The Barton Reading and Spelling System is a multi-sensory program that was originally designed for adults who struggled with reading and spelling, often due to dyslexia. Then, Susan Barton, the author of this Orton Gillingham influenced curriculum, adapted the program to suit both adults and children. People who use the Barton program do not have to have dyslexia. In fact, this curriculum will work great for anyone who is learning how to read for the first time, who struggles with reading for any reason, or struggles with spelling.
There are 10 levels in the curriculum. The first level starts off with teaching phonemic awareness by making sure that students hear the sounds that are in the words. Blank colored tiles are used to teach the sounds. The first sounds that are taught are consonants and vowel sounds. They are not tied together with the letters because it is important to make sure that students can hear the sounds. For example, students are given the sounds of short u and v. They would get a different color tile for each sound since each sound is different. If they were given the sounds /v/ /v/, they would use two tiles of the same color.
As the student progresses, they are taught the letters and their corresponding sounds using tiles. Susan Barton included tips for helping kids who confuse b, p, d, and q by using their hands. Examples: Put your left hand in the "thumbs-up" position. This is "b" for balloons. The "thumbs down" is "p" for pigs. Whenever a student sees one of those letters, they are supposed to use these tips rather than keep guessing until they have eliminated all the possibilities.
The tiles used from here on out have letters printed on them come in different colors: consonants, di- and tri-graphs are blue, yellow tiles are vowels, green tiles are suffixes, orange is prefixes, red are unit tiles. If you are not familiar with phonics or the Barton curriculum, some of those terms may sound a little odd. Digraphs have two letters that make one sound such as "th." Trigraphs are three letters used to make one sound such as "tch." Units represent sounds that come at the end of word and do not make the sound most people think of when they see them. For instance, one unit tile has "age." You probably thought that it sounded like age, as in how old I am. Instead, the "a" says /i/ as in package. Prefixes come at the beginning of the word, such as "anti" as in antidepressant. Suffixes come at the end of a word, such as "ing" at the end of running.
Once the student reaches level three, the majority of the books follow a basic pattern. Each lesson starts with learning one or two reading and spelling rules. Then, the student practices using the rules using the tiles. The student and teacher discuss it using the dialog that is provided word for word for the teacher and assumes the student will reply with certain responses- Susan Barton carefully constructs it so that the student does reply as expected. If they do not, it may be time to start that section of the lesson over or explain it again because the student probably doesn't understand quite yet.
The next step has the teacher build words from a list provided in the teacher's manual using the tiles. The student touches each tile and says its sound, then slowly blends the sounds together, then says it fast like a word. The student then builds words and nonsense words with tiles.
Nonsense words are used throughout the course because when a multi-syllable word is broken down, they look like nonsense. If you can decipher what a nonsense word sounds like, then you will be able to put together a multi-syllable word.
Each lesson has a page with words that follow the rules the student just learned. In the first few levels, students use a "frame" to read the words so that only one word is visible. In the subsequent levels, the frame is optional. The list usually contains nonsense words.
The next activity has students write down words on paper. It is important that teachers provide one word at a time since kids with dyslexia and other learning challenges often have a short term memory challenge, too. Once again, the words are provided. A list for a repeat lesson is also available.
Sight words are included in the lesson. Many of the sight words found in the earlier levels are explained in the latter levels (why the word makes the sounds it makes), but students often need these sight words right away because they are found in everyday reading. First, students read the words on paper. Any words that are unfamiliar to the student are written on note cards that the student will practice reading until they read them correctly three sessions in a row. These cards will be added to the pile of cards the student needs to learn how to spell. Next, students will write down the sight words from the lesson that they were able to read. Any word that is misspelled is written on a flash card. The student must spell them correctly three sessions in a row before the card is retired.
Reading phrases on paper comes next. In the first few levels, the words are organized into "Who (or What) phrases," "Did What phrases," "Where phrases,""Why phrases," "What phrase," and "Add On phrases." These phrases are taught instead of subjects, predicates, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, etc. They are logical. The student reads all of the Who phrases and the Did What phrases, then makes a simple sentence. They read all the other phrase types found on the page and gradually make more complex sentences.
