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NonProfit Director of 40L. Volunteer literacy tutor since 1994.
NonProfit Director of 40L. Volunteer literacy tutor since 1994.

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Do black students need a different reading program?

Do black students need a different reading program? Literacy tutor Vanessa Peters's work with remedial students in Los Angeles and Atlanta made her think they might, so she wrote one. On her website, Sweet Sounds of Reading, she states, "Blacks in alarming numbers are recklessly being turned into illiteracy statistics. BUT! An about-face simple solution to this travesty is staring us right in the face. Just tap into their natural ability to connect rhythm and sounds."

Tutor Charles Richardson thought so. In an article Richardson wrote for the Reading Reform Foundation, he wrote that “Early phonics appears to be more crucial for African-Americans than for other ethnicities, and once that is in place they do just fine.” [1] He goes into his research in that article, and also stated, “A friend who taught first grade in Jersey City many years ago, when the reading programs were all phonics, used to say, “The black kids are smarter than the whites!” [2]

My 23 years of volunteer literacy tutoring have taught me that phonics works better for all children, and my minority students did seem to gain even more than my white students. When I went back and compiled my data, I found that one of my classes closed the gap and in the other, the minority students outpaced the white students, not just closing the gap but jumping over it.

Recent brain research has found that the brains of good readers are processing each letter and letter team of every word we read in the area of the brain that processes sound. This process occurs in parallel so fast that many adults believe they are reading by sight, but science shows we are parallel processing with sounds. Stanislas Dehaene, neuroscientist and author, has several good videos explaining this process. [3]

Science supports learning to read with phonics but the education world has been slow to adjust to recent findings. Remediating children taught with sight words is a lot of work, it is easier to teach the right way from the start. In his book, Language at the Speed of Sight, Mark Seidenberg states, "Very little of what we've learned about reading as scientists has had any impact on what happens in the schools because the cultures of science and education are so different. These cross-cultural differences, like many others, are difficult to bridge."

Seidenberg also states, "The gulf between science and education has been harmful. A look at the science reveals that the methods commonly used to teach children are inconsistent with basic facts about human cognition and development and so make learning to read more difficult than it should be. They inadvertently place many children at risk for reading failure. They discriminate against poorer children. "

Vanessa Peters' tutoring experience brought it home to her just how hard it is for minority and poor children who have reading difficulties. She now has a YouTube channel to make reaching her students even easier. I have also found that it is hard for parents who have low literacy to help their children. Her videos are well designed to reach this audience [4]

I'm not sure if black students need a different reading program, but I do think that all students need a good phonics program without a lot of sight words, and Vanessa's program fits that description. I have used her "Letter Sounds Save Their Soul" books 4 and 5 with my remedial students with success.

What do you think? If you're not sure and want to find out, tutor a group of remedial students and find out what works. I have a variety of free to print resources to help you learn to make a difference with phonics tutoring. [5] It's easy to do, and very rewarding. The looks on the faces of the children as they learn and become good readers is amazing, the change is remarkable. A whole new world is opened to them, and they become more confident and excited about the world.

1. Richardson, Charles. “Reading, Phonics vs. Whole-Langague,” 6 March 1997, available online at

2. Richardson, Charles, “Reading Puzzles Explained: Old Research Supplies Missing Pieces,” Reading Reform Foundation, Newsletter No. 50, Spring 2003, page 12, available online at

3. Reading in the Brain YouTube playlist:

4. Sweet Sound of Reading on YouTube, tutor Vanessa Peters:

5. 40L's How to Tutor page at
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Closing the Gap in Reading

My 22 years teaching reading to hundreds of students has given me a great deal of anecdotal research that shows gaps closing for my minority inner city students. The shocking infographic from the New York Times “Money, Race and Success” [1] article showing as much as a 6 year gap for minority students prompted me to reexamine the research for hard evidence.

