kitchen table math, the sequel: Chris can spell!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Chris can spell!

update: Here is Mary Damer on masked deficits & poor spelling in high-performing students.

Some of you who've been reading and writing ktm from the beginning may remember Chris's "psychotic" spelling as a 4th grader.

Well, great news: Chris can spell. I suspect he's still not spelling as well as I probably did at his age, but his spelling is completely 'within the realm,' if you know what I mean, and you probably do.

I've been thinking lately about the issue of how much you can learn about writing (and spelling) just from reading, and I think the answer is that you can learn a great deal ultimately. I say that with the caveat that school reading needs to be guided by a teacher and needs to be systematically increased in difficulty.

Those conditions have been true for Chris, who has taken all Honors and AP courses in high school, and who says he's done all the reading in his classes. The reading load in Honors/AP courses is pretty hefty, the books are quite difficult, and a teacher leads the way.

We worked our way through Megawords Grade 6, which helped tremendously, and Chris's high school reading and writing took him the rest of the way.

His handwriting still stinks, however, although it's better than it was. (Takes me back to our summer adventures with Write Now. Chris's handwriting didn't improve, but mine did.)

the Megawords posts at ktm, the sequel

from the "blooki" index:


    Catherine Johnson said...

    For all of you parents of little ones, it's worth reading Mary Damer's observations on masked deficits and spelling in high-SES kids.

    Chris is a very strong reader; he's one of those kids who 'taught himself to read.'

    And yet he couldn't spell --- and, in 4th grade, at precisely the moment when books begin to use polysyllabic words, he suddenly stopped reading.

    I think I've written posts about this in the past; will track them down.

    I've discussed what happened with Mary; I've asked whether Chris was in danger, at that point, of becoming a non-reader (or a not-very-motivated reader...)

    She thinks he probably was.

    H learned to read via balanced literacy, he had a VERY good memory (which makes me think he was probably memorizing a fair number of words), and his spelling was horrifically bad. Nor could he sound out simple two-syllable nonsense words.

    I believe that Megawords, along with his 5th grade teacher, who had the kids cover up syllables in words and read each syllable, probably put him back on track.

    At the time, I thought I was teaching him to spell because the school hadn't taught spelling.

    After I learned a little something about the connection between reading and spelling, I began to think I was actually teaching him to read: I was remediating deficits I didn't know he had.

    Catherine Johnson said...


    If your child can't spell, you should assume s/he has masked deficits in reading, too. Reading and spelling are extremely closely linked:

    1997 Ehri, L. Learning to read and learning to spell are one and the same, almost. In C. Perfetti, L. Rieben, & Fayol, M. (Eds.), Learning to Spell: Research, Theory and Practice Across Languages(pp. 237-269). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Fortunately, spelling **can** be remediated/taught at home - and quite easily, too (at least for kids who don't have specific problems with reading & spelling...)

    Megawords I think is quite good --- and I think Phyllis McGuinness may have a good program on the market now (?)

    I **do** think, based in my n-of-1 experience, that kids 'pick up' spellings as they go --- but absolutely wouldn't take it for granted that really bad spelling will disappear by high school graduation. That is clearly not the case, as I know from working with the writing of brainy high school seniors.

    Catherine Johnson said...

    btw, I don't know what the consensus of the field is ---

    Nevertheless, I think the safest bet is to assume that researchers who believe that spelling and reading are closely related are correct.

    (One of these days I will finally delve into the literature on dyslexia.)

    ChemProf said...


    Absolutely. I think I've told the story of my first research student before, a very bright biochem major. She got a low C in biochem (after A's in organic) because of exactly this kind of problem. She was an early reader who basically memorized words, but really only read the first 3-4 letters. So she couldn't keep what she called the "glys" straight - glycine, glycolysis, glycogen, etc. all looked the same to her. She really needed explicit phonics, but no one noticed early enough.

    Anonymous said...

    I had probably read Mary Damer's post at some point but having spent the last year tracking down what is really coming down the pipeline with Common Core, it was so much more meaningful now. Thanks for reposting.

    OSU is home base for Marie Clay's work and Fountas and Pinnell are her successors. Heavily involved with where Common Core is going.

    It seems so long ago now that I was trying to figure out why Marie Clay refused to adjust her reading methods in light of definitive research and declared NCLB would simply change how she described her work.

    Thanks Catherine for keeping these records. That generation Damer is describing as college students were the victims of the previous go-around of national ed "reform" actually designed to gut academics via things like SCANS and School to Work and Goals 2000. Whole Language was a part of a much broader, underappreciated agenda.

