John's Kitchen: Making biscuits (and teaching reading)

How is cooking like teaching early reading?

Let's talk about cooking for a moment. Why? Well, in a few 100 words, you'll understand why I'm writing about cooking.

Suppose I want to make a bread to serve with a meal, say with breakfast. My maternal grandmother could make some dang fine breads. She'd make yeast rolls that were delicate, soft, and practically begging for butter. She'd fold them perfectly and bake them individually, not jammed too close together so that they were squarish. Those rolls (I think they'd be called "Parker House") took a lot of time, because the dough had to rise a couple of times. Not so great for breakfast unless one did a lot of work the night before cooking them.

So, I'll make biscuits! Much quicker! No need for raising the yeast! So, here’s an installment from "John's Kitchen."

OK, now biscuit dough is easy. In just a few minutes (some min preparation and some min baking), voilà, quick bread (begging for butter). You just need these ingredients:

  • flour,

  • shortening (butter!),

  • baking powder or (baking soda),

  • salt (optional?), and

  • milk (buttermilk?)

So, you just put the ingredients into a bowl, mix them, then roll out the dough, shape the individual biscuits, and bake them on a baking sheet. All done!

"Not so fast!" you say? "Wait a minute!" "That's not all there is to it!"

The chefs among you readers will note that there's a little (a lot!) more to making biscuits than my simplistic recommendation. "You may have the right ingredients there, John, but you can’t just throw them together and get good results.”

"Oh?" I reply. "Well tell me more...But first a word from our sponsors...."

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You know, here on SET, teaching is really important. Let's just talk about teaching decoding for a minute before we return to the cooking show.

According to research, early reading success is based on students understanding of the alphabetic principle, essentially that print is a representation of talk. Learning the alphabetic principle requires that children

  • develop phonological awareness,

  • learn grapheme-phoneme correspondences (i.e., letter-sound relationships),

  • have lots of opportunities to practice reading words, and

  • get the idea that reading is a fun way of learning stuff!

So, early reading instruction should feature a great mixture of these fundamentals. But we shouldn't mistakenly think that teaching reading effectively is simply combining these ingredients.

As Yopp (1988) famously showed, phonological awareness varies in how it can be demonstrated. There's rhyming ("can, fan, man, ran"), alliteration ("long laughing large lions"), sound isolation ("what's the first sound in 'row?'"), sound deletion ("say 'drain' but don't say the /d/'"), and many others. Troia (2004) provided a good overview of phonological awareness.

Despite there being many different ways children can demonstrate phonological awareness, two of those ways are especially important for decoding. Students will need to segment ("say each sound in 'robe'") and blend ("Listen: ffffaaaat. What word is that?"). So, teachers might justify playing lots of language games with phonemes, but the tasks on which they should focus are segmenting and blending.

Also, there are variations on segmenting and blending tasks that matter. For example, it is easier to blend sounds that can be said and held ("continuous sounds" such as /f/, /m/, and /s/) then plosives (such as /b/, /p/, and /t/).

With letter sounds there are similar issues. The skill students need to learn is to see a letter and say the associated sound: See f and say /f/; see m and say /m/, etc. Signing the alphabet song doesn't really help much; after all, we read /r/ /a/ /t/ ("rrraaat"), not "Are, A, Tee." Some letter-sound correspondences are more important than others, because of how often they appear in print that students will read (s is more common than z) and because they are more consistent (although /f/ can be represented in many ways, when you see an 'f,' you're pretty safe saying /f/).

Also, it's important that students to say the sounds pretty purely, not learn to add the schwa sound to letters. It's /m/, not "muh"; /t/, not "tuh"—so teachers need to model saying the sounds simply as well has reinforcing when learners say them correctly.

These features of phonemic awareness and letter-sound correspondences have implications for instruction. No surprize there! When teaching blending, in the beginning use words composed of continuous sounds to help learners glide from one sound right into the next. When teaching letter sounds, begin with highly useful letters (and don't add the schwa), saving the other letters for later. That is, make phonics instruction systematic and explicit (Pullen & Lloyd, 2007).

So, we don't want early decoding instruction to be a hodge-podge of phonological awareness and letter activities. Teachers need to employ specific activities in certain sequences. Blachman and Murray (2012) provided a very good plan for how to combine these fundamental skills into excellent instruction.

Now, back to your cooking show....

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Welcome back. Now, where were we before that commercial break?

Oh, yes....we were saying that making biscuits is more than simply mixing some ingredients into a bowl, shaping the dough, and baking the bits of dough. You have to know how much of each ingredient, the order in which your combine them to make the dough, how much to kneed the dough (not too much!), how to shape the individual biscuits, at what temperature and for how long to bake them. It's almost like one should follow a proven recipe pretty faithfully!

That sounds wise…. I'm going to go check out a cookbook. I think Carnine et al. (2016) provided a pretty good recipe.

[By the way, my grandmother made biscuits, yeast rolls, and just about every other food she cooked using an cast-iron wood stove. I am not joking. She cooked with it into the early 1960s!]


Blachman, B., & Murray, M. S. (2012). Decoding instruction. Teaching Tutorial, 7, 1-27.

Carnine, D. W., Silbert, J., Kame'enui, E. J., Slocum, T. A., & Travers, P. (2016). Direct Instruction reading (6th ed.) Pearson.

Pullen, P. C., & Lloyd, J. W. (2007). Phonics instruction. Current Practice Alerts, 14, 1-4.

Troia, G. A. (2004). Phonological awareness acquisition and intervention. Current Practice Alerts, 10, 1-4.

Yopp, H. (1988). The validity and reliability of phonemic awareness tests. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 159-177.