Four stages in learning to read

The saying goes, in kindergarten through third grade, a child learns to read (think phonics); in third and later grades, a child reads to learn (think comprehension).*

But practically, what does this mean?

Child with arms stretched out at his sides, forming the letter T.

By the end of kindergarten:

  • Students can recognize almost all letters, upper and lower case.
  • Some students can state the sound represented by an individual consonant letter, and they can recognize closed (short) vowel sounds.
  • Some students can read consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words.
  • Most students cannot yet read open (long) vowel patterns such as oa and ight.
  • Many students rely on first and last letters in words to sound words out.
  • Students rely on pictures to help figure out words.

By the end of first grade:CVCC twin consonants

  • Students can decode one-syllable CVC words, including those with blends.
  • Students can decode one-syllable words ending in a silent e.
  • Students can read one-syllable open (long) vowel words like he and my.
  • Students can read one-syllable r-controlled words like star and dirt.
  • Students can read some one-syllable words with two-vowels like bee and boot.
  • Many students need to sound out common one-syllable words rather than recognizing them as sight words.
  • Students depend less on pictures and context clues to decipher words.

By the end of second grade:children looking at picture of Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln

  • Increasingly, students are able to decode two- and three-syllable words if those words follow rules of phonics.
  • Students can decode words by separating familiar suffixes and prefixes to find root words and then reassembling the parts.
  • Students recognize common letter patterns.

By the end of third grade:girl reading Junie B. Jones

  • Students have mastered decoding of words using phonics, including many multi-syllabic words.
  • Students recognize most common words by sight.
  • Students recognize word families and can use that knowledge to decipher new words.

This breakdown covers word recognition.  But there is another part of learning to read, namely, language comprehension.  We will discuss that in the next blog.

*Researcher Jeanne Chall (1983) first coined this idea.

See researchers Linnea Ehri (1991, 2005) and Spear-Swerling (2015) for more indepth discussion of reading stages.

Frustration in teaching remotely

As many teachers and students head back to their virtual classrooms this week, I’d like to share my experience learning Zoom and Google Docs, changing from a PDF to an editable format and teaching reading and writing to students ten miles and three time zones away.

In four words:  I have been overwhelmed.

Before the pandemic, I had 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 as I returned to teaching in November, after seven months of babysitting 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, teaching via Zoom has been like my 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.

 

  • 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.  Scanning and inputting is on my to-learn list.

 

  • If I want to see what my student is writing by hand, how can I? Her writing surface is out of camera range.  I learned that if I ask her to reread the corrected writing, I know if she changes it.

 

  • For some students, I can see only the tops of their 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.

 

  • 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.

 

  • 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, smiling without saying a word, and 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 a parent’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.

I am writing about my frustration using virtual technology because many of your children’s teachers are going through the same ordeal.  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, 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.

Two months teaching in this new mode is not enough for me to master it.  Nor is a semester for many of your children’s teachers.  My New Year’s resolution is to forgive myself for my ignorance and to practice, practice, practice Zoom and Google Docs and any other technology that will help me be a better teacher.

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.

Recognizing POV takes practice

Point of view (POV) is a difficult concept for little children to grasp.  If you are reading a picture story to a child, and you ask who is telling the story, the child might say, “You are, Nana.”  The child is right—you are reading the story—but the child is also wrong—you are not the narrator in the story.

I find that using many examples, and repeating those examples over and over until the light bulb goes on, is a good way to teach POV.  But first of all, a child needs to understand the various possibilities for POV.

  • First person—The person telling the story refers to himself as “I” or “me” and refers to groups that he belongs to as “we” and “us.” Autobiographies and memoirs are told in first person.
  • Second person—The person talking speaks to you, and uses “you” as a pronoun. TV commercials often use the second person.  (“Are your feet hurting?  You should buy XYZ foot cream.”)  Almost no literature is written in second person.
  • Third person limited—The person telling the story knows the internal thoughts of just one person. Readers can hear the thoughts of just one person.
  • Third person omniscient—The person telling the story—we don’t know who it is—knows the internal thoughts of more than one person.

Some rules to make it easier:

  • Eliminate dialog before trying to determine POV. Cross out direct quotes or internal dialog (a person talking to herself) and analyze what is left.
  • If both first and third person pronouns are used(I told my brother I didn’t like his crying), the POV is first person.

