by S. Farnham-Diggory
Dr. S. Farnham-Diggory is the former H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Educational Studies and Psychology,
and Director of the Reading Study Center, and of the Academic Study and Assistance Program, University of Delaware.
Teach the child what is of use to a child, Rousseau said, and
you will find that it takes all his time.
What is of use to a child interested in reading is explicit instruction in how the written language works-
how it represents the sounds of speech, how it is produced with tools like pencils and chalk, how it signifies words and ideas.
A program-specifically, the Spalding program-that provides such instruction absorbs children to an astonishing degree.
It does indeed take all their time, or as much of it as teachers will allow.
This is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Spalding program, its motivating power. This tells a psychologist like myself that Spalding has fully engaged the natural learning dispositions of the mind. We see this routinely in the child's devotion
to the task of learning to talk. Learning to read by the Spalding method inspires a similar devotion.
Reading ability is not, however, neurologically prewired the way spoken language ability is.
A pervasive error in current reading instructional theory is that children will inductively discover the rules of
the written language if they are immersed in a written language environment (Goodman & Goodman, 1979; Smith, 1971).
Children do, of course, discover the rules of their spoken language through simple immersion-but that is because their brains
are prewired for speech. Their brains are not prewired for reading. Left to their own inductive devices,
the vast majority of children will not discover how the written language works. What they discover is that they do not understand how it works. And of course they think that is their own fault.
One of the most heartbreaking sights in American schools today is that of children-once so eager to read-discovering that they are not learning how. There comes over those sparkling eyes a glaze of listless despair. We are not talking here about a few
children and scattered schools. We are talking about millions of children and every school in the nation. And the toll in young spirits is the least of it. The toll in the learning and thinking potential of our citizenry is beyond measure.
The reason for this catastrophe is straightforward: American citizens are not learning to read because they are not being taught how to read. The research evidence on this point is unequivocal. A good summary of it can be found in the 1985 report of a
Commission on Reading that was convened by the National Academy of Education. The report is called "Becoming a Nation of Readers."
Fundamentally, the instructional disaster must be laid at the feet of the basal reader establishment, a billion-dollar industry that supplies every teacher and every pupil with a scheduled sequence of reading materials and lessons. The per pupil costs
and profits are astronomical. As in the case of many industries, the tobacco industry, for example,
profits are not tied to healthful outcomes, they are tied to sales, and to anything legal that promotes sales.
The fact that most people are not learning how to read does not deter basal sales. School systems simply switch
basals, even on a statewide basis, which makes the sales game pretty exciting. But few systems have dared
face the fact that none of the basals is effective.
This is not the place to present a detailed critique of the basals, but in summary the problem is that
they have lost touch (a) with the basic principles of skill acquisition; and (b) with the nature of
the reading process. Details on these points may be found in "Becoming a Nation of Readers," and in other
analyses by Isabel Beck (1981) of the Learning Research and Development Center-another federally
supported R & D institution-at the University of Pittsburgh. A pervasive problem, for example,
is that basal programs do not provide sufficient practice. A reading assignment may not even incorporate
a rule that was just taught. If you understand how skill development works, and how reading works, you can
easily see where the basals go wrong and where the Spalding program does not. Let me explain what I mean.
Reading and Spelling Processes
Over the past fifteen years, theories of reading have rapidly evolved from
simple stimulus-response notions to complex connectionist models that are represented as computer simulations
(Gough, 1972; Rumelhart, 1977; Rummelhart and McClelland, 1981). In the early 1970s, we thought of reading
as a linear process: See a letter (or a piece of a letter), put it together with other letters, formulate the word,
recall the meaning of the word, hold that in mind, formulate another word, put all the words together and compute a new meaning,
and so on. These theories were not very satisfactory, because it was intuitively obvious
that reading did not work like that. Sometimes, for example, we see a word we expect to see
instead of the word that is really there. By the end of the 1970s, reading theory had evolved
from linear forms to parallel forms: many processes are now considered to go on at the same time
during reading. You are forming expectations, recalling earlier concepts, picking up print,
organizing syntax, checking inferences, and so forth, more or less simultaneously.
Reading is, in other words, now recognized as a complex skill-which means that it requires
coordination of a number of subskills, just as piano-playing or basketball does.
The core reading subskill is forming connections between speech and print. More technically,
this comes down to connections between specific speech units called phonemes, and specific letters
that represent them. For example, the letter p represents the phoneme /p/.
