John Martin's 'Writing to Read': a new way to teach reading

Say Ocean. Say Martian. Say Russia. Say Mush. To the eye, those four words have nothing in common. Yet if we say them aloud , we realize they all share the ''sh'' sound, although it is written four different ways.

The linguistic quirks that have left the English language with 14 ways to write ''sh'' - fully 500 ways to write the language's 42 sounds - may not pose any particular problem for the average adult. But for the child first learning to read, confronting the illogic of ''correct'' written English can be a source of confusion and self-doubt, and can ultimately lead to a withering of the enthusiasm for learning.

But now a new system of teaching children to read avoids the pitfalls of the written word by starting with the child's greatest achievement - the ability to speak a language. Reversing traditional methods, it teaches reading by first showing the child he can write anything he can say. Reading what he has written then comes to the child naturally, and a positive introduction to reading is made.

Appropriately called Writing to Read, the system continues to reap encouraging results in the hundreds of elementary schools where it is being tested.

That is not at all surprising to the man who developed the program, John Henry Martin. ''Children are avid learners,'' he says. ''If you provide them with the tools to utilize that enthusiasm, it's bound to work.''

Starting with the alphabet and the 42 sounds, or phonemes, in the English language - and the better than 2,000-word vocabulary the average child brings with him to kindergarten - the system employs microcomputers, typewriters, and tape recordings to help children make the leap from the spoken to the written word.

Results among 10,000 kindergartners and first-graders introduced to the system nationwide will be known when Educational Testing Service (ETS) of New Jersey completes a two-year study later this year. But already dozens of reports and observations indicate that five- and six-year-olds are learning to write words, sentences, even short stories - and having fun doing it.

In a kindergarten classroom at the Patrick O'Hearn School in Boston, five-year-olds Justin Dornhoffer and Eric Harding sit together at an IBM personal computer, earphones on their heads, learning to write the word ''snake.''

A multicolored picture of a snake appears on the screen, accompanied by both the phonetic and ''book'' spellings. A voice then says, ''This is a snake; say 'snake,' '' and the boys repeat the word. The word is then divided into its four sounds - ''s,'' ''n,'' long ''a,'' and ''k.'' The boys pronounce and alternate typing each sound before typing the full phonetic spelling of the word. If at any point one of them types a mistake, the computer simply repeats its request until the correct response is given.

The children's teacher, Katherine Tilley, notes that ''the voice in the computer never shouts, never gets impatient, never gets angry. It just works with the child until he figures it out.''

While Justin and Eric are learning to write such words as ''yard'' or ''wagon ,'' the other kindergartners are typing the words they've learned, following a story in a book as a recording reads it to them, or writing the words they've learned in a workbook. Later in a class spelling bee, the children are all eager for a turn to spell such words as ''rabbit'' and ''cake.''

Mrs. Tilley, who has been a kindergarten teacher for 34 years, says that at first she was apprehensive about allowing her pupils to spell words phonetically. But she says experience has taught her that children naturally make the transition to correct spelling as they use the storybooks.

''We tell our teachers to let the children know from the beginning that sometimes words will be spelled differently in books from the way we are writing what is spoken,'' says Dr. Martin. ''But that way the idiosyncrasy of a word like 'rabbit,' with its useless 'b,' becomes the fault of the word, rather than the child.''

Confusion and frustration in understanding the written word are reduced, and consequently, Dr. Martin adds, ''The children delight in writing a word such as 'ferocious' or 'horrible.' Because they've learned they can write anything they can say, such words are no longer stumbling blocks.''

Sitting in his office in Stuart, Fla., Dr. Martin reviews a new batch of student papers with the enthusiasm of a first-time parent. But he is no newcomer to education. Having started out teaching in in Alabama, he spent the next 30 years teaching and in school administration in New York and New Jersey - all the while studying how children learn and exploring new methods of teaching reading and writing.

An early advocate of typewriters in the elementary school classroom, Dr. Martin later saw the valuable role the computer could play in instruction while simultaneously freeing the teacher to spend time with small groups of students. Once retired, he was able to put his ideas to work.

Sifting through a pile of papers a teacher has sent from North Carolina, Dr. Martin comes upon a set that chronicles one first-grade boy's progress as he goes through the Writing to Read program.

At the beginning of his school year he writes, in large, childish print, ''Orce upon a time I seen E.T.'' Five months later, in much more mature print, he writes a 60-word narrative about his cat that ends, ''Evry night when he sleeps with me befoor he goes to sleep he comes up to my pillow and claws at my hair. Then he goes to the bottom of the bed and goes to sleep.''

Such progress is not unusual. In Raleigh, N.C., last year, kindergarten children using Writing to Read had a better mean reading score on the California Achievement Test for the first grade than did 89 percent of first-graders tested.

Two years ago Dr. Martin sold sales rights for Writing to Read to IBM, which expects to begin marketing the program sometime after ETS completes its evaluation. According to IBM, a school will be able to purchase the program for between $50 and $75 per child.

Now Dr. Martin is working on advanced reading exercises that will take children beyond the 10 lessons in the initial Writing to Read program. But even more than teaching to read, his fondest desire remains this: that his system will help children gain confidence in their own abilities. ''If at an early age children realize they can be successful,'' he says, ''that transcends everything else they have learned.''

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