Check your child’s prereading skills before teaching her to read

The place to start teaching reading is by assessing her prereading skills.  This is easy.  Hand your child a picture book upside down with the back cover facing up.  Watch what happens.

Does the child turn the book over so the cover is right side up?

Does the child open the book with the bulk of the pages near her right hand?

When the child turns the pages, does she turn them from front to back?

Ask the child to point which way the words are read.  Does she point top to bottom?  Left to right?

Ask the child where the cover and back page are.  Where is the title?

If your child can answer these questions correctly, she knows basic pre-reading skills for the English language.  If she cannot answer these questions correctly, teach her. 

How?  Read often to your child and point out these basics.  You could also play games by holding the book upside down, or by beginning to read from the last page, or by looking at the back cover and saying, “Is this where we begin?”  If your child corrects you, she has absorbed these pre-reading skills. 

If you read to your child in two languages such as Chinese and English, or Arabic and English, make sure your child understands these skills as they apply to English.  Some languages do not follow the English language pattern.  You might want to stop lessons in the other language for a few months until the English pattern is established.

How to teach a child to read

When my older son neared the end of first grade, his teachers told me he would need to repeat because he could not read.  What!  I couldn’t believe it. I phoned my brother, a special ed teacher, and he said, “Relax. You can bring him up to grade level if you work with him all summer.”  He recommended I buy Why Johnny Can’t Read by Rudolph Flesch, a then out-of-favor approach to teaching reading using phonics. My brother said to turn to the word list at the back of the book and start there.  I trusted my brother, bought the book, and worked with my son every day.  He hated the lessons—lists of progressively more difficult words—but in September he started second grade reading on grade level.

Thus began my interest in how to teach reading.  Time and research have proven Flesch and my brother right.  A systematic—not random—phonics-based approach yields the best results in teaching children to read.  Even so, today many teachers do not teach reading using phonics.  And as a result, many children fail to learn to read.

If your child has been left behind, or if you want to be sure that never happens, this blog is for you.  In coming weeks I will advise parents and teachers of beginning readers

1) how to teach reading skills by sounding out letter patterns, and

2) in what order to teach those letter patterns. 

If your child already knows how to read some words, you can assess his or her skills by using the word lists below to know where to begin.

These lessons start with one sound represented by one letter, a simple yet reliable decoding system.  While these lessons introduce the most common letter patterns of English, they do not introduce them all.  That is not necessary.  As children read widely, they encounter new letter patterns which they figure out from context clues, by asking questions, or by using a dictionary.

If you choose to supplement the ideas in coming lessons with lessons from reading sources like Why Johnny Can’t Read or Explode the Code (both good), their lessons might not sequence letter sounds or letter patterns in the same order as I do.  That is because reading experts do not agree upon a single sequence for teaching reading.  The sequence I will use here extends the one-sound, one-letter pattern as long as possible, reinforcing what seems logical to little children.

IMPORTANT: Beware of any reading advice which encourages your child to guess at words, a strategy that can lead to lifelong reading problems.  Instead, ask your child to sound out words based on the rules of phonics.  That leads to reading independence.

Phonics assessment

The following words are listed in the same order as the lessons I will share in coming weeks.  If your child can read some words, and you wonder where to begin teaching her phonics, ask her to read these words in order.  When she starts making mistakes, stop her and turn to my corresponding lesson.  Proceed from there.

