What Works and What Doesn't

          Reading has been around for a long, long time. Long before there was an English language, people have been learning to read.
          During the 1960's and 1970's, there was a trend in western society to think that the people who came before us had antiquated ideas. "We are the great society." "We are going to break free from their outmoded teachings and advance education like never before." Most of educational experiments from the 1960's and 1970's have left us with a rich knowledge of what does not work. Here are a few highlights.


          In the 1950's in the United States, school began at age 6 or 7. It was called "first grade." It is still called "first grade." There were private kindergartens, but these were sometimes used and sometimes not. There might or might not be a daycare or a preschool available. Mothers stayed home with their children until the children were old enough to go to school.
          Why wait until the child is 6 or 7 years old? If we begin school earlier, surely our children will receive a more advanced education.
          One experiment took two groups of children. One group was the control group, who began school in first grade. The second group was the accelerated group. They began to learn to read at age 3. It was slow going and difficult, but they were able to teach 3 and 4 year old children to read. By the time the accelerated group was in first grade, they could read very well compared to the children who were just beginning school. It was working!
          They followed the two groups farther in school. By the time the children were 8 or 9 years old, there was no difference in reading ability between the two groups!
          What is the lesson to learn from this experiment? Don't torture your children by trying to accelerate their reading. It wastes your time and energy, and theirs.


          Young children are not good at reasoning. They are good at memorizing. For example, they want to know "the rules" of a game so they know how to play.
          Another experiment was to teach children to read by having them memorize the words. Instead of learning the sounds of the letters, and learning to pronounce the sounds together to "sound out" a word, the child simply recognizes the entire word as a single unit, and says the word. For example, to learn the word "this" the child would not learn the sounds of the letters, but would recognize the entire word and say the entire word.
          This is largely how adults read. We do not sound out the letters of a word to make the word. Instead, we see the entire word at a glance and say the word. If this is how adults read, why not teach children to read the same way?
          Why? Because that involves memorizing approximately one million words which make up the English language! What happens if a child comes across a word he has never memorized? Everyone, child and adult, must have the ability to sound out a word.
          Sounding out a word is called "phonics." Phonics is a necessary skill for all readers to have.
          Maria Montessori had the advantage of teaching children to read Italian. Her method works well in Italian, because Italian does not have nearly the irregularities of the English language. For example, no matter which phonics system you try, there is no way to sound out the letters of the English word "eye" and come up with the correct pronunciation. For this reason, some words in English must simply be memorized.
          A reading system may teach some words by memorization, but the system must be phonics based or it will betray your students in the long run.


          The Initial Teaching Alphabet, or ITA, was another experiment from the "great society" of the 1960's. The idea was to teach children to read using an alphabet which was like English, but was not English. This alphabet had one symbol for each sound. The child saw the symbol, and pronounced the sound. It was as simple as learning Spanish or Italian. It worked very well.
          An example of ITA is the word lace, which in ITA is written læs. The ITA æ symbol represents the long "a" sound.
          After learning the ITA system with the Dinosaur Ben books, the child had to transition from ITA to real English. This is where the disasters occurred. For example, the students had great difficulty transitioning from ITA dotr* to English daughter. After learning an Initial Teaching system, the real English spellings were bewildering to the student. Some students could not make the transition, and they lagged behind in remedial reading classes.
          The Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA) was identified as a failed experiment in the United States and abandoned in the 1970's. It is dead and gone. Since it is no longer in use, why tell you about it?
          Because "he who ignores history is doomed to repeat it." Every now and then there is a new incarnation of ITA under a different name. In the UK, it re-emerged as "Phonemic Symbols." It will keep coming back. If you are aware of it, you will know to avoid it.

*(The ITA phonetic spelling dotr is the North American pronunciation. The ITA phonetic spelling for the way daughter is pronounced in the rest of the world would be dotə.)


          Which beginning reading books are good? There are a large number of good beginning reading programs. The Hooked on Phonics program has been used by many home school families with good success.
          Another good series of beginning reading books is the Daddy, I Want to Read books. These use a unique phonics based system known as the Kalahari Reading system. These books have been very successful with home school students.



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