Teaching reading in the time of a pandemic

girl with ipad in bedMy grandson, a kindergartener, has completed almost three weeks of home education, using teacher instructions or working at online sites.  The results have been mixed.

  • He was asked, in a video from his teacher, to write about what he did over the weekend and to give three details. His mother read him the directions multiple times before she went to work in the morning, and I helped him to remember three things he did, to sound out or spell words like “forest,” “fort,” and “hike,” and to model how to print certain letters.
  • He used an online learning site to find sight words embedded in a group of letters. With enough time, he could do it, but the site often moved on before he was ready.
  • At another site, he listened to the story of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble read aloud.  His mother questioned him about who the main character was and about how he was like that main character.  He couldn’t remember the character’s name, and he said he was “totally not like” that main character.
  • Though he is still at the stage of sounding out two- and three-letter CVC words, he was asked to complete lessons on much more advanced reading skills, recognizinf end-of-word digraphs like -sh, -ch, and -tch. He could do some of the -sh words, but mostly he guessed.  This work comes from an online site which doesn’t allow the student to backtrack to reinforce weak skills.
  • He needed to practice handwriting letters and numerals.  To do this correctly, he required an adult’s help.

Without an adult at his side, he could not do most of the work.  His mother works with him when she returns from her job, usually supervising the school-assigned work and supplementing it with workbooks, coins for learning about money, a wooden puzzle clock for learning to tell time and story books which she reads to him.  I work with him during the day, usually reading CVC words and beginning blends of CVC words.  My efforts are low tech and hands-on:  manipulating letter tiles and reading from two workbook series whose sequencing of reading skills reinforces one another.

We are two well educated adults working with a kindergartener on his schoolwork.  It is exhausting.  If you are an employed parent trying to keep up with the school curriculum, God bless you.  To lighten your load, may I suggest:

  • Find out exactly what the curriculum is.  Every state publishes online the curriculum for every subject and every grade level.  Know exactly what is required of you child by the end of the school year.
  • Make a checklist to see what aspects of that curriculum your child already knows and what he still needs to learn. Your school district might already have such a checklist for teachers to use.  Ask for it.  If the child’s report card is broken down by skills, that is a good source.
  • Focus only on the essential skills. For a kindergartener, language arts skills might be printing the letters of the alphabet, being able to match spoken sounds to letters, being able to read and spell some CVC words, and recognizing some sight words.
  • If some of the work coming home does not fit into the basic curriculum of your child’s grade level, ignore it. And don’t feel guilty. I guarantee that designing a playground or dancing an Irish jig will not be the skills assessed to see if your child is ready for the next grade.

Young child writing C-A-T.

  • If some nights you are too tired or too emotionally drained by the news of the day to teach your child, be kind to yourself. For most of us, the 2019-2020 school year will extend into August–plenty of time to make up those snowed-under days.  Embrace Scarlett O’Hara’s philosophy:  Tomorrow is another day.

What does CVC mean?

CVC means consonant-vowel-consonant.   It refers to one syllable, short vowel words beginning with a consonant, followed by a short vowel and ending with a consonant. “Cat,” “pen,” “pig,” “dot,” and “bug” are examples of CVC words.

CVC means consonant-vowel-consonant, and refers to one syllable, short vowel words beginning with a consonant.

In CVC words, all the letters are pronounced, and they are pronounced the way children expect.  So for example, the word “gas” is a CVC word, but the word “was” is not since the “a” sounds like a “u” and the “s” sounds like a “z.”

Most children learning to read understand a one-to-one logic system.  CVC words follow that logic system.  Each time a student reads a “d,” it sounds like a “d.”  Each time a student reads a short “a,” it sounds like a short “a.”  No silent letters as in “bike” or “boat.”  No digraphs as in “chat” and “them.”  No letter combinations that change sound in different words like “sew” and “few.”

The magic of snow

It snowed in Georgia this morning, the first snow this year.  I was tutoring a fifth grader still in his pajamas when the snow started.  The dining room blinds were drawn, so we didn’t know.  The student finished his lesson, stood, stretched, and walked to the door.

By Nicholas Powers, 6

“It’s snowing!  It’s snowing!” he screamed, literally jumping.  “Miss Kathy, it’s snowing! My shoes.  My coat.  I gotta get outside.  Everybody!  It’s snowing!”

The family came running.  Everyone was shouting about the snow.  None fell last year near where I live, and maybe just a few flurries spit from the sky the year before.  The forecast was for flurries in the morning and melting of anything that stuck in the afternoon.  But already more than an inch had fallen.  Serrendipidy!

The boy’s older sister looked longingly outside and then sat down next to me for her lesson.  “I remember when it snowed,” she mused, gazing out the window.  “Maybe I was three.”  We sputtered, trying to get the lesson going, but she was distracted, glancing through the blinds, now open, to the cluster of kids gathering outside, scraping the car for wet snow to pack into snowballs.  For 15 minutes we struggled, but the shouts of the kids  captivated her.  We ended the lesson.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Miss Kathy,” she said, bolting.

Guess what we’ll be writing about next week?

World Read Aloud Day is today

World Read Aloud Day, a world wide celebration of reading, is today, February 5.

It began ten years ago, launched by LitWorld.org, a US-based organization which develops reading programs all over the world.  Millions of people from more than 170 countries participated in 2019, as did celebrities like Sara Jessica Parker and Chelsea Clinton.

At the World Read Aloud Day website https://www.litworld.org/worldreadalouddayfreeresources you can find information on how to read aloud, what to read, and how to make reading crowns, bookmarks, stickers and buttons celebrating the day.

