Archive for Illiteracy

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



“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


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…)

The Comprehension Connection

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Should comprehension be taught before or after phonics? Or should they be taught together? Or. . . ? Read on!

Our grandson went to a highly-rated private school in Marin, but when he was in first grade he would guess wildly at everything he read.

He was taught to infer, predict, and guess at the words and meaning while still struggling to read the material accurately. If he guessed the meaning to be anywhere similar to the meaning in the story, he was praised for a correct answer.

I began working with him, and we were working on the “I” and “A” lesson on page 50 of Phonics Pathways. Just before he read “I hug Mom” I got inspired, and told him the next sentence was like a game, and that he had to DO what it said.

He looked at me uncertainly, read the sentence, and then slowly looked up at me with a beautiful look of stunned comprehension and a wide smile that I’ll never forget.

He hopped up, went over to his Mom, and gave her a great big bear hug, and then came back and hugged me too.

It was the first time that he realized he could get meaning OUT of what he was reading, as opposed to putting meaning INTO what he was reading. From that point on he had no more problems with comprehension — he was “reading for meaning,” as opposed to “meaning to read.”


Comprehension training can indeed be valid. But the big danger is that it is frequently brought to play much too early in the game.

We don’t learn ice-skating dance routines until we first learn how to ice skate well. In my experience we should not begin teaching comprehension (along with reasoning, visualizing, inferring, predicting, etc.) until those primary skills have jelled and are at an automatic level.

I’ve watched too many tutoring sessions in schools with reading specialists who begin asking complex questions about the text while the student is still struggling to read it accurately, The student just guesses the best he/she can, and if it’s anywhere similar to the meaning needed they are praised for a correct answer.


RecentIy I received the following letter from a parent:

“Dolores, I just had to share with you the most wonderful Mother’s Day gift I ever had. Jimmy went to Walmart with me to shop and went running to the cards. He usually looks for a colorful card with child-like pictures with no idea of what the card says. He found what he was looking for and told the lady not to let me see this card.

“He gave me the card on Mothers’ Day and said: ‘Mom you know 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’:


‘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 Mothers’ Day with love, from your son.’

“It was all I could do to read through this card. I had no idea the impact he had made on his own self! We love Dewey’s words of advice as well. Every day Dewey is there, encouraging us, or just breaking the tension. It’s strange how a paper worm can become such a friend to someone.”

Way to go, Jimmie–keep up the good work. You’re a READER now!


Indeed, the young boy mentioned above had been diagnosed with dyslexia. But was it inborn or induced by incorrect reading methods? In the earliest stages of reading if we are not trained to read from left to right by building letters into syllables, words, and sentences it often results in irregular eye movements and letter or word reversals. This results in slow and/or inaccurate reading which impacts comprehension. Eye-tracking skills must be well established BEFORE real learning can take place.

The concept of eye training is not new or unique to America. It has been part of Chinese and Tibetan medicine for many thousands of years. It has been my experience that “dyslexic” students have benefitted greatly from vision/motor training such as the teaching method of Phonics Pathways. Another mother wrote:

“My son is nine and this is our second year of home schooling. The activities in back of the book to help hand and eye coordination are three same exercises we did for Perceptual Vision Dysfunction Therapy with a specialist. What a difference it made! My son loves it so much that it is one subject I get ‘Great Mom, I love doing Phonics Pathways!’

Reading Pathways also has been a tremendous boost in our family to reinforce blending and eye tracking. My five-year-old read the very first pyramid story last week and it really made her day!”


On a recent News Hour a savvy teacher said that 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.

Furthermore, most beginning readers are only 50% decodable. These students are then labeled “learning-disabled” or “dyslexic” which is frequently confirmed with brain imaging.

Results? For example, sixty-two percent of Texas’ ninth graders passed the statewide achievement test results for English. What did they do to pass the test? They only had to get 37% of the answers right. Only thirty seven percent.

