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.

Is school-required screen time bad for young children?

For his online schooling this past spring, my grandson, then a kindergartener, was asked to use online learning daily from the end of March to the end of May.  That screen time included

  • Two hours weekly in Zoom conferences with his teacher and a handful of other students. Usually the teacher taught a skill, like reading words beginning with digraphs.
  • An hour and a half weekly on a math site doing basic addition and subtraction in a game-like presentation.
  • Another hour and a half weekly on a language arts site, reading three-letter words and sight words in a game-like presentation.
  • Daily listening to two books being read aloud at Scholastic, a publisher’s website. The total time varied but was no more than a half hour daily, although my grandson liked this activity and often listened for up to an hour.  His three-year-old brother regularly joined him.

That adds up to more than seven hours weekly of school-required screen time for a five-year-old.

Many parents, working from home with little children underfoot during the pandemic, are allowing more screen time.  An iPad and earplugs can keep a child quiet during a conference call.  Daniel Tiger and Molly from Denali can give parents quiet time to think.  Alphablocks and Numberblocks can teach letter sounds and number meanings while parents take a breather.

All that screen time is not benign.  Children can pay for it by crying when the TV is turned off or by throwing tantrums when the computer is taken away.  Some children withdraw from usual activities or gain weight.  Some children seem unaffected.

My daughter reminds me that many years ago my son and I often tussled over his video game watching.  That son today writes apps for a living.  And it’s a good living.

As I write, my grandson is begging his mother to watch a particular video game.  “It’s educational, Mom!”  He says that often, hoping the word “educational” will make her amenable to more screen time.

The problem is where to draw the line.  How much screen time is too much screen time?

The temperament of the child probably matters.  An introverted child might crave quiet time alone with his electronic equipment.  An extroverted child might tire quickly of quiet time and prefer to be engaged with people.

Quieter children might prefer screen time while more fidgety children might prefer running, jumping, swimming and biking.

I suspect that right now researchers are collecting data about how required screen time during this pandemic is affecting young students.  For now the jury is out.  Still, parents beware.

Review phonics by playing a card game

Looking for a fun way to teach or review basic phonics with your beginning reader?  Try the game “Blah Blah Blah” Level 1000.

This game focuses on reviewing three kinds of words:  three-letter short-vowel words (CVC words) like “bat” and “dig”; four-letter long-vowel words with double vowels like “mail” and “feet”; and words using digraphs like “catch” and “thick.”  The three types of words are divided into three color-coded groups of playing cards.

Each player receives seven cards.  One player lays down a card such a “big.”  The next player has to lay down a card containing one of those letters in the same position in the word, such as “hog.”  The player has to say the word aloud too.  And so on.  The winner is the first player to go out.

But strategy counts too.  Some cards allow players to force the next player to draw two or four more cards.  Other cards force the next player to lose a turn.

Because the directions are simple, kindergarteners can catch on in one or two rounds.  Without “cheating” by tenderhearted adults, the child can win.

Any time I can find a way to teach a skill through a game, I am all for it.  This game does that using a proven method—phonics—to improve literacy skills.

Add “Alphablocks” to your strategies for teaching phonics

If your beginning reader is enamored with all things technology, let me highly recommend a colorful animated series which teaches basic phonics.

Alphablocks

Alphablocks is a step-by-step reading program created by British literacy experts and award-winning web designers.  The “stars” consist of 26 colorful letter blocks with distinctive faces who jump, twirl, sing, and dance to form words like “hen” and “tub.”

The series is divided into five levels.  Level 1 teaches young viewers to recognize sounds associated with the most commonly used letters, creating short-vowel, one-syllable words.  Level 2 introduces the rest of the alphabet.  Level 3 teaches about “letter teams” or digraphs.  Level 4 teaches blends.  Level 5 introduces long vowels formed with “Magic E.”

Segments last about four or five minutes.  The innocent letter blocks find themselves in silly situations as they hunt for other letter blocks to help them form words.

I watched with my five-year-old grandson who read aloud the words as they  formed onscreen.  Even his three-year-old brother was engaged.  At one point I said, “Now I wonder what letter that is?” as a letter skipped across the TV screen.  “L,” shouted the three-year-old.  He was right.

We watched on Netflix, but Alphablocks is also available through YouTube, and apps can be downloaded free.  A companion series on numbers is also available for preschoolers and primary grade students.

For more information, go to https://wwwlearningblocks.tv.

 

Completing the 2019-2020 school year and preparing for 2020-2021

My grandson, who has been studying at home with his mother and me since mid-March, finishes kindergarten next week.  His classroom teacher has been diligent about sending daily homework:  writing journal entries and illustrating them, writing new sight words in sentences, completing pages in a math workbook, listening to someone read picture books and then filling in worksheets about how a character is like another character  or identifying and drawing the setting.  Then there is online work at a phonics site and a math site three times a week.  Phew!

The question now is what kind of work to do during the summer months so my grandson enters first grade well prepared.

I went online to find out exactly what skills are required for a rising first grader.  I made a list and of the ones my grandson has not accomplished.  He needs practice holding a pencil properly, and he needs to consistently write his letters and numerals frontwards.  In math he has more to perfect:  counting to 100, counting backward from 10, displaying data in graphs and tables (really?  in kindergarten?), and extending patterns.

