Over a decade ago, I was teaching a group of beginners. At the time, I was intrigued by the fact that all of the children were either strongly visual or kinesthetic learners. In retrospect, I realize that any child who is under the age of 7 tends to be a visual learner. At the time, however, I thought it was a really interesting coincidence.
I used an approach that was very similar to Orton Gillingham. Over time, the children became whizzes at giving me the sounds for a list of sound spellings such as the one below.
By the end of the kindergarten year, I could give the children a sheet of lined paper containing the sound spellings above, and they could all supply me with a word that contained each spelling. They could also see a sound spelling and tell me the sound or sounds it made. It was pretty cool. I believed they were brilliant.
Children do what we teach them to do
The downside, however, was that while the children were amazing decoders, they were terrible at reading. They could not view a word and just say what it was. In addition, they would often sound a word out and then in the very next line see the same word and rather than remembering what they had done in the previous line, they would sound it out again. Over time, my frustration began to mount. I knew I was missing something pretty important in how I was teaching these obviously bright children. Much later I figured out that the children were dutifully doing exactly what I had taught them to do: they were sounding out words using all the little pieces I had taught them. But were they really reading? I don’t think so. They were not recognizing words nor were they absorbing the meaning of the words they were sounding out. This is my biggest beef with focusing solely on explicit phonics as the only way to teach reading. It is just not enough in many cases.
When we focus so much on teaching all the little pieces of words, it is so easy to neglect to teach children to read. We assume they will grasp the point of learning all those little pieces, but far too many children don’t make that connection for themselves. Some children never learn to read because they don’t know what to do with all the little pieces, while others are perennially stuck in the sounding out stage and yet others are able to recognize and name words, but have no clue what they are reading. They don’t comprehend because they have not grasped the fact that the whole point of reading is to receive communication.
Going beyond Orton Gillingham
Explicit phonics instruction: Why do it?
Remember that I had figured out that my students were predominantly visual and kinesthetic learners. So, one day when the lesson for the day was the word HELP, I heard the children sound it out just fine. But ten minutes later when we returned to the word, they had apparently never seen it before. They sounded it out again.
Adding the visual element
Oh my. So in desperation, I asked the group of children, “What does this word look like to you?” I am not sure where that came from apart from being fresh out of ideas and desperate to try something. One little boy immediately raised his hand and said “It looks like someone raising two arms and yelling ‘HELP!’”
My eyebrows went up and some lights began to dawn over marble head. Following his lead, I sketched a rough drawing on my whiteboard that looked a bit like this:
I shared with the children that the e is the head of the person who is in the water and the reason he’s yelling HELP is because the fish is swimming towards him and just might nibble his toes! In a very simple way, we added two right-brained elements: visual and story.
This drawing worked like magic. First of all, it showed the children that the letters they knew sounds for when put together made a word they could recognize over and over again. Secondly, they understood that the word conveys a story or part of a story. From that day on, we talked about each word we came to and as I asked the children what the words looked like, I began to design the earliest versions of the SnapWords® images.
Adding the kinesthetic element
We encountered a new issue shortly. Several days later when I showed a little girl the plain word for HELP, she looked at it quizzically, but couldn’t for the life of her say what it was. I reached over and grasped her hands, and as I raised them up over her head, the word HELP popped out of her mouth as though drawn out by the raising of her hands. Another light began to flicker in my mind. The fact that we taught explicit phonics was super great. We were covering all the bases. The fact we added a visual to the whole words was an amazing addition, but now we needed to complete the multisensory learning package by adding physical movement that mimicked the meaning of the word. So the body motion for help was raising two arms as the child said the word.
How Orton Gillingham compares to Child1st
I suspect Orton Gillingham might be happy with me for taking his advice about teaching in a way that encourages the child to SEE, SAY, and DO and also to use explicit phonics instruction. But I have learned to go so much further than having the children SEE themselves writing the word as they say it. That process is technically multisensory, but the matter of fact is that if the children are writing symbols, they are in a purely left-brained function. Symbols are left-brained elements. When you add a visual that is embedded in the symbols, you are taking the left-brained symbols and adding to them the right-brained image, creating a connection in the brain between the hemispheres. Then when you add to that a related body motion that mimics the shape of the word, you are involving also the cerebellum. This creates a connection between hemispheres in the brain, forming a lasting learning experience.
Who will benefit from Child1st materials?
Any beginner is in a stage where the right hemisphere in the brain is elaborating and developing and so will find the Easy-for-Me™ Reading materials fun and effective. For beginners and any child who struggles with the wholly left-brained approach to teaching (explicit phonics), including right-brained elements and body movement will involve multiple regions in the brain and will result in a far higher rate of success for those who struggle. The Easy-for-Me™ Reading Program details in each lesson exactly what to do to utilize the various regions in the brain. All materials are provided for you.
If you are using Orton Gillingham’s most excellent approach to teaching reading, please pay close attention to how each individual child is responding. As with any approach to teaching, if it is not fully meeting the needs of every child, it is our responsibility as teachers to add elements that will result in success for every child. No one program will meet the needs of every learner. No one program, no matter how excellent, will meet the need of every single dyslexic learner, for example.
It is true what they say: A picture is worth a thousand words. I have surely found this to be true in my experiences with brand new and with struggling or non-readers.
Sight words and reading programs
Orton Gillingham has his list of red words: words that cannot be decoded. He also designates some high-frequency words as green words or those you can go ahead and decode. You can find 643 words in our inventory which are colorfully stylized to make learning them easy for your children.
In addition, our Easy-for-Me™ Reading Program beautifully leads any parent or teacher through the steps for teaching non-readers (be they the very young, or those who have not learned to read using other approaches) in a wholly multisensory way. The program goes beyond “see, say, do” to include fully integrated approaches that trigger responses in multiple regions in the brain at one time.