Is Why Johnny Can’t Read still used to teach reading?

Why Johnny Can’t Read is a book by Rudolph Flesch, Ph. D., a readability expert in the US from the 1950s until his death in the 1980’s. This book advocated a phonics-based approach to learning to read when most American children were learning the “look-see” approach of memorizing the look of a word. Today Flesch’s approach is out of favor if used alone, but if it is used in combination with some other approaches, it can be part of a good approach to teaching reading.

However, kids hate it.

CVC words that end in _ch and _ook.

To enlarge, click on the picture.

Flesch’s approach is to break down phonics into sounds which correspond with letters, and to teach lists of the same sound. One of the beginning lessons is a list of several columns of short a CVC words; it is followed by a page each of the other short vowel sounds. Then the short vowels are mixed together, two vowel sounds at a time. Gradually all the sounds of English are introduced through lists of words which use those sounds.

The problem is that reading lists is boring for children. They find it hard to stay focused for more than a few minutes on such a task, so if that is the only strategy, kids resist these lessons.

Other reading programs have taken Flesch’s idea and have presented the lists a different way. One of the most successful is Explode the Code. For a lesson on bl, cl, fl and gl bends, for example, there are nine pages of activities. On one page the word to be learned is to the left, and to the right are three pictures, one of which illustrates the word. The child needs to circle the correct picture. On the next page the student sees a word on the left and needs to circle the same word (one of three) on the right. On another page the student fills in the blank with a word which is illustrated to the left. On another page the student answers a question using one of the blend words. Students prefer the variety that this approach takes.

When I teach reading to beginners, I use a combination of Flesch’s ideas and others. I don’t use his long list of words, but sometimes I give my students one column of his lists. For variety, I put words on index cards which the child can hold and shuffle, so the child has more control. Again, I limit the number.

I taught my three children how to read using the lists at the back of Why Johnny Can’t Read, so I will always be grateful to Flesch, his research, and his simple, straight-forward approach to teaching phonics. As a writer, I am grateful for his guides on how to write plain English.

My child knows how to read pretty well for a first grader. Should I still read aloud to her?

Yes! Here’s why:

  • A child’s reading level doesn’t catch up with a child’s listening level until eighth grade, according to Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook. A younger child can appreciate a book she cannot read yet—the plot, the descriptions, the characters and the vocabulary—if an adult reads it aloud to her.

    Father reading to child and child asks, 'How old is Old McDonald?"

    To enlarge, click on the picture.

  • Reading aloud to a child attracts him to reading by himself. He takes pleasure from being read to, and will want more of that pleasure even if an adult is not available to read to him. He will delight in life-long reading.
  • Books contain rich vocabulary, words more numerous than what we parents say on an everyday basis to our children. Children learn the vocabulary from the books we read aloud because we pronounce the words properly and because we explain them to our children. With such a rich vocabulary they are better prepared to understand their teachers and the reading they do on their own.
  • In books read aloud, children hear more sophisticated grammar than they read in grade-level books. Subconsciously they learn good grammar.
  • Good books contain the kind of values we want to pass on to our children. Reading these books aloud offers opportunities to discuss these values with our children.
  • Reading to fidgety children increases their attention span. It gives them practice sitting and listening which they need to do in school to succeed since so much school instruction is verbal.
  • Read-aloud time is bonding time. Do you remember in To Kill a Mockingbird how first grader, Scout, would sit on her father’s lap while he read legal papers aloud? She didn’t care what he read. It was their special time together.

Common Core requires increasingly complex texts

One of the goals of the Common Core Standards that is receiving flak across the country is the push for students to understand increasingly complex texts.

Discouraged child thinks there are too many words in a book she is readingYou might assume that a second grader would read more difficult books than a first grader, but according to the people who wrote the standards, there is not proof that this is happening in US schools. Their “research shows that while the complexity of reading demands for college, career, and citizenship have held steady or risen over the past half century, the complexity of texts students are exposed to has steadily decreased in that same interval.”

They believe that the texts used in middle schools and in high schools have been “dumbed down” over recent decades. To counteract the “dumbing down” of texts, the Common Core Standards want to increase the difficulty of the texts students read so that US students are well prepared for college and for work.

The Standards state that the reading complexity levels for all grades need to be made more difficult, and that what a student studies in May should be more complex than what he studied in the previous September.

How will this be measured? Three ways:

  • Qualitatively: An attentive teacher will note whether a student recognizes various levels of meaning in a work of literature, or if he recognizes that language is used in new or archaic ways, of if the reading requires background specific knowledge that the student might not have.
  • Quantitatively: Readability measures will be used to determine the difficulty level of the materials students read, and the students will be tested to see how much of the material they understand.
  • Reader-task considerations: A teacher with knowledge of her student will rate the student’s motivation, knowledge base, and experience as well as the purpose of the assigned reading, and the difficulty of the task which the teacher assigns (for example, responding to open-ended questions is more difficult than responding to multiple choice questions).
Common Core Georgia Standards

Click on picture for the entire document.

