Will avatars improve learning how to read?

What’s the future of reading?

Kindle pronunciation and definition pop-up

Already available on the Kindle, readers just touch unfamiliar words and a definition pop-up appears. (shown is an excerpt from “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett) CLICK on the picture for a link to the pronunciation.

A student who knows she has trouble reading long words creates an avatar—say an owl—to help her.  Then whenever she is reading online, the avatar would appear before every long word.  The avatar will help her to figure out long words–three and four syllable words.

The student could skip the avatar if she thinks she knows the word.  But if she  needs help, she could click on the owl and the owl might segment the word into syllables, making the word easier to deconstruct.  “Conversation” might show in a tiny screen as “con-ver-SA-tion.”

If the word does not follow the rules of phonics, the word might be shown as it is pronounced.  “Business” might appear as “BIZZ-ness.”

An option for the avatar to pronounce a word might also exist.  If a student can figure out “discreet” but not “discretion,” the avatar might pronounce the latter word.

With technology, we have the ability to personalize reading instruction, offering individual help for students.  Fast learners could have an avatar which acts as a high speed dictionary and thesaurus, allowing students to read difficult words without a word search.  Slower learners’ avatars could offer private tutoring help, allowing students to progress at their own slower pace with no one the wiser.  ESL students could get help with pronunciation.

Even older students reading advanced text books could use this help with the avatar segmenting the word, perhaps showing its root, pronouncing it, and defining it.  It could refer to previous pages in the book where the word is used the way an index does—all at the click of an avatar.

Sound farfetched?

With Google’s Alexa, some of this technology already exists.  If a student is stumped by a word, the student can spell the word and ask how to say it or what it means, and Alexa, after a split-second of “thinking.” would respond.

It’s only a matter of time before this kind of technology will be custom fit to meet individual students’ reading needs.

To Kill a Mockingbird banned again and reinstated again

Biloxi, Mississippi, Public Schools  banned–and then a few days later–and unbanned To Kill a Mockingbird from being taught to eighth graders.  The reason given for the ban is that some of the language in the Pulizer Prize-winning novel makes people uncomfortable.

This novel, published more than 60 years ago, concerns racism and discrimination during the 1930’s in a fictional Alabama town.

Mockingbird has been banned many times in the past, and once again joined a list of children’s books banned at one time or another.  They include

–for language:  Huckleberry Finn, Junie B. Jones and the Stupid, Smelly Bus

–for poor grammar:  the Junie B. Jones series

–for religious insensitivity:  A Wrinkle in Time

–for magic:  the Harry Potter series

–for child nudity:  In the Night Kitchen

–for potty humor:  Captain Underpants

–for exploring puberty:  many Judy Blume books

Ironically, as soon as a book is banned, many children read it on their own without the guidance of teachers and without discussion of its controversial aspects, thus defeating the purpose of the ban.  Go figure.

The illogical logic of English confounds children

Suppose you were teaching a kindergartener his numbers.  You would  start by explaining that “1” means one of anything:  one shoe, one horse, one star.  The student would get it.

But what if later you explaine that sometimes “1” doesn’t mean one.  Sometimes “1” means “two.”  Huh?

And weeks later, you explain that sometimes “1” doesn’t mean on”1” or “2” but “3”!  What?

How is the poor kid expected to learn math?

Yet that is exactly what happens when we teach sounds associated with letters.  We teach that “a” represents the sound in “apple” and “cat.”

But later, we explain that sometimes “a” doesn’t represent the sound in “apple” and “cat.”  It represents the sound in “Abe” and “cake.”

And later, we explain that sometimes “a” doesn’t mean the sounds in “apple” and “Abe” but represents the sounds in “ball” and “awful.”

And weeks later, we explain that sometimes “a” also means the sound in “aha.”


In English, some consonant sounds have a one-on-one relationship with a letter.  The letter “b,” for example, always sounds the same.  Young children can easily learn a one-to-one relationship.

But some consonants have double sounds, such as “c” and “g,” whose sound depends on the letter that follows.  Now the child needs to learn not a one-to-one relationship, but a one-to-two relationship.  And some consonants, like the letter “t,” have a one-to-three relationship (“top,” “the,” thin”).

To little kids, a one-to-one logic makes sense.  “I’ll give you my lollipop if you give me your balloon.”  But one-to-two or one-to-three or one-to-seven logic confound children.

That is one of the reasons why learning to read in English is so hard.

When and how to teach blends

Blends are two adjacent consonants in a word which maintain the sound each has when pronounced separately.  For example the “s” and “l” in “sled” are blends, but the “t” and “h” in “that” are not blends because the usual sounds of those letters are not maintained when they are used together.

The right time to teach blends is once students master CVC words (words formed by a consonant, vowel, and consonant, such as “cat”).   Make sure students can pronounce CVC words made with every vowel before moving on.

Teach beginning-of-word blends first.   End-of-word blends are much harder for students to learn.

The letter “s” is a good letter to start with since it forms more beginning-of-word blends than any other letter.  Use real CVC words which become real CCVC words when the “s” is added, such as nap/snap, led/sled, kid/skid, top/stop and lug/slug.  Little children are concrete learners, so being able to picture the words helps with the learning.

You can write the CVC word and then put an “s” in front of it.  Or you can use letter tiles, gradually moving the “s” closer and closer to the CVC word, saying the “s” sound and the CVC word separately at first and then more quickly until the child can hear the blend happen.

