Book Reviews

 

Introduction: 

Here I will be reviewing books that I have found valuable in my reading research. There will be choice excerpts that I consider of value and perhaps will encourage your to purchase a copy for  yourself. Just click on the titles to go to Amazon.

Review 1

Find the Vawol – Read the Rime – Learn to Read

 The first review is the above book by Miriam Cherkes-Julkowaski, Ph.D. The author favors a linguistic approach over whole-langauge or complex, rule based phonics approaches. . . The following quotes are all very insightful.

Reading does not have to be a mystery. It is not a random collection of rules, exceptions to rules, memorized words, and guessing. Reading is a systematic code where groups of letters stand for speech sounds. The reading code can be taught directly and effectively to children by showing them how letters come together, systematically, to represent speech sounds.

Sight words, irregular words, context clues, pictures clues, theme spelling words, Dolch or other lists of frequently used words… if your child is coming home with this kind of work she is not being taught how to read. These are NOT reading:

  • memorizing individual words
  • visualizing individual words
  • guessing at words using pictures
  • guessing at words by using context clues
  • predicting what word will come next (1)
Concerning guessing, and the advantage of oral spelling to prevent it, the author writes,
Sometimes the child is so used to guessing by time this approach is instituted that she just continues to take a broad sweep through the word, hardly looking at all. … Hearing the word then spelling it puts an immediate stop to rushing through the rough visual configuration of a word. (61)
The author recommends Leonard Bloomfield’s Let’s Read for helping struggling readers.
Let’s Read is the most dependable for a number of reasons. It is entirely systematic and thorough. It uses only words that are a decodable (no sight or irregular words). There are no pictures to help guess words, only the words themselves. The “stories” use many learned words and are therefore both decodable and artificial. While they aren’t very interesting as stores and don’t reveal much about narrative style, artificial stories have the large advantage of being so unnatural that there is no guessing from context. (56)

I have used Let’s Read: A Linguistic Approach with good success. There is a new edition from Wayne University Press.
Our Blend Phonics Storybooks follow the same principles of not using pictures and writing specially designed stories that purposefully make it difficult to guess words from contest. All the words in the stories are taught individually BEFORE the students read them in the Blend Phonics Storybooks. 

Review 2

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

This is a great book by Norman Doidge, M. D. It was featured on the PBS’s The Brain Fitness Program. It presents very encouraging information from the exciting field of neurological plasticity, which is the ability of the nervous system to change and improve its functioning in ways that were thought impossible only a few years ago. The first quote reinforces the views and practices that I have always believed and practiced, and which are special strengths of the Blend Phonics method.

The irony of this new discovery is that for hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that the children’s brains had to be built up through exercises of increasing difficulty to strengthen brain functions. Up through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened auditory memory (hence thinking in language)  and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting, which probably strengthened motor capacities and thus not only helped handwriting but added speed and fluency to reading and speaking. Often a great deal of attention was paid to exact elocution and to perfecting the pronunciation of words. The in the 1960s educators dropped off such traditional exercises from the curriculum, because they were too ridged, boring, and “not relevant.” But the loss of these drills has been costly; they may have been the only opportunity that many students had to systematically exercise the brain function that gives us fluency and grace with symbols. (41, 42)… For people, postmortem examinations have shown that education increases the number of branches among neurons. An increased number of branches drives neurons farther apart, leading to an increase in volume and thickness of the brain. The idea that the brain is like a muscle that grows with exercise is not just a metaphor. (43)

The next quote relates to my unique adaptation of Edward Taub’s Constraint Induced Therapy to cure artificially induced whole-word dyslexia. This is from Chapter 5, “Midnight Resurrections.” Rudolf Flesch made a recommendation in his 1955 Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do about It, that puzzled me because it flew in the face of practrically everything I had been taught about reading remediation. He recommended the seemingly radical procedure  ”of removing students from their whole-word guessing environment,” which mean eliminating all outside reading and doing only phonics drills until the students overcame their guessing habit.” After reading Doidge, I realized that Flesch’s recommendation was clearly a form of “Constraint Induced Therapy.”  I have found this form of therapy particularly useful in my tutoring and recommend it to all. Here’s the quote:

Stroke victims with extensive brain damage in the motor area fail to improve for a long period and, when they do, nay recover partially. Taub reasoned that any treatment for stroke would have to address both massive brain damage and learned nonuse. Because learned nonuse might be marking a patient’s ability to recover, only by overcoming learned nonuse first could one truly gauge a patient’s prospects. Taub believed that even after a stroke, there was a good chance that motor programs for movement were present in the nervous system. Thus the way to unmask motor capacity was to do to human beings what he did for the monkeys: constrain the use of the good limb and force the affected one to begin moving. (142) … The Taub clinic always uses the behavioral technique of “shaping,” taking an incremental approach to all tasks. (147)

