Archive for January 31, 2015

Long Ago and Far Away . . .

Did you know that phonics was first taught way back in the first century—95 AD?

 A very long time ago. An old Greek named Quintilian brought forward rhetorical theory from ancient Greece in his Institutio Oratoria of 95 AD, an exhaustive treatment of rhetoric in twelve books. Here are some of his edited excerpts regarding teaching reading (Parenthetical comments are mine):

“Why, again, since children are capable of moral training, should they not be capable of literary education? I am well aware that during the whole period of which I am speaking we can expect scarcely the same amount of progress that one year will effect afterwards. Still those who disagree with me seem in taking the line to spare the teacher rather than the pupil.

(Begin as soon as possible!)

“What better occupation can a child have so soon as he is able to speak?  The boy will be learning something more advanced during that year, in which he would otherwise have been occupied with something more elementary.”

(Teach it early but keep it simple!)

“Small children are better adapted for taking in small things, and just as the body can only be trained to certain flexions of the limbs while it is young and supple, so the acquisition of strength makes the mind offer greater resistance to the acquisition of most subjects of knowledge.”

(Teach letters and sounds simultaneously!)

“It will be best therefore for children to begin by learning their appearance and names together, just as they do with men.” 

(Build syllables first, then words, and only then sentences!)

“The syllables once learnt, let him begin to construct words with them and sentences with the words.” 

(Keep it short and simple!)

“And at the tender age of which we are now speaking, when originality is impossible, memory is almost the only faculty which can be developed by the teacher.”

(How we learn something the first time sticks!)
“It will be worth while, by way of improving the child’s pronunciation and distinctness of utterance, to make him rattle off a selection of names and lines of studied difficulty: they should be formed of a number of syllables which go ill together and should be harsh and rugged in sound: the Greeks call them “gags.” This sounds a trifling matter, but its omission will result in numerous faults of pronunciation, which, unless removed in early years, will become a perverse and incurable habit and persist through life.”
(Teach reading in small steps—only one sound, letter, or spelling at a time!)

“Vessels with narrow mouths will not receive liquids if too much be poured into them at a time, but are easily filled if the liquid is admitted in a gentle stream or, it may be, drop by drop; similarly you must consider how much a child’s mind is capable of receiving: the things which are beyond their grasp will not enter their minds, which have not opened out sufficiently to take them in.”

So what happened? Why aren’t we using these principles today? We are desperately trying all kinds of different methods to teach reading, from whole language to contextual phonics and from using blackboards to high tech—all kinds, that is, except the one approach that works for everyone.

We flop around like fish out of water and find ourselves in an ever-deeper hole . . . but we just keep digging anyway. An old Creole proverb succinctly states,

“The fish trusts the water, and it is in

the water that it is cooked!”






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. But we don’t notice it!

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.

Although 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 assessment tools, etc., so far nothing has made too much of a dent in improving American education.

We insist that we DO teach phonics, but what went wrong? What are we missing?


Decodable text is the missing link between teaching letter sounds and reading books! It is the thing most lacking in reading programs today. “Open Court”, for example, used to be one of the best phonics programs available. 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. Their pre-decodable readers contains words such as “sandwich” and “napkin.”

When whole sight words are taught along with phonics while 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!


One 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 18 year old son with down’s syndrome 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 turned 84 the day after Christmas, and it’s wonderful stories like these that keep me as young and frisky as a newborn colt! (Well, almost…)