bad, hem, fit, don, pug, am, if, lass, jazz

lock, Mick, bills, cliffs, mitts, catnip, Batman

grand, stent, frisk, stomp, stuck

chuck, shun, them, branch, brush, tenth

star, fern, birds, fork, purr, actor, doctor, victor

muffin, kitten, collect, pepper, gallon

complex, helmet, falcon, napkin, after

tantrum, muskrat, constant, fulcrum, ostrich

skate, bike, Jude, mole, dare, shore, tire, pure

need, cheer, aim, hair, bay, pie, boat, oar, Joe, low, soul

fruit, few, child, blind, fold, colt, roll, light, high

earn, worm, rook, pool

fault, claw, all, chalk, Walt

boil, so, pound, down

comet, dragon, liver, salad, denim

total, ever, student, basic, demon, vital

apron, elude, Ethan, Owen, ideal, usurp

inside, nearly, absent, unicorn, degrade, tripod

advance, offence, fence

gripped, planned, melted, batted, handed

sweeping, boiling, thinning, flopping, biking, dating

rapper, saddest, finer, bluest, funnier, silliest

easily, busily, massive, active, arrive, wives

keys, monkeys, armies, carried

action, section, musician, racial, crucial, nuptials

brittle, pickle, carbon, dormer

parcel, decent, gem, urge, badge

lose, sugar, nature, sure

graph, Phil, then, moth

bomb, thumb, gnat, gnome, high, sign

whip, whirl, echo, ghoul, knee, knob

could, calf, folk, hustle, listen, wrist

alone, bread, bear, chief, young, squaw, swan, waltz, word

decision, exposure, gigantic, polarize, occupant, quarantine

Do your kids have time to read?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children today spend an average of seven hours a day using electronic equipment for entertainment purposes.  Seven hours!  That includes TV, iPads, computers, phones and movies.  Seven hours!

I know a mother of young children who has banned all electronic equipment—except when used for homework assignments—during the school week.  On weekends her children can watch for a half hour on Saturdays and a half hour on Sundays.  Now when her second grader is bored, he picks up a book, sometimes reading to his younger sibling.

How much electronic equipment is recommended, according to the AAP?

  • Under 18 months—none
  • 18 to 24 months—up to an hour a day with parental involvement
  • 2 to 5 years—up to an hour a day
  • 6 years and older—unspecified, but a family media plan is encouraged.

If your child has enough time to watch TV or to play video games, he has enough time to read.  The first three weeks might be hard on you and him as he withdraws from electronic media and switches to reading.  You might need to read to him, or to read every other page, or to sit at his side while you sort laundry and listen to him read.  But if you do, eventually he will understand that reading is the new normal and that whining and pouting will get him nowhere.

If you are a working parent, and you come home tired, I sympathize.  Keep your eye on the long-term goal:  a well-educated child whose mind is not addicted to anime or to cartoons.

Encouraging your child to read is one of the best things you can do for the overall success of your child.

Ready for kindergarten? Or not?

As another school year starts, many parents wonder whether their child is ready for kindergarten.  What should they consider?

young child attempting to touch his ear with opposite hand

Age is an important consideration.  Years ago, the “old wives” rule was that if the child could put her hand over her head and touch her opposite ear, she was old enough.  The rule has some basis in fact since toddlers cannot touch their ear this way and almost all six-year-olds can.

But age cannot be the only factor.  These days, cut-off dates and birthdays should be considered.  If the cut-off date is September first, and the child has a summer birthday, the child will be one of the youngest in his class.  He might have classmates who are a whole year older, a whole year bigger, a whole year more experienced in living.

Intellectual development should be considered.  If you have been told by your child’s pre-K teacher how smart she is, or how eager she is to answer questions, then she may be ready to start kindergarten even if she would be one of the youngest students.  What was her parents’ achievement in school?  If they skipped grades or graduated salutatorians, there’s a good chance the child inherited high intellectual abilities.

Physical height should be considered.  If your child is tall for his age, then starting school when he is younger might make him feel more comfortable since some of his older classmates will be near his own size.

child kicking soccer ball

The activity level of a child should be considered.  If a child is calm and reserved and can sit still for a half hour at a time, he might be ready to receive instruction even if he is young.  If he is hyperactive with a short attention span, probably he should wait. 

The length of the school day should be considered.  Some younger children can last a half day but grow cranky and uncooperative in a full-day session.  If the program is a full-day one, does the school offer nap times?

