Welcome to Phonics-Talk

The Phonics-Talk Blog is the alternative home of the Dorbooks’ Phonics-Talk Newsletter. Here you will find the same useful information as before, now enhanced with graphics and color. For questions or comments, write to Dolores at: dor@dorbooks.com

Soooo…..grab your coffee, pull up a chair, and let’s go!



Many phonics programs do teach letter/sound relationships, but then move directly into reading whole words and stories. Some children have no problem with that, but many others develop a roadblock. They reverse letters in words, and even reverse words in sentences,
and cannot seem to move forward. Why?


Neurologists now know that early reversals are normal for many beginning readers. Blending practice should be an integral part of reading instruction, but is not often included. Blending prepares students for reading just as crawling prepares us for walking.

This critical but frequently-overlooked step helps prevent or correct letter and word reversals and develops strong eye muscles. It is important to acquire this skill prior to reading real words, in order to correct or prevent any tendency to reverse letters which might only cement a bad habit.

Blending practice can be very cursory, or taught carefully in a gradually progressive manner. What follows is my particular recipe for reading that gets maximum results in the minimum time with the least amount of effort:

(1) Blending practice should begin with two-letter syllables. It is at this point that strong left-to-right tracking skills become solidified, and it’s important to do so before reading real words to prevent or correct reversals.

For example, take “sa.” Say the sound of each letter of the syllable separately, at first: “sss” “aaa.” Now say it again, this time blending the two sounds together: “SSSSSSSSSaaaaaaaaaaa .” (Take a deep breath first!)
This simple but powerful exercise is essential.

(2) Reading should be gradually progressive. It’s too big of a jump for many students to suddenly move from reading a single word into reading whole stories. Would we expect someone just learning how to play the piano to immediately play a sonata just because they could play the scales?

Try reading one word such as “red,” then two-word phrases such as “red hat,” and then three-word phrases such as “big red hat.” It’s fun to make up your own! If your students enjoy it consider getting Reading Pathways, a book filled with just this kind of eye-tracking practice, but in the shape of pyramids. (Take a peek! http://www.dorbooks.com/pdfs/shortvowels.pdf)


(1) Try some of the eye exercises shown in back of Phonics Pathways (pages 251 and 252). They are the same ones given to our son when he was young by an optometrist specializing in vision therapy, and were very helpful indeed. (But they must be practiced on a regular basis.)

(2) And do try “The Train Game” on pages 258-259. of Phonics Pathways. The visual aspect of moving train cars seems to be especially helpful. Make up “The Train Game”s blank cars (page 259), write the word by syllables on the cars (such as “con” “strain” “ing”) and then have the student play “The Train Game” as directed on page 20.

Manipulatives like this can really help break through this roadblock, because the student initiates and completely controls the timing of the blending. That’s the critical part that makes all the difference. One reading specialist felt it actually rewired his students’ brain, enabling him to read from left to right for the very first time!

(3) Finally, consider beginning every reading lesson by having your student read aloud one of the simpler pyramid exercises in Reading Pathways. It’s a powerful “warm-up” for the lesson, much like stretching is before jogging.


Currently we are living in tough times, and all we can do is make the best of it. We may not have come over on the same ship, but we are all in the same boat.

Let us not bankrupt our todays by paying interest on the regrets of yesterday and by borrowing in advance the trouble of tomorrow. There is nothing we cannot live down, rise above, and overcome!

(There is a new video on my website that explains how I overcame some of my own personal obstacles — if you like, you can see it at www.dorbooks.com, click on “About Us.”)

With that thought and those good wishes, I leave you for now. Peace be with you! Blessings,

                  Dolores :)


© Dolores G. Hiskes 2016

Common Roadblocks to Reading

Sometimes even when phonics is taught students experience difficulty in learning how to read. Why? Isn’t it sufficient just to teach phonics skills in order for students to become fluent readers? Not necessarily so . . .
There are a few roadblocks that can get in the way of learning how to read. This newsletter is the first of a three-part series describing these roadblocks in detail, with some
tried-and-true solutions:


At times even after students improve their reading two or three grade levels comprehension still remains static. They are able to read the words, but have no understanding of what they are reading. Why? A closer look at how phonics
is frequently taught reveals a significant factor contributing to this roadblock that is sometimes overlooked.
Many phonics reading systems require students to learn all of the phonograms first in isolation, prior to reading any real words. This has the effect of divorcing reading from meaning and can result in a reading-without-understanding syndrome. After all, a phonogram has no real meaning in and of itself!
Phonics Pathways is written so that meaning is introduced as phonograms are learned. It is built in from the very beginning. Short vowels are taught first, one at a time, with multiple pictures illustrating the sound being learned to hook meaning into what they are learning. After short vowel sounds are learned consonants are introduced, one at a time, again with multiple pictures illustrating every sound being learned.
Soon students begin reading words and two-word phrases

such as “sis sat”. Now ask your students “Who sat?” and/or “What did sis do?” Do the same thing with the next phrase: “sun set.” Ask them “What did the sun do?” and/or “What set?”

