Archive for Teaching Reading


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


The History of Dorbooks (Part 2)

Part 2 of the “History of Dorbooks” will be a journey of Dorbooks highlights and growth over the years. There are so many wonderful moments in this history it is difficult to choose which ones to include. Perhaps I will narrow it down and just relate when Phonics Pathways was FIRST used in a local tutoring program, FIRST used in a school, FIRST used district-wide, and when it was FIRST used nationwide. So sit down, grab a cup of tea, and read on . . .


In 1994 Joe Michell School in Livermore became the first school to use Phonics Pathways as a tutoring program. Joe Michell School serves a diverse population, with a growing number of students in the free lunch programs who also live in subsidized housing. They were coming to school totally unprepared to learn. Joe Michell had the lowest reading scores in the entire district.

In 1994 the principal decided to implement an in-school tutorial program using Phonics Pathways. Parent, community members, and high school student volunteers received a brief one-hour training, and tutored every 1st to 3rd grade student in the hallway, one-on-one for 20 minutes, three times a week. In only ten months the school advanced from having the LOWEST to the HIGHEST reading scores in the entire school district. The teachers were elated!

4th grade teacher Pam Mendonca now has all these “graduates” in her class for the first time, and she observed “This is the most literate group I have ever had. Our tutorial program is worth its weight in gold.” One boy said to his teacher “I did it! I read it all by myself!” He could not believe that it was really true. Then he added “I am so good!” (Smiles all around!)

Director Kathryn Kaldhusal added: “When second-grader Maria first arrived she was scared, shy, and felt lost and left behind. Within two months Elaina arrived and Maria is full of pride as she now helps demonstrate to Elaina how to use Phonics Pathways and accompanying games. Within three weeks Elaina began phonetically reading three-letter words. These students are now launched on a life-long journey of discovery. And all this with only one paid part-time coordinator. What a gift!”


In 1996 Tovashal Elementary School in Murrieta became the first school to use Phonics Pathways in the classroom. Teacher Pam Barret wrote: “I began using Phonics Pathways in 1996 at Tovashal Elementary School. We had great success with first graders for the nine years that I was on staff as the first-grade team literacy leader.

“In March 1997, at Tovashal, after 8 months of using Phonics Pathways, we presented a special evening for parents, and ALL thirty-two first graders from my class (including English-language learners and those with a reading disability) got on the stage and read selections from The Book of Virtues. If every kindergarten and first-grade teacher had a copy of Phonics Pathways, intervention in the grades that follow would be a thing of the past. We also successfully used Phonics Pathways at Tovashal for the before-and-after-school tutoring for 2nd to 5th graders, where we trained our beloved “white-haired wonders” (grandparents) to work with these students.

“After leaving Tovashal Elementary School, I became an academic coach and shared Phonics Pathways, and its application, with an entire district full of teachers desperately trying to instruct struggling readers in Hemet, CA. From there, I shared Phonics Pathways as an instructional consultant in elementary schools in both Indio, CA and Culver City, CA.

“Teachers, parents, and grandparents at every school where I worked to train them, since 1996, were amazed at how much the students improved with Phonics Pathways. Additionally, three of my adult children, who are teachers, have been using Phonics Pathways in their own classrooms with their students. Yet another daughter used this book with the students she tutors in her business. Still another son and his wife have used Phonics Pathways while homeschooling their children to become successful readers. All 5 adult children have then shared their Phonics Pathways success stories with many others.

“Dolores, your amazing book has multiplied greatly within our small little sphere of influence for 18 years. Thank you for producing a generation of readers!”                                          -Pam Barret, Teacher-of-the-year, 1987


In 1997 Lowell School District in Whittier became the first district-wide user of Phonics Pathways. Reading specialist Bettina Dunne wrote: “This is Lowell Joint School District’s implementation year of Phonics Pathways. We are targeting all grade 3-6 students in the District’s Title 1 program. I needed to find a phonics program to use with our bulging upper grade Title 1 students. I previewed phonics program afterphonics program, and my criteria crystallized. The program must: (a) fit into the existing reading program, (b) be flexible enough for individual or small group work (c) require little or no preparation time (d) include all phonics skills with accessibility to all grades (e) be sequential (f) be as easy for instructional assistants to use as for teachers. (g) not be prohibitively expensive.

“I finally found this program when I attended the California Reading Conference and heard a presentation by Dolores Hiskes. Phonics Pathways was definitely the program of choice! We put the program onto card stock so it would be easier to use with small groups and have a longer shelf life. (We are still using the cards three years later.) It also made it easier to focus on certain skills. We used chalkboards for the writing portion. Chalk was our only consumable. The lack of worksheets put the focus on sound-symbol relationships.

“Students were soon able to experience phonics as it should be: hearing, seeing, saying, then writing. Our students saw and heard patterns in the language emerge. They became able to read words they had only guessed (and often wrongly) at before, and discovered strategies to help them decode unknown words. They experienced success. The instructional assistants were broadening their knowledge base as well.

“A record sheet was developed for each student participating in Jordan’s new Reading Assistance Program. Phonics Pathways was used five to ten minutes at the beginning of each 25 minute lesson. The 22 targeted students in third grade had an increase of 22 national percentage points in word study skills, moving from 21 to 47 NP, and an increase of 26 national percentage points in reading comprehension, going from 10 NP to 36 NP. And the first and second graders were decoding words better than many of their peers who were not even in the program! The second grade Spring 1996 SAT scores went up from the 1995 scores an average of 22 NP in word study skills and 13 NP points in reading comprehension.

“Here is a program that is concrete, ready-to-use, and successful. An added benefit: the students loved it! Third grade teachers liked having tools to support their spelling as well as reading skill lessons. They were seeing gains in skill and strategy acquisition higher than they were expecting. And it was just halfway through the school year!

Phonics Pathways does not solve all reading problems, but it is an invaluable aide in teaching phonics. It is a no-frills package that unlocks the secrets of sound and symbol relationships, allowing comprehension to become the focus. Students, now able to read words, can meet reading at its most vital level–they can read for meaning!”      -Bettina Dunn, Reading Teacher & Title 1 Coordinator

We will conclude “The History of Dorbooks” with “Part 3”. Stay tuned!