The “constraint” imposed on aphasiacs is not physical, but it is just as real: a series of languages rules. Since behavior must be shaped, these rules are introduced slowly. (155) … Based on his work plasticity, Taub has discovered a number of training principles: training is more effective if the skills is related to everyday life; training should be done in increments; and work should be concentrated into a short time, which he has found far more effective than long-term but less frequent training.

I have found the Blend Phonics Reader: Standard Edition a perfect tool for applying the full effectiveness “Constraint Induced Therapy.” The students are “removed from their whole-word guessing environment” (Outside reading, since it reinforces current guessing habits, is eliminated.), and they are put on a program of daily phonics drill – not the kill and drill of mindlessly practicing sound-to-symbol associations – but rather sounding-out regular phonics words in intensive daily massed practice where the elements of English orthography are presented by levels of increasing word processing difficulty. The “constraint” is the elimination of sight-words and outside reading. In as little as five hours of 15 minutes daily drill, students have improved their grade level performance three grade levels and more. The method even works even when the students are just removed from the “whole-word guessing environment” during the tutoring session, but completely stopping all outside reading is ideal. I realize it is hard to create the ideal freedom-from-outside-reading environment during the school year. The Bend Phonics Reader mentioned here is now available in inexpensive paperback as Blend Phonics Fluency Drills.

Flesch was ahead of his time. The improvement on the Miller Word Identification Assessment (MWIA) for artificially induced whole-word dyslexia is always impressive. I trust that someday fMRI studies will verify the effectiveness of our “constraint induced therapy” procedures with Blend Phonics. I call the MWIA “a poor man’s fMRI” because I think there will prove to be a close correlation between fMRI scores and improvement on the MWIA.

Another book that deals with neuroplasticity is The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffery Schwartz and Sharon Begley. The section on Quantum Physics and Mental Force is speculative but interesting.

Review 3

 ABC Foundations for Young Children: A Complete Curriculum.

This book is by Marilyn Jager Adams. Dr. Adams is well know for her 1990 synthesis of research on beginning reading: Beginning Reading: Thinking and Learning About Print, which is noted for its clear introduction to the connectionist view of reading and  parallel distributed processing.

THE AXIOM 

From her 1990 book, I learned the following thoughtful axiom: “Both theory and data suggest that instruction on neither sounds of letters nor recognition of whole words should be earnestly undertaken until the child has become confident and quick at recognizing individual letters.”

THE BAD NEWS

From her 2013 book, we receive the bad news, “that only a minority of children are able to name or write all the letters by the end of first grade, and that the number who know the letter sounds is still smaller.” (3)

Putting the axiom and the bad news together, we come up with a very disheartening  picture of young children’s lack of readiness to begin reading instruction. My own experience, as a very busy reading tutor, confirms the bad news. Absolutely none of the children coming to me for tutoring with reading problems have an adequate knowledge of the letters of the alphabet. All of the children are expected to memorize sight-words and learn phonics BEFORE they have a firmly established knowledge of and fluency with the letters of the alphabet: a sure prescription for failure for many.

THE GOOD NEWS

Mrs. Adams’ new book provides THE DEFINITIVE SOLUTION to the lack of alphabet knowledge by providing a complete curriculum for teaching  children before first grade to

1. Recognize and name all the uppercase and lowercase letters.
2. Print both the uppercase and lowercase letters.
3. Produce the primary or most frequent sound for each consonant.
4. Identify which letters represent the five major vowels and know the long and short sound of each.

I especially like her very detailed handwriting program. It pays close attention to proper stroke production. She uses a very innovative and helpful “sound effects cueing system” for the strokes of each letter. Although it is just a coincidence, she uses the same excellent method of letter formation that I have used for many years. Anyone who knows my students can testify to the effectiveness of this method.

The assessment program is complete and tied directly with the instruction. Parents, teachers, and administrators will be able to evaluate how well the children are mastering all the dimensions of alphabet knowledge.

I totally agree with her method of teaching students to write all the uppercase letters before beginning the lowercase letters. This eliminates confusion and assures success. Many students coming to me for tutoring mix uppercase and lowercase when writing the alphabet.

