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:
Incidentally, the post of mine she's referring to is here. Anyway, I responded to her with the following:
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...
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...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.
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.
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. :-)