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Reading Runners & Linguistic Lego Blocks

Would you like all your students to be more like Reading Runners, the students who learned to read at an early age and often spell, write, and grow their vocabulary and comprehension abilities with equal ease? 

The Runners’ advantage lies in spoken language- they know how to actively play with words as if they are meaningful Linguistic Lego™ blocks.  Readers of any age can learn how the many pieces of language snap together by discovering the deeper ways that words work while reading and writing. 


Do you have seven-to-seventeen-year-old students who we call Reading Walkers - disfluent, disinterested, or frustrated readers who struggle with challenging words? These difficulties are not surprising; in third grade (8 y/o) and beyond, readers must make sense of English’s complex written words -- many with multiple meanings, syllables, and morphemes – and its inconsistent spelling system. They confront between three and seven unfamiliar words per hundred in grade level text. Sixty-five percent of these words are multisyllabic – a figure that rises to 85% by middle school. This requires a higher level of language skills than reading Cat in the Hat did a few years before.


For about a third of students, who we call Reading Runners, these challenging words actually enhance their fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. These students often learn to spell, automatically recognize words, and write sentences as easily as they learned to read. We’d like to show you the abilities and methods that put Readers Walkers on the firm path that Reading Runners travel on. 


Strengthen Spoken Language Abilities

Let’s start with the simple fact that literacy and language development are inseparable. Reading and writing growth are largely dependent on the development of the four main components of spoken language: sounds (Phonemes), meaningful parts of words (Morphemes), meaningful whole words (Semantics) and meaningful Sentences. Every sentence you read or speak arises from these Foundational Four. As students’ speech is constantly improving – compare a six-year-olds’ to a nine-year-old – Reading Walkers are capable of developing the more robust spoken language that gives Runners an edge with written language.


Clarify How Words Work in Speech & Print


Walkers are also capable of developing the Runners’ other language strength; they know how words work, understand the connections, patterns, and principles behind written and spoken language. This starts with recognizing the three parts of words – Phonemic sounds, Orthographic spellings and Morphological word parts, or POM, and understanding how they combine to make tens of thousands of meaningful words (Semantics) and Sentences while reading and writing. POM plus Semantics - POM + S - is one of the most important and widespread findings in all of reading research.

Full List of reliable researchers

POM + S is called:

  • ‘triple word form’ by Virginia Berninger and colleagues 

  • ‘connection between orthographic, phonological and semantic sequences’ by Mark Seidenberg

  • ‘the bonding of pronunciation, spelling and meaning’ by Linnea Ehri 

  • ‘letter, sound and meaning flexibility’ by Nell Duke and Kelly Cartwright

  • “POSSuM: Phonology, Orthography, Semantics, Syntax, Morphology’ by Maryanne Wolf and friends 


Build Awareness of the Finer Parts of Language

Each part of the POM + S equation is composed of parts and combinations that are essential to understanding how words work: 

  • Sound blocks including phonemes, spoken syllables and words.

  • Spelling blocks including graphemes and longer letter patterns, onset-rime patterns (r-ant, p-ant, pl-ant), written syllables, and whole words.

  • Meaningful parts (morphemes) including prefixes, bases, suffixes, morphological word families (rework, worker, unworkable, workshop, coworker). 

  • Meaningful words and combinations including compound words, synonyms, phrases (going to the store, my best friend), natural word pairs (ice cream, chocolate chip), and words with multiple meanings.


Focus Instruction on Linguistic Lego™ Play

Reading Runners greatest advantage is that they know how to play with words, their parts, and combinations, as if they are just an engaging set of Linguistic Lego™ blocks. This game is easily learned at any age, with the right instruction. A noted neuroscientist recently stated that the #1 thing to know about reading is that “words are like Legos, they are made from parts or pieces, that you can plug and play with to make different things…Playing with words is fun – the language that they are constructing is an amazing thing.” 


Linguistic Lego™ Play is the Key to Unlocking the Multisyllable Word Barrier

The largest barrier to long-term reading success is deciphering unfamiliar multisyllabic words fluently. Runners instantly recognize that words are composed of familiar spellings, syllables, morphemes, and single syllable words -- un-eco-logic-al or un-reli-able. They know how to play with the words until they sound meaningful. By solving these word puzzles, readers learn thousands of new sight and vocabulary words a year just as they read. 