I highly recommend ABC Foundations for Young Children to all teachers and parents who are teaching Hazel Loring’s Reading Made Easy with Blend Phonics for First Grade.

Review 3

Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read by Stanislas Dehaene.

Stanislas begins, “Every child is unique…but when it comes to reading, all have roughly the same brain that imposes the same constraints and the same learning sequence. Thus we cannot avoid a careful examination of the conclusions – not prescriptions – that cognitive neuroscience can bring to the field of education (218).” [Several of my elementary principals argued that we need to teach both whole-language and phonics because different children learn to read differently. I think that recent advances in neuroscience have exploded that common myth.]

He proceeds to discuss the, “Reading Wars: Cognitive psychology directly refutes any notion of teaching via a “global” or “whole language” method. I have to stress this point forcefully because pedagogical strategies of this kind were once very popular and have not lost their appeal for some teachers. These methods teach children to recognize direct associations between written words or even whole sentences and their corresponding meanings. The technique involves the child’s immersion in reading, and the hope is that he will acquire reading spontaneously like a natural language. Extreme advocates of the whole-language or whole-word approach explicitly deny the need to teach the systematic correspondences between graphemes and phonemes. They claim that this knowledge will appear by itself as the result of exposure to the correspondences between words and meanings (219, 220).” [It may come as a surprise to many that even handwriting instruction was largely eliminated by whole language advocates. Pace The Administrator’s Guide to Whole Language by Gail Herald-Taylor.]

Concerning the instructional consequences of whole-language, Stanislas continues, “Although its postulates may seem strange, the whole-langauge approach was grounded in a generous principle. It refused drill, which was though to turn children into automata who could only drone out silly sentences like “Pat the cat sat on the mat.” The whole-language movement was vigorously opposed to phonics because it considered that this training detracted from understanding text, which was the primary goal of reading instruction. Whole-language advocates places primary emphasis on text comprehension by quickly giving children access to meaningful stories. The claim was that children found it more fun to discover phrases than words, spelling rules, or boring letter-to-sound decoding. They would empower if they could “build their own learning environment” and spontaneously discover what reading as all about: never mind if they initially played at riddles and read “the kitty is thirsty” instead of “the cat drank milk.” For the supporters of the whole language approach, the child’s autonomy and the pleasure of understanding was what counted most, over and above accuracy with which individual words could be decoded (220).” [I was told that children who were taught to sound-out words would become “mere word-callers,” able to sound out thousands of words without understand anything. Concerning the need for accuracy, I had one teacher tell me that some of her worst oral reader were her best students because they could answer the questions on the state’s multiple choice silent reading assessment. I asked her about enjoyment poetry and appreciation of expressive prose. I was told that those things were not on the test so we didn’t have to worry about them.]

Reflecting on the lingering effects of whole-language, ” The whole-language approach today has been officially abandoned. Nonetheless, I suspect that the issue is still alive in many a teacher’s mind because whole-language advocates are stills firmly entrenched in their positions. They are convinced that their approach is best suited to children’s needs. In France as well as in the United States, efforts to reconcile the two camps have lead to the adoption of an unhealthy compromise called “mixed” or “balanced reading” instruction (220, 221).” [This is the paragraph that first caught my attention concerning the topic of this blog. I highly suspect that the lack of phonics knowledge of students coming to me for help from reputedly phonics classrooms may be accounted for by the classroom teachers previous training in whole-language, which leads them to compromise the phonics instruction by the inclusion of a significant amount of whole-langauge pedagogy. The confused teachers are confusing their students.]

The author then observes, “A great many teachers are so confused by the constant swings back and forth from one educational approach to the other that they borrow at random from all the existing methods. Whole-language has been officially scorned, but either out of inertia or habit it is still surreptitiously present in reading manuals and teacher instruction programs. Even if the grapheme-phoneme correspondences are now the main focus, activities dating back to the whole-language approach are still present in the classroom. These include paring of a word with an image, recognition of the overall contour of words, and sigh word recognition of the child’s first and last name (221). [I believe this is the source of the confusion that is keeping teachers from teaching phonics successfully in their classrooms. This is basically the sight-words memorization technique that is present in practically every classroom in my district, and probably yours. Virtually every tutoring student who comes to me has been subjected to intensive sight-word training at school and in the homework the teachers send home. I would urge, in the light of recent advances in neuroscience, that schools cease requiring whole-word memorization of sight-words, including the Dolch List.]

The author goes into a detailed analysis of whole-language in the remainder of the chapter on whole-language (Chapter 5), which we will leave to our reader to pursue.

 

 

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