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Hoping to appease the Word Queen and win her over with kindness, the kindergarten children in Rachel Harbison's class left sweets on a table and wrote her a note on the whiteboard: "DEAR WORD QUEEN, WE GOT YOU A NISE LITTLE TRETE. HOPEING IT WILL MAKE YOU SWETE. LOVE READING AVENGERS." They printed lists of the words they were learning and taped them to their desks. The next morning, the room was in an uproar. The Word Queen had trashed the room, tearing down all the children's words. The children's emotions ran the gamut from agitated to indignant. One of the boys defiantly declared, "It's payback!"

The Word Queen

The Word Queen program, developed by kindergarten teacher Rachel Harbison, motivates reading acquisition with a series of phonics lessons designed around a framing story, unveiled throughout the year in a series of staged classroom events. In the story, an evil Word Queen has stolen some of the letters of the alphabet (e.g., shah) to prevent boys and girls from learning to read. Children decide to rebel against the Word Queen's tyranny by learning the "tricks" in spellings, e.g., by recognizing the sh digraph. They organize themselves into "reading avengers" to master the vagaries of English to thwart the Word Queen's evil designs. In the process, they learn moral lessons, such as how to deal with bullies like the Word Queen.

A Dearth of Motivational Studies

The Report of the National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000) produced the surprising finding that systematic phonics in kindergarten is as effective as phonics in first grade, raising reading achievement by about half a standard deviation. Though based on only seven studies, the effectiveness of kindergarten phonics supports the recent trend toward emphasizing academic content in kindergarten (Bassok, Latham, & Rorem, 2016).

Another striking finding was that almost no research has looked into motivation for teaching and learning phonics. The Panel wrote:
Few if any studies have investigated the contribution of motivation to
the effectiveness of phonics programs, not only the learner's
motivation to learn but also the teacher's motivation to teach....
Future research on phonics instruction should investigate how best to
motivate children in classrooms to learn the letter-sound associations
and to apply that knowledge to reading and writing. (NRP, 2000, p.

A recent experimental study showed that teacher-scaffolded sociodramatic play can have significant effects on kindergarten children's learning of the alphabetic code (Cavanaugh, Clemence, Teale, Rule, & Montgomery, 2017). Children were given sets of miniature objects representing phonemes, e.g., for /v/, a van, a violet, a vault, a veil, veggies, etc. Participants in the control condition sorted two sets of objects following the teacher's directions. Experimental participants were encouraged to develop dramatic games using the objects. For example, in sorting the T and V tubs, children told a story about a mean vampire who took veggies from the vault and wouldn't allow the teacher to take tomatoes from the T tub. Experimental participants showed significantly higher gain scores on DIBELS early literacy measures, with moderate effect size. The researchers reported that experimental students were so engaged by these inventive activities that they subversively continued their sociodramatic play when moved to the control condition.

Learning to decode--to get messages from lines of alphabetic characters--may be the single most daunting challenge in reading development. Solving the words in a story can be a frustrating, attention-draining task. Until children attain a modicum of reading fluency, they need special motivational help to maintain a decoding strategy and make sight words. Could sociodramatic play provide that motivation?

The Setting

Rachel teaches kindergarten in a rural town in north Alabama with a population of about 3300. The school is a low-income Title I school with 78% free and reduced lunch. The racial makeup of the town is 94% white, 5% black, and 2% Hispanic. Few parents involve themselves in children's literacy activities. Most think of education as the teachers' job and rarely work with their children at home on academic tasks.

Rachel is a veteran teacher who has taught kindergarten for 24 years. She has a Specialist degree in Early Childhood Education and National Board Certification. Rachel has been dramatizing Word Queen stories in her classrooms for the last 19 years to explain how letters combine to make "tricks" in words--and how children can turn the tables on the Word Queen by learning these tricks.

Sociodramatic play organized around the Word Queen story seemed an innovative and imaginative attempt to improve children's motivation to learn phonics. Would it work? To find out, we assessed children's reading ability in September, January, and May. In addition, I (first author) made monthly visits to Rachel's classroom to observe the teaching and learning, choosing days when the Word Queen was most likely to work her mischief.