The child’s fine motor coordination should be considered.  Can the child hold a pencil and trace lines with it?  Can she button her coat?  Can she wipe her bottom when she uses the toilet?

The child’s interest in academics should be considered.  Does the child enjoy recognizing letters, making letter sounds or even reading small words?  Can the child add small numbers or use manipulatives to figure out subtraction of small numbers?

The child’s pre-K teacher’s recommendation should carry weight since that teacher has seen the child “in action” in a school setting.  So should the evaluation of a kindergarten teacher at the beginning of a school year.  A few days after my son began kindergarten, his teacher begged a classmate’s mother to keep her son home for another year. Her son was not ready, said this experienced teacher.  He could not follow directions.  He could not sit still for more than a minute or two.  He cried at being aroused from his nap.  His only interest was the playground.  The mother sent him anyway.  He repeated kindergarten.

If your child has started kindergarten and comes home happy each day, congratulations.  If not, or if you have doubts, contact the kindergarten teacher to get her assessment.  Kindergarten, first, and second grades provide the foundation of your child’s education.  You want to get it right.

Ask children to use body language and gestures to learn

When my one-year-old son was still mostly pre-verbal, I “read” to him books about a baby doing the simplest of tasks—jumping, crouching, and clapping, for example.  Each time I turned the page, I asked him, “What’s the baby doing?”  He would act out the drawing—jumping, crouching low and applauding—all without words.

child making letter T with his body

My son was engaging in the world of books long before he had verbal vocabulary to explain what he saw.  He used what he had—the gestures, the motions of his body—to “say” what he saw.

Another time, I worked with a third grader who had excellent verbal fluency, but she could not read.  We worked on phonics, and she slowly acquired skills to take apart words into letter sounds and to assemble letter sounds into words.  She was an excellent actress, so when she would learn a vocabulary word, she would act it out—standing, moving about the room, using her whole body to memorize the meaning of a word.  I was flabbergasted.  And when she came upon a word she had previously acted out, she would go through the same motions—this time sitting in her seat—to remember what the word meant. 

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter L

Working with these children opened my mind to using gestures and body language to learn.  These  allow a child’s thinking to progress even when he doesn’t have the vocabulary to explain what he is thinking.  Or sometimes he does have the vocabulary, but it is quicker to respond with gestures than to recall the appropriate words.  What is “slope,” for example? Doesn’t lifting a hand and sliding it downward on a diagonal show understanding?  What is “ferocious”?  If a child bares her teeth and makes a growling sound, doesn’t she show that she knows that word?

Large numbers of children in preschool and in the primary grades are kinesthetic learners.  Yet teachers rarely call upon these children’s body language and gestures to help them learn.  With a little imagination, it’s possible.  Three students stand in a row, holding hands.  One student lets go.  Three minus one equals two.  A child curls herself into the letter “C.” Another creates a big “O” with her arms.  A third stands tall and stretches out both arms into a “T.”  They move close together.  “COT.”  Three students act out “ice” by hugging and not moving.  Three more act out “water” by making swimming strokes.  Three more act out “steam” by dancing rapidly.

Performing to learn takes time, yes.  But it’s also fun.  It engages students.  It uses many of the senses.  It works.

No wun ever sed lerning Eeng-lish iz e-zy

When I was a child, I needed to write the word “business” for some reason.  In my dictionary, I looked up “bizness,” “bisness,” “bizzness,” and “bissness,” growing more and more frustrated as my searches ended futilely.  Then I asked my mother who told me the correct spelling.  A “u”!  Who would ever have thought a word which sounds like “biz-nes” would be spelled with a “u”?

