Saturday, September 6, 2008

Early Beginnings, Part 3

In the last post I talked about how pressure began to build on kindergarten teachers to teach basic early literacy skills. In 1996 I went to a workshop where I learned to use a pre-reading assessment tool developed by Roland Good III and Ruth Kaminski at the University of Oregon. Their tool is called Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy, or DIBELS, for short.

Kaminski and Good had reviewed the research that identified the skills that beginning readers use as they become good readers. The research made it clear that students who would become good beginning readers could do three things much better than students who would later struggle with beginning reading. The three skills are:

Alphabet Naming:
The ability to quickly identify the names of letters, in both upper and lower case forms.

Initial Sound Fluency:
The ability to identify the first sound of a word.

Phoneme Segmentation Fluency
The ability to take words apart into their component sounds.

Kaminski and Good’s contribution was to develop a test of these three skills that could be used by classroom teachers with a minimum of fuss and training. The idea was to help teachers identify students who would be likely to struggle in early reading lessons and help them before they experience trouble. I thought that this was a great idea and I began using DIBELS with enthusiasm right away.

DIBELS results confirmed what I had guessed intuitively about which of my students were struggling, and DIBELS gave my intuition solid-seeming numerical scores as evidence of my concern for them.

The other gift DIBELS brought to me was to bring into clearer focus just what phonemes English employs. In the phoneme segmentation subtest, I would ask students to break simple words into their component phonemes. I would say a word like “March” and the student would be expected to break it into its three phonemes: /M/ - /AR/ - /CH/.

You’d think someone who had been teaching kindergarten for some years would be able to tell you exactly what sounds our language has, but I couldn’t do that, and DIBELS helped to bring me closer.

As I gave students the tests, I became acutely aware that I was testing skills I hadn’t taught them. It felt unfair to do that.

So I began, haphazardly, to teach my class those “extra” sounds that English has. Most of these sounds are usually spelled with two letters. Their written forms are called digraphs, and they will look familiar to you: /NG/, /TH/, /SH/, /CH/, /OU/, /OO/, /OY/, /AR/ and so on. I noticed immediately that when I taught my students these sounds they could do better on the DIBELS assessments.

It felt disorganized, though. I presented these letters one by one to the class, and sometimes I felt like I was giving too much emphasis to some of these sounds while ignoring others. The dissatisfaction I felt about the disorganization lasted more than a year.

One day, as I was driving to the hardware store, for whatever reason, I was thinking about the ABC song. Someone long ago must have felt much the same way about the letters of the alphabet themselves. They decided to make a song out of it, borrowed a children’s tune written by Mozart (Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star) and made a memorable song, the ABC song. We all know it. It gives the letters a fixed order from A to Z and helps us rehearse it until we know it.

Like a bolt of lightning, the solution to my problem struck me: The genius of using a song to hold the ABCs together, I realized, could be extended to include all these extra sounds. Within an instant Soundabet was born. I felt like a new father. It seemed to me to be an earthshakingly good idea. It would make learning to read so much easier for students if they were taught all the sounds they might be expected to decode, from the start.

I spent the next few weeks thinking carefully about exactly what sounds Soundabet ought to include and which sounds I ought to leave out. I carefully considered which spelling to include for the various sounds. I consulted several books on the subject, especially Diane McGuinness’s Why Our Children Can’t Read.

Over the next year I began to use Soundabet in my classroom. The results were spectacular. Parents got excited. People began to talk. It wasn’t long before the Sonoma County Office of Education’s Reading consultant, Kevin Feldman visited my room. He saw Soundabet in action and asked me to do a workshop at the County Office of Education.

I agreed to do it, thinking back then there would be only one workshop. About 25 teachers showed up at that first workshop and a few tried Soundabet in their own schools. Their enthusiasm led to another workshop, then another, and another and soon I was asked to do a CD and a video, and before long I opened an Internet store.

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