Reading is Checkers

I have played both Chess and Checkers. Both games are fun, and now you can lose to a computer playing either. Checkers has been a “solved game” for a long time — with the first move — if you play perfectly, you will win every time.

This is also true of reading. The research is conclusive and long standing that there exist instructional systems and designs that assure every child can be a competent reader. Considering the largest study of reading instruction was a federal research project, you might assume that the general approach to reading uses this enormous amount of research to inform it.

But, despite the research, this has not happened – even in wealthy towns like Hingham or Cohasset, reading instruction is not implemented well or consistently in the early grades. As a result, we overspend on special education and fail to provide excellent instruction within the general education programs. The Fluency Factory and other tutors mask the problems that would otherwise show up on MCAS or other measures.

In 1999 G. Reid Lyon wrote a summary of the effects of poor reading on the student and on the United States as a whole. Dr. Lyon wrote eloquently on the damage that is done by lack of reading proficiency:

“When children do not learn to read, their general knowledge, their spelling and writing abilities, their mathematics skills, and their oral language abilities suffer in kind. Within this context, reading skills serve as THE major foundational academic ability for all school-based learning. Without the ability to read, the opportunities for academic and occupational success are limited indeed. Moreover, because of its importance, difficulty in learning to read crushes the excitement and love for learning that many youngsters enter school with. It is embarrassing and frequently devastating to read poorly in front of peers and to demonstrate this weakness on a daily basis.”

An enormous longitudinal research project called Project Follow Through examined several approaches to reading. The aim of the study was to find what worked in reading and support that kind of program for all American children.

Though these studies were clear and their recommendations powerful and accurate, the actual practice of reading instruction, perhaps the most important part of the American educational system, has continued to be shoddy, haphazard, and disastrous for children. Direct Instruction, the precursor to the reading program we use at the Fluency Factory, was shown to be by far the most effective reading program. Nonetheless, adoption of this program, or its more effective follow along programs, was never executed.

Instead, following the research, reading instruction moved to Whole Language reading. When Whole Language was demonstrated to be a disaster, “fake phonics” programs came to the fore to continue these mediocre instruction practices. Fake phonics programs can easily be discriminated by their reliance on “embedded” phonics, sounds that are taught as part of a word, rather than discrete sounds that are taught in isolation. These programs also have little or no criteria for advancement, and will teach all sounds at once, frequently confusing their students, and many of their consonants include an “uh” sound that makes it impossible to blend words properly.

Many children develop inadequate reading skills, but children in special education often fail to read at all; this failure leads to a life of misery, with severely limited options.

The long-term damage to children and to America is ongoing. The most prominent victims are the children in special education programs, but these children are merely the canaries in the coalmine. Many children develop inadequate reading skills, but children in special education often fail to read at all; this failure leads to a life of misery, with severely limited options.

Furthermore, many are subjected to medication-based interventions — they are labeled ADD or ADHD, and those “illnesses” are treated with pharmaceuticals. These children are denied the foundational skills and essential tools of entry into the 21st century, and are instead given medication to treat the problem. To see the depth of this issue, contrast our national preoccupation with medication with the treatment of ADHD in France, or other European countries.

At the beginning of literacy instruction the gap between students, all students, is minuscule. However, almost immediately poor instruction and the inadequate training of teachers and reading specialists accentuate these small differences. Rather than using effective programs, most schools use reading instruction programs that lack the ingredients cited by the 2000 National Reading Panel report — though almost all claim they have fluency, phonics, phonemic awareness, comprehension and vocabulary. These programs are fakes, and teachers are poorly trained. Our children suffer as a result.

How can you tell the difference between good reading programs and poor ones? You can look at the outcomes — are the students learning, or are they being blamed for not learning to read? If a child falls behind in reading, are they catching up, remaining the same, or slipping further? Here are some quick and clear indicators:

Easiest one — if you ask a student to read phonemes in isolation, such as a T, S or N sound the student will add an “uh” sound to every consonant they say. These vowels, called schwas, prevent a student from decoding a word. The word “mat” for example, becomes muhahtuh. The student makes no observable progress.

We have had parents whose children have had hundreds of hours of instruction with no obvious change in their reading skill. And some parents have paid in excess of $50,000 for tutors to no avail.

The student is increasing unhappy, low in confidence, and perhaps experiencing physical distress.

See these symptoms in your child? Do something about it by finding skilled reading instruction. Trust a fully certified Orton-Gillingham instructor, or the Fluency Factory, but beware of national chains.

And if you do that, then you will see it is true — reading IS checkers.

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