Research Design

To examine the possible effects of the Word Queen program, we used a pre-experimental one-group pretest-posttest design (Campbell & Stanley, 1966), supplemented by monthly qualitative observations during the 2016-2017 school year. Given the innovative nature of the storytelling, a pre-experimental study offered the best option for determining whether a year-long program of sociodramatic play might enhance motivation for learning how to read.


We assessed children's literacy progress with a planned series of informal individual assessments administered in a quiet public area outside the classroom. The following measures were taken:

Letter recognition. We assessed children's ability to identify letters with a 54-item letter-naming measure developed by Marie Clay (2002). According to Clay's piloting with children 5-7 years of age, successfully naming 26-47 of 54 capital and lowercase letters is average.

Phoneme awareness. Phoneme awareness (PA) is the ability to detect phonemes in spoken words. To measure phoneme awareness, we used the 38-item Test of Phoneme Identities (Murray, Smith, & Murray, 2000). Scores of 34-38 suggest well-developed PA, scores of 27-33 suggest growing PA, and scores of 0-26 suggest little or no PA. We also examined children's emergent understanding of the alphabetic code with Clay's (2002) invented spelling test and measures of phonetic cue reading (Ehri, 1998). To assess phonetic cue reading, which depends on applying PA in rudimentary decoding, we asked children to use beginning consonants to distinguish rhyming words; e.g., showing the word MAD, we asked, "Is this word mad or sad?"

Decoding. We assessed decoding with an experimenter-devised list of 15 pseudowords, i.e., made-up words with legal spellings; 5 featured short vowels (e.g., fim), 5 had long vowels (e.g., yain), and 5 were multisyllabic (e.g., snitting). Children who can decode even one pseudoword give evidence of decoding in the full alphabetic phase (Ehri, 1998). As a second check on decoding progress, we developed and administered a Decodable Names Test (Murray, in submission) using one-syllable names as low-frequency words sampling the 30 most common correspondences.

Graded word lists. We administered 20-word graded lists from the Basic Reading Inventory (Johns, 2010) to estimate children's instructional reading levels. Reading level as estimated by word lists is generally interpreted as an overestimate of a reader's actual instructional level (Leslie & Caldwell, 2011). At posttest, we checked reading levels with graded passages from the BRI, a more valid procedure that assesses reading comprehension as well as word recognition.

Pretest results

We pretested 18 kindergartners in Rachel's class in September, before the Word Queen had made her first appearance. The average letter recognition score was 18 of 54. Only 7 children fell into Clay's (2002) average range, and 8 children named fewer than 10 letters. On the Test of Phoneme Identities (Murray, Smith, & Murray, 2000), only 2 students showed non-chance levels of phoneme awareness; the other 16 scored at levels indicating they did not detect phonemes in spoken words. Scores ranged from 0-11 of 37 possible on Clay's (2002) measure of invented spelling. All scores fell into the lowest 3 stanines. Only 2 children scored above chance levels on a measure of phonetic cue reading; the other 16 children could not use initial consonants to distinguish rhyming words.

One boy repeating kindergarten showed full alphabetic phase decoding (Ehri, 1998) by reading one pseudoword and one decodable name; no other students could decode. Two other children were partial-alphabetic readers (they used initial consonants to help identify words). The remaining 15 children were prealphabetic, unable to decode at all. No child could read more than one word from a preprimer word list (Johns, 2010); all read at an emergent level. The predominant profile at pretest was a prealphabetic reader at emergent level, not aware of phonemes, who recognized only a few letters. Clearly, these children had not come to kindergarten with high levels of reading readiness developed in rich home literacy experiences.

Early Observations

When 1 visited the class in October, Rachel was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt that said "LOVE," large hoop earrings, and flip-flops. Her youthful spirit was evident in her shoulder-length, brownish-blond, gray-streaked hair, held back by reading glasses perched on top of her head. While looking for some materials in the closet just after the children entered the room, Rachel feigned great surprise at finding an old, wrinkled treasure map.

