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Is Professor AVKO Right?
A Challenge to Educational Researchers at Every Level
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by Don McCabe


When this paper was first written, twenty-five copies of it were sent to some of the leading educators in the United States.  With it was a simple request for a response.  To respond required only checking one of four boxes, writing a few appropriate comments, then putting it inside a stamped self-address envelope that we provided.  A month later we had not received a single response from any of these top people in the field of reading.

A second set was sent out to the same people, this time with a checklist that they could simply mark and return in another stamped self-addressed envelope.  Among the choices was: "Somehow it got lost.  Please send me another copy."  One educator did that.  Another was sent to him that same day his reply came.  Not another answer came from him or anyone else.  That was in 1991.

We invite everybody to try the experiment that is in this challenge.  We invite you to see for yourself IF Professor AVKO is right.  If you agree, just maybe, you might help us spread the word that the current rate of illiteracy in the United States does not have to continue.  If we follow AVKO's simple concepts we can drastically reduce the rate of illiteracy.

And by the way, the greatest of all discoveries have been simple.  Fire.  The wheel.  The alphabet.  The printing press.  Asepsis (Doctors, wash your hands!).  The last simple medical discovery has saved more lives than any other medical discovery.  But when Dr. Semmelweiss, who made the simple discovery, tried to convince his colleagues in the medical profession that the death rate from puerperal (childbirth) fever did not have to be 13.10%, his ideas and his statistics were not accepted.  To do so, the medical profession would have had to admit that they were needlessly killing women because they were too lazy to wash their hands.  It was much easier to lock Semmelweiss up in an insane asylum than to shut him up.  And so they did.

I suspect that Professor AVKO's ideas are much like those of Semmelweiss.  They are so simple, so filled with common sense, that educators do not want to accept them because to do so, they would have to admit that they have allowed millions of people to remain illiterates, because they didn't bother to teach them what they need to know in order to learn to read: the real phonics of the English language which does not necessarily require "phony phonic rules.".  

This last sentence must have so infuriated a college instructor that she fired off a rebuttal.  This highly negative response was written by J.R., the resident expert on reading instruction at Mott Community College.  It got into her hands because Dr. Fred Duprai, who was a pediatric dentist at the Mott Community Health Center, was so impressed with it, he gave it to a friend of his at the college who gave it to J.R.

Dr. Duprai was amazed at the highly negative response.  So I not only have included her response but my responses to hers.  Now for the essay, then the responses.

Is Professor AVKO Right?

For years, Professor AVKO has maintained that the cause of our nation's literacy problem is largely iatrogenic.  That is, teacher induced.  AVKO claims the underlying cause of illiteracy or dyslexia is a failure of our educational system to teach.  His explanation is that it is too easy for educators to shift the blame to parents, economic factors, racial factors, socioeconomic factors, cultural factors, underpaid and/or undereducated teachers, lack of discipline, or whatever (Anderson, Herbert, Scott,, 1985).  Psychologists have long maintained that projection is common to all of us, educators included.  We teachers are not immune to passing the buck.  These college instructors blame the elementary teachers for not practicing what is taught to them in their college education classes (Kerr, D.H., 1983).  They will not accept the responsibility for neglecting the teaching of one crucial area of educational curriculum.  That is, phonics is not being taught in any American university at the present time!  Mentioned in textbooks, yes.  Taught, no.  It is this area that this challenge is all about.

Professor AVKO maintains that no matter how much money is thrown at education (witness the 60 Minutes segment on the Kansas City, Missouri school system), no matter how many computers are purchased for schools or for students, no matter how highly paid our teachers become, no matter how small our classrooms become, we will not greatly reduce the number of functional illiterates in our society.  He accepts that definition of functional illiteracy as identified as Level 2 in the most comprehensive literacy survey conducted to date, Adult Literacy in America.  This book is the result of the National Adult Literacy Survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics under authorization of the U.S. Department of Education (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, Kolstad, 1993).

Headstart is a start, but only a start. No matter what reading system is used, no matter how small the classes, no matter how well paid and well educated the teachers, no matter how many computers are in the classroom, no matter how slick and glossy the books being used in those first three grades, a large segment will start slipping further and further behind as they progress through the grades. No matter if we finally throw out the drug dealers, take back our neighborhoods and our neighborhood schools, and restore old-fashioned discipline, the results will essentially be the same. Unacceptable.

Why doesn’t the system work? Because there is a serious flaw in the underlying assumption held by those who have decision making ability regarding curriculum, whether in the colleges of education or in the public school systems.

The faulty assumption is:

In grades 1-3 students learn to read.

From grade 4 up students read to learn.

