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Help for the Child Struggling to Read

by Mary Pecci, Reading Specialist

As a Reading Specialist for over 35 years, I have found that struggling readers inevitably get caught in the same reading traps over and over again. Yet, when these reading traps are avoided, reading-challenged children are able to make steady progress in reading just as are typical achievement students. These reading traps are detailed below, followed by techniques that can be used to spring struggling readers from all of these reading traps:

Trap 1: Whole Words
When struggling readers are taught to memorize words “whole,” rather than being taught how to decode words phonetically, their memory soon reaches a saturation point. Many words begin to look alike (Ex. boy-dog). Since they have no way to decode words independently, they are unable to read words even on a beginning reading level. Symptoms of this trap can be easily observed because these students approach words with wild guesses and word reversals.

Trap 2: Endless Phonics Exceptions
When seemingly endless alternate sounds for many of the letters and letter-combinations are introduced to struggling readers, this constantly challenges their basic instructional foundation (Ex. “a” as in cat, want, father, away : “ea” as in neat, head, great, learn, heart ; “ch” as in chin, school, machine ; “ou” as in out, soul, soup, should, thought; etc., etc., etc.). These students have great difficulty switching signals or retaining the mountainous information. Symptoms of this trap can be easily observed because they approach words with frustration and prolonged hesitation.

Trap 3: Letter-by-Letter
When struggling readers are taught to sound out “decodable” text letter-by-letter (Ex. A cat sat and sat), they have great difficulty making the transfer to “real English” text because “real English” text can’t be sounded out letter-by-letter (Ex. Once upon a time there were three little bears). Symptoms of this trap can be easily observed because these students approach words with slow, painful, cacophonous, attempts to read.

Trap 4: Adding SIGHT words to Phonics Exceptions
To add to the above confusion, when struggling readers are confronted with a gradual introduction of SIGHT words (unphonetic words that must be memorized Ex. said), they are constantly confronted with the dilemma,
“What SOUND does that have this time or is it a SIGHT word?” Symptoms of this trap can be easily observed because these students approach words with sputtering and paralyzing confusion or, in some cases, they can’t read at all.
However, you will be encouraged to know that there are simple techniques that can be used to AVOID every one of these reading traps:

Trap l (Whole Words) can be avoided simply by introducing EVERY word with intensive phonics, as will be shown.

Trap 2 (Endless Phonics Exceptions) can be avoided simply by teaching ONLY the RELIABLE phonics facts, i.e., teaching only ONE sound for each letter or letter-combination and NO exceptions. Years of research “on the firing line” with every possible type of reading problem have uncovered these RELIABLE phonics facts, listed below, which you will note consist of minimal information to be learned:
Consonants - b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z
Digraphs - ch, sh, th, wh
Vowels - a, e, i, o, u (long and short sounds)
Phonic Families - This is a special group of 25 phonetic components. Just ONE sound for each of these families is taught, as in each key word below:

ay (day) oo (zoo) ew (new) ar(car) oy (boy) oi (oil) ow (now) ou (out) ound (found) ight (night) igh (high) alk (walk) er (her) ir (sir) ur (fur) all (ball) eight (weight) eigh (weigh) aw (saw) au (auto) aught (caught) ought (thought) ange (range) tion (station) sion (mission)

Note what teaching ONLY these RELIABLE phonics facts accomplishes:
(1) Struggling readers will have an immediate response to every letter or letter-combination because only ONE sound is known.
(2) These RELIABLE phonics facts cover about 90% of the phonics information needed to read.
(3) When struggling readers have this 90% of RELIABLE phonics facts at their fingertips, they can easily figure out that small 10% of exceptions on their own, as will be shown. However, when that small 10% of phonics exceptions is taught, it just confuses the total 100% of words.)

Trap 3 (Letter-by-Letter) can be avoided because when you teach ONLY the RELIABLE phonics facts and NO exceptions, you can make an “inconsistent” English language “consistent” by dividing the entire English language into four simple groups, which we will call “families”:
1. Short Vowel Families (any vowel with consonants): Ex. at, et, it, ot, ut
Rule: When there’s only ONE vowel, it has the short sound.
2. Long Vowel Families ( “e” on the end”): Ex. ate, ete, ite, ote, ute
Rule: When there’s an “e” on the end, the first vowel is long and the “e” on the end is silent.
3. Long Vowel Families (two-vowels-together”: Ex. aid, ead, ied, oad, ued
Rule: With any two vowels together, the first one is long and the second one is silent.
4. Phonics Families: (The special group of 25 phonetic components detailed above.)

Words can now be decoded by these family UNITS rather than letter-by-letter. A special bonus is that EVERY word can be decoded exactly the same way with a UNIFORM APPROACH, i.e., EVERY word can be decoded from left-to-right, UNIT by UNIT:

p et,
f in ish,
t oast,
h ope,
un t il,
m ain t ain,
w alk,
ea g er,
c ube,
st ay,
n ight,
in t er est ing.

Trap 4 (Adding SIGHT words to Phonics Exceptions) has already been avoided because there are NO sight words. EVERY word is decoded phonetically with the UNIFORM APPROACH.
This leads to the final question to be answered - “How can struggling readers handle the phonics exceptions on their own?” Here’s how:

When children encounter an “exception,” they will know it immediately because they will come up with a “nonsense” word. Ex. SAID: When just one sound for “ai” has been taught, as in the word “paid,” struggling readers will automatically decode this word as “sayd” because they only know ONE sound for “ai.” They will know immediately that it’s an exception because it’s a “nonsense” word. So how will they handle it? They simply fit the word into the meaningful context of the sentence (Ex. I heard every word you “sayd”). In rare cases when a word can’t be fitted into the meaningful context of a sentence, they simply look up the phonetic respelling next to the word in the dictionary (Ex. sed).

So what does this accomplish for struggling readers?
(1) They will have an immediate response to every
(2) When they hit an exception, they will know it.
(3) They will know exactly what to do about it.

Therefore, in this way, it is possible to AVOID every one of these reading traps which plague our struggling readers - and spring them from the reading trap! And consider for a moment - if this simplified reading method works with struggling readers, imagine what it could do with typical achievement students!

This simplified reading method is presented in Mary Pecci’s book, At Last! A Reading Method for EVERY Child. It was chosen as the Main Selection of three of Macmillan Book Clubs (Early Learning Book Club, Teacher Book Club, and Library of Special Education); is featured in Cathy Duffy’s 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum, is included in the U.S. Department of Education Office of Research Report of the Commission on Reading, “Becoming a Nation of Readers”; is recommended by Dr. William C. Crook in “Help for the Hyperactive Child”; was featured in The National Right to Read newsletter; and Instructor Magazine (Teachers are Talking About) concludes, “You may find that Johnny can read after all.”
Mary Pecci is the author of 14 books and is listed in Who’s Who of American Women for her contributions to reading research in the area of reading disabilities.

Contact information is available on and at Pecci Educational Publishers, 440 Davis Court, No. 405, San Francisco, CA 94111 (415)-391-8579 ■