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Wilson: Successfully Teaching Reading and Spelling According to the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress report (NAEP), millions of students in middle and high schools across the nation struggle to read in school every day. .

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Wilson: Successfully Teaching Reading and Spelling

According to the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress report (NAEP), millions of students in middle and high schools across the nation struggle to read in school every day.


The number of students scoring below basic level in overall reading skill is astounding:

  • 36% of 4th grade students
  • 25% of 8th grade students
  • 26% of 12th grade students

Teachers of Gifted students, who teach Wilson Reading, regard this reading program as the absolute best they’ve ever used for at-risk readers.


Key Characteristics of the Wilson Reading System:

Students learn by hearing sounds; manipulating color-coded sound, syllable, and word cards; performing finger-tapping exercises; writing down spoken words and sentences; reading aloud; repeating what they have read in their own words; and hearing others read as well. Skills and knowledge are reinforced through visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile senses and they are learned to mastery.


Description of the Approach:

look like flashcards representing not the letter but the sound), the Wilson program uses a "sound tapping" procedure in these early steps.

For example, in teaching the word map, three cards with letters are put on the table to represent the three sounds in the word. The student is taught to say each sound while tapping a different finger to his thumb, as follows:

As he says the /m/ sound, he taps his index finger to his thumb.As he says the /a/ sound, he taps his middle finger to his thumb.As he says the /p/ sound, he taps his ring finger to his thumb.He then says the sounds as he drags his thumb across the three fingers starting with his index finger and ending with his ring finger.

The Wilson program has 12 steps. Steps 1 & 2 emphasize phonemic segmentation skills (the ability to pull apart the sounds in a word) and blending the sounds together again. Initially using one syllable short vowel words, a student learns how to segment sounds in words. In addition to using sound cards (cards which


The term phoneme means the smallest unit of sound. A grapheme is the written representation of a phoneme. Example: “ck”, k and c are graphemes for the phoneme /k/.

As the student is successful at reading and spelling both real and nonsense words with three sounds (with and without tapping) then he moves on to words with four and eventually five sounds, and so forth. At the end of Step 2, the student is able to fluently blend and segment up to six sounds in a syllable.


The instruction is designed to move a student’s eye quickly across a word. Wilson students scoop syllables with a pen or pencil point. This serves the purpose of fluency training.

Fluency development begins immediately with the Wilson Reading System. Students begin fluency work when they learn the letter names and sounds to automaticity (so they can “say letters and sounds in their sleep”) This is achieved simply by daily drills.

Beginning in step 3, syllable division is taught as rules apply to the structure of the words being studied.

The WRS changes its focus from individual sounds to syllable patterns.

Many students with reading difficulties view longer words as one long string of letters. WRS teaches students to recognize divisions through syllable division. This is taught with card manipulation and is limited to one syllable type at a time.


Phonemic segmentation

  • Alphabetic principle –

sound/symbol relationships

  • Decoding (tapping)
  • Encoding (spelling)
  • Advanced word analysis
  • Vocabulary development
  • Sight word instruction
  • Fluency
  • Comprehension 
  • Digraph – Two letters that form one sound.

Example: ch, th, qu, sh, ck

  • Bonus Letters – If l, s, or f, follow a vowel at the end of a word it gets a bonus letter.

Example: miss, fill, puff

  • Welded Sound – sounds are welded together

Example: ink, ank, unk, ing, am, an, olt, old, ind

  • Blend – Sounds that are blended.

Example: cl, sr, lk, st










































Wilson includes extensive controlled text (wordlists, sentences and stories) for application practice of skills.

I supplement the Wilson word list with the Dolch word list which includes 220 of the most frequently found words in elementary reading.


I asked a few students how they felt about our Wilson Reading Program.

Here are some of their quotes:

“I can read words now that I could never read before.”

" I can read quicker."

" I am getting better reading with the class."

“I can see the sounds I have to make when I read."

“If Wilson was not here this year we would not know any of these words."

“I can feel the sounds I need to make."


Wilson Lesson Plan:

          • Use 1:1 or in groups
  • • Lesson length: 50 minutes to 1 hour
  • • Number of lessons: two-three per week

Part One – Emphasis: Decoding

  • Sound Cards:
  • This includes a “quick drill” of the phonemes with the teacher showing a grapheme and the student(s) naming the letter(s) and corresponding sound(s). Key words are always used with vowels and as needed with other sounds.

2.Teach/Review Concepts for Reading:

Blank cards and letter cards are used to teach phoneme segmentation and blending (initially). Students are taught to segment sounds using a finger tapping procedure. Beyond step 2, syllable and suffix cards are used to teach total word structure. Every lesson involves this manipulation of cards to teach word structure and practice reading.

3.Word Cards:

Skills learned in section 2 of the lesson are applied to reading single words on flashcards. Review words are included in the stack of cards presented.


4. Wordlist Reading:

Skills are applied to the reading of single words on a controlled wordlist containing only those elements of word structure taught thus far. In 1:1 lessons, the student is charted daily for independent success. In group lessons, students are charted before progressing to the next sub-step. The list changes with each lesson so that students never memorize the list.

5. Sentence Reading:

Word attack skills are applied to reading within sentences. All sentences contain only the element of word structure taught thus far.


