Future of Learning

English spelling doesn’t always make sense, so this tech breaks it down

Students learning to read can click for help pronouncing unfamiliar words

Magic Ladder gives readers an extra set of clues about how to pronounce words because written English so often just doesn’t make sense.

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The problem really started with the creation of written English. The language has 44 sounds but only 26 letters. That means some letters have to pull double duty, representing multiple sounds. Then there are groups of letters that together make sounds completely unlike the individual letters. To confuse matters further, a single sound can be represented by multiple different combinations of letters – like the common sound in “laughter,” “phone,” and “father,” for example.

Learning to read and write in English is much harder than it is in a language like Haitian Creole, for example, which has just one sound per letter. But David Boulton, who spent part of his career in Silicon Valley, thinks technology can solve that problem. Boulton runs Learning Stewards, a nonprofit that features a free reading-support program called Magic Ladder.

When students read something on a computer and come across an unfamiliar word, they can click on it. Through Magic Ladder, one click opens a pop-up with the word broken up into its syllables. Another click helps readers sound out the word. A user can also click for a definition of the word, its synonyms, its linguistic roots and a translation. (If you are reading this on a laptop or desktop, click any word on this page to see how it works. If you are reading on a phone or tablet, click here to test the functionality.)

The technology has been a game-changer for students at the Second Street School in Frankfort, Kentucky, according to Dewey Hensley, the principal. Some teachers started using it last year, and he wants to make sure it’s embedded in classrooms schoolwide this coming year.

“It empowers differentiation and personalization,” Hensley said, acknowledging that those are big words getting thrown around a lot in education circles these days. “Often personalization or differentiation lowers the bar, or kids get access to a lower-level text or not the same text as everybody else.” But Magic Ladder, he said, lets teachers give students of very different reading abilities the same texts, knowing they’ll get the supports they need to understand the content.

Magic Ladder offers a new kind of code for reading English words – a toolset in addition to traditional phonics. Silent letters are gray instead of black, for example, and letters that make sounds as a group are underlined.

The first version of Magic Ladder did this on paper, offering visual cues about pronunciation for an entire text. A literacy researcher from Bellarmine University, David Paige, did a randomized controlled trial of this version in 2015, finding that students in the Jefferson County Public Schools had much greater improvement in their reading ability if teachers taught them with Magic Ladder rather than traditional instruction. No similar studies have been done since the Magic Ladder method went high-tech.

To some extent, Magic Ladder creates an extra set of rules to memorize. But teachers say it has the power to take the stress out of reading for kids who struggle.

“Think about a kid who can’t read,” said Cindy Bramble, a second-grade teacher at the Second Street School. “He’s ashamed. What’s he going to do? He’s going to shut down. He’s a behavior problem.”

There are examples of these students in virtually every classroom. But Bramble said Magic Ladder offers help – discreetly – so students don’t have to be ashamed about their gaps in reading ability. They no longer have to act out to get out of reading.

And Second Street School teachers are finding Magic Ladder is useful beyond English classes. Students can read texts in math or social studies using the Magic Ladder tools and get the same supports. This can be a big help for kids struggling to understand grade-level content.

Hannah Bennett, a fifth-grade teacher at Second Street School, said she used to have students come into her classroom at a kindergarten or first grade reading level. She said she had two options – she could pull these students aside for additional instruction with kindergarten or first-grade texts, helping them fill in the gaps and get closer to grade-level reading, or (and she said teachers don’t like to admit doing this) she could keep assigning grade-level texts and simply hope the students would catch up.

“Magic ladder will fill in those gaps for you,” Bennett said. “They can have access to grade-level texts, so they can develop the skills that they need, so they can master the standards in their grade level – while having a safety net.”

Students who grow up reading books at home often develop instincts for English grammar and spelling. They see so many examples of the irregular elements of English that the rules become second-nature. Not all children grow up this way.

“For those kids who don’t have the print-rich environment and aren’t able to run across those words until they naturally pick them up and naturally figure out the sounds,” Hensley said, “it’s very explicit and helps them to catch up.”

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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