The children stood up at their tables and began talking excitedly. Rachel asked them what they thought we should do next. Most wanted to go immediately to find the treasure. But there were decisions to be made. Rachel asked, "Should we tell everyone or not? Should we do the hard stuff first or the fun stuff first?" The children had been learning about the "seven habits of happy kids" (Covey, 2008), and they agreed they should do the hard stuff first. After the morning routine, Rachel passed out a copy of the treasure map to each student.

We followed the treasure map in a circuitous route around the school grounds. Finally, Rachel located the treasure under a bale of hay. It was a metal box with instructions not to open it. The children voted, and opening the box won. They found jewels, crowns, lists of words, and a story about the Word Queen putting tricks in words so that children wouldn't learn to read.

After story time that day, Rachel asked the children, "What should we do with the treasure?" They agreed that the jewels and crown belonged to the Word Queen. Rachel asked them, "How many think we should keep the words?" The majority decided that words belong to everyone. Rachel suggested that the children become reading avengers. The children vowed to fight back against the Word Queen's scheme to prevent them from learning to read.

Midyear Testing

When we returned in January to assess children's midyear progress, 19 children participated in the assessment. Because of time conflicts that day, we omitted some tests and gave abbreviated versions of others. Most children in the class had made significant gains in letter recognition since September: The average letter naming score (with 54 possible) jumped from 18 to 47. No one tested below average. On the Test of Phoneme Identities, children varied widely in phoneme awareness: 6 had well-developed PA, 7 showed growing PA, and 6 still had little or no PA.

On a measure of phonetic cue reading, 13 students could decode consonants to distinguish rhyming words, and 15 students successfully read one or more pseudowords, showing they could decode unfamiliar words from spellings alone. Only 3 students were still prealphabetic, i.e., not yet interpreting letters to represent the phonemes in spoken words. However, no child could yet read at a preprimer instructional level; all remained at the emergent level. The typical profile at midyear showed a sequential full alphabetic reader still at the emergent instructional level, with growing phoneme awareness and above average letter recognition.

Development of the Word Queen Story

When I visited Rachel's classroom in February, it was evident that the Word Queen had caused more havoc. Entering the classroom, children immediately spotted a note from the Word Queen. Then they noticed that the Word Queen had glued together the vowels they had colored and cut out. The children were outraged. One boy glowered, "I want to break her face up."

Rachel answered, "But we have self-control, don't we? What is our response when someone is being mean? We're nice to them anyway."

The Word Queen's note that day was short but not sweet: "Dear children, these are all the words that you cannot read. Ha, ha, ha!"

One boy protested, "She said 'ha, ha, ha.' She says that all the time now. She doesn't want us to learn to read!"

To prove that they could read the words, Rachel called on children to read words printed on the whiteboard. Children successfully read should, home, thing, which, carry, and laugh.

During story time, Rachel told a story about how the Word Queen shot vowels with honey to make them stick together into pairs like ai, ee, and ea. Then the Word Queen reloaded her squirt gun with a potion that would turn the vowels into frogs, unable to speak. However, the first vowel in each pair ducked down, so that only the second vowel lost its sound. Just as the Word Queen was about to finish off the vowels, a brave letter plugged the squirt gun so that it backfired on the Word Queen. She started to hop around, croaking like a frog and crying, "You tricked me! Ribbit, ribbit!"

Rachel told the children, "We can use a new trick: The first vowel says its name, but the second loses its sound and turns into a frog. With ee, the Word Queen wants us to say 'eh-eh,' but we're going to use the two-vowel trick and say /E/."

After a bathroom break, two girls came back grumbling about "that mean Word Queen." One of them wrote a letter to the Word Queen, "DEAR WORD QUEEN, I NO THAT YOU WUT TO BE THE OLE WONE TO NOW HAW TO RED ED YOU DO NOT NOW THE WERZ, BUT WE NOW THE WERZ. WE WIN."

The conflict with the Word Queen led to many teachable moments for promoting good attitudes. Children learned to resist the unjust demands of the Word Queen. In discussions, they worked toward consensus on the best ways to deal with the Word Queen, and any course of action was put to a vote. Children learned to resolve differences by hearing everyone's suggestions and making decisions by voting. A recurring theme was that we should be kind and reasonable with those who are unkind and unreasonable to us.

