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Heads up for literacy; a unique educational program for teaching children and adults to read and write is getting good marks in tests around the country.


A first grader at Chicago's R.D. Henton Academy recently visited a restaurant with her parents and politely asked for her own menu, please. When dinner arrived, she reminded the waitress that her order included bread. The menu said so.

A thousand miles away, Fahey McCann, a field representative in the national "Heads Up" literacy project, later applauded his former student's reading prowess and her moxie in correcting the menu oversight. "That tells me this little girl can read," McCann says. "She won't be led around by the nose as illiterate people often are. She can make good decisions without merely assuming whatever anyone tells her is the truth."

The Chicago success story doesn't end at the dinner table. McCann proudly reports that first graders at the inner-city academy are now reading articles from the Chicago Tribune and comfortably commenting on President Reagan's dilemma with Khadafy and Mayor Washington's problems with city aldermen. And not just children benefit from the program. "In our Houston adult class we had a man who had completed two traditional programs and still confused words like 'community' and 'commodity,'" says Linda Neithammer, the national director of "Heads Up." "Once he had gone through 'Sing, Spell, Read & Write,' he was able to unlock those differences."

The "Sing, Spell, Read & Write" curriculum, implemented by the "Heads Up" literacy project of the Christian Broadcasting Network, may be nothing new, but it contains a lot of surprises. Developed by Sue Dickson, a former first-grade teacher in Mahwah, New Jersey, it is a total language-arts program, based on the phonics method of teching reading. The program, evolved over several years, blends the sounding out of letters with bingo-like games, a "race track" that charts students' progress, and catchy songs that reinforce learning. Every participant moves at his own pace through 36 steps, and failure is virtually impossible.

The Illiteracy Crisis

The advocates of "Sing, Spell" point to U.S. illiteracy statistics as proof that current approaches to teaching reading aren't working. One study indicates that some 27 million Americans are functionally illiterate--they can't read a newspaper, write a check, or fill our a job application. About three-fourths of the country's jobless population is illiterate, and those nonreaders lucky enough to find work can expect to earn only 58 percent of what literate employees make. Industry spends about $40 million a year on remedial education to upgrade reading and writing skills. Perhaps most frightening, the outlook for the future doesn't appear very bright.

"When the best-selling book Why Johnny Can't Read rolled off the press in the early '50s, illiteracy was exposed for the first time as a national scandal," comments Pat Robertson, president of the Christian Broadcasting Network. "Parents were outraged; educators, embarrassed and indignant. However, after the initial heated dialogue, anger turned to frustration, then resignation. The national debate shifted, and the scandal quietly became a tragedy. Today, almost 35 years later, Johnny still can't read, and neither can 27 million other Americans. And their ranks are swelling by 2.3 million every year."

All the elements were in place for CBN to get involved. Robertson's ministry was committed to reaching the root causes of poverty; CBN's "Heads Up" educational service was ready to implement a learning program; $1 million in funds were available for the kickoff; and the creator of "Sing, Spell, Read & Write" was as close as a quick walk across CBN's sprawling Virginia Beach, Virginia, campus: "Sue Dickson had come to CBN to develop a reading program that would teach children to read on television. The plan had never come to fruition, but Sue was still here," Linda Neithammer explains. "Everything merged so beautifully; it's been extremely effective."

Five cities--New York, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, and the Watts area of Los Angeles--were initially identified as tough proving grounds for the "Heads Up" effort. Not only were they major urban centers, but they also had some of the highest illiteracy rates in the country.

"The first thing we do when we enter a city is identify a church that will act as host," Neithammer says. "It can be any denomination, but it's usually in the inner city, and it's usually black, strong, and well attended. We look for a pastor who is a leader in the community and who understands that illiteracy is a serious problem. Our approach is that we're there to assist them. We're coming to lend a hand and enhance what's happening in the area. We never try to dictate how it's to be done."

Invitations to a kickoff presentation are sent to educators, ministers, and other leaders of the city. Pat Robertson or Ben Kinchlow (the cohost of CBN's "700 Club") personally introduces and endorses the "Heads Up" program to the community to boost interest and attendance.

