Case study: Julie, a seven-year-old, high-achieving reader

Julie had just turned four when I began to tutor her in reading. Her mother, a native of China, had been taking Julie to a tutoring agency since she was barely three. The mother worked with her daughter daily on the reading lessons which Julie brought home.

Child looking at flash cards of two and three letter words.


When I met Julie, she could read many one-syllable words and some two syllable words. However, I noticed that when confronted with a new word, she could not figure it out. She had memorized the look of the words she knew but she had not learned phonics skills to sound out new words.

We began by reviewing ABC names and consonant sounds, almost all of which Julie knew. Then we spent many lessons on vowel sounds, focusing on short vowels first, and later mixing both short and long vowel sounds. We did this using pictures (pig, hat, run) which Julie would match with cards labeled ā ē ī ō ū and ă ĕ ĭ ŏ ŭ. We would spend about ten minutes of a lesson on this kind of work. Julie’s attention span was about ten to twelve minutes, so this was one of several activities in a single, hour-long lesson.

Tutor teaching a child.

When she mastered the vowel sounds using pictures, we worked on forming three-letter words using short vowels. At first I moved letter tiles around to form words, and with time, Julie made her own combinations and tested me to see if I knew what words she had formed.

Next, I added blends to short vowel words, first at the beginnings of words, and later at the ends of words. She found the beginning blends easier than the ending blends, as most children do. I made index cards with blend words on them, and when Julie would read a word on a card correctly, she would use a date stamp to mark the card—a way to make the learning fun. After a few weeks she mastered the blend words.

Late in our first year together, Julie began work on long vowel words ending with a silent “e.” She knew many of them by sight but not by sounding a word out. As our first year ended, we were working on long vowel single syllable words with double vowels such as “beat,” “fuel” and “rain.”

We were also building words using roots, prefixes and suffixes whose parts were written on little cards which Julie would push together to form words such as re-mix-ing and un-read-able. In the months which followed, when she encountered a long, unfamiliar word, she sometimes covered the prefix or suffix to figure out the middle part, and then constructed the word bit by bit as I had demonstrated.

Young girl reading a book

Julie could read many picture books. She enjoyed short paragraphs with colorful pictures on each page, but she would not try a chapter book. “Too many words,” she would say. She continued to go to the tutoring agency and do the reading homework with her mother, and to work with me once a week. When Julie was five, we began adding spelling and sentence writing to her lessons.

Julie is 7 now and has finished first grade. She is in the gifted program at her school. She reads voraciously, everything from Ranger Rick magazines to hundred-page chapter books. She has exhausted the phonics-like reading materials I have. She can read fourth or fifth grade materials as fluently as I can. She is working on expanding her vocabulary and on using more details in writing.

Julie is an example of the progress a child can make with a tutor or tutoring center augmenting school instruction. She is also an example of what studying during school breaks can do. She goes to school year round—nine months in her public school, and 12 months with tutors and her mother. Julie has a mother committed to Julie’s education, a mother who scours the library for appropriate books for Julie, subscribes to Ranger Rick, and oversees Julie’s homework and her piano practicing. She also teaches Julie how to write using Chinese pictographs.

For Julie, education is a way of life.

Julie—mischievous, hardworking and accomplished—could be your child’s classmate.

Where can I find a good list of books for my child to read this summer?

If you are looking for appropriate summer reading for your child, may I suggest several lists of books for you to check out.

This website is an appendix of the Common Core State Standards. By grade level, many books, poems, stories and other kinds of reading are offered as exemplars, meaning these are good examples of the kinds of reading children should be doing. These are not the only readings that the Common Core standards recommend, but they are of the high quality that the Common Core is encouraging.

students taking out piles of books at the library

The above website contains nonfiction published by Scholastic, Inc., a respected children’s book publisher in the US. You can easily go to the appropriate grade level at this web site to find lists of books.

The above Teachers First website is offered as a service to teachers by The Source for Learning, a non-profit learning and technologies corporation. Scroll down to find 100 recommended books grouped by age level.

The above website is from the Association for Library Service to Children. Two years ago this organization put together annotated lists of books for children. The books are grouped by grade level and the list can be easily downloaded.

There are other lists compiled by the California Department of Education, the New York Public Library, religious groups and book publishers. If you go to your online search engine and search for “reading books for children by grade level,” you will find many sources of lists.

With hundreds of books to choose from, your child is sure to find many.

If my child reads slowly, he can pronounce almost all the words correctly, but he understands almost nothing. If he reads faster, he mispronounces many words but he seems to understand a bit. Which do I go for—accuracy or comprehension?

