Tag Archives: reading

How We Read Words

I am reading The Neural basis of Reading and currently reading the chapter called The Functional Neuroanatomy of Reading.(Cornelissen 2010)

The author, Nicola Brunswick, asserts that there are two routes to reading single words and that this is borne out in neurological research.  I am not going to go into the neurology in this post as I think that the theory is probably of more interest to educators.  Besides, I don’t feel that I fully understand the neurology.  No surprise, as I am only eighty pages into the book.  When I do understand, I will write a post on the topic.

Whole language and Hooked on Phonics

Do you remember the Whole Language versus the Hooked on Phonics debate?  When I started teaching[1] in the eighties it seemed that the teaching community was polarised by the split between the two methods.  At the time I didn’t feel that I had a strong grasp on the whole language concept even though I was told my own approach to teaching reflected that perspective.

What is Whole Language?

The Whole English Language

The Whole English Language (Photo credit: Jason DeRusha)


Whole language teachers engage their students in the use of language and teach the structures of spelling, grammar and writing as the issue arises during the students’ learning.  In my classroom, I read to the children and the children read on their own.  For my students who couldn’t yet read independently, I created tapes of stories they could listen to on headphones as they looked at the book itself.  I made sure to tell them when to turn the page.  Students were encouraged to guess at words they couldn’t figure out rather than interrupt the flow of the text.  These were educated guesses based on context or graphics such as pictures or diagrams.

Writing, grammar and style

My students also wrote daily, starting with a journal, but also using writing in all kinds of forms including reports on classroom experiments, their own stories and scripts for advertising. I read the journals daily and responded to the content.  This was not the place to correct grammar or spelling.  I did note problems with spelling and grammar and addressed the most common ones with the class.  When I had the opportunity, I also privately talked to some students about errors I didn’t deal with in class.

Almost every product except for the journals was expected to be correctly spelt and written.  This was done through drafts and conferences with the students on their work.  They talked to each other about their work as well as discussing it with me.  The Writing Conference Centre was actively used.

Using handwriting to teach spelling, punctuation and poetry

I was expected to teach handwriting.  Setting up practice was rather dreary but I


Handwriting (Photo credit: Mot)

used it as an opportunity to teach spelling, too.  For example, in setting up practices in the joining of w and e and h and e, I would include such bugbears as were, wear, we’re and where and explain the differences.  In later work, there might be sentences to show the difference in usages: “Where were you?” “We’re going to dye our underwear green.”  “We were wearing out the pencil sharpener.”

Later, when we had gone through all the permutations, I put up poetry to be

English: A scene from "", by Lewis C...

English: A scene from “”, by Lewis Carroll, drawn by Sir John Tenniel in 1871. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

copied as a writing exercise.  I first used The Walrus and the Carpenter.  Each day they copied a stanza.  Through the exercise, they learned the difference between a stanza and a verse, the technical aspects of writing out lines of poetry and some new vocabulary.  The writing morphed into learning how to read poetry, most importantly not to pause at the end of the line unless there was punctuation there to tell you to do so.  They also learned the purpose of punctuation and how it helped the reader to understand.

Phonics and whole language

I didn’t ignore phonics or the teaching of spelling, I just taught phonics when and where it was useful to learn it.  We did do spelling tests.  The list of words was drawn from my observations of the students’ difficulties and the vocabulary they were trying to use.  I always added an eleventh very difficult word such as chrysanthemum or fuchsia[2] that didn’t count in marking the tests; it was only for fun.  Sometimes students learnt the tough word better than the others.  I didn’t plan it that way, but now I realise that it also taught students that there are a number of words in English that break orthographic rules.  You can’t entirely rely on phonics.

Hooked on Phonics

Hooked on phonics

Hooked on phonics (Photo credit: daveonkels)

Phonics in this context refers to teaching the correlation between sound and letters.  This allows unfamiliar words to be sounded out by the reader.  For example, if you know that g followed by an i or an e will be given the soft pronunciation of g i.e. “j”, you can decipher the pronunciation of words such as gorge, gamete and gelid.  It won’t be much help with geisha or gecko, which is why experience is important in learning English.

Stress, pronunciation, meaning and spelling

However, a multisyllabic word that follows the rules of standard phonics may still stymie the reader in pronouncing it.  Pronunciation includes stress; without knowing which syllable is stressed, one can pronounce the word and be misunderstood. There are also a handful of common words in English that change their meaning depending on their pronunciation.  How would you pronounce object in the following two sentences?  “I object to your use of such vulgar language”; “My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time…” (From Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado)

as Yum-Yum (center), with Kate Forster (left) ...

as Yum-Yum (center), with Kate Forster (left) and Geraldine St. Maur (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To learn how to pronounce difficult words check out the two sites below.  I especially like Forvo as it usually gives both the British and American pronunciations and even states the gender and origin of the speaker.