    As was PISA by the way.

    And the reason TIMSS shifted from that "T" meaning third to signifying trends. It became an international monitoring device to see how the bad ideas were proliferating.

    2012 will be enlightening.

    Crimson Wife said...

    My middle brother is a good reader but a poor speller. His mistakes are almost always things like silent letters, mixing up phonemes with the same sound (f vs. ph), or using the wrong vowel digraph. He was taught reading via phonics but the school we attended taught spelling via the "memorize a list of twenty words seemingly chosen at random" approach. I don't know if Megawords would've been the best program for him (I'm thinking Avko's Sequential Spelling might have been better as he's a visio-spatial learner) but the school's approach was absolutely the worst :-(

    Catherine Johnson said...

    I just found the original post about Chris suddenly losing interest in reading in 4th grade.

    I don't know what reading scientists have to say about teaching syllables as opposed to phonics.

    At this point, if I had to guess, I'd guess that when a child learns phonics -- synthetic phonics, phonics taught correctly -- he probably naturally moves on to reading polysyllabic words.

    In other words, the Megawords may be based on an incorrect premise.

    When I found Megawords, I had no idea Chris hadn't been taught phonics as a Kindergarten student. I just took it for granted that he had.

    I still don't know what they used for sure, but I assume it was some variant of balanced literacy. The district uses Fountas & Pinnell today.

    It's possible that what Megawords really did was teach phonics -- or reteach phonics with sufficient practice.

    Megawords is also a vocabulary program (though I don't remember vocab instruction being the intention).

    In any event, over the years that we used it, Chris made steady progress. (I used the Schonell spelling test to see where he was.)

    Catherine Johnson said...

    fyi: I think I misremembered the number of books we got through. I think we used the series all through middle school....and I think the series goes through sophomore year in high school. (This is all from memory, so take it with a grain of salt.)

    His spelling has improved tremendously in high school.

    Which brings us back to reading: his middle school assigned very little reading, and what reading they did do in English class was far below Chris's level (and sometimes below grade level).

    His spelling started to improve 'naturally' once he was doing a great deal of challenging reading supervised by a teacher (i.e. assigned, whole class reading).

    Catherine Johnson said...

    chemprof - that is an amazing story


    I'm putting that up front.

    Jean said...

    That 4th-grade slump in reading is described by Susan Wise Bauer pretty often. I guess it's pretty common for a bright kid to 'teach herself to read' (my girl did this too), but really is just very good at guessing from the beginnings of words. When reading gets more difficult in 4th grade, the child quits or gets whiny, unable to articulate the fact that she can't do it anymore.

    The remedy is to put the child through an intensive phonics course, often under the guise of a spelling course (so the kid doesn't get embarrassed about doing the same thing as his 6yo brother), but yeah, it has to happen sooner rather than later. Chemprof's story is so sad.

    I'm glad you rescued Chris when he needed it!

    palisadesk said...

    A propos of the “Fourth Grade Slump,” it can occur for several, quite different, reasons. Kids who have learned to read with solid synthetic phonics can still experience difficulty when they have to decode multisyllable words (Catherine, your hypothesis that “ I'd guess that when a child learns phonics -- synthetic phonics, phonics taught correctly -- he probably naturally moves on to reading polysyllabic words. “ is not borne out by the evidence). Even in the famous Clackmannanshire study (where all the students were taught a systematic phonics approach similar to Jolly Phonics), a number of students had to be specifically taught how to read multisyllable words in Year Four. They developed a program called “Phonics Revisted” to deal with this. It included, IIRC, learning to segment multisyllable words, some morphemic strategies, and emphasis on less common correspondences. Unfortunately the Clackmannanshire report doesn't provide many details.

    However, the Clackmannanshire study only replicates what has been found on this side of the pond as well. Many students who are good decoders, because they have learned (or intuited) basic phonics skills, come to a screeching halt at mutisyllable words especially, as in examples by Allison and Chemprof, scientific terminology. These skills can be systematically taught, of course. Megawords is one way to go about it, but I found that, because it was Orton-Gillingham based and depended on a student's ability to learn and apply rules, many students could not benefit from it. An easier but reliable intervention (I recommend it to parents out there as well) is REWARDS from Sopris West – there is an “intermediate” version for students in grades 4-6, and a “Secondary” version for secondary school. The only difference is in the vocabulary used – the secondary book has much more adult terminology and reading passages. You can buy it directly from the company, or (often) pick it up used on E-Bay or homeschoolers sites. Highly recommended.