Is there no hope? There most definitely, certainly, positively IS! Newer exciting brain imaging research reveals that the neuro-biological basis of reading disability actually changes to normal as students become skilled readers after being taught direct, systematic phonics. (Dr. Guinevere Eden, Georgetown University, Nature Neuroscience, May 2003)

It’s never too late to learn how to read.



The History of Dorbooks (Conclusion: Part 3)

Recently we began a three-part series on the history of Dorbooks. Here now is Part 3, completing the series. It relates how Phonics Pathways was first used in what evolved into a major national tutoring program, as well as a short example of “what goes around, comes around!”


It all began in 1997, when Mary Shaw and Dolores Hiskes first met at the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association in Marin. Mary was concerned over the rising crime rate in East Palo Alto and Dolores had recently finished Phonics Pathways. 

They decided to combine forces and do something about the rampant literacy problem.. “What good is the internet if you can’t read?” Mary asked. “The key is reading—all else flows from that.” She applied for a grant to begin a reading tutoring program. Here is an edited version of what Mary wrote:

“In the shadow of prosperous Palo Alto, California and Stanford University lies East Palo Alto, a small city of primarily Blacks, Hispanics, and Pacific Islanders, many of whom live on marginal incomes. The 190 Census lists the city’s population as more than 5 percent Tongan, Fijian, and Samoan. In 1997 this estimate is 10 percent and growing. Because community resources are few for these families, teenagers spend their time hanging out on the streets where drug sales, drug use, delinquency and violence are social norms.


“To ensure the program’s long term survival, Dee founded Pacific Islander Outreach, Inc. (PIO), a non-profit organization dedicated to changing the life circumstances of these disenfranchised young people.

“To get these young people off the streets “Mama Dee” Uhila, a Samoan, opened her home in 1993 to any student from East Palo Alto. Every day and on weekends Mamma Dee cooked a meal and provided homework assistance for youngsters who soon occupied every room in her small house. Many were gang members and already in and out of Juvenile Hall for drug related offenses and minor crimes. Dee would often see these kids on the street until two or three o’clock in the morning. Most of these students are habitual truants who, even when attending classes, are in-school dropouts. It became very apparent in the home study houses that a frequent cause of these students’ poor academic performance and disruptive behavior was their lack of basic reading skills.


“To address this critical need, PIO created a Reading and Advocacy Program in the fall of 1996. The goal was to prove a safe, welcoming environment in which to learn, to learn to read, to study, and to do homework–and to do this in a place where the youngsters were willing to go. The program operated out of the “Friendly Place Restaurant” two afternoons a week.

“The Reading and Advocacy Program depends on the recruitment, training, and supervision of adult volunteers from surrounding communities. They attend a two hour training session conducted by Dolores G. Hiskes, whose text Phonics Pathways is the instructional material of choice. Dolores coached the PIO in setting up the program and contributed many of her ancillary educational materials. A $6,500 grant from the Charter Oak Foundation provided seed money. Staffing consists of a part-time program coordinator, a part-time volunteer coordinator, and a corps of fifteen community volunteers. Students are tutored one-on-one in bi-weekly, half hour sessions, and along with the dedication of volunteer tutors has resulted in significant improvement of reading scores in the Ravenswood City School District.”

And so a tutoring program was born!

Mary continued, “The growth of the program has surprised everyone. Many students are wait-listed. Tutors, parents, and students alike are very enthusiastic about the program. Another tutor donated $25,000 to ensure that the lease would be paid at the restaurant where the tutoring takes place.

“And the Stanford University Athletic Department recently donated thirty surplus tables and eighty chairs so that the program would have appropriate furniture for one-on-one tutoring.”


Mary approached Jean Bacigalupi who was on the Board of YES (Youth Empowering Systems) a national nonprofit group that works on youth and education issues, requesting they sponsor the tutoring program. YES said yes!

Ms. Bacigalupi, who has volunteered her time and effort to many causes in her life, recalls how she became involved as a tutor. “At one point, I told Mary, I’m tired of sitting on boards–I want to work with kids!”

