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« Upcoming Blather | Main | The Elegant Simplicity of Effective Instruction. Part 2 »

Saturday, November 20, 2004


Dan Right!

Kinda makes you think of a farm where they keep the horseshit and throw the tomatoes away. Unlike this whole language business, I guess real manure does have a purpose....


Maybe you should do a riff on Shirley Brice Heath.


Maybe you should do a riff on Shirley Brice Heath.


What is this, a canyon or something? I detect an echo.

I guess I'd better. You seem pretty insistent. Who is this Shirley Brice Heath entity?

Wait a sec. I'll Google her..... hunt peck hunt peck etc. and so forth.

Ah, here we go... YYYYAHHHH!!!

Oh, man! Get the Pepto.....

Revolting! Pure squalor. High level drivel. A pastiche of soon-forgotten platitudes.

200 miles away from the problems of poverty--better linguistic research was done by Bette Hart and Todd Risley (Meaningful differences).

Here we go a journaling, journaling, journaling.
Here we go a journaling, 'cause this lady says it's cool.
Now we're done with journaling, journaling, journaling.
Now we're done with journalizing 'cause we ain't that big a fool.

"Hey, is that perfesser lady gone?"


"Hey, let's burn these journals."

"No way, Man!"

"How so, Bro!"

"Cause now I'm so much more conscious of the facts of existence and my part in the great chain of being,"

"What the %$#@ you talkin' about, Man?"

"I'm literate now, Holmes."

"No, you're just poor, Brother. That lady teach you anything that will get you a job?"


"No, she didn't. But she DID get us to write a bunch o' %$#@ and she published it and she got big awards. An' what did WE get. Bupkis."

"Hey, Holmes, I didn't know you spoke Yiddish."

"Heath was the first to analyze acquistion of literacy as a cultural practice, the first to illuminate how cultures of orality impact school-based literacy competence, and the first to document the import of youth organizations in socializing communicative, social, and cognitive skills...."

Literacy as a cultural practice? Noooooo! You don't say?

The first (!!) to analyze that? Linguists 150 years ago didn't do that??? How weird. They THOUGHT they were.

"cultures of orality"? So she's into porno, too? Disgusting.

Does she mean something OTHER than talking?

Cultures of talking. People talk?! ANOTHER finding!!

Maybe she's a dentist.

Maybe she means bacterial cultures in the piehole. Or maybe not. I'm sticking with the porno inference.

cultures of orality IMPACT "school-based literacy competence." In other words, if you gab a lot outside of school you possibly gab a lot INSIDE school, too. I wonder how big the grant was that led to THAT big news.

Let's try it with a different topic and see if it's an enlightening proposition....

"Cultures of nasality impact school-based nose-blowing competence." I see. So, if you blow your schnoz a lot in the home, you'll probably be a quick study in schnoz maintenance in school, too. Well, everybody knows that!

I have only a small sample of her stuff--I don't think I can handle more. Still, I believe I can say, and say with confidence, I gotta barf.


I didn't learn to read in school. I was reading quite well by the time I got there, and stayed several grade levels ahead of the curve throughout my public education.

How did that happen? My mother was very interested in helping my sister, who was a couple of years older than me, learn to read, so at night we would sit on either side of her for our bedtime stories, usually two or three of them, and she would follow along under the words with her finger as she read. (She had no anticipation that this simple process would have an impact on me - that was purely incidental.) Some might say that process was continuous, spontaneous, and effortless, requiring no particular attention, conscious motivation, or specific reinforcement. Some might say I developed and used an intuitive knowledge of letter-sound correspondences without any phonics instruction and without deliberate instruction from adults (although I will admit to receiving casual, inadvertent instruction).

So how many of your "whole language is bad" rants did I break by learning to read under such "inappropriate" circumstances, rather than through a diligent course of phonics? I'm not sold on the idea that there is one magic bullet that will transform all kids into good readers - and your "phonics above all else" approach seems as gimmicky to me as the "whole language above all" approach you criticize.


Aaron, my experiences were much the same. And while what you say "sounds" right, I now understand that the moment I learned to "read" (I still remember it: my mom and I were reading about dinosaurs, and I think the trigger word was tyrannosaurus Rex) was the moment I learned that the words on the page actually translated into the words my mom read to me every night and into the concepts I held about those words in my brain.

