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Taking adult readers where West Indian Reader never did
We have all heard readers tell non-readers to break unrecognised words into syllables. Phonics was never part of my education.
It was fascinating to discover 44 sounds used in English and the many ways these are represented by letters and letter combinations; to understand my own spelling errors and begin exploring how to remedy these.
Eureka happened for me while attending the Dyslexia Association Training in Methods for Teaching Dyslexics in July 1992. The course went beyond the phonic code to the structure of words.
There was a system of steps and rules, analysis and a multi-sensory system using cards for built-in review and games for practice. Best of all, word recognition skills came with a teaching sequence.
Missing from the programmes I had looked at previously was this structured and explicit teaching of word recognition.
Missing too was a methodology that would engage the thinking skills of adult learners.
I learnt the directed discovery approach which was developed to take advantage of the average-plus IQs of dyslexics.
This was a perfect match for adult learners. In directed discovery the teacher uses questions to guide the learner to work out for themselves what is to be learnt, an approach that fits nicely with the current emphasis on developing critical thinking skills.
Why use the methods for teaching dyslexics? Though seldom diagnosed, up to half of an Alta class may be dyslexic, as opposed to the estimated 10 per cent of the entire population.
Also, non-dyslexics, like me, benefit equally from analysing the written code. This is clear in international trends in reading instruction.
Over the last two decades I have seen the explicit teaching of phonics, now dubbed synthetic phonics, begin to make its way into mainstream education, a trend that is picking up real speed.
This is different from the implicit phonics of the West Indian Reader which grouped words according to their phonics but depended on the learner to work out the connections between letters and sounds.
But decoding is not the only route to reading. There is a visual route and fluent reading relies on building a bank of sight words which we recognize instantly.
We store whole words, almost like pictures, in the brain’s visual memory—much like when we see a face and a name pops into our head.
The reader’s brain learns to take a snapshot of new words to constantly expand the words instantly recognized. The non-reader’s brain, especially those not wired for reading, has to be taught to do this.
The Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA) tutor training video, donated by the US Embassy in 1993, first exposed me to this. In the LVA approach to teaching words, the tutor selects high frequency words one-by-one from a reading text, writes each on small card and teaches these using a series of steps.
The cards provide easy review until the words become instant “sight words”. I found the LVA approach effective, and with some modification, still use with Alta Beginners and Level 1s.
From LVA too I learned the Language Experience Approach (LEA), where the tutor writes the words the student says and then uses the written text as reading and teaching material. This proved an ideal early tool for Alta Beginners whose minimal word recognition skills make it difficult to find text that they are able to read.
As the student repeats their words from memory they point to the matching written word. While students are not really reading just remembering what they have said, they begin to match spoken to written text and just as importantly, they get that critical early success. Also, it’s cheap!
• (The third part of Against the Odds by Paula Lucie-Smith was first published in 20 Years of Alta magazine, 2012)
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