Vowel clustering teaches students to decode and encode letter sounds to pronounce and read words (Clanton Harpine, 2013). There are no rules to memorize, and students are never allowed to guess at a word. Vowel clustering teaches students to decode or break words down into individual letter sounds and then to encode or reassemble those sounds back into pronounceable words. My vowel clustering method also teaches spelling, handwriting, oral reading fluency, comprehension, and story writing. All of my reading programs teach vowel clustering. Vowel clustering has been tested and proven to work with struggling, at-risk, and failing students. A student, who failed for nine years using balanced literacy and phonics, learned to read in 3 ½ years using vowel clustering. I have even had struggling students move up four grade levels in one year using vowel clustering. These were students who had failed multiple years in schools that taught whole language, balanced literacy, and phonics. So yes, we can teach students to read, but to do so, we must change the methods that we use to teach reading.
This is the fourth in my series on vowel clustering. So far, we have defined vowel clustering and how it differs from whole language and phonics [for a more direct comparison between vowel clustering and phonics see my blog posts for August 2018, September 2018, November 2018; click the buttons on the right]. We have also talked about how vowel clustering works with the brain, discussed the importance of handwriting and learning to read, and in this post, we are talking about letter sounds. Just to summarize the research findings that we’ve discussed so far, researchers tell us that:
“Children do not learn to read by memorizing a word list. Most children, especially those who struggle in reading, do not learn to read by memorizing phonics rules.” (Shaywitz, 2003, p. 78)
Systematic phonics “did not help low achieving readers that included students with cognitive limitations.” (Ehri 2001)
“… teaching students to sound out ‘C-A-T’ sparks more optimal brain circuitry than instructing them to memorize the word ‘cat.’ [thereby concluding that] “… different instructional approaches to the same material may impact changes in brain circuitry.” (Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015)
“… the motor experience of manually creating letterforms helps children discriminate the essential properties of each letter, which leads to more accurate representations bolstering both skilled letter recognition and later reading fluency.” (Gimenez et al. 2014, p. 155)
If we use the correct teaching methods, neuroimaging research proves that even children who have previously failed can be taught to read. Neuroimaging research shows that intensive training in phonemes (letter sounds) changes the “brain and the way it functions.” This change allows even struggling at-risk students to make significant improvement in reading (Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008).
Our task, then, is to find a teaching method that works for all students. I believe that all students can learn to read, and I have worked the past eighteen years to develop and prove that vowel clustering can teach all students to read.
Why does vowel clustering work so well? Vowel clustering works with the brain. Memorization works against the brain, regardless whether you are memorizing words from a word list or memorizing phonics rules. As Yoncheva, Wise, and McCandliss (2015) stated, “teaching-induced differences” can determine whether a child fails or succeeds in learning to read. Dr. Sally Shaywitz summarized the importance of using the correct teaching method by saying:
“In order to read, a child must ‘enter the language system;’ this means that the child must activate and use the brain circuits that are already in place for oral language…. tens of thousands of neurons carrying the phonological messages necessary for language… Connect to form the resonating networks that make skilled reading possible….” (Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003, pp. 59-68).
So, how do we activate these brain circuits? By the way we teach letter-sound relationships. Neuroimaging research shows that phonics does not teach letter-sound relationships in the same way that the brain processes them. Phonics focuses on the letters; the brain focuses on sounds.
“Most people assume that words are stored in visual memory. Many teaching approaches presume this. We assume that if students see the words enough, they will learn them. This is not true. Children with reading problems often cannot remember new words, even after many exposures.” (David A. Kilpatrick in Equipped for Reading Success, pp. 29-30).
Kilpatrick explains that the brain does not recognize and store words through visual memory—seeing the same word over and over or “look-say.” Instead, the brain creates an oral filing system. The brain does not file words by letter. Neither whole language or phonics works with the brain’s oral filing system. Students who cannot memorize whole language word lists cannot memorize phonics rules, especially rules for irregular letter sounds. If we go back to a phonics approach, we will leave many students failing in reading when we have the scientific knowledge to teach every student to read. Struggling students need educators to move forward, to read and understand what scientists are saying, and to use new scientific methods to help struggling students learn to read.
Vowel clustering teaches letter sounds. At all of my reading clinics, I work with children in small groups, use the group-centered format that combines learning and counseling, and teach vowel clustering.
Vowel clustering begins with the lower-case alphabet. Vowel clustering teaches students to recognize that the letters of the alphabet represent sounds. Students are taught to sound words out letter by letter instead of guessing. Students must be able to identify both the capital letters and lowercase letters to be able to read. We read mostly lowercase letters, but schools often teach only the uppercase letters. The first step to teaching a student to read is to teach the lowercase alphabet: (1) to recognize each lowercase letter (and know the letter name), (2) to know the letter sound(s) for each lowercase letter, and (3) to be able to write the lowercase letters correctly using manuscript style paper and letter formation.
Vowel clustering recognizes that vowels are the most important sounds for children learning to read and teaches all the sounds for a vowel in a cluster. With the letter a, the children learn all seven sounds used by letter a and the 22 different letter combinations that can be used to make those seven sounds. The traditional phonics approach was to teach the “short vowel sounds” and then the “long vowel sounds using silent e.” The other sounds were called “irregular sounds,” but irregular vowel sounds cause children the most confusion. Teaching vowels in clusters teaches children to learn all of the sounds for each vowel in an organized pattern. It’s easier and less confusing, and it works directly with how the brain assimilates and organizes letter sounds—connecting synapses and building pathways. Vowel clustering simply means to teach words by sounds rather than by letters. See Chapter 1 in my After-School Prevention Programs for At-Risk Students (2013) and Chapter 4 in my Group-Centered Prevention in Mental Health (2015) for examples of how this concept is applied in teaching children to read.
Today’s struggling students deserve the very best we can offer in the classroom. It is not enough to trade whole language for phonics.
The next question is, how do we teach students vowel sounds? Vowel clustering teaches all the vowel sounds in clusters. Remember, there are seven different sounds for the letter a, and the long a sound is just one of those seven sounds. The long a vowel sound can use: ea, ai, ay, ei, ey, eigh, and silent e. Of course, the letter a can also make the long a vowel sound when it stands alone, as with the word apron. So, if you are only introducing students to the long a sound through silent e, you have created a problem and confused struggling students, especially when you come along later and introduce irregular vowel sounds. Irregular vowel sounds that are thrown in later is how most students get lost while learning vowels. This is also one of the main reasons that phonics fails with at-risk students.
The vowel clustering method uses a vowel center where children learn to match the vowel sounds. Children learn to match words with the letter sounds; therefore, emphasizing the letter sound relationship and helping children to build and connect the sounds with their oral filing system.
The sounds are taught in clusters before going on to the next vowel. Remember, we are training the brain, building pathways in the brain; therefore, it is important to organize the way we teach so that the students can organize how they learn. We want to work with the brain, not against it. If we teach in a haphazard fashion, struggling students become confused. Vowel clustering presents a visual picture through use of a vowel clustered vowel center, that uses an auditory learning technique through oral reading and spelling of new words as they are matched to their letter sound on the vowel clustered vowel center. This enables students to see and hear the letter sounds. Vowel clustering also teaches handwriting because it is very important that students write the words correctly as they practice reading, spelling, and matching letter sounds at the vowel clustered vowel center.
A mother told me yesterday, “She’s addicted to reading. Before your Camp Sharigan program, she never wanted to read. Her reading grade in school has gone up 20 points. She can’t wait to get home and read.”
You, too, can help children become “addicted” to reading. Change the method that you use to teach children to read. I use vowel clustering, and it works.