Part Two – Emphasis: Encoding

6. Preparation for Written Work/Quick Drill:

Letter formation is taught as needed. Every lesson includes a phoneme drill with the teacher saying a sound and the student identifying the corresponding letter(s).

7. Teach/Review Concepts for Spelling:

Initially, student spells words with phoneme cards and blank cards. Students apply the finger tapping procedure to segment sounds for spelling. Beyond step three, students use syllable and suffix cards. Students spell words using the cards to sequence sounds, syllables, and word parts.

8. Written Work:

Sounds, single words, and sentence dictations are included. The teacher dictates sounds, words, and sentences that are controlled; they only contain the word structure elements directly taught thus far. The student repeats the dictation prior to writing. Sounds and words are spelled orally before they are written. A formal procedure is followed for independent sentence proofreading.


10. Listening Comprehension:

In this part of the lesson, the teacher reads ‘non-controlled’ text to the student. The student uses visualization and re-telling to develop comprehension skills at a higher level than current decoding.

Part Three – Emphasis:

Reading Comprehension

9. Passage Reading:

The student silently reads a short passage with controlled vocabulary containing only the studied word elements. The student retells the passage in his/her own words linked to visualization of the passage. The student then reads orally.



Successfully Teaching Reading and Spelling

A Study in Massachusetts, Maine and New Jersey

A report from the Wilson Learning Training Center describes a study involving 220 language learning-disabled students and teacher pairs from Massachusetts, Maine and New Jersey, 1995.

The aim of this study was to determine whether special education pullout programs with teachers trained in the Wilson Reading System yield significant growth in students' reading and spelling skills.

  • Data from pretests and post-tests were analyzed to determine student gains in:
  • Word Attack
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Total Reading
  • Spelling

Students were pre-tested in September and reevaluated in May or June, after an average of 62 Wilson reading lessons.

  • Results from the study include the following:
  • Word Attack: The average gain for all students was 4.6 grade levels, from a pretest average score of 2.85 to a post-test score of 7.44
  • Reading Comprehension: The average gain was 1.6 grade levels, from a pretest average score of 3.46 to a post-test average of 5.05.
  • Total Reading: The average reading gain was 1.9 grade levels, from a pretest average score of 3.38 to a post-test average of 5.24


Why we need to keep the Wilson Reading System

“My daughter entered sixth grade not even being able to read words as easy as "cat". No kidding!

Nor could she spell anything other than her first name. It wasn't for lack of teachers trying their best to teach her-it was the program.

Her sixth grade special education resource center teacher joined several others to get trained in Wilson Instruction, which was paid for by the school system. My daughter worked with her teacher as she was being trained.

In less than one school year my daughter started to read. It was a miracle for her and for me. She is now a junior in high school in a college prep English course getting B's.

Spelling remains to be very difficult for her, but, she can read!!

She has continued in her Wilson Instruction, which she receives two times a week ever since sixth grade.

For us it was a Godsend. We are looking at colleges, she loves school (for the most part), and she feels good about herself!

Wilson Instruction may not work for every child, but for mine it was a miracle. It would certainly be worth petitioning your Board of Education to support”.



Has anyone experienced success with the Wilson Reading program? I'm considering having my son tutored by a consultant who uses this program?

Comments from a Wilson Reading Chat Room:



The Wilson Reading program is terrific! My eleven year old son has been working with an Educational Therapist certified in the Wilson Reading program. It has been 9 months so far, and he is now on Book 7 of 12 Books (Levels) But before the Wilson program he would only read with me. I would read a sentence and then he would read a sentence, but he would struggle so much that he never would enjoy it. He is enjoying reading so much now. he goes to bed an hour early to read, and he reads independently without the struggle. I really recommend this program.

Wilson is wonderful! My dyslexic daughter was tutored by a certified instructor for one year. She progressed from a Kindergarten 9 month reading level to a 2nd grade 1 month level in that one year.


My son has reading decoding difficulties and the Wilson Program Has really, really helped. It is a great way to teach reading even for children with out any difficulties.


A Great Story About the Wilson Reading System:

“My daughter couldn't even sound out short vowels in 2nd grade in public school. She was "classified" and they had her in a resource room for reading only.

She couldn't read her dittoes for homework. She didn't know what page the regular class was reading when she was in there for social studies. It was awful.

I found out that a woman we knew was a Wilson Reading tutor. She explained the Wilson Reading Program to me and tested my daughter. My daughter started tutoring with her two days a week after school.

It was AMAZING…after each tutoring session, my daughter had learned something new and she remembered what she had learned. The tutor charted her progress, so we always knew what she had "internalized" and what she hadn't learned yet.

As my daughter moved along in the program, she began to read signs, cereal boxes and everything around her. Then she started to read her books!

We begged the public school system to use the Wilson Program, but the child study team said because "the Wilson Program teaches phonics, it didn't teach a love of literature!" But if my daughter hadn't learned the phonics and how to read, how was she going to get a love of literature?

The Wilson Program opened the door (to reading) for my daughter. As my daughter's tutor always said to us "Rome wasn't built in a day"...even the Wilson Program isn't an overnight miracle, but at least we could see results and my daughter started feeling good about herself because she could learn to read, she just had to be taught differently!