Here are some examples meant for third graders or older students.

  1. It was great living with Jerry Barker as his cab horse.  Not all horses were taken care of like I was.  I was never overworked and I was clean all the time.
  2. I won Dribble at jimmy Fargo’s birthday party.  All the other guys got to take home goldfish in little plastic bags.  I won him because I guessed there were three hundred and forty-eight jelly beans in Mrs. Fargo’s jar.
  3. At Aunt Grace and Uncle Edwin’s the air was hot and stuffy and the furniture was hot and stuffy and Aunt Grace and Uncle Edwin were stuffy.
  4. Every clear day Gawaine rose at dawn and went out to kill dragons.  The Headmaster kept him at home when it rained, because he said the wood were damp and unhealthy at such times.
  5. [Mr. Popper] had never been out of Stillwater.  Not that he was unhappy.  He had a nice little house of his own, a wife whom he loved dearly, and two children, named Janie and Bill.  Still, it would have been nice, he often thought, if he could have seen something of the world before he met Mrs. Popper and settled down.
  6. They were all so happy they could hardly speak at first.  They just looked with shining eyes at those lovely Christmas presents.  But Laura was happiest of all.  Laura had a rag doll.
  7. That night I thought about Will’s advice.  Then I had a great idea.  I’d look for pet-sitting jobs.  That would show I was responsible!
  8. Andy didn’t hear him.  He was staring at the list.  Root hairs?  He didn’t even see any roots.  Then he thought of the picture in his science book.  Duh.  Roots were under the ground.
  9. I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater I the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
  10. My name is Junie B. Jones.  The B stands for Beatrice.  Except I don’t like Beatrice.  I just like B and that’s all.

Answers

  1. first person POV as told by Black Beauty, a horse, in Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  2. first person POV as told by Peter Hatcher in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume.
  3. third person omniscient POV as told by an unknown narrator in Half Magic by Edward Eager
  4. third person omniscient POV as told by an unknown narrator in The Fifty-First Dragon by Heywood Broun
  5. third person limited as told by an unknown narrator in Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater
  6. third person limited POV as told by an unknown narrator in Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  7. first person POV as told by Teddy, a boy, in The Green Dog by Melinda Luke
  8. third person limited as told by an unknown narrator in What Homework? By Linda Hayward
  9. first person as told by Alexander, a boy, in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
  10. first person as told by Junie B in Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus

 

DISTAR and the Initial Teaching Alphabet–a system of teaching reading that didn’t catch on

Ever hear of DISTAR?  The Direct Instructional System for Teaching and Remediation—DISTAR for short—is a phonics-based reading program developed in the 1960s.

Its advantages are

  • Learning goes fast at first.
  • One letter corresponds to only one sound.
  • It uses a one-to-one logic system little children intuitively understand.

With these advantages, why is DISTAR not widely used?

  • DISTAR uses a unique alphabet called the Initial Teaching Alphabet, not the standard English alphabet.
  • Teachers need to know and consistently use this alphabet for the system to work.
  • Most parents have no experience with this alphabet, so they cannot help their children without instruction.
  • Eventually, students must be weaned from this alphabet to the standard English alphabet, causing confusion.
  • Few books are written using this alphabet.
  • Children who try to use this alphabet to handwrite can wind up with impossible-to-read handwriting.

Initial Teaching Alphabet is shown below.

 

As you can see, some letters are the same as standard English letters, including 19 consonants and the five vowels used as closed or short vowels.  Open or long vowels are written as two vowels joined.  Digraphs, less used vowel sounds and certain consonant sounds are written as either double letters or single letters.  But those letter shapes do not correspond to standard English letter shapes.

The Initial Teaching Alphabet was developed in the 1960s by Sir James Pitman.  He hoped the alphabet could help children learn to read easier than using a traditional alphabet.

This alphabet uses a distinct typeface developed specifically for it.  All letters are considered lower case.  When capitals are needed, a larger version of the lowercase letter is used.

Because children needed to learn two alphabet systems in the primary grades if they learned using the Initial Teaching Alphabet and DISTAR , these systems were not widely used.  During the 1960s, the teaching of reading was switching from a phonetic approach to a whole language approach, another reason for DISTAR’s and the Initial Teaching Alphabet’s lack of support.

