Archive for Short-Vowel Sounds

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: 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



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…)

A Fourteen-Point Checklist for an Outstanding Phonics Reading Program

Are you shopping for a good phonics program? Want to supplement your current reading program? Here is a blueprint and guide to what in my experience are the best features to look for in a good phonics reading program:

1. One Letter at a Time

Short-vowel sounds are the very foundation of our English language. They can be difficult to learn and are best taught first, one at a time, in isolation. Focusing on only one sound at a time develops reading accuracy and prevents guessing.

(Beneficial for everyone—especially ELL, LD, or hearing-challenged students.)

2. Illustrated Letters

Every letter should be illustrated with pictures of objects beginning with the sound. At first many children are unable to hear these sounds within a word. Multiple illustrations add a depth of perspective that is similar in effect to a 3-D hologram, and depict the subtle variations of each sound.

(Multiple pictures beginning with each sound also develop and strengthen phonemic awareness.)

3. Large Letters

Even with proper glasses students often struggle with smaller letters when first learning how to read. It’s easier for everyone to learn from large letters initially. This feature is especially useful to beginners, LD learners, or those with vision challenges.

(Once reading is well-established it is much easier to read finer print!)

4. Phonemic Awarenes

Phonemic awareness is a precursor to phonics but should never be confused with phonics. Teach phonemic awareness with letters at the same time for maximum efficiency. “Phonemic awareness instruction is most effective when it is kept simple and when it includes letters.” ~Timothy Shanahan, Director, University of Illinois Center for Literacy

(Phonemic awareness teaches only sounds. Phonics teaches both letters and sounds.)

5. Multisensory

A multisensory approach ensures success for everyone, regardless of their learning mode. How students learn may be different—but what they learn should be the same. Everyone should be able to decode long words by syllables whatever their learning mode. A multisensory method has the synergistic effect of addressing the strongest mode while reinforcing the weakest.

(After all, visual learners still must hear the word, and auditory learners still must see the word!)

6. Blend Consonants With Vowels

When teaching consonants, blending them with a vowel instead of teaching them in isolations eliminated the extra “uh” sound heard in voiced consonants, such as “d-uh” when trying to say the sound of “d.” This strategy begins to develop smooth eye-tracking skills and prevents choppy reading. Students read “di-g” not “duh-i-g,” or “ca-t” not “cuh-a-t,” etc.

(Reading two-letter syllables before reading whole words will also remediate and prevent reversals.)

7. Build Words ASAP

Building words as letters are learned provides concrete exemplars for what can otherwise be confusing and abstract rules and sounds. It prevents the “reading-without-understanding” syndrome sometimes seen when all phonograms are learned first, prior to reading a whole word.

(Memory experts have long known it is easier to remember something new if you can connect it to something already known!)

8. Build Sentences Gradually

Blend letters into syllables, then gradually build words, two-word phrases, and finally sentences of slowly increasing complexity. It’s too big a leap for many students to move directly from reading words to reading complete sentences. Graduated reading practice jump-starts reading for everyone, especially for dyslexics.

(Just because we’ve learned all the piano notes does not mean we are ready to play a sonata!)

9. Teach Spelling With Reading

Reading and spelling enhance one another and are best taught as an integrated unit. Learning how to read and spell in systematic patterns develops clear, analytical thinking which spills over into other disciplines, such as math. Spelling today is taught randomly—what if we had to learn math randomly, 12 x 7, 6 x 9, 8 x 4, 5 x 11, etc.?

(When we learn how to read and spell by pattern math scores frequently improve without tutoring!)

10. Only One Spelling at a Time

Teach only one spelling of a phoneme at a time, beginning with the simplest spelling. It’s more difficult to teach and learn multiple spellings of a phoneme all at once, such as all seven spellings of /A/.

(Don’t you remember names better when you meet people only one at a time instead of being introduced to a whole roomful of people at once?)

11. 100% Decodable Practice

Early practice readings should only be comprised of sounds and rules already learned. The left brain acquires knowledge in small, sequential parts (letter sounds, math). The right brain acquires knowledge by seeing the whole picture (sight words, illustrations). Activity in one hemisphere actually suppresses activity of the mirror-image area on the other side!

(Once decoding is automatic we are able to see the whole word at once~the gestalt.)

12. Add Sight Words Gradually

After the mechanics of reading are established, sight words can gradually be introduced, a few at a time, such as “I” and “a” Example: “I had a fat cat.” Limited reading skills should be reasonably fluent before sight words are introduced.

(Our attention is limited to being able to focus on only one thing at a time. It cannot be directed to identifying letters at the same time that we are trying to comprehend the meaning of what we are reading!)

13. Teach Sight Words by Pattern

Words learned in patterns are grouped and filed in one “folder” in your brain and quickly retrieved. Words learned randomly are filed in separate “folders,” and take more time to retrieve. Example: sight words “could, would, should” are best taught with other /oo/ words such as “took, book, look,” etc.

(Having to learn words randomly results in slow and laborious reading, and children seldom read for pleasure.)

14. Include ALL Spelling Rules

Linguistic awareness eases learning and develops logical, analytical thinking. Example: “Why are some words spelled -able and others -ible, as in appeasable, horrible, etc.?” It’s so much easier knowing one rule for many words than it is learning each word individually!

(Critical thinking sharpens, and spelling improves dramatically!)

Happy Shopping!



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!