You can teach your child to read. Start with a phonics assessment.

Are you are planning to teach your child how to read this summer, either starting at the beginning or filling in the gaps?  If so, where do you start? I suggest you give your child a pretest to see what reading skills your child has learned well, and what ones he has not yet grasped. The words on this pretest are more or less divided into four kinds of words in this order: 1. Short (closed) vowel, one-syllable words. These include one- and two-letter words, words beginning or ending with blends and digraphs (black, church) words which end in twin consonants (fell, jazz), words which end in “ck,” and words to which an “s” can be added to make plural words or certain verbs (maps, runs). 2. Long (open) vowel, one-syllable words.  These include words ending with silent “e,” words with double vowels which have only one vowel pronounced (goes, pear), and certain letter combinations (ild, old).  They also include words with “oi,” “oy,” “ow” and “ou” letters. 3. Two– and three-syllable words which follow the above rules (catnip, deplete) and two- and three-syllable words which don’t follow the above rules but which follow a pattern (light, yield). These words include words with certain suffixes (le, ies) and words with a single consonant between two vowels (robin, motel). 4. Exceptions.  These include words with silent letters (gnaw, lamb), words from other languages (debris, cello), and words which fit no pattern (business). Ask your child to read the words in the pretest below.  Each row across tests a particular phonics skill.  If you child hesitates at all, that is the place to begin teaching him or her phonics.  I will talk more about how to teach these four groups of phonics skills in my next blog. Phonics assessment bad, hem, fit, don, pug, am, if, lass, jazz lock, Mick, bills, cliffs, mitts, catnip, Batman grand, stent, frisk, stomp, stuck chuck, shun, them, branch, brush, tenth star, fern, birds, fork, purr, actor, doctor, victor muffin, kitten, collect, pepper, gallon complex, helmet, falcon, napkin, after tantrum, muskrat, constant, fulcrum, ostrich skate, bike, Jude, mole, dare, shore, tire, pure need, cheer, aim, hair, bay, pie, boat, oar, Joe, low, soul fruit, few, child, blind, fold, colt, roll, light, high earn, worm, rook, pool fault, claw, all, chalk, Walt boil, so, pound, down comet, dragon, liver, salad, denim total, ever, student, basic, demon, vital apron, elude, Ethan, Owen, ideal, usurp inside, nearly, absent, unicorn, degrade, tripod advance, offense, fence gripped, planned, melted, batted, handed sweeping, boiling, thinning, flopping, biking, dating rapper, saddest, finer, bluest, funnier, silliest easily, busily, massive, active, arrive, wives keys, monkeys, armies, carried action, section, musician, racial, crucial, nuptials brittle, pickle, carbon, dormer parcel, decent, gem, urge, badge lose, sugar, nature, sure graph, Phil, then, moth bomb, thumb, gnat, gnome, high, sign whip, whirl, echo, ghoul, knee, knob could, calf, folk, hustle, listen, wrist alone, bread, bear, chief, young, squaw, swan, waltz, word decision, exposure, gigantic, polarize, occupant, quarantine If you want to help your child learn to read, one of the best things you can do is not to let him guess.  Most words can be deciphered if the student has a phonics background. Also, don’t let your child depend on pictures for meaning once the child starts to read.  Most adult reading material is not accompanied by graphics.  Students must learn to gain meaning from the text alone. If you have decided to help your child read this summer, good for you.  You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to help your child read better.  Years of research show that the best way to teach reading is to start with letter sounds (phonemes) and then to combine those letter sounds into words (phonics).  If you do this in a systematic way, such as following the four-part sequence I describe above, your child will learn to read.    

Hi-lo books attract English language learners

A mother contacted me about recommending summer reading for her rising eighth grade son.  Her son is learning English as a second language.  His reading level is probably late fourth or early fifth grade.

The typical middle grade books I might suggest won’t work for this boy.  He needs “hi-lo” books—books with high interest appropriate for his age but with low reading difficulty.  Such books exist, but matching the reading level with the student’s age and interests is hard.

What do I look for in hi-lo books?