Show Walkers how Reading Runners Learn

It is impossible to teach 8 y/o and older readers the thousands, yes thousands, of spelling, sight, and vocabulary words that they learn each year in school. Instead, Runners acquire through generative learning basic language sequences, patterns, connections, and principles are explicitly taught. Readers then practice applying and generalizing these skills with a variety of contexts. If they learned that cave roughly means an ‘empty space’, they can generate the meaning and pronunciation of concave, excavate, cavity, cavern or cavate mean. Likewise, if they can read am, then they can extend the pattern to amp, ramp, cramp, clamp, and lamp. Generative learning is a well-established method for language learning, as it reduces the need for memorization. 


Their Teachers Have Access to Prep-Free Materials

I’m Bruce Howlett, a former biological researcher who transitioned to teaching science to special education students. I soon realized that my 35 year-long struggles with reading fluency, spelling and writing were not unlike those of my students. Dissatisfied with traditional materials that often lacked strong phonemic awareness, fluency, and morphology instruction, I started creating interventions based on current research and interactions with groundbreaking scholars. While working with a speech therapist on an early phonemic awareness project, my reading difficulties largely evaporated. This motivated me to created language-based literacy interventions, including the instruction for North America’s largest volunteer reading initiative.


Five years ago, I decided to create a supplemental program based on current research that enhances the language-literacy abilities of the two-thirds of students who are Reading Walkers, called Sparking the Reading Shift, or STaRS. 'Shift' refers to the transition from Reading Walker to Reading Runner. STaRS incorporates the spoken and written language methods described above, including Linguistic Lego play, multisyllabic work, and generative learning.

Each lesson in the 16-lesson Sparking the Reading Shift – Language-Literacy Intervention (for long-struggling Reading Walkers) and an abbreviated ten-lesson version - Sparking the Reading Shift – Language-Literacy Enrichment (for disinterested and disfluent Reading Joggers) teaches POM + S as an interconnected system, not as separate parts. 

Each page is a ready-to-use activity, which includes brief instructions and a three-to-five-minute word challenge that students must first answer verbally, then in writing. The lessons progress from basic POM activities to sentence construction and fluency practice. Vocabulary, morphology, spelling, and fluency instruction are also integrated, saving immense amounts of time compared with stepwise instruction. A 30-minute lesson given once or twice a week with all your underperforming students often saves hours of class time better used for more enjoyable activities. 

The word challenges have readers actively:

  • build the connections between POM parts to create words. 

  • read, spell, and write whole words and combine them into phrases and sentences.

  • discover spelling and morphemic patterns in multisyllabic words. 

  • analysis sound, spelling and meaning distinctions in similar words, phrases, and sentences. 

  • develop fluency, including accuracy, rate, and expression.


Sparking the Reading Shift is designed for ease of use by parents and new and experienced teachers, supplementing – not replacing – your existing literacy methods.

Most educators only need the instructions provided on each page and with the sample lesson, below. 

Both versions are available for sale in print or for immediate download (PDF)


For a sample chapter email Bruce Howlett

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See how playing with language leads to success for students and teachers alike.


A Linguistic Lego Lesson

This is a typical lesson from Sparking the Reading Shift. The lessons deeply engages students in words and how they work. It follows the POMSS sequence, starting with phonemes and spellings, then building meaning with morphological awareness, whole word patterns, phrases and sentences. Each lesson ends with a variety of fluency activities. Note that only a few examples for each activity are shown. 


Sparking the Reading Shift uses a generative learning approach, a well-regarded vocabulary, morphology and spelling method. Each year proficient readers learn thousands of sight, spelling and vocabulary words. It's impossible to teach all these words. Students need to generate the meanings of new words, based on their knowledge of how words work. 


STARS  explicitly shows readers general patterns, principles and relationships and how to analyze and assemble words, phrases and sentences. Then students practice playing with words so that they know how to decipher unfamiliar words.

Start with Letter and Sound Analysis
Play with Sounds & Spellings
Next, Extend the Pattern
Develop Flexible Word Recognition
Now, Read Onset-Rime Patterns
Play with Morphemes
Become Aware of Syllables
Compare and Read Phrases
Build Phrases into Sentences
Develop Fluency with Phrases
Prosody - Reading with Expression
girl reading in library

Bruce Howlett on the Overarching Approach to Literacy

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Simplifying Reading Instruction with Integrated Multicomponent Learning

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Long-term Literacy Success with Sight, Vocabulary & Multisyllabic Words

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An Overarching Approach to Reading that Both SoR and BL Teachers Will Embrace

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