Archive for Teaching Reading

The History of Dorbooks (Part One)

This three-part historical series is an update to an earlier version first published in Phonics-Talk, the Dorbooks newsletter (vol. 66, 67, and 68). It is an overview of my involvement with teaching reading from the beginning, throughout the years, and where its current status is.

“In The Beginning…” Isn’t that how all good stories begin? Part One peeks nostalgically backwards with a reprint of an article written by Carol Anne Carroll on October 31, 2005, titled ‘Educating Your Children with Classic Grammar Textbooks.’ This beautifully succinct article summarizes the very beginning of Dorbooks:

“The adage ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ was never truer than it is in the life of Dolores Hiskes. The unwritten part of that adage, however, is that the ‘necessity’ often involves a rather challenging experience, while the ‘invention’ develops slowly, often while the inventor isn’t fully aware of his or her discovery.

“It was the difficulty experienced by one of Hiskes’ two children in l961 that launched her publishing company’s successful phonics, reading, and spelling books.‘When my daughter was in the first grade, she hadn’t learned anything by Easter. She couldn’t read. She would get headaches and tummy aches, and didn’t want to go to school,’ Hiskes explains. After repeated attempts to get her daughter back on track had failed, she says, ‘I realized something was wrong.’

“In her research, Hiskes came across the book Reading With Phonics, and decided to have her daughter work with the book. ‘She became the best reader in her class,’ Hiskes notes.

“As she began to share the secrets to her daughter’s success, other parents came to Hiskes, asking if she would work with their children. ‘I would get the students no one else could teach,’ she explains, often when the family had run out of more traditional options., Hiskes was also traveling extensively with her husband, who made regular business trips throughout the world.

“On these trips, the personal struggle was soon put into a broader, global context. ‘I don’t know how to explain our processes, but this has just stayed with me,’ she notes.

“Taking an interest in the phonics and reading texts of other English-speaking countries, Hiskes soon discovered that many of the texts she found (and admired) were fading away. ‘I saw good texts going out of print and bought them all’ she says.

“In England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, and Canada as well as America I kept running into good books fading away and going out of print. I kept thinking, ‘Someone should really bring this all together.’

“It didn’t take Hiskes long to realize that that ‘someone’ was her. Today her line of books is used internationally as well as across the country in schools, tutoring centers, and speech pathology centers, as well as in many private homes. The books have become successful as many parents, educators, and others turn to the texts as a way to help children read, changing struggling students into stellar ones.

“While students, parents, and teachers were taking notice, so too was the publishing industry. ‘I swore I would never sell out’ Hiskes says. And she hasn’t — although the book is undergoing a change in publisher. Jossey-Bass, a respected academic publisher, has recently created a Teaching Division and was looking for quality texts for its new venture. Hiskes’ Phonics Pathways books quickly caught their eye. While she was uncertain at first, she finally agreed to have Jossey-Bass publish the series, which they will do beginning in April, 2005.

“‘They convinced me because they can reach more people. But I have the copyright and retain total control over the book’s contents,’ she says, noting the importance of the book’s integrity to her, even under a new publisher.

“After all, within Dolores Hiskes, publisher, remains the poignant memories of 50 years ago, when she was Dolores Hiskes, frustrated parent. And Jossey-Bass understood. ‘I told the publisher, This is my baby. I’ve nurtured it for 20 years,’ she explains.

“And the publisher replied, ‘Don’t worry. You’re not giving your baby away, you’re sending it to Stanford!'” Carol Anne Carroll 2005

Next: Part Two, a summary of high points and a few surprises that happened along the way. Watch for it!


When my husband was an electronic technician in the Coast Guard his supervisor was constantly sending him to all four corners of California, with the booming command to “FIX IT! FIX IT!” regarding broken radios at various stations.

This is the time of year when I get similar messages from desperate parents whose children are still not able to read after trying everything from special ed classes to special tutoring. The programs they used were either incomplete, or way too complex with complicated directions. The school year has begun, and they want their children to read!

They have decided to try Phonics Pathways, and needed to know where to begin with an older child who has some reading skills but still struggles, guessing and misspelling all along the way, and is falling farther and farther behind.

Here is my advice:

(1) Begin with the very first review on page 16 of Phonics Pathways. They should be able to read these short-vowel sounds easily and accurately.

