Learning to read, one sound at a time

A six-year-old kindergartener learning to read VC and CVC words worked with me yesterday for the first time.  We met the day before via zoom.  He was nervous, sitting on his grandmother’s lap for support.

I started by assessing his phonics skills.  Because he doesn’t know me and has not worked online, his responses to the phonics assessment I did might not be spot on.  After a few lessons, when he is more relaxed, I will have a better idea of his skill level.

 

But for now he was able to show me he knows letter names, consonant sounds and short vowel sounds.  He can sound VC words easily.  When he reads CVC words, he cannot “slide” all the sounds together to form words.  So that is where my reading instruction will begin.

 

Yesterday we worked using letter tiles.  I put before him the word “at,” and then I added one onset letter sound at a time, forming words like “fat” and “rat.”  He sounded out words from several word families using short a, o, and u.  After 20 minutes, his squirming became excessive, and we ended the lesson.  Today I will teach him again for another short lesson.

 

His grandmother showed me a “beginner” picture book the boy has, but as is often true, that book is not a good “beginner” book for students learning phonics.  In that book, advanced reading words are mixed in with sight words and CVC words.  I recommended she set it aside for a few months.

 

She wondered if she should use flash cards with words printed on them to help her grandson learn.  If the words are sight words which cannot be sounded out phonetically—words like “are” and “the”—then yes.  But if the words are sight words, I said, the boy should learn them by sounding them out.  Otherwise he might think he should memorize the look of a word to pronounce it.

 

Should he guess at words?  No.  If a child learns to read following the rules of phonics, eventually he will be able to sound out almost any word, even long words like “dinosaur” and “alphabet.”  Teaching a child to guess introduces a habit which will hobble him the rest of his reading life.

 

This student has learned to read the way phonics experts recommend, sounding out each letter.  With time, almost all CVC words will become sight words for this student and he will no longer need to sound them out  But to reach that stage of reading, he needs practice sounding out words.

Teach ŭ before teaching ĕ and ĭ

Suppose you have taught your child VC (vowel-consonant) and CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words using ă and ŏ and the 16 consonants that always sound the same at the onset of words.  You have had your child read lists of words with ă and ŏ shuffled.  Your child is able to pronounce those words correctly.

Now it is time to move on to ŭ.  I recommend teaching ŭ before teaching ĕ and ĭ.  In my teaching experience, children recognize the sound associated with ŭ quicker than the sounds of either ĕ and ĭ.  Some children do have trouble pronouncing ŭ, but they don’t confuse the sound with either ĕ or ĭ.  They can distinguish a difference between ŭ and ĕ / ĭ.  Children have a harder time distinguishing between the sounds of ĕ and ĭ.  So I recommend teaching ă, ŏ and ŭ in that order.

Some of the commercially available support materials you might use with your child do not sequence the short-vowel words in this order.  In that case, I recommend you jump ahead to the ŭ word section and return to the ĕ and ĭ sections later.

Sample ŭ  VC and CVC words include:

up hub pub rub tub
bud dud Judd mud Rudd
bug dug hug jug lug
dull gull hull lull null
but cut gut nut rut

Sample ŭ  VC and CVC words with ă and ŏ in sentences include:

  • Judd cut a nut.
  • Rudd dug up a bug.
  • Tess can run in the mud but not Tom.
  • Tom dug a rut.
  • Jan can hug a mutt.

How to teach words using ă and ŏ

Suppose you have taught your child the 16 consonant sounds which don’t vary at the beginning of words: b, d, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, t, v, x, and z.  Now you are ready to teach vowel sounds.

Explain what vowels are

Because you will be using the words vowel and consonant with your child as you teach, make sure you take time to explain what these words mean.  Vowel refers to five letters all the time (a, e, i, o, and u) and two letters sometimes (y and w).  Consonant refers to all the other letters and to y and w most of the time.  For now you can leave out the y and w, but when you teach small words like by and now, mention that y and w act as vowels sometimes.

Should you say short / closed vowels?  Or long / open vowels? 