If only “business” were the only one.  English has many commonly used words which do not follow the rules of phonics and spelling.  Here are some with their pronunciations following.

been (ben)

broad (brod)

busy (biz-y)

color (kul-ler)

do (du)

does (duz)

friend (frend)

eye (i)

iron (i-urn)

of (ov)

one (wun)

said (sed)

sew (so)

shoe (shu)

to (tu)

two (tu)

was (wuz)

who (hu)

why (wi)

wolf (wuhlf)

woman (wuh-min)

women (wi-men)

you (yu)

Since part of these words follows rules of phonics, when teaching them you can point out that part.  Usually the vowel or vowels are the part which are abnormally sounded and spelled.  That is the part which needs to be pointed out by the teacher and memorized for reading and spelling by the student.  For example, in the word “friend,” the “f,” “r,” “n,” and “d” sound as they should.  Even the “e” does if you take away the “i.”  But you can’t take away the “i,” and that is the part which needs to be pointed out and practiced.

Some words make sense if you point out their history or their connection to other words.  “Two” makes little sense.  Why a silent “w”?  And a single “o” rarely sounds like “oo” or “u.”  But if you explain that some other words which mean two begin with “tw” such as “twin” and “twenty,” recognizing the word becomes easier.

No wun ever sed lerning Eeng-lish iz e-zy.

Increase comprehension by using the SQ3R method

Ever hear of the SQ3R* (or SQRRR) reading method? SQ3R is a method of reading which improves comprehension.

  • S means Survey headlines, subheadings, bold and italicized print, and graphics before reading a passage.  Also read the introduction and conclusion.  From them, develop an understanding of what the text concerns before you read.
  • Q means Question.  Write down questions you have about what you will be reading.  One way is to turn the headlines and subheadings into questions.
  • R means Read.  Answer the questions you asked while you read.  Take notes, highlight, and draw diagrams to help you understand and remember what you read.
  • R means Recite.  Say out loud what you have learned from your reading.  Use your own words.  This process helps move the information into your long-term memory.
  • R means Review.  Save your annotated text or notes and study them many times. 

SQ3R has evolved into SQ4R for some readers, who suggest the fourth R should be Rewrite.  Write a summary of the passage in the margins, on post-it notes, on notebook paper or on computer/tablet/phone. 

Can this method be used with young readers?  Absolutely.  If you are reading a book about whales to your preschooler, for example, first survey the cover, read the title, page through the book, and look at the pictures.  Ask what the book is about and what the youngster hopes to learn from the book.  Then read the book.  Ask the child to tell you what the book said.  Later that day and the next day, again ask the child to tell what the book was about or to draw a picture of what the book was about.

*SQ3R was developed by Francis P. Robinson and described in his 1946 book Effective Study.

Which is better—online or in-hand books—for little kids?

According to former professor of linguistics at American University Naomi Baron, we must consider two components of reading, the physical medium and the child’s mind-set, to say which is better.

Professor Baron recommends using physical reading materials with young children.  This is because a child often asks questions or makes comments to the adult reading the book.  The child is less likely to pause to speak when seeing a book online.  Online materials sometimes have ads, pop-ups or such visually stimulating material that the child is distracted from the meaning of the material. 

Dr. Baron says that because children use online modes for games and socialization, they are used to absorbing material on tablets or cell phones effortlessly.  When they see a book online, they expect to understand it just as effortlessly.  They are unprepared for deep engagement with online reading materials.

For more information, see Dr. Baron’s new book, How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen and Audio.

Should students repeat a grade to overcome the “covid slide”?

This week I received an email from a mother who wants me to tutor her daughter in reading.  The child has been attending kindergarten online and has not learned as much as her big sisters had after one semester.

From what I read in the news, many parents have this same concern.  Check out these headlines:

  • Students are falling behind in online school. Where’s the COVID-19 ‘disaster plan’ to catch them up?  —USA Today
  • Research Shows Students Falling Months Behind During Virus Disruptions—The New York Times
  • The Results Are In for Remote Learning: It Didn’t Work—Wall Street Journal

What is a parent to do?  How about opting to have their children repeat the grade they are in now?

