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All Clear on the Road to Reading

All Clear on the Road to Reading

So…after witnessing the high level of achievement, enthusiasm and well, just plain fun that the first graders in Mrs. Jean Zier’s class in Roberts Montana were experiencing from her Snowy Road to Phonics Learning Successteaching of Orton-Spalding phonics, I was compelled to transfer my son, Cheyenne, mid-year into Robert’s Public School at the behest of his adamant about the deal Gramma.

Cheyenne had been going to the public school in town that provided busing on our rural route. Taking him to Roberts meant a twenty four mile round trip down some rather gnarly county roads.

Many times we would be trucking down that county road over to Highway 212 (I survived highway 212 and didn’t even get a lousy T-shirt) for the remainder of the trip before the snow plows had even begun to clear the roads. After one particularly grueling trip, bucking snow drifts there and back, I was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee trying to calm my nerves and get my energy back up after the harrowing trip, wondering if we were doing the right thing, wondering if it was all worth it…pretty much sliding to the negative side on the deal. And right on cue I get a phone call from Gramma. (What, is she getting clairvoyant now, reading my thoughts from afar?)

‘Brrrring’…”Hi this is Verlynn”

“Hi sweetheart,” she starts off with an endearing term using the Kiss, Kill, Kiss method. “Just want to check in and see how it’s going with you taking Cheyenne over to Mrs. Zier’s class?”

“Well…” I hesitate, trying to think, before saying something rash, “its pretty tough, we have to get up pretty early in the morning to make the trip and…”

“Not any earlier than to get him onto the Red Lodge bus at seven in the morning though?”

“Uh, well, no but, I guess I just really wondering if it is worth all the driving time and gas and…”

“I’m positive it’s worth it, well worth it.”

“Oh really? What is so much different between the two schools and first grade in particular? I heard that they teach phonics at the Mountain View School as well.”

“Oh they SAY they do, but not really, what they teach are “incidental phonics” or “embedded phonics, not really phonics teaching at all. Mrs. Zier teaches “explicit” phonics.”

“Uh okay, what’s the difference, do you think it really matters?” I peevishly blurt out.

“Yes it really matters.” She say with an almost indignant tone. “What they teach at Mountain View is really just called “See, Say” or “Look Say, it’s also called “Whole Language.” It’s all about memorizing the words from sight and using that to try to learn how to spell them with a few simple phonograms sprinkled in, mostly in word blends. Mrs. Zier and other phonics teachers teach the phonograms first, before the alphabet so that they can spell any word without having had to try to memorize it.”Boys reading by phonics learning

“Well, Cheyenne already learned the alphabet!” I blurt out.

“Which, is not a good thing.” She says patiently, “When students learn the alphabet first, it’s confusing because very few of the alphabet letters sound out their names when reading or spelling words. (I’m thinking dubiously about this as she continues) “When students learn the phonograms first they can spell or sound out any word, phonogram by phonogram.”

“Well…they do learn to read at both schools don’t they?”

“Listen, from my research on the internet, the ‘look and say’ way of teaching or Whole Language will work with about ten percent of the population, failing the other ninety percent. Why do you think there is such a dearth of literate children coming out of public schools?”

“Well it could be…”

“Look, they used to teach phonics in all schools for the last several hundred years, then they veered away from it for some strange reason and literacy rates plummeted. But now, California has mandated that their schools start using phonics for teaching again. Mrs. Zier never stopped teaching phonics, has taught them for over twenty years and her students really do have records of high achievement and high levels of reading and spelling!”

“Okay” I say resignedly, seeing I’m out classed here, “I’ll keep on trucking him over to Roberts, don’t say whoa in a mud hole I guess.”

“Oh! Good!” she beams. “Since Cheyenne is a half of a year behind in phonics, I’m going to go up to Bozeman and go to a Montessori training seminar on teaching them so I can help out. I’ll be in that seminar for two weeks…talk to you later.”

“Oh…really? Well okay, Gramma, have a safe trip.”

“Okay, dear and thanks for doing this for Cheyenne.”

“Yeah, sure, no problem.”

Next morning, seven AM finds us careering down the county road; blue sky and sun coming up shining, road plowed, all clear.

