The logic of the spelling code is explicitly taught
The underlying organizational principle of our writing system is that letters represent individual speech sounds, known technically as phonemes. For example, the word cat is spelled the way it is because it has three sounds /k/, /a/, and /t/ and the /k/ sound is spelled with a c, the /a/ sound by a, and the /t/ sound by t.
There is not a simple one-to-one correspondence of letters and sounds in English. However, while there is a relatively large amount of complexity in these letter/sound relationships, mastering them is made considerably easier when the learner understands three important features governing how letters represent sounds in English:
- Two or more letters are used to represent a single speech sound or phoneme, as is the case with sh in: shop, the ch in rich, and the oo in boot.
- Many sounds (especially those for vowel sounds) are represented by multiple spellings. The words boat, no, low, hope, and though all have the same vowel sound, but the sound is spelled a different way in each word.
- Many spellings (especially those for vowel sounds) represent more than one sound, as can be seen and heard in the words know and how.
All these features of our writing system are explicitly presented in ABeCeDarian through engaging activities such as word puzzles and sorting tasks. Very few other reading programs make this underlying logic of our spelling system as clear as ABeCeDarian.
Letter/sound correspondences are taught explicitly and systematically
Students learn the major letter/sound correspondences. They practice saying these in isolation as well as finding target graphemes (individual letters and letter combinations representing a single sound, such as sh and ea) within words and reading these. When students reach the upper levels of the program, they explicitly learn and practice reading and spelling common morphemes.
Explicit practice in segmenting and blending is provided
In every lesson students spend time breaking words into individual phonemes and then blending individual phonemes together to form words. These skills of segmenting and blending, in conjunction with knowledge of the letter/sound correspondences, are the key to developing the ability to recognize common words rapidly and to being able to read unfamiliar words. And unlike most other reading programs, ABeCeDarian presents these exercises integrated seamlessly with letter/sound practice, thus streamlining instruction tremendously.
Practice is conducted to fluency
Students practice learning letter/sounds, reading small lists of words, and reading sentences each lesson until they can do so not only accurately, but also without hesitation as well. Giving students sufficient practice to develop fluent performance increases retention and accelerates future learning. Teachers of ABeCeDarian learn optimal practice routines and have at their disposal a variety of activities to make practice engaging to students.
Teachers correct errors productively
No matter how clear and precise instruction is, all students make some errors. Indeed, errors are a necessary part of learning just about anything. Good instruction, therefore, should take account of errors and treat them not as failures but as opportunities for learning. To take advantage of these opportunities, it is important that teachers know how to respond to them productively. And the way to respond to errors productively is to show the student why his answer isn't correct. ABeCeDarian provides teachers with a template to help them provide this information simply but accurately and in terms that the student can easily grasp.
Students read lots of text
Good growth in reading ability requires lots of practice reading text. ABeCeDarian simplifies phonics instruction so that a significant portion of each reading lesson can be devoted to reading books. This emphasis helps ABeCeDarian teachers keep phonics and decoding instruction in the proper perspective, and allows them the flexibility to use ABeCeDarian with a variety of trade books or reading anthologies.
While there are many reading programs that offer some of these same features, there are virtually no other programs that offer all of these elements.
What's NOT in ABeCeDarian
While most reading programs help most students make progress, there are a number of inefficiencies that can retard student growth. Here are some important inefficiencies found in some reading programs that ABeCeDarian avoids.
Handwriting instruction that isn't integrated into the program
Beginning students need explicit handwriting instruction. If a school uses a separate handwriting program, valuable instructional time can be lost because the letters practiced in the handwriting program do not match up directly with the sequence of letters being introduced with decoding instruction. In ABeCeDarian, beginning students receive explicit handwriting instruction as they practice reading and writing the words they are learning to read.
Phonemic awareness instruction that isn't integrated with code instruction
Most beginning reading programs acknowledge the importance of helping students develop the ability to identify and manipulate individual speech sounds, or "phonemes." Unfortunately, however, many programs have teachers conduct these activities exclusively as oral activities, separate from reading lessons in which students learn to associate the correct sounds with letters and how to use this information to sound out words. There is a good deal of research to indicate that reading growth is accelerated when instruction combines phonemic awareness work with letter/sound work, or phonics. Moreover, when teaching itchy 5 and 6 year olds with limited attention spans, such a separation wastes critical instruction time. In ABeCeDarian all of the phonemic awareness activities are integrated into each reading lesson.
Phonemic awareness tasks that are only indirectly related to reading are practiced
Many beginning reading programs have students practice phonemic awareness skills such as identifying words that have the same first sound, or recognizing rhyming words. These skills are only indirectly related to decoding. The phonemic awareness skills that are directly related to reading are segmenting (breaking a word into individual speech sounds or phonemes) and blending (taking a string of phonemes and recognizing what word they make). ABeCeDarian focuses only on segmenting and blending.
Letter names taught before or at the same time as letter-sounds
One of the most reliable and stable correlations in educational research is that between letter-name knowledge of young children and their eventual reading ability. A very large number of children who know all or most of the names of the letters of the alphabet at the beginning of kindergarten turn out to be good readers, whereas a very large number of children who don't know any letter names or only a few at the beginning of kindergarten turn out to struggle with learning how to read. As a result of this research, those in charge of the curriculums of kindergartens across the country have decided to teach their students the letter-names on the assumption that knowledge of letter names is a cause of good reading acquisition.
