No Guessing Zone


The sign to the left is a gift from two of my tutoring students. I had taught them Mr. Potter’s Secret of Reading, “Look at all the Letters the right way, and no guessing.” They came up with the sign.

I would like to invite every first-grade teacher in America to consider posting a “NO GUESSING ZONE” sign in their classroom. It is over dependence on context guessing that is causing most of the reading and comprehension problems that students coming to me are experiencing.

Furthermore, I would like to invite them to consider adding 15 to 20 minutes Blend Phonics Directional Guidance Training to their daily reading instruction.  The complete, easy-to-teach method is contained in a 35 page pamphlet, including “Teacher’s Instructions” and a comprehensive list of 1,557 words teaching the 44 English speech sounds and their most common spelling patterns.

The “Teachers’ Instructions” are so simple and complete that once they are understood there is little or no need for daily preparation to teach the lessons. My tutoring students, without exception, look forward to the Blend Phonics lessons. I have seen many students of all ages succeed after a history of failure.

Dolch Sigh-Words

To the left is a Dolch Sight Word List one of my student brought me recently. Every first- and second-grade student coming to me, without exception, has a list of sight words that they are expected to be memorizing. The teachers have been told that kids who sound out words will never be fluent readers. The children are timed daily reading these lists.

It is the firm conviction of the Blend Phonics website that requiring children to memorize sight-words (high frequency or pop words) create a reflex on the right side of the brain that hinders learning to read accurately and fluently. The damage caused by teaching sight words can be accurately measured with the Miller Word Identification Assessment.

I wrote the following poem as a response to the dubious claim that the new phonics basals reading programs have delivered us from the clutches of whole-language.

              Whole Language is Dead and Gone?

We are told that whole-language is dead and gone,
Yet, when we walk into the classroom, it’s still going on.

The publishers tell us they have it together:
Going with phonics, richly bound in leather.

But open the Reader, have a look inside,
You’ll find whole-language, going along for the ride.

So we have a choice, the right path is clear.
There’s no turning back, for those who will hear.

Supplemental phonics-first will save the day,
And our precious children,  will never betray.

                                                        by Donald L. Potter, February 25, 2012

Classic Formulation of THE PROBLEM

With all due respect to other professions, including my own, all of us together don’t amount to much compared to the impact of classroom teachers on reading.  We aren’t going to  get anywhere changing teachers one at a time while universities turn them out by the hundreds, already indoctrinated into the myths and falsehoods of reading that are the real problem.

Most children in this country are taught that the first thing to do when you come to a word you don’t know is to use little or no letter/sound information and guess at what would make sense.  So long as that is allowed, so long as people who do that and teach that are in control of university programs, this problem isn’t going away.  Training more and better Speech Language Pathologists, tutors, schools psychologists, and others won’t change that.

Steve Dykstra, PhD

Steve Dykstra’s Response to

Are the Reading Wars ‘Settled Science?

Lots of people are sending me the article and asking me to reply.  So, I did.  My comments were up at EdWeek for a couple minutes then deleted as “spam.”  I don’t know, does this read like spam to you?  So much for lively debate and the free exchange of ideas.

My (Dykstra) comments are below.

I suppose this all depends on what you mean by “settled science.” If every question must be answered, then no, the science isn’t settled. Of course, then it isn’t settled for evolution, climate change, or the motion of the planets, either. There are open questions about gravity and the germ theory of infection. Science hasn’t answered every question in the realm of reading, or anywhere else, for that matter.

But much of the science of reading is settled. Unfortunately, what we know from that science doesn’t make it into many classrooms. Decades of battle have phonics in most schools, but it usually shares the stage with a lot of discredited ways to identify words, and the research on what teachers do and don’t know about the rudimentary basics of reading is not encouraging.

This article promoted the value of teachers deciding what works best in their classroom. Within the bounds of what we know about reading, great. But that same call to let teachers do what they know works best for them and their students provides cover to more bad teaching than anyone should care to imagine.

People are very bad at just knowing what works best. Illusory correlations have led to all manner of foolishness in a great many fields. Consider the widespread acceptance of moon madness as a prime example, along side copper bracelets that improve sports performance, and whatever tomorrow’s next health craze is going to be.

We’re all vulnerable. Science protects us from that vulnerability, but only if we head it’s dual guideposts; what to do, and what to avoid. Reading in some places has come a fair distance from where it was. Phonics isn’t quite the dirty word it was, and every now and then someone knows about phoneme awareness, morphology, and what we should mean when we say “sight words.” But it isn’t often, surely not often enough.

The biggest barrier to broader, deeper knowledge seems to be the lingering legacy of decades of misinformation. That’s the second guidepost of science, what to avoid, that we ignore far too often. Teachers, the ones who know best what works in their classroom (as if every classroom is so very different) have been sold a long list of strategies for identifying unknown words. Many, including some of the most popular, are snake-oil. Skilled readers do not guess words from context or use only first and last letters to identify words. Even useful strategies that are built up from letter-sound knowledge, like chunking, and onset rime, are usually misunderstood as preferred alternatives to pure phonics, when they are, if applied properly, the well earned benefit of deeply understood phonetic skill and knowledge. They are not a way to avoid phonics. They are the pay off of phonics, if you know what you’re doing and you do it right.

And labeling something “balanced literacy” scares me because it can mean almost anything. Balancing what? More often than not “balanced literacy” is a benign term to stop the discussion and cover for all the remnants of whole language, all the myths and folklore that won’t go away, what Seidenberg calls “zombies that cannot be stopped by conventional weapons such as empirical disconfirmation.”

At the root of this is a generation or more of teachers who were misinformed about how reading works and how to teach it. While there are pockets where this problem has been solved, there are far more where we think it’s solved so we stop fixing. Doing more phonics (and everything that goes with it) than you used to, is like eating more vegetables than you used to. It doesn’t necessarily meet the standard, even if it is an improvement, and it doesn’t do anything about getting the cookies and the Twinkies out of the house.

Even where we are doing better on the phonics side of things, most schools still serve a hefty portion of cookies and Twinkies in their approach to reading. The science of reading is plenty settled enough to help us do better, which is good, because we have a long way to go.

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