Resources for Parents

Illiteracy: An Incurable Disease or Education Malpractice?

photo credit: Denis Collette…!!! via photopin cc

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The Not So Lonely County Road to Phonics

The Not So Lonely County Road to Phonics

Back in the day when my son, Cheyenne, was half way through first grade in our local public school, I was one day sitting around resting from work, minding my own business, (which is rare for me, not sitting around resting, but minding my own business that is) when I got a call from “Gramma”. (My mom and Cheyenne’s Grandmother, Pauline). “Hi,”Teaching Phonics in Rural Public Schools she says, “we need to talk.” (Uh oh, I’m thinking.”)

“Why? What’s up?”
“I’m concerned about the quality of Cheyenne’s education.”
“Oh, what’s there to be concerned about?”
“He is not learning how to read.”
“Well…he’s only in the first grade.” I reply incredulously.
“From what I’ve researched, he should be well on his way by now.” She says adamantly.
“Oh, well I think…”
“Listen, I have heard great reports about the achievements of Mrs. Zier’s students down through the years.”
“Mrs Zier?”
“Yes, she teaches first through third grade down in Roberts public school, she has been teaching Orton Spalding phonics for twenty some years and has a reputation for turning out children that are highly motivated and excel in school and getting college scholarships.”
“Huh? Orton Spalding phonics…I don’t…”
“Listen, she has received numerous prestigious awards on a statewide and national level. She has also been voted best teacher by her students several years in a row.”
“Well that’s cool but Roberts is like twelve miles from here at the Ranch…six miles of it on county roads.”
“Is there something more important for you to do than make sure your son gets a good education?”
“Well, no but..”
“Listen, all I’m asking you to do is to go down to Roberts and observe her class, then make your decision after that.”
“So you want me to just waltz on into her class and…”
“I’ve already made arrangements with her, you are more than welcome and she is expecting you.”
“Well, um, I don’t know, I…”
“Tomorrow, eight o’clock room 109, check in at the front desk, they will be expecting you as well.”
“Well I was supposed to go to..”
“This is something you should do for Cheyenne, and I want you to do it for him.”
“Just show up dear.”

Teaching Phonics with Flash CardsNext morning finds me driving down the lonesome county road with snow blowing and swirling, making drifts that my old Ford pickup bucks through, my windshield defroster working hard to keep up with the ice.

I’m late, I walk tentatively into the school wondering what I’m doing here. The secretary at the front desk sizes me up and greets me with “Hi! You must be Verlynn!”
“Yup, I…”
“Mrs. Zier is expecting you, just down the hall on your right, class is already under way so just go in and take a seat.”
“Okay, thanks.”

Thinking I’m probably not going to enjoy this very much, I quietly enter the room and scrunch up in an old fashioned student desk chair at the back of the class. What I see is amazing, incredible. The students are so engaged they don’t even notice me. Mrs Zier is showing them a flash card (which I perceive as just the letter A in the alphabet) and several of the students are holding their hands up as if to say, “choose me! pick me!” And wonder of wonders, they are all, every one of them, smiling and paying attention.

Mrs. Zier chooses a precious little girl and says “Okay, yes Mary.”
Mary says, ” a’, ay, ah! Have a ball!”
“Very good, you all know these quite well now…how about this one?” She holds up a card that has on it: IE. The students again enthusiastically raise their hands. “Yes Michael?”
“eye, ee.” Piece of pie!” The class all goes “That we like to eat backwards!” all of them giggle and think this is hilarious. I’m stumped. What the? (Turns out that what is so funny is that the phonogram is spelled IE but the pronunciation is ‘e’ [long e as in ‘piece’] and ‘i’ [long i as in ‘pie’])

So Mrs. Zier has invented mnemonics for the phonics. Catch phrases to help the students remember the order of use frequency of the sounds of the phonograms. In spelling or reading if the student goes to the first sound of the phonogram they will more often than not be right to sound out or spell a word.

Mrs. Zier holds up another flash card, which I perceive to be nothing more that the alphabet letter C. “Yes Barbara?” Little Barbara says “K, Sss. “Cat in the City.”
“Very good Barbara! Now everybody take out your spelling notebooks and we will start the dictation of some new words for you to spell and sharpen your pencils if need be.”

As the students prepare for this exercise, Mrs. Zier comes back to where I’m sitting, I stand up to meet her and she says…”Hi Verlynn, nice to meet you…so…what do you think?”
“I’m sold.” I grin.
“So we’ll be seeing Cheyenne in class soon?”
“As soon as possible, he’ll be here with bells on.”

And so began our journey into phonemic awareness…by the end of the first grade Joseph could sound out as well as spell most any word that was presented to him. It was rather like a miracle, well worth the drive down that now not so lonely county road.

photo credit: Alex Rabb via photopin cc