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The Phonics Plus Five Blog

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April 30, 2007

Even in China!

A recent report in the Washington Post Foreign Service stated that, in China, despite a 50-year-old campaign to stamp it out and a government declaration in 2000 that it had been nearly eradicated, illiteracy is increasing. For the most part, the reasons rest with the infrastructure--or rather the lack of infrastructure. Although the law says that every child has the right to nine years of schooling, in many rural areas (and that is where most of the population live), schooling remains unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Those who do go to school often do so only for the very early grades. Then, once they leave, they “forget” what they learn.

Given the competition that now exists between the US and China, we may be tempted to embrace these findings and comfort ourselves with the idea that the Chinese after all, are not that great. That would be an unfortunate conclusion. It would be far better to use these findings to re-examine the situation in our nation.

Unlike China, we have the good fortune to have the infrastructure in place to educate all. The tragedy is that we are failing to do so! Despite our advantages, literacy problems consistently hover at around 40% of the population. Lowering those figures to the single digits --if not to zero-- should be one of the highest priorities in our nation. Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric and the nice posters in our libraries to the effect that reading is desirable, we are far from making this goal a reality.

April 27, 2007

A Bit of Word Play

For people who love words, puns can be a delight.

Here's a sampling that may bring a smile to your lips.

I wondered why the baseball was getting bigger. Then it hit me.

I couldn't quite remember how to throw a boomerang, but eventually it came back to me.

Did you hear about the guy whose whole left side was cut off? He's all right now.

He drove his expensive car into a tree and found out how the Mercedes bends.

Police were called to a daycare where a three-year-old was resisting a rest.

To write with a broken pencil is pointless.

Show me a piano falling down a mineshaft and I'll show you A-flat minor.

There was a sign on the lawn at a drug re-hab center that said 'Keep off the Grass'.

What did the grape say when it got stepped on? Nothing - but it let out a little whine.

A bicycle can't stand on its own because it is two-tired.

April 26, 2007

Every Child Left Behind

David Helfand, a world renowned astronomer from Columbia University, is an impassioned advocate of science education. In a recent lecture, he was asked to comment on the state of science and math education is our nation’s schools. Turning the well-publicized NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND idea on its head, he said that an appropriate characterization of the current situation is EVERY CHILD LEFT BEHIND.

Unfortunately, Helfand’s description is not confined to the math/science scene. It applies equally to the teaching of most basic subject in schools—namely, reading. Ironically, the No Child Left Behind legislation, aimed at pressuring schools to improve their outcomes, has led many to believe that literacy problems are lessening. In fact, they are not. In an effort to attain higher scores, huge amounts of time are now spent in "training children to the test." But for the most part, the training concentrates on simpler skills such as decoding (i.e., word recognition). While these sorts of skills are critical, they represent only a tiny segment of what children must master-- if they are to become truly skillful readers who can easily comprehend and create written material covering all range of subject matter.

What are parents to do?

Clearly, they need to become a galvanizing force that leads schools to provide the reading curricula their children need. But as anyone who is familiar with bureaucracies knows, this will take years, if not decades, to achieve. In the interim, parents must be the ones who provide the necessary materials to their children. That is a primary reason Phonics Plus Five was created. It has been designed to enable parents to offer their children, from the very outset, the broad set of language skills that makes high level reading and writing a reality.

April 23, 2007

The Reading-Math Connection

While reading failure dominates the news, math failure comes in as a close second. The recent headline in the Seattle Times "New-age math doesn't add up" is but one of the many examples that appear almost daily, highlighting the weaknesses in the math education offered to our children.

Aside from the issue of failure, the two spheres of reading and math are rarely linked. Nevertheless, reading problems are a major contributor to math difficulties.

One of the clearest signs of the connection is to be found in what are termed "word problems." These are not the simple, straightforward operations found in activities such as 8+4=? or 3 x 7= ? Instead, "word problems" are the activities where the items are expressed solely in language, leaving children to figure out what the key numbers are and what to do with them. A typical problem might be "Tom had 42 boxes and Mary had 29 boxes. How many more boxes did Tom have than Mary?"

