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APRIL 2005

Guest Editorial
The Education Shibboleth:
Each Child Must be Taught Differently

By Sandra Priest Rose

The commonplace idea uttered by most professors in schools of education is that each child must be taught differently. Twenty-six children in a classroom, twenty-six lesson plans and strategies for teaching.

Most educators also believe that for teaching reading, writing and spelling, various groups have to be taught in different ways. That is, privileged vs. unprivileged children; English-speaking vs. non-English speaking; black vs. white; learning-disabled vs. regular classroom; gifted vs. average student-each group requires completely different approaches.

Successful teachers in the classroom have known that this is not completely true. Good, research-proven approaches to teaching reading, writing and spelling work for all children. The question is generally of pace: that is, how fast or slowly each child or each group needs to absorb what is being taught.

We have known for decades that the research and practical application of the research done by Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a neurologist in the 1920’s and 1930’s, for what would help learning disabled-children is also useful for children in the regular classroom.

He found that if children were taught to read, write and spell in a systematic and structured way that made English words logical, they could begin to reason and sound out words for themselves. To this end, he organized the 50 or so letters and sounds in English to teach the letters and combinations of letters that make one sound. For example, “igh” is taught as a unit that says long i (if it’s “eigh” it says something else.)  That “igh” can be taught as three-letter “i” and then put into words such as light, might, tight, sight.  Instantly, children can recognize and understand what they are reading, writing and spelling.

Now that we have an organized explanation of almost ninety percent of English words as to spelling and pronunciation, how do we teach this information?

Dr. Orton developed simple, multisensory techniques for teaching so that children could learn more easily. He had the children see, say and write simultaneously everything they were learning, thus using all the pathways to the brain. The sounds of the language and their written representation were fixed in the eye and ear and then were practiced as these sounds were written and put into words.

If a child learns visually, he or she would learn that way by seeing the units of sound on cards that the teacher held up. If he learns aurally, hearing the class repeat the sounds reinforces learning that way. If he or she learns best through his or her muscles, saying and writing by using the muscles of the mouth and the arm helps the student learn that way.  While teaching through each child’s strengths in a whole classroom setting, his or her weaker areas are strengthened by the combined use of all the senses. Then the children can break into their appropriate reading groups by level.

The difference between learning-disabled children, depending on the severity of the disability, and children in the regular classroom, is the pace at which they can learn.  The learning-disabled children might need more repetition over a longer period of time: months or even years, but almost all children can benefit from phonetic approaches to the teaching of reading that employ multisensory techniques for learning.

These approaches work in the privileged suburbs as well as the inner-city classroom. Black children respond eagerly to systematic, direct instruction teaching, but so do all children. Hispanic and Asian children benefit from this organized teaching, too. The human brain is the human brain.

Pioneer work is being done at Yale by Dr. Sally and Dr. Bennett Shaywitz, using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to study the brains of children and adults.  They are finding that children and adults who were taught phonics in beginning reading use the appropriate language part of their brain and therefore read more efficiently and rapidly.  Children and adults who were taught by “whole word” or balanced literacy methods use an inappropriate part of the brain and may eventually learn to read, but do so in a much slower and more laborious way.

Gifted children AND average children enter school eager for knowledge. Bringing history, science and the arts into class from first grade on excites them.  These subjects build vocabulary and breadth of understanding.  All children can be fascinated by the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece. Each absorbs what he or she can; some more, some less than others, but all gain some expansion of vision.

There is no room for clichés in education. The time has come to examine the shibboleths or commonplaces that are uttered repeatedly and discard them. There are good practices that help children to learn at the rate at which they are capable. This is essential in a democracy.#

Sandra Priest Rose is a reading consultant and founding trustee of Reading Reform Foundation, a twenty-four year old not-for-profit organization. For more information please visit: www.readingreformny.org

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