Steps Publishing, Inc. was founded by developmental psychologist Irene Daria, Ph.D. who specializes in teaching children how to read. Below is an interview with Dr. Daria:
Q. As a psychologist, what made you focus on teaching children how to read?
When I was earning my Ph.D. in developmental psychology, I learned that millions of children in this country have been labeled learning disabled and referred to special education services simply because their schools had not taught them how to read. These kids were actually not learning disabled at all. They had absolutely no neurological impairments. The only thing wrong was that, instead of teaching kids how to read phonetically – by sounding out the sounds that make up each word, their schools were using a method called “Whole Language.”
Research study after research study has found Whole Language to be ineffective. When California used this curriculum, the state’s reading scores went from being quite good to being dead last in the country. (See "The Reading Wars," an excellent article in the Atlantic Monthly about the Whole Language vs. Phonics Debate that tells the whole story of the travesty that happened in California when it began using the Whole Language curriculum.)
The rest of the country has come to see the value of phonics, but many New York City schools are still using a Whole Language curriculum called “Balanced Literacy.”
Q. What is Whole Language?
The proponents of Whole Language curriculums believe that children learn how to read the way they learned to talk – simply by being read to and surrounded by books. Instead of teaching children how to explicitly sound out words, Whole Language curriculums teach them to guess what words are. Children are taught to guess by looking at the pictures, or by using the rest of the sentence to figure out what a word could be. This is how dyslexic children read. There have actually been research articles written called, “Is it dyslexia or dys-teachia?”
Q. So no children are learning how to read in school in New York City?
Two-thirds of children appear to be able to learn using a Whole Language curriculum. I say “appear” because the proponents of this curriculum never ask what the parents are teaching the children at home. Many kids in “good” schools learn how to read at home, not in school. It’s so important for people to know this that I’m going to say it again -- the parents of children in the “good” public schools in New York are very, very proactive at working with their children at home. This is the elephant in the room with educational disparity between whites and blacks that no one ever talks about.
The proponents of Whole Language also don’t factor in how many of the kids in schools using this curriculum need to go to after school tutoring where they are taught to read by using phonics, or how many of those kids have been referred to special education services, which also teach the kids phonics.
That said, Whole Language does work for some percentage of kids. These are the kids who will learn to read simply by being read to. Their brains are wired for reading and they pick it up very easily. However, there is a definite one-third of children that will not learn to read unless they are taught phonics. Those are the children who tend to be referred to special education services unless their parents take a pro-active stance and teach their children at home.
Q. Why does Whole Language work for some kids and not for others?
That is a fascinating question. It was the topic of my dissertation. Basically, the kids who can learn to read within the Whole Word system are “Big Picture” or “global” learners. The children who need phonics in order to learn how to read are generally kids with analytical minds, the ones that grow up to be strong in math and science. Those perfectly capable students need the systematic presentation phonics gives them. When they do not receive phonics in the classroom, they do not learn how to read.
I wanted to help those children.
Q. So you began tutoring?
Not quite. Before going back to school to become a psychologist, I had worked as a writer and editor. I had been a reporter at Women’s Wear Daily and an editor at Harper’s Bazaar. I am the author of three nonfictions books and have written hundreds of articles for various magazines.
The minute I learn about something interesting, there is an ingrained need in me to share information. That is especially true when I learn about something terrible that is happening to children. I wanted to write an article about how terrible it was that perfectly capable children were being labeled learning disabled just because their teachers weren’t teaching them how to read, but I didn’t have time since I had such a heavy work load in graduate school and also had a family to care for. My two children were very young at the time.
I didn’t have time to write an article but when I heard that my local library was hosting an event on how children learn to read, I decided to attend and see if I could spread the word about what was happening. The opportunity to do so arose quickly because the librarian who was giving the presentation was under the assumption that the children in the upscale West Village neighborhood where this library is located were learning phonics in school.
I raised my hand and, politely, said that certainly wasn’t true in the West Village, or in most of Manhattan. I told her, and the audience, that the curriculum in most public schools, and in some private schools, was Balanced Literacy, which was a “Whole Language” curriculum. I told them how that curriculum was failing many children and described what happens when children do not learn to read in the classroom.