    Another group that is affected by the “Fourth Grade Slump” is the one mentioned – the sight word memorizers who cannot continue adding the needed words to their memory bank. These kids do need a thorough phonics overhaul (whereas the previous group does not – only needs extension of what they already know). Corrective Reading, from SRA, is good for this age group. While SRA won't sell to parents (see Catherine's horror story), you can easily pick up the needed materials on E-Bay.

    The last group, which Jeannette Chall discusses in some detail, are students whose language skills generally are weak and who thus cannot make the jump from reading simple, literal text to more complex material, even when they decode well. While vocabulary is often mentioned as the key factor, I have not found this to be the case. Language comprehension generally – understanding of complex syntax, subordinate clauses, connecting words, subjunctive, pronoun referents, temporal sequence, idiomatic expressions – the list goes on. There are some good DI programs for developing the needed language skills, but this kind of “Fourth Grade Slump” requires a more long-term approach.

    Jen said...

    Excellent points and suggestions. In the urban district I'm in, in the "high poverty" schools (90+%), your third difficulty is a huge sticking point. While many kids do fall into the first two categories (and I know they do use Corrective Reading, at least in some schools), the third is huge for almost all of them.

    That is, even the kids who can decode don't have much language comprehension. If you aren't exposed to complex syntax, you aren't going to learn about it reading your canned curriculum materials. Unfortunately that curriculum and its pacing schedule leave little room, even at the elementary level, for reading as an enjoyable activity.

    That's the killer for me, seeing kids who have really never been read to, never seen adults enjoying reading and whose exposure to reading at school focuses solely on the "rules." Not only the rules of phonics, but the rules as they experience them of reading. That experience involves stopping every few sentences for the teacher to ask questions about character, tone, main ideas, vocabulary, etc.

    There are many kids who really don't understand that reading can be something that you *want* to do, not something that is a chore.

    The only thing that I see enticing older elementary kids are graphic novels, which is at least a start.

    Allison said...

    palisadesk, can you explain this?

    "because [Megawords] was Orton-Gillingham based and depended on a student's ability to learn and apply rules, many students could not benefit from it. An easier but reliable intervention (I recommend it to parents out there as well) is REWARDS from Sopris West "

    If you don't learn to apply the rules, how does it work? what is systematic about learning to read polysyllabic words if it's not rule based, or do I misunderstand something fundamental?

    K9Sasha said...

    REWARDS is a way of teaching the parts of words and then putting them together to read the whole word. Students work on vowel sounds, both single vowels and vowel digraphs, as well as prefixes, suffixes, and roots. They are taught how to sound out each word part and blend them into a whole. There are a couple of fun exercises where students try to deduce words the teacher says incorrectly, the point being that students are getting practice in figuring out the correct word when they make mistakes sounding out a word while while they're reading (using a long vowel sound instead of a short one, for instance). It is a completely scripted program with a lot of student practice.

    Allison said...

    okay, but O-G teaches vowel sounds, word parts, roots, prefixes, suffixes--you derive which vowel sound from the rule, etc. or in other words, how do you work on those things without rules? what other option do you have?

    palisadesk said...

    I was trained in Orton-Gillingham initially and used an O-G program for several years. It is thorough but very, very slow to show benefits, especially when the students are not getting additional support at home. I found that at least half the students I taught made minimal progress with it – they couldn’t learn the rules, remember the rules, apply the rules – after all, memory of various kinds was often a problem, and lower-ability (I don’t mean cognitively impaired) children simply could not reliably apply these rules, IF they remembered them, and never gained any automaticity with the syllable types, vowel rules, etc. despite the practice provided.

    I know many parents and tutors who have had excellent results with O-G in tutoring situations, and I have family members who have gone to O-G (private) schools, with similar results. But the outcomes for O-G programs in public school settings have been underwhelming, for a variety of reasons. The Florida Center for Reading Research is guarded in evaluating its effectiveness. The International Dyslexia Association (of which I'm a member) is well aware of the limited research support and is working to fill that gap now.

    When DI came along, it was like night and day. My students reliably made 2-4 years’ progress in an academic year – bright kids learned faster, as you would expect, but all kids made solid progress, and achieved mastery and automaticity. Kids with cognitive disabilities would make over a year’s progress in a year. DI reading does not use any rules either, and REWARDS operates in a similar way.