Many students 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 them into an empty kleenex box. Have them draw one, read it aloud, and do what it says. Sample messages: “kiss Mom,” or “pet cat,” or “hop ten times,” or “hit a desk.” It’s like a game. (In fact, it IS a game!)

You get the idea! Meaning is something that you and I
automatically attach to reading. But many children need this concept to be specifically taught. Like blending ability, it is not necessarily a skill students acquire automatically. But once this connection is made meaning will become automatic as the child progresses with his reading skills.
Continue doing the same thing as you work through the
book, and check from time to time to be sure your student
is really reading and understanding the passage. Have him
read a page aloud to you every so often and ask him what
it was about. Listen with eagle ears for any misrepresenta-
tions. Stop him and ask him to read that word or section
again. Have him self-correct if possible – that is what will train his brain to read accurately and not guess.
Does he understand the meaning of the words he is reading? If he is an English language learner, he may need extra help building his vocabulary skills. When YES Reading
Center in Palo Alto first got started there were many
English-language learners in the program with minimal
speaking and comprehension vocabularies. They would first be taught enough phonics so they could sound out a few words, and then they stopped Phonics Pathways for awhile to build up their vocabularies before proceeding with the book.
Mary Jane Edwards was an ESL instructor at YES, and writes:
“I have used a variety of course books that provide drills
and exercises in listening, speaking, reading & writing to
teach practical, conversational English. Some of my favorites were “Crossroads” by Irene Frankel et al. (Oxford Univ. Press); “Side by Side” & “Expressways” both by Steven Molinsky & Bill Bliss. These, as well as many others are available at the Alta Book Center, located near the SF Airport. The address is: 14 Adrian Court Burlingame, CA 94010. Tel: (650) 692-1285, or (800) ALTA-ESL. The website is: www.altaesl.com. In order to choose correctly, one needs to know the students’ previous exposure to English & other factors, so visiting either the store or the website would be very helpful.”
It’s important that the habit of attaching meaning into what students are reading gets established very early in the game, because then comprehension will become automatic!
Stay tuned for “ROADBLOCK #2: REVERSALS”


Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.       


Simple but powerful words! Wouldn’t it be an absolutely
wonderful world if everyone put this into practice? (Just
wishing and dreaming here . . .)

With warm hugs and all good wishes for the New Year,


Copyright 2016 Dolores G. Hiskes



Politics Today

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.

Boiling the Frog

Paul Krugman wrote about 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.

The Missing Link

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 considered 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 understand text our attention cannot be directed to the identities of individual words and letters.”
Practice reading with progressive decodable text is the missing link in most phonics reading programs today!

Two Inspiring Stories 

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 85 the day after Christmas, but it’s wonderful stories like these that keep me young and frisky! (Well, er…almost…)

Happy Holidays to All!

In any case, have a joyful and blessed Holiday Season.
It’s a meaningful time of year for so many faiths, and I just love it! I’m humbly grateful for my wonderful family and friends, for the many years I’ve shared with my husband and best friend Johnny, and for still being able to write these newsletters. See you next year!
Love, peace and joy to all of you,


Teaching Reading Through the Ages

This issue of Dorbooks spells out how reading was taught fifty years ago, how it is taught today, and shares some summary thoughts. Enjoy!


(As excerpted from “Solomon or Salami?” by Helen R. Lowe, The Atlantic Monthly, November 1959.)

“Reading is more than a skill. It is an illuminating, enlarging and quickening experience, to which the majority of our high school and many of our college graduates are strangers. They read of their own volition hardly at all, often little beyond the newspapers, a few magazines, and an occasional best seller.

“Moreover, of those who reach high school level, we are told that only 15 to 20 percent are capable of a rigorous secondary school or college preparatory program, based on tests and cumulative school records.

“To learn something of the causes, character, and consequences of what has happened to the teaching of reading let us go straight to the evidence—to the students themselves—and we shall see that many of them do not know how to read.

“the lips of students of excellent and superior abilities. These are errors made by tenth, eleventh, and twelfth-grade students, taken at random from approximately a hundred thousand similar misreadings from the first grade to the college level:

Solomon             salami
delicacy              delinquency
groceryman        clergyman
hurricane            hammer
God knows         good news
inert                   inherent
imbecility           implicitly

“Misreadings of this kind can not be detected by standardized group tests. These are students who passed standardized reading tests and College Entrance Board Aptitude Tests.