(2) Print out the “Short Sheet of Vowels” on page 256, and dictate a short-vowel sound. Have them write the name of the letter that makes this sound under the correct heading.

(3) The next review page is “Two-Letter Blends” on page 37. Students need to be able to blend these sounds together smoothly, and write the blend from dictation under the correct heading in “The Short-Sheet of Vowels.”

Keep proceeding in this manner with every review page in the book. Keep going until your student begins slowing down or struggling — that is the place to begin lessons!

Note that many review pages double as games as well. Playing these games is an excellent way to reinforce learning, and is fun besides!

If you don’t have Reading Pathways I’d suggest it — while Phonics Pathways is designed to be a complete text that stands on its own, Reading Pathways was written to provide extra practice and accelerate fluent reading skills while you are using Phonics Pathways. Check out “Free Downloads” on my website and print out the guide for how to use both books together.

If you need even more support material try Phonics Pathways Boosters — a book of games to enhance learning, and flash cards with pictured letters and phonograms, and a CD containing all the sounds in English in an easy-to-use format. Sample pages of all books are on my website

Finally, print out a copy of “The Short-Vowel Stick” on page 4 of Phonics Pathways. All short vowels are pictured and illustrated, and each student should keep one face-up on their desk at all times. They can see at a glance what sound the letter makes if they need help — kind of like name-tags for adults (which I for one always appreciate when I’m meeting new people!)

It’s good to be “back in the saddle” again. A lot has happened since my previous blog including a move to Marin, a heart attack, a triple by-pass, and a broken femur, but as old Shakespeare noted so long ago,

“All’s well that ends well!”

Dolores ~






Don Potter’s Challenge

Don Potter is a reading specialist from Odessa, Texas, who has also made it a point to collect many different kinds of reading books ( espousing many different ways and methods to teach phonics. He recently wrote:

“I have been doing much of my tutoring with Hazel Loring’s Blend Phonics, and the results are almost always excellent. But once in a long while, I get a student who undoubted has real dyslexia. Artificially induced whole-word dyslexia is generally easily cured with simple phonics. But on rare occasions, I get those students who I find almost impossible to help. They seem helpless when it comes to learning and using the sound-to-symbol correspondences. They always try to read words by the shape, and are very resistant to looking at all the letters.

“For these students, I turn to Phonics Pathways. Fortunately, they generally are have some ability with the short vowels. Since Phonics Pathways constantly reviews (and compares with the long vowels) the short vowels during the long vowel lessons, I am able to skip the short vowel lessons (to save time and money for the parents) and jump right into the long vowel section. I started a 2nd grader and a 6th grader on Phonics Pathways today. This is adventuring into territory where no other Bookworm has ever gone.

“I only trust Dewey for these hard cases. I will let you know how the tutoring goes. (You may recall that many years ago I cured a child with real dyslexia using Phonics Pathways. He cried the first time we did the first long vowel lesson, saying, “I hurt from the bottom of my feel to the top of my head.” He went on to become a great reader.)

“I learned right then and there a lesson I have never forgotten. There is something special about those lessons that enables the most challenged dyslexics to reprogram their brain to become good readers. I will send you full reports as the children make progress.

“A formal study needs to be done of the special features of Phonics Pathways that sets it apart from all the other programs. I feel very strongly that even the best Orton-Gillingham programs are missing some of the special features that you integrated into your book/program/system.

“The way you teach the long vowels by contrasting them with the short vowels seems to be a significant feature. Also the two word phrases that are just on the edge of full meaning. They particularly like reading the sentences where they sound out two word and then read the sentences. They can attain some fluency because they are prepared for the two new words, yet the other words are providing a review back to the very first of the program!
“Also there is enough practice to make a significant impact. Of course parents who use the program with their own children would never know nor need to know the linguistics, psychology, and pedagogy behind the program, but for a person, like me, who has dedicated their lives to teaching ALL children to read, it is very intriguing to sort out the factors that set Phonics Pathways apart from EVERYTHING else. The absence of pictures for the sentences and stories is more important that anyone might imagine. Kids with the whole-word guessing habit learn quickly to overuse pictures. The absence of pictures to illustrate the sentences is a very significant factor in the overall strength of Phonics Pathways.” 

Will Don succeed in teaching these struggling students how to read? Will he once again be able to venture into territory that “no other Bookworm has ever gone” and help them overcome their severe dyslexia?

Stay tuned!

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!