Monday, February 18, 2008

Old Blue-Back

A few days back I was starting to get lonely.

My blog isn't a very high-traffic site, and the number of comments I get varies widely from post to post, or from week to week. I feel a little like a hunter-gatherer; sometimes there are lots of good, meaty columns; and sometimes I have to do without for days at a time.

So in desperation, I created a post with little more than a link to a clip from the Muppet Show, on the superstitious theory that Muppets bring me comments. Maybe, just maybe, those fuzzy little friends would work their magic for me again, as they had in the past?

Boy, howdy. That post immediately pulled down a couple of really long, really erudite comments by ElizabethB, who wanted to talk about Phonics, Sight Reading, and Webster's Blue Backed Speller. I certainly didn't expect that, any more than those Monty Python guys expected the Spanish Inquisition. :)

Well, she got me thinking, and so I thought I'd pull out relevant comments from the thread and put them here. Here's how she started things, slightly edited by me:

Don Potter sent me your post about phonics vs. sight reading, and I just had to comment on that.

I'm a "friend" of Don's and have, like him, taught a lot of remedial students harmed by sight words.

I thought you might be interested in my post, sight words: a root of all reading evil. While you know most of it from reading Don's website, some might be new, especially my explanation about how to teach 218 of the 220 words phonetically.

For your daughter, I would recommend Don Potter's excellent 1824 version of Webster's Speller. My 5 year old improved her spelling and reading abilities dramatically after working through Webster's Speller.

If she's still suffering guessing habits from all the sight words, I'd work with some nonsense words with her. I work with nonsense words with my daughter, we have fun laughing hysterically at the funnier ones.

Here's a short post I did on Webster's Speller...

and you should make sure you click the link to my page at my website showing how to teach it...

I'm going to write another post later tonight linking to your sight word post--hopefully a few less people will learn the sight word lesson the hard way after reading it.

Also, if you decide to use Webster, both Don and I would be interested to learn how it goes.

Oh, yes, here's a great game that makes nonsense words and real words...

Incidentally, the post of mine she's referring to is here. Anyway, I responded to her with the following:
See, I knew I would get some interesting comments if I just put up a link to the Muppet Show! Works every time.

Thanks for dropping by, and for your vote of confidence. I'm honored that you saw fit to present my post on your blog and expand on it, and I'm humbled that the post was recommended to you by Don Potter himself.

Just so you know, we do have some old copies of Webster's Speller around, although they are much later editions than the one from 1824. My wife is very interested in figuring out how to use it in our studies; but it's difficult to find adequate instructions on this.

For example, while the Trivium Pursuit site recommends Webster for spelling, grammar, handwriting, etc., it does not recommend the book for phonics--arguing that we pronounce things differently now, so his phonetical rules are a bit out-of-date. Also, they don't recommend using the book until the kid is 10 or so. Needless to say, your take on it is very different than the Bluedorns'!

And my wife--who does most of the day-to-day teaching--isn't as much of a theoretician as I am. I like getting into the whys and wherefores; she just wants to know what do I teach on lesson one, what do I teach on lesson two, etc. We liked Hazel Loring's approach because it was very clear on this point: here's the list of words, and this is what you do with them. Alas, we haven't yet found such a clear step-by-step prescription for using Webster in the teaching of phonics. We've seen a lot of good ideas, but nothing that could be described as a complete program that incorporates all these ideas. I suspect that such a program would look a lot like the Hazel Loring method, just starting with Webster's syllables instead of her word lists; but I haven't had the time or mental energy to figure out myself how to do it.

And it's no mere academic question: we have another three-year-old now who's learning her letters and sounds, so we need to figure out what we're doing here pretty soon--otherwise she'll start reading without us. ;)

Anyway, in the five months since I wrote that post, things have progressed reasonably well. Developments come quickly when the child is just five! The Pillowfight Fairy finished Spelling Workout Level A, and Tonya decided to shift to vocabulary building for a while, extracting words from the Spelling Workout book's glossary. It appears that the Fairy's decoding skills are a lot better than they used to be. So long as she concentrates, she can usually sound out two- and three-syllable words now without too much help. (Although it should be noted that she's frequently not in the mood to concentrate. She's only five, of course.) The other day she wanted to read a chapter from E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan--and she made it two-thirds of the way through the chapter before she got fatigued and pooped out! I did have to help with a lot of hard words, but it's clear that she's feeling a lot more confident than she did even a few months ago.

Anyway, we'd love to incorporate Webster's Speller into our children's education--and we're more likely to if we can find good resources that explain exactly how to do this. If you come across any, let us know. (The article from Trivium Pursuit is the closest thing we've found, except for the fact that it contra-indicates it before age ten.)

Thanks again for dropping by!

She responded again, with:
I have some instructions on how to actually teach Webster here...