Phonics Instruction

Rachel's Word Queen phonics focuses on the "tricks" in words, phonics rules that come into play when letters are combined in words. Rachel told stories to introduce these tricks. Most instruction in the morning was whole class, conducted at a fast pace.

Children practiced reading words from posters around the room using whole-word drills. By midyear, children were pointing out the Word Queen's tricks in words they were reading, e.g., in happy, the y at the end says /E/, but in short words like fly, y says /I/. Children learned how silent e changes the previous vowel. They learned about "twin letters," e.g., ss, that say just one sound, and that c followed by e, i, or y says /s/.

New word lists appeared daily on the whiteboard, introducing new word patterns and reviewing old ones. By April, children were studying words ending in le (e.g., stable) and tion (e.g., vacation), and learning how prefixes and suffixes are added to base words, e.g., jumps, jumping, jumped, jumper, they even practiced reading novel constructions like unjumps and prejumped. Songs enlivened the word drills. For example, children sang these words to the tune of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat": hold, old, no, know, how, now, not; hurt, house, own, show; knew, new, hot. (Try it; it works!)

Virtually every activity was instructional--storytelling, writing, vocabulary, decoding, word reading, spelling, telling time, managing behavior, and teaching attitudes. Little time was scheduled for play. Children wrote messages, rotated through reading, listening, computer, and work-sheet centers, and generally stayed productively busy. Only after completing assigned tasks did children get a few minutes to color or play with Legos or puzzles. Children who did not complete their work were required to sit with Rachel during recess.

Instructional Conversations

Managing behavior and guiding productive discussions about the Word Queen require special skill. To rein in the chaos, Rachel often used the signal of clapping and saying, "One, two, three, all eyes on me." One day when children were nearly frantic because the Word Queen had stolen all their pencils, she told the class, "Everybody sit down so we can regain our composure."

Rachel lavished positive recognition on children who were on track, especially those who often struggled. Verbal commendations were frequent. One day 1 noticed that a boy who had made slow progress was proudly sporting a paper crown for having read all the words on that day's list.

In conversations about how to deal with the Word Queen, Rachel patiently responded to each child's contributions. She interjected new vocabulary like catastrophe, speechless, and realistic, explaining their meanings. At the end of a long day of teaching, she told me, "This is exhausting. This is for young people."

Children often wrote friendly notes to the Word Queen. I asked Rachel, "How does the Word Queen transition from enemy to friend in the minds of the children?"

"Sometimes she does a snippet of a nice thing," she answered. "We talked about bullying, and that we should return niceness to someone who is being mean to us. She's learning about changing her ways and being nice. It's a good lesson in this age of bullying. If someone's being mean, we have to be nice back to them."

By April, many children were able to read the notes left by the Word Queen. One of the girls discovered a surprise by reading: "The Word Queen has hidden a list of words in the teacher's desk! The Word Queen promised us a surprise if we can read each of the words on the list!"

Children were fully engaged participants in the Word Queen story, though there were occasional notes of doubt. I asked one of the boys, "Do you ever talk about the Word Queen at home?"

He answered, "Yes, but my brother doesn't believe me." Other children gave similar responses at lunchtime. "My mom believes me, but my grandma doesn't."

Rachel remembers a child who came to school and said, "My brother says you're the Word Queen, Ms. Harbison."

She told him, "I'm nothing like the Word Queen! I want you to learn how to read--she doesn't!"

I wondered about the appropriateness of long-term sociodramatic play with young children. However, most of us have been involved in dramatic stories about Santa Claus. Eventually we learned that the Santa story is told from the good intention to disguise the source of gifts. When I asked Rachel about my analogy between Santa and the Word Queen, she said, "Yes, the Word Queen is sort of an anti-Santa. Both are imaginative and motivating games adults play with children."

It is easy to think of children as little adults, critically weighing events to build an objective worldview. Unlike adults, however, children find themselves deeply involved in a world of stories, learning to take principled stands with the good characters and against wrongdoers. Stories inform children of gripping moral realities that parallel the physical world (Peterson, 2018).

A Skeptical Administration

As I was leaving the school after a visit in late April, the principal and assistant principal caught me in the hallway and invited me into the office. They worried that the program may be going over the heads of many students, and they were considering adopting a new phonics program schoolwide and eliminating the Word Queen.

