When two letters equal one sound: teaching digraphs

mother works with child reading story bookWhen children learn to read using a phonics method, they start by learning that each sound has a one-to-one relationship with a letter.  This makes reading seem logical to little children.  See a B and say “b.”  As teachers we don’t muddy beginning readers’ thinking by telling new readers that some letters mean more than one sound or that some letters, when paired with other letters, make totally different sounds or that some sounds can be represented by multiple groupings of letters.  We save that for later, after children have “mastered” the concept of CVC words and blends.

But eventually children learn that written English is not as logical as it seems at first.  Most advanced phonics instruction begins by teaching children consonant digraphs, two letters which, when paired, represent a sound that neither of the individual letters represents.  The pairs which are taught first usually include ck, qu, sh, ch, and th.

If you find that children balk at learning this part of the “code,” this is normal.  A four- or five-year-old’s understanding of logic is not the same as an adult’s.  One-to-one relationships between sounds and letters makes sense to little children, but one-to-two relationships do not.

I recommend you start with one digraph per lesson.  Just like beginning-of-word blends are easier for children to learn than end-of-word blends, beginning-of-word digraphs are too.  The exception is “-ck.”  I  teach that while I am teaching CVC words containing blends.

But for other digraphs, I usually start with “sh” because there are lots of “sh” one syllable, short-vowel words such as shag, shed, shin, shot, and shut.  I try to make learning “sh” at the beginning of words a game, using letter tiles and BINGO cards with “sh” words.

After a student becomes comfortable pronouncing “sh” at the beginning of words, I move on to another beginning-of-word digraph.  The order isn’t important, but it is important that you constantly review the previously learned digraphs as you move along.  For children who find remembering difficult, it is especially important to advance slowly, spending a large part of each lesson reviewing.

When the student is reasonably secure with pronouncing these digraphs at the beginnings of words, I might tackle teaching how to pronounce digraphs at the ends of words, one at a time.  Or I might delay this kind of instruction, depending on how difficult it was for the student to learn the beginning of word digraphs.

Teaching silent E

Phonics instruction guides vary as to when to teach silent “e.”  Some suggest teaching it before teaching digraphs starting or ending one-syllable, short-vowel words.  Others suggest teaching silent “e” after teaching digraphs.

My best advice is that it depends on the student.  I have spent months teaching CVC words to a student, and thinking she had “mastered” that concept, started teaching silent “e.”  But when we reviewed CVC words at the end of the lesson, she pronounced all the CVC words as if  they were silent “e” words.

Yet I have taught another student who understood the silent “e” concept by the end of our first lesson on that concept. She could accurately go back and forth from CVC words to silent “e” words.  Some students recognize silent “e” patterns in a single lesson.  Some students take months.

I use letter tiles to write a CVC word like “cat” and beside it to write the silent “e” word “cate.”  I explain that the “e” is needed for spelling and to signal that the previous vowel is pronounced like its name.  I start with “a” vowel word pairs:  ban, bane; fat, fate; hat; hate; mad, made, etc.  If the child catches on, I move on to other vowels.  But if the child cannot go quickly back and forth from CVC words to CVCe words, I slow down and focus on one vowel, and one or two consonants after that vowel, such as “t” and “d” as in mat, mate; Nat, Nate; mad, made, and bad, bade.

As always with young children, I try to break up a half hour lesson with game-like activities to keep them motivated.  Even the quickest to catch on prefer to learn using games.

Should you take care to use only real words?  I use non-words all the time, but after the student has pronounced a non-word correctly, I mention that there is no such word.  This offers more pair combinations, especially for the vowels “e” and “u” for which there are not many silent “e” words.

 

The place of phonics in reading instruction

True or false?

  1. Speaking is natural. Reading is not.
  2. All students learn to read differently.
  3. Kids in early grades should receive explicit phonics instruction.
  4. About 2/3 of US fourth graders can read proficiently.

(The answers are at the end of this blog.)

How kids learn to read, how reading should be taught, and how teachers of reading should be taught are still controversial in the US. This is despite an 18-year-old exhaustive study of research on reading—the National Reading Panel— authorized by Congress in 2000 which found that phonics should be the basis of reading instruction.

Even with overwhelming research, many teacher training colleges do not teach would-be teachers how to teach phonics.  And so the graduates of those schools do not teach their students through a phonics-based approach.  As a result, 60% of US fourth graders are NOT proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Students who don’t read well by fourth grade

  • Are more likely to fall behind in other subjects.
  • Are less likely to finish high school.
  • Are more likely to be poor readers their whole lives.
  • Are more likely to be poor.
  • Are more likely to be imprisoned.