You can tell students who participate that they are joining a huge movement of children all around the world, who, like them, will be reading aloud today.  They will be affirming a child’s right to learn to read and to enjoy the pleasure of reading.

Learning through phonics is the best way to learn to read

If a child is having trouble reading, what is the most likely cause?

  • Reliance on pictures for meaning?
  • Guessing?
  • Weak word recognition skills?
  • Reliance on context word clues?

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter LWeak word recognition skills is the mostly likely cause, and because of that, students guess at words or search for clues from pictures and other words.

Weak word recognition skills means an inability to sound out the letters which form words.  If a child comes upon a new word—for example, “trek”—and the child cannot sound out the individual letters, the child cannot read the word.

Since 2000 we have known that the most effective way to teach reading is through a system of associating sounds with letters and combining those letters to form words—in other words, a phonics-based approach.  A National Reading Panel authorized and funded by Congress assessed scientific research on reading.  The Panel’s goal was to determine the most efficient way children learn to read.  The Panel concluded in 2000 that to read well, children should associate sounds of English (phonemes) with letters or letter pairs and to combine the letter-sounds into words.

Child with arms stretched out at his sides, forming the letter T.The word “it,” for example, has two sounds, each of which is associated with a letter.  The word “shop” has three sounds with “sh” corresponding to a single sound.

By deconstructing words into their basic sounds, children learn to sound out words.  Without guessing, without context clues, without pictures, children can figure out how to read words.  Even though there are some words which defy this sounding-out system (words like “one” and “two”), the vast majority of words in English can be sounded out.

The problem is, even though we know what works best, teachers are still asking children to guess at words, to look at pictures to figure out what words mean, to read other words nearby and use those context clues to figure out words, and to memorize the look of a word.  In other words, some teachers are not teaching phonics as the primary way to learn to read.  They are relying on methods which research shows do not work as well as phonics.

When I went to first grade, I was taught to read using a memorization approach.  The first page of my first reader had the word ”look” under a picture.  The next page had the words “Oh, look” with a different picture.  The next page had “See, see, see” with another picture.  It wasn’t until fourth grade that my teacher, Sister James Bernard, CSJ, offered lesson after lesson on phonics.  What a revelation!

If your child hasn’t learned phonics, teach him or her.  If your child is guessing at words, make him sound out each letter or each syllable.  No guessing allowed!  This is the surest way to create a strong reader.

Three cueing—a popular reading theory proven wrong by research

For almost twenty years we have known that the best way to teach children to read is by focusing on phonics—pairing the sounds of English with one or more letters and then joining those sounds to form words.

But in the US from 1967 to the beginning of the 21st century, another method was thought to be better, a method known as three cueing.  It was proposed by Ken Goodman, a university professor and noted reading expert, who believed that readers predict what words mean using three cues:

  • cues from the letters themselves;
  • cues from the part of speech the word could be;
  • and contextual cues from pictures, a sentence, or a paragraph.

Goodman said we read by guessing at words based on the three cues.  His ideas replaced the two reading methods then in use:  memorizing whole words as in the Dick and Jane books from the 1930s (“Oh look.  See Spot.”) and using phonics to decipher words (as popularized in the 200-year-old McGuffey Readers series).

Using the three cueing method, teachers would encourage students reading a given passage to think of a word that made sense —like “horse”—when students couldn’t figure out a word.  Teachers would encourage students to look at the letters.  Do they look like “horse”?  Do the letters sound like “horse”?

A similar method that some teachers might be more familiar with is the “MSV” reading method.  Similar to three cueing, MSV is a system developed by Marie Clay of New Zealand.  The “M” means figuring out meaning, often from contextual clues; the “S” means sentence structure, or figuring out what part of speech is needed in a particular sentence; and the V means visual information, or the look of the letters in the unknown word.

Goodman’s approach became known as “whole language” and became popular in the US.  Clay’s approach led to the Reading Recovery program, a first grade reading intervention program started in New Zealand and now found all over the English-speaking world, including in the US.

But eventually research proved that both of these approaches were not as effective as phonics.  More about that in our next blog.

 

Don’t let your child guess at words

A reader of my past blog wrote about a first grader who did well in reading.  But by second grade she was no longer doing well.  Why?

Several reasons could account for this change, but the most likely is that the second grade teacher is not teaching phonics.

  • Perhaps the second grade teacher is not aware of research showing that a phonics-based reading program is the most successful.
  • Perhaps the second grade teacher attended a teacher training college which did not emphasize any one approach, treating all approaches–phonics, memorizing words, guessing–the same.  Research shows phonics is clearly better.
  • Perhaps the student switched schools or school districts, and went from a phonics-based curriculum in first grade to a second-grade curriculum which does not focus on phonics.
  • Perhaps the child is going through trauma at home which is showing itself in poorer academic achievement.

If your child is in first or second grade and is struggling to read, or is guessing at a large number of words, your child is unlikely to be a strong reader in the future unless you intervene now.  What can you do to change this situation?

  • Talk to your child’s teacher and find out how she is teaching reading.  Ask if she is primarily using a phonics-based approach.  If she is, then ask her what else the school can do to help your child do better.  Is there a reading specialist who can work with your child?  Are there tutors (paid or volunteer) who work with individual students?
  • If the teacher is not using a phonics-based approach, you can ask that your child be switched to the classroom of a teacher who is using such an approach.  If that is impossible, you can hire a private tutor, or become the tutor of your child.  Or if all else fails, you can move your child to a school which does use a phonics-based approach.

Is it that important?  Yes.  The most necessary academic skill is reading.  If a child is a poor reader, she will stumble through school and life.  Many well-paying career doors will be closed to her.

Do all that you can to ensure that your youngster learn reading by sounding out letters and by blending the letter sounds together to form words.