These administrators' concerns triggered my personal doubts. Rachel's reading program seemed to be missing lots of activities strongly supported by reading research. For example, 1 did not observe focused instruction that showed children how to make phonemes memorable, examine phonemes in word contexts, or apply PA to reading words (Murray, 2012).

Rachel's phonics was explicit, with lots of explanation and modeling, but there was little systematic progression through the vowels to carefully secure each correspondence. Instead, children encountered complex rules, some of which seemed contrived to explain irregular words (e.g., that gh says /f/ in laugh). Many of the spelling patterns explained in the Word Queen stories seemed overly complex and of limited generalizability. For example, the two-vowels-go-walking rule for vowel digraphs only works 45% of the time (Adams, 1990).

Children did not practice reading words by reading decodable text engineered so that new correspondences work to unlock unfamiliar words. Instead, they were thrown into "authentic" texts to sink or swim. Children drilled with lists of high-frequency words using songs and recitations, with spellings most could not yet understand by decoding. Behavior management was a persistent struggle. I was feeling discouraged about the whole project.

End-of-Year Testing

For posttesting, we assessed decoding for all children with new measures of pseudoword reading and decodable names. To get a valid picture of reading levels at the end of the year, we had children read graded passages from the Basic Reading Inventory (Johns, 2010) to check for reading comprehension as well as word recognition. With children unable to read at the preprimer instructional level, we reassessed phoneme awareness with the Test of Phoneme Identities (Murray, Smith, & Murray, 2000) and a new measure of phonetic cue reading.

The posttest results put my doubts to rest. We post-tested 19 children, including 2 transfer children. All but two students were at the full alphabetic phase (Ehri, 2014), demonstrating the ability to accurately sound out and blend to recognize unfamiliar words. Using decodable names to gauge knowledge of the most reliable vowel correspondences, the average reader in Rachel's class could use about 2/3 of these correspondences to read unfamiliar words, and 9 children read 25 or more names, indicating near mastery of basic decoding.

Of 6 children unable to read a preprimer word list, 2 showed well-developed phoneme awareness, indicating they were primed to forge ahead in learning to decode; 2 others showed growing phoneme awareness. Four of these 6 emergent readers could read pseudowords, suggesting they had attained the full alphabetic phase (Ehri, 1998). Only one child was partial alphabetic, restricted to using consonants as phonetic cues, and one student remained prealphabetic.

Using passage reading to estimate instructional levels, we determined that 7 children were still emergent; 3 read at the preprimer level; 3 read at the primer level; and 6 children were reading at first grade level. Given that the expected instructional reading level at the end of kindergarten is preprimer, 12 of the 17 students who had been "reading avengers" all year were reading on or above grade level. Their efforts to outwit the Word Queen had paid off.
Figure 1. Number of students meeting benchmarks in phoneme awareness
across the course of the year.

              Phoneme Awareness

              Little or no  Growing  Well developed

PA September  16            1         1
PA January     6            7         6
PA May         2            2        14

Table made from bar graph.

Figure 2. Number of students by instructional reading level
across the course of the year.

           Instructional Reading levels Passages

           Emerged  Preprimer  Primer  Firstgrade

September  18       0          0       0
January    19       0          0       0
May         7       3          3       6

Table made from bar graph.


A first-grade teacher reported to the superintendent that Rachel's students were making great progress in reading. The superintendent visited Rachel's classroom and heard kindergartners reading fluently. Based on these good reports, the principal and assistant principal changed their minds about the Word Queen program and proposed that Rachel continue working with her successful beginners in first grade next year, along with other promising beginning readers. The Word Queen got a new lease on life.

A few days after we posttested, the Word Queen (played by Rachel's daughter-in-law) paid a visit to the classroom. The Word Queen proved to be a pretty young woman with red hair pulled back, a silver tiara, and a long, golden cape. The children jumped up in excitement as she entered, exclaiming, "That's her?" "It's her!" "She looks beautiful!"

The Word Queen expressed regret for her actions: "I was just being selfish, thinking only of myself. But because of all those letters you sent me, and how nice you were to me, now I'm going to be a good queen."