Spoken words are sequences of phonemes. Different words are made up of different sequences of
phonemes. Since letters represent phonemes, a different sequence of phonemes will be represented
by a different sequence of letters. That is the fundamental literary principle in all languages
that use alphabetic systems, and it has to be thoroughly mastered.
However, a serious theoretical error currently pervades many American systems of reading
instruction. It is that phoneme-letter correspondences cannot be or should not be taught in
isolation because they do not exist in isolation. Phonemes change slightly from word to word.
The phoneme /p/ as pronounced in the word pot will have more air behind it than the same
phoneme as pronounced in the words spot or top. The phonemes would look different
on a spectrograph. From this fact, the conclusion was incorrectly drawn that isolated phonemes
should not be taught as such because they do not exist in "pure" form.
As a result, many reading programs tell children something like this: "This letter b
is the first sound in the word boy." The teacher is instructed never to pronounce that
phoneme in isolation. The results have been disastrous. It is simply not clear to most children
what they are supposed to be learning. They do not know exactly what that letter b stands for,
and the confusion increases as more and more phonemes are taught by this implicit (as it is
The children's confusion has given rise to a second theoretical error: the belief that children cannot hear phonemes in
words-that they cannot analyze the sound pattern of a word. Of course they can if they know what they are supposed to be
Analogous theoretical errors would arise if we never taught colors in isolation,
on grounds that colors never exist in isolation, but are always a property of some object,
and are slightly different in each
case. You could point to the sky and say, "That is blue" and "Blue is what the rug is"
and "Blue is what your mother's eyes are," and so on. You would soon have a thoroughly confused child, and you might well come to the erroneous conclusion that some children cannot see bl
ue-they cannot analyze colors of objects.
In fact, it only takes a child a minute or so to learn from a color chip what color is called blue. He can then easily categorize objects as blue, even though he never again sees any blue as pure as the color chip, or, indeed, ever sees any two
blues that are exactly the same.
Similarly, children can easily learn isolated phonemes, and once they have learned them,
they can easily identify them in words. Once they understand what they are supposed to be
listening for, they can readily categorize a wide range of /p/ sounds as all being
represented by the same letter p. The research evidence on this point is absolutely
beyond dispute (Groff, 1977; Hohn and Ehri, 1983; Smith and Tager-Flusberg, 1982;
Treiman, 1985; Treiman and Baron, 1983).
The fact is that human brains are prewired for categorizing sensory inputs. A sound does
not have to be exactly like another sound for a child to recognize that the same symbol
stands for it. We could not function on this planet if our brains did not have the ability to
categorize a range of sensory inputs, and thus recognize that the same rule applies to them.
Once you have heard one sabertooth growl, you had better believe you have heard them all.
This, then, is the core reading subskill. You have to learn which letters represent which phonemes in English. You do not have to learn every single letter-sound unit, but you need a substantial "working set." In every complex skill, there is a similar
working set of basic units that have to be learned-feet positions in ballet, for example-out of which higher-order units can then be constructed. We can call the working set of letter-phoneme units the first-order skills of literacy.
Second-order skills refer to the fact that words are not random collections of
phoneme-letter units. Some units are strongly associated with others; some units preclude
the appearance of others, and so on. The skilled reader and speller knows these rules. A good instructor will teach them explicitly. It is true that second order rules are implicit in words, and that if you simply memorized many words you will have ingested some second-order rules as well. But you will not have control of them.
One of the golden oldies of learning psychology is that rules are applied most extensively and efficiently if they are
verbalizable. Once you can say what a rule is, you have maximally flexible use of it. The well-instructed literate will be able to articulate both first-order and second-order rules, as well as express them in behavior.
One interesting neurologically based difference between reading and spelling, however, is that the second-order skills of spelling are different in format from those of reading. When you spell, you activate your rule-knowledge sequentially. When you read, you activate it wholistically-you see a whole group of letters at once.
This means we want second-order rule knowledge to be represented in both ways in the minds of students: We want them to know that certain sounds (and their associated letters) follow others, or are influenced by others, sequentially; and we also want them to know that certain letters (and their associated sounds) are grouped simultaneously with certain other letters. You will see how cleverly Spalding has charted a path through this instructional thicket.
There are also what we can call third-order skills of literacy-involvement of learning and thinking processes. But these third-order skills belong to a different stage of reading instruction, as will shortly be explained.
