"Alphabet knowledge, or the knowledge of letters names, sounds, and their symbols are absolutely essential for children to read and write," said Dr. Cindy Jones, an Assistant Professor at Utah State University's Emma Eccles Jones College of Education.
“It’s been identified by the National Early Literacy Panel as among the strongest, most durable predictor of later literacy success,” she said.
There are a number of programs being developed to help children learn to read, she says, including one created by a Northern Utah mother and public school educator.
Melanie Herrmann is a kindergarten and English as a Second Language teacher with degrees from BYU in Early Childhood Education. After a 16 year break to raise her own children, she returned to teaching in the public schools.
Uncomfortable with many of the strategies used by districts to ensure students reach benchmark, she says she sought something different.
“I hoped to find a happy, active, whole-child approach to reading to replace the ‘sit still and be quiet and listen to what the teachers says’ that often happens in the public school classroom. Teachers were feeling the need to pull children in from PE, or art for more practice to get them to benchmark. Time Magazine told of kindergartners across the nation in tears because they felt so much pressure to perform,” Herrmann said.
Unable to find an active, multi-sensory approach to reading, Herrmann created one --with the help of more than 200 of her own kindergarten students.
"The ABC's and All of Me is a systematic, engaging, multi-sensory early reading program that leads all children joyfully into the world of reading." Herrmann said.
Based on Core standards for kindergarten, Herrmann’s program uses music and interactive, hands-on learning to teach children to read. She uses movement to support claims that using the body is a critical part of the body-brain connection and helps children remember letter names and sounds.
Paul Madaule from the Listening Center in Toronto, Canada says that music and movement are more than just sound – they actually help organize the brain.
“But the ear does much more than just receiving sound. It also has an apparatus which is called the vestibular system and which I call the ear of the body,” Madaule said.
The vestibular system permits us to be aware and take part in the system of our body movement. He says movement and music help with coordination and handwriting skills.
“When you help children with listening to music, you also help them integrate the body in doing the activity they need to do,” Madaule said.
When children sing and move to letter names and sounds they are playing so hard they don’t realize they are practicing, Herrmann said.
"They use their ears to hear, their eyes to see visual cues, their bodies for tactile, sensory experiences to make the letters while listening to classical music,” she said.
The program is systematic. If each step is followed with fidelity, teachers find the child is soon reading.
“I was really interested in it,” said Beverly Cantwell, a former kindergarten teacher who walked in while Herrmann was using the program. “Some of the other programs you have to use because that’s what the district says.”
Cantwell used The ABCs and All of Me program during her fifth year of teaching, and nine of her students were English-language learners. It was the first year that all of her students reached benchmark at mid-year and were reading well beyond it at the end of the year.
“The pictures were so bright and cheery, it was just a little catchier. There wasn’t anything dull about it," Cantwell said.
In the first 26 days of the program, children are introduced to all the letter names and sounds, with brief, explicit instruction in letter writing. When evaluating a reading program Jones considers appropriate pacing and flexibility.
"We know from empirical evidence that frequency of exposure, and repetitive practice over time will influence a child’s learning of alphabet knowledge,” Jones said.
Methods and approaches to rearing good readers vary. Herrmann designed her program to reach both traditional and non-traditional students.
“I’m just thrilled when a child who has ADD, or autism, or speaks a foreign language in the home, learns to read. When we use the whole body the children have a commonality – whether they have a disability or speak a foreign language,” Herrmann said. “From day one of school, to the next day, or the next skill that you are mastering, you have that visual, auditory and tactile cue.”
An increasing number of educators are creating programs to help improve learning. Many work but they won’t be used in the public school setting because of strict district policies, Herrmann said. Instead, she is turning to home and charter schools, and the private tutoring community. This is where closing the reading gap will likely happen, not the public school system.
“Public education needs to stop looking in a rear view mirror and look forward to new approaches. Every child deserves a happy, healthy start to reading,” Herrmann said.
For more information on the program, visit allofmeliteracy.com