Today many support materials refer to vowels followed by a consonant in the same syllable (cat, hot) as closed vowels.  Years ago these vowels were called short vowels, and they were pictured with a curve over the vowel as in ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ and ŭ.  Similarly, vowels coming at the end of a syllable (go, hero) are today called open vowels by some reading support workbooks.  Previously they were called long vowels and pictured with a horizontal line over them as in ā, ē, ī, ō, and ū.  I will use the terms short and long since those are the terms most parents recognize.  I will use markings over vowels such as ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ and ŭ when referring to a particular short vowel sound and ā, ē, ī, ō, and ū when referring to a particular long vowel sound.

Naming vowel sounds as short or long is important because we need a vocabulary to use with children when we refer to vowels pronounced like their letter names and vowels pronounced more softly.  Whichever terms you use, make sure your child understands them.

Teaching words with a ă sound

While you are teaching the 16 consistent consonant-letter sounds, you can begin to teach one short vowel sound.  I recommend starting with the letter ă because almost all phonics support materials start with the vowel ă, and because ă might be the easiest short vowel sound to master.  The support materials I suggest for my students are the Explode the Code series.  That series starts with ă words.

When I am teaching in person, I use flash cards with pictures of words beginning with ă such as alligator, astronaut, and apple.  I recommend you teach your child to say “ă as in apple” to reinforce the letter connected to the sound.

Choose five or six consonant letter sounds your child has mastered.  Using letter tiles, form two and three letter words such as am, an, at, bat, bam, tan, and mat, etc.  Place the letter tiles for one word an inch or so apart and ask your child to say the sounds, keeping the picture of the apple on the table too, for reference.  Repeat saying the sounds as you slowly move the letters closer and closer together until the child says the word.  It might take many tries, but usually there is a Eureka! moment when the child realizes she is reading a word, not just letter sounds.  Reading teachers call these tiny words CVC words, meaning consonant-vowel-consonant words.

Gradually add more consonant sounds and form more words with ă as the vowel sound.  If the child loses interest, one way to extend the lesson is to use her name and write a goofy sentence such as Kim is a pan or Kim is a map.  Another way is to use your name and have her end the sentence.  Mom is a ____.  Teach her that the vowel goes first or in the middle.  Try mispronouncing a word she writes and ask her if you said it correctly.

You can buy magnetic cards which you can cut into small rectangles to attach to the back of letter tiles.  Then you can work in a metal lasagna pan or pizza pan or on the refrigerator.  If your child is four or five, a short lesson (ten minutes) teaching in one mode followed by another short lesson in another mode (writing words on an iPad or laptop, writing in a workbook) might be all she can handle for one session.  I have given one-hour lessons to a four-year-old, but I needed to have six mini-lessons to sustain her interest.

Teaching words with a ŏ sound

When, after several days or weeks, you are sure your child can read ă words, move on to ŏ words.  Create a reference card—an octopus, for example.  Work on two and three letter ŏ words such as on, off, odd, Oz, nod, fob, and Bob, etc.  After several days or weeks—whatever it takes—mix ŏ words with ă words.

To reinforce your work, read together picture books.  When you come to a word she can pronounce, point to it and ask her to say the word.  Two or three times are enough to show her that what she is learning applies to her real world.

 

2021 banned books focus on minorities and non-“straight” people

 

 

Books about minorities and non-”straight” people were the kind most often banned in the US in 2021, according to the American Library Association (ALA).

In 2021, more books were banned than in any other year of the 20 years that the ALA has been keeping records.

The rise in numbers in 2021 is attributed to social media where lists of books adults think inappropriate for children circulate.

Parents and community members lobbied school boards to remove certain books from school and public libraries.  1597 individual books were either challenged or removed, according to the ALA.  The actual count might be different since the ALA gathers its information from the media and self-reporting by libraries.

Librarians have been threatened with legal prosecution over the book choices they have made.  These threats might be skewing the choices librarians make, encouraging them to choose books espousing “traditional” values and discouraging books about sexual orientation and racial issues.