    Correspondences are taught, the skill of blending the sounds (or syllables) together is taught to mastery, the students learn to adjust the pronunciation as needed if it doesn’t sound right. No vowel rules or syllable rules are taught. In REWARDS, students learn to try first the vowel sound, then the vowel name, in sounding out a word (so no need for open and closed syllables). If they sound out “label” as “labble”, they are taught to try the vowel name as the second choice , and get “label.” This strategy works very well, and no need to teach even “long” and “short” vowel terminology. Most students I have put through REWARDS showed a 2-5 year improvement in their reading (fluency was also measured).

    There is a long history of successful reading (and some spelling) programs that do not depend on rules and applications, going back to the linguistic phonics programs in the 60’s and 70’s and extending to some of the popular linguistic phonics programs from the UK today. I’m not an instructional design specialist so my terminology may not be correct, but I would describe the non-rule-based approach as one of teaching specific skills and alternatives to mastery in a context of learning common correspondences and patterns. Perhaps it is better described as an inductive approach. Whatever, it is empirically shown to work with a greater cross-section of the population. The evidence of effectiveness for DI reading is comprehensive over many decades.

    Where spelling is concerned, even some very bright students seem unable to learn AND apply spelling “rules;” DI spelling approaches (like Spelling Through Morphographs) keeps these to a bare minimum and provides a lot of patterned practice – marrying the inductive and deductive elements. Sequential Spelling is a completely non-rule-based pattern approach (with a morphemic basis) but I found it required too much time to implement effectively in school, though I know homeschoolers who are very pleased with it.

    I recommend REWARDS (and DI programs) to parents both for their ease of use and their efficacy. Although, as Catherine has described, SRA won’t sell to parents, these programs are easily found online elsewhere, usually for a reasonable fee. Hint: Don’t write in the workbooks you purchase. Get plastic page protectors, and have the child write on those, then you can resell your set pretty much for what you paid for it.

    Catherine Johnson said...

    Many students who are good decoders, because they have learned (or intuited) basic phonics skills, come to a screeching halt at mutisyllable words especially

    palisadesk - thanks so much for confirming this!

    I picked up on Megawords before I'd delved into any of this....and today, of course, I look back and wonder whether the marketing papers that sold me on the curriculum were correct.

    Whatever was going on with Chris, it is absolutely the case that he taught himself to read, then abruptly stopped reading at the exact point the words in books became multi-syllabic; it's the case, absolutely, that he couldn't sound out a two-syllable nonsense word. (I wish I'd tested him directly on one-syllable nonsense words -- I have a vague memory he may not have been great at that, either.)

    After we started Megawords AND he got a fantastically good 5th grade teacher who had the kids cover up each syllable in words and read out loud syllable by syllable he became a reader again and has never stumbled since. His reading scores have been very high ever since.

    (Since we may have some passers-by, I'm going to repeat here the fact that he scored one 800 on SAT reading. He was up in the 98th or 99th percentile on the ISEE exam in 7th grade, too I think it's important to know that a student scoring at the top of the SAT and the ISEE could not read multisyllabic words in 5th grade AND stopped reading until he had direct instruction in multisyllabic words.)

    Catherine Johnson said...

    Just so I don't seem to be boasting (too much), I'll report, AGAIN, that Chris has only a 620 on SAT math.

    He is way underachieving **for his ability** in math, and that is due to the math education he has had -- or, more to the point, the math education he has NOT had.

    I remember years ago saying that gifted kids will do "fine" without good curriculum and teaching, something Allison instantly corrected me on (and reminded me I didn't even believe!)

    I guess I'd have to say Chris is gifted in....reading...(do we even have a category for 'gifted in reading'?)

    Anyway, he has some kind of natural gift for something to do with words and reading --- and yet, in 5th grade, he could not read a simple, two-syllable nonsense word. (Not easily, anyway.)

    He is not gifted in math, but he has strong native ability to learn any academic subject, and his math skills and knowledge should be far ahead of where they are now.

    Catherine Johnson said...

    btw, I realize I'm off-topic for this thread, but it bears repeating: if I had it to do over again, I would have started Chris in Singapore Math on Day One; I would NEVER have left it to our public school (or our Jesuit high school) to teach him math.

    Also, I would figure out a way to hire math tutors -- private math teachers -- by the time Chris got to....algebra, I think.

    Catherine Johnson said...

    children simply could not reliably apply these rules, IF they remembered them, and never gained any automaticity with the syllable types, vowel rules, etc. despite the practice provided

    Interesting that you say that.

    I have the sense that Chris's spelling really moved ahead in high school, not with Megawords. That may be wrong, and I don't in any way regret using Megawords,...but I have a perception of striking progress during the high school years, not the Megawords years. (I could be wrong - this is an impression.)