One girl asked, "Do you remember when you gave us this box, and you tricked us? There was nothing in it, and you said there was candy in it!"

The Word Queen said, "That was a dirty trick, wasn't it? I think I've made up for that today. You know why?" Then she opened a wicker picnic basket and gave a bag of candy to every child in the class. She said, "Now I do want you to learn how to read. I want you to learn every word."

Before the Word Queen left the classroom, all the children came up to give her a hug. However, a couple of boys seemed skeptical. One asked, "What's your real name?"

She said, "My name is the Word Queen."

"No," they persisted. "What's your real name?"

"That is my real name." The boys remained unconvinced. It seemed that a small window of doubt had entered their minds about the imaginative play that had helped them in learning to read. However, they now knew many tricks to decode words, tricks that gave them a self-teaching device for learning unfamiliar words (Share & Shalev, 2004). Though the Word Queen would fade as a motivating story, the decoding knowledge they had acquired would continue to unlock printed words, opening the world of reading for them.


The success of the Word Queen program demonstrates the promise of engaging children's imaginations through sociodramatic play. In their efforts to outwit the Word Queen, children banded together as reading avengers to learn the tricks for reading words. They refused to be intimidated by the irregularity of English spellings.

Given the unevenness of instruction, children's achievement with the Word Queen program seemed all the more remarkable. Children had learned with minimal phoneme awareness instruction, an unsystematic progression through the vowels, a host of complex rules (some of dubious utility), a dearth of decodable texts, and daily whole class word-reading drills. Despite these weaknesses, children made remarkable progress learning to read by engaging their motivation through the Word Queen story. This attests to the motivational power of sociodramatic play.

We might expect even greater progress with a better-designed developmental sequence to ease children into reading. Such a program might more carefully lay a foundation of fluent letter recognition and phoneme awareness during the first kindergarten semester. It might involve more explicit PA instruction that focused on one phoneme at a time, made it memorable with sound analogies, and developed phoneme awareness with tongue ticklers contextualized in tickler tales (Murray, 2012).

A strengthened Word Queen program might develop knowledge of the most reliable vowels in English more systematically, beginning with short vowels and progressing through the long vowels, teaching the silent-e patterns along with the most regular digraph spellings (e.g., a_e, ai, and ay). The number of tricks could be pared down to the most reliable spelling patterns (Johnston, 2001). Rather than getting bogged down in haphazard generalizations (e.g., that gh says /f/), children could be taught the strategy of crosschecking, i.e., testing decoding attempts in context. Initial practice might use letter tiles to guide the spelling of example words on Elkonin boxes providing the number of phonemes (Murray & Lesniak, 1999). Rather than drilling with isolated words, children could practice in carefully engineered decodable text (Juel & Roper/Schneider, 1985; Mesmer, 2005). With decodable text carefully engineered by restricting content words to learned vowels, phonics rules work to unlock the words in stories, motivating phonics practice for readers and teachers. As children build a sizable lexicon of sight words and gain crosschecking skill, any instructional-level text becomes decodable, allowing admittance into the world of children's literature.

Given the qualitative, pre-experimental design of this research, teachers should be cautioned against full-scale implementation of the Word Queen program. Though the growth of reading ability was remarkable, there were no experimental controls to allow us to draw strong inferences about whether enlisting children as "reading avengers" to outwit the Word Queen is causal in improving reading ability. Nonetheless, that children who began kindergarten with poor foundational skills could finish the year mostly reading on or above grade level makes a significant case for the motivational potential of sociodramatic play in reading acquisition.

A reasonable response by teachers at this juncture might be to try out variations on the motivational core of the Word Queen program in action research in their own classrooms. Perhaps a Word Thief or a Word Worm might be trying to make reading difficult for children. Teachers might try telling an occasional story, illustrated by mischievous unseen visits, to heighten children's motivation to overcome an invisible enemy and note the effects on children's reading achievement. With a growing community of practice, it may be possible in the future to design true experimental research to assess the causal effects of using sociodramatic play to motivate children to learn to read in the complex and irregular orthography of English.


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Author:Murray, Bruce; Murray, Geralyn
Publication:Reading Improvement
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2019

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