Scientific research shows that a phonetic approach to reading is crucial.  Our brains are wired to learn to speak and walk without instruction, but we cannot read without instruction.

Yet in 2016, the National Council on Teacher Quality, after reviewing the syllabi of US teacher training programs, found that only 39% are teaching their would-be teachers how to teach reading based on phonics.  This is 18 years after the US study was published!

In other words, teacher training school are either ignoring the research about how children learn to read or are willfully disregarding it.  And as a result, many students are not learning to read.

When I studied for my master’s degree in education in the early 1990’s, I took a reading course in which the instructor belittled the role of phonics in learning to read.  She said it was one of many factors, all about equal.  I thought phonics was fundamental, but I didn’t have the scientific research to back up my position.

But for the past 18 years we have had overwhelming research that shows that a phonics-based approach to teaching reading is what works best.

If your child is struggling to read, find out if his or her teacher is teaching reading using a phonics-based approach.  If you are taking your child to a tutoring center to learn reading, make sure the center is using a phonics-based approach.  If you are teaching your child to read, use phonics.

What do I mean by phonics?

  • Identifying the sounds of English. Sounds, not ABC’s, come first.
  • Matching those sounds with symbols (letters) which represent those sounds
  • Merging those sounds and symbols to form words.
  • Identifying patterns among the symbols (for example, an “e” at the end of a one-syllable word) which change or influence the sounds letters make.

(The answers are true, false, true and false.)

Teaching VC and VCC words beginning with short vowels

Many beginning readers have trouble pronouncing two- and three-letter words which begin with a short vowel such as at and ink.  Children can pronounce “cat” yet not “at.”

Just as it is easier for children to learn consonant sounds, it seems easier for them to learn words which begin with consonants than to learn words which begin with vowels.

As a result, I teach CVC words first, including words with beginning and ending blends.  Then I teach VC or VCC words.  Many one-syllable short-vowel, words begin with a vowel and end with consonant blends.  I teach such CVCC words before I teach VCC words.

First I introduce two-letter words, some of which (in, on) children have already learned as sight words.  Other two-letter words include Al, am, an, at, ax,  Ed, ex if, it, ox, up and us.

One problem in teaching such words is that many of these words don’t have pictures which form a meaningful association for children.   How do you picture “us,” for example.  Two girls, arm in arm?  The student will say “girls” or “friends” or “sisters” but not “us.”  Another problem is that some of these words, such as “ex” and “ox” are not familiar to children.  When I can, I find pictures and make flash cards to help children associate words with pictures.  But that is hard.

After I teach two-letter VC words, I teach three-letter VCC words, including add, alp, ant, app, ask, asp, act, aft, and, egg, elk, elm, elf, end, egg, imp, ink, and off.  By teaching, I mean making words of letter tiles for children to read, and then asking them to make the words I say, again using letter tiles.  I also play BINGO using cards with these words on them.  I  make lists to read (boring but necessary).  We review these words often.  I write sentences using these words for children to read, sometimes in the form of a question which they must answer with a yes or no.  (Can an ant ask an egg to sit?  Can an elk add 2 + 2?  The sillier, the better.)

You can’t assume that because a child can read “cat,” she can also read “act.”  Tiny words beginning with short vowel sounds should be taught explicitly and should be reviewed until you are sure the child can sound them out properly.

Sports and good grades

The time while your children are little—preschoolers or in early primary grades—is a good time to think about the competing place of academics and sports in their lives, and what you are willing to sacrifice in one area in order to bolster the other.

 

 

In the US, sports are an important part of child development.  Participation in sports leads to healthier bodies, better thinking brains, better sleep, friendships, teamwork, popularity, and discipline.  Colleges want to see that students have been active in sports.

The problem isn’t sports per se, but the balance between sports and schoolwork.  Some students can handle a rigorous sports practice schedule and keep high grades; others can’t.  When students can’t, what is the priority—team sports, academics, or some compromise?

I teach a sixth grade student who plays fall football.  He has three-hour practices three evenings a week, after which he showers, eats and then starts homework after 9 p.m.  He also has a game on Saturdays—another four hours devoted to football.  Football season starts in August and lasts until Thanksgiving—three and a half months of the school year.  At mid-semester this fall, this student’s grades in reading and writing are in the low 70’s.

The mother knows football is partly to blame for her son’s mediocre grades, but she is reluctant to pull him from a sport he loves.  She is also reluctant to limit her son to less practice time on school nights. If the coach says three hours, then three hours it is.