My search led me to a study that took me full circle back to the mid 1970's when I was in Kindergarten. My elementary school was a solidly working class neighborhood. I vividly remember one day when we had a fairly new kid in school that tried to make fun of us for wearing Toughskins. He had evidently not noted the demographics of the school nor noted the percentage of kids that were wearing Toughskins. We just stared at him like he was crazy. Those things were indestructible and cheap, it was just what you wore in our neighborhood. He soon realized that teasing along those lines was going nowhere.

My school was one of the 15% of the low SES schools in the nation that used a phonics series called "I See Sam" as part of a government study. [2] They were fun little books, and very effective. My classmates and I all became good readers. The series is still in use by some parents today, you can download and print them online for free or order printed booklets. [3]

Back to the study. It was a follow on study that looked at the students 12 years later, when they were high school seniors. The study looked at thousands of students at high schools comprised of students from several different elementary schools; the high schools contained some elementary schools that had used the program and some that had not. According to the study,

"Not only did the disadvantaged groups benefit from the kindergarten reading instruction, but so did the advantaged groups. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that, collectively, the high school seniors who participated in the kindergarten reading program had a lower social class rating than those who did not. Thus, in spite of an overall lower social class level, the students who received the kindergarten reading program still outperformed the higher social class students who did not. It is only in rare circumstances where a group with a lower social class rating outperforms one with a higher social class rating on a norm-referenced test of reading achievement. Further, the fact that these differences can be linked to an educational intervention makes them even more extraordinary.” [4]

This graph below shows the reduction in Illiteracy rates by Socioeconomic Status, the data come directly from the study. Another graph shown below shows the reduction in Illiteracy rates by race, again, the data come directly from the study.

How did a method this powerful for all students, but especially such a powerfully gap closing program, get ignored? First, the study does not explain how well designed and how phonics oriented the method was. In fact, the title of the study is "Learning to Read in Kindergarten." At the time, reading was commonly taught in first grade, and was commonly taught with whole word methods. Now, reading is commonly taught in kindergarten, but the gap has not closed, most likely because the gap closing methods are based on sounds and current methods focus on meaning. Current methods include some phonics but start with sight words and focus on reading comprehension and meaning, not decoding.

The kindergarten reading program is a sound phonics series, almost 100% decodable. There is no list of sight words. It is linguistically very well designed to prevent guessing and gradually builds up decoding skills. The wrong lesson was drawn from the study, they focused on the timing, not the method.

We'll look at some other gap closing evidence and see what they have in common.

First, let's look at homeschooling. I have homeschooled my children for 10 years in several different states. Most homeschoolers use well designed phonics methods, and the majority do not use sight word lists. A recent study of black homeschool students found that “While controlling for gender of student and family socioeconomic status, being homeschooled had an effect size in reading scores of about 42 percentile points higher than if public schooled.” [5]

Now, some anecdotal evidence from my 22 years of tutoring hundreds of students. The more I have focused on sounds and syllables, the better my minority and English Language Learner (ELL) students have done. All of my students have prospered as I moved to focus more on sounds and syllables, but the improvements have been greatest for my most disadvantaged students. My fastest students to date were two formerly homeless minority 2nd grade students who were reading 12th grade level passages from Webster’s Speller after only 6 group tutoring sessions. In my sight word article, I explain this in more detail. [6]

A phonics program with a focus on pure sounds is given a 10 on a chart of “phonics purity,’ based on a scale developed by education researcher Geraldine Rodgers. She explains the scale and rates programs in her book “The History of Beginning Reading.” A program with a focus on pure meaning is given a 1 on the scale. Rodgers’ scale helps us understand a seeming contradiction in what happened at two different schools after the introduction of “Reading First.” The mainly minority students in Richmond, Virginia improved after implementing Reading First, “Third grade reading scores in Richmond rose form the bottom 5 percent of the state in 2001 to the top 40 percent in 2005, a perhaps-unprecedented accomplishment for a large urban district.” [7] In Maryland, Barclay Elementary experienced a different result. Vanessa Peters, reading tutor and author, writes, “Blacks reading scores plummet at Barclay Elementary” [8] after the introduction of Reading First. Peters explains the drop in more detail on her website, Sweet Sounds of Reading.

