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.

EPSON MFP image

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

 

When to use “a” and “an”

For most native speakers of English, using “a,” and “an,” pose no problem.  We don’t forget to use them, and we use them properly.

child playing card memory game

But if I ask you what are the rules for using articles, could you explain them?  Probably not.  We use articles—or not—based on whether what we say sounds right with or without them.

Nonnative speakers of English can’t rely on what sounds right because they don’t know what sounds right.  So how can we teach articles to children learning English as a second language?  We need to teach rules.

Here is my suggestion.

Find pictures of common items which are often found grouped together.  Find pictures of one of those items, such as one banana, one egg, one leaf, and one envelope.  Also find pictures of the same items grouped with others, such as a bunch of bananas, several leaves, a carton of eggs, and several envelopes.  Make sure some of the items begin with vowel sounds (eggs, envelopes, alligators, and olives, for example).

Find pictures of common items which cannot be counted, such as sand, rice, sugar and water.

Tape each picture to an index card, and under each write the name of the item or items without any article.  Then under the name of the item write the same word with an adjective in front of it.  So you might write “car” and under it write “old car,” or “rice” and “hot rice,” or “alligators” and “scary alligators.”

Start the lesson by showing the student a single common item which can be counted, such as a car.  Explain that when we have one of a common noun, the first time we mention it we say “a” or “an” in front of it.  Ask the child to repeat what you say:  “I see a leaf.  The boy holds an umbrella.  An ostrich looks at me.”

Explain that even if we put a describing word in front of the common noun, we still need “a” or “an.”  Let the child practice mimicking you with “A black horse trots.  A white egg is on a plate.  An orange pumpkin grows.”

When the student seems to understand that concept (after days of practice) explain that we have some words in English which cannot be counted.  Show a picture of someone playing a musical instrument with the words “music” and “loud music” under the picture.  Because music cannot be counted, it never has an “a” or “an” in front of it.  Ask the student to repeat what you say:  “I eat hot rice.  Clean water tastes good.  Loud music comes from the radio.”

Shuffle the pictures of the singular items which can be counted (a car, a banana) with the pictures of the noncount items (music, rice).  Practice putting or not putting an article in front of them for several days until the student realizes that singular items which can be counted are preceded by “a” or “an” and noncount items are not.

Next:  Adding plurals to the mix.  Then, adding proper nouns to the mix.  Later, using “the.”

 

 

Any ideas?

You are reading this blog because you either love me (thank you, family) or because you want advice on how to teach reading to little children.  From statistics produced by the site, here are the five topics which readers have been most interested in since this blog began five years ago:

  • What does CVC mean?
  • What are the sounds of English?
  • How to divide words into syllables.
  • Teaching how to pronounce certain letter constructions, such as double consonants and one consonant between two vowels.
  • How to show the difference between b and d.

These statistics show that it is the nuts and bolts of teaching reading that bring you to this web site.  I plan to research more information about these basic concerns for future blogs.

What in particular could I research that would help you?  I would be happy to look into what experts say and write blogs about that.  Leave me a comment.  Thanks.  –Mrs. K

What are letters?

Letters are visual representations (drawings) of sounds.  Nothing in an “a” inherently connects it with the sound we make when we say “a.”  “A” means the “a” sound only because we readers agree that it does, the way we agree that a green light means go or a “?” at the end of a sentence means to raise our voices to a higher pitch.

Child Recognizes the Letter T.

In English we have 26 letters, some of which are duplicates of the same sound.  For example, “c” and “k” can both indicate a “k” sound.  Some letters represent multiple sounds.  “S” can indicate both an “s” and a “z” sound.  And some letters, when paired with another letter, can represent a sound different from the sound either makes separately.  “Th” does not indicate a “t” plus an “h” sound, but a separate sound.

In some languages, each sound is represented by a different letter.  No letters stand for two or more sounds.  No letters, when paired, represent a new sound.  There is a one-to-one pairing of sound to illustration.  If only English were so simple!

The 42 distinct sounds in American English can by symbolized by more than 100 letters or pairs of letters (because some sounds, as the vowel sound in “cow”  have more than one way of being represented, such as “ow,” “ou,” “ew,” and “ough.”)

More than 100 letter combinations are far fewer to learn than are the thousands of word pictures Chinese people learn to be fluent in their languages.  But those 100+ letter combinations are more than the Cherokee used to represent 88 syllables in their language.

The fact that you are able to read this blog proves that the code of English—that is, the pairing of sounds with letter symbols—can be learned.  Four-year-olds who start the reading process can expect to be reading three-syllable words with accuracy by the time they are nine.  That’s five years to learn the most important skill we undertake in our education, a skill we will use almost daily for another 70, 80 or 90 years.

Hard—yes, but worth the effort.

Breaking the habit of looking for word-for-word answers

I was working with a fifth grader the other day.  He read a passage and needed to answer questions about it in writing.   One question asked, “What is the value of doing X?”  He went back through the passage, turned to me and said, “It doesn’t say.”

“Yes, it does say,” I responded.

He scanned again.  “No, it doesn’t.”

I pointed to the paragraph containing the answer.

He read it again and shrugged.

“What are you looking for?” I asked to be sure he understood the question.

“I’m looking for a sentence that says ‘The value of doing X is . . .’ and it’s not there.”

I “translated” the paragraph for him, pointing out what the value of doing X was, according to the passage.

“Well, why don’t they just say so?”

“Because they are trying to get you to think.”

“Well, I wish they’d just tell me.”

I see many kids like this one, unaccustomed to understanding a passage well.  They can operate at the “knowledge” level just fine, but can’t make that giant step up to “understanding” or “comprehending.”  They can’t “translate” an idea into a form required by a question.

What can a parent or teacher do to help such literal learners?

  • Start with a comfortable reading passage for the student, such as a fairy tale. Read it together.  Ask questions, starting with literal, knowledge-level questions like “What is the name of the girl in the passage?”  “Little Red Riding Hood.”  “Where is she going?”  “To her grandmother’s house.”

 

  • Then ask questions at the understanding level. “Why is Goldilocks bringing her grandmother food?”  “The grandmother is hungry.”  “Yes, but why is she hungry?”  “I don’t know.”  “Look at the picture.  It shows a skinny white-haired woman in bed.”  “She can’t get out of bed.”  “And why might that be?”  “She’s old.”  “Most old people don’t stay in bed.”  “She’s sick?”  “Maybe.”  “But it doesn’t say she’s sick.”  “No, but why would an old grandmother stay in bed and need someone to bring her food?”  “Oh.”  “So why is Goldilocks bringing her grandmother food?”  “Because the grandmother is probably sick and can’t get up to cook.”

By fifth grade students need to expect that answers won’t be found word-for-word the way a question is worded.  Students need to realize they must bring their own knowledge to a reading passage.