Today research shows that a phonetic approach is the best way to teach young children to read.

 

How to teach beginning compound words

After students learn to read two- and three-letter words (consonant-vowel-consonant or CVC words), many are ready to learn compound words.  Because compound words are longer, reading them makes students feel like they are making progress.

It is important to select the words you use carefully.  Many compound words are not CVCCVC words.  Some words the child should be able to decipher include those below.

backpack Batman bedbug
bobcat cannot catnap
catnip cobweb hatbox
hilltop hotdog hotrod
laptop pigpen pinup
sunset sunup zigzag

Let the child study a word for a few seconds.  Tell him the word has two little words in it.  If he cannot figure it out, tell him that the two little words come together in the middle of the long word.  If he still is stumped, put your fingers over the syllables, one at a time, and ask the child to sound out each part.  Then ask him to put both parts together.  If he has already forgotten the first syllable, do it again.

Techniques for teaching a young beginning reader

I learned to read when I was in first grade, when I was six years old going on seven.  But so many of the beginning readers I teach today are much younger.  Right now I am working with a five-year-old kindergartener, one of the youngest boys in his class.  Although he is bright and ready to learn to read, he is also fidgety and inattentive.

Maybe you are working at home during the pandemic with such a kindergartener?  How do you teach such a child without both you and he becoming frustrated?

The answer is to have multiple ways of teaching the same concept, so when attention wanes, you can try different approaches.

Suppose you are teaching blends at the beginning of short-vowel one-syllable words.  For such a child, I would schedule either multiple ten-minute lessons, or a thirty-minute lesson divided into three parts.  What could those parts include?

  • Review using lists for five minutes.  Reading lists of words is a good way to begin.  Reading lists is boring, so move on quickly.  If the words are printed in large type with lots of white space, that helps the words to look “friendly.”
  • Using flash cards make great reviews too.  They also can become boring quickly.
  • Making words of letter tiles covers a lot of words in a short amount of time.
  • Reading words on BINGO-like cards of words turns learning into fun.  Nine words per card (three words across by three words down) is few enough not to overwhelm the child.  Ask the student to cover a word when you pronounce it.  Then ask the child to pronounce the word and you cover it.  Pennies or tiny candies used as markers offer incentive to play this game.
  • Reading cartoons in workbooks can be fun.  The drawings attract the child, but sometimes they offer clues to words which the child does not sound out, so be careful.
  • Working on appropriate workbook pages from a supplementary series is another approach.
  • Having the child handwrite words reinforces them and improves printing skills.
  • “Writing” words in a dish of sand or sugar can seem more like fun  than learning.  I would use this type lesson at the end of the time period because other approaches might seem boring in comparison.
  • The same goes for online learning.  Often it is more attractive than “analog” methods.  But old-fashioned methods can target the child’s specific needs quicker.

Lack of vocabulary impedes children’s reading

Sometimes children with rudimentary first grade reading skills are passed to second grade and then to third grade.  They find themselves unable to read their texts, their worksheet directions, and their tests because they don’t understand the vocabulary.

How can you help?

Help a child to recognize that every subject has a basic vocabulary that children must be able to read those vocabulary words.

For example, in math, students need to be able to read word problems.  That means they need to be able to read numbers written as words—eleven, twelve, twenty-seven.  They need to be able to read operation words like subtraction, difference, equals, and total.

Or in language arts, students need to be able to read parts of speech words like adjective and preposition, punctuation words like apostrophe and semicolon, and literature discussion words like characters, climax and predict.

Help the child to learn the basic vocabulary of every subject.  Here are some ways.

Make BINGO cards of the basic words of each subject and play BINGO with your child. You might start with the child identifying the word you say.  Then give the child the definition of a word and help him understand its name.  Then let him read the word and define it.

Create a deck of cards using difficult words and play Go Fish, making sure the child pronounces the words.

Make word lists, crossing out words as the child masters them.

After the child can read the words and knows what they mean, take typical word problems and ask your child to read them. Focus on reading the words properly.  Then go back and ask what each difficult word means.  When the child can explain, ask how to solve the problem or respond to the question, and watch the child do that, identifying weaknesses to continue working on.

Help the child understand commonly used directional words.