Prior to Reading First, the schools in Virginia were using a typical “balanced literacy” program, which scores about a 3, around the level of “Hooked on Phonics” on the chart below. [9] They moved from a 3 to a 6 and saw gains. The children at Barclay Elementary were using a 9 level program, around the level of EZ (Teach Your Child to Read in 100 EZ Lessons) on the chart below. After moving from a 9 to a 6, their scores dropped.

Vanessa Peters believes that phonics is even more important for black children. She explains why in “Why Black Children Need A Different Reading Program.” [10] I have used the program she developed these needs in mind, “Letter Sounds Save Their Soul,” and have found it a useful series for all remedial students.

Charles Richardson tutored thousands of students in New York before his death in 2008. His article “Reading: Phonics vs. Whole-Language” is available from Don Potter. In an article Richardson wrote for the Reading Reform Foundation, he wrote that “Early phonics appears to be more crucial for African-Americans than for other ethnicities, and once that is in place they do just fine.” [11] He goes into his research in that article, and also stated, “A friend who taught first grade in Jersey City many years ago, when the reading programs were all phonics, used to say, “The black kids are smarter than the whites!” [12]

That is almost enough to make you want to start a conspiracy theory! Addie Vinson tried to, she thought that good phonics methods were removed from the schools to keep black students down. Who is Addie Vinson and why haven't you heard of her or her conspiracy theory?

Addie Vinson was one of 7 children. She was born in a log cabin. The most likely reason you haven't heard of her conspiracy theory is because it was written in 1938 when she was 86 years old. Addie Vinson was born a slave. Her story is one of many recorded in the Slave Narratives. Here is her conspiracy theory in her own words and dialect, exactly as recorded in the Slave Narratives: "It was a long time atter de war was done over ‘for schools for Niggers was sot up, and den when Nigger chillum did git to go to school dey warn’t ‘lowed to use de old blue-back spellin’ book ‘cause white folkses said it larn’t ‘em too much.” [13]

Addie Vinson was right about the power of Webster's Blue Backed Speller. It is a very powerful phonics method--it was actually used to teach both reading and spelling. The best explanation of its historical use comes from ex-slaves like Addie Vinson talking about its use in the Slave Narratives. [14]

Webster's Speller has not been in wide use as a phonics method since Addie Vinson's day, but thanks to a re-formatted edition by Don Potter, it is gaining fans and is starting to be used by a variety of homeschool families.

I have used Webster's Speller successfully with dozens of remedial students and taught both of my children to read with the speller. It is a powerful method even today. It focuses on syllables and teaches phonics to a 12th grade level. I have detailed instructions in how to use it so that you, too, can unlock the power of Webster's Speller with your students. In the Syllables Spell Success class that I have taught to dozens of students using the speller, the classes have averaged 1 to 2 grade levels of improvement.

I hope you will join me in spreading the word about these powerful gap closing phonics programs. If you would like to help reach and teach people who need gap closing reading help, see 40L's help page. [15] It can be as simple as popping some popcorn and watching 40L's Phonics DVDs with a group of students! Every bit helps. For the more motivated, my Syllables Spell Success class is even more effective, and a DVD version of the class is under development. It is based on the lessons and advice on 40L’s How to Tutor page. [16]

1. Rich, Motoko, Cox, Amanda, and Block, Matthey, “Money Race and Success: How Your School District compares,” available online at

2. Hanson, Ralph A. and Farrell, Donna. “The long-term effects on high school seniors of learning to read in kindergarten,” available online at The "I See Sam" program took 20 to 30 minutes daily to complete and required 25 weeks to complete. The study found that disadvantaged children were ready to read in K but required a "slight increase in the instructional time to complete the first several units of the program." p. 913