The Georgia Department of Education has created a rubric for teachers (and parents) to use to determine the text complexity of a given reading selection. When the points are totaled, texts with scores of between 80 to 100 are considered of appropriate complexity.

For more information, go to: https://www.learninga-z.com/commoncore/text-complexity.html and https://www.georgiastandards.org/Common-Core/Pages/ELA.aspx

My daughter’s school library has all the books color coded. She’s in turquoise. Is that good for a first grader?

Too many words on a page make reading hard.What you are probably referring to is a way of categorizing books based on their difficulty level. It is called Guided Reading Levels and was developed by Irene Fountast and Gay Su Pinnell in 1996. The 26 Guided Reading Levels use ten criteria to categorize books:

  • genre (fiction and nonfiction and their subcategories)
  • text structure (the way the text is organized, usually chronologically, but sometimes comparing and contrasting; using cause and effect; and problem and solution)
  • content (the subject matter)
  • themes and ideas (the big ideas which the author is trying to show)
  • language and literary features (dialog, literary devices and technical language, for example)
  • sentence complexity (simple sentences are usually easier; complex sentences are usually harder)
  • vocabulary (the words a child is likely to know at a certain grade)
  • words (the number and the difficulty level)
  • illustrations (graphics of all kinds)
  • book and print features (length of a page, layout, subheadings, and table of contents, for example)

This system grew out of a somewhat simpler method of categorizing reading material developed by Reading Recovery in New Zealand. The Reading Recovery method creates 20 levels and uses four criteria:

  • book and print features
  • content, themes and ideas
  • text structure, and
  • language and literary elements

Another method which I talked about in an earlier blog is the Lexile Score.

These three methods of categorizing reading difficulty in children’s texts are some of the latest methods in an effort going back  to the 1870’s. In 1923 a formula was introduced by Lively and Pressey based on word frequency and sentence length. In 1935, Gray and Leary identified 44 factors that should be considered. Within thirty years, 200 readability formulas had been proposed.

Then, for about a generation, these kinds of formulas grew out of fashion.  But with the advent of computers, new systems have been developed based on word frequencies and sentence length. The Guided Reading Levels is one of them.

Turquoise means your child is reading at an end of first grade or beginning of second grade reading level.

For more information on the Guided Reading Levels, go to http://www.fountasandpinnellleveledbooks.com. For a chart comparing several methods of categorizing children’s texts, go to http://www.readinga-z.com/learninga-z-levels/level-correlation-chart/.

How should spelling be taught?

What does research show is the best way to learn how to spell?
a. memorize spelling words
b. learn rules (i before e except after c)
c. write with a purpose in mind
d. a combination of all of these

The answer is d. Memorizing words and learning rules have their place in learning to spell, but far more important is that little children have many reasons to write throughout the day, unconcerned with getting the spelling right.

How does the teaching of spelling progress?

  • For the child learning to assign a sound to a letter, spelling might begin with a single letter representing a word. Or the child might write more than one letter, leaving out the vowels. The name John might be spelled “JN.”Young child writing C-A-T.
  • Some parents might want to intervene immediately to teach the right way to spell, but that would be a mistake. Let the child use invented spelling at first.
  • Meanwhile the parent or teacher could be supporting this learning with teaching about the alphabet, the correspondence of all 42 sounds in English to letters or pairs of letters, understanding what words are, and understanding how words are written in English—left to right and top to bottom.
  • As the child gains confidence (not correctness), she can be asked to write useful items such as grocery lists, a daily schedule, a sign welcoming Dad home, or an email to Grandma. As she writes, she thinks about sounds and letters and makes decisions in an experimental way.
  • Aware of the child’s increasing sophistication in writing sounds and words, the parent or teacher can continue to teach basic writing ideas such as word families (rhyming words).
  • As the writer matures, the teacher can introduce simple spelling patterns. But it is better if the child discovers the patterns herself with the parent’s guidance. “Do you notice anything that is the same about ‘bake’ and ‘rake’ and ‘make’?” Let the child talk about her findings. Congratulate her on her discoveries. Then when the silent e rule is taught, it will have more meaning.
  • Practice makes perfect with spelling too. If the child has many reasons to write, she will encounter success in getting her meaning on paper, but she will also encounter problems to solve. This is important since the parent can offer ways to solve these spelling problems, such as
  • Try writing the word two or three ways. Does any way look like a word you already know how to spell? Does any way look wrong? Look right?
  • Try using a dictionary. Little children will need help, but the adult can show the child how useful a dictionary is for figuring out spelling. ABC order can be introduced to show how the dictionary is organized. (I keep a spelling dictionary for first toMother shows child spelling of her name Kelly fourth graders. It’s much easier to use than a real dictionary because the meanings of words are not given, just the spelling. And because it’s easy to use, children use it.)
  • Try finding the word in a familiar book.
  • Try asking the parent. Sometimes it’s good for the parent to tell the child the spelling of a word so the child can keep writing. But for the child to become an independent speller, this cannot be the default solution for spelling words correctly.
  • Try using an online spell checker if the child is composing online. This, too, can become a crutch once kids become aware of it.
  • Try creating an individualized speller. A child can label each page with a letter of the alphabet. Then the child can fill the book with words she can spell, or reserve it for words that cause her problems or which she is trying to learn.
  • When the child has turned the corner from invented spelling to standard spelling, the child should be introduced to roots, prefixes and suffixes, and how the spelling of those affixes alters (or not) the root word.