Once you look at a "word problem," the reading connection is obvious. If a child is not a fluent reader and has to figure out the words in slow, often inaccurate, manner, there is little or no chance for the problem to be understood. But the connection goes deeper than this.

Even when a child can read every word accurately, math problems require that children know how to deal with language when it is used with tight, precise meanings. Math language may share the same set of words that appear in everyday language, but the two types of language represent very different worlds.

That is why Phonics Plus Five, unlike any other reading program, has been specifically designed to teach children not simply everyday language, but also the language needed to understand the intricacies underlying math skills. The end result is excellence not simply at reading but at math as well.

April 16, 2007

Let's Do the Numbers

There is a radio broadcast on the stock market that always has a segment titled, "Now let's do the numbers."

That sentence kept going round in my head as I listened to a lecture on reading education. It focused on the idea that classroom teachers can, and must, meet the needs of each individual child.

How important is this idea? Very!

How idealistic is it? Very!

How realistic is it? Now the answer changes. Despite being wonderful and desirable, there is no way for this goal to be met in current classroom instruction.

Why? Well let's do the numbers.

Reading is the area that takes up the largest amount of time in the first three grades. So let's be more than generous and say that three full hours are spent in this critical area. That's 180 minutes. Now let's assume there 25 children in the class (although many classes are larger).

Let's assume further that the teacher is a super-human dynamo and has arranged to spend only 30 of those minutes in group instruction (focused on activities such as handing out papers, reviewing previous assignments, giving new assignments and so on). Every other minute --without taking even taking a few seconds to pause--is spent in one-to-one teaching.

How much time does that give each student? The answer---

six minutes!

Now remember, we have been extremely liberal is allocating three hours each day to reading and in having the teacher not waste one second of time. Those are not realistic conditions. Under real classroom conditions, the actual time might be one to two minutes. But even if it were as much as six minutes, it is obvious that group instruction can never offer the one-to-one instruction time that so many children need in order to progress in reading.

Of course, some children--probably in the range of 40-50%--are doing fine because they just "are like sponges." They find reading to be a breeze and they charge ahead with little need for support. But for a comparably large group, that is not the case. They need careful, steady guidance. When this guidance is provided, they soar and reading blossoms. Without this guidance, they become mired in failure and hopelessness.

It may be comforting to maintain that teachers via the group setting can meet the individual needs of every child. That view, however, is a myth that actually works to perpetuate academic problems. If children are to be helped, that myth must be abandoned and in its place, we must begin to provide children with the situations they need to succeed.

Hopefully schools will one day dramatically change and give children the support they need. Until that happens, parents must fill the gap.

That is how Phonics Plus Five came into existence. It was designed to provide parents with all the tools, content and techniques they need to bring their children to total mastery of reading and writing. In place of unrealistic dreams, it offers the reality of success.

Returning to the Lighter Side

Among his other accomplishments, Woody Allen is famous for his one-liners such as the following:

-I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It's about Russia.
-If you want to make God laugh, tell him your future plans.
-The lion and the calf shall lie down together but the calf won't get much sleep.
-There are two types of people in this world, good and bad. The good sleep better, but the bad seem to enjoy the waking hours much more.
-I don't want to achieve immortality through my work…I want to achieve it through not dying.
-What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.
-Interestingly, according to modern astronomers, space is finite. This is a very comforting thought - particularly for people who can never remember where they have left things.
-94.5% of all statistics are made up.
-I failed to make the chess team because of my height.
-I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam: I looked into the soul of another boy.

April 13, 2007

Learning in Classrooms

"Opportunities to Learn in America's Elementary Classrooms." That attention-getting title headed an article in the March 30th issue of the prestigious journal Science. Reporting on a study of over 2500 classrooms in 1000 elementary schools, the article reported that children across the grades spent over 90% of their time in whole-group or individual seat work with minimal time spent in small group instruction. Overall, they concluded that "opportunities to learn ... proved highly variable and did not appear congruent with the high performance standards expected for students or for teachers as described in most state teacher certification and licensure documents."