“In addition to these spectacular distortions students make errors of omission, interpolations, paraphrases, conjectures, and complete improvisations so that paragraph after paragraph reaches their minds garbled, blurred, altered, and ungrammatical.

“What children know as reading is a difficult, tedious, confusing, time-consuming exercise in visual recall, association, invention, prediction, and substitution. This uncoordinated exertion mutilates or obliterates the meaning of the writer. Imposed upon students is a perverse and illogical concept of a word as a visual symbol of meaning instead of as a symbol of the sound which conveys the meaning.

“Their reading vocabularies are very limited in range, to reading only words they know and guessing at new words through context clues. They are confined within the boundaries of their current vocabularies and thoughts, interpreting things only from within their own shallow perspectives. The so-called reading of the disabled readers is largely meaningless, narrow, and without interest.

“Consider the effect of this kind of reading not merely upon the comprehension of content, but upon the capacity of think critically about anything at all. There is clear and abundant evidence that this dislocation of word and meaning carries over to other areas of learning.

“In the field of mathematics, for example, students are handicapped not only by their inability to read problems but by the very habits of mind which induced their reading disability. They surmise where they should calculate, and predict where they should reason.

“These students have no conception of reading as an experience that carries them beyond themselves, of opening doors that never close again.

“How can we teach anything to students who read lazy as snowing, remember as rabbit, and lieutenant as lunatic?”

(See the original complete 1959 “Solomon or Salami?” article at http://donpotter.net/pdf/solomon-or-salami.pdf)



“When our challenged son was 14 we had him tested at Scottish Rite Hospital because I thought he must have learning disabilities. I homeschooled him and he struggled so much. Scottish Rite told us David’s IQ was 66 and it was impossible for him to read at the level he did. So, how come he could read?
Answer:  I taught him straight phonics with Phonics Pathways, and I didn’t know he was mentally challenged, so I just expected him to perform normally.”


“My son Jimmy stumbled over the same words and eventually we would have to stop because we were both frustrated. The reading problem became much worse when we started reading math problems. It was like he had hit a brick wall.

“I called a friend and was just so totally overwhelmed when she suggested that he might have dyslexia. I had him tested  at the Dyslexia Testing Center in Boaz and found out he was severely dyslexic.

“I was shocked and  asked the Dr. how is it that he can read so well. She made a great statement that profoundly effected my thinking from that moment on. She said:

‘Our children up to 3rd grade are learning to read, but that after that they must read to learn. So with most dyslexic children they are extremely smart and have learned to memorize so many words early in reading, and they can pick information out of the pictures and guess at the words. So when the material becomes more challenging and less pictures you will start to see reading problems.’

“You might think your child is just being lazy, I did. I understand how to help my son now. He has to be taught phonics first. He has started to read without any prodding just since the past 2 weeks. To see the light turned on in his eyes is priceless.”

(Three months later)
“Dolores, I just had to share with you my most wonderful Mother’s Day gift I could ever have asked for. Jimmy went to Walmart with me to shop and he went running to the cards. He usually looks for a colorful card with child like pictures and has no idea what the card says. He found what he was looking for and stuffed it inside the envelope.

“He gave me the card yesterday and before I could open it he said, ‘Mom, you know how I have dyslexia and how hard reading has been for me. You know how hard we have worked this year. Okay now open your card.’

(The card:)

‘To My Mom: This is a story about a kid with a mom who believes in him and has taught him about important stuff- like chasing his dreams and trusting his heart It’s a success story and it was written by you. Happy Mother’s Day with love from your son.’

“It was all I could do to read through this card. I had no idea the impact I had on him this year. I had no idea the impact that he made on his own self. He is so proud that he can read now. This story would not have been possible without your gracious help. I am in such wonder of you and how wonderful you must feel knowing that you have made the difference in so many children and adults lives! I will be forever in your debt.”


“After my mom had a stroke she had trouble getting words from her brain to her mouth. Soon after she was back home I began using Phonics Pathways with her. She loved it! The sounds were one of the problem read she had, and it helped her so much. She is writing out her own Christmas cards and reading ‘baby’ books now. Today I’m proud to say that our library has its own copy of this book. We also have a growing population of Mexican families in our area, and we notice that many Hispanic children are using it to learn English.”
Barb Tessmann, Librarian, Oconomowoc, WI


When a frog is placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, it never realizes it is in danger and is slowly boiled alive. So it is with education today.
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.

Soon we will have another presidential election. If we cannot read or think clearly and accurately, we tend to believe in slogans rather than analyzing statements using the subtle reasoning that is so needed to survive in today’s complex society . . .
We are in danger of being slowly boiled alive because of our creeping illiteracy!

Copyright Dolores G. Hiskes, 2015