Saturday, January 5, 2008

Soundabet Beginnings, Part 3

In the last post I talked about how pressure began to build on kindergarten teachers to teach basic early literacy skills. In 1996 I went to a workshop where I learned to use a pre-reading assessment tool developed by Roland Good III and Ruth Kaminski at the University of Oregon. Their tool is called Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy, or DIBELS, for short.

Kaminski and Good had reviewed the research that identified the skills that beginning readers use as they become good readers. The research made it clear that students who would become good beginning readers could do three things much better than students who would later struggle with beginning reading. The three skills are:

Alphabet Naming:
The ability to quickly identify the names of letters, in both upper and lower case forms.

Initial Sound Fluency:
The ability to identify the first sound of a word.

Phoneme Segmentation Fluency
The ability to take words apart into their component sounds.

Kaminski and Good’s contribution was to develop a test of these three skills that could be used by classroom teachers with a minimum of fuss and training. The idea was to help teachers identify students who would be likely to struggle in early reading lessons and help them before they experience trouble. I thought that this was a great idea and I began using DIBELS with enthusiasm right away.

DIBELS results confirmed what I had guessed intuitively about which of my students were struggling, and DIBELS gave my intuition solid-seeming numerical scores as evidence of my concern for them.

The other gift DIBELS brought to me was to bring into clearer focus just what phonemes English employs. In the phoneme segmentation subtest, I would ask students to break simple words into their component phonemes. I would say a word like “March” and the student would be expected to break it into its three phonemes: /M/ - /AR/ - /CH/.

You’d think someone who had been teaching kindergarten for some years would be able to tell you exactly what sounds our language has, but I couldn’t do that, and DIBELS helped to bring me closer.

As I gave students the tests, I became acutely aware that I was testing skills I hadn’t taught them. It felt unfair to do that.

So I began, haphazardly, to teach my class those “extra” sounds that English has. Most of these sounds are usually spelled with two letters. Their written forms are called digraphs, and they will look familiar to you: /NG/, /TH/, /SH/, /CH/, /OU/, /OO/, /OY/, /AR/ and so on. I noticed immediately that when I taught my students these sounds they could do better on the DIBELS assessments.

It felt disorganized, though. I presented these letters one by one to the class, and sometimes I felt like I was giving too much emphasis to some of these sounds while ignoring others. The dissatisfaction I felt about the disorganization lasted more than a year.

One day, as I was driving to the hardware store, for whatever reason, I was thinking about the ABC song. Someone long ago must have felt much the same way about the letters of the alphabet themselves. They decided to make a song out of it, borrowed a children’s tune written by Mozart (Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star) and made a memorable song, the ABC song. We all know it. It gives the letters a fixed order from A to Z and helps us rehearse it until we know it.

Like a bolt of lightning, the solution to my problem struck me: The genius of using a song to hold the ABCs together, I realized, could be extended to include all these extra sounds. Within an instant Soundabet was born. I felt like a new father. It seemed to me to be an earthshakingly good idea. It would make learning to read so much easier for students if they were taught all the sounds they might be expected to decode, from the start.

I spent the next few weeks thinking carefully about exactly what sounds Soundabet ought to include and which sounds I ought to leave out. I carefully considered which spelling to include for the various sounds. I consulted several books on the subject, especially Diane McGuinness’s Why Our Children Can’t Read.

Over the next year I began to use Soundabet in my classroom. The results were spectacular. Parents got excited. People began to talk. It wasn’t long before the Sonoma County Office of Education’s Reading consultant, Kevin Feldman visited my room. He saw Soundabet in action and asked me to do a workshop at the County Office of Education.

I agreed to do it, thinking back then there would be only one workshop. About 25 teachers showed up at that first workshop and a few tried Soundabet in their own schools. Their enthusiasm led to another workshop, then another, and another and soon I was asked to do a CD and a video, and before long I opened an Internet store.


sylvia said...

HI Dan

Do you think the methdo SOUNDABET
would be traslatable in french please ?
Are you the inventor of the SOUNDABET method please ?

french kids need 11 years to be able to handle the language, which i humbly regret is so " tricky " and the opposite of " logical "....
english kids need only 4 years to learn basic english....

here kids have lots of problems starting by the fact mother work out of the home thus nobody can apply this formula : " there is no better academy than a mother's knee ".....unfortunately...

best wishes

Jim G. said...