How are we to interpret these less than ideal findings? The answer is "It depends."

For example, if you are viewing this from a national perspective, the information, though troubling, is invaluable. It is only by knowing the facts that it becomes possible to change them and offer children the situations they need if they are to fulfill their potential.

On the other hand, if you are viewing these findings from the point of view of a parent, you do not have the luxury of waiting the ten or twenty years it will take to bring about the necessary improvements. Your focus rightly is on providing your child with the best opportunities NOW.

This is the perspective that led me to create the Phonics Plus Five program. Reading is the key to school success and Phonics Plus Five has been designed to offer parents all the materials and techniques they need for their children to become superb readers. Further, the program capitalizes on the unique situation parents have of being able to offer the one-to-one interaction that is a rare commodity in any classroom. The combination of one-to-one teaching and well- designed materials is unbeatable.

April 05, 2007

Help for Older Students

A teacher recently wrote to me, asking if the techniques in Phonics Plus Five could be adapted for older students--ages 12-17--who have poor reading skills.

The answer happily is YES. The issues involve a host of complex factors and it's best if they are dissected into manageable pieces. So for now, I'll cover some of the issues in comprehension.

As parents and teachers know well, many students find it extremely difficult to comprehend or understand the written message. Even though they might read all the words accurately, they get little or no sense of the ideas that the words are designed to express. One of the clearest signs that a student is having trouble is an inability to come up with a good answer when he or she is asked to "tell the main idea."

The Gleaning Meaning technique in Phonics Plus Five has been specifically designed to help students master this critical aspect of reading. The technique, which relies extensively on modeling, can be adapted for use at all ages.

The technique specifically avoids the usual method of asking the student to come up with the main idea. Instead, the first step is for the adult to create a targeted, clearly formulated summary about material the student has read. In other words, the student is being presented with a model of an effective summary.

The adult then reads the complete summary to the student. Following this, the adult repeats the summary, but this time with pauses at critical points so that the student fills in key ideas. This is repeated as often as necessary until the student completes all the key points effectively. Then as the final step, the adult asks the student to retell the complete summary independently.

Additional details about the technique can be found The Reading Remedy.

April 01, 2007

The One That Appears in Many Guises

In a recent interview I gave for a local educational TV program, one of the first questions put to me was, "Why are there so many reading programs? Parents constantly call in, saying that the wide array leaves them confused and unable to determine which program is the right one for them to use?"

My immediate reaction was, and continues to be, "Technically, there may be a large number of programs. But the variety is deceptive because all are variations on a single theme. In one form or another, they represent teaching that is based on the "sounding out" ideas and rules of traditional phonics.

There would be nothing wrong with this--if the approach was effective. Unfortunately, it is not. It has for generations been responsible for enormously high failure rates--including the current national failure rate which steadily hovers around the 40% level.

Given its lack of effectiveness, one might wonder why the approach continues to hold center stage.

But given the way ideas work, its power is not really surprising. It is THE system that has existed for generations. And as history repeatedly shows us, once a system takes hold, it is extremely difficult to dislodge it--even when it is not working.

A physician, Dr. Brian Weiss, who chose to work with some non-conventional techniques in psychiatry, stated the issue clearly when he said, "Throughout history, humankind has been resistant to change and to the acceptance of new ideas. Historical lore is replete with examples. When Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter, the astronomers of the time refused to accept or even look at these satellites because the existence of these moons conflicted with their accepted beliefs."

But eventually and fortunately, change does take place. And it takes place only when a better alternative becomes available. That is what Phonics Plus Five is all about. It is the complete and effective program that families can easily use to bring reading success to their children.

Copyright (c) 2007 Darjon Learning, Inc. All rights reserved.
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