The ten most banned books in the US during 2021 are

  1. Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. Banned, challenged and restricted for LGBTQ+ content and because it was considered to have sexually explicit images
  2. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison. Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit
  3. All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson Banned and challenged for LGBTQ+ content, profanity and because it was considered to be sexually explicit
  4. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez Banned, challenged and restricted for depictions of abuse and because it was considered to be sexually explicit
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas Banned and challenged for profanity, violence and because it was thought to promote an anti-police message and indoctrination of a social agenda
  6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references and use of a derogatory term
  7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and degrading to women
  8. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison Banned and challenged because it depicts child sexual abuse and was considered sexually explicit
  9. This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson Banned, challenged, relocated and restricted for providing sexual education and LGBTQ+ content.
  10. Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit

 

Frustration in teaching virtually

As an online tutor, I’d like to share my experience learning Zoom and Osmo, using manipulatives online, keeping students’ attention, and teaching reading and writing to students ten miles or three time zones away.

In four words:  I have been overwhelmed.

Before the pandemic, I used GoToMeeting with one student whose father set everything up for us.  That worked, in part because the father hovered nearby and anticipated his daughter’s and my needs.

But after a pandemic break from tutoring so I could babysit and teach grandchildren, I struggled to learn Zoom.  For my first classes, my husband (my IT person) sat at my side off camera and slipped his hands on the keyboard from time to time to rescue me.  I couldn’t have done it without him.

For me, learning to teach via Zoom has been like trying to teach English in Vulcan aboard the Starship Enterprise with Mr. Spock at my side.  I know the content, but grapple with how to use the technology.  For example,

  • If my student writes her homework in a workbook, how can I see her answers via Zoom? She can hold the workbook in front of the camera, but she might hold it too close or too far away or she might jiggle it.  With time, I learned how to solve this problem.  Her parents can scan her work before our lesson and send it to me as an email attachment which I can then open and share on Zoom.  It took me weeks to learn that.  But not all parents have scanners.

 

  • And what if I want to scan information to send to my student as an email attachment? Before, I would make a photocopy and bring it with me to a lesson.  I have learned to scan and input, but I don’t do it often enough for the process to stick  I keep a little notebook next to my computer with “how to” directions in it.

 

  • If I want to see what changes my student is making in her hand-written document, how can I? Her writing surface–a desk or table–is out of camera range.  I learned that if she rereads the corrected writing, I know if she has changed it.

 

  • I can see only the tops of some students’ heads. Asking a student to sit up works until the student slumps a minute later.  I have asked parents to adjust the camera angle, and that helps, but some children deliberately hide.  I have learned to accept this if the student remains engaged.  If not, I ask the student to sit up.  Again.  And again.

 

  • For some students, especially pre-K, K and first grade students, I need to use manipulatives like letter tiles or easy-to-read books.  I have found using Osmo allows the students to see letters as they appear rather than flipped.  My husband set up the Osmo, and I use a two-dozen step process to make it work.  But it does work, and Osmo has allowed me to teach a group of young students I might not otherwise teach.

 

  • One of my students is hyperactive, sliding in his chair, contorting his body, standing, stretching, walking around and darting off camera. He even falls asleep.  When I teach in person, I use eye contact or a tap on the desk to engage him.  But via Zoom, if he is not looking at the camera, I have only my voice.  I am still working on this problem.  Maybe a whistle?

 

  • Many of my students are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Sometimes I ask my students to bring their parents to the camera at the end of our classes. When I try to explain homework expectations or student behavior to the parents, they nod, smile, and say nothing.  I know I have not made my message clear.  I have learned to recap a lesson in writing immediately after the lesson concludes.  I include the homework assignment and any other work a student might need—like a prewriting organizer the student worked on.  I send everything as an email to both the  parent’s and student’s email.

These are small problems.  Bigger ones are caused by my lifetime of relying on my husband to handle online technology.  On Monday, for example, I kept losing Google Docs I had downloaded and opened, ready to revise with a student.  My husband pointed out something basic that I was unaware of:  At the top of my screen are tabs for documents I unload from the internet.  At the bottom of my screen are browser and application icons.  Duh.  (The placement might be different on your screen.)

