In 1955 Rudolph Flesch rocked the educational community with his book Why Johnny Can't Head. The theme of the book was that phonics methods are more effective than the look-say methods used in schools, but phonics methods are not used in schools. Twenty-five years later, Flesch's follow-up book came out - Why Johnny Still Can't Read. The title says it all. Although words and epithets flew during those years, very little changed. According to Flesch, the look-say, or whole-word, method is still being used in three out of four schools.
The bad news is further explained by Robert Benjamin in his book Making Schools Work. Benjamin, a newspaper reporter commissioned by the Ford Foundation to identify educational programs that work, says. "Teaching children to read well from the start is the most important task of elementary schools. But relying on education to approach this correctly can be a great mistake. Many schools continue to employ instructional methods that have been proven ineffective. The staying power of the look-say or whole-word method of teaching beginning reading is perhaps the most flagrant example of this failure to instruct effectively."
So much for the bad news. The first part of the good news is that, there is a program that works. This program - Distar, published by Science Research Associates, Inc. (SRA) - involves no snappy motivational tricks and no instructional magic. It is simply a very, very careful program, and research consistently shows that Distar does the best job of all commercial programs in teaching reading. Benjamin writes:
The program bears almost nothing in common with the way students are taught in most of America's public schools. But DISTAR works. It consistently has delivered what other programs usually just promise.... In the largest, most expensive, most ambitious social experiment ever conducted in the United States - in which nine different instructional programs representing the major educational theories of the 1970's were pitted against each other to find out what works best with low-income children - DISTAR far and away came out on top.
Research on DISTAR shows it has had dramatic effects with almost every kind of child.... DISTAR is particularly effective with young children.
The second part of the good news is that the hundred-day program presented in this book is an adaptation of the Distar Fast Cycle Reading Program. The program has been streamlined somewhat and modified for home use. If you follow the program, you will teach your child to read quite well in one hundred days.
The hundred-day program is appropriate for preschool children (bright three-and-a-half-year-olds, average four- and five-year-olds).
The hundred-day program is also appropriate for children who have been in school but who have not learned to read.
The program is not recommended for "poor readers" who have been taught how to read but who make frequent mistakes.
The only materials that you'll need to teach reading are this book and some paper (or a chalkboard) - no flash cards, lesson plans, special books, or machines.
The instructions for each lesson are complete, telling you exactly what to say and do. Each lesson is designed so that it takes only about half an hour each day. That time includes all preparation time and the time that you spend presenting the lesson to your child.
After you complete the program, you'll know more about teaching reading than most public-school teachers, because you will have carefully observed and participated in the step-by-step development of your child's reading skills. And because the program works, something very nice happens: perhaps not on the first lesson or on the fifth, but long before Lesson 100 your child will turn on to reading. The child's surroundings are full of written words that the child will read with great pride. Your life will be enriched as you watch your child grow in a wonderful way.
The Complex Skill Of Reading
The sophisticated reading that adults do is analogous to playing a concerto on the piano. The ultimate goal of reading instruction is to prepare children for the concerto of reading-reading complicated material silently, at a reasonably fast rate, and understanding the details of the message the author presents.
The program that prepares the child should be a careful one, just as good instruction in playing the piano starts with simple skills that are modified and expanded to create more complicated ones. A piano-playing program is poor if it requires the naive student to play a concerto. The student will not be able to perform and will understandably become frustrated. A more reasonable program would build toward the concerto one step at a time, designed so that the student achieves mastery of each step before moving to a more difficult one.
So it is with reading instruction. A reasonable program begins at the beginning and builds. The skills that are needed for more complicated tasks are first taught in their simplest form. Once the child has mastered these skills, the program presents more complicated variations.
The following are the four most important points about an effective sequence for teaching reading:
1. The beginning exercises are simple and do not resemble later exercises (just as beginning piano exercises do not look much like advanced ones).
2. The program provides teaching for every single skill that, the child is expected to use when performing even the simplest reading exercises.
3. The exercises change form slowly, and the changes are relatively small, so that the exercises are always relatively easy for the child.
4. At every step, the program provides for very clear and unambiguous communications with the child.
The Distar' Reading Program
The major force that has determined the design and content of the Distar program is feedback about specific, detailed problems that children experience. When Distur was developed, the authors assumed that if students had problems with any of the exercises presented, the program - not the students - was at fault. So the program was changed, and tried out with new students, and changed again until it was smooth and manageable. In its final form it has the potential to teach virtually any child who goes through it. Note that it has only the potential. For this potential to be realized, the "teacher" must present the various exercises as specified and must make sure that the child is able to perform every task presented in each lesson.
Research Involving Distar
Distar has been involved in more than a dozen comparative studies. The results are fairly uniform: children taught with Distar outperform their peers who receive instruction in other programs. These results hold after one year of instruction, after two. after three, and after four. The largest, single study in which Distar was involved was the comparison of U.S. Office of Education Follow Through sites- the largest educational experiment ever conducted. Various geographic sites in the United States selected a specific educational program from those made available. Each site agreed to implement the chosen program for teaching poverty children in kindergarten through grade three. The University of Oregon Follow Through model, which used Distar instruction in all grades and for all major subjects treading, language, math), consistently outperformed all the other sponsored programs in reading achievement, arithmetic achievement, language performance, and measures of self-esteem. The more than ten thousand children in the University of Oregon model came from various cities and counties in the United States - some from Indian reservations; others from poverty neighborhoods in cities like New York and Washington, D.C.; still others from rural places like DeKalb County, Tennessee, and Williamsburg County, South Carolina. The Distar programs worked better than any other program in the cities, better in rural areas, better with whites, with blacks, and with brown, better with poverty children and with middle-class children.
The Distar programs are more effective than other programs because they control more of the details that are important to successful teaching. Some beginning reading programs control the reading vocabulary that is presented to the child. Distar goes far beyond this. It controls vocabulary, the specific tasks that are presented, the type of example, the number of times the example appears, and even the teacher's wording - including specifications about how to effectively correct different types of errors that may occur. The control involves all the details that might make a difference in how the child receives the communication. Some things that Distar controls may seem quite reasonable and necessary to a person not familiar with educational practices, (for instance, the control of how to correct the child's mistakes.) Yet the "basal reading" programs that are most widely used in schools do not provide teachers with this type of information. We analyzed the four most widely used basal reading programs in grades four through six and discovered that none of them contains any specific correction procedures. The teacher's guides simply provide general suggestions cautioning the teacher to work longer with the children who learn more slowly than others.
Tags: Parenting and Families
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