And to find the eight words whose meaning depends on the right stress, check out


So phonics is a useful tool in in figuring out the pronunciation and spelling of words, but thanks to the many languages from which we have adopted words and the development of English from a more ancient language, one would flounder in the orthographies of English without experience of all the many exceptions.

sept15classroom 001

sept15classroom 001 (Photo credit: mrstg)

What about Balanced Literacy?


visualliteracy (Photo credit: alisonkeller)

Initially, the words were a description of a holistic approach to teaching language in which teachers use their personal professional knowledge to select their methods.  As professionals they are free to choose and use the materials they deemed appropriate.  Neither phonics nor whole language is an issue as the selection reflects what the students need to learn about language at this stage in their development, how they learn and their interests. What Balanced Literacy now means is a whole different kettle of fish and a considerable money earner for academic publishers.  But that is a topic for another post.

So what are the two routes to learning reading?

The first route, according to Brunswick, is called the grapho-phonological route.  The progression in this route is from recognition of individual letters to the conversion of those letters to sounds.  You probably recognise this route as very closely related to teaching phonics.

The second route is called the lexico-semantic route. The reader recognises words and proceeds from there to deduce the rules of spelling and acquire a knowledge of irregular spellings.

Which route is more effective?

The author doesn’t comment directly.  What she does say is that the grapho-phonological route is more useful in languages with shallow orthography.  What she means is languages where there is almost always a direct correspondence between letters and sounds.

Unfortunately, English is a deep orthographic language.  That means that not only can a grapheme (linguist speak for a letter or bunch of letters that make one sound) make several different sounds but different graphemes can make the same sound.

Think of the f sound.  It can be made by f or ph or gh as in food, phonics and laugh.  And gh can sound like f or p or, with an ou sound preceding it, sound like ow or o: laugh, plough, hiccough and thorough. (Cornelissen 2010) What is a poor speller to do?

You can see that to be proficient in decoding English words, you definitely need both routes to reading.  Neither route is more effective, but together they allow readers to acquire a good command of spelling in English.


Cornelissen, P. L. H., Peter C.:  Kringlebach, Morten L.; Pugh, Ken., Ed. (2010). The Neural Basis of Reading. New York, New York, Oxford University Press.

[1] My first class was a grade three/four split.  My second was a grade two/three split.  This was a particularly interesting class as most of the second grade was behind in language and several of the grade threes were advanced.  You will notice that my approach could also have been called Balanced Literacy except that the term wasn’t being used at that time.

[2] I prefer to use words that students can understand or might even have heard frequently:  necessary, definitely, conscientiously, onomatopoeia, pneumonia, asthma, psychology.  My personal bugbear is accommodation.  For more information go to:  http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/TestsFrame.htm

Ideas, lessons and units currently available on for Teaching Outside the Box http://teachingideasoutsidethebox.wordpress.com/


This unit is aimed at getting twelve year olds to read in quantity and quality.  It could be adapted for other grades and might need to be adapted for other marking systems.  The list in number 5 was originally written to go with this unit.

5.         Have You Read?

A list of books aimed at academically talented grade seven and eight students with the intention of broadening their usual tastes in reading and pushing them to try something new or a bit more challenging.

4.  Finding the Poetry

A lesson aimed at teaching the important parts of writing poetry: words and feelings.

3.  Learning to Love Teaching Poetry

It’s tough teaching poetry well.  This is a suggestion for a unit used for grades two, three and four using The Walrus and the Carpenter and The Tyger.

2.  Lessons in Perspective (Art, Empathy, Math, Literature)

A unit that combines lessons in perspective in art, empathy and mathematics.  Can be expanded to include literature and writing. Can be adapted K-12

1. Using the Internet to teach and teaching students how to use the Internet

Ideas on teaching research skills to all grade levels, including appropriate use of Internet, identification of bias, Boolean logic, using indexes, encyclopaedias and other resources.

“Education for All” and the Myth of Universal Design

Part 2 of Education for All

Universal Design in Architecture

Universal design is a concept that has come to us from architecture.  Architects noticed that as the handicapped were increasingly accommodated not only by retrofitting buildings, but by designing buildings from scratch to meet the needs of the handicapped, a curious thing was happening: the general public was also benefiting from the designs.

The wheelchair ramps worked well for cyclists and parents with children in strollers.  The lower wash basins and levered handles made life easier for small children.  Even the subtitles on television have proven a boon in places such as noisy hospital waiting rooms.  And who hasn’t hit the big blue button with their elbow or their foot when trying to wrangle too many packages through a heavy door?  In fact, the accommodations that many of us thought would be expensive extras for the few have proven to be welcome improvements in the lives of many.

