Failing to Teach Reading Properly

Children have confided to me they hate reading, leading me to wonder, how can you hate reading? It must be something else, something more particular, you hate. Perhaps you feel frustrated because learning how to read was difficult for you. After all, learning how to read is different from reading.

Once you understand just a few rules, such as how to use the six types of syllables, you will be ready to begin enjoying books. When a student takes up this challenge and successfully breaks the code of literacy, many become voracious readers. Brent Staples wrote a provocative editorial on this topic in the New York Times on June 19, titled, "How Schools Pay a (Very High) Price for Failing to Teach Reading Properly."

He was speaking of the Washington, D.C., school district, but the information in his article is applicable throughout this country. Mr. Staples lamented, "The instructional techniques for helping children is well documented in federally backed research and have been available in various forms from specialized tutors and private schools for more than 50 years. Even so, few public schools actually use the best practices to teach children how to read."

All students would benefit from understanding how our language developed while struggling students who require direct instruction to learn the relationship between sounds and symbols (letters) would thrive. Were these practices incorporated, only the most severely disabled readers would require special education. Many children give up on reading because they have been not been taught the linguistic structure of the English language. Learning these techniques is much like learning a foreign language: it requires repetition, careful sequencing and the mastering of spelling rules. According to Mr. Staples, large-scale, federally funded studies on literacy have debunked the widely held view children learn to read "automatically."

"Children are best prepared when they learn the sounds associated with the letters of the alphabet and the syllables in words." Without a proper foundation, many children will never reach the next plateau, which is comprehension and appreciation of the written word. Inadequate teacher education is the major culprit. In the past, most state education departments mandated prospective teachers take only one 15-week class in the fundamentals of teaching reading. These classes are cursory at best, skimming the surface of what is necessary to develop strong reading programs. Teaching reading has a pyramided structure. At the bottom are strictly enforced rules that once mastered are secure. Some may say such structured methodology would bore children, but success is never boring, and little children are often fond of repetition.

Carefully sequenced books go along with the curriculum to reinforce lessons. Teachers further enrich students by reading to them from the vast treasure of children's literature. When provided with such a program, most children would have proficient understanding of the English language by grade three.

Skilled special education teachers and learning specialists have successfully used these methods for decades. This type of instruction is based on the pioneering research of a neurologist named Dr. Samuel Orton (1879-1948) in the early years of the 20th century. Dr. Orton was influenced by the kinesthetic work of Helen Keller and Grace Fernald. Further information on these seminal figures in the history of literacy can be found on the International Dyslexia Web site at

It is also believed Dr. Orton's interest in reading stemmed from his own daughter's difficulties in learning how to read. Teachers Anna Gillingham and Bessie Stillman further enhanced Dr. Orton's methods. These tireless women, assisted by Dr. Orton, compiled and published teaching materials that were proven successful for teaching dyslexic children and adults how to read for decades. Orton-Gillingham principles have been expanded and modernized over the decades by careful research undertaken by dedicated individuals. All children need structure to succeed in learning how to read. A multi-sensory curriculum is based on phonemic awareness, morphology and phonics. If taught properly, nearly every child could learn to read.

Phonemic awareness is when students are taught to recognize the smallest unit of a sound. Morphology is structure and form of words, including inflection, derivation and the formation of compounds. Phonics is concerned with groups of letters and syllables. This may sound like Jabberwocky until you think of each principle as a building block. Leaning how to read then is making sense from seeming nonsense.

At the time Dr. Orton's work was being implemented in special education for struggling readers, the regular classroom reading programs were focusing on the "look/say" method of teaching reading. The techniques required fledgling readers to learn the shapes of words, to memorize them, eventually putting the puzzle together for themselves. The student is given no clear foundation or tool for building vocabulary, spelling and understanding context clues.

Overall, literacy declined as such programs gained prominence. A century later, teacher-training programs are acknowledging the multi-sensory techniques stemming from the Orton-Gillingham principles work in regular classrooms as well.

The state of Pennsylvania is a case in point. The state's Department of Education has mandated broad changes in the requirements for prospective teachers. These changes will be in place by the year 2009, and so the standards for teachers in training have been raised. All teacher aspirants soon will be required to take classes in special education and specialized reading instruction and maintain a grade point average of 3.0 throughout college.

The new Pennsylvania Early Childhood Education is very specific in its demands. "Candidates in an ECE teacher preparation program should gain expertise in child development, emergent literacy, diagnosis, early intervention and developmentally appropriate instruction in academic subject/core content areas, rather than more general skills for working with children over a wide variety of ages/subject levels."

This type of instruction at the college level will provide teachers with the tools necessary to give children the skills to become literate. Literacy has ramifications for all areas of the curriculum, including the much-touted need for better science and mathematics education. Students unable to read cannot possible grasp advance scientific information and mathematical calculations.

Literacy is the basis for understanding in all areas of the curriculum. My dream is when newly trained teachers enter the classroom armed with the right tools to teach reading, they are given carte blanche. Those teachers who have used the "look/say" method are not threatened by techniques foreign to them. We have the tools necessary to teach reading effectively, and it is of utmost importance they are implemented immediately.

As Mr. Staples reported, "It won't be easy to put these programs in place. But with the dollar costs of special education spiraling upward — and the dangers of mass illiteracy painfully clear — there's no time like the present to get started."