Questions For Teaching Reading & Reading Kingdom

On May 31st, 2011 Dr. Marion Blank contributed the following questions in an interview with QuestionsForLiving®. This interview focuses on teaching reading skills, and Reading Kingdom, her unique approach to teaching children to read.

QuestionsForLiving: Are there certain fundamental / core questions that you have asked yourself over the course of your life and career that contributed to your interest teaching reading, and reading methodologies?

Dr. Blank: Our loves can start early and deeply. That is certainly true in my case. Even as a young child, I had a passion for language. I loved words, I loved playing around with verbal ideas, I loved the power words had to move and change people. I still have that love. Language is a phenomenal tool and there is nothing more rewarding than enabling others to master its potential.

At the same time, I saw phenomenal blockages to language in my own family. Many of my relatives had been born in eastern Europe and never learned to read or write because they never had the opportunity to go to school. That was true of my grandmother whom I loved dearly. So when I was about 5 or 6 years old and starting to learn to read, I was determined to teach her. Amazingly, she let me try. Unfortunately shortly after, she became very ill and our lessons stopped. Still my “teaching career” had started—and though I did not know it at the time, it was going to continue on –taking many varied and fascinating forms over the course of the decades.

QFL: What are some of the core questions that attracted you to education?

Dr. Blank: The classroom was my “learning center”—but not in the way that term is typically used. I was a good student and, like many kids, found the pace and content of the classroom to often be boring. So, possibly related to my interest in language, I would spend a lot of time mulling over what teachers were saying and doing. Without knowing it, I was doing an analysis of classroom patterns. That in turn, led me to see the many barriers that those patterns created to stifle learning.

For example, I remember learning lots of “rules” which I dutifully gave back to the teachers when they requested it—but which I knew were “not correct.”  One of the rules which was taught decades ago and is still taught today is the “silent e” rule which “states” that an “e” at the end of a word is “silent” but it causes the vowel earlier in the word “to say its name”—meaning that in a word like bite, you do not hear the “e” but the “i” is pronounced as “eye” (“it says it name”). But it was obvious to any good reader that there were loads of common words ending in “e” (such as “love, done, give, come, fare” etc) where this was not the case. I began to wonder about these discrepancies—which existed both in small details and in the larger overall picture.

As an illustration of the “larger overall picture,” consider the interaction in most classrooms. It is based on questions—questions that the teachers steadily put forth. Often these are justified via the highest of goals (e.g., they are said to reflect the Socratic method where questions are posed in an effort to get students to think). Typically, they are anything but that. It is far more typical that they are simply tests of memory. For example, when teachers ask, “Who was George Washington?” or “How much is 6 and 7?” or “What is the mountain range in South America?”  they are not teaching—they are testing. Children who regularly know the answers are seen as good students while those who do not are seen as poor students. But this is not a teaching curriculum, it is a testing curriculum that works very effectively in categorizing children on a scale of “good to poor.” Since there can be only a few A students, the system sets things up so that vast numbers of children see themselves as inadequate.

So to return to your question, it increasingly became my mission to analyze and modify education so it serves to benefit all children.

QFL: What are some of the core questions that have shaped your skills and approach as an educator?

Dr. Blank: I think that the central question concerns content. What is it that you need to teach to bring a novice to a level of skill? This is trickier than it might appear because our vision is regularly clouded by preconceptions and misperceptions.

For example, in reading, for decades, the answer to the question, “What is it that we should teach?” has been “Phonics.” It is thought that children need to “figure out” the words on a page and they can only do this if they “sound out.” This is such an accepted premise that even parents, with no teacher training, say to children who are stumbling over words, “Sound it out.”