  • Characters the student can relate to and care about. Usually this means characters of the same gender and age as the reader or one or two years older.
  • Characters easily distinguished from other characters. All names should begin with different letters.  Characters should have different body types, interests, idiosyncrasies and goals.
  • A story that holds the reader’s interest. Students who like video games like adventure and danger in their stories.  They like characters who get into trouble but figure out how to extricate themselves.
  • Books that are not too long. How long is too long?  That depends on the typeface (bigger is better), the spacing between lines (more space is better), page margins (more white space is better) and the size of the page (typical paperback size or bigger is okay).
  • Books with short chapters. A book with 30 chapters containing four pages per chapter is better than a book with 15 chapters containing eight pages per chapter even if the content is identical.
  • Books whose plots move quickly. This means more action and less description, more dialog and less backstory.
  • Plots that follow chronological order without flashbacks. Surprises are okay, but sudden plot twists are not.  No secondary plot lines.
  • Good guys who are good and bad guys who are bad. The reader should know which is which.
  • Stories with one point of view only.
  • Books with dark, easy-to-read typefaces and no hyphens at the ends of lines.
  • Sentence structures that reflect the way people talk: subjects before and close to predicates; prepositional phrases later in the sentence, complex sentences with just one subordinate clause placed at the end of the independent clause.
  • Simple vocabulary except for new words important to the story’s topic. New or difficult vocabulary should be used many times to reinforce its meaning.
  • Books that look like any other book without identifying themselves as “special.” They should have no more illustrations than books aimed at the same age group.  They should attract good readers who appreciate a good story.

Largest US school system to change how reading is taught

With half its students unable to pass reading tests, the City of New York has decided to change the way it teaches reading.

CVCC twin consonants

Starting this fall in some schools and in the fall of 2024 in others, “the science of reading” will ground all reading instruction.  This means that students will focus on learning sounds associated with letters (phonemes) and on joining those letter sounds (phonics) to form words.

Chancellor David C. Banks will announce the change today (May 9, 2023).  He hopes the new approach will change the current outcome in reading instruction in which half the city’s third through eighth graders are not proficient in reading.

The city’s schools are divided into 32 local districts.  Each district can choose one of three acceptable reading programs, all of which focus–to varying degrees–on phonics.  Research has shown that a phonics-based approach to learning to read produces the best results for primary grade students.

The city’s principals’ union is opposed to a one-size fits all approach in the city’s 700 elementary schools.  Teachers say they need training.

Local school districts within the city will have some choice in how to proceed.  They must choose one of three reading programs: Into Reading, Expeditionary Learning, and Wit & Wisdom.  They can and in some cases must supplement these programs with more systematic phonics instruction.

One advantage of the unified approach is to provide students who transfer from one New York school to another a single reading curriculum.  Another is to follow the mandate of New York’s Mayor Eric Adams, who has dyslexia, to teach reading using a phonics-based approach.  Still another is to provide teachers with materials that have been shown to work, so each teacher doesn’t need to seek materials independently.

The change will start this fall in city school districts showing the least proficiency in reading.

New York is the latest and biggest school district to show dissatisfaction with the way reading has been taught and to turn to a research-supported approach.  Poor student performance on reading tests, parents’ demanding change after Covid 19 educational losses, and a growing cohort of students who cannot read are propelling changes in reading instruction throughout the US.

Reading instruction is finally catching up to research

Increasing numbers of state legislatures are mandating that a phonics-based approach be used to teach young children how to read.  Not all states are on board yet, despite a massive study more than 20 years ago that culled research and concluded that teaching children phonemes (the sounds associated with letters) and phonics (assembling letters into words) is the most successful way to teach reading.

Three children with signs around their necks that read: Meniruze words, Phonics, Whole Language

Beginning in 2014 in Mississippi, states have forced teacher training programs, school districts and public school teachers to switch to a phonics-based approach to teaching reading.  Here are states* which have passed legislation mandating a phonics-based approach or strengthening laws already mandating such an approach.

