Academic Associates

Every student can learn to read

Wendy E. Dow

Certified Reading Instruction Specialist, Director

San Luis Obispo County Learning Center

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The Problem

Trouble in America

When the average six-year-old child enters first grade, he or she already knows the meaning of about 26,000 words. They may not use all of those words themselves, but they understand what the words mean when they hear them.

The goal of many first grade reading programs is to teach the students to read between 200 and 600 common words by the end of the school year. Sadly, over half of them can't even read 100 words by the time they finish first grade.

In fact, many of them never learn to read well at all. In the United States, over half of the adults can't read material written at the sixth grade level.

How did this come to pass? The answer lies in the fact that John Dewey, the "Father of Progressive Education" and Arthur Gates, an influential educator, changed the way reading was taught in this country. Before these changes were made everyone who attended school learned to read in a very short time. In our large cities, over 90 percent of the adult population could read anything written in our language. Dewey and Gates proposed that our schools abandon the method that had been used to teach reading ever since reading was first invented.


African American

4th grade 87%

12th grade 84%


4th grade 84%

12th grade 78%

American Indian/Alaska Native

4th grade 82%

12th grade 65%


4th grade 59%

12th grade 58%

A while back we enrolled a nine year-old boy who has suffered through four so-called phonics programs, none of which worked. He is now reading books on his own for the first time. He is making stellar progress, and his mother constantly refers other students to us.

Identifying the Problem

In the United States, approximately 40 to 45 percent of school aged children are below grade level in reading.1 Of the 40 percent who have difficulty with reading, approximately 80 percent are boys.2 Male and female brains, while similar in many respects, often function differently when processing the same or similar tasks. This is a result of physiological differences in the neural architecture of the brain over which neither the male nor female has any conscious control. These differences are graphically illustrated by magnetic resonance images taken during various activities.

Brain activation patterns show that males process reading in a relatively small area in the left hemisphere of the brain, while females typically process reading in significantly larger areas of both sides of the brain.3

We also know that females are typically better able to infer, that is, to draw conclusions from intuitive, inferential stimuli or incomplete data, than are males. Males, especially those who have difficulty with reading, do not generally have the ability to draw conclusions from inference or extrapolation. Those in this group require a directed, factual approach in order to arrive at conclusions.

The male in the 40 percent group is generally unable to draw abstract conclusions, and is thus unable to infer that letters are symbols that stand for sounds. He must be taught every possible sound represented by each letter and combination of letters, plus dependable rules that govern the sounds those letters make. Until he learns this, he will have difficulty reading.4

The females in this group process very similarly to the males. They too have difficulty making the necessary inferences. That is why they benefit greatly from a phonological approach that covers the 44 sounds of American English.

For a complete understanding of how our alphabetic system works, the child must have a thorough grasp of this information:

  1. 1.The ability to analyze words into phonemes.

  1. 2.The knowledge that these phonemes occur in all words.

  1. 3.The knowledge of which letter symbol represents which phoneme.

  1. 4.The understanding that there is a consistent relationship between each phoneme and a letter across all positions in a word and across all words (transitivity). The letter b stands for the phoneme /b/ in the word "big," and also for /b/ in the word "bat," and also for /b/ in the word "tub."5

The Academic Associates Reading Program is designed to address the problem in a simple straightforward manner. Students are given the phonetic skills to master over 90 percent of the million words in the English language.

In Marcia D'Arcangelo’s very recent interview with Sally Shaywitz, professor of pediatrics at the Yale Child Study Center, she posed this predicament:

"Educators are vitally interested in information that can help them teach reading. Many middle school and high school teachers haven't been taught how to teach reading."

Dr. Shaywitz's reply contained, "…This [scientific] evidence supports the fact that reading is part of language. To read, we have to break up spoken words into smaller units, understand that letters represent sounds, have a knowledge base, have a vocabulary, and have the motivation and enjoyment."6

When trained in teaching the Academic AssociatesTM Reading Program teachers have the skills necessary to teach anyone to learn to read. Elementary teachers know a lot about reading but have never been taught a program that works every time. The Academic Associates Reading Program does for its teachers what no university or teacher's college can do. In our reading program we build on the first three stages of reading development.7 Our students begin with initial decoding. An understanding of the phonetic structure of the English language is a must if a poor reader is to become a good reader.

We then move into fluency where the decoding becomes both accurate and rapid. This frees up attention for higher-level reading comprehension skills.

Reading for meaning becomes one of understanding the content. It is during this stage that students expand their knowledge base. Students who are reading below grade-level lack significantly in their knowledge base.

After students learn to sound out and pronounce words, they are taught simple, effective techniques for understanding what they read. Reading becomes a logical, uncomplicated process.

By lesson 13, most fourth-graders through adults read and spell college level words, and comprehend material at their own grade level or higher.

This is usually accomplished in 45 to 60 hours. Out of the thousands of students and adults who have been through the Academic Associates Reading Program, every one has learned to read and, typically, progressed 2 to 5 grade levels in their reading ability.

  1. 1This is based on the 1994 NAEP's reading exam of 4th graders, and Education Week 9/16/98.

  2. 2Scientific American, "Dyslexia", by Frank R. Vellutino March 1987 page 39.

  3. 3Scientific American, "Dyslexia", by Sally E. Shaywitz A new model of this reading disorder emphasizes defects in the language processing rather than the visual system. It explains how language is processed November 1996.

  4. 4Ibib.

  5. 5"Why Our Children Can't Read", by Diane McGuiness, The Free Press 1997 page 174.

  6. 6Educational Leadership, "Learning About Learning to Read", by Marcia D'Arcangelo, October 1999 pages 26-31.

  7. 7Journal of Learning Disabilities, "The Effect of Early Reading Failure on Acquisition of Knowledge Among Students with Learning Disabilities", by Vicki Snider & Sara Tarver June/July 1987.

  8. Used with permission. © Copyright 2006 Academic Associates Learning Center