In the latter levels, the student is provided phrases in random order. The student labels the different phrase types on a blank line that is provided after the phrase is read. Once the student is done labeling each phrase type, they make a sentence. Often, the student will be asked to start with something other than a Who or What phrase. For instance, they may be asked to start with a What phrase. Since the students get to choose which phrases to use, the sentences can be very funny to both student and teacher. We've had a lot of laughs because silly sentences are often created intentionally.
Next, the teacher dictates a phrase that the student writes on paper. The student repeats what the teacher says to increase memory skills before writing the phrase. Then, the student reads back what they wrote and the teacher asks if there is any word that the student wants help checking. Guided discovery is used to correct mistakes. Guided discovery is used so that the student will be able to find and correct their own mistakes when the tutor is not available and it is a life skill.
The teacher will place a piece of paper with sentences in front of the student. In the first few levels, the student covers up the sentences that they are not reading. This is optional later in other levels. In all the levels, students read to themselves then to the tutor. Students will mark the sentence phrases. At first, students will need assistance, then they'll be able to mark many independently, and in the latter levels they will not need to mark them at all. Once the phrases are marked, students learn that they can take a short breath or pause at the end of a phrase, but in the middle of a phrase.
When that section of the lesson is over, the teacher will dictate one sentence at a time for the student to write. The student repeats the sentence to build memory skills followed by writing the sentence on paper, reading the sentence to the tutor, checking for capitalization and punctuation, and the tutor asking if there is any word the student wants help checking.
Then, there are stories. There are advanced stories for people with larger vocabularies and basic stories for young people or people with a limited vocabulary. I let my kids choose which to read. The first story, the student reads to the tutor after the student reads to themselves silently. The second story is read silently. Then, the student summarizes what they read. If the student struggles, tutors can ask questions to get the student started and/or to check for comprehension.
Lastly, there are two worksheets. They vary in content. If the tutor is paid to teach the student, the student will go home with the worksheets. I have my kids do it during the session. I often step out of the room to get a drink of water or take care of my other kids. When they are done, we go over what was completed and answer any questions.
I often make a goal to complete half of the lesson in one sitting with my kids. (The first half is the part where the tiles are used.) My older kids have no problem getting through the first half in one session, while my younger kids have a harder time completing the second half in one session. This goal is really arbitrary because the most important thing that needs to take place when using this or any curriculum is to make sure that the lessons are scheduled regularly, at least three times per week, not racing through the lesson to accomplish a certain amount. To put it another way, mastery is much more important than finishing a certain percentage of each lesson in one session. Susan Barton suggests no less than 20 minutes per session and definitely no more than one hour.
One other thing that she recommends is that students do not read on their own in the first 4 or 5 levels. If the student insists on reading, it is important that the material come from controlled sources. This means that they should not pick up any book off the shelf. She has a list of books for each level that the student can read. The point is to unlearn any bad reading habits and replace them with the techniques learned in the program- otherwise, students may regress or stop progressing if this advice is not followed. Reading books that have only the words the student has learned will take away the need to guess.
Another tip I have for using this program is to place the students' pages inside page protectors and secure them inside a sturdy three-ring binder. Then, you can use the pages multiple times without making copies if you use a wet erase marker on the page protector and wipe it off with a wet cloth when you are done. I also use a dry erase marker board for the activities that have students write on paper. The kids like using these special markers and materials. The picture in this article shows my son using a wet erase marker to label phrases. You can also see the tiles that I organized on an inexpensive metal bar pan. I added a magnet from magnet tape, found in most craft or hardware stores, to the back of the tiles so that I can put the tiles away and keep them organized for the next session.
I use the Barton Reading and Spelling System as a part of my home school program because my kids were struggling and another curriculum was not addressing their issues. I never had my children officially tested for dyslexia, an official diagnosis is very costly, though some of my kids show many of the signs and symptoms. Even though not all of my children have exhibited any signs of dyslexia or any other learning difficulties, I have chosen to use the Barton Program because it is very thorough and students are able to gain life skills in reading that I would have liked for myself while growing up. However, as a teacher, I have learned a lot and now have a better understanding, too.
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