Archive for Dyslexia

Picture This!

Much has been said about pre-reading, and how much or whether it is even helpful when learning how to read. Let’s narrow this discussion to illustrations, and take a closer look at whether or not pictures help or hurt the reading process:

If a story has too many pictures in it that give away the whole plot, it defeats the purpose of decoding because we already know everything about it and there’s no motivation to read any further. If it has just a few illustrations, this can perk up the child and give him a sense of what the story is all about, hook his interest, and motivate him to go ahead and read it. However, some experts such as Robert Calfee say that any pictures at all distract from the decoding mechanism (Robert Calfee, “Memory and Cognitive Skills in Reading Acquisition,” Reading Perception and Language 1975)

We know that the left brain acquires knowledge in small, sequential steps, such as learning math and letter sounds. And the right brain acquires knowledge by seeing the whole picture, as with illustrations and sight words. And amazingly, researchers such as Schwartz and Begley (The Mind and the Brain) have discovered that activity in the right hemisphere of our brain actually suppresses the activity of the mirror-image region in the left hemisphere if introduced at the same time or too soon!

There is a way in which pictures are highly beneficial to the learning process when learning how to read, and that is to illustrate letters with pictures of words beginning with the sound being introduced. (It can be difficult to hear these sounds within a word when first learning, especially for English-language learners and students with learning disabilities.)

It’s especially effective to include multiple examples, as this imparts the subtle range and depth that make up each sound, much like a 3-D hologram. Listening for and identifying these sounds develops phonemic awareness, the important first step in learning how to read. Illustrating letter sounds as they are learned greatly accelerates learning, just as using Cuisinaire rods and other manipulatives accelerate learning mathematics. Here is an example: The Short Sound of E  

The best example I can think of to demonstrate this concept is to try and read a Russian letter — Russian has different symbols for sounds and puts you in the shoes of a child trying to read without knowing letter sounds. Can you name this letter and say its sound? Mystery Russian Letter Hmmm…

Now try reading this letter again, this time with multiple pictures beginning with the sound of the letter. Just say the name of each picture, and note the beginning sound: Mystery Russian Letter. Simple, isn’t it?

Finally, look at it one more time and discover both the name and sound of this Not-So-Mysterious Russian Letter. See? Now you can read Russian!

Ernest Hemingway once said it takes a man half a lifetime to learn the simplest things of all. It took me that long to learn how to simplify and teach the English language.

Teaching reading is really very easy — anyone can teach it, and everyone can learn!


The Math-Reading Connection

The ability to think clearly, logically, and sequentially is a prerequisite for success in math/science. This skill is acquired, and is not innate.

Currently, reading is thought of as an innate, inborn skill such as walking or talking. It is believed that students will pick up this skill automatically if they are taught a few letters, but words are learned randomly, as a whole. Phonics is taught implicitly, and students are encouraged to guess at unknown words:  Implicit Phonics  Skill-based instruction and precision in reading are thought to be redundant to reading and comprehension.

Stastics on illiteracy rates clearly show otherwise. There is increasing evidence that systematic, skill-based instruction is indeed vital not only to the reading process but in our very ability to think logically and reason clearly. Sometimes it’s the brightest students who experience the most difficulty because they need to perceive patterns and relationships, and see how things fit together. Their minds rebel against a system that has no logic.

On the recent News Hour a savvy teacher said students don’t fail in high school, they fail in second grade because they have not been taught explicit phonics and are subsequently just carried along through school. She is absolutely correct!

When students learn the sounds and spelling patterns comprising over 95% of the English language in an incremental, progressive fashion math scores frequently improve without tutoring. Spelling improves dramatically! (Example: Why do we double some endings and not others in words such as “submitted, visited, marketing” and “compelling”? One simple rule covers over 90% of these words.)

Reading and reasoning develop simultaneously and synergistically. Moreover, brain imaging shows that dyslexia frequently disappears after students are taught how to read accurately with explicit phonics!* Accurate reading trains students to extract meaning from text, rather than insert meaning into text:  Explicit Phonics

Skill-based reading instruction is urgently needed and long overdue, but for the most part has not even been included in teaching colleges for over 50 years. Most of the old phonics texts have long been out of print. Once we provide this missing link in today’s reading curricula math/science skills will follow as has been demonstrated, because students have been taught to think logically and sequentially.

As the old Greek Herotimus once said:

“We are dragged on by consistency—but a thing may be consistent and yet false!”


*Dr. Guinevere Eden, Nature Neuroscience, 5-18-03

Dyslexia Begone!

What Is Dyslexia?

Most experts agree that dyslexia is the result of an inability to distinguish and/or process the sounds that make up speech, for whatever reason. Letter and/or word reversals and/or confusion are frequent hallmarks of dyslexia. Merck’s Manual (a medical journal) defines dyslexia as: “Failure to see or hear similarities or differences in letters or words…Inability to work out pronunciation of unfamiliar words…Tendency to substitute words for those he cannot see.”

What Can Be Done About It?

Some experts believe dyslexia is organic and inborn, while others feel dyslexia is the result of improper teaching methods. Both views are true. This post will address dyslexia caused by improper teaching methods.

