Sunday, 1 March 2015

Experiences of 'Barton Reading and Spelling' with Dyslexic Kids

My kids were not successful at learning to read using "whole word" and "sight word" instruction in school, and we wasted years trying. Tutors and extra studying after school didn't help either, and in some cases made our situation worse! After completing evaluations and finding out both children were dyslexic, we were told our best bet was to find a system that was Orton-Gillingham based; essentially phonics. We decided the best thing to do, at least for the moment, was to use a program that could be implemented at home. Someone had recommended Barton Reading And Spelling ( I was hesitant at first because it has a reputation of being rules based and I knew that my children did terribly when forced to memorize rules. Now, while it IS rule based, I have found the program to be amazing.

First, Barton is probably the easiest for a layman to implement. It comes with tutor DVDs, a great teacher's manual, and lots of on-line support. Susan Barton herself is more than willing to discuss concerns by e-mail and phone. After extensive research, it just seemed that this program would give us the best chance of implementation at home.

I will admit to disappointment and felt almost insulted when we started the first level. It seemed SO basic and almost silly going back to the beginning with sounds, and not even sound-letter association, especially for my older child who was already in 6th grade at that point. I honestly considered sending it back. My kids were very articulate. They couldn't possibly have sound discrimination issues, could they?

Having committed good money to the purchase, we decided to try the program anyway. Once we started and I committed to following the recommendations and script, I began to see changes began pretty quickly. I had been wrong. The very, very basics presented in Level 1 were actually where things had started to go wrong for my children, only no one had known it. Not me. Not the teachers. Not even my mother, a reading specialist, who is very bright and had years of teaching experience.  Barton Level 1, as basic as it looked, was the key that finally started to unlock all the more advanced skills in reading and spelling.

I am still amazed at how well thought out, laid out and successful this program has been for us. Over the past year I have watched the transformation in understanding of sounds and words and language with my kids and it has been amazing. My daughter, in particular, made more progress in reading and spelling with this program in just a year and a half than she did in a very long 7 years of instruction in a classroom setting and with tutors.

That being said, this program is not a miracle system. It won't work for every single child. And not every child will progress at the same pace. Every child is different so the pacing really depends in part on the tutor, how often the tutor works with the child and more importantly the underlying strengths and weaknesses of each child. Even with an umbrella diagnosis of dyslexia for both kids, they have very different underlying strengths and weaknesses so their pacing and individual success through the program has been different.

My advice? If Level 1 clicks with a student within 2-3 months, stick with the program. Many kids will even get through Level 1 in a week or less. If they haven't even finished Lesson 2 of Level 1 after 2-3 months, perhaps try something else. Even for those children suited to this program, progress through the levels will vary. It is not unusual for students to take a year or more working through Level 4, which is probably the most challenging.

One thing to keep in mind is that the program keeps adding on to previous skills and by the time all 10 levels are completed, the student should be functioning at a high 9th-10th grade on reading/spelling. In other words, this program is not just for the very basics of reading remediation. It can carry a student through into High School level material. It can also be used with a child that is not dyslexic, although they will almost certainly move through the program at a MUCH faster rate than a dyslexic student. The levels are not equivalent to grade levels, though. They are building blocks. Each level is needed to build on for the next level so even an older student will usually need to start with Level 1.

When I first started it took a while to wrap my brain around this system. I know others who think this type of program just seems intuitive and I know some who get irritated at the Teacher's Manual and the tutor support DVDs, feeling they are too basic, break things down too much. I found them absolutely necessary for me to understand this system. Once I did, and actually followed what Susan Barton says to do, insisting the kids follow the system even when some stuff seemed silly, I could see the method working. I could see the kids making connections, and improvement in reading/spelling/grammar all began to manifest.

Each level has a lesson for each rule or concept being taught for that level, as well as built in review of prior concepts/rules. As I've said, the first 2 levels seem very basic and are quite short compared to the other levels but are usually absolutely essential for successful remediation. After level 2, each level contains between 10 and 14 lessons, with each lesson broken into parts (usually A-Q.) Each part provides a different way of approaching that rule/concept. The student does some work orally, some with tiles (manipulatives), some written in isolation, some written in phrases, some written in sentences. Some is reading individual words, some is reading off of lists of, some is reading phrases, some is reading sentences, and some is in reading passages, etc. Helpfully, if the student is going through a part and does not seem to be grasping the rule as presented in that part, the Teacher's Manual has additional words/sentences/tile activities that can be used for additional exposure or additional review of that component. 

Throughout the various parts of that lesson (and lessons can take just a couple of hours, or days or even a couple of weeks or more to complete, depending on the student and the lesson) the student is exposed to the new concept in many, many different ways so that it can be internalized and become automatically applied. If, by the end of the lesson, the child is NOT fluently reading/writing the words (nonsense AND real words) in that lesson, then you repeat the lesson with additional words that follow that rule/concept until reading/writing IS fluent for that rule as well as prior rules. There are tons of extra practice pages and games available on the Barton site if the ones in the packet aren't enough. There are many companies now that provide supplemental materials such as card games, board games, readers, etc. that support the levels of Barton and can be used to liven up the lesson, do additional review, help solidify concepts, etc. Some are free, some cost a little money and some cost a lot. At the end of each level you have the option to give a test to confirm they have internalized the rules for that level. If they don't do well in certain parts, it is clear which part they need review and you just go back and review that particular section, without repeating the entire level.

Grammar, punctuation and sight words are also addressed, but very gently in the early levels.
This program is supposed to replace ALL other Language Arts programs for the student (except for outside literature studies where the child either listens to audio books or the parent reads to them) until after Level 4, at which point a formal writing program that is separate from Barton can be used (she recommends the main program from the Institute for Excellence in Writing but there are many others to be found out there in internet land) and the student can be given some assigned readings through controlled sources. 
Over all, I find Barton to be a very thorough, effective way for a parent to successfully help their dyslexic child learn a better way to read and spell. I have not found, in all my years of research, a better system for a parent with no Orton Gillingham based training to implement on their own. I wish we had started with this program far sooner than we did.

Catherine is mother to two darling children, and gets around her business in the southern USA


  1. Thank you - what an informative review! We're currently trying to get our school to purchase the Barton System. I'm probably going to print this to give to them!

    1. Would they be implementing this for one on one or very small group tutoring or would this be for a classroom? It really doesn't work for a classroom. It does work well for one on one tutoring, or if the person implementing it is trained, it could be done with a really small group (no more than 3).

      I hope you get the system for one on one tutoring. That would be great! I know it has been used successfully in several schools. If they won't, you might consider trying to use it yourself. The resale value is nearly what you pay new so some people use a level, sell the level then use that money to buy the next level. Anyway, I wish you the best!

    2. We are hoping they will use it one-on-one with our daughter and then they'd have to use with other struggling readers as well. If not, the local dyslexia center allows members to borrow the levels one at a time for $50 a month. Not a bad price at all, depending on how many times a week we choose to tutor.

  2. Thank you for such an informative review. Did you do the Barton screen prior to purchasing?

  3. Yes. I did the screening for both children prior to purchasing the program.

    It is easy to administer. Just please make sure you and your child are well rested, not hungry, will not be interrupted, can do it in a quiet place, there are no distractions, and you do not have to rush through it. Calm, relaxed, focused and can hear all the sounds. That will make the whole thing much easier and more accurate.

    My daughter passed. My son did not. I started my daughter on Barton and my son on LiPS before moving him to the Barton program.

    Hope that helps.