Don also has a movie and mp3 of the syllabary if you're unclear on any of the syllable sounds.

My daughter actually already know a lot of phonics when we started Webster from a mix of good phonics programs (as a remedial phonics tutor since 1994, I have quite a collection!)

We worked on sounding out and spelling the syllabary first, then through the rest of the lessons in order. I never work longer than 10 minutes a day with her on formal Webster work. Sometimes she'll "play" Read, Write, and Type (recommended by Don!) for hours, however. She doesn't realize it's educational, and requests to play it like she would a movie or a website. I'm not sure if she's noticed yet that it's one request I always say yes to!

I did all of the syllabary, and review it periodically (and refer back to it when she's stuck with a syllable in a multi-syllabic word.) However, I don't teach her words that are too esoteric. I pick several from each lesson and have her either read them or spell them. We usually read around 20 words a day or spell 8 words a day. I point out spelling rules (you can learn them all from our online spelling lessons), but she seems impervious to them. She seems to just learn by the patterns. I point them out anyway. When she's mastered the spelling and reading of most of the words in a section, we move on to the next one. (Again, I don't teach her very obscure words, I teach a smaller percentage of the words as the words get longer. Eventually we'll go back and work through it again, adding in words that were omitted due to their irrelevance to a 5 year old.)

I talk about dividing words into syllables in explaining how to use Webster. You may be interested to see this link to excerpts from a 1851 First Reader that had ALL word of more than one syllable divided with a hypen...

Our daughter was not capable developmentally/wouldn't try/would balk for whatever reason (she wouldn't/couldn't explain) when faced with a word over 5 or 6 letters that was not divided into syllables. After several months of dividing up words for her, she can now divide words she hasn't seen before up in her head.

We were at the post office and she asked me, "Mom, what does incorrect mean?"

When she saw the word "wilderness" for the fist time, she said it correctly, then stated (very astutely for a 5 year old) "but it looks like it should be wild-erness (long i wild.)"

If your wife has any questions, she can e-mail me, liz91 at thephonicspage dot org. I'd love to see more people using Webster's, I've been so pleased with our results and would love to see more families benefit from all Don's hard work typing up the version of Webster's. (Although the print is actually too small for a 5 year old, and we use a whiteboard slate anyway for reasons explained in the first link.)

We have the exact same concentration problem, especially for math and handwriting, which don't come as easy to her as reading and spelling. I mandate movement between 5 to 10 minutes of concentrated work periods.
Now, Webster's Blue-Backed Speller is an institution. I seem to remember reading somewhere that Benjamin Franklin himself used an early edition of the book he called "Old Blue-Back" as a resource when teaching his own grandchildren to read. And I have sitting in front of me a copy of the 1908 reprinting of the 1880 edition, which my wife's great-grandmother won in a community spelling bee. Apparently Tonya's mother has memories of this copy being referred to from time to time when the great-grandmother needed to look things up.

And I have to admit a certain fascination when presented with the educational materials and theories of days gone by. I don't think there's any question that the educational arrangements existing in Colonial America were capable of producing people who were highly, highly literate. And it's impossible to read some of the political or personal correspondences from the early 1800's, up through the Civil War, and not come to a similar conclusion. So it makes me very curious: how did these people learn to read? How did they learn to write? How have things changed between then and now? In what ways have we progressed? In what ways have we regressed? What things do we do better? What things do we do worse?

I've certainly mused on this question before: here's my earlier post on the McGuffey Readers, originally written in the 1830's and used in some schools as late as the second half of the Twentieth Century. While these books exhibited very different sensibilities than today's educational materials do, there's no question that they expected students to achieve a very, very high degree of literacy.

So it's certainly a tempting thought that we can achieve good educational results using these older materials.


The trouble is that these books do not provide what we moderns refer to as lesson plans. My wife's theory is that educators of days gone by didn't need lesson plans to use these books, because they had themselves been trained on them (or similar texts) and just knew what needed to be done. This was not a time of vast innovation in educational theory--at least, not at the classroom level, and not in the great majority of the schools. People could expect to teach in the same way that they were taught, using the same tools; not a whole lot of training was necessary. You just did with the students the same things that your teachers did with you.

But if one of us is expecting instructions like Lesson 1, do this and this... Lesson 2, do that and the other... Well, it's just not there. It's expected that the text itself contains all the materials needed for the teacher to figure it out.

So what does a modern homeschooler do who wishes to use these texts? Well, we mostly cast about online looking for advice from other homeschoolers who've tried to use these texts; failing that, we improvise. For example, my wife figured out how to work the McGuffey Readers we have into our five-year-old's curriculum. Basically, she had our girl work on the new vocabulary from each lesson until she could do it on her own, then she would have her read the text passage; and this would repeat a few times on consecutive days until she could do the whole reading flawlessly. But notice--Tonya wasn't so much following a lesson plan, at least not formally; she was following a heuristic more than anything else. She had a notion of what she wanted to get done, and she just muddled through. The books themselves were not self-documenting curricula.