That, plus reviewing and extending his reading skills, is our summer curriculum.

If you are wondering if your child is ready to start the next grade, go online to your state’s department of education and find the standards for the basic subjects of the grade he or she is completing.  Make a list of the standards your child hasn’t met and let that list become his or her summer school work.  Sometimes you can accomplish these goals by finishing up workbooks.  Or you can order workbooks on particular skills for your child to master.   Or you can create your own materials, but of course this takes time.

And if you don’t have time to do everything?  If your child is in the primary grades, focus on two things:  basic reading skills (phonics) and simple addition and subtraction.  Keep reading to your child for enrichment but focus on the essential skills of reading and math.

Teaching the letter q

Q is a letter that deserves a reading lesson of its own for many reasons, as I discovered while working with a kindergartener.

  • The shape of the lower case qlowercaseQ is confusing, changing its appearance depending on the typeface used.  It can be made with a straight descending line only, a straight descending line with a forward slash attached to it,  or a straight descending line with a forward curve attached to it. And then there are serifs, which add another visual element.
  • A lower case q can be mistaken for a p or a g.  It needs to be taught with p and g distractions to help students recognize the differences in those letters.
  • The presence of the silent u can lead the child to pronounce a word like quick as kwuh-ick.  So qu- words need to be pronounced among CVC words.

I would begin by telling the child that the u is silent.  The u has to be there for spelling reasons, but it is not pronounced.

Then practice simple CVC-like words such as quack, quad, quest, quill and quit.

You could create a BINGO-like card with words and nonsense words like quad/quab, puest/quest, and guit/quit, to test the child’s recognition of the real q.

You could pour sand or sugar into a pan and have the child draw the first letter of words you say, such as pest, quest, pack, quack, pick, and quick.  Using multiple senses helps the concepts studied to stick better than reading aloud or writing with a pencil.

You could show an assortment of flashcard words and ask the child to pronounce them in order to reinforce that the u is silent.

My point is that q is more complicated than most other consonants and needs to be taught with special emphasis.

Hooked on Phonics

When you are teaching a child to read, it is important to use supplementary materials.  One such reading instruction series is Hooked on Phonics.

Why I like and recommend Hooked on Phonics:

  • Book 1 of Hooked on Phonics teaches VC and CVC words, introducing short a, i, o, u, and e in that order. Most phonics instruction begins this way.
  • New words are introduced in rows of up to six words, often with fewer than ten new words per page. With lots of white space, the appearance of the pages is friendly.
  • The large typeface looks like children’s printing with the a’s and g’s easy to read.
  • Each new vowel sound is introduced with a vivid picture of a word which begins with that letter sound (although not many children today know what an ox is).
  • Hooked on Phonics intersperses 17 one- or two-page illustrated stories, throughout Book 1. The attractive stories are well-illustrated with humorous black and white line drawings.  The captions of the stories use mostly CVC words.  The stories continue through all five of the instruction books.
  • Newly introduced words are reviewed over and over.
  • Book 2 continues with CVC words, teaching beginning word blends, which continue the one-letter-to-one-sound relationship established in Book 1. This kind of logic makes sense to children.
  • Book 3 expands CVC words by introducing end-of-word blends; it also introduces a few suffixes like -ing and -ed, which create two-syllable words.
  • Book 4 introduces long vowels (silent e and double vowels)in one-syllable words.
  • Book 5 introduces two-letter vowel sounds (harder than Book 4 words), three-letter beginning blends (harder than book 2 blends), and soft c and g.
  • Students don’t need to write anything to use this series, a plus for students who balk at writing.

What I don’t like about Hooked on Phonics:

  • Book 1 introduces 44 sight words along with 168 VC and CVC words. In other words, about 20% of the words to be learned in book one are sight words, not phonics words.  With so much memorizing to be done, children might think memorizing words is as important as sounding out words.  This misunderstanding of how new words are decoded—memorized rather than sounded out—can inculcate bad reading behaviors in beginning readers.</li
  • The first blends introduced to children (ch-, sh-, and th-) are not blends at all. They are digraphs, letter combinations whose original sounds are ignored and replaced with new sounds. This  can confuse children who are learning that English is a logical sound system.  Teaching digraphs at this point does not make sense.
  • The reading books that accompany the series can be hard to read. One Level 2 book, for example, uses the words “detective,” “ghost,” “house,” “kitten” “thanks,” “meow,” “blanket” and “white,” words which are far beyond the reading ability of a child learning to form beginning blends in one-syllable, short-vowel words.
  • Some easy phonics rules (adding an s to form plurals, pronouncing double consonants such as -ll at the end of words as a single sound, and pronouncing -ck at the end of words as a single sound) are not mentioned. Why not?
  • Two- and three-syllable words are barely mentioned, and advanced phonics is not covered at all. In my teaching of reading, I meet children who learn phonics using one-syllable words only.  Yet children need word attack skills for pronouncing long words, for recognizing roots, prefixes and suffixes, and for spelling certain kinds of words.  Phonics for so many children stops before these skills are learned and guessing at words begins.

The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages of using Hooked on Phonics as a supplement to beginning reading instruction.  With online access now available for phones, computers and tablets, kids who are attracted to technology have a reason to like the series as much as their parents and teachers.

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, recognizing 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.