Accuracy. But let’s backtrack a little.

At what stage of reading is your son? Is he reading passages matched to his reading level? If a child is plodding laboriously through text, the text is too difficult for his reading level. He is not achieving fluency. I suggest you go back to easy readers which he can read accurately and with understanding in order to give him confidence.boy reading book

If he is in third grade, for example, you might find some first grade reading for him. Ask your librarian for help. If he can read sight words and CVC words at a good pace, with word accuracy and with overall comprehension, you know he is reading at least at an early first grade level. Gradually increase the reading difficulty. You want to maintain the child’s confidence, so increasing the difficulty level should not happen in a matter of days but rather over weeks or months.

Some problems to listen for:

  • If a child is stumbling, word to word, he is not phrasing within sentences.  For example, all the words in a prepositional phrase go together and should be said as a unit; the subject and it’s modifiers should be said as a unit.  Practice reading aloud with you modeling how to say a given sentence, and ask your son to phrase words so that they make sense.
  • If a child is reading in a flat monotone, his reading lacks inflection.  Some languages lack inflection (Korean, for example), and children from that background might feel foolish saying some words louder and some words softer, or saying part of a word louder than the rest of a word.  If you can read with inflection, let the child listen to you and then ask him to repeat the words the same way.  If you cannot read with inflection, a child can listen and read along to books on tape.
  • If a child is bulldozing longer words rather than sounding them out, he could have problems with phonics, or be dyslexic,  or  be an impatient personality.  Cover suffixes and prefixes, discuss the root word’s meaning and the meaning of the suffixes and prefixes, and then reassemble the word.  Reread the sentence and ask the student what the word means in the context of that sentence.

Some manufacturers have a reading level on the back cover of children’s books. “RL 2.2” for example means reading level second grade, second month. Other books are color coded by the library, and still others show reading level with a lexile score. In my public library, one long wall of books contains easy readers for children learning to read. You might find an author whom your child likes. Ask your librarian for help so that your child is reading at the correct reading level and gaining confidence.

As your child progresses to higher reading levels, he will probably read with less accuracy and at a slower speed unless you actively intervene. Ask him to read aloud. When he pauses or stumbles, let him try to figure out the difficulty himself, but if he can’t, stop him and help him. Perhaps you will notice he doesn’t understand a concept in phonics; or that prefixes or suffixes confuse him; or that he doesn’t know where to make the break in multi-syllable words so he pronounces words wrong; or that a secondary meaning of a common word baffles him. Teach him how to solve his problem. Then let him continue reading that sentence or that paragraph. Now ask him to reread it. If he continues to stumble at the same spot, you know that he needs stronger intervention on a particular skill.

At the end of paragraphs or chapters, it’s important to ask your child what happened (in fiction) or what is the main idea (in nonfiction). If he talks around the idea but cannot nail it, he was focusing on individual words and missing the meaning of sentences or paragraphs. The reading was too hard. If he can retell the story or explain the main idea, he is comfortable at that reading level, and should try a slightly higher reading level.

What I see with many of my students is that they begin to have difficulty with reading once they have mastered the basic rules of phonics. It’s not a decoding problem; it’s a vocabulary problem.  As the reading level increases, so do the number of words they don’t understand. It’s not a matter of pronunciation usually; it’s a matter of having no idea what a given word or an idiom means. This is particularly true for ESL students.

That is why I say accuracy is important. If a child cannot read a given word accurately and know what it means, then understanding a sentence or a paragraph—with lots of unknown words—becomes impossible.

My first grader seems clueless when it comes to rhymes. Are rhymes important?

Yes and no. Being able to hear rhymes (sometimes called word families) helps a child to recognize that many of the last sounds in words are similar and are often spelled the same. Hat, cat, fat and sat all have similar rhymes and are spelled with the same ending letters. When a new reader figures out that many words have ending patterns and don’t need to be learned from scratch, these patterns might seem like helpful short-cuts.

A teacher says the first part of a rhyme, and the child says the rest of it.In a one-syllable word, a rhyme is considered everything but the initial sound (called by reading experts the  onset sound). So eight, bait and Kate all rhyme even though they are spelled differently.

However, reading research shows that being able to recognize rhymes is not the most important skill for a beginning reader. Other skills such as matching a sound to a letter or pair of letters, or being able to break apart a word into its phonemes (separate sounds), or blending separate sounds into words are more important skills than rhyming and predict better whether a child will learn to read.

