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ThoughtStretchers Education Podcast

Phonics Will Fix It – A Myth I Still Wish Were True

Jul 8, 2024 | Literacy

Phonics Will Fix It – A Myth I Still Wish Were True

by Melinda Karshner,

This post is truly writing therapy for my teacher/mom heart. It’s also for the moms out there, and the teachers, who desperately want to fix it. You are fixing it, just perhaps not in the way you imagined.

Growing up as the daughter of a dyslexic rocket scientist gave me a fascinating childhood with a unique perspective on many levels. My dad, for nearly a decade, spent his work life on top of a mountain in Maui admiring the sky via a world-class telescope. How cool is that? It also made one thing clear: One’s ability to spell is quite clearly no indication of their intelligence.

And yet in school, I remember having to stay in for recess to practice my very sloppy handwriting (that I had no power over improving) while simultaneously practicing ad nauseum the spelling words I simply couldn’t remember how to spell

B
Ba
Bad

S
Sp
Spe
Spell
Spelle
Speller

I felt dumb. Except by any other measure, I was not. As school continued, I braced myself to pass every other subject with ease- but spelling never came easy. I don’t think I ever received higher than 75% on any such test, and I hated it.

I never wanted to be a teacher. I absolutely hated school. I have some fond memories of elementary here and there, but the most profound memories, the ones that stand out most sorely, all relate to phonics and my inability to spell.

I am going to pause here because from this lens- absolutely loathing all things phonics… this shaped a lot of my pro-phonics feelings as a teacher. Perhaps I just wasn’t taught enough phonics? Maybe I didn’t try hard enough? Maybe if I teach phonics better, and without the punishments, my students will thrive.

I was lucky to have had a strong teacher preparation program (Shout out to the University of California Irvine and Los Angeles) who were fully and authentically trained in all things Scarborough’s Rope. We were given an overflowing toolbox on how to approach phonics, morphology, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing. And we passed the infamous California RICA test on how to teach reading with ease.

I spent the next 10 years pouring my heart into teaching. Upper elementary was my jam, and I was truly making an impact- strategically dipping into my toolbox to ensure my students were being lifted and propelled as close to or beyond grade level. I spent the bulk of that time in a Title 1 school. We had no supports, no art, music, or PE teacher, and no interventionists… if a student wasn’t on an IEP but was struggling with reading, it was just me, their teacher, against the world, working before school, during my lunch, and after school tutoring (for free) to make sure I had the time to do it all.

And I really truly felt I was an expert in all things teaching. I was known as that teacher. The teacher who changed lives. The teacher who will bring reading to life for even the most struggling student. The teacher who found ways to make math everyone’s favorite subject. The teacher who truly knows her stuff.

But then…. Enter motherhood.

As the daughter of a dyslexic rocket scientist, I was painfully aware of two truths. Dyslexia is hard. And it runs in families. But given my background, my knowledge, my Orton-Gillingham certification… I could fix it right?!

Not quite. Even with all of my knowledge, all of my training, and all of my successes as a teacher, I had absolutely no idea what wild ride I was about to embark on. (Pause to note: in later years of teaching when I was at schools with interventionists, those successes were very much shared, and wow I’ve been lucky to work with the best of the best)

The Early Years – 0-3

When I found out I was pregnant, one of the first things I did was hoard books. Baby books. Toddler books. Books for preschool, books for early elementary, books I couldn’t wait to read with my daughter when she hit 4th grade… boxes and boxes of books (thanks, Scholastic!)

We read nightly with my daughter, and I remember moments of pure bliss watching my 1-year-old carefully sifting through piles of books, pretending to read, soaking up all of the goodness of all of these books. My bibliophile’s heart soared.

All of those very early lit skills were there. Pure joy as a parent to be able to check off item-by-item lists like this

Early Preschool – The Early Warning Signs

With dyslexia always in the back of my mind, I was pretty sure we were in the clear. My daughter was literally memorizing books (that’s a good sign, right?!) But when she was 4… things started to change. I quickly realized I was able to check off everything from a new checklist, but not a checklist I wanted to be able to check

Picture

But as the all-knowing professional, I believed I was, I wasn’t worried yet. Early intervention, right?? I’ve got this. Knowing she was getting a pretty solid phonics-based and developmentally appropriate start at her Montessori preschool, I reinforced learning at home. The summer before K we dove into all the fun…. Hopscotch blending, red word jumping… a little OG work sprinkled in here and there with still large doses of just loving books together.

I was pretty confident elementary school would be just fine. Three cheers for early intervention.