The summary point at the moment is that the complex skills of reading and spelling require the coordination of a number of subskills, the most important being first-order subskills of pairing letters with phonemes, second-order subskills of grouping letter-phoneme units lawfully, and third-order subskills of thinking and learning.
Stages of Reading Acquisition
A helpful framework for organizing an instructional sequence for reading was provided by Jeanne Chall (1983a, 1983b), while director of the Reading Laboratory at Harvard University. According to Chall, we progress
through six stages of reading skill development. Stage 0 is a prereading stage. Children are essentially discovering the world of print from billboards, cereal boxes, and the like. Stage 1 is the first stage of reading, and is characterized by recognition of the alphabetic principle-namely, that letters represent speech sounds or phonemes. Stage 2 is the expansion and consolidation of this principle, mastery to the point of automaticity, of the orthographic rules of the language. Stage 3 is the beginning of higher-order learning and thinking-skill acquisition. As the saying goes, you are no longer learning to read, you are reading to learn. Essentially, you can now develop and embed comprehension subskills in the overall reading process. You can, for example, "flag" key concepts as important to remember while you're reading along. Stages 4 and 5 involve higher types of analytical and synthetic reasoning, as when you compare points of view or use new information to modify a personal theory-all during the ongoing process of reading.
Chall provided convincing evidence that reading skill acquisition does progress through these stages, in the order described.
Strategy Training Needs
A large number of college students lack Stage 3 skills, not to mention the higher-order Stage 4 and 5 skills that college is really about. In part, the deficiencies arise from the fact that the skills were never explicitly taught. It is a depressing fact, for example, that a youngster can go all the way through a biology course in high school without ever having once discussed the text material in class. Assignments are made, and students are expected to read them and comprehend them, as demonstrated by performance on so-called comprehension tests, but not once will there have been a moment's training in the skills of understanding scientific text.
This is very serious, and I want to make clear that my current emphasis on Stage 1 and Stage 2 training doesn't mean that I think comprehension training is unimportant. The problem is that it cannot begin until Stage 2 decoding is automated, simply because a reader does not have available attentional capacity.
The mind "frees up" for comprehension operations only after decoding operations become automatic. If you try to teach comprehension skills before then, you will generate a cycle of confusion: The attentional capacity necessary for mastering decoding will be drained by attempts to "remember the main idea," and capacity for comprehending will be simultaneously drained by decoding efforts. So neither Stage 2 nor Stage 3 mastery is achieved.
It is simply imperative to first consolidate and automate the Stage 2 decoding skills, which is what the Spalding program does, so that you can then go on to provide explicit instruction in higher-order reading routines. We turn now to the details of the Spalding system.
Why the Spalding Program Works
The program begins by teaching a set of phoneme-letter units that Spalding calls phonograms. There are seventy of these, the letters of the alphabet plus some multiple-letter units like ea and ng. These particular phonograms were selected by Anna Gillingham for Samuel Orton, the famous neurologist who later also asked her to develop a method for teaching reading to dyslexics. Spalding, after teaching a child for two and a half years under Orton's guidance, developed her own method for classroom teaching to prevent or remediate writing and reading problems. (Her method is also, in my judgment, far better for dyslexics than the Orton-Gillingham method.)
An important point about the Spalding phonograms is that they are correct by modern linguistic standards. That is, the
letters represent minimal speech units (phonemes), not blends. In many of the basals, or in other collections of so-called phonics units, children have to learn excessive numbers of essentially arbitrary letter-sound units. This misses the point of the alphabetic system: Letters are supposed to represent the minimal sound units of the language, not larger units. If you specify larger units, you lose the very flexibility and parsimony that the alphabetic system optimizes.
Learning the phonograms is a straightforward paired-associates learning task that forms tight neural links between particular phonemes, particular letters, and particular motor (writing) movements. When you master the set, you have, in effect, stocked your long-term memory with a working sample of the orthographic units of English. You can access members of this set easily and flexibly, and you can output them in written or spoken form. Learning to do this is, amazingly, great fun for students of all ages. It does absolute wonders for the self-esteem of those wounded souls suffering from years of reading failure.