3. The original “I See Sam” books are available to print for free from Brian Mariott’s page at and updated printed booklets can be ordered from 3Rs Plus,

4. Hanson, Ralph A. and Farrell, Donna. p. 928.

5. Gordon, Taylor, “New Study Gives Black Parents Yet Another Reason to Consider Homeschooling their children,” Atlanta Black Star, 1 Apr 2015, available online at

6. Brown, Elizabeth, “ Sight Words—Science Suggests They Should be Shunned,” available online at

7. Nelson, Rick, “Two Virginia Districts Show ‘Reading First’ Benefit,” Education Week, 18 Sep 2015, available online at

8. Peters, Vanessa. Direct Instruction, available online at

9. This chart ranks common programs used by homeschoolers. As the “modified” shows, implementation can matter a lot. Many of my remedial students guess from the word families in Alphaphonics, if you modify it and use the words across instead of down, it becomes a much stronger program. (Green/Yellow/Red on the chart indicates ease of use of the program. Grade level indicates the grade level of words that is taught by the end of the program, ranging from 1st grade for Blend Phonics, to 12th grade level from Webster’s Speller. Hooked on Phonics sells several different levels of their program.)

10. Peters, Vanessa. “Why Black Children Need A Different Reading Program,” available online at

11. Richardson, Charles. “Reading, Phonics vs. Whole-Langague,” 6 March 1997, available online at

12. Richardson, Charles, “Reading Puzzles Explained: Old Research Supplies Missing Pieces,” Reading Reform Foundation, Newsletter No. 50, Spring 2003, page 12, available online at

13. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938. Georgia Narratives. Vol. IV, part 4, page 112.

14. Webster’s Speller Slave Narraties Summary, available online at

15. 40L’s help page, available online at

16. 40L’s how to tutor page, available online at

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Sight Words—Science Suggests They Should be Shunned

Sight words are taught as a matter of faith at most schools, but recent brain research and an examination of their history shows that faith in sight words as currently taught may be misplaced.

A Short Story With 3 groups of students.

First, a look at three types of groups of students I have taught over my 22 years as a volunteer literacy tutor.  

1. Primarily middle class children, many of them military children from a variety of school systems and a variety of different states.

2.  Inner city children, primarily minority children.

3.  Formerly homeless inner city children, primarily minority children.

Which group of students would you expect to make the fastest progress?   Interestingly enough, the order from fastest to slowest is 3, 2, 1.  The groups were all elementary age and received the same tutoring methods.   

The formerly homeless inner city children had spent almost no time in school and so had done almost no sight words and needed no retraining to learn to read. The non-homeless inner city children had done sight words at school but most had not worked on them at home and so only needed minimal retraining before they could learn to read well.  The middle class children had worked on their sight words both at home and school and had to spend hours retraining their brain to read correctly before the remediation could work.  My fastest students to date were two formerly homeless minority 2nd grade students who were reading 12th grade level passages from Webster’s Speller after only 6 group tutoring sessions.

The Science of Sight Words

Previous science that led to the teaching of words as wholes looked at eye movements and reading times for different lengths of words. Based on the ways that good older readers seemed to be reading words, it was theorized that words should be taught as wholes to beginning students.  

Early brain research began to show differently, with Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies such as those profiled in the 2004 Science article “Training the Brain to Read,” which showed changes in the brain with phonics tutoring, with “Substantial normalization” of the “brain’s reading pathways.” [1]  Newer, more powerful brain imaging techniques like Magneto encephalography, (MEG) which are more direct measures of brain function, allow for more precise analysis of brain function during reading.