The child might consider the process a game if you slide the “s” letter tile gradually while you say the “s” sound and the CVC word.  Usually the child will shout out the blended word when he figures it out.  At first this will be after you say the blended word.  But as a child learns the skill of blending, he will shout out the word before you get close to saying the blended letters.  The process needs to be repeated with many consonants and many CVC words.

Some consonant blends are easier to hear than others.  CVC words that begin with “l” and “r” are easy to hear.  

Don’t be concerned if the child adds the blended letter to the end of the word, such as saying “leds” instead of “sled.”  Remind the child that the “s” is going at the beginning of the word, and repeat the process.  This is a common occurrence and will gradually lessen as the child practices blends.

Try to teach every letter that can be blended.  These include “b,” “c” “d,” “f,” “g,” “p,” “s,” and “t.”

Don’t teach three-letter blends at  this point.  They are much harder to hear than two-letter blends.  Wait until the child is farther along in learning to read.

Guessing at long words means more phonics work is necessary

Suppose you have a reader  who  scores well on teacher assessments through first grade.  But then in second grade, she falters and starts guessing wrongly at new words.  What is going on?

It could be that this child has not learned the rules of phonics, or has learned the rudimentary rules but not the more advanced rules.  Instead, this student relies on a system of memorizing the look of words.

A child can get by for years using whole word guessing.  But then because of the sheer number of new long words, this system no longer sustains learning words with two, three and four syllables, words with prefixes and suffixes, words which must be sounded out first one way and then another to figure them out.

Research shows that a “whole language” approach to learning to read—that is memorizing new words—doesn’t work nearly as well as a system based on phonics.

I have worked with many students who can sound out one- and two-syllable words but who guess at longer words.  They say a word which begins the same way as the longer word but which doesn’t make sense.  They continue reading without stopping to consider that what they just said makes no sense, a clue that they are not comprehending what they read.

For example, suppose a sentence says, “The President issued an executive order.”  A student reads, “The President issued an exercise order.” In a split second the student searched her mind and retrieved “exercise,” a familiar word that begins the way the original word begins.

If you have a child who slurs longer words or who substitutes a word that begins the same way as the original word, this child probably needs advanced phonics work.  By advanced I mean learning rules for splitting long words into parts and for understanding how prefixes and suffixes attach to a root word and change the pronunciation and meaning of a root.

Even after children can read, they need to continue to work with phonics.

Diagrams help students read

“Scaffolding” is an educator term to describe teacher actions to help students  learn something new.  Scaffolding could be a series of questions meant to prepare students for what they are to read.  Scaffolding could be a timeline of a topic—say American history—to show where a subtopic—say the Civil War—fits into the big picture.

Scaffolding can also be simple diagrams to help visual learners, ESL students and students with comprehension issues understand what they are about to read or write.  These diagrams help students “see” the organization of a reading passage, or they help students “see” the structure of a paragraph or essay they are about to write, providing clarity.

For example, suppose a student needs to read a biography of Coretta Scott King.  To help the student see the organization of Mrs. King’s life, the teacher could draw a color-coded diagram of important activities in Mrs. King’s life.   Take a look.

This diagram is a simple visual pattern following Mrs. King’s life, more or less in chronological order.  With a little help, the student might see that Mrs. King’s life was private until she married; then her life became public as she worked with her husband on civil rights matters; then her life became even more public after his death as she led efforts to honor him and she spoke and wrote about ongoing civil rights matters.

If each box of the diagram is outlined in a color which corresponds to a portion of Mrs. King’s life or activities, the overall organization of the essay becomes clear.   Color-coding the information is important because it helps visual learners “see” how the reading passage breaks down into smaller chunks.

Whether it is Junie B. Jones’ fear of school buses or why polar bears face a bleak future, a diagram showing students what they will read before they read it allows them to see the big picture and each subtopic in the order in which they will read about it.  For children learning English or children with reading comprehension problems, a diagram can help them understand and remember what they read.

How to teach –ight, -ought, -ind, -ild and word families that don’t follow rules

Words ending with –ight don’t follow the rules of phonetics.  The “g” and “h” are silent, and there is no silent “e” after the “t” to make the vowel “i” long.

Some word families, such as –ought, -ind, -ild, and -ight need to be taught as exceptions to phonics rules.  Essentially, they are a group of sight words which follow the same spelling rule, but they are not pronounced the way they look.

It’s probably better to delay teaching words like these until students learn the basic rules of phonics.  Exceptions to rules are confusing.  Better to get the rules understood before introducing exceptions.

That said, how do you teach such exceptions?

  • Teach one exception family of words at a time, giving several days for the student to get used to that family.
  • Post a list of the family of exception words so students can see them on and off many times a day.
  • Ask the children to read short paragraphs containing such words.
  • Ask the children to compose a silly verse using a familiar song for rhythm. For example, to “Old McDonald Had a Farm” students could write, “My brother Dwight did pick a fight, EE I EE I Oh.  He picked a fight with a mighty knight, EE I EE I Oh.”  The sillier the better.  Write down the song, show the words to the students, and sing it daily to reinforce the family pronunciation and spelling.
  • Play games using the exception word families. Students could write the 15 –ight words plus 10 –ite words on a blank BINGO board. You could call off a definition of each word which students would need to identify on their boards.
  • Have a spelling bee using the words.
  • Students could write a paragraph using as many of the words as they can. This could be a group project the first time and later an individual project.

Students should be reminded about words with the same sound as the exception but which follow the rules of phonics.   Students need to remember which words go with which rule.

English has many words which don’t follow the rules, but it helps when there are a whole group of them which follow their own strange rule.  They can be taught in groups rather than singly.