Archive for Teaching Methods

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

Spelling? Hmmm…

Should a reading program include spelling rules? And if so, how many? Should it include all of the spelling rules, even complex rules applying to only a few words? Or should it include just the main rules that apply to most words? Or should spelling even be taught?

Good questions all! It’s enough to make one’s head spin. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of various approaches used to teach spelling:

Teach Spelling Rules AFTER Reading

Waiting to teach spelling rules until after the student has learned how to read has the advantage of continuous reading instruction uninterrupted by learning how to spell at the same time. Attention is totally focused on learning how to read. Spelling is considered a separate skill, and is taught later.

The disadvantage is that of course students must learn how to spell sooner or later, and this only postpones the whole idea of spelling until a later date.

Teach ALL Spelling Rules WITH Reading  

If all spelling rules are introduced in the beginning, when students are first learning how to read, while it has the obvious advantage of teaching spelling it can slow students down considerably because they are learning two skills at the same time, dividing their attention between learning how to read and learning how to spell.

For example, there are about half a dozen rules for adding E to the end of a word, with up to nine subcategories—not to mention all the exceptions. It might be daunting to try and learn all of this material at the same time one is trying to learn how to read! Focusing on only one task at a time greatly eases learning and prevents getting bogged down in minutia.

Take the plural of octopus, for another example: it is not octopi. A little knowledge of Latin and Greek can be a dangerous thing and sometimes leads people into error. While some Latin plurals are formed by changing the -US ending of a singular noun into -I for the plural, octopus is ultimately borrowed from a Greek word and not a Latin one, so it’s incorrect to form the plural according to the Latin rules. If you wanted to be ultra-correct and conform to ancient Greek you’d talk about “octopodes” but this is rare: the Anglicized plural, “octopuses,” is absolutely fine. (“Tricky Plurals in English,…” Oxford University Press).

Teach MOST Spelling Rules With Reading GRADUALLY

Nevertheless, reading and spelling enhance one another and are best taught as a single unit. Marilyn Adams wrote: “Accurate spelling is critical to the reading process. To the extent that this knowledge is inaccurate or underdeveloped, it is strongly associated with learning disabilities.” (Annals of Dyslexia, Vol.47, 1997)

So how then should spelling be taught? A happy compromise is to teach the major spelling rules that apply to many words one by one, when the sound or spelling occurs. For example, here is how the rules for /K/ are taught in Phonics Pathways: (The first rule is not even taught until students are already reading three-letter words.)

1. /K/ is spelled -C or -K depending on the vowel that follows it:                Page 53  (cat, keg, kid, cop, cup)

2. /K/ is spelled -CK at the end of a single-syllable word:                         Page 55  (back, deck, pick)

3. /K/ is spelled -C at the end of a multi-syllable word:                            Page 118  (picnic, fantastic, frolic)

4. /K/ is spelled -ICK when adding a suffix to a multi-syllable word:            Page 118  (picknicking, frolicking)

There are two more spellings of /K/ which are spelling patterns, not rules:    /K/ = CH (chorus, school) and /K/ = QU (quack, queen)

When we are introduced to a whole roomful of people at once it’s difficult to remember all of their names. But when we meet them one at a time it’s much easier. The same thing is true when teaching spelling rules—just teach one at a time, and the simplest rule first.

I’ll close this post with a teaser: Why are some words spelled -ABLE and others -IBLE, as in “appeasable, horrible, lovable, visible,” etc.? There is one simple rule that is true over 90% of the time.

It’s so much easier knowing one spelling rule for many words than it is having to learn each word individually, one at a time!

After basic decoding skills and basic spelling rules are solidly learned and mastered, those wishing to learn more about our language can pursue great resources such as “Vocabulary Through Morphemes” by Susan Ebbers, and other such publications.

Happy hunting!








“B” and “D” Confusion Solution

One of the most frustrating roadblocks to learning the English language is, and always has been, confusing the letters “b” and “d”. They not only look alike, but unless you listen very carefully they even sound alike.

On page 37 of Phonics Pathways there is a solution to this dilemma which has been helpful to many people throughout the years. The mattress on this graphic “bed” card is held up with a “b” and a “d.” It has to show the “b” facing to the right and has to show the “d” facing to the left, in order to hold the mattress up!

This has been so helpful to to many people that I have also had many requests for a larger version of this card to use with a whole classroom of students. And so, in response to these requests, here is a large “bed” card for your use and enjoyment—and in glorious living color as well: bed

I hope you enjoy this little teaching tip!

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!”