PHONICS TALK: The Dorbooks Newsletter
Volume 35 ~ May 2009
by Dolores G. Hiskes


THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!

************************************************

EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!

READING PROGRAMS FOUND INEFFECTIVE

DIGGING DEEPER . . .

A CLUE

EXAMPLES

THE SOLUTION

************************************************
EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!
************************************************
In Hans Christian Anderson's folk tale *The Emperor Has No Clothes* two weavers con a gullible emperor by selling him expensive cloth they claim is so exquisite only the very wise can see it. The emperor parades before his cowed subjects in his imaginary finery, until an astute child calls out, *But the emperor has no clothes on!* So it is with reading comprehension.

************************************************
READING PROGRAMS FOUND INEFFECTIVE
************************************************
A federal study intended to provide insight on the effectiveness
of programs for reading comprehension has found that three
such programs had no positive impact on student achievement,
while a fourth actually had a negative effect (www.edweek.org,
5-5-09, *Reading Programs Found Ineffective,* Mary Ann Zehr.)

The programs studied were Project CRISS, ReadAbout, Read
for Real, and Reading for Knowledge. The study was conducted
by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., of Princeton, N.J. for the
U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences.

************************************************
DIGGING DEEPER . . .
************************************************
Thomas L. Friedman's excellent editorial in the New York Times,
*Swimming Without a Suit*(4-22-09) reflects these findings
by reporting on another new study called *The Economic Impact
of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools* by the consulting
firm McKinsey.

McKinsey noted that up to fourth grade American students
compare well on global tests, but the longer American children
are in school the worse they perform compared to their
international peers. By high school students lag far behind.

What are we missing?

************************************************
A CLUE
************************************************
In *The Fourth Grade Slump* (www.edweek.org 9-12-07) we
also discover that while early reading scores soar, by 4th grade
comprehension begins a downhill slide. This phenomenon
is so widespread educators call it *The Fourth-Grade Slump.*
And therein lies a clue!

Most classroom reading programs today use implicit phonics,
whereby students are taught words as a whole along with letter
sounds. Beginning and ending letters of a word are sometimes
given to help them guess at the word. Students are also
encouraged to use sentence context clues to determine the
meaning of a word, or find a word that seems to have a similar
meaning. It's OK to read *horse* for *pony.*Additionally, most
practice reading is only 50% decodable at most. These features
set in motion an unfortunate chain of events:

In first and second grades, the stories are simple, with pictures
on every page offering precise clues to meaning.

In fourth grade, however, instruction shifts from decoding and
word recognition to fluency and comprehension. But now stories
are more complex, and there are few picture clues. And the more
complex the reading, the more frequent, wild, and inaccurate the
guessing. Thus—the fourth-grade slump!

************************************************
EXAMPLES
************************************************
Try reading this phrase that's only 50% decodable:

CHOCOLATE X X X X X X X

(Hmmm. . . seven letters. Could it be "caramel? Or "peanuts"?)

Now try reading it again, with beginning and ending letter clues:

CHOCOLATE B X X X X X S

(Ah! I know. It begins with "b" and ends with "s" and has seven
letters. It must be *bananas!*)

...Unfortunately, the word is not "bananas!"

When students are trained to guess and/or substitute words they
are putting meaning into rather than extracting meaning from
the story. They are confined within the boundaries of their current
vocabularies and thoughts, interpreting things only from within
their own shallow perspectives. Even misreading only one or two
words can change the entire meaning of the story.

For example, The New York Times featured a front-page article
(6-3-99) about how epidemic numbers of pharmacists are mis-
reading prescriptions, frequently confusing words like chlorpro-
mazine (an antipsychotic) with chlorpropramine (lowers blood
sugar) with sometimes fatal results. These words begin and end
with the same letters, and have the same general shape. Clearly,
a myriad of different problems can arise resulting from a mis-
understanding or misapplication of what "phonics" really is.
The emperor has no clothes on, indeed!

************************************************
THE SOLUTION
************************************************
Explicit phonics is by far the best way to teach children how to
read. Letter sounds are learned first, blended into syllables, and
slowly, systematically, and accurately built into words. Explicit
phonics moves from the smallest parts to the whole.

Try reading this phrase once more, this time using explicit phonics:

C H O C O L A T E B U N N I E S

(*Bunnies* also begins with a *b* and ends with an *s* and has
seven letters, but *bunnies* is the only correct word!)

Only by knowing all of the letter sounds can this, or any text, ever
be accurately read. As Mark Twain said, "The difference between
reading and almost reading is the difference between lightning
and the lightning bug."

Fortunately this situation can be easily and inexpensively remedied
by merely supplementing current classroom reading programs with
a good explicit phonics text. With minimum adjustments and little
time and money, any reading program can be enhanced to produce
truly gratifying results.

One first-grade public school teacher in California supplements her
regular reading program with a simple explicit phonics text, and her
first-graders read in only three months. She then has a literature
eveningfor parents, and all thirty-two students, including ELL and
dyslexic, get up on the stage and read selections from William
Bennett's *Book of Virtues.*

A Reading Teacher tried it with all District Title One students, and
concluded:

"Explicit phonics does not teach comprehension, but it
unlocks the secrets of sound/symbol relationships, allowing
comprehension to become the focus. Students, now able to
read words, can meet reading at its most vital level -- they can
read for meaning!"

We live in uncertain times, and discretionary spending is for many of
us almost non-existant. Fortunately, with just a few free or inex-
pensive enhancements to your current reading program you, too,
can experience the unique joy and fulfillment that results from
seeing 100% happy faces and starry eyes -- all busy reading!

Blessings and Peace, Dolores


Copyright Dolores G. Hiskes 2009

Close this window

Return to homepage