But this deep, unchanging belief flies in the face of reality—a reality where the vast majority of the words in our language cannot be sounded out. Even a simple first grade sentence such as “Grace likes to play softball” does not have a single word that can be sounded out (that is, by placing a sound on each letter). To deal with this extraordinary problem, a vast network of rules has been created. Ironically, children who are reading well (the “natural” readers) do not need to be concerned by the rules—they can read without them; while children who are not reading well are saddled with complex rules that bog down their language and memory systems. So it is a method that works for no one. This is the antithesis of what education should be.

Of course, it is not an easy matter to determine the material that truly needs to be taught. But I think we will take a major step in the right direction if every curriculum that is created is tested on the weakest, and not the best, students. That is not how things currently operate. We constantly use the best students as “proof” of the effectiveness of a curriculum—when in fact, those students are essentially “curriculum proof”—that is, they are the lemonade makers from the lemon curricula that are out there. By contrast, if we can truly teach weak students so that they fully master the material in question, we will have made major strides in knowing that we are on the right track in our teaching. So a core question to ask is, “Does this curriculum work for the weak students?”

QFL: What were the primary questions that asked yourself when creating Reading Kingdom's unique approach for teaching reading?

Dr. Blank:The approach that is the basis for the Reading Kingdom started many decades ago and it represents a process of taking bits and pieces from a range of domains and gradually putting them together to create a coherent picture. For example, years back I was doing research on strong and weak fourth grade readers. Part of the work involved the children viewing sequences of symbols presented in left to right arrays. Both groups did equally well but I was surprised, indeed shocked, to see that, totally unlike the good readers, the weak readers rarely used the left-to-right sequencing in handling the symbols. In other words, after four years of reading (or four years of struggling to read) the weak readers were not using left to right sequencing which is so basic to the reading process. Since then, I have found sequencing difficulties in many children with reading problems. Yet because of the dominance of phonics issues in the teaching of reading, this issue is rarely, if ever discussed. So a key question that I felt had to be addressed was, “What can be done to develop the sequencing abilities that children need for reading?” That question led me to create Seeing Sequences—a segment of the Reading Kingdom that, within a few weeks, enables the children to develop the visual sequencing skills that set the foundation for effective reading. 

Basically in creating the Reading Kingdom, I took every significant difficulty that I saw children struggling with and made a place for it in the program. For example, it has long been known that weak readers have trouble with the “little” words of the language—words like “the, is, was, done, who” etc. The difficulty was attributed to the fact that these words cannot be sounded out. This interpretation serves to validate phonics even more (i.e., it shows that when you cannot sound out, then it is difficult to read).

However, that interpretation seemed far from adequate. There are lots of words that also cannot be sounded out –even when the “rules” are applied. Yet children find them relatively easy to decode (e.g., words like “bread” and “house”). So the question for me became, “Why do the little words pose greater difficulty for the reader?” What I found is that those “little” words are from a group of words that in linguistics is referred to as “non-content” words. They are central to the grammar of our language. Without them, it is near impossible to construct sentences. And –of great importance-- these words are also processed in a different part of the brain from the “content” words. That is, in large measure, responsible for the decoding difficulties they elicit. Once this issue was clarified, the “little” words were given a central place in the Reading Kingdom curriculum. They receive the time and effort needed for children not only to decode them, but to understand their meaning and the effect they have on the sentences we create. In other words, a vacuum in the phonics curriculum became a key strength in the Reading Kingdom curriculum.

I should add that I have been extremely fortunate in my career to have been able to have trained in a variety of disciplines-- psychology, linguistics, testing, psychiatry and public health. Each one has played a role in enabling me to put together all the parts of the puzzle.

QFL: What questions would you advise teachers and parents to ask themselves in order to best help children learn to read?

Dr. Blank: When reading is taught effectively, the results are dramatic and relatively rapid. With the right techniques, I have seen children regularly gain three to five years in reading scores within a single year. Of course, there are individual differences and children with learning difficulties will move more slowly. However, their progress too can be outstanding. So one of the first questions parents and teachers should be asking is “Do I see steady and significant progress?” Unless the answer is a clear “yes,” whatever is being done should be changed.