If the parent or teacher recognizes that each child learns at a different speed, and if the teacher relates spelling to reading and writing, good spellers usually emerge. But not always. Some children require more explicit spelling instruction.
More on that in a later blog.

Cn U rd ths? Iz ths nvntid spln?

Yes, this is invented spelling. Invented spelling (a term that goes back to the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget) is a kind of spelling that little children use as they learn to write. It is not the same thing as phonetic spelling; it is bigger than that. Phonetic spelling is one of the stages of invented spelling for most children.

Invented spelling goes through stages. Dr. Richard Gentry, a researcher in spelling, says that children go through five stages in learning to spell.

Girl reading "inventive" writing of younger sister.

  • Precommunicative stage–At this first stage of spelling, children use alphabet letters but they seem unaware that a letter stands for a sound. Children are often still learning the alphabet, both upper and lower case letters. They might also be learning that English is written from left to right and from top to bottom. Dr. Gentry compares this stage to babbling.
  • Semiphonetic stage–At the second stage, children begin to learn that a sound can be represented by a letter. One or two letters might stand for a sound, syllable or whole word (U for you, or CT for cat). Dr. Gentry calls this stage abbreviated spelling.
  • Phonetic stage–At the third stage, logic takes over. Children use a single letter or a group of letters for every sound. They repeat the same letter patterns in different words, such as kwik and kwen (quick and queen). Spelling is not yet conventional, yet adults can readily understand the meaning of the children’s writing. At this stage children depend on their hearing for spelling.
  • Transitional stage–At the fourth stage, children begin to use traditional spelling patterns, depending less on the sounds they are trying to write and more on how the words look on paper. So instead of writing “feet,” the child might write “fete.”
  • Correct stage–At the fifth and final stage, children have learned basic spelling rules. They know about silent letters, homophones and homographs, and alternative spellings (to, too and two). Children might write a word to see if it looks right, not if it sounds right. Children have formed many rules which they can turn to for spelling, even if these rules have not been formally taught to them. At this stage, children depend on sight (how letters look, how words look) more than sound for spelling.

Moving from one invented spelling stage to another happens gradually for most children, but they rarely slip back to a previous stage once they have experience with the next stage. Some children fly through the stages in a year or two; others can get stuck at one stage for more than a year.

Research has led to this change of thinking about spelling. Until the 1970’s, most children were taught to memorize standard spelling words. Spelling was a separate part of language arts courses. But now studies have shown that spelling, like speaking and reading, happens in stages.

Invented spelling has certain benefits.

  • Children can write meaningful sentences before they can spell or even read.
  • Children can use a more advanced vocabulary if not constrained by spelling.
  • Children don’t need to concern themselves with the standard way of spelling.
  • If children compose in a “flow” way of thinking, they can write long passages without stopping for spelling and thus losing their concentration.
  • Children can encounter spelling in an experimental way—the way they learn to speak, for example. They can try something, see if it works, figure out why and build on their own knowledge base.

For more information, check out Dr. Gentry’s book:  Gentry, J. Richard. (1987). Spel . . . is a four-letter word. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Is it necessary to teach “r” words like “car” and “or” separately or should I include them with short vowel, CVC words?

Although children will pick up r-controlled words as they learn to read, it is a good idea to have a separate lesson on them since they are neither short nor long vowel words, and since “ir,” “er” and “ur” sound the same.

Just like it helps to have a reference word for short vowel words, it is a good idea to teach reference words for r-controlled words. I suggest you use nouns whose image is obvious to a child, such as

ar car, jar or star
or fork, stork or sword
er Bert (from Sesame Street) or fern
ir bird or skirt
ur church or turtle

pictures of R-controlled words to use for memory

When you begin to teach r-controlled words, choose words whose spelling follows the rules, such as

far bar fir her
purr slur stir for
nor sir sort start

Don’t choose “store,” “floor” or “boar,” or other words whose spelling varies. Start with one syllable words, and then move on to two syllable CVC-CVR words with twin consonants such as

better bitter butter differ
hammer dinner ladder matter
offer pepper rubber zipper

Continue with two syllable CVC-CVR words whose middle consonants are not identical such as

timber under lantern fender
lobster master silver winter
lumber member butler monster

Then put the r-controlled syllable at the beginning of the word, using words such as

carpet organ carbon hermit
perfect serpent verdict perhaps
perfume person Vermont artist

At this point the student should be able to add consonants after the r-controlled syllable to create flirt, squirted and discard.

If your child has already learned CVC-CVC words, adding r-controlled words should be easy for the child. Even so, take small steps, and when he is ready, move on. As for “store,” “floor” and “boar,” you can tell your child that there are some variations in the spelling of r-controlled words. Rather than confuse the child at this point, when you are reading together, point out alternate spellings as you come upon them. –Mrs. K