Many of your children’s teachers are going through the same frustration with virtual technology.  They were trained in math or reading, not in how to teach remotely.  They were trained to walk the classroom to engage students, but they were not trained to monitor two dozen children on a computer monitor, peering at faces the size of postage stamps.  Older teachers like me, who are experts in their subjects, are wrestling with a technology learning curve.  What might seem so basic to a thirty-year-old who was born with a smart phone on her hip seems odd and even frightful to a veteran teacher.

Fifteen months teaching in this online mode has not been enough for me to master it. As Mr. Spock said, “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.”  I have no wish either, but we all must to get through this pandemic and beyond.

Number of primary grade students reading at grade level declines in US

Almost a third of children in kindergarten, first and second grades were reading below grade level at the start of the 20-21 school year, according to research reported on earlier this month.

When first grade students were tested at the beginning of this school year, about twice as many as before the pandemic (school year 2019-20) showed kindergarten level or lower scores.

The federal government is spending billions to try to close the gap in student reading achievement.  But the US lacks enough qualified reading teachers to do so.  Nearly half of the public schools have teacher openings, many in the lower grades.  These openings are due to resignations and retirement.

“Nearly half (44 percent) of public schools currently report full- or part-time teaching vacancies,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a part of the US Department of Education.  Schools report that the Covid-19 virus prompted many of these vacancies.

Some of the federal money is funding a new phonics-centered curriculum called Fundations.  Fundations is part of Wilson Language Training, a well-known program for teaching reading.

Government funded research more than 20 years ago shows that a reading program focusing on phonemes (sounds as represented by letters of the alphabet) and phonics (combining sounds and letters to form words) is a superior way to teach young children how to read.

 

 

How to find the main idea

Finding the main idea in a reading passage is one of the most important reading comprehension skills.  Because of that, questions about the main idea repeat on the SAT and ACT and on almost every reading test from second grade through college.  So how do you find the main idea?

In a one-paragraph passage, the main idea is almost always stated in the first sentence, called the topic sentence.  A student can figure this out because the rest of the paragraph contains details about that first sentence.

Some students think a main idea and a topic are the same thing.  Wrong.  A topic can be stated as a single word or a phrase, but a main idea can be stated only as a complete sentence.  For example, a topic might be “dogs,” but a main idea might be “Boxers are the best dogs,” or “Dogs need to be bathed every week,” or “Dogs come in all sizes.”

If a writer begins a paragraph with a hook, the main idea might not be in the first sentence.  It might be in the second sentence.  Or it might be in the last sentence where the writer repeats the main idea to be sure the student has found it.

Another place to look for the main idea is in the title or headline.  Sometimes the title or headline contains hooks to lure a student to continue reading.  But many times they identify the topic, and sometimes they state the main idea.

As students read longer passages, they should still expect to find the main idea in the beginning paragraph.  However, it might be found routinely in the last sentence of that first paragraph.  The earlier part of the paragraph introduces the topic of the passage, but the main idea is stated in the last sentence of that paragraph.  Many writers repeat the main idea—not in exactly the same words—in the conclusion.

Look at the first sentences in the body paragraphs.  Those first sentences should be backing up an idea.  Many times that idea is stated in those sentences.

In longer passages, a strong clue to the topic is a word or phrase or its synonyms which are repeated more than any other idea in the passage.  For example, “Water pollution,” “river trash,” “ocean dead spots,” and “toxic runoff” all are types of water pollution.  These words tell the topic, but they don’t tell the main idea.  But with the idea of water pollution, students can go back to the first paragraph and the last paragraph to narrow in on the topic sentence.

Another way for young children to identify the main idea is to ask questions:

  • Who is the passage about? No one in particular?  Then keep looking.  But if it is a particular person or group whose name is repeated, the main idea probably has something to do with them.
  • What is the passage about? Every passage is about something.  Put into your own words what the passage is about.  Now go back and see if you can find evidence backing up your conclusion.
  • Are there numbers in the passage? If so, numbers about what?  Numbers usually back up or prove something.
  • Do illustrations give a clue?  Sometimes art can help a young student figure out the topic.  Knowing the topic, a student can look in the usual places for the main idea.

Sometimes a writer talks around a topic, implying a main idea without stating it, at least at first.  The writer does state the main idea eventually, but it might not be where you expect.