At that point, the adult should then ask a second question: “How much of what I am doing is generating wrong responses?” This question is almost never asked. The operative assumption is almost always that what the adult is doing represents the accepted mode and so it is correct. If a child is not learning, it is seen as a sign that the child has certain problems, difficulties or limitations. The entire perspective changes if the focus turns to the errors or wrong responses and to view these as behaviors that the adult has generated in the child. When this is done, the adult has to begin questioning the accepted techniques and realize the need to come up with alternatives.

Unfortunately, this often does not happen. People do not readily change unless they are hurting. With reading problems, as with other academic difficulties, it is not the adult who is hurting. It is the child who is hurting and he or she does not have the power to effect change.

Some years ago, I was asked to consult about a child who was in sixth grade, who was reading in second grade and who had just started with a new teacher. He had been through six years of intensive phonics and it clearly had not worked. In addition, much like any person who had been through endless pain, the presentation of any phonics activities caused him to totally withdraw. I began to speak to the teacher about alternative teaching systems and her first response was, “Let me have one more go at him with phonics.” This response reflects a huge number of issues—but for our purposes here, it illustrates the attachment adults have to accepted procedures—even in the face of clear evidence that they are not appropriate.

I think it is vital to begin training teachers in examining what they are doing and in providing them with training that allows them to be open to alternatives.

QFL: Could you suggest some basic questions that adults should ask themselves while reading to improve their comprehension of the material?

Dr. Blank: This is an interesting question because it implicitly reflects the split that exists in reading—between reading for school and reading for oneself. Comprehension is rarely a problem in reading that one has chosen to do. After all, you have selected the book or article precisely because you are interested in the topic and it’s unlikely that the material will prove to be difficult and trigger a host of comprehension issues.

With imposed material--the sort you have to do for school—and in some cases, for work, the situation is entirely different. You have no control over the motivation, the complexity, or the topic. So comprehension issues become central. In these situations, one of the best (albeit little used) techniques is to train yourself to be a “headline writer.” That person’s job is to take the text of a complex issue and capture its essence in the few words of a headline.

That’s what you should do with every paragraph in the text. Aim to summarize each one with four to eight words. It takes a few weeks to get skilled in this and it helps a lot, if at the start, you work with a partner. The give-and-take leads to creating better and better wording. So this is an ideal technique for parents to use with their children. They are giving their children a key to academic success and a key to proficient language that will serve them well in their lives.

The great news about this technique is that you do not need to keep doing it forever. Once you’re adept at capturing ideas in this way, you begin to do it automatically in your reading and it stays with you for life.

QFL: Generally speaking, what questions do you believe that people should/could ask themselves to make our world a happier and healthier place?

Dr. Blank: Wow—that’s quite a question. It’s a lot more complicated than teaching reading or any other academic subject. I guess that, were I to have the power to affect people on this broad a topic, I would ask them, “What are you doing to achieve balance?”

We are living in a phenomenal time with enormous opportunities. But what I also see happening is an over-focus that is closing options. For instance, I love the computer. Its potential is incredible and it represents a tool of still unimagined power. But for so many children, high tech devices have come to dominate their lives. They spend endless hours with their equipment—with the result that other key areas of life such as friendship, conversation, and physical activity fall increasingly to the wayside. Clearly, it is extraordinarily difficult to voluntarily limit our time with and use of attractive materials. That’s why dieting is as hard as it is. But if we are to use the tools of the modern age so that we as individuals and the overall society prosper, it is essential that we learn to balance the key forces in our lives.

For more information regarding Dr. Marion Blank and Reading Kingdom, please visit:


I love the idea that you've

Ms. Rhee Chell's picture

I love the idea that you've created Seeing Sequences for the child to develop an effective reading. It is very important for a child to practice effective reading while they are still young. Reading helps a lot. Thanks for the article. It is very informative.


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