Marilee Sprenger* analyzed the Common Core standards and other sources to develop a list of directional words commonly used in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade.  According to her, they are

  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • Describe
  • Distinguish
  • Identify
  • Retell
  • Demonstrate
  • Determine
  • Draw
  • Explain
  • Locate
  • Suggest
  • Support
  • Comprehend, and
  • Develop

These words are not everyday words for little children.  Children need to learn these words’ meanings from teachers and parents.  How?

The adult says the word properly and explains what it means, using it in the context of something the children already know.  Next the children repeat the explanation, paraphrasing the adult’s explanation and using an example of their own.  Children then might draw a picture of the word’s meaning to show that they understand.  The adult should use the word many times and encourage students to write down the word and its meaning.  The adult should continue to use the word in situations in which students must act to show if they understand the word.  Finally, occasional word games, like vocabulary bees and word BINGO games, reinforce the word and its meaning.**

Sometimes we suppose students know words because they have heard them over and over.  But that does not mean they know them.  I worked with a seventh grader who thought “compare” means “contrast.”  It’s important for us to take the time to teach these words so when children encounter them as directions for homework, quizzes or tests, they can perform correctly.

*Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core; 55 words that make or break student understanding,  by Sprenger, 2013

**Building Academic Vocabulary:  Teacher’s Manual by Marzano and Pickering, 2005

Ah ha!

My first grade grandson had an “Ah ha!” moment while reading to me this week.

He was reading a short chapter book especially meant for beginning readers.  Almost all the words were short-vowel, one-syllable words.  Many of them were repeated for reinforcement.  Most pages contained only four or five short sentences.  Every page had line drawings to give extra meaning.

Usually when he reads, he sounds out every word and then says the complete word.  But this time—except for unfamiliar words—he said aloud just the word, not the phonics within the word.

“Gramma,” he said, his eyes bright.  “I read fast!  I didn’t have to say all the letter sounds.  Did you hear?”

“You read great!” I said, and we high-fived.

My grandson didn’t know it, but he made a transition that all good readers eventually make.  Instead of reading individual letters, he read individual words and in a couple of cases, individual phrases.

When children are learning to read, we tell children to sound out words, not to memorize the look of words.  But in fact, when we encounter a word often enough, we no longer need to sound it out.  We recognize it from its appearance.

Elite athletes go through a similar phase.  A great diver doesn’t need to think about which way his palms are facing or which leg to lead his spring with or how to tuck his body or whether his feet are pointed at the same angle.  He has done the individual parts of the dive hundreds—thousands—of times and he has developed muscle memory.

As adults, that’s what you and I do whenever we read.  Unless we encounter an unfamiliar word, we recognize words and phrases and no longer need to read individual letters or even individual words.  We read chunks.

Test this idea on yourself.  As you are reading these words, are you pausing over each word?  Or are you reading chunks of words?  For example, in the second sentence, didn’t you read, “As you are reading—these words—are you pausing—over each word?”

I am so proud of my grandson’s progress in reading.  From the day kindergarten ended abruptly in March, he has continued to learn to read using a phonics approach.  How wonderful for him to recognize his own progress.  And how lucky for me to be sitting by his side when he did.

“How do I teach my grandson to read remotely?”

How do I teach my grandson to read remotely?” asked a grandmother. She plans to use Zoom, Facetime, and ready-to-go reading materials for an hour daily.  After testing the boy informally, she believes she needs to start from scratch to fill in any gaps in basic phonics.

Here is what I advised her:

First, buy two copies of “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Rudolph Flesch.  Send one to your grandson and you keep one.  Go to the back where there are lists of words.  Start on page one, asking the boy to pronounce the sound of each letter shown.  When he can do that, move on to the page of short a words.  Have the boy read the short a words, or a portion of them.

Reading lists of words is tiring, so do maybe ten minutes of such work and ask the boy’s parents to do another ten minutes at night.  Or read from the list at the beginning of the lesson, then do something else, and then come back to the list.  Move through the lists at whatever pace indicates that the boy is mastering the words.

Why use “Why Johnny Can’t Read” a 65-year-old resource?  The simple answer is because I know it works.  I have used this phonics-based resource for almost 35 years with native born children and with immigrant children.  All of them hated it, true, but all of them learned to read quickly.  There are other reading primers, but for me this is a tried and true resource.  It’s available in bookstores and online.

