By Sharon Pfeiffer, Davis Specialist Trainer & Workshop Presenter, © 1995;
Originally published as a series of three articles in The Dyslexic Reader.
When I saw Ron Davis interviewed on television over a year ago, this question occurred to me and stuck in my mind. His assertion that dyslexia is a developmental condition--a syndrome of compounded confusions about symbols and their meanings-- led me to believe that something might be done in the K-2 classroom to prevent learning disability from occurring in the first place. Further, since Symbol Mastery is a multi-sensory learning activity for use by anyone who wants to improve their basic language skills, I felt it would make learning to read easier for any child.
When I contacted Ron and Alice Davis, they were not only interested but eager to see whether Davis Symbol Mastery techniques might have a place in the classrooms where basic literacy skills and vocabulary are taught.
At the time, I taught a class of 30 first graders in a Northern California elementary school. At the same school were three outstanding teachers who shared my interest. So during winter break last year, Ron, Alice and I met with them to formulate a plan designed to prevent potential dyslexics from developing a real learning disability. Our goal was to develop a program that would enable all children to learn to read and write easier and faster. The checklist we developed was a continuum of skills meshing Davis Symbol Mastery with our existing reading program.
The next few months were spent refining the checklist, working out the logistics of implementing these exercises into the students' daily routine at school, and cutting blocks of plastelina clay into blocks small enough to be rolled into letter shapes by little hands.
The pilot program was launched in September, 1994. The procedures used are the same as those described in Chapters 28 and 29 of The Gift of Dyslexia. During a one-hour period each day, the students construct clay models of various symbols, the alphabet and the "small word list." Their clay models are constructed on individual boards so incomplete work can easily be stored between classes.
The K-2 pilot program, just as Spring, is starting to bloom. The children as well as the teachers are still enthusiastic about Davis Symbol Mastery. The kindergarten children have learned to roll, measure, cut and shape the clay into numerals from 1-20. They are showing more confidence in both forming, recognizing, and writing the numerals. The kindergartners are currently working on mastering the alphabet. It is very rewarding to watch them really study each letter - noticing how many lines form the letter and how they are placed to make the letter. The children themselves compare their letters to the written models. It is wonderful to see a child evaluate their own work and see the joy spread over their faces when they are successful. It's not just the teachers they have pleased, it's that inner satisfaction that comes with a job well done.
The first graders have had similar successes. The children have completed the ABC's, punctuation marks, and are now working on the list of trigger words using the Davis Symbol Mastery Procedure steps. Because of the structure of the class and the age of the children, the first graders needed some help. So eight sixth graders were trained to work with them. The first graders as well as the sixth graders are learning that there is more to reading than just decoding the words. There is also the meaning of those little words. The first grade teacher had to get six more dictionaries because more and more of the children want to look up words on their own to learn the meanings. It's rewarding to see the first graders are not only remembering how to read the word and its meaning, but also how to spell the words. One little girl is so proud of being able to spell the word "they" that she spells it for me every Monday when she sees me. She has mastered the word so thoroughly she can spell it backwards and forwards!
Using Symbol Mastery, the second graders are making "discoveries" about language, way before they would normally be taught them. They have found that most of time when you have "what" at the front of a sentence, you have a question mark at the end. They also discovered that words are related. They found "would" is another form or tense of the word "will." It was pretty exciting when one boy found the word "would" in his reader and said, "I found the word 'would' but it doesn't have the right meaning." Reading in second grade is becoming more than memorizing a string of words. It's realizing that these little words have meaning and add to the comprehension of the whole story. To see second graders using critical thinking skills about language usage, discussing verb tense, and commenting on punctuation is pretty phenomenal as well as heartwarming.
It has been a great year so far. The teachers are already talking about how to make the program more effective next year. We plan to add another teacher and train some parent volunteers. The commitment and dedication of these remarkable teachers has caused Ron Davis to say, "It's a dream come true."
With the first year of our pilot program to bring Davis Symbol Mastery to the school system at an end, the benefits of the program are easy to see. The children in the K-2 classrooms have done better on their letter names, their basic sight words, and their reading; even the first graders are spelling better. An added benefit was the creative high level thinking skills that the children used to create sentences and concepts using the sight words. The Davis approach tapped into the children's creativity and their spirit of fun. Even after a year, the kids were still excited and enthusiastic about using the clay.
We did learn from our mistakes, as well. If introduced in other schools, the Davis program should be phased in, in stages. The first year of the program should begin in kindergarten. The second year, the program should continue in kindergarten and be introduced in first grade. With such phasing-in, the first grade teacher can build on the children's previous experience.
We also learned that the teacher needs a well-trained support group. This group should consist of paid aides, parent volunteers, or cross-age and/or peer tutors. Once set up, the support group could perpetuate itself by training new members to work or tutor. For us, the program in the first grade classroom improved after we trained a group of sixth graders to help out.
At the end of the year we concluded that, with preparation and planning, Davis Symbol Mastery fits in well with the school's philosophy of education and the state/district curriculum requirements. More importantly, it is natural to the child's style of learning. With the end of the school year, we arrived at the thrilling part of a new adventure, realizing that we had found something that can make a major difference.
The public school pilot program described in this article was funded in part through contributions to the nonprofit Davis Research Foundation.
The pilot program described in this article was continued for three years, and the children were followed through the fourth grade level. There were no special education referrals from classrooms where the Davis Learning Strategies were given. Results of this seven-year study were published in 2001 in the journal Reading Improvement in an article entitled The Effect of the Davis Learning Strategies on First Grade Word Recognition.
The program described in this article led to the development of the Davis Learning Strategies program for primary grades. Sharon Pfeiffer and her associates with DDAI have now trained teachers all over the world -- in South Africa, Singapore, and Iceland, as well as the US, Mexico, and Europe -- to use these methods for teaching early reading and attention focusing skills.