Of course whole language worked for US (you and me): our parents cared enough to read to us (or for us) and we got a wonderful gift. There are, however, a boatload of kids out there who have no such help, and DO NOT learn by whole language. They NEED explicit instruction if they are to have a chance.

I imagine a lot of whole language persists because it "works" in districts where large majorities of the kids come to school like you and I did; but in poverty-stricken schools it is dooming the kids to lose in head-to-head competitions with Chinese and South American workers who may be equally illiterate, but will work harder for less.

I have taught in (reservation, low SES, junior high and high school) classrooms where kids can "guess" at words really well, it's just that their guesses don't come close to approximating the meaning on the page; hence, these students get discouraged and quit "reading;" in truth, they get tired of guessing -- a game they feel others must just be better at playing. They'll never tell you they can't READ, though. Sadly, they don't know what reading IS. I have also had the privilege to introduce SRA Corrective Reading to those kids and watch their reading skills take off. I have also watched the "whole language" advocates criticize and scrap the program (which is why I no longer work there).

Mommy taught you how to read. Good for you. Don't let that deprive a whole generation of kids with illiterate and/or overworked mommies from reading, too.


Aaron, Ariztophanes:

Me too, but my dad taught me to read the stories phonetically. It was pretty cool when I could start reading comics to him instead of vice-versa. But the biggest surprise of my life was when I discovered, at about age 7, that I could read substantial (and totally cool) books by myself!


I have NO disagreement with Aaron. And Ariz and Slimedog say it as well as I, and maybe better.

Let's look closely at what appears to be nonexplicit instruction during family reading.

I taught my kid to read when he about 5. He wanted to. Hop and Pop and similar books with a few letter-sounds, consistent in spellings-sound, lots of rhymes, and held attention.

So, I'd read it. He's say "Again." I'd read it again. I'd FOCUS his attention and my voice on a letter. "PoP. This one (point) says /p/.

No, I didn't plan review or the progression of letter-sounds to work on. Those design principles were embedded in the books.


And he was never "drilled." But note that the same kind of practice occurred because he wanted to read the same thing three or four times a day for weeks.

Also, every time I pointed to a letter, and said its sound, you could see his mouth moving. In a short time, he was anticipating what I was going to say. In other words, he had learned letter-sound correspondence.

Same thing with decoding, or sounding out. "This one says, paaahhhhp. You can do it. Read it...."

Some kids get it in 1 or 2 "trials." They remember it the next day. They generalize easily to new examples. From pop to hop. But other kids don't. So, you have to plan how to teach small skill parts, review, re-teaching, the sequence of tasks, etc.

As I see it, the instruction was still explicit and systematic. But it was not broken into small skill pieces--except maybe 3 times per minute--to FOCUS on a particular letter-sound or to sound out a word.

You CAN determine ahead of time how much structuring kids need so you can give them the right kind of instruction.

The problem with whole language is that the overall insistence that reading is "natural" and that instruction should focus on WHOLES and not parts, results in NOT paying attention to the details of learning and design (as I hinted at above). So, teachers ACCIDENTALLY do it right once in awhile.


It seems many of these (lunatic) quotations result from confusing LEARNING to read with READING. I can read 2 pages a minute; of course I don't sound out words--I know what they look like. If I run into one unfamiliar word, I quite often guess its meaning from the context (although I often look it up later). BUT that's because I already know how to read. (And any word that's unfamiliar at this point, phonics won't help--because I never heard it before). But I learned to read by being taught to read--both phonetically and by memorizing vocabulary words.


OK, So I've bought Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Lessons. We are using it, and I can see it's working. My problem is now, how do we undo and prevent the damage being done by having my daughter get the whole language @#$% every day at school. When we sit down to do my daughter's homework (i.e. "read" the book that is sent home) I have to constantly remind her to sound out the words. At first there's a struggle as she tries to do it the way the teacher tells her to, but guiding her with methods from the book I manage to get her on the right track and after a few pages, she's sounding out the words and reading. I did have to start covering the pictures up as she's always trying to guess. I know she's fairly bright (isn't it funny how are own children are always fairly bright) because when I caught her guessing and corrected her, she said "But Daaaaaaad, one of our reading strategies is to guess the words we don't know!" The average 5 yr old doesn't know the word strategy, much less use it correctly in a sentence.

So back to my original question, how to undo the daily damage and prevent more. I don't expect that the teacher (or the district) is going to suddenly scrap whole language on my say so, and getting results at a district level takes time, so I need practical strategies to use for now, while I work toward change hopefully in time for my 2 year old.

