Phonics Power

A sound way to teach reading

By: Reid Kinsley Philadelphia Inquirer, May 16, 1989

John Wagner was a lost cause.  At 7, his teachers said he would never read.  “I couldn’t read at all, except for words like “the” Wagner, now 32, recalled this week.  “And at 7 or 8, you’re very much aware of it, ’cause other children make fun of you.”

This is how it was for Wagner until fifth grade when he met Helen Simyak, then a new teacher at the private Main Line Day School for learning-disabled children in Haverford.  The word “never” was not in Simyak’s vocabulary.  To her, Wagner was a “classic dyslexic” and a good candidate for the little phonics system she had worked out to teach almost anyone to read.  Under Simyak’s insistent ministrations, Wagner suddenly began to make progress.

“She used her system and she wouldn’t take now for an answer, and I learned how to read,” said Wagner, a construction worker who lives in King of Prussia.  It took time, but by eighth grade, Wagner was reading his grade level and was able to transfer to public school.  He is a graduate of Upper Merion High School.

For 20 years Simyak, who retired in 1977 and lives in Rosemont, has been perfecting her system.  She has shared it with enthusiastic colleagues, and it has been used for 10 years in an adult literacy program in Delaware County.  Second and third grade teachers at the East Goshen Elementary School near West Chester have used the system in their classrooms for the last three years and credit it for a dramatic rise in standardized reading scores.  A self-published version of the system, which Simyak calls Reading and Spelling via Phonics, or RSvP, has sold 10,000 copies, she said.  And now Simyak is seeking a commercial publisher for wider distribution.

Simyak, who trained as a speech and reading specialist, was a part-time remedial reading teacher in Philadelphia in the mid-1960’s when she became frustrated with the methods used at the time.  Students who were supposed to be learning how to identify words “were guessing, really,” she said.  They would, for example, mistake the words “lake” for “like”, tried to pronounce every vowel and were unable to analyze words of more than one syllable.  Simyak began then to devise her own system, one that she felt was simple and logical.  What she ended up with was a program concentrating on the most common vowel and syllable patterns.  For example, second graders using RSvP learned just four regular sounds for the letter A, as in cat, gate, car, and Paul, and only three sounds for each for E, I, O, and U.
Simyak said other methods identify many more sounds and letter combinations that can overwhelm the learner, and many may teach, for example, the “short” sound for all five vowels before moving on to the “long” sound for each.  “I could just see that there was a better way to do it, it came naturally,” she said.  Simyak’s method teaches a complete, short list of sounds for one vowel before moving on to the next vowel, and students learn to determine which sound a vowel makes by the letters around it in a word or syllable.  “We make it regular, and we make it predictable,” she said.

At the Main Line Day School, which closed in the early 1980’s, Simyak introduced RSvP to another reading teacher, Julie Dallett, who eventually put it into writing for use in elementary classrooms.  She is listed with Simyak as co-author of the RSvP series.  Dallett, now a family therapist in West Chester, said that RSvP was “the most effective thing I have ever come across” to teach reading.  Its simplicity gives students a sense of security, she said.

Pat Gaul, director of the Delaware County Literacy Council, said RSvP “really systemizes the English language” so that illiterate, but intelligent, adults also feel more secure.  The council is a private, nonprofit agency that uses volunteers to tutor about 500 adults each year.  About 60 percent of the council’s students, those with some rudimentary reading skills, use RSvP, Gaul said.  With Simyak’s  system, adult students increase their reading ability by an average of 1.3 grade levels for every half year of instruction.  That pace reveals a shortcoming in the schools, says Simyak.  “In a matter of hours, these students go up” in reading level, she said.  “What are we doing for 12 years?  I mean, that’s a disgrace.”  Simyak is a member of the governing board at the literacy council.

East Goshen Elementary Principal Grace Bulls said RSvP was introduced to second and third grader classes to help children figure out unfamiliar words they come across – develop so-called word study skills.  Stanford Achievement Test results in 1986 placed East Goshen second graders in the 64th percentile nationally in word study skills.  After the introduction of RSvP, test results put the East Goshen second graders in the 91st percentile in 1987 and in the 99th percentile in 1988.

The school’s reading specialist, Diane Dempster, said she had known about RSvP because she once worked with Dallett.  She said the phonics material can be covered in a few lessons early in the school year and then applied in literature reading the rest of the term.  East Goshen fourth grade teacher Susan Szentlaszloi said that when she started teaching in the 1960’s “you would get pieces of this information here and there throughout the year, it wasn’t all at once, and my sense is that kids do not pull all the pieces together.”