Increasing interword spacing may help students to read better

Both versions of the above paragraph are shown in the same size type and with the same spacing between lines. What is different is that the first version is the normal (default) way words are shown while the second version is the expanded version with additional space between letters.

The research, conducted by Elizabeth Sacchi at Binghamton University, State University of New York, is part of the National Science Foundation-funded Reading Brain Project.  The project studies how children’s brains behave as they read.  Sacchi’s research is the first of its kind in the US to look at what happens inside the brain as children read letters which are spaced variously.

Researchers think the improved reading of children who read words with letters spaced farther apart is not due to visual processing.  Children at the very beginning stages of reading don’t show much change in reading ability when letters are spaced farther apart.  But as the reading gets more advanced, reading improvement can be seen.

This US study backs up a European study of six years ago which showed that more space between letters can help children identified as dyslexic read 20% faster.  In that study, not only was the space between letters expanded, but the space between lines was expanded.

The Italian researchers think increased spacing helps dyslexic children overcome an effect called “crowding.”  Crowding makes letters hard to identify when the letters are placed close to other letters.

Children without reading problems showed no benefit when reading the more widely spaced letters and lines in the European study.

For more information on the American study, go to Elizabeth Sacchi et al, An Event-Related Potential Study of Letter Spacing during Visual Word Recognition, Brain Research (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.brainres.2018.01.028.  For more information on the European study, go to the Proceedings of the American Academy of Science, 2012.

The X factor in type faces

[Another way to increase the readability of words is to increase the size of the half-space letters, as in the first example above.  For more information, see an earlier blog.]

Don’t slip down the Summer Slide!

Students loose reading skills during the summer if they don’t continue reading.  Educators 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.  Why the difference?

Summer slide (decline) of reading scores.

  • A 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.  (B. Heyns, 1978)
  • A study of Baltimore students over 15 years found that By the end of fifth grade, Baltimore 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.  (K Alexander, D. Entwisle and L. Olson, 2007)
  • A 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. (Dominican University)
  •  Children’s absence from reading during the summer is a major hurdle for achieving good reading skills by the end of third grade.  (The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading)
  • 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.

(This blog first appeared on May 16, 2014.)

Benefit of reading to children: reduced hyperactivity

Want to improve your baby’s, toddler’s or preschooler’s behavior?  Read to your children.  And play with your children.

That’s the conclusion of a study reported in the April issue of Pediatrics.  Two sets of children, one from birth to about three years old, and another from three to five years old, were studied.  Parents were videoed reading to their children or actively playing with the children, and later the parents’ positive interactions were reinforced by the researchers.

The results show that both groups of children’s behavior benefited from the active reading and play by parents, compared with control groups of children.  Hyperactivity at the time the child started school was reduced compared to hyperactivity in a control group, and remained lower for one and a half years.

The researchers recommend that pediatric primary care pediatric practices encourage parents to read and play actively with their babies, toddlers and preschoolers in order to achieve more desirable behavior in the children.

For more information on the study, got to

Use cloze activities to test reading comprehension

If you are trying to assess whether your student, especially your English Language Learner, can understand what she is reading, use cloze activities.

Cloze activities are written passages with words left out.  Students need to supply the missing words.  Sometimes random words are omitted—such as every seventh word—and a blank space replaces a missing word.  Sometimes a particular part of speech is omitted.  Sometimes words that are important for the structure of a sentence,  like prepositions, are omitted.

Let’s take a paragraph and show several cloze variations which yield particular information about a student’s reading comprehension.

This morning, I woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with the new puppy.  Max was in a cage, so I opened it, and let him out.  Quickly I took him to the back of the yard where he knew what to do.  I threw a ball which he liked and a rubber bone which he didn’t like.  Then we came inside and I fixed him a simple breakfast.

Now suppose we leave out every eighth word of the above paragraph.  Here is the result.

This morning, I woke up early and _______ downstairs to play with the new puppy.  ________ was in a cage, so I opened ________, and let him out.  Quickly I took _______ to the back of the yard where ________ knew what to do.  I threw a ________ which he liked and a rubber bone _______ he didn’t like.  Then we came inside ________ I fixed him a simple breakfast.

Depending on the word choices the student makes, you can learn if the student understands the meaning of the paragraph.  You can ask her to justify her choice by explaining which context clues she used.

Now suppose we try a different cloze paragraph, this time leaving out all pronouns.

This morning, _______ woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with the new puppy.  Max was in a cage, so _______ opened _______, and let _______ out.  Quickly _______ took _______ to the back of the yard where _______ knew what to do.  _______ threw a ball which _______ liked and a rubber bone which _______ didn’t like.  Then _______ came inside and _______ fixed him a simple breakfast.

From this exercise, you can learn whether the student knows both subject and object pronouns and when to use them.

Now suppose you are testing appropriate use of articles.  You can remove all articles, and in addition, put spaces before all nouns or adjective-noun groups to see if the student knows whether articles are needed and if so, which articles are needed.

This morning, I woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with _______ new puppy.  _______ Max was in _______ cage, so I opened it, and let him out.  Quickly I took him to _______back of _______ yard where he knew what to do.  I threw _______ ball which he liked and _______ rubber bone which he didn’t like.  Then we came inside and I fixed him _______ simple breakfast.

If a student is studying vocabulary, a word bank can be supplied and from those words the student chooses words to fill in the blanks.

Before you use a cloze activity, know what you are testing for and then create or find a cloze activity which will yield that kind of information.

When the student becomes the reading teacher

Sometimes my best teaching strategies come from children themselves.

I was working with a PreK student the other day.  She has mastered reading CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant words like “cat” and “six”).  Now we are focusing on blends at the beginning of CCVC words like “swim” and “spill.”

