Volume 5 • #2 • February 2006


Maybe it is my Scottish ancestry, or maybe it is because I raised five kids and taught school, but I am an enthusiastic supporter of efficiency. So when I began writing Reading from Scratch back in the 1970’s, I wanted to find the most efficient way of teaching spelling to kids who couldn‘t. The current method in the schools was, and still is in many places, is to give the kids a list on Friday for them to memorize over the weekend and then have a test on Monday to see how much they remembered. But that meant that at best they only knew how to spell those particular words. Very inefficient.

When I wrote RfS, I had to do a lot better than that. The truth is that one simple spelling rule in English can cover thousands of words, so I decided to stress spelling rules. If, for instance, you know that a silent e on the end of a one syllable word will turn the vowel long, you have covered thousands of words in one pop. Very efficient.

So we go through a zillion short vowel words first, then we add ar, er, ir, or, and ur, combining them with short vowel sounds only, in words such as carpenter, underbrush or transfer. Only one extra rule, a zillion new words. Very efficient.

After all that, we admit that a “short” vowel, being small, needs protection from other vowels that might invade his territory and make him identify himself (say his name). Thus the doubled consonant rule, with more words available. Still only a few rules.

There is not a lot of connected reading in the RfS program, but after learning spelling rules, Eureka! the child learns to read, anyhow. Yes, even sight words that we have never taught him. Why? The left hemisphere is the literal side that understands how to apply a rule. The right looks at a word as a line drawing,. It must memorize the shape of every word it learns, which is, by the way, tens of thousands in a high school vocabulary. Very inefficient.

The last thing you want when you are straightening out dyslexia is to involve the right hemisphere. Therefore NO ILLUSTRATIONS, NO PICTURES. If you are teaching cat, for heaven’t sakes don’t include a cute picture of a cat, even if you think you are stressing the sounds of the letters. The right brain likes pictures and treats everything it sees as one. So it tends to see the letters as shapes, too. And don’t make the other mistake that you see frequently in a reading program, of introducing all the letter combinations that form one sound at once. Don’t show the hapless student mane, main, weigh, they, and ray, and expect him to see that they all contain the long A sound. The right brain immediately looks at such a mess, sighs, and visualizes them all as patterns it has to remember. Extremely inefficient.

So the answer to the question of why, when you teach spelling rules, spelling rules and spelling rules you then get good reading is that memorizing and applying spelling rules activates the (you guessed it) left hemisphere.



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