A few months ago on the ‘readbygrade3’ listserv (RBG3), I came across a reading programme promoted by Dick Schutz on his website 3RsPlus and promptly disregarded it as a salesman peddling yet another programme! Fortunately other listserv members developed the discussion with Dick. Like the RRF messageboard, the RBG3 board is a great place for sharing ideas, acquiring knowledge, and arguing about literacy and teaching methods, something that is often lacking in the workplace.
To cut a long story short, Dick offered RBG3 listservers a free copy of his CD ‘Beginning Reading Instruction – Course 1’ to try out with beginner readers, although many of the tutors on RBG3 are working with instructional casualties rather than beginners. BRI was developed at the Southwest Regional Laboratory established in 1966 by the US government to conduct large scale educational R&D (research and development). BRI was developed over five years of psychological and linguistic research and tryout of successive versions in kindergartens ( = reception), and the programme seems to have impeccable evidence-based credentials.
BRI text begins with only five letter-sounds and then sequentially introduces additional letter-sounds as the instruction progresses. The first milestone is that learners can read any text composed of single-syllable, regularly spelled words (The Alphabetic Basic Code.) Building on the Basic Code foundation, the instruction goes on to teach the Advanced Code, with its multi-syllables and greater letter-sound complexity. The end result is that learners can read any text in the English language with understanding equal to their understanding of spoken English.
The text that was constructed for the readers is known as Maximally Learnable Text (MLT) and it is just that: it contains no extra words that are not yet decodable for the reader in terms of the code he has already been taught. Instructions are simple: ‘Say the sounds and read the word’. The first set of BRI consists of 26 readers with a great deal of repetition. There are 47 words, none exceeding 3 phonemes, made up from 24 sounds introduced gradually. The story line is carried by the illustrations, which do not, however, give any clues to the words on the page in the way that some decodables and predictable readers do. The only strategy that works is ‘Say the sounds and read the word’. Because many of the words are similar (e.g. ‘sit’/‘sits’) children have to look very carefully inside the word.
Comprehension can be checked by asking questions. Children’s fluency is increased by the frequent exposure to the same words in different contexts. Simple punctuation and use of capitals are introduced from the earliest book. Children taught using BRI were followed up at 17-18 years of age and continued to be good readers.
Several of the tutors on RBG3 have started to use BRI either as a stand-alone or in conjunction with Phonographix, depending on the age and stage of the student. The complete set of readers developed by SWRL gradually introduces the entire alphabetic code in order of its frequency of use in our language. Many children begin to deduce code for themselves once they have realised how it works. But for those children who don’t, the readers continue until the last drop of code is taught.
The Placement Measuring devices helps a tutor decide how much code a student has learnt – there are 8 levels. For example, I have just assessed a Grade 5 student. Although he has a spelling age of 10+ (using the South Australian spelling test) he was unable to read the first Placement Device of BRI: he struggled with the first few lines, ergo he cannot use Basic code to blend words of this class.
I am Sam!
See me, Mat.
Mit sits in it, Sis.
Sim sees a man sit.
Ann sat on this and that.
Finding suitable reading books has always been a problem. These books are a useful addition to my tool box. The text is a cleverly-designed product that extinguishes maladaptive reading strategies (e.g. guessing) and rewards adaptive strategies (i.e. blending).
I am using the SWRL readers with all my remedial students from Grade 3-7, and they are at varying levels, regardless of age, from Set 1 to Set 7. In addition, I have two families where there are younger siblings (aged 5+) coming up, being taught the same whole language way as their older brother or sister, and of course doing all the wild guessing that it develops. It has been extremely easy to give the parents the CD for BRI-1 and have them print off the books. Then I have guided them through the process of teaching their younger child to read. That has to be better than having another instructional casualty 2 years down the track, and it doesn’t take a lot of my time explaining how to teach reading.
The story of how this programme was developed, how it suffered a demise, and how it has very recently surfaced, reflects much of the mess that surrounds the teaching of reading over the last 40 years. For those whose appetite to learn more has been whetted, BRI tutors now have a Yahoo listserv:
Distribution of the programme is currently complicated, but will be simplified within the next few months. The listserv is the best source for tracking BRI status (http://www.3rsplus.com/).
Pam Corbyn is a part-time primary teacher in Western Australia , who does private reading tuition and is a volunteer in an Adult Literacy programme.