[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Summer 1982 pp5,6]
[Emmett Betts: see Anthology, Bulletins.]

The First Essential in Reading Improvement,

by Emmett Albert Betts, Ph.D., LL.D.*

*Reading Research Lab, Winter Haven, Fla.

Let me begin our discussion of the first essential in reading instruction by telling you about Charlie. At age 12 Charlie was repeating the work scheduled for the sixth grade. In school he was accused of being mentally retarded. In fact, the school reports indicated that he was too retarded or too lazy to learn to read. To prove this point, he had been given a group test of intelligence which indicated an I.Q. of 68.

These school reports did not impress us, however. After all, this particular test of intelligence was actually a reading test. If Charlie had a reading disability, of course he could do very little with the so-called intelligence test.

My first session with Charlie produced several surprises. His blue eyes sparkled as he was introduced. Standing a full 5 feet 8 inches, he obviously was well into adolescence. Furthermore, his ready wit and unusually large vocabulary were evidence of advanced social and mental maturity. He was a man's boy-husky, energetic, outgoing, courteous, and responsive.

After a preliminary discussion, we settled down to the job of getting at the cause or causes of his problem. Our first step was to give him a word identification test. This test included the most commonly used words at each reader level, beginning with the pre-primer. At the pre-primer level he could identify the, a, mother, is, I, to, and, but he had no skills to help him pronounce will, little, here. At the primary level he could not get past with, the first word.

Charlie's results on the word identification test, of course, provided clues to his reading ability. If he could not pronounce words, he would be unable to do much thinking in a reading situation.

Our next step was to find out how well he could read. Using the information obtained from the word identification test, we decided to begin with a pre-primer. Of course, we realized the short, stilted sentences would not make it possible for Charlie to do his best because he was a past master in the use of oral language.

Anyone, of course, could have predicted that he would stumble in a pre-primer or primer. And this is exactly what he did. He was a non-reader.

This information was obtained in exactly four minutes. Not one cent was spent for special testing materials. Only the materials found in a classroom were used; namely a set of graded textbooks! Furthermore, any teacher or most parents could have used these materials to discover Charlie's reading level - the first essential for both Charlie and his teacher.

Hearing Comprehension.

When we read to Charlie from the set of basic readers, we found him to have excellent hearing comprehension. He was able to answer all questions about the materials - even at the twelfth-grade level.

While Charlie stumbled when he tried to read a pre-primer, he could understand and discuss twelfth grade materials. These findings indicated at least twelve years of reading retardation. He was retarded in reading but he definitely was not mentally retarded!

Charlie was given other tests to help us identify the causes of his problem so that we would know how to teach him. One of these tests was an individual test of intelligence Form L of The Stanford-Binet Tests of Intelligence.

Even on this test, Charlie's reading disability caused him to fail certain items: Reading and Report, the Minkus language-completion test, and the dissected sentences. But in spite of his reading handicap, Charlie made an I.Q. of 138, a superior rating.

Here, then, was a boy of superior intelligence who could not read. We knew that he had to be taken through the first steps in learning to read - which we did.

There are many children and adolescents and even adults who are retarded in reading. Not many, however, are as seriously retarded as Charlie was. Fortunately, most of these children have normal or superior intelligence and can overcome their reading handicaps, as Charlie did. That is, they can overcome their handicaps IF their teachers and parents cooperate with them by estimating their starting levels. The first essential in helping the learner is to find out where he is and to, begin where he is!

High Achievers.

Now let us turn from Charlie's needs to other needs. Eight-year old Peggy, for instance, was in third grade but at home she enjoyed reading the Reader's Digest. It would be an understatement to say that in school she was not very enthusiastic about the third reader. In fact, she had read it just as she turned seven. While most of her age-mates were avid consumers of fairy tales, she was more concerned with stories of real life and a pictured encyclopedia. To guide her reading improvement, her teacher needed to know her level of reading ability. It was just as essential to know Peggy's level of reading achievement as it was to know Charlie's.