Tribe of Dan

I am using it to teach my 5 year old. I can tell you (we are on Lesson 50), that school won't mess them up. It might actually help. He is doing what he is suppose to do, reading words he already knows and sounding out one's that he is unsure about.
He still guesses at words sometimes, but he is learning the strategies to be more fluent in sounding out the words. Now, he can read quite a bit of material. The greatest benefit I see is that it improves comprehension and vocabulary, which is a major asset of a phonetic foundation. Dr. Plum (who is right about this stuff) I think would agree that the less a child has to guess, the more attention can be applied to contextual meanings and reading speed. Therefore, the school may be teaching them to guess words, but childern with the phonetic tools of reading can spend that time considering usage and relationship meaning.
As a former high school social studies teacher, I can assure you that comprehension is the major concern. Most kids can pull words off a page, but the effort to do so negates the realization of the information contained within the text.


Dear Prof. Plum,

In this most excellent rant you had the following collection of letters:


I understand that some editors throw in the occasional error to give readers the pleasure of catching them out (or to see if anyone is actually reading that far). If so, consider yourself caught and myself pleasured.


Another thing that disturbs me about reading instruction, particularly among phonics enthusiasts, is that there seems to be a confusion between being able to decode the letters on a page and being able to actually read and understand them. Our President's education "reforms" seem to be focused primarily on whether a child can sound out the words, with comprehension deemed irrelevant to whether the child can "read".

It may be, as with slimedog, that comprehension follows as part of a natural progression. But, as many teachers and even college instructors can attest, that's certainly not always the case.


I would be concerned, too, Aaron if it were all about phonics, but Reading First emphasis FIVE skills that are to be part of reading instruction from the very beginning.

In fact, RF will turn down curricula that are as good as it gets at teaching phonics if they are weak on vocabulary or comprehension. I've been part of some states' selection of curricula and as Buddha is my witness, the reviewers had higher standards for comprehension instruction than for phonics.

I also agree with you that giving teachers any sort of paper test is fairly squalid. The test is kids' learning. Imagine a physician saying, "Hey, I was 2nd in my class. Unfortunately half my patients leave the office feet first."


Comprehension. I don't think the problem with it is peculiar to phonics or whole language. I've heard the kids who DID learn to read via whole language "sing like a songbird," though a songbird might have more knowledge of what was meant by his song.

I'd like to see reading comprehension become something that is explicitly taught -- like SRA Corrective Reading does it. As I taught with their materials, I was surprised to find how simple "who" phrases throw off poor comprehenders. An example, "The boy who went to the store wore a jacket." Poor comprehenders hear that sentence as a question: "Who went to the store?" and get lost in a hurry, especially when that sentence is part of a larger idea.

If anyone out there who knows where to find sequenced comprehension concepts for basic knowledge AND for English language constructs (e.g. sentence types, appositives)that need to be taught, I'd love to hear where I can find it (besides in SRA's proprietary materials).


These may be if some use, Ariztophanes....

Douglas Carnine et al. [Merrill Prentice Hall] Direct Instruction Reading. Has eight chapters on comprehension.


I'll have to get the book. The web resource seemed to be saying "once your readers COMPREHEND what they read, you should ask them questions about what they've read." The difficulty I find is JUST WHAT YOU MUST TEACH so students comprehend. I mentioned "who" phrases and appositives, but there are "that" and "which" phrases as well. I guess I could start looking at sentences and see which constructions are found in them.

Gee, another question that begs to be answered. I hope that once education colleges get away from the "fuzzy" stuff they actually start looking at PEDAGOGY. Many of the critical concepts are being left to textbook companies to include or leave out as they wish, leaving solid instruction to chance or to teachers who (again, by chance) teach them depending on their conscious knowledge of them and solid understanding of how and where they should be sequenced.

As I sit and think about it, perhaps a large majority of instruction should be done the way Englemann has done Corrective Reading. Of course, the next thing we'd have to change is the romantic notion of teachers being there to wax eloquent about their pet topics. There might be time for that later, but first get the INSTRUCTION done.

If you've seen the Corrective Reading program, PP, what other subjects could be taught in that same rapid-fire, signal-response method?


I know Corrective Reading, Ariz. I think it is as close as humans can get to perfection.

What ekse can be taugght that way?



foreign lang

basically anything, I think.

I'm going to post as much as I can of a script for a unit on the Persian Wars.


(on vacation from being

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