According to Stanislas Dehaene in his book “Reading in the Brain,” “In summary, there is no longer any reason to doubt that the global contours of words play virtually no role in reading.  We do not recognize a printed word through a holistic grasping of its contour, but because our brain breaks it down into letters and graphemes. The letterbox area in our left occipito-temporal cortex processes all of a word’s letters in parallel.  This fast and parallel processing probably explains why well-known and respected psychologists once propounded theories of global or “syncretic” reading.  Today, we know that the immediacy of reading is just an illusion engendered by the extreme automaticity of its component stages, which operate outside our conscious awareness.” [2]  Stanislas Dehaene has a shorter explanation of this process in his article “The Massive Impact of Literacy on the Brain,” where he talks about the how the “massively parallel architecture explains the speed and robustness of visual word recognition. Most importantly, for educators and teachers, it creates an illusion of whole-word reading.” [3] 

The History of Sight Words

While today the Dolch Sight Word list and the Fry Instant word lists are commonly used in conjunction with phonics as part of balanced literacy, their origins are 100% whole language.  They are not words that are more difficult to learn to read, but instead, are high frequency words that whole language proponents thought should be taught by sight first because of their frequency of use.  This article by Readsters compares the lists and examines their history in more depth.

The Structure of Sight Words

Many websites that have tips and tricks for teaching the sight words as wholes claim that they are irregular.  Actually, they are fairly phonetic.  68% of the sight words are completely regular with no rules needed.  And, all but 5 of the most commonly taught 220 Dolch sight words and 100 Fry Instant words can be taught phonetically with the addition of just a few rules and patterns of exceptions.  On my sight word page I explain how and have a “sight word by sound” PDF linked at the end that has the most commonly taught “sight words” arranged by phonetic pattern.  This sight word page explains how to teach all but 5 of the sight words with phonics.

Why Sight Words Should be Taught with Phonics, not as Wholes by Sight

In my 22 years as a volunteer literacy tutor, we lived in several different states, and as an Air Force family, many of the children I tutored were Air Force “brats” who had learned to read in a variety of different states and school districts.  In school districts that emphasized sight words, there were more remedial students.  While most of the districts that we have lived in have emphasized sight words to some degree, we once lived in a district that taught a good phonics program with less than a dozen sight words—and I had to go outside that school district to find remedial students, except for one student who had transferred into that school from a system that had used sight words.  The most remedial students, percentage wise, were from a school district that not only taught sight words, but did daily speed drills with them.

Other Tutors’ Thoughts

I also correspond with a variety of reading tutors.  Here are some of their thoughts:

Vanessa Peters of Sweet Sounds of Reading says: “Pity the poor children… confused, mis-taught on the very first day of school. The process of failure begins in kindergarten and 1st grade where 85% of American children are taught to read via the look-say or sight words method; a method known to cause reading disability in at least one third of the students exposed to it.  Until intensive phonics is mandated as the sole method of teaching reading to brand new and struggling readers, we can expect massive reading failure to be the norm in American public schools.”

Don Potter of says: “If you want kids to read words by sight, don’t teach sight words. Teaching words by sight is counterproductive to reading words by sight. The finest reading program in the words by sight has no sight words!”


An understanding of the science and history of sight words shows why sight words should be taught phonetically.  But, the best reason to teach them that way is the kind of confident reader that a good phonics foundation without sight words produces.  These students read confidently and do not have to guess at unknown words.   My remedial students are often lacking in self-confidence and are embarrassed about their reading abilities.  As they decrease their sight word induced guessing habits with the help of nonsense words and phonics training, they learn to read well and gain both skill and confidence.   A better understanding and teaching of sight words should lead to less remedial students and more confident, capable readers.

1. Holden, Constance, “Training the Brain to Read,” Science, Vol 304, April 2004.

2. Dehaene, Stanislas “Reading in the Brain, The New Science of How We Read” Penguin books, 2009.

3. Dehaene, Stanislas, "The Massive Impact of Literacy on the Brain and its Consequences for Education," Human Neuroplasticity and Education, 2011, p. 23

Elizabeth Brown is the Director of 40L, an educational nonprofit whose mission is: To transform lives by improving educational foundations through the Word of God.
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40L, Transforming lives through education.
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Reading, your window on the world.  Phonics makes it happen.
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