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An April 20 Reformer commentary praised public schools as "cornerstones of democracy and bedrocks of our communities." Facts suggest otherwise. Only one-third of US fourth graders read proficiently! Massachusetts leads at 46 percent, Vermont is at 40 percent. Only 15 percent of US eighth-graders are proficient in history; non-readers can't study history.

Non-readers are poor students, withdrawn or disruptive, more likely to drop out. Most children in juvenile criminal court have reading problems; the great majority of men in prison are illiterate. A poor child's best hope of escaping poverty is learning to read, and we won't teach them.

First-graders start with basal readers (a billion-dollar industry), little stories with short sentences of one-syllable words, large pictures on every page. With teacher's help, children pronounce these tiny words and memorize them, by sight. Later, in phonics workbooks, children guess at the unspoken sounds of phonetically representative pictures, silently underlining or connecting phonetically related words in lists. This is child-controlled learning; it's not working.

Excellent reading methods exist, but most teachers dislike them, principals ban them, and teachers' colleges don't teach them. Romalda Spalding's The Writing Road to Reading is such a program. Spalding, an elementary school teacher, worked with Dr. Samuel Orton in the 1930s. Continuing to teach, Spalding saw her special students, using Orton's learning techniques, doing better than her normal students. In 1957, using Orton's principles, she created "The Writing Road to Reading."

Samuel Orton had degrees in medicine and education, was professor of neurology and neuropathology at Columbia University, publishing in 1937 "Reading Writing and Speech Problems in Children." When creating clinics and a psychiatry department at The University of Iowa Hospital in the 1920s, he found that most children referred for psychiatric treatment were non-readers. Orton studied brain physiology, including children's reading and speech problems, developing his remarkable educational contribution: "multisensory" teaching, integrating kinesthetic (movement-based) and tactile (sensory-based) learning strategies with the teaching of visual and auditory concepts; hence multisensory phonics.

In Spalding's course, Children work three hours daily. Teachers initially show tense first graders how to relax, hold pencils lightly and properly. Teaching materials are 70 large phonogram cards (given Orton by educator-psychologist Anna Gillingham), representing the 44 basic sounds of English speech, and the first 1,700 words of the Ayres spelling list of most-used English words, in order of frequency. The phonogram cards contain the alphabet's 26 letters plus letter combinations such as ng and ea, and three-letter "i" (igh) and four-letter "a" (eigh). For three months children learn the first phonogram cards, while learning to write neatly in lower case letters, which, except for "a" and "g", look just like letters they will see in books. They use capital letters for sentence beginnings and proper nouns. They don't sing the pointless alphabet song; consonants never say those names. First-graders know "consonants," they know that word has three syllables. They hear the rhythm and music of language.

The children's learning is multisensory; they see the letters, they hear the teacher say the sounds, they feel the formation of letters as they write, and they sense the vocal creation in their speaking. The teacher always uses spelling words in sentences in dictating them to the children. Every child creates a treasured personal spelling notebook - separate pages at first, a permanent book by third grade, with hundreds of correctly spelled words. One double-page has "her first nurse works early" (the five er sounds) across the top; children write the appropriate words beneath as they occur. "Berth" and "birth" fall next to each other; children understand homonyms. On another page children write the five reasons English words have a silent, final "e."

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When about 150 words are in children's notebooks, reading begins. It's not taught; kids just start reading. Special education's gone, no basal readers, no workbooks, ever - just the best children's literature. No struggling with spelling or pronunciation or sounding out - that's in spelling and writing. Children concentrate on their reading's meaning.

Here are 1993 scores from seven Arizona public schools using Spalding. Grade 4, Reading, Iowa Basic Skills: Arizona state average: 37; National average: 45; Seven Spalding public schools (typical Arizona demographic, many on free lunch): 57, 59, 74, 75, 77, 77 and 81. No tricks, no gimmicks; these are honest, typical scores. Children in poverty learn very well with excellent teaching. No behavior problems, no ADHD; everybody's having fun working and learning, reading stories, writing their own.

Two questions arise: 1) why do schools ban Spalding? And, 2) why do some children learn with the basal reader? First, schools adamantly refuse to use methods where teachers, rather than the children, control the learning. Educators mistakenly believe that teacher control inhibits children's imagination, curiosity and creativity. Classroom observation proves otherwise, yet educators insist on the "free" classroom. Second, a few lucky children deduce, without instruction, many letter-sound relationships (the phonics) of written English. Many more do this by exposure to books, being read to, or being taught phonics directly, at home. Without this experience children will not learn.     

Meanwhile, school boards avoid curriculum evaluation, leaving that to the "experts" who fail, year after year, and blame the children.

Why won't we give highly effective programs honest, fair trials? Are we biased against the poor? Are we ashamed that we've been so wrong? Why don't we stop politicizing education and start fixing it?

Thomas W. Graves writes from Putney. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.