  • 2013: Mississippi
  • 2014: South Carolina
  • 2015: Nevada
  • 2016: Michigan, Mississippi
  • 2017: Arkansas
  • 2018: Montana, Nebraska
  • 2019: Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, West Virginia
  • 2020: DC
  • 2021: Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas
  • 2022: Arkansas, Arizona, Kentucky, Utah, Virginia

As you can see, the number of states passing laws to require phonics-based reading instruction has steadily increased with the greatest increase in 2021.  Educators surmise that because students were home for months in 2020 because of the Covid 19 virus, parents became more aware of how their children were being taught to read.  As a result, they demanded change.

While not all states have updated their education laws concerning the teaching of reading, the trajectory is in that direction.  Expect improved reading scores on national tests as students being taught using this approach infiltrate into higher grades.  Mississippi has already noted this positive change.

*according to Education Week

Is your child’s handwriting difficult to read?

A test has been devised to measure how good or how bad a student’s handwriting really is.  This test takes into account your impression of five aspects of the handwriting:

  • its legibility,
  • the amount of effort you need to read the handwriting,
  • the look of the layout/organization of the writing on the page,
  • letter formation, and
  • efforts to fix or rewrite letters by the child.

This Handwriting Legibility Scale (HLS) was developed by A.L. Barnett, M. Prunty, and S. Rosenblum in 2017.  You can access it at

Briefly, let me explain.  The test takes six minutes for a child of nine or older.   An adult dictates a passage appropriate to the child’s reading and spelling skills.  The child writes the passage on notebook paper with little direction from the adult.  At the end of six minutes the adult ends the test and evaluates the handwriting.  The content of the  writing is irrelevant to this test.

The authors of the test suggest a scale of from one to five for each of the five elements named above.  The adult assigns a value to each of the five elements as shown by the student’s writing, with a score of one meaning excellent performance and of five meaning poor performance.  The five scores are then totaled.  Writing scores of 5 or slightly above mean overall excellent handwriting skills, and scores closer to 25 mean a lack of good skills.

The point of this test is to identify students showing difficulty in handwriting skills, and also to pinpoint the reasons.  The point is not to offer remediation.

I like this test.  It takes just six minutes of the child’s time.  It uses materials found at home or in the classroom.  It does not take advanced education to administer the test or to evaluate the results.  It identifies and separates various skills—layout and letter formation, for example—which can be worked on separately.  And it’s free.

Teaching kinesthetic learners how to read

Have you ever taught a student who acts like this? 

  • Changing positions frequently—sitting on a folded leg, kneeling on a chair, or wriggling her shoulders?
  • Responding to a question with gestures—thumbs up, a face showing precise emotions, drawing a picture in the air?
  • Reading out loud when he should be reading silently?
  • Miming a situation or a reaction?

These students might be kinesthetic learners, people who need to engage their whole bodies to learn optimally.  Some are hyperactive,  tempermentally unable to sit still.  Some are dyslexic, unable to read or to learn to read the usual way.  Some are autistic, non verbal or preferring repetitive motions or intensely focused on one activity.  Some are artistic, preferring to draw in almost every situation.  Some are actors, dramatizing their responses.  child making letter T with his body

The younger the child, the more apt he is to be a kinesthetic learner.  Males tend to be kinesthetic learners longer than females.  Children with highly focused hobbies or interests—assembling Legos for hours at a time, enjoying sports practice several times a week, wanting everything Spiderman, drawing and coloring every day—are probably kinesthetic learners.

The problem for kinesthetic learners is that most classrooms are made for the auditory learner, the person who sits still and listens to the teacher, the person who reads silently to learn, not for the person who roams, fidgets, mumbles, acts out, or plays games to learn.

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter L

So what hands-on activities will help your beginning reader to learn the alphabet and easy words?

