Poor spelling and literacy skills in children can lead to severe economic and social disadvantages as adults, something that David Morgan is very familiar with through his years of research and work with The Shannon Trust, a UK-based organization that promotes literacy, mentoring, and life skills development in prisons through guided reading programs. While working with adults who were not able to read, he realized that reading problems actually tend to start in childhood, and he started focusing on ways to help children learn to read. His company, Oxford Learning Solutions, has created an innovative product that is designed to teach children to read and spell by taking advantage of the brain’s natural tendency to use visual images. We asked David Morgan about this approach, and how parents can help children who are struggling with literacy issues.
US: “Dyslexic” is the general term used for people who have problems reading and spelling, but your site explains that there are actually some very specific aspects of this learning disability that need to be considered. Can you tell us why it’s important to identify these specific areas of weakness as the first step in improving spelling?
DM: You are right that within that umbrella of dyslexia we have now found eight different causes of reading and spelling difficulty. So, in my view, understanding what you are seeing is critical to giving the right help to a child. My first degree was in engineering and I guess that for me a complete understanding of any problem feels like the best place to start working on a solution. Many parents and teachers will have felt the frustration of pushing against a locked door with spelling. We always want to look for the key, rather than just pushing harder. Different children find different doors locked for them.
US: It’s true that many children – and adults! – have a hard time making the connection between sounds and letter patterns in English, since there are so many variations in the way a particular sound can be spelled. You point out that memorizing these pattern/sound combinations isn’t always the best way for children to learn, but the visual images that the Easyread system uses also need to be memorized. What’s the key difference in these two approaches?
DM: That’s a good question and the answer requires a slightly technical explanation, if you will bear with me.
In English there are 450 letter pattern to sound relationships used within words. These letter patterns are abstract and they are very inconsistent, as you say. So most children who struggle with spelling have chosen to memorize whole words instead, for reading and spelling. That can work OK in the early days, but the average adult can read 50,000+ words. Some children can memorize 20 words well enough overnight for a spelling test, but it is impossible to memorize 50,000 words. So it is like pushing water up a hill, trying to build spelling expertise in that way.
By contrast, Easyread has 45 silly, funny and bizarre images of real things, like the ‘Ants in Pink Pants’ and the ‘Eggs with Little Legs’. So most of them can be learned in one viewing.
Then we put the child in a reading environment where whole word recognition is hard and decoding is made easy, with the help of the images. That is what we call Guided Phonetic Reading. By getting them to decode for 5-15 minutes each day the children build a subconscious map of all the letter patterns used in different words. Eventually this map becomes strong enough for them to encode words for spelling.
This also explains why even a good speller can become unsure of a spelling when they ‘think about it’ too much. The reason is that they are no longer relying on this subconscious map, which cannot be accessed through conscious thought.
US: Several schools have reported great success in using Easyread to help improve reading and spelling skills in their classrooms. Can parents use the system at home even if their child’s school doesn’t, or will it create confusion for the child?
DM: You are right that it is a natural concern, which many parents raise, but many of the children using Easyread are receiving some form of different instruction at school as well as doing their daily Easyread lesson and we don’t find that causes confusion for them. The children are surprisingly good at compartmentalizing their different experiences through the day.
US: The Easyread system focuses first on learning how to read using the visual decoding tools you developed, which don’t directly teach spelling. If parents want to focus on spelling skills, can they still use Easyread?
DM: As you suggest, the natural urge is to work directly on a child’s spelling, but the children who we help have truly atrocious spelling because of their whole word sight reading strategy. We build the foundation they need to see spelling progress by changing their reading strategy. I know of no other way to turn around really bad spelling. On the other hand, if a child is already getting nine out of ten words correct, but is frustrated by small errors, that is a different problem which we are not currently set up to work with and a product like “Ultimate Spelling” is probably more designed for.
US: The manuscript to your book, “Why Connor Couldn’t Read,” gives a fascinating and easy-to-understand explanation of the science behind reading and reading difficulties, and what goes on in the brain. When will this book be published?
DM: Ha, yes…! That is a question I have been asking myself too, for some time! The reason for the delay is that an academic randomized control trial has been running in six schools over the past 24 months and we have been holding publication until the results from that could be included in the book. Over the years there has been a lot of hot air published, on occasion, in this field. So people are rightly skeptical and we have been trying to get our scientific evidence properly lined up first. Hopefully we should be ready in the autumn! After 15 years of work on the development of Guided Phonetic Reading as a new way to learn to read and spell, perhaps we will be set up for an ‘overnight’ success.