Kindergarten – Fake it Til You Make it

Kindergarten started online which was, as we all know, horrible- but it also gave me the chance to watch her brilliant teacher in action- teaching phonics, to a group of 5-year-olds- on a screen and holding them captivated. This is around the same time certain podcasts came out and I was, before this, filled with angst over what her school (that I had also just been transferred to) would be like. Will they be doing it “right” or will she be stuck in the poor practice described as widespread?

Pure relief. FUNdations for the win.

Until it got hard. Phonics wasn’t something she could memorize with ease, like she did with entire books. She wasn’t able to fake her way through mastering it. So she began slamming her Chromebook shut and running away every single day during phonics. I wrote this off as being screen fatigued and exhaled a sigh of relief when the district announced Kindergarten and 1st grade would be in person (I assumed the slamming shut of Chromebooks was a common theme)

Exhale.

By the end of kindergarten, she had tricked us all (including iReady) into thinking she was a reader. Kudos to that photographic memory of hers.

I was in a false state of believing she wasn’t dyslexic at this time. Convinced all that early work her teacher did in Preschool and my reinforcing daily at home had somehow saved her from being dyslexic.

1st Grade – Reality Bites

Early 1st grade, we found, that one can still fake it til one makes it in ways especially iReady will not catch.

But mid-1st grade? Buckle up everyone as here is where the realities of dyslexia start to peek out.

Her 1st-grade teacher was THAT teacher. I had heard stories about him from parents not even at his current school. “He changed my dyslexic student’s life.” Actually, specifically, it sounded like *through tears* “Mrs. K, thank you so much for everything you did for Sam. You changed his life. Also, Mr. M. what an amazing teacher he was. ….You both are.”

Oh, the relief in my heart when I realized this teacher I had heard so much about is now at her neighborhood school. Not sure what stars aligned to make this a reality but….surely, he will fix it.

On day one I shared my dyslexia concerns with him, he being dyslexic himself appreciated the info but, to be frank, wrote it off. She was, after all, reading according to most measures.

​By mid-1st grade, he backtracked and agreed- dyslexia it might very well be. So I told my husband we needed to test her before he fixed it because he could fix it right?! He was doing all of the things, is known district-wide as a literacy guru, and even started one-on-one Barton with her daily. Hurrah for strong tiers 1 and 2!

By the end of 1st, she was still at grade level but there were still signs. I could check off most, but not all of this new list and just wanted to believe her brilliant teacher fixed it. So we didn’t test her because dyslexia is fixable! Right?….right???

**notable due to budget restraints there were no interventionists available for 1st grade at this point in time. I am forever grateful her teacher had the time and knowledge to do Barton with her.

Enter Second Grade

Another year, another score for our family with another teacher known in the local dyslexia community as the teacher you want your kid to have. Her iReady this year was lower than one would desire so the school was quick to do deeper testing and boy did CORE phonics confirm all of my fears.

Strong MTSS had her quickly placed with one of my favorite people on earth, an interventionist with all the knowledge and skills to help her. IMSE’s Orton Gillingham intervention was now also in place, in addition to more small group comprehension work with her teacher and of course, continued strong tier 1 in the classroom.

At this point, she could explain phonics at her level like a pro, remind me when to use ee vs ea, and could likely teach the 3 part drill to me if I asked her because she knew it all so well.

Except when it came to authentic text and it all fell apart. Reading was hard. Really hard. I got many calls from the nurse this year. Every call a tummy ache and/or a headache. Every call during the ELA block.

There were days when we would struggle to get her to school- despite her loving it there. She always came home happy, but there was a strong dread at the beginning of the day.

So we found a neuropsych to do an evaluation and even though I knew, I cried when she said it’s official. “Moderately compensated dyslexia” She could tell she was receiving great instruction but “The gap between her intelligence and her ability to read is, well, a Grand Canyon-sized gap.”

Ouch.

We put a 504 in place as she would not qualify for an IEP given her compensation and above the IEP threshold ability to read. I also knew that the school’s tier 2 was STRONG and the teachers were brilliant- so the 504 was in place still with the delusional belief we could all fix it, cure dyslexia, and make reading easy for her but… just in case, I wanted that 504 in place given the anxiety over reading and writing and “just in case we moved.”

The Summer Before Third Grade

Trying not to panic, I initiated operation fix it (as I still believed in my heart of hearts that was in the realm of possibilities) Her best friend had a very similar end-of-year iReady score (just barely below grade level) so I started what we called Unicorn School. We met a couple of times a week, did UFLI, and did some reading of whatever books we could. We would laugh, we would giggle, we would geek out on phonics. I decided to throw in some multiplication work because why not? We were solving the reading problem, right?