    Catherine Johnson said...

    btw, this is something I've been thinking about, teaching my college composition class.

    At some point I'll find time to write about it.

    I **do** think, now, students can learn a tremendous amount of spelling and grammar specifically from assigned reading. (Assigned reading, as opposed to reading students choose for themselves.)

    I speculate that something like the same processes that allow a baby to pick up language still operates when it comes to picking up **written** language (and spelling).

    I'll have to get Katharine Beals to brief me in on changes to language-learning at adolescence....

    Catherine Johnson said...

    btw, I'm not endorsing the idea that we should have students learn spelling and grammar via assigned reading. I don't think we should.

    I'm saying that typical students, at least, can and do learn a lot of written grammar and spelling via assigned reading.

    Catherine Johnson said...

    palisadesk is right: there are ways to get the SRA books. (I remember reading something on the DI list suggesting that SRA was going to make it easier??)

    Maybe not.

    Catherine Johnson said...

    To use Megawords correctly, you'd need to be constantly reviewing the rules and lessons -- you'd need lots of practice. Shuffled, cumulative practice.

    We just death-marched through the books; I was pretty much dragging Chris through those books by the hair on his scalp -- !

    Catherine Johnson said...

    That 4th-grade slump in reading is described by Susan Wise Bauer pretty often.


    I wish to heck I'd read her way back when.

    Every time I came across the 4th grade slump, it was described as a phenomenon affecting specifically disadvantaged children.

    When I saw it in my own child, I didn't know what to think -- and I always felt as if I was maybe exaggerating what I was seeing in Chris.

    I'll tell you: I spent the years of Chris's middle childhood having virtually everyone around me -- everyone except the folks at kitchen table math -- treating me as if I was a nut!

    Looking back, my only real regret is that I wasn't nutty enough ----

    (This is reminding me of Jack Donaghy, on 30 Rock, in the hospital with a heart attack, telling Lemon that he regrets not having worked enough. Very funny scene.)

    Catherine Johnson said...

    I would love to know what was going on with Chris. I don't even know what reading program they used with him, though I assume it was some variant of balanced literacy (especially given his horrific spelling).

    He certainly could have been a prodigious sight-word memorizer, given our autism genes (which I assume, but DON'T KNOW, can be connected to a strong ability to memorize material).

    fyi: Chris's twin Andrew, who is autistic, can read -- although what exactly I mean by 'can read,' I don't know. Nevertheless, he certainly can read individual words, lots of them.

    He was taught to read using Edmark, which is entirely visual (right?), and has practically no ability to understand spoken speech (or to produce spoken speech).

    And yet...back in 2001, he was spelling out "Osamy" and "Somaly" on the refrigerator in refrigerator magnets.

    Those are phonetic spellings, right?

    Chris has always had an amazing memory -- amazing meaning rapid, I think.

    I did, too, as a kid.

    I probably still do. A few years ago, I complained to my doctor that my memory wasn't as good as it had been. She gave me an impromptu memory test, and I missed nothing. (I think it was the short form of the Mental Status exam.)

    I even got the name-the-presidents-in-reverse question right.

    Everyone misses that one, she said.

    I'm way off topic now, but I think writers probably have extremely good memories -- at least, I think I've observed that over the years.

    Catherine Johnson said...

    otoh, I could not for the life of me come up with the word "collage" yesterday.

    Kept coming up with "entourage."

    Had to have Chris figure it out.

    Allison said...


    " If they sound out “label” as “labble”, they are taught to try the vowel name as the second choice , and get “label.” This strategy works very well, and no need to teach even “long” and “short” vowel terminology. Most students I have put through REWARDS showed a 2-5 year improvement in their reading (fluency was also measured)."

    interesting! So they are connecting the word to something they've heard, something they already comprehend (aurally or orally?), is that the idea? How much other or additional instruction is needed in getting these words said out loud for your students, do you think? Do you do something special in the classroom for these kids if they are ELLs, or otherwise won't hear/won't have heard these words at home? Does it seem to you that if they can connect the syllables to words they've heard, then they are implicitly learning the rules? Or is it a kind of "sound words" rather than sight words for them--they can now read anyword they've heard?

    My personal experience with names and with various other languages is similar to this--again, I can't really remember words/names I can't "hear" myself say properly; at some point, I'd listened to enough educated people speak the names of Greeks from antiquity out loud that I finally figured out how to read/pronounce a Greek name written down in front of me by trying it and then getting some sense that "aha! this is that name I've heard".