BURBANK -- It still pains Lou Gates to think of the kid who couldn't read.
More than 30 years ago, the man who's now Burbank's superintendent had a student named Barry in his eighth-grade class. Gates couldn't help him.
"Barry left my classroom as an illiterate," he said, his face darkening at the memory. "I couldn't say to him with confidence, 'This is how it works.' "
Now he can.
This month's issue of the scientific journal The Reading Teacher features an article by Gates and Ian Yale, the principal of Columbia Elementary School. In it, Gates introduces a method to teach struggling readers he said is more reliable than existing strategies. Now that his method is peer-reviewed and published, it might grab the attention of textbook publishers and other school districts.
The core innovation in Gates' research is that he showed English to be more predictable than previously thought. Instead of a lot of confusing and shifting rules about which sounds one should say when reading certain letters put together, every word in a child's vocabulary now falls into one of five categories.
And while that might seem like something only people with doctoral degrees get excited about, it's making a world of difference for kids struggling to read in Burbank schools, he said.
One of the problems of teaching reading is that a certain combination of letters doesn't always make the same sound.
Many oft-used rules pretend that's not the case, but those rules break down before too long.
For example, a still-popular generalization used in beginning reader classes is "When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking."
That works great for the words "tea" or "pie" -- only the first vowel is pronounced.
But what about "head" or "chief?" Same vowels as above, different sound. The rule breaks down and needs to be replaced by other, more complicated rules.
And that makes the work in the classroom harder, especially for those kids who don't naturally take to reading.
"We used to use flash cards to memorize the many words that didn't follow the old rules," said Mike Steberl, who's taught Burbank kids how to read for more than 30 years.
He doesn't use flash cards anymore. Now he uses Phonguage, which is what Gates has called his system. It's a blend of two systems of reading instruction -- whole language and phonics.
In Phonguage, kids learn lists of words that follow the same rule. They don't focus on the rules -- they learn how to say certain words by repetition and when they see a similar word again they know how to read it without needing to sound out each letter slowly.
That in itself isn't entirely new. What's new is that the sound patterns are grouped together in a more reliable way than they were under the old generalizations.
Just about every word commonly used in children's literature fits into one of the five categories and 93 sub-categories established by Gates, he said.
There almost are no exceptions. Once a student learns these patterns, he's cracked the code.
"We're not teaching things we have to un-teach later," Gates said.
And kids don't have to worry about open vs. closed syllables or other complicated rules that tried to make sense of the old generalizations, he said.
This spells big progress, especially for problem readers, Steberl said.
He's a specialist for struggling readers in Burbank's elementary school. He was a little reluctant to try Gates' system at first, when the new superintendent arrived almost three years ago.
"But a few other reading teachers and I, we just figured we'd try it -- and then our scores went up," Steberl said.
He's not talking about the state test scores -- those cover all students in a school and the system is used mostly in the high-needs classes in Burbank so far.
But his kids improved dramatically on the tests Steberl himself administers to check their progress. He had been working with some of his fifth-graders for three years and they still were a year below grade level in reading.
But after he used Phonguage last year, 21 of the 25 students in his high-needs class improved to slightly above grade level. And a few of the fifth-graders who had been so far behind at the beginning of the year read at seventh-grade level by the end of it, Steberl said.
"These were kids that really struggled (before)," he said. "It's changing my ideas on how to teach reading."
* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org