Old Blue-Back appears to be the same kind of text, in that it expects that people who use it already have a notion of how they want to use it; the trouble is it's a bit harder for a beginning homeschooler to pick it up, read through it, and develop that notion. It starts with pronunciation guides for all the letters and digraphs, followed by a syllabary--describing the pronunciation rules for entire syllables. This is not the way phonics is usually taught these days! My wife and I had never heard of this approach before becoming more acquainted with Old Blue-Back, even though it appears to have been the standard way of teaching phonics for a really, really long time in our history.

And truth be told, there's a lot of contradictory and confusing advice out there on how to use these resources. As I mentioned in my comment above, the Bluedorns (at Trivium Pursuit) don't recommend using Blue-Back for the teaching of phonics at all, as the phonetic rules have changed somewhat since the late 18th century; but they do recommend it for teaching grammar, spelling, and other stuff--but only starting at age 10. Don Potter, on the other hand, affirms its use for phonics instruction for everyone from kindergarteners on. But neither of these recommends the 1908 printing that was handed down to us from Tonya's great-grandmother, preferring a re-transcribed 1824 edition instead.

So, Tonya and I are strongly considering working out some kind of plan that incorporates Old Blue-Back, as the Adrenaline Junkie (now age 3) eventually becomes ready to start reading. But we're wondering: are there any others out there reading this, especially among the homeschooling community, who've taken a crack at teaching from this book? How did it work out for you? Any advice--things you'd recommend we do, things you'd recommend we avoid? Are you still using this book, or did you give up and start doing something else?

I realize that you'll just be throwing more contradictory and confusing data on the pile, but we're curious nonetheless. :-)


Anna said...

I read quite often, but I think I don't comment because you've said things so well.

I am intrigued by the syllabary, because my 5yo isn't so great at breaking big words down into those pieces. Although, I suppose that might just be a matter of exposure and practice.

Currently, we're doing two books a week, just reading once every day. I don't even really supervise that much. I was getting level three readers for her, and those were too difficult, apparently.
Then we also have informal reading for fun and a read-aloud chapter book.

See? No help. I will try to comment more, anyway.

ElizabethB said...

"The trouble is that these books do not provide what we moderns refer to as lesson plans. My wife's theory is that educators of days gone by didn't need lesson plans to use these books, because they had themselves been trained on them (or similar texts) and just knew what needed to be done."

Your wife's probably right. Webster's is actually very simple once you get used to it. And, if you were in a one-room schoolhouse, you'd see it taught every year, so there would be no need for a manual. So: simple method, see it every year, no teacher's manual necessary.

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to figure all this out myself right now. My soon-to-be 5 year old has just finished "Teach Your Child to Read in 100...". He's reading pretty well, but I'm feeling a need to go back and do a more thorough and systematic method. I'm reading Margaret Bishop's "ABC's and all their Tricks" right now. Very good book. I'm trying to find a way to create a method without having to buy yet another book. Webster's book keeps coming up in different sites that I find. You might find this helpful in figuring out how to implement it. If you're not familiar with that website, you might find it fun to explore all the information and help that Christine Miller has there.

Kay Pelham

Linda said...

I just discovered this post and your blog. It is good to read that someone else has the same questions and musings about McGuffey Readers.

I have both sets -- the 1836 and the 1879. I have wondered for many months just how to use them on a daily basis with my first grade daughter.

Mott Media publishes some workbooks, of which I purchased the first two in the reading series. I didn't like them because they seemed totally unrelated to the McGuffey Readers. I saw very little that had to do with the McGuffey reading selection. The workbooks were mostly excersises to trace, speak, and spell various phonetic rules.

The parent-teacher guide by Ruth Beechick is good, but it only describes in general what you could do. I, like you and your wife, would like a daily lesson plan for these readers. A plan that covers all the bases with each lesson: spelling, reading, handwriting, comprehension, etc. And I would like the lesson plan to directly relate to the reading selection. I have searched and searched and find that there is nothing out there.

I've asked people how they use them, at other online discussion groups such as The Well Trained Mind, but most people just use them for reading only. And there are many people posting their sets for sale, which leads me to wonder if they gave up trying to figure out how to use these books in a manner that covers more than just reading.

I think that anyone who owns a set of the McGuffey Readers knows without question that they are superior in vocabulary, literary quality, and moral tone, and they desire to use them. So do I. But without some practical daily plan that covers all the basic language arts skills, I don't know how to fully utilize them. I have a fear of using them in a "flying by the seat of my pants" manner, thereby failing to cover all the skills I am supposed to teach.

