What began with observation and an intuitive theory on multi-sensory teaching some 80 years ago, was scientifically proven in 2003, establishing phonics – associating sounds with written symbols – as a critical tool in learning how to read. In between those years, scholars and researchers added tools to the basic theories of phonetic learning, in what resulted as the single most effective methodology for teaching reading, spelling and writing.
How Phonics Evolved From Observation and Intuition to Strategy and Science
In the 1920s, Dr. Samuel Orton, a clinician and prominent dyslexia researcher, decoded the English language by identifying 72 phonograms that represent the common spelling patterns of the English language. These phonograms are the primary codes for speaking, spelling, reading and writing English.
Dr. Orton also introduced the concept of “multisensory” teaching – integrating kinesthetic (movement-based) and tactile (sensory-based) learning strategies as a way to help children with learning disabilities.
Eighty-three years later, by studying brain activity in children, researchers at Georgetown University were able to substantiate Orton’s theory that different phonological skills relate to activity in different parts of the brain when children read. They also shed new light on brain regions that change as children become accomplished readers. “Phonological skills allow readers to sound out words by correctly associating sounds with written symbols,” states their study. “They are critical for children learning to read …”
“Reading is the single most important skill our children learn – it impacts virtually every aspect of a child’s life,” said Georgetown University’s Dr. Guinevere Eden. CLICK TO TWEET
Between the Theory and the Science: The Evolution of Phonics
Using the “phonics platform” established by Dr. Orton – which all students of English need in order to reach their highest potential.
Dr. Leonard Ayres was a successful teacher and researcher who lived from 1879-1946. He served as a school administrator and director of the Department of Education and statistician for the Russell Sage Foundation. Dr. Ayres searched out the 1,000 words most commonly used every day in the English language. These words were derived from numerous tests arranged in order of increasing difficulty, marking off the points at which each successive grade could use the spelling list.
The first person to package Orton’s theories and tools for school teachers was Romalda Spalding, an elementary teacher, and a student of Dr. Orton. She discovered that her special education students, using Orton’s methods, were learning to read better than her other students.
Using Orton’s methods and phonograms, an extended Ayres spelling list of the 1,000 most commonly used words, 29 simple spelling rules, word markings and other innovations, Spalding developed the highly successful multi-sensory, systematic, intensive, explicit, direct phonetic language arts method designed for all students, known as the “Spalding Method.” This method is set forth in the teacher’s textbook, “The Writing Road to Reading” (1957-2003). The single drawback to this text is that it requires special training in order to teach the material.
In 1990, a long-time Spalding Method teacher and curriculum director in an award-winning public school, Ms. Jean Zier, developed, integrated and school-tested the concept of illustrations with keyword captions. These illustrations depict the sound sequence of the phonogram, which Ms. Zier taught to her first and second grade students. The phonogram’s illustration and keyword caption provide a memory device that helps embed learning in students’ minds.