Animated ABCs : Fictional Characters Populate Kindergarten Phonics System


Mimi Mermaid is becoming a mainstay for thousands of San Diego County kindergartners who are learning to read by singing, dancing, signing and storytelling their way through the sounds of the English language.

Mimi, along with Farley Fox, Sadie Seal, Victor Vampire and a host of other characters created by city schools teacher Jim Stone, have also become veritable lifesavers for hundreds of primary-grade teachers seeking help in teaching phonics as part of new state-mandated reading programs.

One by one through word-of-mouth, teachers have turned to Stone’s “Animated Alphabet” supplement because it encourages them to approach phonics--the learning of sounds of a letter or group of letters--in an imaginative, comprehensive way.

Stone has used it with his own kindergartners at Clay Elementary for more than six years, where reading test scores have been on an upward trend. But until about two years ago, he received almost no encouragement from top district language-arts administrators despite continued public frustration over stagnant or lower reading scores, especially among nonwhite students.


A majority of teachers in the San Diego Unified District continue to complain about a lack of concise phonics instruction in their 2-year-old reading program, which emphasizes storytelling and the reading of literature, Trustee Sue Braun said last week.

But Stone’s program, which teachers countywide are raving about, was long discounted by curriculum planners at the city schools education center because it centers on phonics, which they feared would conflict with their new “literature first” philosophy.

Only after the Chula Vista Elementary School District adopted Stone’s supplement--and as a teacher grapevine within San Diego spread the news--did a more supportive stance develop. Now Stone can barely keep up with the demand for his materials, which he has developed on his own over seven years and which he prints at home using a desktop publishing setup.

“He’s absolutely the most knowledgeable person about reading that I’ve ever met in any setting, university or professional,” said Ed McFadd, principal at Clay Elementary in Rolando Park, just south of San Diego State University.


“His work is thoroughly grounded in reading research that says you must have phonics instruction. He’s totally self-taught and has brought new life to the teaching of reading. He’s well-respected among his colleagues.

“But as the saying goes, ‘You’re never a prophet in your own country.’ I think (top administrators) were wary of adopting something that doesn’t have the imprimatur of the ‘cardinals,’ so to speak. It’s embarrassing.”

According to David Mittleholtz, who retired as a key curriculum coordinator for San Diego Unified this summer, “In the beginning days, the district virtually slammed the door in his face, even though teachers were crying out for some good phonics that connects with reading, and here we had an imaginative program that didn’t use work sheets and dull drill repetition.”

Chula Vista mentor teacher Larry Rickabaugh said, “It isn’t put out by a major publisher, so that made people more skeptical. But teachers like it so much because it works. It’s that simple.”


Rickabaugh said that Chula Vista schoolteachers can see the improvement in their students’ reading ability. He and others, from San Ysidro to Solana Beach, praise Stone for approaching phonics in a multisensory way, where the students use their entire bodies to experience the language.

“He’s taken all the different things that teachers know about from experience and put them together into something that can reach every student so much better than the old boring phonics approaches,” said Joyce Ward at Solana Vista School in Solana Beach, a district that traditionally has featured high reading achievement.

The other day in his morning class, Stone introduced the sound “OO” by telling his own story of Woody Woodchuck, who loved good cookies--a story based on a well-known children’s book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” As he told of how Woody used binoculars to spot cookies growing in the cookie forest, he showed the students their special “sign” for “OO”: forming two circles, or “binoculars,” with their fingers and looking through them while saying the new sound.

Then they sang a song about Woody, to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel,” during which they stood up and formed tree branches with their arms, then “looked” through their “finger” binoculars while singing all the words with “OO” in them. After coloring a picture of Woody, emblazoned with large “OO” letters, they eagerly waited for the toy box; Stone took out toys with the same sound to manipulate in pattern sentences in the song “Skip to My Lou,” to demonstrate how the sound can be used in different words, whether nouns, verbs or adjectives.


One boy picked up on the sound as symbol almost immediately, eagerly pointing out that the movie title “Captain Hook” also has the “OO” sound.

That’s the type of connection that Stone hopes for.

“The initial gesturing or signing by the students is not related to the letter symbol but to a prior association, such as ‘looking’ through binoculars for ‘OO’ or bumping their head for ‘OW’ or dancing for ‘D'--that’s the single most unique feature of the program, that they understand that gesture relates to meaning,” Stone said.

Stone pointed out that, when children learn to talk, as in “mommy up,” they instinctively make a sucking sound or other gesture as well.


So in his program, the children first learn the story of the particular alphabet character and the associated sound and gesture, he said. Gradually, as they practice the gesture and sing the song, the students begin to relate the sound and gesture more with a letter or letters, and less with the cartoon character.

“The signing motion gradually becomes internalized so they don’t think consciously of the motion any more, much like what happens after you learn to ride a bicycle,” Stone said.