Recent research shows that learning how to read sometimes increases a child’s ability to recognize rhymes, rather than the other way around (McNorgan, Awati, Desroches, & Booth, 2014).

Recognizing rhymes can be fun though. You might try reading nursery rhymes to your child, emphasizing the rhyming words. Or you might try singing childish songs  such as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Three Blind Mice” with your child. Sometimes replacing the second rhyming word with a nonsensical rhyming word can jolt the child into supplying the correct rhyming word. This can lead to a comment by you about finding the correct rhyming word.

Don’t fret about your child not recognizing rhymes, especially if your child is ESL. With time we all figure it out. Focus on the more important phonics skills.

My daughter reads fast, but when I ask her to summarize, she can’t explain well. What do I do?

Occasionally a read-a-holic student will have lower than expected reading grades. The parent is baffled because the child always has a book in her hands and goes through novels voraciously. When I ask such a student to read aloud for me, she shows many of these behaviors:

dhild running with book in hands




  • She doesn’t slow down for commas or stop for periods.
  • Her sentences merge and keep going for as long as she can read without taking a breath, and when she pauses to breathe, it might be in the middle of a sentence.
  • She may skip a line of reading when moving from the end of one line to the beginning of the next.
  • When she comes to an unfamiliar vocabulary word, she bulldozes it, pronouncing it any which-way, and continues reading.
  • Her inflection is flat, like that of an auctioneer.
  • She does not self-monitor; she doesn’t pause to consider that she didn’t understand what she just read.
  • When she answers questions about the reading selection, she does not remember important details and she doesn’t take the time to search for them in the selection.
  • She misses inferences and more subtle figurative language like metaphors.When asked to restate the main idea in a sentence or two, she talks around the subject but doesn’t nail the point the author is making.

What’s going on?

For such a student, speed is the important value. Finish quickly. Move on. (Notice if she is slap-dash about her piano practicing, dressing or cleaning her room. This is a personality trait, not just a reading trait.) In reading, this behavior might develop as she reads novels of her choice. She doesn’t care if she understands every nuance; she would rather understand enough to enjoy the story without slowing down for details.

This kind of reading might work for leisure-time reading, but it doesn’t work for most school reading, especially the kind of reading being tested under the new Common Core Standards. Common Core is trying to break such bad habits by forcing a reader to name the paragraph in which the answer is found, to define a word, to distinguish between fact and opinion, to restate an idea, to infer and to summarize.

What to do to improve fluency and reading comprehension?

  • Ask your student to read aloud. She will fume because it takes longer to read aloud. But make her do it. Silently read along with her and note the kinds of errors  which she is making.
  • If she is ignoring punctuation, stop her and ask her to reread and pause appropriately. She will hate this, but making this one change is half the battle.
  • Ask her to use inflection now that she can hear the sentences correctly. Model it if necessary.
  • If she slides over longer words she doesn’t know, stop her immediately and ask her to sound out the word. If she can’t do it on her own, cover a prefix and a suffix; ask her what the root means, or if she knows another word with that root. Then reassemble the word and pronounce it.
  • Sometimes it is not the long words which stump students; it is the idioms or the secondary meanings of short, familiar words. Stop your student when she encounters such words to be sure she understands them.
  • If she skips lines of reading, have her use her finger to keep track, or an opaque book mark.
  • At the end of a paragraph or a few paragraphs, ask her to explain what she just read. If she has missed something significant, go back and show it to her and together figure out why she missed it.
  • Many times, ask what the main idea is. If she can’t nail it, have her reread while you point out clues to the overall meaning.
  • Model self-monitoring by stopping her now and then to take stock of what was read and what to expect next.  Let your student hear you talking to yourself about what you just read.
  • Lastly, let her read her leisure-time reading undisturbed, bad habits and all. You can only fight so many battles; let her win that one small skirmish.

My grandson is scheduled to start kindergarten this fall, but I think he might not be ready. Is there any way to know for sure?

The old rule of thumb is that if a child can put his hand across the top of his head and touch his opposite ear, he is the right age to start school. If he can’t reach his ear yet, he is too young.

young child attempting to touch his ear with opposite hand

But such a test doesn’t begin to take into account all the criteria which could be used to judge the readiness of a child for school.

If your child has been to preschool, his pre-K teacher should be consulted. She has a good idea which students are ready to move on. And if you do send your child to kindergarten, and the kindergarten teacher contacts you in the early weeks of the school year saying your child is not ready, believe her. Not every child who is the right age is ready for kindergarten.