Q. What does happen when a child doesn’t learn to read in school?
A terrible downward spiral. Little kids never raise their hands and say they don’t understand something. Little kids do not yet know that asking questions is the sign of a confident and smart student. Instead, little kids think they are the only ones who don’t understand something and no little kid wants to be singled out like that. So, instead of saying they have no idea what the teacher is talking about, these kids tend to take one of two paths. They either move to the back of the room and become totally silent in class. They rarely participate and they will pretend to read during independent reading time, a period which most schools have where kids are supposed to read to themselves. Or, these children become behavioral problems.
Whether they become silent or rambunctious, these kids then tend to tune out to what is happening in the classroom. Since so much of what goes on in the classroom involves reading, they start being bad at other subjects too. Math word problems are, obviously, especially problematic.
Inevitably, the day will come when the teacher realizes the child is reading way below grade level. But teachers never say there is something wrong with the way I am teaching because they do not know there is something wrong with the way they are teaching. This is how they have been taught to teach, either in college or by the school where they work.
Instead, teachers will suspect that there is something wrong with the child and will generally suggest to the parents that they have their child evaluated for a learning disability. A child is labeled “learning disabled” if there is a discrepancy between his or her IQ and one or more of his or her academic performance levels. In the case of competent students who have nothing wrong with them, but who have not been taught phonics when they needed to be, an evaluation will find a discrepancy between the child’s IQ (generally average to high) and the child’s reading ability (on the low side).
No surprise there, right? You have a smart kid who does not know how to read because no one ever taught him how to. But the horror of this story is that this discrepancy between a relatively high IQ and a low reading level, will result in the child being labeled learning disabled, even though there is nothing neurologically wrong with him or her. That has happened to millions of children, and is still happening. Here is a link to that can tell you more about this topic: Illiteracy: An Incurable Disease or Education Malpractice.
Q. Why don’t parents know about this?
You won’t know about it until it happens to your kid. Then you do a google search and find that reading researchers know about it, speech pathologists know about it, and lots of other parents know about it. It’s like any other parenting problem such as miscarriage, or difficulty breastfeeding. You don’t know how common it is until it happens to you and you start looking for help.
Q. So how did you come to help kids?
After the presentation in the library, a mother came up to me and said, “What you just described is exactly what’s happening to my daughter. She’s in first grade and has no idea how to read. Her school isn’t teaching her how to. They just send home books for her to read for homework and she doesn’t know how to sound out a single word in those books. The other day, her teacher came up to me and said Ellen (not her real name) should be evaluated. The teacher said she was sure Ellen has ADD. I know Ellen doesn’t have ADD. The only thing wrong is that her school isn’t teaching her how to read.”
That mother asked if I would work with her daughter over the summer.
I did. After just 8 weeks, Ellen was reading beautifully. I felt like I had saved that child’s academic life. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world. The school never mentioned anything about an evaluation again and the little girl fared beautifully.
That was when I knew I didn’t want to spend my career fixing academic problems that never should have happened in the first place. I wanted to prevent those problems from happening.
Q. And have you?
Over and over and over again. I cannot tell you how many kids need help learning how to read. And it isn’t just because of bad curriculums. I worked with a boy who attends a private school on the Upper East Side that does a phenomenal job teaching children how to read. Really first rate. But this boy had trouble because the teacher was moving too quickly for him.
Q. So your workbooks are meant for parents whose kids are having trouble to read?
No! No! Of course, I want those parents to use the workbooks and I want to help them help their kids. But the workbooks are for anyone who wants to teach a child to read. The ideal situation is a mother or father who is looking for a fun activity to do with his or her preschooler and chooses the teaching of reading as one of those activities. What a gift that parent is giving to the child and to their relationship. Every time the child picks up a book to read, that parent will know that he or she played a part in the child learning how to do so.
Q. But isn’t it the schools’ job to teach reading?
Not necessarily. Why not teach your child how to read if the process of it is fun for you? I wouldn’t recommend that anyone who hates teaching their child to read attempt it. But if it is fun, why not teach the child? Parents who love to ski teach their kids to ski. They don’t hire ski instructors. Now, parents who love to read can teach their kids how to read. They don’t have to wait for the school to do it.