Florida State Senator Lori Berman has introduced a bill (SB200) to allow parents the choice of having their children repeat the 2020-2021 school year during the 2021-2022 school year.  Usually this choice is made by school systems.  The bill passed out of the education committee with a unanimous vote on Wednesday, February 10.

Florida Governor Ron deSantis endorsed such an idea in the in spring 2020, but he has yet to make it policy.  “Parents may, at their discretion, choose to keep their child in the same grade for the 20-21 school year,” he said many months ago. 

But the Florida Department of Education stepped back from the governor’s blanket endorsement.  “Promotion decisions should be made in consultation with parents, teachers and school leaders based on the students’ classroom performance and progress monitoring data.”

Some Florida principals have opposed the idea of parents, not educators, making the decision to repeat a year of schooling.

If the bill in enacted, parents of elementary and middle grade students would have until June 1 to formally request that their child be retained.  School systems could not negate this request.  Students who are retained would need to complete the 2021-2022 school year in the retained grade even if parents later change their minds.

The bill does not include high school students because, according to Berman, those students have many teachers monitoring their performance and because those students are old enough to advocate for themselves if they fall behind.  Also, assessing age eligibility for athletics makes repeating a year more difficult for high school students.

 Florida school went online last spring as fears of the covid virus spread.  In the fall some schools opened for in-school learning, but many remained online until this past month.

School systems might oppose SB200 for budgetary reasons.  It costs more to educate a student for 13 years than it does for 12 years.  School systems prefer to hire teacher specialists—in reading and ESL, for example—to work with children who have fallen behind.

What do you think?  Should parents, not educators, decide if their children should repeat this school year?

Understanding content–the later part of reading comprehension

Reading comprehension requires a child to understand two broad skills according to The Simple View of Reading, proposed in 1986.**  Those skills include recognizing words (usually through organized phonics instruction) and understanding the content of language.  In our last blog we talked about word recognition.  Today let us discuss language comprehension.

Understanding content depends on four elements:

  • Understanding vocabulary,
  • Having a wide and somewhat sophisticated knowledge base,
  • Understanding sentence structures, and
  • Understanding figurative language.

In kindergarten, first and second grades, children focus on building phonics skills so they can code and decode words.  In third grade, children’s focus shifts to understanding the content of written language.  This is the time when children recognize as sight words many of the words they have worked for two or three years to code and decode.  With less thought going into deciphering letter sounds and combining them into words, children have more energy to focus on understanding what those words, phrases and sentences mean.

By third and fourth grade, children have mastered the basics of phonics, including words of many syllables.  They recognize letter patterns quickly if the reading is grade appropriate, though they still struggle with technical language, subject specific vocabulary, and words of foreign derivation.  They rely on their understanding of prefixes, root words, and suffixes as well as context to figure out the meaning of new words.  They might reread a passage when they realize they don’t understand it.  They might look up words in dictionaries.  They might predict, summarize and conclude.  They might scan headlines, subheadings, captions and graphics to gain understanding.

Until third and fourth grade, most students’ oral language skills—using precise words, speaking in complicated sentences and using irony, for example—outstrip their reading skills.  But in third and fourth grades that gap narrows.  A child’s comprehension depends far less on decoding skills and more on understanding a wide vocabulary, having a sophisticated understanding of the environment and understanding how sentences, paragraphs and various genres of writing are constructed.

Sometime in late middle school, children’s oral language converges with their reading comprehension.*  Students gain new vocabulary and understanding of their environment more from reading than from conversation.  At this time of life, it is important for students to read widely and often to increase their vocabulary and knowledge base, to understand how ideas are structured and to appreciate how figurative language enriches comprehension.

This understanding of reading skills—a combination of word deciphering skills and comprehension skills—was proposed in 1986 by Gough and Tunmer.** They called this understanding The Simple View of Reading (SVR).

*Biemiller, A.  (1999).  Language and reading success. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

**Gough PB, Tunmer PB. Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education. 1986;7:6–10. doi: 10.1177/074193258600700104.