The ABeCeDarian reading program is a comprehensive phonics-based program that also teaches spelling and handwriting. It teaches phonics through practice and familiarity rather than by requiring students to memorize rules. Rather than learning numerous rules, children learn to “flex” by experimenting with the various possible sounds that might be represented by the letters. All of the steps for learning to read are taught explicitly, which can be especially helpful for children who struggle with learning to read.
ABeCeDarian begins with level A for beginning readers and continues through level D for students reading at fifth or sixth grade level. Levels A and B are the core of the program for teaching children to read and will generally be used with students in kindergarten through second grade. Levels C and D are so different with their focus upon prefixes, suffixes and word roots that I review them separately.
ABeCeDarian is scripted both to make it easy for the inexperienced teacher to use and because the carefully scripted lessons ensure that students are given the appropriate amount of information with each lesson. Author Michael Bend explains, “Most of the time you will be giving you child simple tasks to perform, so your talk will consist mostly of precise directions” (Teacher Manual for Homeschoolers and Tutors A. p.38).
Students learn the sounds of letters before the names of the letters, learning letter-sound correspondence within the context of words from the very beginning. They immediately learn to read three-letter words such as mop, sat, and top. While new sounds are taught within the context of words, children also practice the individual letters and sounds in other exercises.
Children use letter tiles and word cards that you will create from free downloadable files. (After you print them out, you should laminate these pages before cutting them out. Laminating makes them more durable and easier for children to handle.) The first lesson of level A introduces “word puzzles,” a simple teaching technique used throughout the first two levels of the program. In this first lesson, children use the tiles for “m,” “o,” and “p,” arranging them to say mop as you ask them to show you which letter makes each sound. Obviously, this means that students should have some idea that there is a correspondence between letters and sounds prior to this lesson, but they need not know all of the sounds of the letters in advance since you will be teaching these through the lessons.
There is a great deal of reading practice built into the lessons, In addition, children learn to write letters as they learn to read. Once children have learned to write a sufficient number of letters, the lessons have them practice saying the sounds of each letter as they write the words under models on their pages. Children will practice writing words a number of times until, at the end of a unit, they will write the words without models as a spelling test. They will begin copying short sentences at the end of the third unit.
Children gradually begin to work with Spelling Chains and Reading Chains. For Spelling Chains, you work with a group of letter tiles, beginning with one short word. After the child reads the first word, you say a word that has only one letter changed from the original word (e.g., map changed to mop). Your child needs to identify the letter that needs to be changed, and replace the changed tile. You continue through a list of ten words. Reading Chains work in reverse. You will first change a letter from the previous word then ask your child to read the new word.
The Teacher Manual A has suggestions on page 31 for a number of games that you might use to reinforce lessons. Games add both hands-on-learning and fun, so even though games aren’t built into the lessons, consider using the suggestions.
Level A has 48 lessons and teaches short-vowel sounds, individual consonant sounds, and some consonant digraph sounds. (Consonant digraphs such as “sh” and “th” are on their own tiles so that children learn that the two consonants used together make a single sound.)
For level A, there are two student workbooks, A-1 and A-2. A single Teacher Manual for Homeschoolers and Tutors A covers both student workbooks. There is quite a bit of explanatory material at the beginning of the teacher manual for level A, most of which should be read before beginning the lessons. Answers are included with lessons in all teacher manuals for levels A and B.
Level A is divided into 12 units, and by the end of the third unit, students can read simple sentences and begin to copy them. By the end of the fourth unit, they are ready for the first of the ten brief storybooks that are used with ABeCeDarian. Instructions for teaching the storybooks are available as a free download. Even though the student workbooks have quite a bit of reading material built into the lessons, the storybooks begin to help children read for meaning and enjoyment rather than for developing decoding skills.
Each lesson has a number of activities. For example, Lesson 1 in level A has word puzzles for the words mop, sat, and tap, and handwriting instruction for the letters “m,” “o,” and “p.” As you teach letter formation, you will continue to refer to the letters by their sounds: “Here’s how you write /m/” (Teacher Manual A, p. 58). You will demonstrate letter formation—a traditional form of printing but with continuous strokes rather than the ball-and-stick method—on a white board, using instructions for forming each letter as presented in the teacher manual. Most children will need a break between sections of this lesson, so it might be presented over a number of days rather than all in one day. Lessons should be no longer than 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Consequently, while you might complete the first level in one year, it is likely that it will take longer than that.
Teacher manuals include images of the lesson material or activity (such as a chart to be completed) for each student page within the teacher’s script for presenting each lesson. There are extra notes for the teacher within the script. While the font size in student workbooks is large and easy to read, the font used in the teacher’s manuals for the reading program for levels A and B is small—it looks like a 10 point font. Those who have trouble with small print might find this problematic.