I know I talked a lot about problems in schools. I wish those problems didn’t exist. I wish I didn’t have to talk about them. But I would be doing parents a disservice if I didn’t let them know what is happening in many schools. Those problems are what caused me to take this career path.
But my workbooks are not about problems. They are about joy – the joy of teaching a child how to read and knowing problems in that area will never touch your child. Imagine how wonderful the world would be – and how our country’s reading scores would soar – if every parent knew how easy it is to teach a child to read.
Q. What is the most important take-away message you want to give parents?
Do not blindly trust your child’s school. Many schools in this country are doing a terrific job. If your child is learning, and flourishing, consider yourself tremendously lucky. But don’t just assume your child’s school is good.
Both of my sons attended two of the “best” public schools in New York City. You would be shocked, absolutely floored, at how proactive parents are at those schools. They do not leave the teaching of their children to the schools. They teach them how to read, and do math, at home, or they hire tutors to do so. That is the biggest unspoken secret in education at the moment. Parents are the ones who are making many of the “best” elementary schools in upscale neighborhoods seem good. As a teacher in the excellent Scarsdale, New York, school district once said at a conference I attended, “If you want to find a good school, find a neighborhood that has the most mothers with Ph.D.s.” Those educated mothers will not blindly leave their child’s education to a school, no matter how good the school is.
This, of course, creates a viscous circle. Ineffective curriculums appear to be effective because the children at schools in affluent neighborhoods are doing well and, so, those curriculums are put into place in less affluent neighborhoods, because everyone wants to do what “good” schools are doing. Yet, many of the students at those “good” schools are doing well because their parents are often either teaching them at home, or having them tutored. Just look at the proliferation of various workbooks for parents at stores like Barnes & Noble, and at how tutoring is increasing in our country. Tutoring is one of the biggest growth sectors in our economy. In the sixties, the advice for aspiring job applicants was “plastics.” Now it’s “tutoring.”
Q. Why is no one talking about this?
Researchers are. Parents are. Politicians aren’t because they want to make it seem like they can fix failing schools. They come in with an agenda – they are going to close this school, or that school. They are going to get rid of “bad” teachers. They are going to raise test scores.
The fact is that many of the teachers in “bad” schools are excellent teachers. They are dealing with a classroom in which kids don’t come to school. Or fall asleep at their desks. Who have parents who don’t speak English, or didn’t graduate high school and, so, can’t help them with homework.
Q. You started out teaching children how to read. How did you come to be a full-service tutoring company?
In the beginning, children came to learn how to read. They learned quickly and well. (It is really very easy to teach a child how to read. If you do it right, they learn very rapidly.) The mother of one of my students said, “You did such a great job teaching him how to read. I’d like him to keep coming for lessons. Teach him whatever you think is important.”
I worked with this child on math, and then grammar, and then writing. He flourished and other children began signing up for those lessons as well. They liked coming, and their parents were thrilled with how well they were doing in school because of their lessons with me, so they left them keep coming, year after year.
As my students got older, I developed curriculum for test prep also. In Manhattan, admission to public middle schools is done on a competitive basis. Middle schools use the fourth grade state test scores the way colleges use the SAT and ACT. There is a lot of pressure on kids to perform well on those tests and everyone who can afford to gets prepped for the tests.
We have had fantastic results with test prep. Word of mouth about that has spread like wildfire in Manhattan. That has become a huge portion of what we do.
Q. Last question – as a tutor, why are you giving away the secrets of your reading curriculum in these workbooks?
Because my goal was never to be the founder of a successful tutoring company. That is what ended up happening but my goal was – and still is – to help children. ALL children. I am reaching only a tiny percentage of the children in New York with my tutoring. And not everyone in New York can afford private tutoring. Plus, there are many children in the rest of the country that need help learning how to read. I want to help those children. That’s why I am writing these workbooks – so that all parents can have the tools, laid out in a step-by-step sequential manner, to teach their children how to read.