Second, buy two copies of “Explode the Code” workbooks 1, 1 ½, 2 and 2 ½.  (Eventually, buy the next sets in this series, but for starts, these workbooks are enough.)  This series teaches reading using a phonics-based approach.  Kids like it because of the silly illustrations.  Have the child start reading while you follow along on your copy, noting and correcting mistakes.  Eventually, the child might do some of the pages for homework or with his parents.

“Explode the Code” reinforces the harder work of reading lists of words.  It does not follow the exact sequencing of skills in “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” but you can adapt one to the other easily.

Why “Explode the Code”?  I have used this series with dozens of children, and all have liked the silliness of the drawings.  For children whose vocabulary is limited, the drawings and distractor words offer opportunities to develop new vocabulary.  There are other workbook series, but because of the humor and sequence of phonics development in “Explode the Code,” I like it.

Seated young boy is playing a portable video game..Third, buy a set of letter tiles.  You can use the tiles from a Scrabble game or from Bananagrams.  Or  use a keyboard.  What you want to do is to introduce, teach and review new concepts. using tiles or computer words.  If you are teaching short a, for example, manipulate the tiles so the child can see them to form “cat” and then “hat” and then “fat,” etc.  Changing the first letter while keeping the ending vowel and consonant is easier for beginning readers to decode.  Using tiles or computer-generated words enables you to go quickly.  Later, you can move from “mat” to “mate” or from “mick” to “mike” and back and forth quickly to show differences in spellings and sounds.

Fourth, recommend to the child’s parents that the child watch the Netflix series “Alphablocks,” an animated series using silly letter characters to teach phonics.  This British series offers tiny segments of  three or four minutes to teach particular phonics skills.  Even three-year-olds will learn to recognize letters from watching this series.  Older children will be able to read words as they pop up on the screen.

All of these materials are readily available, allowing you to start teaching immediately.  Young children need variety, so move from one resource to another every 10 or 15 minutes.  The younger or more distractible the child, the more necessary it is to have a variety of approaches—as well as learning materials the child can manipulate, like the tiles.

Reading lists and reading tile-made words or computer-screen words does not require the fine motor coordination some beginning readers lack.  When I use “Explode the Code,” for some children I allow drawing lines from words to drawings rather than writing words.  Keep in mind you are teaching reading, and even though it would be nice for the child to print the letters, or to spell correctly, that is not necessary to read.  For particularly uncoordinated children, I will write or draw or encircle providing they do the reading.  Anything to keep them reading!

Start each lesson with a quick—two or three minute—review of past work, slowing down if the concepts haven’t been learned.  Then introduce new work or repeat old work if that is needed.  At the end of the lesson, review the new work of the lesson.  Review, teach new, review again.

Finally, FYI, I am not being paid to suggest these particular products.  I am suggesting them because I know they work, they are available and they are affordable.

Please share your experiences teaching reading online.  That is the kind of information we are all wanting right now.

Choosing a mode of schooling in this pandemic

Are you trying to decide how to educate your children this coming school year?  My three grown children and their spouses face the same problem, and each has decided on a different answer.  And all their decisions seem good to me. Child Browsing the Web

My older sons’ two middle school children are starting school remotely for nine weeks.  After that, the family will reevaluate how to proceed.  The children finished the past school year remotely, so they are aware of that mode.  They also took a pre-algebra class this summer online, adding to their online learning experiences.  One or both parents will be working from home, so the kids will be supervised and will have adult help a few steps away if they need it.

My younger son’s child, an eager and independent learner, is starting first grade computer savvy and able to read.  He will attend public school remotely for the whole academic year.  His desk is situated just feet from his parents’ home office, where they work remotely in the computer industry. Plus his mother is a former teacher.  They expect their son to thrive with online learning.

My daughter’s two sons will attend a private school in person daily.  The older boy, starting first grade, finished kindergarten remotely, but he needed an adult by his side to keep him focused on his zoom lessons.  His mother and I have been working with him daily this summer to reinforce his reading and math skills.  The younger boy, three, is a highly social child who has missed his daycare teachers, friends and structured days.  The boys’ mother is a medical professional and their father is a deployed soldier.  Remote learning is not an option for these children.

Three different families, three different decisions on how to educate their children during this pandemic.  All good choices.