PHONICS TALK: The Dorbooks Newsletter
Volume 36 ~ August 2009
by Dolores G. Hiskes


BOILING THE FROG

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BOILING THE FROG

MISSING THE MARK

BULLS EYE!

A MANDATE

A SOLUTION

TWO INSPIRING STORIES

JUST KEEP TRUCKIN' . . .

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BOILING THE FROG

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In a recent article Paul Krugman referred to the proverbial frog that, when placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, never realizes it is in danger and is slowly boiled alive.

So it is with education today. While the debate of how to best raise reading and math scores rages on and on, the United States continues to lag near the bottom when compared to most civilized countries today. Increasingly we can see the effects of this all around us, from pharmacists who misread prescriptions to clerks who cannot add. We are in danger of being slowly boiled alive because of our creeping illiteracy.

In 1950 no European country enrolled 30% of its older teens in full-time secondary school. In the U.S., 70% of older teens were in school, and America's edge boosted productivity and growth. We became the world's leading nation largely because of our emphasis on mass education at a time when other countries educated only elites.

That happy era ended around 1970 when America's educational progress slowed to a crawl, and stagnated completely between 1975 and 1990. Today in the District of Columbia only 8% of eighth graders meet expectations in math. America's lead over its economic rivals has been entirely forfeited, with many nations surging ahead in school attainment.

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MISSING THE MARK

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Meanwhile, tons of money is being poured into education for a
whole variety of possible solutions including better pay for good
teachers, smaller classrooms, adding computers, better assess-
ment tools, more highly-qualified teachers, closing down bad
schools, etc.

Modest gains are seen here and there, but so far nothing has
made too much of a dent in improving America's education.

What went wrong? What are we missing?

In Vol. 35 of Phonics-Talk (*The Emperor Has No Clothes!*
http://www.dorbooks.com/phonicstalk.html) we discussed the
need for teaching explicit phonics. In this issue we will discuss
what comes next.

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BULLS EYE!

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Decodable text is the missing link between teaching letter sounds
and reading books, and is the thing most lacking in reading
programs today.

*Open Court*, for example, is one of the best phonics programs
available today. But today's revamped version of this wonderful
old program teaches 130 high-frequency words in first grade
alone in order to move quickly into reading good literature.

When whole sight words are taught along with phonics when
learning the mechanics of reading it throws a monkey wrench
into the learning process.

In *The Mind and the Brain* Schwartz and Begley point out
that the left brain acquires knowledge by small, sequential
parts (learning math, letter sounds) and the right brain acquires
knowledge by seeing the whole picture (viewing illustrations,
learning sight words).

They found that activity in one hemisphere actually suppresses
the activity of the mirror-image region on the other side!

Not only that, but MRI imaging confirms that the neurobiological
basis of reading disability changes to normal after children are
taught to read with explicit phonics and gradually progressive
decodable practice reading!

When we learn how to play the piano we learn one note at a
time, and then practice scales until this knowledge is automatic.
After that we combine notes into very simple melodies, and
begin to use simple chords as well. Gradually, as our skills
advance, we move on to more complex pieces of music, finally
playing complicated melodies with great nuance and feeling.

We would never attempt to play a complex sonata when we
first learn the keyboard, and yet this is exactly what children
are expected to do when learning how to read. Once they are
taught the alphabet, they are expected to begin reading good
literature.

Marilyn Adams wrote *Human attention is limited. To under-
stand text our attention cannot be directed to the identities of
individual words and letters.*

Practice reading with progressive decodable text is a vital
component to reading fluency with excellent comprehension!

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A MANDATE

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Most political messages today are geared toward an 8th-grade
reading level, according to Elvin Lim of Wesleyan University in
an article by Dave Broder, with a sharp decline in content—
especially of logical argument.

While simplification has its advantages, it comes with a huge
risk: The complexity of real-world choices can be, and often is,
lost. Politicians offer an easily digestible vacuous menu devoid
of argument and infused with platitudes, punch lines, and
emotional human-interest appeals.

Lim found that all of the presidents through Woodrow Wilson
appealed to *common sense* just 11 times in their recorded
papers, presidents since Wilson have done so more than
1,600 times.

The urgency and complexity of nuanced real-world choices
often is lost, while the issues themselves become increasingly
more urgent.

What is the answer?

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A SOLUTION

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Fortunately the solution is relatively simple and inexpensive.
There is no need to change reading programs—merely supple-
ment current classroom programs with an inexpensive text
such as *Phonics Pathways* and provide progressive, graduated
decodable reading practice such as *Reading Pathways.* Other
excellent choices for decodable practice reading are referenced
on my website at http://www.dorbooks.com/resources.html

Without explicit phonics and decodable reading practice all
other solutions are mere band-aids that skirt the real issue.

Because reading comes first—everything else follows. And if
you can't—it doesn't. Teaching reading is really very easy.
Anyone can teach it, and everyone can learn!

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TWO INSPIRING STORIES

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A mom sent me a video of her three-year old boy, who was
reading fluently from the back of *Phonics Pathways* with
great emotion and emphasis on meaning in all the right places.

Another mom wrote a note about her mentally retarded 18
year old who was told he would never learn how to read—
but now has almost finished *Phonics Pathways*. She wrote
*Nathan is doing fantastic with your book. He is in the room
right now working with contractions. We are flabbergasted!*

It's thrilling to me to hear about these success stories at all
levels of ability! I'm going to turn 79 the day after Christmas,
and it's wonderful stories like this that keep me as young and
frisky as a newborn colt! (Well, almost…)

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JUST KEEP TRUCKIN'…

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The economy has us all taking in our belts yet another notch.
One educational option is to get the above-mentioned books
from the library free, and not purchase them at all.

Even the VentureWire's blog in the Wall Street Journal's
*Venture Capital Dispatch* had a feature article on July 31
showing how to live off of $36 a month. Venture capitalists
are having to tighten their belts as well! (Some, anyway.)

The economy will improve with time—although we long for
things to get better faster! Meanwhile, let's appreciate what
we do have and never, ever take anything for granted again.

Until next time,
Dolores


Copyright Dolores G. Hiskes 2009

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