I haven’t read to my child at bedtime. How do I start?

Dad reading to children in bedIf you haven’t been reading to your child at bedtime, but you want to establish that tradition in your family, here are some ways to begin.

You might gain your child’s approval by saying she is going to be allowed to stay up 15 minutes later every night while you read together.

You might let her choose the reading material. You needn’t read a book together. If she is into fashion, read a fashion magazine or newspaper. If he is into making things with his hands, read Popular Mechanics. The idea is to make the reading experience pleasurable for your child.

Help your child to vary the reading material. Go to the library together and poke into the nonfiction section about animals, stars, and history. Show her the biography section and read some names of famous people she might know a bit about. Let her choose so she has have a stake in the reading.

If electronic equipment will entice your child, use it. If comic books will entice your child, use them. If graphic novels will entice your child, use them.

Many children are ignorant of world news, but an evening read of a news story can make children aware of the wider world. With you there to interpret, the child can become more sophisticated.

If your child is reading too, and he is a reluctant reader, suggest that he read one page and you read another, or he read one paragraph and you read another. But at first you might want to do the reading yourself, to attract your child to the idea of bedtime reading. If he thinks he has to work, he will balk.

If you read a book for which there is a film, suggest that you watch it together after you finish the book. Heidi, Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer and so many more children’s books have been turned into films. You can discuss how the book and movie differ, and which she likes better.

If there is a special TV show one night or you are on vacation, you might suggest skipping the evening read for that special event. You might be surprised to see disappointment on your child’s face. If so, suggest that you could read, but just a bit later or during the baby’s nap. For the chance to cuddle up with Mom or Dad, most children will want to read.

Keep this time stress free. If your child is relaxed, she might raise questions about matters she is tossing around in her mind. Let that be her choice though.

Stick to the time you set—15 minutes, 20 minutes or whatever you decide on. If necessary, set a timer. The child must learn that this is a limited happy experience that she can look forward to again tomorrow evening.

Good luck!

Do you read stories to your children at bedtime?

Dad reading to children in bedIf you do, you are one of a small group of parents. An online survey of more than 1000 US parents shows that one-third of parents read to their young children every night. Half the parents said that their children prefer watching video games or watching TV to reading.

Another survey of 2000 mothers in Britain showed that about 2/3 of mothers read to their children, but only 13% read to their children every night. Parents say stress at the end of the day and lack of time are reasons that they don’t read to their kids. But TV, video games and other distractions also are factors.

Yet reading to children at bedtime can offer so many advantages.

  • Establishing a bedtime ritual—a bath, brushing teeth, kissing family members good-night, a prayer, and a snuggle with Mom or Dad while they read—is a time-honored way to settle children down and prepare them for sleep.
  • Children learn fluency by hearing an adult read. They learn to slow down for commas and periods. They learn to change their tone for direct quotes. They learn that certain parts should be read faster or slower, louder or softer, or in a high squeaky voice or a low threatening voice.
  • In the privacy of the bedroom, parents might feel more inclined to “act” out the words of the book—to be silly or gruff, whiny or sugary. Children sometimes see a different side of their parents during bedtime reading. This can be a great ice breaker between a child and a usually distant parent.
  • Children learn vocabulary. They can ask, “What does that mean?” and get an immediate answer.
  • Children learn about setting, plot, character, tension and happy endings. They learn about culture. Especially as children get older, parents can read books to a child which the child isn’t ready to read yet but which the child is quite able to understand.
  • Children often reveal what they are thinking and feeling during a nighttime read. Snuggled safely with Mom or Dad’s arm around her, a child might open up about her hopes and fears. This is a time for the child to feel protected.

In our next blog we’ll talk about how you can establish bedtime reading if you don’t already do it, or how to improve the experience for you and your child.

The American study was conducted by Macy’s and Reading Is Fundamental in 2013. The British study was conducted by Littlewoods, also in 2013

Did the Common Core eliminate handwriting as a skill kids need to learn? I can’t believe it!

The Common Core requires legible manuscript (printing) in kindergarten and first grade, but after that there are no standards relating to handwriting. 3rd grade student writing

In fourth grade, the Common Core requires students to be able to keyboard or type a full page at one sitting.  Learning cursive writing is not required.