While some students may take longer than others to make the connections, all students benefit from the material. “It may not be essential for every child,” especially those who come from homes with lots of books where parents read to them regularly, “but every child can benefit,” Stone said.

Almost every teacher who has encountered his program agrees.


“This is the best way I’ve ever seen to teach phonics,” said kindergarten teacher Sarah Baker, a 36-year veteran of the classroom. Before learning about Stone’s program from a colleague last year, Baker was about to retire from Hardy Elementary School in frustration over the twists and turns in district reading philosophies.

“Now I’m truly rejuvenated. I can’t believe the district didn’t tell us about the program,” Baker said. “My children do so much better--I send home some of the songs and the parents sing the alphabet with the children as well.”

But those people hostile to Stone’s program when he first presented it in the district are at best only lukewarm even today.

The former head of basic education for San Diego city schools, Kermeen Fristrom, said he believed Stone’s program to be “rote, trivial, segmented” when first presented to him in the mid-1980s. It became better only after Stone responded to the influences from curriculum planners to use literature in the teaching of reading, and to pull phonics from words in a particular story, rather than teaching the letter sounds first, Fristrom said.


“I looked at literally dozens of ideas presented by teachers,” Fristrom said, “and frankly I did not feel very strongly” about “Animated Alphabet.”

Others associated with the district’s reading program at the time echoed Fristrom’s remarks, and said that teachers have gravitated to Stone’s work in large part because they are afraid to “let go” of old-fashioned phonics instruction and trust the promise of experts that students will gradually pick up reading from using good literature and story-telling.

“There are some people in the district who really like (‘Animated Alphabet’) and as long as it is not taught as separate from literature, then I don’t really object,” said Melinda Martin, who spearheaded the district’s 2-year-old literature-based reading program and is now principal of Angier Elementary in Kearny Mesa.

“It wasn’t effective when I saw it five years ago, it was phonics in isolation,” said Jane Senour, formerly a curriculum specialist and now principal at Brooklyn Elementary in Golden Hill. “But I admit that there are differing philosophies and differing opinions about how to do reading and phonics.”


Ironically, when Supt. Tom Payzant made a video introduction for administrators to the new school year in September, 1990, his staff filmed him speaking to the camera while children in the background jumped up and down in excitement over a lesson: an “Animated Alphabet” story being presented to Boone Elementary kindergartners.

Defenders of Stone passionately disagree with any characterization of his program as rote phonics, or as inimical with good reading instruction.

“Actually, he integrated phonics with literature ahead of his time,” Emerald Randolph, Chula Vista’s former curriculum specialist who first brought “Animated Alphabet” to her district in 1986.

Mentor teacher Rickabaugh said that “only if you did not understand how the program was used, with songs and stories and text replacement, could you say it was phonics in isolation from word meaning, even when he first introduced it.”


Stone, while reluctant to dwell on his early troubles with district officials, said his program always has taught sounds in context with the meaning of a particular story.

“If you take the word cat and teach kids to read ‘cat’ by taking out a toy cat and forming sentences about what a cat does and you sing about cats, that is not phonics in isolation from meaning,” he said. “And when I first started, the district didn’t even have any literature instruction for me to work with.”

State Schools Supt. Bill Honig said some supporters of the new literature-based reading program have misinterpreted his department’s views on phonics.

“We never said to downplay phonics and skills, but said simply that reading is more than just phonics, and to integrate the sounds with stories,” Honig said. “We’ve even sent out a circular to emphasize that it is not evil to have a lot of phonics.”


San Diego’s Mittleholtz said he risked approbation from his colleagues when he bought Stone’s program in 1989 for those elementary schools, mostly ones with minority populations, where special steps are under way to try to improve achievement.

“I was charged with being counterproductive and going against the philosophy of the district, but I kept hearing from individual teachers that the program worked,” he said. “Sometimes you have to admit that the lowly classroom teachers might even be right.”

Now, with more authority being given to individual principals under district management restructuring, more and more schools are sending their teachers to Stone’s classroom to observe his methods--almost a quarter of San Diego’s 107 elementary schools at this point.

“Our teachers came back and voted to have the program in all kindergarten, first- and second-grade classes,” said Dianette Mitchell, principal of Kennedy Elementary in Southeast San Diego, where many children read poorly.


“Our children need work-attack skills, and this does it well,” she said. “It’s easier now to select programs because of (greater autonomy) but even if we didn’t have that authority, I would buy the ‘Animated Alphabet’ ($250 per classroom kit) because you have to do what is best for your children.”

Today, the district talks about Stone’s program as a possible supplement for teachers during its training programs to make them more comfortable with the reading program.

“I see it as a positive,” said Freda Callahan, one of the district’s school team leaders. “Here is a man who has written some good stuff, which has shown great success, and we’re not using it and not really showing a lot of success.”