There are high school students who can read nothing more difficult than Friday - The Arapaho Indian, a book written for teen-agers with about second-grade level ability, At the other extreme there are students who enjoy Ibsen's Peer Gynt or Thomas Hardy's Far from the Maddening Crowd or Plato's Republic. To capture and hold learner interest and to provide the best conditions for improvement of reading ability, master teachers begin with the first essential: they estimate levels of reading achievement.

Charlie was a bright boy but he was somewhat frustrated with a pre-primer and completely bogged down with a primer. On the other hand, Peggy was challenged by seventh and eighth grade materials and bored with third-grade books. Our major concern is with challenging the learner so that he takes interest and puts forth effort. Everything is lost when the learner is frustrated-he goes to pieces, we say.' Hence, the basic idea of beginning "where the learner is" calls for challenging rather than frustrating the learner.

Signs of Frustration.

A teacher does not have to be an expert in reading in order to estimate reading levels. She does need to know how to detect signs of trouble. Furthermore, these signs of trouble or frustration, are noted in all reading-study situations - in arithmetic, science, the social sciences, literature, or any other group activity.

One sign of frustration is the inability to comprehend, or understand, the ideas and concepts. For example, the child who smiles or laughs when he reads a joke or a tall tale is enjoying it, and therefore, is understanding it. The child who can relate what he knows about rainfall and other weather conditions to a statement about the crops grown in a region can do the necessary reasoning required for comprehension. When a child cannot make concepts from what he reads, he is in trouble. For, when the last word has been written on the subject of reading, the fact remains that, quite literally speaking, the materials of reading are concepts.

Another sign, or symptom, of trouble is the inability to identify written words. With the exception of non-readers, all individuals have a reading level at which they read without being bogged down by the mechanics of word pronunciation.

When an individual who has less than third-reader level ability is reading on his own (that is, independently), he can safely meet no more than one new word in 200 running words. For example, in a selection 600 words long, there should be no more than 3 words unknown to him.

If an individual who has third-grade or higher level reading ability is reading independently, he can safely meet 1 new word in 100 running words. For example, in a selection 600 words long, he should meet no more than 6 words unknown to him.

An individual with more mature reading habits has more vivid perception skills to call on. He also has a broader and deeper background of experience with life and with language. All this maturity helps him to identify both the pronunciation and meaning of unknown words when he is on his own.

Reading Levels

When a group of children is using a basic reader under teacher supervision, they can get on-the-spot help with unknown words. For this reason, they may meet one new word 50 running words without bogging down. At no time, however, should a child meet more than 1 unknown word in 20 running words. When he encounters more than 1 new word in 20 running words, he is in serious trouble. He is so busy sounding out words, he loses track of the trend of thought and no longer comprehends what he reads.

Fortunately, instructional materials are graded in reading difficulty. For example, in a graded series of basic readers, new words are introduced gradually. This policy makes it possible for a teacher to use an appropriate book for each of her reading groups in the classroom. If a certain reader level is too easy or too difficult for a given child, he can be transferred to another group where he can be challenged rather than frustrated.

Inability to pronounce words is only one sign of difficulty. When a child is doing silent reading, these are other signs of frustration to be avoided:
1. Lip movement or whispering the words
2. Low rate of reading
3. Exaggerated head movements
4. Use of a thumb or a finger to point to run along each line of type
5. Tension movements, such as frowning, excessive blinking, twisting, and squirming
Of course, a child who is challenged makes some of these undesirable responses. If he is given materials easier to read, he will show none of these signs of frustration. More important, he may show rapid improvement in his reading. Challenge him and he will make gains frustrate him and he will not only learn bad habits but also he may regress.

Oral Reading

In life situations, oral reading usually is done following silent reading. Under this condition, oral re-reading is rhythmical and smooth and in a conversational tone. Signs that the material is too difficult include:
1. A lack of rhythm, or word-by-word reading
2. A high pitched voice
3. Irregular breathing
4. Failure to interpret punctuation, such as skimming over periods at the end of a sentence, or commas
5. Repetition of words
6. Insertion of words
7. Omission of words
8. Reversing words; e.g. say saw for was.
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