To be without a plan for these wonderful books is a lingering problem for me. Have you come across anything to help teach these books yet?

Thank you for your post!!!


Anonymous said...

Well....I have my grandmother's 1908 edition (she says it is a reproduction of the book she used but it doesn't look like one- it really looks like it's from 1908) In any case, here is what she inscribed in the book to me: "We had to write from dictation the sentences and stories on the pages after we had the spelling lesson" But that is all. She didn't describe the lesson to me. I think they went over the words together orally at the beginning of the week. After that, I don't know. I will check with my 80+ yr old cousin who was also a school teacher and see if she has any ideas. We have tried Spelling Workout but it just isn't working. They don't spell as well as they should. They are 10 and 9. Both have "used" the blue back with their dollies to teach and really like the book. So I will try winging and dinging as I call it, check with my cousin, and let you know how it goes. Sorry I can't be more help!

Anonymous said...

The Eclectic Manual of Methods is the 'teachers guide' for McGuffey's revised readers and speller, Ray's arithmetic, and Harvey's grammar. There aren't lesson plans, but it does walk you through a couple lessons, then you just continue on, following the pattern with the new material in the reader. It includes directions on teaching both a phonics method and a combination phonics/whole word method. It does not teach reading with a syllablery or with the speller, you begin the speller when you start the third reader.

Anonymous said...

I am a Special Education Teacher and private tutor. I plan to home-school my own children when my husband and I get them. The family I tutor is a home-school family. I use the McGuffy readers, Harvey's Grammar and the BlueBack Speller with them and plant o with my own little ones. This is what I do, or plan to do depending:
I do reading instruction with one student. We use the Blue back Speller. He reads the words I assign him, i often split a page into pieces. 1 lesson at a time, but now the lessons are longer, more than one page, so I Break the page apart and tell him to practice the top or the bottom. He read columns or rows, alternating each day, 2 or 3 times per day. Now that he is on to difficult long vowels, he also sorts them writing into different long vowel patterns. I do a short informal spelling test every few weeks to make sure he is getting what he is working on. If he misses to many, then we work on it longer. He reads the list, or part of it to me each time I come (1 x per week) and if he is struggling with it, or longer words int he text we are reading together, then we review the retentive syllables. Mostly he only needs to review the c and g lines
I use the reader and grammar for the writing lessons I do. The best way to learning to write well, is to read good writing. SO they read the assigned text, McGuffey or other classic text, the they write about it. Currently they are using evidence form the text to support their statements. The hard part is to not move to fast with different writing lessons. We have been using evidence from the text for months now, but they are finally getting it!! They are both early elementary school, 1 and 3 or 2 and 4 grades, i forget. They are reading the 3rd reader. It is to difficult for them to read on their own, but they read with their mom and they do enjoy the stories and novels I assign. The Grammar I use with all my students, older ones are middle school level. We just do 1 lesson per week or 2 or 3, till they get it, with the younger ones, then they apply it by writing sentences or including it in their paragraph writing. The older ones were doing 1 lesson per day of homework (4 days per week), but now we are doing about 2 lessons per week. I explain what I need to, and let them read the rest. If they don't understand, they wait until I come back next week and we go over it together. Most of the time it is just a misunderstanding of the directions, but sometimes they don't understand the concept. I don't do much additional practice for them, but once per month or 2 they write an explanation of something they have learned. They are encouraged to use the book as reference. I have reprint copies or blue back and grammar from Mott, I hope to get the readers with the Eclectic Manual of Methods soon, next year perhaps. They just do the reading on their kindle, and me too.
With my other kids, I plan to do something similar, I will also use rays arithmetic, which I already bought in print. I plan to start the blue back speller, reader, and arithmetic books for my main curriculum. I use the readers to support other areas as relevant. I just read the stories before they do and have them answer questions that pertain to the piece. we were identifying the moral of the story, and other writing skills. I am glad to see that other people are using these books too, I have seen great growth in my students with them. O, by the way, I don't use any of them in my classroom, because we have mandated cruciclum, and it would not make any sense to my students :)

Kristen Daniels said...

I used McGuffey Eclectic Readers to teach my first four children to read. It worked really well with three of my four boys that were taught on these readers. I basically flew by the seat of my pants, and it worked well. When McGuffey didn't work for one of my first four, I abandoned ship, and I looked for something else (in desperation) to help this struggling child read well. He reads, but once words get long, he really struggles. I am intrigued by the syllabary approach mentioned about the Blue Back Speller. I wonder if it would help him. He has audio processing issues, and difficulty tracking verbal conversation. We will have him tested for Audio Processing Disorder soon as he seems to fit the profile. I will look up the videos by Potter about how to use the syllabary. I haven't made the purchase yet, as I tire of spending money on things I hope will help that end up being a waste.