Thursday, March 24, 2011

Your Baby Can Read?

A couple of years ago, I taught a class at Exodus Provisions on how to use the phonics program I have used both with my own children and at Zera Hall. This program, Teach America to Read and Spell or TATRAS, is a vertical phonics reading program. Over the years I've come to believe very strongly in both the use of phonics to teach reading and specifically the benefits of vertical phonics.

Every couple of years or so it seems that some learning company comes out with a new program to teach your child to read very young with little or no effort from Mom and Dad or Teacher. The latest one I've heard about is called, "Your Baby Can Read." Typically these programs promise your child will be reading in no time as they learn to recognize words. Songs, flashcards, videos, you name it - every program has a method to get your child to "read." 

It is my contention that none of these programs is actually teaching reading, but rather are actually hindering your child's ability to read. 


Usually these systems use some form of whole-word recognition, also known as "see-and-say" or "sight-words" to teach reading. What they are really teaching your baby or child is to memorize, something children are extremely good at from a very young age. Even a toddler can memorize a shocking number of words very quickly and, so it would seem, learn to read very quickly. 

However, memorization is not the same thing as reading. Reading means seeing the connection between letters and sounds, putting them together and understanding the words they create. Whole word memorization methods do not accomplish any of this. In fact, because the child thinks she is reading, this method actually hinders acquiring true reading ability. Once the vocabulary of what she is reading outstrips her memorization speed, usually around 400 words, she will be stuck. Because she hasn't actually learned how to "sound out" words, she will not be able to read anything she hasn't yet memorized. This is how many young children start to "hate" reading and/or school at about 3rd grade. They are now trying to read books with many words they haven't yet memorized and they have no skills for decoding words they haven't yet seen. 

Phonics, on the other hand, eliminates all of this. While it may take a bit longer to learn in the beginning, the child is actually learning the fundamentals of reading. Because they know how letters, sounds and words are connected, once they have complete an entire phonics program they have the skills needed to unlock any word in English. A phonics system that teaches every sound a letter or letter combination (also called a phonogram) can make gives a child a storehouse of information with which to approach new and unfamiliar words. The more new words they tackle with these tools, the better readers they become. There is no memorization wall to hit. In theory, the only thing between the child and the next level of reading ability is their next trip to the library. 

I particularly like TATRAS because it teaches Vertical Phonics. This means that every sound of a letter is taught at once rather than going through short vowel sounds first, long sound later and leaving the rest to be "irregular" sounds. Once a child has learned her phonograms, she simply must try each sound until she has sounded out, or decoded, the word in front of her. There are no mystery sounds she hasn't yet learned. She can be given any children's book to read and isn't limited to readers written with only short-vowel sound words. 

I also like that it is based on the Most Often Occurring Words in English and leaves very few of these to be "irregular words" that have to be memorized as sight words. Because English is such a hodge-podge of languages and sounds, any phonics system will have some words that simply have to be memorized as "sight-words."  The word "the" is an example. However, the fewer of these irregularities a system of phonics creates, the more words a child will be able to sound-out long after finishing their phonics system.

Phonics teaches children how their language works. Sight-word reading simply allows them to pretend to read by memorizing a bunch of words and then they are embarrassed when they get far enough to be stuck. It's a method that caters to the instant-gratification addiction of our culture. Who doesn't want to show off their baby reading? Who really wants to take all the time and effort to teach a bunch of letter combinations and sounds before showing Grandma that Susy can read? 

Then again, don't we want our children reading beyond babyhood? It's my conviction that only phonics allows our children to understand words and be able to read in such a way that their love of reading  continues well beyond their early school days. Like all good things, reading is worth waiting for.

For more info. on our reading program at Zera Hall see the TATRAS website.


Frank Rogers said...

Hi, Mrs. Clark.

You are so correct in your critique of most programs that purport to show parents how to teach their children to read.

I had a very bright son and because both his mother and I are voracious readers we wanted to teach him how to read. We would have normally just waited until he started the first grade but I
ran across Glenn Doman's book, Teach Your Baby to Read. Doman was correct in two respects. 1. Children do learn the big, over-sized words quickly, and 2, after about learning 150 words dads will got tired of the project. But kowing 150 words does not make a child a book reader and it start him on the wrong track for recognizing words. Fast forward eight years. My son was a discipline problem in school and he was a very poor reader. A lady in Omaha, NE, from the Reading Reform Foundation, sat me down in her kitchen and on her black board explained the problem to me. In Omaha I took my first Spalding course. Later at Portland University, I took a college credit class from Oma Riggs on Spalding. By then I had used Spalding to work with many children. I had made a list of items that I thougt could be improved in Spalding and gave them to Oma. She told me that if she thought I could do better to write my own book. So I did. The first thing I did was to write a computer program that helped me analyze the Most Often Occurring words in English.

Three more short points.

Dr Tizer became a reading expert when his 36 month (?) daughter suddenly developed the ability to read. That doesn't make him an expert, it makes his daughter somewhat of a genius And yes, his program is composed of teaching sight words.

Just recently I have had an increasing number of people ask me what they should do about children who are 3 or 4 and who are pushing their parents to teach them to read. One of the most highly respected studies done on reading says that children who enter the first grade knowing the letters of the alphabet become better readers in the first and second grades than those who scored higher in probably 30 other areas. (Do you have a library card, is dad a college grad, is mom a college grad, do you get read to regularly etc.) (Reading to a child should however not be neglected; but the benefits of that will not show up until the 4th grade and later. But if a child struggles in the 1st and 2nd grade the knowledge he obtained by his parents reading to him may not be as valuable as it would have been had they student become an easy and good reader.)

Parents should never feel hesitant to gently offer a child phonics if they have learned the names of the letters and they want to learn more. But it must be fun and parents must be prepared to stop if it cannot be made fun. Chilren at that age can easily learn to enjoy reading but,if driven, they could start to dislike all forms of learning.

The ages give for Tizer Teach Your Baby to Read are also inaccurate. Brain scan studies made with the past four or five years suggest strongly that it is at puberty (different for the sexes, of course.) that we become less able to acquire many linguistic and even physical coordination skills.
R'spy, Frank Rogers

amyineccl3.11.13 said...

Thank you Mr. Rogers for your comment. I have learned so much about phonics from TATRAS and talking or emailing with you. I appreciate all the years you've put in to helping children love reading. I hope my students will reap the benefits of your work for years to come!

Amy Hayes - Zera Hall