Well yes, for her non-dyslexic friend that needed that little push we, in fact, did fix it. She was now at a place where the gaps were filled and she started off 3rd grade strong.

For us….we went on a 2-week vacation, had another week and a half before school started, and then bam. It was like a blank slate. Her beginning of the year 3rd grade scores were actually shockingly low considering all of the work we did over the summer and all of the work she had done alongside her teachers in years prior. I was shocked, even knowing iReady is infamous for causing severe angst that leads to false results. But her CORE phonics scores…well proved that she was in fact still dyslexic. (duh)

Side Note: In my panic over attempting to fix it during the summer, I also pulled together a large group of girls (it’s now about 21 lol) to start a book club. This book club is still going strong a year later. Highly recommend it. Maybe ease off on the number of kids. The once-a-month meetings and choosing of books to collectively read together have been huge for every kid in that group- strong reader or not.

Third Grade – The Rollercoaster

Third grade went as one expected. Reading was hard, but she still somehow loved it. Progress was huge, but the struggle was real. By the end, she was still testing just below grade level.

Strong interventions were still in place in addition to strong tier 1- although I will pause for a bit as at this time there has been overprescribing of phonics and for a blip there was a time it was suggested k-3 teachers continue with FUNdations in addition to Into Reading’s foundational skills. This is a time suck that I do not believe was a valuable use of time and those in charge must have agreed because it quickly stopped. The entire rope is a must. Squeezing out other parts of school for more phonics is not research-backed practice. I am curious if this stalled some progress for her. It definitely robbed time away from science and social studies. Thank goodness for course corrections.

As a 4th-grade teacher, I have to say, at this point, pure panic has set in. I know how hard 4th grade is, I know what the demands are, and I want to do everything in my power to prevent the high anxiety, the stomach aches, and the headaches.

So I gave her a choice- “I can do “summer school” with you, just (ha- just) an hour a day or we can hire someone else.” Her reward for her hard work and the money saved since she chose me is horse camp. Her dream of dreams. And a carrot I found that needed to be dangled to get her full buy-in.

Teaching your own kid is hard, like…really hard. But it also has given me insight beyond what I imagined. I am, daily, shocked at how complex dyslexia is. I marvel at what she CAN do and am baffled by the things that still trip her up. I am in awe of her work ethic, I see her as one of the strongest people I know. And…this is hard. It’s a rollercoaster I wasn’t prepared for. One day I am seeing great progress and soaking in the pride she has in herself with her successes and the next day I am comforting her in a puddle of tears over how hard it all is.

“Mom, it isn’t fair that this is so hard.”

I know sweet girl. It isn’t fair. It just isn’t.

Daily we push on. The IMSE approach (very similar to UFLI) is great. I love it. But some pieces of it seem to be a bad fit for older kids (as in the summer before 4th grade) with dyslexia. Lyn Stone has this brilliant piece on blends. A piece I wish I had read before this summer as wow the truths here. It’s a piece of popular programs that I am now finding needs more critical examination for all the reasons discussed in Lyn’s article. It is also, in my daughter’s words “babyish” and feels, as I have seen with my students, demoralizing at points. But what else is an upper-grade teacher trying to fill some decoding gaps supposed to use? Nothing that I know of exists and I think the success rate of OG programs will back my concerns.

It’s simply not a silver bullet. No matter how desperately I wish it were.

And no, expressing concerns over this isn’t somehow an argument for balanced literacy as described in popular podcasts. It’s a critique we all should consider in order to ensure we are doing it all right this time. And not spending another 100 years scratching our heads about why pendulums swing to extremes.

I was finding we were stuck in this strange place. My daughter can read slowly but mostly fluently. The things she trips up on are not what one would expect (for example reading the word apothecary? Not a problem. Reading a word comparatively simple one syllable with a beginning consonant blend. Yikes.) So I was left feeling at a loss for what we should truly spend our time doing.

I am a firm believer in the power of novels so I let her choose one. She chose Red by Liesl Shurtliff. A heavy lift for her current ability, but we are reading together, and she is loving it. I found we could do some syllable division with words that would pop up in the chapter we read so that she was prepared to attack them. This part all felt good.

The foundational skills piece felt like a mess. There are some skills she is strong in, others that she shouldn’t be struggling with but does, and her spelling is what one might expect with a dyslexia diagnosis. To be frank- it’s bad.