Sylvia's comment makes me wonder whether kids in Italy or Spain, where there are no spelling/pronunciation ambiguities, learn to read earlier or more easily.

What a fascinating story you told in your post, Dan, particularly the point about the sense of justice you felt with respect to testing something that wasn't taught.

It makes complete sense that kindergartners would be able to understand phoneme analysis, which most adults don't get taught either, unless they're in the field of linguistics.

culmom37 said...

I have been lucky enough to have had Mr. Gurney tell me the story about the birth of the soundabet and I have to say...the enthusiasm and compassion does not come out when one reads this story in writing. If you can see the glow in Mr. Gurney's eyes when he tells about how his idea of starting the soundabet came to be you would be so EXCITED too! After speaking with Mr. Gurney when he first told me the story, my initial thought was, "Oh my gosh, that makes so much sense!". Honestly, I cannot believe that this idea has not been made public sooner because it just makes sense! Good for you, Mr. Gurney.

I am so proud and feel extremely priviliged that my child is being taught by the inventor of this magnificent program. What an honor and it is truly something I will never forget.

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...

Hi Sylvia! Yes, I'm the Soundabet guy. I invented it.

I am certain Soundabet could be done en fracais. I leave that work to some one who's been teaching beginning reading in France for some years and who also has a good grasp of linguistics. Whoever does it will help many children in France. I know enough about French to know that it shares the same problem that English has in regard to non-phonetic spelling. Indeed, many of our difficult-to-spell English words, like bureau and restaurant, are borrowed from France.

And I agree, mother's knee is the best academy.

Jim, you have it exactly. The rates of dyslexia in Italy, Spain, or any other phonetic language ranges in the 1% to 3% range. In countries that read and write in English and French which have extensive spelling ambiguities, rates of reading failure are much higher, 8-12%.

Part of the story of Soundabet I didn't recount in Parts 1 - 3 of Soundabet beginnings was realizing that kids learning to read in Spanish had it much, much easier. Soundabet was my attempt to make English more like Spanish for beginners. Spanish's alphabet includes CH, LL, and the tilde n for ny (sorry I don't know what key to use for that in blogger).

Culmom37, thank you for your kind words! It's a privilege to me to have your daughter in my room. And your help in the classroom. See you tomorrow!

Jim G. said...

Maybe you can explain how you use the word "dyslexia." I take it you mean illiteracy, or an inability to read.

I haven't checked a dictionary, but just as a layman, I associate the word with a cognitive tendency to reverse the letters of words.

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...

Hi Jim,

Dyslexia's Oxford definition is:

a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.

It's a general term that often means what you thought, the tendency for letters to "scramble" in some people's perception of them.

There is no specific condition for which "dyslexia" is the diagnosis. As I was using the term in my response to you what I really meant was difficulties sorting out ambiguity in letter/sound associations that interfere with reading for meaning.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan,

After having tried it in my classroom for severely handicapped, I brought your Soundabet tools in the Philippines to share with the Filipino teachers in the public schools last February 2008. It started as a project for a particular school division. I conducted a five day workshop presenting a standardized assessment tool and the Soundabet Reading Program. Thank you for assisting me by ensuring that the materials are shipped to me before I left for the seminar and also for sharing with me the insights behind Soundabet. I shared those with over 70 participants and they were so excited. I left the materials with them. I was informed by the superintendent that over the summer, the participants assisted in echoing the technique to other teachers in the school division. This school year, they are going to include the soundabet reading program in their first grader program.
Come July 27,2008, in a one day institute sponsored by the Philippine Dept of Education, I would give a 30 min to 1 hour presentation on Soundabet. I hope to give justice to your invention. Many educators are just so excited to implement this in their classrooms. Soundabet is indeed going global. Thanks to you !

Best regards and more power,
Ana Maria Rogacion

Cathy said...

Hi There!
I just went to a Read Naturally Training and was encouraged to hear about the "Soundabet!" However, when I clicked on the link for it, it said the link didnt work. Whats up?
Kindergarten Teacher in Ontario, Oregon

Matt said...

Hello Mr. Gurney,
You are an inspiration to so many teachers. Is there any way to get the soundabet materials. I really want to use them in my new kindergarten class next year. You have the wheel that drives instruction, I don’t want to have to recreate the wheel. or