  • Ask the child to act out the letter shapes, that is, form the letters with her body.
  • Allow nonverbal responses—pointing, gesturing, showing facial emotion, performing.
  • Use games—letter tiles, for example—that offer the child the opportunity to pick up, arrange, and invent. Or hold letter “bees” in  which the children form teams and the you hold up letters or words for a team member to identify.
  • Teach using puppet shows—two characters debating what a given letter is, or how to hold a book, or if “fun” rhymes with “fan.”
  • Let groups of students create an ABC book . The artist in the group might draw and color pictures while other students might cut out pictures from magazines and paste them.
  • After you have read a story to students, ask some to act out the story to test comprehension. Let other students join in.
  • Create an alphabet from Play Doh or Legos or pipe cleaners.
  • Create word family books with drawings or cut-and-pasted pictures.
  • Take a scavenger walk in the neighborhood to see shapes of letters in tree branches, sidewalk cracks, clouds or roof lines.

dhild running with book in hands

You might think, these activities take time and slow down the learning process.  Yes, they do take time, and yes, they do slow down the initial learning process.  But since this kind of learning sticks, you need to do less reteaching and may gain time in the long run.  Just as importantly, students who are reprimanded for not sitting still or for being unable to leave a task they like are praised for their learning.  These students become leaders, helping other children who are not as kinesthetically gifted.

1/3 of US children are good readers as reading ability declines

One third of US  fourth and eighth graders scored in the “proficient” range or higher for reading, according to a nationwide test given earlier this year.  Two-thirds of US students are reading at either a basic level or below grade level.

These findings come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test sometimes referred to as the nation’s Report Card because it samples students in fourth and eighth grades across the country.  Its results were announced today.  Evaluating progress in reading and math, these tests have been given since 1994.

Reading scores across the US fell in more than half the states in 2022, with no state showing good improvement, according to the test results.

These test results are the first since the pandemic closed schools and led to online learning for many students.  According to the test, 66% of fourth graders and 69% of eighth graders scored below a proficient level in reading.

Test results vary greatly by location, though factors leading to these differences can be complex.  Even so, here are results, state by state, showing proficiency levels.  Proficiency means “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter,” or high achievement.

Proficiency levels in reading, 2022

State 4th grade 8th grade
National Average 33% 31%
Alabama 28% 22%
Alaska 24% 26%
Arizona 31% 28%
Arkansas 30% 26%
California 31% 30%
Colorado 38% 34%
Connecticut 35% 35%
Delaware 25% 24%
Dist. of Columbia 26% 22%
Florida 39% 29%
Georgia 32% 31%
Hawaii 35% 31%
Idaho 32% 32%
Illinois 33% 32%
Indiana 33% 31%
Iowa 33% 29%
Kansas 31% 26%
Kentucky 31% 29%
Louisiana 28% 27%
Maine 29% 29%
Maryland 31% 33%
Massachusetts 43% 40%
Michigan 28% 28%
Minnesota 32% 30%
Mississippi 31% 22%
Missouri 30% 28%
Montana 34% 29%
Nebraska 34% 29%
Nevada 27% 29%
New Hampshire 37% 33%
New Jersey 38% 42%
New Mexico 21% 18%
New York 30% 32%
North Carolina 32% 26%
North Dakota 31% 27%
Ohio 35% 33%
Oklahoma 24% 21%
Oregon 28% 28%
Pennsylvania 34% 31%
Rhode Island 34% 31%
South Carolina 32% 27%
South Dakota 32% 31%
Tennessee 30% 28%
Texas 30% 23%
Utah 37% 36%
Vermont 34% 34%
Virginia 32% 31%
Washington 34% 32%
West Virginia 22% 22%
Wisconsin 33% 32%
Wyoming 38% 30%




1651 book titles targeted to be banned in 2022

Efforts to ban books in US libraries have reached an all-time high with 1651 books targeted so far in 2022, according to the American Library Association, a group of librarians and library professionals.  In 2021 there were 1597 such titles targeted.  PEN America, an organization advocating for literary freedom, concurs.  What is different in 2022 is the increased organization of the groups wanting to ban books and the targeting of not one book at a time but of whole groups of books.

Targeted books fall into three groups, according to PEN America:

  • 41% contain material related to LGBTQ issues or characters,
  • 40% contain main or important characters who are not white, and
  • 21% address racism.

