and
she triumphantly exclaimed *My sister sat down!*

From then on she connected meaning with reading, and
it was relatively smooth sailing.

So as you can see (and may well have experienced
yourselves), there are students who automatically
comprehend once they can accurately decode, but others
who need specific instruction about comprehension.
Most students fall in between these two rather extreme


After students have learned how to decode with fluency,
it may be they need further help with comprehension.

When comprehension does need to be taught, first and
foremost ask simple questions about what they are reading,
as with the above example. Do this periodically to ensure
the connection between decoding and comprehension.
Stop them if they make up an answer or insert something
into the text that was not there.

For example, on page 79 of Phonics Pathways you might
ask things like *What can Mom do?* *What fell on his
bench?* *What did his cats do?* Ask these questions
immediately after he/she has read the sentence.

Continue having them read aloud, and listen with eagle
ears for any misrepresentations. Stop them and ask them
to read that word or section again. Have them self-correct
if possible -- that is what will train their brain to read
accurately and not guess.

Some children enjoy a Treasure Hunt -- our own grandkids
went bananas over this! Write little messages that are
totally decodable on small strips of paper, fold, and put
in an empty kleenex box. Have him/her draw one out,
read it aloud, and do what it says. Sample messages:
*Hop ten times,* *Hit a desk,* etc.

The important thing is for them to be able to read accurately.
We read for different reasons at different times: complex
material must be read accurately, a novel can be skimmed
through just to get the idea. But as my husband Johnny
said, *Give them the power of choice!*

I will be presenting a workshop at the California Reading
Association's annual Fall Conference, this year at the
Sacramento Convention Center on October 16-18.
My presentation is on Friday October 17th.

I will also be presenting the same workshop at the ACSI
(Association of Christian Schools International) Conference
on October 30-31, also at the Sacramento Convention

Hope to see some of you there!


Hats off to Michael Phelps for his phenomenal eight
gold medals! The number eight also has meaning for
others as well -- it wasn't by chance that the Olympics
began at 8:08 p.m. on 8/8/08!

Many Chinese regard eight as lucky, since its sound in
Mandarin rhymes with the word for prosperity. This
also explains why more than 9,000 Chinese couples
got married on that day.

And Mary Queen of Scots introduced laws prohibiting
anyone under the rank of earl or archbishop to have
more than eight dishes at a meal.

Also, the eight virtues expected of a Knight Templar
were piety, chastity, modesty, temperance, truth,
loyalty, generosity, and valor.

Truly the number eight has a wide variety of meanings!


Summer is almost over, elections are soon upon us,
and I just want to know one thing: where on earth does
the time go?

In any case, I hope you enjoy this newsletter, and the
rest of this lovely summer!

Warm regards,

Copyright Dolores G. Hiskes, 2008

Close this window

Return to homepage