Why is identifying the main idea so important?  As a student grows older, he or she will need to learn more and more from what he or she reads, and less and less from what a teacher says.  That student will need to be able to identify quickly what the main idea is in order to make sense of an article or book or research paper.  When a student does research, he or she will need to be able to analyze information to see if it is relevant.  The most important skill to do that is to identify the main idea.

.

 

Teach 16 consonant sound-letter associations first, not vowels

If you are teaching your child to read, and you wonder what letters to begin with, choose the 16 consonants that almost always make the same sound at the beginning of English words.  Those letters are b, d, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, t, v, x, and z.

Why these 16?  These sound-letter pairings follow one-to-one logic.  A d always sounds like a d when it begins a word.  An r always sounds like an r when it begins a wordLater your child will learn that certain letters can represent more than one sound (all the vowels, for example) and that certain sounds can be represented by more than one letter (the z sound can be represented by z and s, for example).  That can be confusing.

But for now, as your child learns to read, sticking to one-to-one relationships gives your child confidence.  An m always sounds like an m.  A k always sounds like a k.

Start with sounds that have meaning to children.  If your child’s name is Marco, start by teaching the letter sound m, and tape Marco’s photo on an Mm card to hang on the refrigerator.  If your dog’s name is Bandit, tape Bandit’s picture to a Bb card.  However, don’t use pictures of words beginning with blended sounds (br as in Brian) or digraphs (sh as in Shelly).

Teach children to pronounce the sounds of English

Before children learn their letters, be sure they can pronounce the sounds of English distinctly.  There are 48 sounds of standard American English, although regional dialects might include more or fewer sounds. The 48 single, distinct sounds are listed on the chart below.  Say those sounds and then ask your child to repeat those sounds.

You might wonder, “Is this really necessary?” Yes, it is. Almost always, you will encounter a sound that your child cannot hear or say properly. Let the child listen and repeat the sounds correctly until you are sure the child can hear and say the sounds. You can do this with a child as young as two. Only when the child can hear and say the sounds is it time to associate sounds with letters.

48 distinct sounds in standard American English:

 

Children learn sounds from big to small

children pronouncing elephantLittle children who are learning about sounds in words move from larger units of sound—phrases and words—to smaller units of sound—sounds within words and syllables.  Adults hear “On your mark, get set, go,” but a two-year-old hears “Onyourmark, getset, go.”  Children need to hear distinct sounds within words and to reproduce those sounds properly before they start pairing sounds with letters.

For this reason, most two-year-olds are too young to learn to read.  Even some five-year-olds might not be able to distinguish sounds within words.  In some countries, children don’t learn to read until they are seven. 

A good example of this is when children learn the ABC song.  Most three-year-olds can start the song with A-B-C-D. . .E-F-G-. . .H-I-J-K .  But when they get to L-M-N-O-P they sing L-um-men-oh-P or M-uh-let-O-P.  They don’t hear L-M-N-O as distinct sounds.

I still remember the day when I was in first grade when  my teacher taught my class the words of and the.  I thought, wow, those are two different words.  I didn’t know that.  I thought ofthe was a single sound.

Most two-year-olds are too young to learn to read.  Even some five-year-olds might not be able to distinguish sounds within words.  For this reason, in some countries, children don’t learn to read until they are seven. 

What can you do to help your child hear sounds more clearly?  Speak distinctly.  Slow down.  Face your child and let her watch your mouth when you talk.  When you hear her slurring sounds together which should be pronounced separately, don’t correct her but instead repeat the sounds properly.

While we’re on the subject of hearing words correctly, children will subconsciously learn the rules of grammar without instruction.  A four-year-old might say, “Mommy goed to the store,” properly making the verb past tense by adding the d sound to the end of the word without realizing go does not follow the rules.  Or he might say, “I amn’t done yet.”  He is learning contractions, not realizing that am can’t be contracted in the negative form.  Or a child might say, “Her said so.”  Objective pronouns are learned before subject pronouns.

To correct these mistakes, repeat what the child says correctly without comment on the error.  When the child hears words said properly enough times, he or she will say words that way too.