Built-in Success

Seeing is believing, though, and watching five- and six-year-old youngsters zip through alphabet games, sing about short vowels, and proudly read from colorful story-books is the best motivator of all. The "Heads Up" staff knows this; it sends a field representative to the host church before the public presentation to train local children in the first phases of reading.

"There's built-in success in this program," says Fahey McCann, the field rep who drew the Chicago training assignment. "In the beginning we teach the kids about color, shapes, matching opposites, and the sounds of the letters. Short vowels come first because 62 percent of English is made up of short vowels and short-vowel-consonant combinations. We don't teach them to write their letters yet, because at their ages a lot of children don't have good muscle coordination, and we don't want to put pressure on them."

In addition to introducing the program to local youngsters, the field representative trains adults in how to teach the "Sing, Spell" way. These leaders will continue the program after the field reps leave for new assignments. Teachers need no special education or degrees beyond a three-hour workshop that gives an overview of how the program works. The skills they learn are put on display during the introductory presentation to the community.

"We actually have a demonstration of how 'Sing, Spell, Read & Write' works," Neithammer says. "There's no charge for the workshops, and we hold as many as necessary to reach all the initial responses. People come as a result of the actual call to arms that Pat puts out at the presentation. 'Come and get involved; sign up today,' he says. Our field rep stays on as long as necessary."

The reading program works well as a supplement to whatever curriculum is in place in the city. It can be offered daily, taught weekly, or integrated into a summer-school format. No traditional testing is included, no homework is required, and parental involvement is not necessary. Although community churches and church-sponsored schools have been particularly receptive to the program, the content of the lessons (not Christian related) is equally at home in a public-school setting.

"This is not purchased as a primary reading tool," Neithammer explains. "It's supplementary to whatever has been adopted by the school district. But 'Sing, Spell, Read & Write' brings the keys to unlock how words are formed. It teaches the sounds of the letters so students are able to break down the words; it really enhances what they're getting in public schools rather than conflicting with it."

The Case for Phonics

Many students in public schools these days are getting the "look-say" method, sometimes called sight-reading. Developed in the 1930s as a way to teach reading and writing to deaf mutes, the look-say method requires memorizing words rather than breaking them down and sounding them out (the phonics used in "Sing, spell"). Critics of the look-say method stress that the illiteracy rate in the United States was much lower before the phonics method was discarded in favor of sight-reading. In the opinion of many people today, illiteracy is less of a problem among people older than 50--because they were taught via phonics.

"At one time there was a movement to totally eliminate phonics as a teaching method," Neithammer says. "The reason given was that we have exceptions within our language--words that can't be systematically sounded out. But 66 percent of English is phonetic. 'Sing, Spell, Read & Write' teaches the exceptions as rule breakers and integrates them very well into the program."

In its 15 months of pilot studies, "Sing, Spell" has met with such phenomenal success and enthusiastic reviews that a home version has been prepared for parents who want to give their preschoolers a head start on learning to read. The program has also been modified slightly and offered to adults. A 24-year-old Chicago woman, told she would never read because of a learning disability, was tutored in "Sing, Spell" and is now reading. Prisoners in the Norfolk, Virginia, city jail complained that they were repeating the "Sing, Spell" jingles in their sleep after working through the program, but also admitted they were proud when their improved reading skills helped them pass equivalency tests for high-school graduation. One prisoner said he liked playing the curriculum-related card games because he had never had the opportunity to be a little boy before.

With such victories under its belt, the Heads Up-Sing, Spell team is setting careful goals for the future. Atlanta, Memphis, and Birmingham have recently implemented the program. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is taking the initiative and underwriting the program itself. Few funds have to be earmarked for promotion because word-of-mouth endorsements are so enthusiastic. President Reagan has given a glowing recommendation ("CBN's efforts are worthy of the highest commendation. . . ."), and the ranks of satisfied students are burgeoning as "graduates" take the program home and teach brothers, sisters, and even parents to read.

"By this time next year I would anticipate we will have reached more of the adult population," Neithammer predicts. "We'll have hard statistics, personal testimonies, and a list of changed lives." The projections of CBN's president, Pat Robertson, are even more hopeful: "We intend to eradicate illiteracy in America," he says. "To accomplish this we need broad-based support from the private sector and a revolutionary teaching model that makes learning to read enjoyable. We have both."
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Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1986
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