What criteria should you use to assess your child? According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, these criteria should be assessed:

  • Can your child communicate his wants and needs? Can he say, for example, that he needs to urinate or that another student is bothering him?
  • Can your child get along with peers by sharing and taking turns?
  •  Can your child count to 20?
  • Does your child recognize letters and numbers? Kindergartener are not expected to know how to read—although many can. But your child should recognize many letters and numbers and have an inkling of what they are used for.
  • Can your child follow directions? Sit or stand, line up, voices off, criss cross apple sauce—these are common directions that your child will be expected to follow.
  • Can your child sit still for ten, fifteen or twenty minutes, and pay attention to a teacher during that time? Kindergarteners have short attention spans, but they should be able to sit still long enough to listen to a teacher read a story or to watch a film about a baby whale. Not every five-year-old can do that.
  • Is your child able to hold a pencil or paint brush? Is he able to cut with a scissors? Most kindergarteners need more work on these skills as well as on gross motor skills, but they should show rudimentary skill.
child cutting with a scissors


Kindergarten teachers who responded to the Fast Response Survey System (FRSS) Kindergarten Teacher Survey on Student Readiness said being able to communicate needs and wants and being curious and enthusiastic about trying new activities are the two most important skills kindergarteners need to start school with.

Some other things to look for include:

  • Can your child handle emotions? It’s normal for a five year old to break down in tears when she’s upset. But, it’s important that she has coping strategies.
  • Can your child use the toilet unassisted? And can he or she be trusted to behave in a restroom without adult supervision?
  • Is your child obviously meek and likely to be picked on? If so, he might need some coping skills to keep bullies at bay.

Although the first two or three years might be hard for young kindergarteners, research shows that they show no academic difference from their classmates by third grade.

If your child is in sports, another consideration is the cut-off birthday. Baseball in my state has a cut-off date of July 31, meaning any child born on August 1 or later cannot participate on the same teams as children born in July. For August-born children sent to kindergarten on schedule, this means they will play on teams with kids a year behind them in school. Their teammates might be strangers rather than classmates.

Still another consideration is driving. If a student is one of the youngest children in his class, his classmates will get their driving permits up to a year before he does. Your child might feel left out, or he might pressure you to let him drive as a passenger with his older friends. Will you be comfortable with that?

And will you be comfortable with your 17-year-old heading off for college with classmates who are already 18 and 19?

Good luck on your decision. There’s so much to consider.

Ever hear of the “summer slide”?

(Since many comicphonics readers are viewing a blog on the summer decline in reading skills , we reproduce that blog from May 16, 2014, here.)

For years, educators have known that students loose reading skills during the summer if they don’t continue reading.  They call this loss the “summer slide.”  It is most severe among low-income students who lose up to two months of reading skills, yet it is sometimes nonexistent among middle class students who make slight gains in reading during summer months.

Summer slide (decline) of reading scores.

Here’s what some studies show:

  • B. Heyns’ 1978 study of 3000 sixth and seventh graders in Atlanta Public School showed that students who read at least six books during the summer maintained or improved their reading skills.  But students who didn’t read lost up to a whole grade of reading skills.
  • K Alexander’s, D. Entwisle’s and L. Olson’s 2007 longitudinal study of Baltimore students over 15 years found that by the end of fifth grade, students who didn’t read during the summer measured two years behind their classmates who did.  They concluded that 2/3 of the reading difference in ninth graders can be attributed to reading or not during summer school breaks.
  • Dominican University’s study of students completing third grade who took part in their local libraries’ summer reading programs scored 52 Lexile points ahead of their classmates who did not.
  • The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, funded by many foundations, concluded that children’s absence from reading during the summer is a major hurdle for achieving good reading skills by the end of third grade.
  • The summer slide is cumulative.  Some estimate that by the end of high school the summer slide can account for up to a four year lag in reading achievement, and it can have an effect on high school graduation rates.  According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “one in six children who are not reading proficiently in 3rd grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers.”

So how can you combat the summer slide?

  • Sign your child up for your local library’s summer reading program, and make sure your child completes the reading.
  • Go to the library regularly and let your child select books she will enjoy.
  • Help your child to read a chapter book a week, or a picture book each night.
  • Encourage your child to read the newspaper, television guides, magazines and online articles.
  • Reward your child with a trip to the book store to select her very own book.
  • Read to your child every evening, and let him read to you.  Your reading will teach fluency and pronunciation, and establish the notion that reading for pleasure is fun.