Sunday, February 1, 2009

Building a Sound Literacy Foundation

My mother, a former elementary school teacher, was always very dismissive of the whole language approach to teaching reading. For that reason, she taught us how to read at home with a primarily phonics approach while we were home before/after half-day kindergarten. She had books like Why Johny Can't Read on her bookshelves, and she'd encourage us to read them--after we'd graduated from kindergarten, of course--so that we could understand the "reading war" issues. However, it wasn't until my recent tutoring experience that I finally observed for myself just how bad the outcome of whole language instruction could be.

Samuel L. Blumenfeld blames whole-word method reading instruction for the dyslexia that afflicts many basically normal children in his book Homeschooling: A Parents Guide to Teaching Children.
Dyslexia is caused when the teaching method requires that the child develop a holistic reflex when looking at our printed words. A holistic reflex is developed when the child is taught to look at each printed word as a whole configuration, like a Chinese character. The child is expected to look at the word and see a picture. This is done in the classroom before the child has been taught any phonics [I would add "or before he's been taught enough phonics".]. Children are taught to read by using such strategies as looking at pictures on the page, guessing the word on the basis of its configuration or context, skipping the word, and substituting words. For example, if the word says "horse" and the child reads it as "pony" the teacher will be quite satisfied.....
Does anyone in his right mind believe that a child who reads the word "father" as "daddy" knows how to read? The child who reads "daddy" for "father" is looking at a picture, not a sequence of letters that stands for a specific sequence of speech sounds. This child is being taught to develop a holistic reflex, that is, a habit of automatically looking at all words as whole configurations. Once the child has developed this holistic reflex, he or she has also acquired a block against seeing the phonetic structure of our alphabetically written words. This block is what causes "dyslexia".
I've seen the block now, thanks to the inappropriate teaching inflicted on the eight-year-old boy I tutor. He guesses all over the place, reads words backwards ("saw" is nearly always "was", even though when forced to look at letter order he can sound out even short words properly), and substitutes words similar in meaning for other words that are quite easy to sound out. His default method of attacking text is not one that is helping him read the words that are actually in front of him. Blumenfeld has some ideas for helping children in his situation, so I'm going to try them out. Does anyone else have some helpful ideas that will help me reformat his reading skills in the forty minutes per week I spend with him?

One of the things I've become convinced of recently is that my mother was very intelligent on the subject of reading instruction. Another is that I am never subjecting a child of mine to public school reading instruction until he or she can already read fluently.


  1. I had the opposite experience, my mother was one of those whole language disciples and I never learned phonics until I taught my own children. She did teach me to read and I have always been a bookworm, but it made the phonics part of the NTE (national teacher exam) very hard to take!

    3 of my children so far have learned to read using lots of phonics instruction and they LOVE to read. My youngest is 6 and she has that same problem with saw/was, they will outgrow it. My favorite part of homeschooling is listening in to my 8 year old reading to her younger brothers and hearing them say, "I NEED to go to the library!"

  2. Have you looked into the Spell to Write and Read forum on Yahoo!groups? It is a descendant program of the Writing Road to Reading, which was developed by the teacher who worked with the first neurologist who classified dislexia. I blogged about it at
    and included the links.

    Lots of practical ideas for building phonemic awareness, and training kids to recognize phonograms, from the perspective of someone with one or two students, not a whole class.