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.

What does CVC mean?

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

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

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

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

The magic of snow

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

By Nicholas Powers, 6

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

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

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

Guess what we’ll be writing about next week?

World Read Aloud Day is today

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

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

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

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

Learning through phonics is the best way to learn to read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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