We are not born with the ability to automatically read from left to right, and if we are taught to read a whole word at a time we are just as likely to read it from right to left as left to right. Left-to-right eye tracking is an acquired skill which is absolutely necessary in order to learn how to read.

Just as crawling prepares us for walking, blending letters into syllables and words gives us strong eye-tracking skills which prepare us to read connected text. Direct, explicit phonics is the clearest connecting link between the printed page and reading with accuracy and precision, without guessing.

Most of today’s phonics reading programs are only 50% decodable, meaning half of the letters and words have not been taught yet. Students are encouraged to guess at a word. Beginning and ending letter sounds are given as clues to help students read the word, and it’s OK to say “horse” for “pony” or “house” for “home” because the meaning is the same.

Think about it: students are trained to do the very thing that Merck’s Manual  defines as dyslexic!

Let’s take a closer look at how this works. Here is a two-word phrase in Russian, which has different symbols for sounds and puts you in the shoes of a child not knowing how to read yet. It is only 50% decodable: Russian

No luck, eh? Let’s add more clues with beginning and ending letters and see if we can read it now: Russian

While that does make sense—and that could be the word—unfortunately that is not the word! When students are trained to guess and/or substitute words, they are putting meaning into rather than extracting meaning from the story.

Now read these words again, this time with completely decodable text: Russian

As we’ve just seen, even misreading only one word on a page can change the entire meaning of the story. “Chocolate bananas” are not “chocolate bunnies!” This analogy may be whimsical, but there are much graver ramifications. (See “The Comprehension Dilemma: A Simple Solution.”)

Whether dyslexia is inborn or acquired, direct, explicit phonics is the only and indispensable key to fluent and accurate reading with excellent comprehension. Learning how to read logically and sequentially also develops clear and precise thinking skills that spill over into other disciplines as well — math usually improves without tutoring, and critical thinking in general sharpens.

One first-grade public school teacher supplements her regular reading program with Phonics Pathways and had all of her first-graders reading in only three months, including English-language learners and students with dyslexia and other learning problems.

She then had a literature evening for parents, and all 32 students got up on the stage—including English language learners and those with learning problems—and read selections from William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. It was a magical moment, and the parents were absolutely thrilled. Just blown away!

A District reading teacher concluded: Phonics Pathways 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 they could only guess at before, can meet reading at its most vital level — they can read for meaning!”


We live in uncertain times, and discretionary spending for many of us is almost non-existant. Fortunately there are a few inexpensive programs available to use as a primary source or supplement to your current reading program.

But beware! There are also many watered-down “phonics” programs available that mix phonics and whole language despite rhetoric to the contrary, with titles like “balanced literacy,”embedded phonics,” “complete language arts,” etc. (See “Whole-Language High Jinks: Language Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing” by the noted educator Louisa Moats. Education Matters, March 2007, ) It is imperative to dig beneath the surface and scrutinize the actual content of the programs themselves.

Perhaps no one described this kind of obfuscation better than our beloved Mark Twain:

“There is nothing in the world like a persuasive speech to fuddle the mental apparatus and upset the convictions and debauch the emotions of an audience not practiced in the tricks and delusions of oratory!”





The Comprehension Dilemma: A Simple Solution

Today’s reading programs often produce excellent reading scores in the early grades, but by 3rd or 4th grade frequently comprehension begins a downhill slide. That’s the point where instruction shifts from decoding and word recognition to fluency and comprehension.

This phenomena is so widespread that researchers have given it a name: “The Fourth-Grade Slump.”

Oklahoma is one of several states that recently adopted new reading policies that call for 3rd graders to be held back if they flunk a state standardized test. “If our children are not able to read at grade-appropriate levels,” Gov. Fallin said when signing the measure into law last year, “they can’t learn the math, the science, the social studies as they … go through the education system.”

All the plans appear to take a page from the playbook in Florida, where a policy to end the social promotion of 3rd graders was enacted under former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Supporters say that retention is intended as a last resort, and that a key goal of the policies is to place a greater focus to make sure schools intervene early with struggling readers. Without an adequate ability to read, they say, children are ill-equipped to learn across disciplines and may never catch up.
Indiana state schools Superintendent Tony Bennett stated “It really comes down to this: How can we expect our children to use that vital skill of reading as a learning tool if they haven’t learned to read in the primary grades?” (Education Week, 4-7-12)

What happened? What went wrong? Wasn’t phonics supposed to address some of these issues?

The problem is, the definition of phonics is like that of beauty and is in the eye of the beholder. It means many different things to many different people!

Implicit Phonics teaches the words first, and then breaks them into parts.

Explicit Phonics teaches the letters first, and then builds them into words.

Implicit phonics teaches reading using beginning and ending letter clues, the shape of the word, and sentence context clues. Here is a demonstration lesson teaching reading using implicit phonics that is quite revealing: Implicit Phonics

 And here is a presentation of how to teach the same two multisyllable words using Explicit Phonics.

Implicit phonics and explicit phonics have vastly different results! Clearly, explicit phonics is the preferred way to teach reading with any degree of accuracy, precision, and comprehension.

Coming soon:

A simple recipe for reading that anyone can use to teach students of any age how to read! Ten easy steps reveal what to teach (and what not to teach)  using colorful graphic illustrations. Discover the most important features to keep in mind when looking for a good phonics program. Watch for it!