However, the Common Core developers have encouraged individual states and school districts to modify the standards as appropriate for their populations. Some states have included handwriting. In California, kids need to learn printing in second grade and cursive in third and fourth grade. Massachusetts requires legible handwriting of any kind in fourth grade. Private schools, which may or may not follow the Common Core, usually include handwriting as a necessary skill.

Does your state require children to practice handwriting? You can find out by going to your state’s department of education and searching for the state-required curriculum. You may find that your state has adopted the Common Core as a whole, without modification, in which case handwriting will not be taught after first grade.

But that does not mean you can’t augment your child’s learning. Teacher supply stores sell booklets on how to write in cursive. Or you can go online to buy such materials.

There is good reason to do so. Handwriting (as opposed to writing with a keyboard)

  • Develops dexterity in fingers
  • Improves hand / eye coordination
  • Activates many parts of the brain not used when keyboarding
  • Encourages children to write longer passages, and
  • Improves letter recognition.

Another reason to learn cursive is to be able to read letters and documents of the past. I have many letters from my aunt—written in cursive. I have a letter and post cards sent home from Europe by my father during World War II—written in cursive. I have copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—written in cursive.

Like much of the Common Core, the reduction in emphasis on handwriting is controversial.

Kids learn sounds from big to small

Little children who are learning about the sounds in words move from larger units of sound—phrases and words—to smaller units of sound—sounds within syllables.

Take the word “elephant,” for example.

Word: elephant
Syllables: el-e-phant
Onsets/rhymes e-l e f-int
Phonemes e l e f i n t

children pronouncing elephant

First, children learn that sentences are composed of words. (I can remember being in first grade and learning that “of the” is two words, a revelation at the time).

Next, children learn the sound of the whole word. They might mispronounce “elephant,” saying it as a two-syllable word (el-phint) as they grow accustomed to it. Eventually they say it right.

Children then learn to break the word into parts (syllables), pronouncing each syllable distinctly.

With a teacher’s or parent’s help, they learn to identify sounds within the word.

Later, they learn to match those sounds to letters.

This sequence—from a phrase to whole words to syllables to the smallest distinct sounds—provides a useful guide for adults teaching reading to preschoolers. We should make sure a child can hear the sounds of a word and can reproduce them properly before we begin to break a word into parts and associate letters with those parts.

What are some activities that help a child to master the phonological awareness sequence?

• Say a two or three-syllable word, leaving pauses of a second or two between syllables. Ask the child to combine the syllable sounds into a word.

• Ask the child to break a two or three-syllable word into its parts. This is a harder skill than combining.

• Ask the child to say (not spell) the sound before the vowel sound in a word (the onset sound). For example, in the word “dog,” the onset sound is the sound a “d” makes.

• Say tongue-twisters and ask the child to identify the alliterated sound. For example, in “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” the onset sound is the sound a letter “p” makes.

• Sing songs with rhymes. Ask the child to identify the rhyming sounds.

• Ask the child to say the rhyme part of a word or syllable. The rhyme part is all the sounds beginning with the vowel. So in “dog,” the rhyme is “og.”

• The hardest activity is for the child to break down a syllable into every sound (phoneme). American English has 42 phonemes, or sometimes more depending on regional pronunciations. (Sounds made by “th,” “sh” and other digraphs are considered distinct sounds, which is why English has more phonemes than alphabet letters.)

While learning the ABC’s is a skill most preschools stress, the other skills explained need to be learned first. Some kids are ready to break a syllable into phenomes at four years old, but many more are not ready until part way through first grade. Don’t rush them. Instead, spend time on all the preliminary steps.

For more details on this sequencing of learning sounds, go to http://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200901/BTJPhonologicalAwareness.pdf. While you are there, check out the list of read-aloud books that emphasize sounds, and the additional activities you can do with a child who is learning sounds.

Phonemes, phonics, phonemic awareness—what’s the difference?

A phoneme is the smallest sound in a spoken language. There are 42 in American English, according to some experts, but more if regional pronunciations are considered. Many are represented by a single letter—b and h, for example. But others are represented by a pair of letters—sh and th, for example. A phoneme is not a letter; it is a sound to which we have associated a letter in order to read the sound. By itself, a phoneme has no meaning.

listof phonemes

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear words at the phoneme level, to hear that the word “cat” contains three separate sounds. Phonemic awareness does not mean letter awareness. A child can have phonemic awareness without knowing the ABC’s. It means the ability to pull apart words and to say the separate sounds in words. It means a child can recognize that all the sounds we make can be put together various ways to create words.