One at a time I was showing her illustrations of CCVC words.  At the same time I was sliding a handful of letters near the illustration.  The letters included the letters needed to spell the word plus some distracting letters.  My student’s job was to pull out the letters needed in the correct order and “write” the word under the illustration.

Except that she didn’t want to do that.  She wanted to write her name using the letter tiles.  We were getting nowhere, so I let her write her name.  Then, after her name she wrote the word “is,” and after “is” she wrote “not.”  Then she wrote the word we were trying to spell in the picture, “twin.”

“Chaulian is not twin,” she said aloud, laughing because she knows she is not a twin.  I pulled out the letter “a” and inserted it into her sentence.   “Chaulian is not a twin,” she read.

“You wrote a sentence,  Chaulian.”

She was engaged again.  I pulled another illustration, this time of a plum.  I took away “twin” and put six letters in front of my student.  From them she picked “plum” and changed her sentence to “Chaulian is not a plum,” laughing once more at the ridiculousness of that thought.

We continued, with Chaulian writing little sentences about herself using CCVC words.

A few days later I tried this same approach with an even younger child.  She is learning CVC words, but of course she already knows how to spell her name.  I asked her to spell her name with letter tiles and then I added “is not a” and pulled illustrations.  Nneka is not a cat.  Nneka is not a map.  Nneka is not a ten.  Like Chaulian, Nneka’s interest in our reading game increased when her name was used.  And when she read aloud her nonsense sentences, she laughed and laughed.  Our work together had turned into a silly game.

Little children are self-centered, so of course it made sense to use their names.  And wacky little sentences made our work fun.  I was thrilled to keep their attention longer than usual.  Win-win.

Chaulian is a teacher.

Using “the” for second reference and specific reference

Knowing when to use “a,” “an,” and “the” is hard  for students learning English as a second language.  This is especially true for Asian students who have no articles in their native languages.  For Europeans it is easier because they are used to articles, though sometimes not used in the same way as in English.

To review what we said in recent blogs:

  • “A” or “an” is used before singular nouns (A dog licked an object).
  • No article is used before noncount singular nouns and before plural nouns. (I like rice and bananas.)
  • “The” is used before one-of-a-kind nouns but not before names. (The Statue of Liberty seemed big to Molly.)
  • “The” is used before titles to describe roles when the name is not included. (The senator spoke.)

Here are some other rules.

  • “The” is used for singular, plural and noncount nouns when the nouns are mentioned for the second time. “I saw a girl today.  The girl wore a head scarf.”  In the first sentence, girl is singular and is mentioned for the first time, so “a” is used.  “The” is used at the second reference to mean the girl just talked about.

One way to teach this concept is by using cartoons which show objects for the first time in one frame and then repeated in a later frame.  “Snoopy is asleep on a dog house.  He jumps off the dog house to chase a ball.  The ball stops next to Charlie Brown.”  Ask students to create sentences about the action.

Another way is with picture books.  “A cat wearing a hat came into a house.  Two children watched.  The cat talked to the children in the house.”

  • “The” is used when we refer to a singular object which is specific to the speaker or character. If a child says, “I will take the bus to school tomorrow,” we know he means the particular bus which he always takes, the one which stops near his house.  When someone says, “I need to go to the dentist later today,” the speaker means she needs to visit the dentist whom she always sees, not just any dentist.  To the speakers, the bus and the dentist are specific and one-of-a-kind.  So “the” is appropriate.


  • In the US we use “the” when we say particular phrases like “the hospital.” Americans say “He went to the hospital” but British people say “He went to hospital.”


  • When a singular or plural noun is preceded by a possessive noun or pronoun, no article is needed. (Our coats are near Mary’s purse.)


  • When a singular or plural noun is preceded by a number, no article is needed. (The principal needs 10 teachers to proctor the exam for 300 students.)


  • The United States or the US is always preceded by “the.”  So are the Philippines and the Netherlands.


  • Homework is noncount.  It is wrong to say “a homework” or “two homework.”  To show amounts of homework, use the word “assignments” after “homework.”  I have three homework assignments.

Teaching “the,” part one

Once students have learned that “a” or “an” must precede a singular count word, and that no article precedes a singular noncount word, it is time to teach how to use the article “the” with proper nouns.


Cut out pictures of one-of-a-kind monuments or natural landmarks, such as the Grand Canyon, White House, Niagara Falls, and Statue of Liberty.  Also cut out pictures of a few famous people like Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama, and pictures of places that the student knows or visits like the church, school and library he attends.  Cut out pictures of a few cities or towns, rivers and mountains.  Under each, write its name without any article.

Explain to students that the article “the” is used in front of one-of-a-kind nouns.  So even though “a” would be used in front of “statue,” because the Statue of Liberty is the only one like it, we use “the,” not “a,” in front of that name.  Let the students mimic you saying “the White House” and “the Eiffel Tower.”

Explain that “the” is not used in front of people’s names.  So we do not say “the George Washington.”  We do not use articles of any kind in front of people’s names.  Show pictures of people whose names the student would know.  Under the picture, write the name without any article.  Ask the student whether an article should be said, and if so, which one.

If we use a title without a name, we do use “the.”  So we say “The President boarded the helicopter.”  “The teacher called on me.”

We do not use “the” in front of the names of most businesses or institutions.  We say, “I attend Simpson Elementary School,” not “I attend the Simpson Elementary School.”  Or “My mother works at St. Peter’s Hospital,” not “My mother works at the St. Peter’s Hospital.”

Remembering these distinctions is hard and takes time.  Take the first five minutes of every lesson to review.  Each time you teach a new concept, add it to the “deck” of cards the student has already learned.  Don’t move on until the student can figure out when to use or not use an article, and which article to use.

Next:  Using “the” for a second reference