While IMSE and/or UFLI felt like a great fit for her when she was younger, I found it was causing tears. Blends are one confusing sticking point and nonsense words in the blending board routine causing frustration and confusion within the drill but more strikingly, while reading authentic texts. (What’s perhaps worse than looking at a picture and guessing meaning? Looking at a word and guessing it’s nonsense- not promoting the former but the latter is a trip.)

I wanted to do morphology work with her, but with the tripping on some basic skills she has been practicing since the start, I felt pulled to the status quo and pushed on for a bit. Chatting with expert teachers and interventionists (Thankful for that community on X) I decided to drop the nonsense word part, the flashcards of letter sounds and blends, and focus our time on fluency, encoding, writing practice, and reading novels.

Is this the right path? For sure dropping nonsense words out of the routine was. Leaving the flashcard drills with common morphemes behind has felt huge for her. A much-needed break from a perceived “babyish” routine and a confidence boost she desperately needed. Now we are just applying and practicing all those years of strong tier 1 and 2 into writing and reading. Stopping to correct and review skills as we read, instead of just in isolation. (Remember again, we are talking about a rising 4th grader who has always had strong tier 1 and has thankfully had strong tier 2 in place when it was proven necessary. I am not arguing against these routines for younger students or older students who never had solid phonics instruction.)

Will this fix it? Not in the way I dreamed. Not in a way that will make her a strong speller or a fast reader. She might not ever love reading the way I hoped and dreamed when I first found out I was pregnant. And that is okay. I am slowly letting go of the need to fully and completely “fix it” in the definition I once believed was possible. Dyslexia won’t be fixed, it won’t be cured, but what we have in place is easing the pain of it all. I am thankful for the instruction she has had, I know how much easier it has made it all for her. But it is in no way shape or form easy.

There is a path to success, it might not mean reading with quick fluency, or spelling with ease. It might look much much different than that. But that ‘different’…the success that is possible while strengthening skills and simultaneously embracing realities…I am finding is more than a mom of a dyslexic child can hope for.

​Where does this leave us now? Well…

Nine years later, I am embracing dyslexia, the triumphs and the struggles, and doing everything in my power to move forward with realistic expectations that ensure success- by whatever definition that might truly mean.

My dad, who grew up to be an avid reader, was recently asked the question, “When did reading become easy for you?”

He paused, looking perplexed before responding. “Never. It never got easy. It’s still really really hard.”

Some Recommendations for At-home Supports

This one is tricky for me during the school year as I firmly believe the amount of effort all kids put into the school day, especially dyslexic kids, warrants a post-school break from it all. During the school year, I would only proceed with reading a book with your child, allowing books on audio, and/or leaning on great tech like Speechify.

Readability is a new app we have been trying out. I have mixed feelings about it and the ads absolutely over-promise what it is and does for dyslexia….but this might be a good fit for younger readers building fluency and confidence.

Writing

The link between reading and writing is real. One successful practice we share is collaborative story writing. I write a paragraph leaving a fun turning point and she carries on. At home, this is a fun (tricky) way to practice writing and spelling- as we go I gently remind her of rules she knows so well in theory and how to apply them in practice. If she’s having a tough day and we need to focus on joy, we just write together focusing on output, content, and not at all spelling.

Summer Time Practice

Hiring a tutor is out of the reach of so many families as many charge $100 an hour or more. I also have mixed feelings on DIY but…for those who feel confident in at-home intervention without the help of a highly trained tutor…(will maybe add links later but until then… google is a powerful tool!)

UFLI is free and easy to use for phonics, OG-based instruction. I would personally drop the nonsense words part of the blending board routine.
Nessy is a great app that incorporates gameplay and reinforces many skills a kid may have learned in an Orton Gillingham intervention.
Blast Off to Reading is rather easy to follow and could be a good fit for kids who have had strong tier 1 and tier 2 instruction during the school year and want to keep those skills sharp.
Advanced Word Study is a program I like for older kids, is easy to follow and dives into morphology.
Hand Writing Without Tears is a great go-to for writing practice. Dyslexia and Dysgraphia are also comorbid and there is strong evidence linking handwriting, spelling, and reading.

Above all else, practice in real books with support seems to be the strongest fit and can lead to the most powerful movement forward.

Melinda Karshner is a Mom, a 4th-grade teacher, and a passionate educator. She was also a guest on our June 12th ThoughtStretchers Education Podcast episode in the player above titled, A Veteran Teacher Who Rejects Black And White Thinking . This blog was initially published on her website and lightly edited here with her permission.

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