When Phonics Made Me a Problem Child

But not me, never one to be too sure. When Kim, David, Brad and Kevin turned into Caty, Blake, Jessie, and many more, I turned my focus away from Whole Language and taught them using phonics. It wasn’t like today. Phonics, in fact, was highly out of favor. I attended a meeting at the same junior high school that I had once attended in support of Billy, a sixth grade struggling reader who I thought deserved a chance.

My one time home room teacher, the principal and the school psychologist (who knew me well, by the way) laughed at and belittled me for using phonics. I felt like I was twelve again, failing to win my mother’s approval.

By the end of the day, this twenty-four year old, not-so-newly- minted Ph.D. was sobbing on the steering wheel.

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About 10 years after my initial foray into phonics, it earned an endorsement from the National Reading Panel. Children taught with phonics generally experience better outcomes than children taught with whole language.

In other words, I was right all along. Or was I?


Don’t Feed Flippy!

Many colleagues in education remain certain. If you hear something about Guided Reading, Reading Recovery, Balanced Literacy, Leveled Literacy, Fountas and Pinnell reading levels, RAZ Kids, miscue analysis, running records, word walls, and probably more that I’m unaware of you might be looking at a similar premise with a new name.


Just last week this came home in one of my student’s backpacks, on a worksheet called “Reading Strategy Friends”:

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Flippy is not your friend.


Questioning the Authority of Whole Language

I remember this mantra from my Doctoral program: Goodman and Smith Top-Down, Perfetti and Stanovich Bottom-Up.

The Top-Down theorists believed that readers are the source of meaning. A skilled reader samples the text, but the print itself takes a lesser role in comparison to how the reader interacts with it. Bottom-Up theorists, on the other hand, believed that skilled readers look at the writing itself, and pretty thoroughly at that. While I was working on my doctorate, I remember wondering, like it was yesterday, which theory our professors believed had merit. I asked a classmate; she didn’t know either. I never did figure that out.

So when someone recommended that I check out a Teachers Applying Whole Language Conference in order to help this newly minted specialist teach a new round of students, I did know something about what I was getting into. At this conference I was told that the best way to help students read was to encourage them to predict words using pictures, surrounding context, and their own prior knowledge.

It’s the reader who constructs meaning, they said. I wanted to believe this was my answer. But the doubts were there too and I hadn’t even left the venue.

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I handed in a question for Q and A time, “But don’t we read, at times, to learn something new?”

They didn’t pick that question.

Oral language is learned naturally, so written language is best learned naturally, too. They said we should teach students to read the same way they learned to speak, which is to say they will learn if they grow up in a literature-rich environment, with exposure to predictable books. I wanted so much to help my students, but those doubts kept nagging me. As a speech pathologist, I knew full well that oral language doesn’t always come along easily.

I jotted down another question.“Will children with language learning impairment learn best this way too?”

That question didn’t get picked either.

As I was driving home after the conference, I got to thinking. Writers select words for a reason. Don’t they? If readers create meaning, why can’t we just read a blank page? Along with little pesky details like, “How would this work if you’re a pharmacist?” I ignored myself for a time, followed the advice, and watched for results. I wrote about it in a few reports. I remember a sixth grade boy Adam. Listening to him read was like watching someone walk through sludge. It was halting, effortful. I wrote it all down on new letterhead printed on the finest paper. “Adam isn’t using all of the cues that facilitate reading. He needs to think more about what would make sense to make reading flow with ease.” I recall wishing it were true as I wrote it.

One kid, Kevin, actually learned to read. I could have interpreted this as the whole language approach working. It’s those other kids who are not reading enough at home/unmotivated/not picking the right books/just a puzzle (insert excuse here that would do everything but focus the blame on me). Instead, I was skeptical that I myself actually made the difference for Kevin. The rest of those students just slipped through my fingers.

Richard Slipped Through My Fingers

I became a high school speech pathologist after earning a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology. I noticed students on my caseload who couldn’t read very well. One student in particular named Richard, a freshman, was unable to read anything at all. I so wish I could share with him what I know now. I did the best my twenty-something-year-old self could, but it’s safe to say I couldn’t and didn’t help him learn the one thing he really needed to be able to do: read.

When I was in school, SLP’s didn’t learn a whole lot about orthography. We learned many things, but not much about how words are written. I taught Richard using an inherited IEP as my only guide. I remember thinking I was teaching him things he already knew. Never one to overlook my own shortcomings, it felt really uncomfortable. I realized pretty quickly that I needed to go back to school, so I did just that. I earned a Doctorate, became a learning disability specialist, rented an office, bought a suit and set up a private practice.

Today, I am able to see how much of what I use now is what I actually did learn during my speech and language pathology preservice training, even though I initially didn’t make that connection. So I earned some new letters. And Richard turned into Brad, David, Kim and Kevin, new kids who couldn’t read and who had fallen into my hands.


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How Holly Learned: Doubts, Doubts, and More Doubts

In this series, I tell the story behind why I do what I do.

Each of us was once a baby, a child. I hope we were all fortunate enough to have at least one parent who loved us beyond measure and saw us through the good, bad, and ugly of childhood so that we could thrive as confident, self-possessed adults. As much as I know I’ve got a lot of say and a lot of evidence that I am one such adult, I must admit the truth: I often see myself as a damaged person.