What really happens is that in grades 1-3 students are just beginning to learn how to read. They are only being exposed to words that, for the most part, follow what we call simple spelling patterns (McCabe, 1992). These words may contain many letters. For example, the word misunderstandings contains 17 letters and five syllables. Yet, it has a base of only one syllable, stand. All of the word parts can be found in other words used in the curriculum of grades 1-3. Mis- is a common prefix. Under is both a common word and a common prefix. And -ing is a common suffix as well as the -s.

You can take that word misunderstandings and match it with any word in column B on page 38 and you will find that nearly everyone who can read at all will be able to read that word misunderstandings, but may not be able to read a much shorter word such as precious in column B. Whole word advocates have a difficult time explaining that phenomenon. Their typical explanation for a "big" word like elephant being easier is that it is a concrete noun and has a high frequency of occurrence. However, the word misunderstandings does not ever occur in books, charts, magazines, or even on bulletin boards or chalkboards in grades 1-3. The word precious, by all concepts normally associated with readability, should be easier to learn to read and to spell than the word misunderstandings. But it isn’t, obviously.

Tentative conclusions:

Students in grades 1-3 learn little story telling words such as: See Spot, Dick, and Jane come running and hopping down the bunny trail to our house. But they have not learned to read well enough to read to learn. Students from the fourth grade up are expected to correctly apply what they have learned from reading little story telling words to reading "big" subject matter related words that have patterns within them that do not regularly occur in the reading materials used in the first three grades. In the next sentence a sampling of these subject matter related words are italicized.

For democracy to function in a multi-cultural society, it’s absolutely crucial that concepts such as justice and social consciousness are taught.

Not only are these words long but these words contain abstract concepts that need to be taught. And, each one of them contain at least one phonic element not taught and rarely encountered in early children’s story telling literature. Teachers in grades four on up should be taught to recognize specific reading problems and to teach the reading, spelling, and the meaning/s of those words that contain these special phonic patterns.

But don’t blame the teachers. Even if they wanted to take courses in phonics, there is not a single course in phonics and/or the patterns of English spelling taught in any major university within their schools of education! Surfing and wine-tasting, maybe. Phonics, no!

Teachers in grades four through college must not be allowed to continue to blame teachers in the first three grades for not doing a good enough job teaching the youngsters to read.

Learning-to-read is an ongoing, dynamic process.

Review a demonstration showing how words with patterns that are not systematically taught are more difficult to read.

George Bernard Shaw was wrong.

He claimed, tongue in cheek, that the word fish could be spelled ghoti

gh = /f/ as in enough. o = /i/ in women. ti=/sh/ as in nation.

Learn why George Bernard Shaw was wrong.

Yet, the patterns that make the words in column B above more difficult are highly regular. For example, the pattern ci- is almost always pronounced /sh/ as in racial, special, social, spacious, suspicious, etc. Somehow good readers learn to respond to them. Dyslexics have a miserable time with them.

Good readers who are horrible spellers will often substitute sh for the ci pattern and spell the words rashul, speshul, soshul and spashus.

If Professor AVKO’s theories are wrong, then it follows logically that people who can read will, half the time, pick a column B word as the easier word. Certainly, total non-readers (such as those whose native written language is not a Roman alphabetic language) will average 50% when quizzed. But readers, whether dyslexic or not, will invariably pick the word in Column B as the more difficult word. And they don’t know why. All they know is that somehow the word precious is a tougher word than pretends even though precious occurs more frequently in print than the word pretends.

Prediction: The obvious is true: Words whose phonic components are either systematically taught in the first three grades or whose phonic components are in words commonly presented for learning in the first three grades will be chosen as the easier word. Words whose phonic components are not taught and rarely, if ever, occur in words commonly presented for learning in the first three grades will inevitably be chosen as the more difficult.

Significance: If the vast majority of students are to become good readers and not just the "elite" who can read the word elite, educators should find a way to ensure that all students are given the opportunity to learn the words that contain the phonic components that are neither taught systematically nor occur in words presented for learning in the first three grades.

Note: The consensus among the reading experts selected by the NIE for its report, Becoming a Nation of Readers, was that the teaching of simple phonics should be completed by the end of grade 2 (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott,, 1985)! From there on in, instruction in phonics is not indicated! Professor AVKO disagrees. He does agree that idealistically the teaching of "simple" phonics should be completed by the end of grade two. Professor AVKO wouldn’t mind if the completion of the teaching of "simple" phonics were to be completed by the end of grade three. However, AVKO contends that mastery of "simple" phonics is not enough for the majority of learners. The phonics of words whose base has more than one syllable should be taught systematically starting at least as early as grade four.