Level B can be used by students after completing the first level of ABeCeDarian or if children already know short vowel words and the consonant digraphs “sh, ch, th,” and “ck.” A free placement test is available on the ABeCeDarian website. As with the first level, lessons in level B might take more than one year to complete. Students will have a solid coverage of phonics by the end of the course. Thus, these first two level of ABeCeDarian might be used from kindergarten through first or second grade.
There are two teacher manuals for level B, one for each student workbook, B-1 and B-2. Lessons continue to teach long-vowel sounds in multi-syllable words. The more-challenging vowel sounds are generally taught by grouping together the various phonemes that are used to make the same sound. For example, the words her, first, and hurt are taught together in one lesson, but the various sounds of “ough” (as in through, though, tough, and ought) are taught in different lessons, grouped with other phonemes that make the same sounds.
Children learn to segment words, identifying and underlining each letter or group of letters that makes a sound within a word. In level B, children also learn to break words down into syllables, a skill that is often needed when they try to decode unfamiliar words—this skill is not always taught in reading programs for the primary grades.
While children copy and write words, sometimes completing fill-in-the-blank exercises, there is not a lot of writing required. Level B does not include any instruction on handwriting, so you can make a transition to cursive with another handwriting program at any time without creating a conflict with ABeCeDarian.
ABeCeDarian Aesop is a brief collection of 11 fables that are used as reading material along with level B.
Short Versions of both levels A and B of the reading program are available. These books condense the lessons so that students have only one workbook per level. Handwriting instruction is omitted entirely. The Short Versions are ideal for older students needing remedial instruction. However, first graders just beginning the program who are not quite ready for level B would do well to complete the Short Version of level A before tackling level B.
Note that most of the level A and B resources are available in either classroom or homeschoolers versions. Generally, the classroom resources spread the material out into an additional book; it seems most sensible to me to purchase the homeschoolers versions.
The newest option is a digital edition Interactive Workbook for level A that can be used on a tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. It still requires interaction with a parent or teacher, so the teacher manual is still essential. Those using the app can access a free PDF download of the Teacher Manual for Homeschoolers and Tutors A. One year of access to the Interactive Workbook A is $19.95, and subsequent years are $4.95 each.
The ABeCeDarian reading program is highly structured like some of the popular programs based on Romalda Spalding's methodology (i.e., All About Reading, Logic of English, and Spell to Write and Read) but the learning seems easier both because it requires less writing and because students do not have to memorize rules. While it seems odd to say this about a highly-structured program, in many ways, ABeCeDarian seems to be a more natural way to teach reading.
ABeCeDarian Spelling Book B-1
Level B has a companion Spelling Book B-1 Student Workbook with its own Spelling Book B-1 Teacher Manual. You can begin using this after a student completes the fourth unit of B-1. However, it is not an essential part of the ABeCeDarian level B reading course, and you should consider it optional. Spelling Book B-1 has frequent references to the ABeCeDarian approach to teaching reading and content reflects what has been taught in those books, so it probably won’t work well as a spelling program apart from ABeCeDarian reading courses.
The spelling course will take a full school year to complete. It has 125 lessons that should each take about 25 to 30 minutes to complete; this works out to lessons for about four days per week.
The ABeCeDarian Spelling Book B-1’s approach is unique in that it uses memory associations as aids to remember correct spelling. Author Michael Bend points out the three characteristics that make the course unique.
The first two characteristics are the most unusual. The first characteristic is the memory association: “students learn new words by reading sentences that contain easily remembered clue words that specify how to spell any unstable spelling” (Spelling Book B-1 Teacher Manual, p. 7). For example, Lesson 26 presents the sentence, “I am on the l i o n.” This sentence helps children remember how to spell lion. Notice that the words I and on are bolded to indicate that they are the last three letters of the word lion. Second, students write sentences with the various clues embedded within them. The third feature is that spelling words are presented repeatedly at spaced intervals for better retention. Every lesson after the first includes some review work.
This approach to spelling is interesting, but I think it doesn’t translate well into the actual lessons. There are 39 graphemes taught in the course, each with a key word and a learning sentence. However, some of the learning sentences take some thought to figure out, and some incorporate incorrect spelling to make them work as clues. For example, “ough” as in through has the learning sentence, “O, U go home through that door” (Teacher Manual, p. 11). In addition, spelling words first presented within their learning sentence are presented later within another sentence. However, the attempt to incorporate multiple spelling words as well as reminder clues within sentences results in some strange sentences such as “I want the eel to be my friend” and “The eel began to read the book.” These are followed by, “I have an idea for a story about an eel and an ape” (p. 66).
Students complete exercises in their workbooks, then they practice writing spelling words by dictation in a separate notebook or on a whiteboard. They also write the sentences from dictation.
While I like the ABeCeDarian reading program, I’m not sold on the Spelling course and would skip it myself.