After the phonograms have been learned, instruction in spelling begins. Spalding uses a list of words compiled by frequency. Eight standardized tests that sample from this list are administered, and instruction is keyed to the threshold of a child's ability. This is strongly motivating. Easy words are boring; excessively difficult words are discouraging. Words that you can almost but not quite spell are fascinating, and discovering that you can actually figure out how to spell them is fair cause for jubilation-especially for a child with a history of spelling failure.
The spelling lesson "script" is exact. The teacher says a word and calls on the children to say the first syllable, or first sound of a one-syllable word. The children write it, then the teacher writes it on the board. The child progresses systematically through the word. If there is any difficulty, the class discusses the rule involved.
Over the course of spelling, children learn by example twenty-nine second order rules, such as the five reasons why a silent e is attached to the end of a word. Given seventy phonograms and twenty-nine rules, you can spell about 80 percent of English words, and a higher percentage of the most frequent ones. The spelling words are written in notebooks. After second grade, some of the rules will be, too, and again with examples. Each child thus accumulates a personal list of hundreds of words for which the spelling has been worked out and repeatedly practiced. First graders and many kindergartners go at a pace of thirty words a week.
The personal spelling book has a remarkable psychological impact on children (not to mention parents). Most of their schoolwork disappears into teachers' files somewhere. The typical schoolchild never sees a cumulative record of daily accomplishments. A spelling book with hundreds and hundreds of correctly spelled words in it (words in the spelling book are checked to make sure all are spelled correctly) is a mighty impressive achievement. In addition, of course, the spelling book is a reference book, and children religiously use it as such. Thus, the spelling book serves as a practice, motivational, and reference device all at the same time.
In conjunction with the spelling, a simple marking system is taught. For example, both letters of a two-letter phonogram
are underlined. This shows that they go together to form a unit. As another example,
little numbers are used to indicate which sound is being used, if there is more than one.
Thus, mother is marked as
showing that th and er are units, and that the second (in order of frequency) th sound is active. There are about five of these marking conventions. As soon as the class learns them (which is almost immediately), the students take turns marking the word they have just produced. In this way, spelling and marking works like a problem-solving seminar, with everyone deeply absorbed in doing some of the best analytical thinking of their lives.
Now you see how Spalding deals with the problem of representing second-order grouping rules both sequentially and wholistically. Once the phoneme-letter sequences have been produced (spelling), they are graphically coded. What goes into your visual memory, then, is a wholistic, graphic pattern that depicts lawful organizations of the first-order units.
When you see the word again (unmarked), it is that visual pattern, not the sequence of sounds, that will be activated. Thus, Spalding minimizes the risk of setting up "sounding-out" habits that interfere with wholistic word perception. Words are not sounded out while reading except rarely, when a difficult one is encountered, because they do not have to be. Structural analysis is not taught during reading, it is taught during spelling, when you have to do that sort of analysis anyway. The output of the analysis is then marked graphically, so the structure can be retrieved as a visu
al whole, and will not have to be sounded out again.
When about 150 words are in the spelling notebooks, reading begins. A major shock for new Spalding teachers is that reading is never taught. It just begins. After hours of phonogram learning, sequential word analysis, and graphic marking, children can read. They simply pick up a book and start reading. (It is, of course, a pretty exciting day.) They fly right over the basal readers with their impoverished vocabularies, and start in with good children's literature-like Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. They also start right in thinking and reasoning about content. From the very first day of reading, the emphasis can be on ideas, information, forming inferences, tracing implications, and the like, because the emphasis doesn't have to be on word-attack. Stage 2 skills have been mastered. Attention is now available for mastering comprehension skills. In Chapter 3 Spalding provides an overview of her approach to Stage 3 training.
By grade two, the children are reading such treasures as Thurber's Many Moons and Williams's The Velveteen Rabbit. Third graders polish off Charlotte's Web with aplomb. These are their readers, you understand. The children move quickly and deeply into the very best literature, and also into biography, poetry, and science. A list of fine writing is given for beginners through grade six in the Appendix.
But that is not the end of it. Spalding mentions that children work on her materials for three hours every day. Children in the Spalding system write stories, plays, poems, and research reports as intensively as they read.
It is very important to understand this, and not make the mistake of thinking that the richness of language arts is missing from the Spalding system. On the contrary, the richness far exceeds that found in the basal programs because the children have the skills to participate fully in the literature culture, and to pursue what interests them as fast and as far as they want to go.