Most of the efforts to ban books have been led by about fifty groups, many  formed in 2022.  Social media is helping to spread the message and to propagate  groups like Moms for Liberty whose branches are popping up all over the country.  Conservative politicians seeking public office are also demanding that books be banned.

This 1,000-piece puzzle by Re-Marks Puzzle shows 55 covers of books that have been banned at various times in the US .

In addition to books targeted because of their 21st century gender content and racial content, many so-called “classic” biographies and novels have been targeted.  Here are some examples:

  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

One Texas library has even removed the Bible from its shelves.

This display in my neighborhood bookstore shows banned books.

Celebrate Banned Book Week September 18 to 24 by reading a book, banned or otherwise.


Two games make phonics fun for beginning readers

With young students, games are the easiest way to maintain interest and learn at the same time.  I’d like to suggest two games to teach beginning reading (CVC words).  Neither game is new, but both attract youngsters, from my experience.

One game is BLAH BLAH BLAH Word Game, Level 1000.  This game consists of three sets of playing cards, color coded according to level.  Each card consists of one word printed in the middle, and individual letters of that word printed in the corners.  A player needs to match one letter on a card in his hand to one letter on the face-up word in the middle of the table (hat and tug, for example).

This game has three levels:  CVC words; CVC words with blends; and words with long vowels (oa, ai, ee, oo, etc.).  It does not include words ending with silent e at the 1000 level.  When a player matches a letter, he must place his card over the face-up word already played and read the word aloud.  The next player must match one of the letters on the just matched card.  However, other cards (skip a turn, take four cards, change order) allow a player without a match to play.  The first player to play all his cards wins.

I have played this game with an about-to-start kindergartener, who sounds out each word as he plays.  He uses the “joker” cards strategically to stop a player from winning or to enact revenge on a player who interferes with his goals.  But it could be used with a child learning his letters but not yet able to read words.

The only drawback I have found is the size of the cards.  For little hands, regular-sized playing cards are too big to fan.  Too bad the deck isn’t smaller-sized.

The other game my almost kindergartener and I like is Zingo!  Each player receives a BINGO-like card with six words printed on it.  However, one of the letters of each word is missing as in “_ig” or “c_t.”  A player must take letter tiles distributed from a machine-like device and use them, one at a time, to create words by covering the blank spaces on his card.  Consonants are black and vowels are red.  The first player to cover his card wins.

This game offers two levels, one on each side of the BINGO card:  CVC words and CVC words with blends.  The machine-like device which distributes the tiles is attractive to little hands, and can easily distract a youngster from the purpose of the game.  This game is harder than the previous game since it requires the child to read several incomplete words at each turn and to try to figure out where placing a tile makes sense.  For beginner readers, this requires help.

I like to use games like this at the end of a lesson to extend the lesson time.  Little kids have short attention spans, so ending a lesson with games like these continues the learning.

Do typefaces specifically designed for readers with dyslexia really help them to read faster or better? 

My honest answer is that I don’t know, and I won’t be able to know until  more rigorous research is conducted.

The designers of new fonts for dyslexic readers start with the underlying belief that dyslexia is a visual problem.  Change the font to aid the eyes, and dyslexia goes away or at least decreases.

But others say dyslexia is not an eye problem but a brain processing problem.  For them changing a font is a simplistic and perhaps useless approach to a complicated brain problem.

Because type faces meant for readers with dyslexia are new (most not yet ten years old), more research needs to be done to see if they have any significant effect on reading ability.  In the meantime, some adaptations that help all readers can help dyslexic readers:

Use generous spacing between lines of type (called leading), between words, and between letters.

Avoid italic type faces.

Choose typefaces with letters perpendicular to the horizon (not slanted and not curvy).

Use sans serif type faces, those plain type faces without the tiny projections at the ends of letters.Use larger type, including type which shows the middle parts of letters larger in proportion to the ascenders and descenders.

Use strong contrast of black (not grey) lettering against a white background. Avoid white lettering against any background.

Provide good back lighting on a computer screen or with high wattage bulbs in old fashioned reading lamps.