Tests: On this page are two simple pencil and paper test that can be administered to as many individuals at the same time as a researcher desires. Please notice that the second test is a control version of the first test. If a researcher wants to verify that the number of letters and specific letters has nothing to do with the difficulty, but rather the patterns, the control version totally eliminates the patterns while retaining the identical letters. The letters are the same. However, the consonants in each word are put first and deliberately placed in such a fashion that pronunciation cannot take place. The vowels are placed at the end of the word. Again, if there are multiple vowels, care was taken to order them in such a way as to make any reasonable pronunciation difficult. Previously we supplied cards to enable different methods of giving the test individually. Now, they are available only upon request.

The Survey Test given to over 1,000 adults (Mostly teachers). Nearly everybody had a perfect score! The lowest score recorded was by a featured speaker at a reading conference! The median and the mode was 100% correct. Only the mean was lower.

The Control Survey Test given to over 1,000 adults (Mostly teachers). Nobody had a perfect score! On this test the mean, median and the mode was where it is supposed be—around 50

Mark the easier word to read, spell, teach, learn, (your choice) with a check mark.

Mark the easier word to read, spell, teach, learn, (your choice) with a check mark.

1a. ___ pntraie 6a. ___mstksiae
1b. ___ prtlaia 6b. ___mssnsiio
2a. ___ prcsueio 7a. ___nnsuio
2b. ___ prtndsee 7b. ___nsfuae
3a. ___chrncoi 8a. ___ptteie
3b. ___chmnyie 8b. ___pttdee
4a. ___nnydaoe 9a. ___cmpltdoee
4b. ___ntqaiue 9b. ___cnfsnouio
5a. ___mchnzdeaie 10a.  ___spttdoe
5b. ___mnngfleaiu 10b.  ___spcleia

How To Scientifically Construct Your Own Test

of Professor AVKO’s theories

The logical first step is to list the different patterns of English spelling and then check them against those patterns that are in your curriculum. Sounds easy enough. Except, where are you going to find either list? It only took me a little over 20 years to make my list of patterns and to categorize them and cross index them so that I can look up any word in the index and find the page or pages that contain all the words that share the same pattern. This reference tool I named The Patterns of English Spelling. It contains almost 1,000 pages. It is in a 3 inch 3 ring binder to make it easy for teachers to remove individual pages for copying purposes. It is available from the AVKO Foundation.

A school’s spelling or reading curriculum might contain lists of initial consonants, consonant blends, digraphs, short vowels, and long vowels as if these lists contained all the patterns. They don’t. For example, let’s take the word, word. The vowel o is neither a short nor long o. Rather, it sounds the same as the -ur sound in fur. The onset w is consistent, but the "rime" is not ord as in ford, cord, lord, etc. But there is a pattern, the wor- pattern which is the only way we spell the sound "wur" except in the word were. A few examples are: work, worth, world, and worm. The sound "or" is spelled "ar" when preceded by the w or qu (/kw/)! The words war, ward, warp,  wart and quart do not rhyme with car, card, carp, and cart!

Sorry, but you will have to use The Patterns of English Spelling to locate the patterns that need to be taught in order to check your school’s spelling or reading curriculum. What can I say? I’m prejudiced. I’m the author.


Anderson, Richard C., Hiebert, Scott, Wilkinson et. al. (1985) Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading (p. 118). Washington, D.C.: Dept. of Education.

Greene, Harry A. and Bradley M. Loomer, The New Iowa Spelling Scale. University of Iowa, 1977.

Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, Kolstad (1993) Adult Literacy in America (p. XV). Washington D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Education.

Kerr, D. H. (1983) "Teaching competence and teacher education in the United States" in L. S. Shulman & G. Sykes (Eds.) Handbook of teaching and policy (pp. 126-149). New York: Longman.

McCabe, D. J. (1992) The Patterns of English Spelling. Birch Run, Mich.: AVKO Foundation.

McCabe, D. J. (1993) The Mechanics of English Spelling. Birch Run, Mich.: AVKO Foundation.

McCabe, D. J. (1990) English Spelling: The "Simple," the "Fancy," the "Insane," the "Tricky," and the "Scrunched Up." Birch Run, Mich.: AVKO Foundation.

McCabe, D. J. (1997) The Reading Teacher’s List of Over 5,500 Basic Spelling Words Arranged by Order of Difficulty. Birch Run, Mich.: AVKO Foundation.

Rowntree, Derek (1981) Statistics without tears. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Zeno, Susan, et. al. The Educators Word Frequency Guide. Brewster, N.Y.: Touchstone Applied Science Associates, 1995.

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