Used in a remedial program, the leaps that children make can be downright alarming. When you put a logical system into the hands of intelligent children who have searched desperately for just such a system, they may run farther and faster with it than you dared to imagine. We have had children who were years below standard, reading at grade level in a matter of months-but of course they may be exceptions; only time and more data will tell.
Whatever the true success rate, it comes about because the Spalding system capitalizes on a body of psychological principles that are dead right in contemporary theoretical terms. Mrs. Spalding obviously had no way of anticipating that. Her own theoretical guidelines came from the teachings of William McCall at Teachers College, Orton's views of how the brain works, and the linguistics of the period. These theories have all been superseded in their respective fields, but the Spalding system can be recast in current theoretical frameworks because it was really derived from an intensive study of how children learn. (The same can be said of Montessori.) Of course other good
reading teachers have emphasized some of the same principles. In
my collection of early readers is one published in 1855. It starts out with a list of phonograms, and includes a simple marking system. These ideas have been around for a long time, but it remained for Spalding to combine them and forge them into a system of stunning efficiency.
A few words now of a more practical nature.
The Spalding Network
The system is currently spreading through a field network, rather than an academic network. Most elementary education faculty, the ones who teach teachers how to teach reading, have consultation contracts or other connections with the publishers of basal programs. It has therefore proved almost impossible to train teachers in the Spalding method before they leave college. It is after they begin teaching, discover that their pupils aren't learning to read, and discover also that they are accountable for their pupils' failure, that teachers begin searching for a system that works. A growing number of Spalding courses are therefore appearing on summer school and in-service rosters.
As an example of the type of field network that exists, consider Maricopa County, Arizona, which encompasses the Phoenix
area. A number of school districts formed a loose consortium for the purpose of pooling information and promoting the training of teachers. Over a period of about five years, well over 1,000 teachers were trained in the Spalding method, many by Spalding herself. The reading averages for their classes on the Iowa Tests were in the upper ninetieth percentile-and it should be emphasized that many of these schools were Chapter 1 schools, with large bilingual populations. As the need for Spalding teachers grew, the Spalding Education International was formed to certify Spalding Instructors and perpetuate the method.
For information about test scores or reasons why many school districts have adopted the Spalding Method in grades
kindergarten through eight, visit the test scores page.
Even if you are an experienced teacher, and certainly if you are an inexperienced one (or a parent), you should take a
Spalding course. It makes the procedures crystal clear, and provides many tips you may miss in the textbook.
To find courses throughout the United States and Australia, go to the
professional development page.
Auckerman, R. C. Approaches to Beginning Reading. New York: Wiley, 1984.
Beck, I. L. "Reading Problems and Instructional Practices," in G. E. MacKinnon & T. G. Waller, eds., Reading Research. Advances in Theory and Practice, Vol. 2. New York: Academic Press, 1981.
Chall, J. S. Stages of Reading Development. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983a.
Chall, J. S. Learning to Read. The Great Debate. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983b.
Goodman, K. S. and Y. Goodman. "Learning to Read Is Natural," in L. B. Resnick and P. A Weaver, eds., Theory and Practice of Early Reading, Vol. 1. Hillsdale: Erlbaum, 1979.
Gough, P. "One Second of Reading," in J. Kavanagh and I. Mattingly, eds., Language by Ear and by Eye. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972.
Groff, P. "The New Anti-phonics," The Elementary School Journal, March 1977.
Hohn, W. E. and L. C. Ehri. "Do Alphabet Letters Help Prereaders Acquire Phonemic Segmentation Skill?" Journal of Educational Psychology (1983), 75, 752-762.
Rumelhart, D. E. "Toward an Interactive Model of Reading," in S. Dornic, ed., Attention and Performance IV. Hillsdale: Erlbaum, 1977.
Rumelhart, D. E. and J. L. McClelland. "Interactive Processing Through Spreading Activation," in A. M. Lesgold and C. A. Perfetti, eds., Interactive Processes in Reading. Hillsdale: Erlbaum, 1986.
Smith, C. L. and H. Tager-Flusberg. "Metalinguistic Awareness and Language Development," Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (1982), 34, 449-468.
Smith, F. Understanding Reading. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971.
Treiman, R. "Phonemic Awareness and Spelling: Children's Judgments Do Not Always Agree with Adults," Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (1985), 39, 182-201.
Treiman, R. and J. Baron. "Phonemic-Analysis Training Helps Children Benefit from Spelling-Sound Rules," Memory & Cognition (1983), 11, 382-389.