Freebies > Articles >
Read by Grade 3?  Say What?
by Don McCabe

Expecting students to be able to read by grade three is an impossible dream.  And so it shall remain as long as the way reading is taught throughout our nation remains unchanged.  The No Child Left Behind Act is only a small start, not the answer.

What is either taught systematically or encountered through a literature approach from kindergarten through the end of 2nd grade are the phonics or words containing just the phonics of our story telling words.  My explanation follows.  I know it is simplistic and not historically accurate, so please don't write me to tell me what I already know.  I use the following because it makes sense and is easy for a non-academic to understand even though it isn't literally true.

A long time ago there was a land that had no name of its own.  It was filled with men and women who could do a lot of things.  They could hunt deer.  They could stand still.  They could hide.  They might kick a stone or pet a dog or a cat.  Some could run fast.  Others would walk slow.  They liked to play games but they knew how to work hard.  They cut down trees to build their own homes.  They had no bats to swing or balls to hit.  Yet they knew how to have fun.  They could dance and sing or jump with joy.  They could shout, scream, laugh, or cry.  To get food, they would grow plants, spear fish, or hunt and kill deer.  They got milk from cows.  They grew grapes to make wine.  At night they could look up at the sky and see the moon and the stars before they went to sleep.  Then came some more men in big boats from across the sea.  These men would change life and the way they would speak.

The first part of the story contains just the "simple" words of our BASIC English language.  The second part continues to use the basic words but adds many other words that came into our language from other languages.  These POWER words generally are not encountered in the first two grades, nor are the phonic patterns within them taught.  These words are bolded.  How many of these words can be read by the best of third graders?

This place is what we today call England.  When the Roman legions conquered this island, they considered the indigenous people savages. To the Romans the natives had neither culture nor legal traditions comparable to theirs.  Naturally, they felt it incumbent upon themselves to educate these indigent ignoramuses.  Since these barbarians had only basic story telling words in their vocabulary, the Romans added the necessary terminology from their own language which was LatinEventually from Ireland and Italy came missionaries who brought Christianity to these pagans.  They taught the local savages that if they converted from their polytheistic Druidic tree worshipping religion to Catholicism by being baptized and accepting Jesus Christ as their savior, salvation would be theirs.  Because the ignorant pagans had no biblical or religious or medical vocabulary beyond roots and herbs, the missionaries created appropriate neologisms by the thousands from their two favorite languages, Latin and Greek.  Then came the Normans.  They conquered the somewhat civilized barbarians and added thousands more words dealing with the more sophisticated aspects of cuisine and military matters.  So now words such as victuals, merlot, cabaret, depot, lieutenant, colonel, rendezvous, bivouac, boudoir, and unique were added to our language.  As these and other words were added into the English language from other languages such as the Spanish hacienda, the Italian spaghetti, the Arabic zero, the German auf wiedersehen, the Hebrew amen, the Sanskrit sandhi, the Russian sputnik, the Chinese Qin, and the Japanese bonsai, etc., they kept their phonic patterns rather than the phonic patterns of the basic English language.  

Once we can clearly see the problem, we ought to be able to see the solution.  And that is to teach systematically our entire language and not just leave vocabulary building to chance.  This is one of the reasons why I wrote the book, The Teaching of Reading and Spelling: a Continuum from Kindergarten through College.  And that's why in that book I do have a suggested listing for the order in which to teach not just the Simple words in our language but also the Fancy, the Insane, the Tricky, and the Scrunched Up.  See The 5 Types of English Spelling.

Only the Basic words are generally taught or encountered in the first two grades.  How can we ever expect children entering the third grade to learn on their own both the intermediate and the advanced words without systematic help from their teachers and a curriculum that ensures the opportunity for all children to learn the English language?

Here is a chart (from Origins of the English Language, by Joseph M. Williams) I think you will enjoy.  You can easily see how stiff (FANCY) the vocabulary gets after the first thousand most frequently used words.  Each decile represents a thousand different words.  They are ordered by frequency from business letters. [From Donald Potter]

  "Simple" "Fancy"
Decile English French Latin Danish Greek & Other
1 83% 11% 2% 2% 2%
2 34% 46% 11% 2% 7%
3 29% 46% 14% 1% 10%
4 27% 45% 17% 1% 10%
5 27% 47% 17% 1% 8%
6 27% 42% 19% 2% 10%
7 23% 45% 17% 2% 13%
8 26% 41% 18% 2% 13%
9 25% 41% 17% 2% 15%
10 25% 42% 18% 1% 14%

After the 1st 1,000 most frequently used words, only one out of four words contain patterns encountered or taught in the first two grades of school.  In other words, 3 out of every 4 words will contain patterns neither taught nor encountered in the first two years of school.

Contact Us | Donate | Sitemap