Saturday, September 6, 2008

Soundabet Beginnings, Part 2 of 3

Last Saturday I told about the confusion I felt in 1967 when I first attempted to teach reading as a high school volunteer. I learned that being able to read is not the same as knowing how to teach reading.

Fast forward nine years to 1976. I was reading Dr. Seuss’s Hop On Pop to a three-and-half year-old boy named Eric.

“Let me do it!” Eric told me.

“Do what?”

“Read Hop on Pop. I know it.”

“Really? OK, here.” I handed him the book. “You read it to me.”

And he did. Fluently. Page after page.

I was impressed because learning to read had not come easily to me. I could not read as skillfully as Eric until far into second grade. “Perhaps,” I thought, “he isn’t actually reading. Perhaps he simply memorized the book.” I pointed to a word on the page and asked him to tell me what it was.

“Town.” he told me, correctly.

“Wow. That’s right. It is town. How do you know that, Eric?”

“I just know it,” he told me.

Was Eric born literate? I wondered. Of course not. Someone must have taught him. His dad was an English instructor at a nearby junior college. Probably his dad taught him to read. I wished I knew.

I found myself pulling books off the education shelf at the public library. I studied Jeanne Chall, Rudolf Flesch, Romalda Bishop Spalding. I immediately saw that there was disagreement between the “look say” and the phonics camps. How to teach reading was controversial!

Like many other educators, I saw value on both sides. Eric seemed to read whole words. But when he came to a word he didn’t know, he sounded it out. He could sound out nonsense words.

It seemed to me then—as it does now—that the key to reading is sounding out words, as the phonics camp insisted. How did Eric learn the sounds?

I was pretty sure that Eric had not been through a formal phonics curriculum. He had not done worksheets. He could not recite any phonics rules. He simply seemed to know the sounds letters might (and might not) make.

Though I had no reason to teach reading, I wanted to know more. I thought that someday I might like to try to teach it. Of all the books I read, Romalda Bishop Spalding’s book, The Writing Road to Reading, seemed particularly helpful. Studying it, I became vividly aware that the English language has far more sounds than letters. English had sounds I didn't even know it had!

For example, I didn't know that the /th/ sound in "with" is not the same sound as the /th/ sound in "the" because the first sound is unvoiced and the second is voiced. They are related to each other in exactly the same way that the sounds /f/ and /v/ are related, as minimal pairs. Because the two /th/ pairs looked the same, I thought they were the same. But they aren't. Spaulding advocated a method of teaching reading by emphasizing sounds—by writing them—using their various spellings. It's a good approach, and if you click on her name, above, you can visit a website about her approach.

Fast forward another five years. I was in charge of my first kindergarten class at Dunham School. Kindergarten was different then. I was not expected to teach students to read, but simply introduce them letters and numbers. There was no pressure to do much else.

In early February, on the 100th day of school in my first year of teaching, we were popping 100 kernels of popcorn in oil in a pan, the old-fashioned way, before microwave ovens. I felt immense pride when one of the most advanced readers in kindergarten that year, David, looked at the words on the cellophane bag. His eyes widened and he sounded out his first word. “P-O-P-C-OR-N popcorn.” I felt immense pride and success as a teacher. David's performance in February would not put anyone at the head of any contemporary kindergarten class.

By 1996 pressure began to build on kindergarten teachers to cover pre-reading skills called phonemic awareness. I went to a workshop that gave me a tool to measure phonemic awareness skills called Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy, or DIBELS for short.

It was using DIBELS assessments that led directly to the invention of Soundabet.

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