In 1999, in partnership with the school district and the Menlo Park Public Library System Mary, Jean, and tutor Molly McCrory created a state-of-the-art YES Reading Center at the Belle Haven Community Library, which serves both the school and the community. In 2001 it was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) under the name of YES Reading. And the YES Reading Center was born! Starting with just three volunteers working in the school library, the organization quickly grew to serve more than 100 children at Belle Haven. One enthusiastic tutor gathered statistics on its success, and found that while Sylvan Learning Center improved reading ONE grade level per year, YES Reading Center improved reading TWO grade levels per year–and for far less money!

The location soon changed. Stanford University recently donated a double-size portable classroom to the Belle Haven campus, which was renovated by the University Rotary Club of Palo Alto. Molly McCrory put her formidable decorating skills to good use making it warm, attractive, and inviting to students and tutors alike. Molly enthusiastically commented, “One visit to a tutoring session would be enough to convince others to sign up. They’d be hooked. It’s a way to change the life of a child.”

And so the YES Reading Center grew and grew!

Mary wrote, “Parents say it is heartwarming to see their children progress from non-readers to eager readers who want to do their homework. Some of the children have shared that they are doing better in school already. The minister of a local church, whose daughter is in the program, suggested we start a similar program for adults–“so that my people can get a job and get off welfare.” A Samoan mother, observing the volunteer tutors, best expressed the feelings of so many of the involved East Palo Alto families.

“She quietly remarked, “God has blessed our children!”

“(signed) Mary Wright Shaw, Board Member, YES Reading Project, Youth Empowering Systems, Menlo Park, CA”


YES Reading Center began replicating to nearby Title I elementary schools. in 2008 the name YES Reading Center was changed to Reading Partners. A whole new team of financial supporters, managers, recruiters, and marketers were brought on board, and as a result, Reading Partners has exploded to serve more than 7,000 students in schools throughout California, Colorado, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington D.C. Very impressive indeed!

Different materials were added to the curriculum, which resulted in 1.5 to 2 months of growth per year in literacy for Reading Partners students.

While falling short of the results when Phonics Pathways was used (YES Reading improved reading comprehension two grade levels per year) this growth is nonetheless exciting.

And to think it all began with just one little book!


In the beginning of this series I mentioned how I first taught our own two children how to read. Now they are grown, with two children of their own. And guess what? Our grandson came home from first grade needing help with reading! I was told they do teach phonics, but one of the words in his little first-grade reader was “neighborhood.” (Welllllllll..if you think that’s phonics, then I have a nice bridge I’d like to sell you…)

So I rolled up my sleeves and went to work teaching him, and he learned how to read in no time at all. I would chase him into his seat with a big, furry, fake fly, which periodically “buzzed” around him to keep him in line. And always with him and every student I’ve ever tutored, at the end of every lesson I would read a chapter from “James And The Giant Peach.” I also did a magic egg trick, and promised to tell him the secret when he finished the book. And so he did, and so I did! He is now 20 years old majoring in economics at college.

Realizing that things haven’t changed much, I decided to teach his younger sister how to read before she went to kindergarten. Our granddaughter was feistier and said she already knew how to read, so I had her teach her stuffed animals (with a little help from her grandmother–ahem!). Every time she finished a little booklet she made Grandfather sing the song on the back cover. His singing voice is even worse than mine, so she rolled on the floor laughing and so did I! She is now 18, and a theater arts/communication major at college.

What a wonderful world this is, and what a wonderful life I’ve had. Sure, we’ve had a few health issues over the years, some more serious than others. But I have miles to go before I sleep–miles to go before I sleep.

       “A crimson autumn leaf am I,
        Golden, dancing, glowing bright.
        Not yet my time to drop!”

Warm hugs to all of you. May the Spirit of Christmas be with you now and throughout the coming year, and ever afterword.

        Blessings, Dolores