From the time I was very young I was always willing to believe that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Anyone who doubted me was absolutely right to do so. The seeds of my self-doubt were planted when I was very young, as is the case with many people. It took me several decades to realize that even though my mother gave me as much love as a parent could give, it was the kind that demanded I give her all the power to tell me how much I was worth. Her demands meant that I needed to prove over and over again that she was right, I was wrong. Anything I did that wasn’t her idea or met her approval was fit for rejection. Like a good daughter, I took to heart all values and beliefs about how to live and how to think and made them my own—until the time finally came when I realized I was profoundly suffering under the weight of her love, which was anything but unconditional.

I tell this story to say that my willingness to doubt what I know and what I do is actually one of the biggest assets I have.

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ResearchED Washington

One minute I’m touring the White House with Tom Bennett and my Eduhero David Didau. The next, a group of invested teachers along with Kate Walsh, President, National Council of Teacher Quality (yes, that Kate Walsh) are following me into a spare classroom, willing to miss their next session to hear more about how I teach children to read. Suddenly I’m eating dinner at Dave’s Chili House where Barack Obama once visited and enjoyed a juicy half smoke. This was my ResearchED experience and it was amazing. 

From Didau (now I know, it’s pronounced /da͜ɪda͜ʊ/), don’t be so certain! Dylan William reminded us that research has its issues so your shit better be plausible. Well, maybe he didn’t say it just like that. I learned a new word (thanks Eric Kalenze) bullsh – initiatives. It’s what it sounds like, misguided ideal driven approaches to change. I’m gonna keep that one in my back pocket. 

I’m lit up like a bulb and I can’t wait to get back to teaching. It’s what I do. Watch for a blog post either here or with my friends The Learning Scientists where I will lay out the argument I presented at this most credible conference. In the meantime, here’s the image that changed me forever.


Second grader Max is interested in WWII. We were reading together from a book we made for him. And right there on the first page is the word treaty, which he didn’t recognize. 

We talked a bit about the definition of treaty, a new word for Max. It’s a written agreement, generally between two countries, where both sides agree to behave in a certain way. Thanks go to Vocabulary.com for helping us out with that. 

Treaty is built from a free base element <treat> and <y>, in this case a noun-forming suffix. What’s the connection between a treat and a treaty? A treaty pulls countries together and a treat is something that pulls you in. And how you treat someone has to do with how you handle them. Metaphorically speaking, how you drag or pull them about. 

More relatives in the image above. Yes, they all have something to do with pull. We asked Max to explain why treaty was written with the <ea> grapheme when <ee>, for example, would be just as plausible. He understood! While there are other ways to write /i/, <ea> is the only one that marks treaty’s connection to its relatives and links to the idea of “pull.”

Teaching Max is a treat.


How can I help a student who spells <refrigerator> as <*refridgerator>? This question was posed to me over the weekend and it was a good one.
The orthographic word sum I propose for refrigerator would be <re> “again” + <friger> “cold” + <ate> + <or>. The Latin verb for refrigerate is refrigeratus. To get to the base in English, I removed the genitive sufffix <us> and the stem suffix <at>. I don’t believe there is anything else I can remove, thus <friger> or  perhaps, <friger(e)>. It’s not a productive base in English: refrigerate (a back formation), refrigerated, refrigerating, refrigeration. And the brand name Frigidaire. I love throwing in brand names. And <fridge>.

Fridge is a clip or shortening of refrigerator. So refrigerator wasn’t built off of <fridge>, it was essentially the other way around. It wasn’t only shortened, but also altered. The <dg> (<dge>) spelling originated in the days of early Old English when the /g/ phoneme became less common and the /dʒ/ phoneme became more common, especially at the ends of words. These “new” words were a challenge for the scribes who were tasked with figuring out how to write English using a Latin alphabet. What to do with these words that were once pronounced with final /g/ but now were pronounced with final /dʒ/? Many things were tried (<j> wasn’t invented yet), but the spelling that caught on was <dg>, a grapheme that marked that historically there was a /g/. 

But fridge? Fridge doesn’t have that long of a history, obviously. But in 1926, when it came to spelling the clip for refrigerator the OE <dge> spelling found another use. The moral of the story? Don’t use fridge to help you spell refrigerator. And words are fun. 

There is more fun to be had in related words include French frisson and (yum) Italian semifreddo!

Mad Scientist

Excellent and all too true.


Scholars who take the Old English for Orthographers LEXinar take a critical look at what’s said about the historical origins of words. Many categorically false, totally ascientific claims have been made in print by language educators widely considered to be “experts.” It’s been going on for decades.

In the 1980s, Bob Calfee’s “Layers of the English Language” triangle listed a dozen words as having an “Anglo-Saxon” origin. Two of them are definitively not Ango-Saxon: cry is Latinate, and jump isn’t attested until the Modern English period. A third, grave, is a homograph. One of the pair (dig a grave) does have an Old English origin; the other (a grave illness) is Latinate. Certainly there were less ambiguous options available.

More recently (2004), Louisa Moats has claimed that tube is Anglo-Saxon (it’s French), that television is Latin (actually, the <tele> is Greek), that biodiversity is Greek…

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