Unfortunately, this is not precisely the case. The relationship between letter-sound knowledge and reading indicates only that the two things are likely to go together--it does not specify, however, what actually causes good reading. As soon as a person tries to teach a kindergartner or first grader how to read, it becomes obvious that letter names are not very useful at all. For example, knowing the names of the letters in the word cat (cee, ay, tee), does not help the student read the word accurately. In contrast, knowing the sounds that the letters represent, /k/ /a/ /t/, and knowing how to blend them is extremely useful, because it gives the student tools he needs to read the word.
A number of phonics programs ask beginning students not only to learn letter-names, but also a key word and a sound. These programs are good so far as they teach the letter/sound correspondences explicitly, but this presentation of letter-name, keyword, letter sound (and often a picture) adds unnecessarily to the demands made on the memory of the learner. The increased memory demands can be a problem for many students, yet it does not add to the accuracy or speed with which they learn to read. On the contrary, such memory-heavy instruction often slows the progress students can make.
Letter-names should be learned at some point, but there is little need for very beginning readers to do so initially. For almost all children, moreover, learning the letter-sounds first and learning how to read well makes learning the letter-names later on extremely easy.
Activities that require students to draw lines between items or circle them
It is in part because of the predominance of worksheets in which students do this sort of work that all phonics instruction has been dubbed "drill and kill" by opponents of explicit phonics programs. Reading work for students should almost always involve reading and writing words. Drawing lines and circling things in the absence of pronouncing a word or spelling it is only busy work.
Phonics instruction that isn't organized by sound
Most phonics programs teach letter/sound correspondences explicitly. Almost all, however, organize this instruction around the letters or graphemesThat is, they select some letters and then tell the students what sounds the letters represent.
The phonics instruction in ABeCeDarian, in contrast, is organized by sound. Each lesson starts with sounds and then shows students what letters are used to represent those sounds. For nonreaders and very beginning readers, the first task is a word puzzle, which is essentially a spelling task. Students are given a word orally and then with the teacher's help, they spell that word with movable letters. This presentation reinforces the lesson that letters represent sounds and shows students just where the sounds come from. More advanced students ready for first-grade level material in ABeCeDarian start learning the various vowel digraphs such as ow, ea, ay, oi, ou, au, etc. But they are introduced to them by means of a sorting activity in which all of the words on a sorting page will have the same vowel sound, but the sound is spelled in a variety of ways. The student's task on this introductory activity in each unit is to sort these according to how the vowel sound is spelled. The format of this activity not only teaches students letter/sound correspondences explicitly, but also reinforces that one sound can be spelled multiple ways.
Slow exposure to high frequency words
In some phonics programs vowel digraphs such as ow, ea, ay, oi, ou, and au are not taught for some time. Students in such programs may learn the code accurately, and become good at decoding words they have been taught, but they don't quickly get the opportunity to read enough of the high-frequency words necessary to be fluent even at the first grade level. It is very important that the sequence of instruction for beginning readers emphasizes fluent reading of high frequency words.
Memorizing high frequency words as sight words without analyzing how the letters represent sounds
Some students, in contrast, receive reading instruction in which they are asked to focus on learning a set of high frequency words from the very early phases of their instruction, but they are asked to learn these words as wholes, without analyzing or understanding how the letters represent sounds. This situation is true in many kindergarten classes around the country, in which students have to memorize between 20-50 high frequency words without learning much about how to sound these words out. This frustrates a large number of students who have no way of verifying whether they have read a word correctly or not, and it miseducates students with regard to how one learns to decode. ABeCeDarian students, in contrast, focus on learning high-frequency words not by memorizing them as wholes but by learning explicitly how the letters in the words represent sounds.
Having students learn phonics rules
Some phonics programs ask students to memorize a variety of rules on the assumption that these rules make it easier to learn letter/sound correspondences. One of the most well-known of these rules is, "When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking." This rule is supposed to explain the sounds for vowel digraphs such as ai, ea, and oa. Students learn that the second letter of the pair is "silent," and the first one "says its name." There are several problems with such rules. One is that many of the rules are of little utility. For instance, the "two vowels go walking" rule just mentioned does not help students read any of the following common words: house, oil, book, they, chief, and cow. Another problem with rules is that young children don't think in terms of rules, so it takes quite a bit of effort and practice to get them to apply rules.
It is useful to teach students in third grade and above some rules for spelling, especially, rules regarding spelling changes that occur when suffixes are added to root words. These rules are taught in the ABeCeDarian Spelling Patterns workbook. But teaching spelling rules is different from teaching rules for the purpose of trying to make it easier for the student to learn letter/sound correspondences.
Teaching students to guess when reading an unfamiliar word
The very worst practice among reading programs, however, is the recommendation that student's guess when they come to word that they don't recognize immediately.
First of all, students don't need any special instruction to guess when they come upon a difficult word in their own reading. They will do so almost naturally, just as surely as they will laugh when they hear something funny without being instructed to do so.
Second, we have a tremendous amount of research evidence to suggest that poor readers guess words frequently, but good readers pay attention to each letter in the word and use their knowledge of letter/sound correspondences and blending skill to figure it out. Indeed, those teachers experienced with working with older remedial readers know that one of the biggest hurdles to overcome with these students is their reliance on guessing.