I have another sixth grader who plays year-round tennis.  He practices several times a week with and without a coach.  When he has a tennis match which conflicts with a reading/writing lesson, tennis wins.  He is carrying a grade of 65 in ELA.  The mother says he needs something which makes him feel good, and tennis is it.

In the past, I had another student who did gymnastics for three hours, four evenings a week.  During the winter this student traveled to meets, sometimes taking  whole weekends.  Yet this student maintained a B average and won an academic scholarship to college.

If your child is still at the CVC stage of reading, then consideration of the place of sports in her or his life might seem premature.  It’s not.  You should decide ahead of time what grades you expect from your child and what you are willing to do to achieve those grades.  Are you willing to commit to a sport which takes up many school evenings when your child could be doing homework?  Are you willing to allow your child to participate many hours a week in a sport even though his grades are low?  Where do you draw the line, if ever?

I recommend that when your little boy or girl signs up for T-ball or dance, that you appraise carefully the time commitment it entails.  How will such a time commitment affect schoolwork?  Talk to your child about your expectations and how your child can or cannot meet those expectations while still doing that sport.  Then act accordingly.

Organized sports are optional.  Doing well in school is not.

How do you know if your preschooler will do well in school?

A new study correlates traits of high achieving fifth graders with those of 54-month-old children.  The study found important traits in preschoolers which can help predict fifth grade achievement levels.

The most important trait was social competence.  Children with high social competence at four-and-a-half years old tended to be high achievers in fifth grade.  Social competence is an umbrella term meaning that a child possesses the social, emotional, and intellectual skills and behaviors needed to succeed.

Working memory is another essential trait.  Working memory means the ability of children to pay attention, remember important information and keep track their progress as they work on a given task.

Complete results of the research are available in the July/August issue of Child Development, an academic journal.

Does early childhood reading cause myopia?

Video games are leading to more myopia in children, according to the President of China, who has called for restricted access to video games among children.

girl reading Junie B. Jones

Whether China’s President Jinping Xi is right or wrong, he reminds me of another possible cause of myopia:  reading as a young child.  But is there any proof that reading leads to nearsightedness?

Some eye doctors think so, but the evidence is not conclusive.  Many causes might lead to nearsightedness.

Heredity plays a role, but how much of a role is not understood.  In my case, my mother wore glasses, and when I was in fourth grade, I too needed glasses.  Some of my brothers and sisters also needed glasses as children, but others didn’t.  My husband didn’t wear glasses until he was 50, and both of our sons  don’t need glasses.  Yet our daughter, like me, needed glasses as a child.

If a child reads a lot, the strain of deciphering small type and of focusing on tiny symbols for long stretches of time might lead to nearsightedness.  But for other children, it might not.  All of my brothers and sisters read a lot, but only some of us needed glasses in childhood or early adulthood.  It could be that a child who prefers to read does not get enough exercise or enough time in natural sunlight.  Research is needed to show whether reading is a cause of myopia.

Researchers have learned that children who are prescribed eye glasses for myopia tend to have their eyesight worsen in childhood.  But this finding has led to research on how to stop the reversal or even to backtrack it.

Atropine eye drops can help slow down myopia progression for about a year or so, but after that the effect of the drops diminishes.  These drops dilate the eye and relax the eye’s focusing process.

Gas permeable contact lenses worn at night can temporarily relieve myopia the following day.  Over time, researchers think wearing these lenses might slow myopia progression.

Doctors using multifocal contact lenses on children find these lenses help with myopia.  These lenses have different powers in different zones of the lenses.

Multifocal eyeglasses worn by children have also helped slow the progression of myopia, but they are less effective than multifocal contact lenses.

Can you prevent myopia in your child?  We don’t know, but eye specialists recommend these actions:

Make sure your child’s eyes are tested annually by an eye doctor even if the child is not complaining of eye sight problems.

When the child reads or does other highly focused eye activities, make sure the child takes breaks and uses the eyes for longer distance activities before he or she returns to focused activities, like reading.

Choose high index (thinner and lighter) eyeglass lenses.  Have them made with an anti-reflective coating.  Photochromic lenses will protect eyes from UV and blue light.

I would add, seek out larger type children’s books which are easier on the eyes.  Limit the time your child reads from backlit electronic equipment (monitors, tablets and smart phones, Kindles and Nooks).  Have the child read in good lighting.  Have your child wear sunglasses outdoors, and weather permitting, insist that your child spend time outdoors playing.

And make sure your bookworm doesn’t take a flashlight to bed and sneak extra reading time under the covers.