Phonics is the code, the assigning of sounds to symbols (letters) so that the sounds can be pronounced correctly by looking at visual letters. With more than 250 letter patterns to represent all the sounds in American English, reading instruction focuses mostly on phonics.

Children with excellent hearing and from a language-rich environment pick up phonemic awareness early in life because they hear all the sounds of American English. Before they start school they may be able to pronounce all the phonemes correctly, echoing an adult. But most children cannot figure out phonics on their own. They need instruction matching a sound to a letter or letter pair.

Teach art literacy when sharing picture books

When children start to “read” picture books, generally they are reading the pictures; that is, they are trying to get meaning from the pictures since they can’t read the words yet.

They might study the appearance of a character, noting if it is a boy or girl from the clothes. Or they might look at the dark swirling clouds or the beaming sun to discover the atmosphere of the story. They might look at the colors the illustrator uses. Bright colors and pastels might indicate a happy or peaceful theme; dark colors or colors tinged with greys and blacks might indicate danger. Horizontal lines or smooth lines might indicate calm while jagged or diagonal lines might indicate action.

children looking at picture of Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln

Some children perceive these clues without explicit instruction, but many children need someone to point out how colors, lines, and facial expressions tell the story too.

According to research by Kathleen Ellen O’Neil, illustrations can interact with the text in four different ways.

  • The art can reinforce the text, “showing” the text. For example, in “The Mitten,” adapted and illustrated by Jan Brett, a boy loses a mitten which his grandmother has just knit. One by one, we see animals from a tiny mole to an adult bear squeezing in to the mitten. The illustrations show the hedgehog’s quills and the badger’s nose poking through the wool.
  • The art can supplement the text, providing description which the text either skimps on or doesn’t describe at all. For example, also in “The Mitten,” we see the boy dressed in a Ukranian tunic, leather pants and boots with folk art borders. The book doesn’t mention where the setting is, but the art shows.
  • The art can provide far greater detail than the text, offering new insights which a literally-minded child might miss. It can illustrate nuances, inferences, humor and irony, adding depth to the text. In “The Mitten,” for example, the boy finds his mitten after the animals have left it behind, and he brings it home. The last page of the story shows the grandmother holding both mittens and noticing how much bigger one is than the other. No words are used, but we can hear her wondering, “How in the world?”
  • The art can convey a parallel story which either expands the text or contradicts it. Still in “The Mitten,” to the left side of almost every page we see the boy playing in the snow—hopping on a log where the rabbit lives, poking with a stick above the hedgehog’s burrow, looking in a tree’s knothole where the owl lives and climbing atop a woodpile where the fox lives. To the right side of those pages we see an animal leaving its disturbed home, and on the next page that animal squeezes into the mitten. Nothing in the text says that the boy disturbed the animals, forcing them to seek shelter elsewhere. A discerning youngster might notice it, but many children will need this part of the story explained.

For more information and other examples of books which clearly show the four different kinds of art interaction with text, go to the November 2011 issue of “The Reading Teacher,” page 214, for the article by Ms. O’Neil.

The Common Core will change what your kids read in school

In the past, most English Language Arts reading material was taken from children’s literature: stories of Aesop, Judy Blume and the Brothers Grim, for example.

But under the Common Core, the amount of time children spend reading and discussing literature in the public schools will steeply decline in most states. In its place students will read more informational and persuasive reading, such as Lincoln’s second inaugural address, a letter home from a Vietnam War soldier, or an article showing the pros and cons of taking music lessons.

boy reading bookFor younger children, reading material will be divided roughly into thirds: one third persuasive reading, one third expository reading, and one third narrative reading. But as children become high schoolers, the amount of time they spend on literature could drop to about one fifth of the total.

The point of this shift is to make students better prepared for the rigor of a college education and the kind of jobs that someday await them.

In the United States’ best universities, the number of English literature majors has dropped noticeably in the past thirty years, while at the same time science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors have been attracting more students. Yet many college freshmen are not prepared to understand college science, technology, engineering or math texts. Nor are they prepared to write essays in those fields using logic and critical thinking.

To compete on the world stage, believe the developers of the Common Core, students need a radically different kind of education than their parents received—even in English Language Arts. So out with Huck Finn (or maybe read just an excerpt) and in with primary documents; out with Romeo and Juliet and in with two-sided arguments on the place of women in combat troops.