Now it sometimes happens that the lessons or ideas of one discipline cross over successfully to another.  A well-made woodworking tool becomes a surgical instrument and leads to an unexpected partnership between the toolmaker and the surgeon.   The sciences of psychology and neurology, the art of religion and the discipline of philosophy discover that more and more often they are saying similar things until a psychiatrist finds himself writing a guide to meditation, a neurologist writes a book on Zen and the Brain and another neurologist explores the importance of emotions and the meaning of consciousness.  The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education is offering collaborative graduate work in areas such as neuroscience.  These developments come from a willingness to explore an unordinary take on things using a combination of imagination, openness to new ideas and critical thinking.

Universal Design and Education

At first blush, the Ontario Ministry of Education’s embrace of universal design might seem to be one of these happy crossovers.  Their idea is that if the curriculum is taught in a way that students with learning disabilities can learn it, then the same method will work for all the students in the class.  The corollary is that with rare exceptions all students should be in the same class because they all can be taught well at the same time.

A Brief Review of Learning Disabilities

To clarify (and those of you who know all about LD should skip the next couple of paragraphs): by definition, a student with a learning disability has average intelligence or above and has a deficit in one or more areas that affect learning.  The student may have difficulty reading but no difficulty with mathematical concepts or may have problems using a pen or pencil to write neatly at a reasonable speed but can write wonderful stories using a computer.   Each person who has a learning disability is different from any other one; the only thing they all have in common is they are all at least as smart as the normal person.

Many students with learning disabilities (or as one student I know puts it: learning differences) only need some simple accommodations to be very successful.  One student may need to have someone else’s notes photocopied for him (because he can’t write fast enough and, at the same time, pay attention to the material being taught), more time on tests, to take fewer courses and have textbooks recorded (because he can’t read fast enough even though his comprehension is excellent).  Another student might need to use a laptop in class and answer some questions in note form.  A third might use a non-programmable calculator for a math test because she can do mathematics but not arithmetic.

As an aside, I must note that these so-called disabilities would hardly have been noticed in another time and place.  In a society where minimal literacy and numeracy was needed, what counted would have been how hard people worked, how well they did their jobs and character.  Few people a hundred years ago would have been expected to do much in school after grade eight and many would not have gone even that far.  I think we should remember that an LD is a very subtle insult to the brain and in the larger scheme of things should not have an impact on our view of the student as a whole.

To return to universal design and education, it would be a great savings in time and money if universal design worked in the classroom.  However, for most LD students it is helpful to have highly structured assignments whereas the intellectually talented profit from open-ended assignments.  Combining high structure and open-endedness in an assignment can be done and I have created assignments that worked for everyone, however they generally took a considerable amount of planning and the most successful one took three teachers to deliver it.  The teacher librarian and the computer teacher participated in the delivery of the project.

While teachers of primary students are guaranteed a maximum of 23 students in their classrooms, teachers of grade seven and eight may have 34 students in theirs.  By the intermediate years, the gap in learning has grown considerably between the weak students and the strong students.  Throw in students who are learning disabled and some who have behavioural problems and a teacher will have her hands full trying to successfully meet everyone’s needs.  Should she try to teach using a single design the equivalent of an architectural ramp or lowered sink, she will find herself with a large group of bored, restless students.

An Example of Universal Design or Differentiation?

The example of Universal Design (P. 12) in Education for All is more like the architectural equivalent of a sign saying UP! at the base of a ramp, ladder, elevator and escalator; a health professional beside the sign would choose the most appropriate way for each individual to ascend and still get their heart rate to an aerobic level.  However, it is a wonderful example of differentiation in teaching a lesson in literature; what it does not explain clearly is how a teacher might handle the differentiation in a class of thirty if some of the students will need the teacher’s guidance for periods of time.  It especially does not address how to deal with students with behavioural challenges in this kind of situation; many of them need direct supervision.

The lay person reading this may assume that an educational assistant would be available but EAs are becoming more and more restricted to students with physical handicaps and are rarely assigned to classrooms anymore.  Administrators might point out that special education teachers are now coming into the classroom to support the regular classroom teachers.  This is true, but they are not available full time to any class so they focus on the three Rs, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

I have a sneaking suspicion that as time goes by, money for special education teachers will be cut until only the very severely affected students will receive support.  The argument will be that since many teachers are now receiving the equivalent of the old Special Education Certificate Part 1 as part of their B. Ed., they will soon be equipped to deal with behavioural, LD and other special education needs.  What the Ministry, administrators, academics and the public will forget is that this kind of teaching not only requires knowledge but also experience and time.

For More Information:

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

NEXT POST:  EDUCATION FOR ALL: an analysis of the content.  August 14th

FOURTH POST:  Giftedness and EDUCATION FOR ALL: August 21st

FIFTH POST: Charts for Teachers derived from EDUCATION FOR ALL:  August 26st