How to foster rich academic language

Academic language—the vocabulary and phrases we use to talk about what we are studying, such as “factor,” “amendment,” or “gerund”—begins early in a student’s life.  “Add” and “subtract” are academic words.  So are “vowel,” “consonant,” and “syllable.”

Today it seems there are more academic language words than when I was a student.  “Digraph” was a word I didn’t learn until I was an adult.  I didn’t need it.  As a student, I learned “blend” which meant both blends and digraphs.  I learned “evaporate” in high school when I studied the water cycle for the first time.  But my four-year-old grandson was taught evaporation in his preschool.  He explained: “The rain comes down and then it goes back up again.”

What can we do to help our youngest students become comfortable with academic language?  According to researchers Friedberg, Mitchell, and Brooke* we can do plenty.

We can foster a language rich environment, whether at home or in the classroom.  We can use precise, adult words which are just as easy to learn as “baby” words.  “Explain what you see.”  “What can you infer about the feelings of Cinderella?”

We can teach essential vocabulary, and repeat those words often so that students learn them.  “Before,” “during,” “next” and “after” are essential to describe sequences.  Synonyms and antonyms need to be taught.  “Sufficient” means “enough.”

We can teach words showing shades of meaning.    An “incident” is a small “event.”  A “catastrophe” is a big “problem.”

We can teach content area words.  In a math class, we can teach “addend” and “sum.”  In a reading class, we can teach “sentence” “fragment” and “run-on.”

We can model the use of academic language.  We can say “spider” and “insect,” not “bug.”

To reinforce meanings, we can show photos, draw pictures and use diagrams.  We can post graphics on the refrigerator or bulletin board for students to scrutinize up close.

As students become a bit older, we can teach root words, prefixes and suffixes to show word relationships.  “Un” means “not” so “unhealthy” means not healthy.  “Ful” at the end of a word turns a noun into an adjective, so “grace” becomes “graceful.”

We can model self-monitoring of comprehension.  We can read a sentence or a paragraph and then paraphrase aloud what we just read to prove we understand it.

*“​Understanding Academic Language and its Connection to School Success​” (Friedberg, Mitchell, & Brooke, 2016).

 

 

 

Do dyslexia-friendly fonts help people to read?

The answer is no, according to Guinevere Eden*, Ph. D., director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University Medical Center.

According to Dr. Eden, scientific studies on these kinds of fonts in 2016, 2017 and 2018 show these fonts to have “no measurable benefits” in helping people to read.

What are “dyslexia-friendly” fonts?

  • These fonts use thicker lines or curves in some parts of letters, especially the parts which sit on the line.
  • These fonts slant letters slightly.
  • These fonts vary the length of letters with ascenders (b, d an h, for example) and letters with descenders (letters like g, j and p, for example.
  • These fonts leave extra space between letters.

To see an example of this type font, search for Dyslexie or Open Dyslexic.

*As quoted in Understood, available online at https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/dyslexia/dyslexia-friendly-font

Three reasons why singing helps kids learn to read

Why is some music more intrinsically interesting than other music?

A researcher did an experiment with a piece of modern music which did not repeat phrases.  The researcher “rewrote” the piece to repeat sections.  Nothing new was added, but certain parts were repeated, like the “Ee-I-ee-I-oh” in “Old MacDonald had a farm.

Then the unfamiliar piece was listened to, both in its original form and in its rewritten form.  The “jury” liked the rewritten part better.

Why?  Our brains love patterns, whether the patterns are parts of a musical piece or rhyming sounds at the ends of verses or the red and white stripes on a flag.

For children too young to read and for beginning readers, singing songs with patterns is an educational skill which can prepare them for later reading.

Why?

Suppose they are singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”  The first three words repeat, as do the words “Merrily, merrily, merrily.”  The repetition makes the words and the song easier to remember.  Remembering is an important reading skill—remembering sight words, remembering letter sounds, remembering word meanings, remembering the meaning of the beginning of a sentence when you get to the end.

In the same song, “stream” and “dream” rhyme at the ends of the second and fourth lines.  Rhymes like this are the earliest form of figurative language that children encounter.  Even little children can appreciate the cleverness of expressing ideas in rhyme, though they like rhymes mostly because rhymes make songs fun.

Patterns in songs help children recognize that songs have a sequence of expression.  We don’t sing “Merrily, merrily, merrily” before we sing “Row, row, row.”  There is a rightness and a wrongness of putting a song together.  Certain ideas come first and other ideas come later.  The same is true of stories.  A beginning comes before an ending.

Singing with your child is fun, but it is more than that.  It’s building a foundation for the child’s thinking and reading future.

How to stop or reverse the summer slide

Summer is a time when kids can lose some of their reading abilities if kids don’t read.  But it can also be a time of improved reading if kids read nearly every day.  How can you help?

Read to your child daily.  For prereaders, read picture books, asking questions to gain information from the illustrations.  For beginning readers, sit side-by-side with your child and let the child read to you.  Or if he balks, you read one page and he reads the next.  Older children love to be read to, so don’t stop just because they can read.

Ask questions while you read.  “Why did he do that?”  “What do you think will happen next?”  “Where did the story happen?”  Questions force the child to think harder about the text and to remember.  Ask questions after every page or two and at the end of the book.  This kind of questioning can help children strengthen their memory skills.

Pick a reading time and stick to it.  Usually right before “lights out” is a time when reading together can be habitual, especially if the child believes reading allows him to stay up later.  If the child doesn’t need to wake up early the next day, leave a pile of books in the bed for the child to finger through for an extra 15 or 30 minutes.

Take your child to the library.  Investigate books unlike the ones you have at home.  Use those books to expand your child’s knowledge about the world.  If one is about George Washington’s life, look for books on surveying or colonial life or false teeth.  Supplemental reading enriches and extends the ideas of one book.  You and your child can do this online too.

After you read a book together, close it and ask the child to retell the story.  Or let the child look at the pictures and retell the story.

Select a “word of the day” taken from the child’s reading. Write it on a few cards and put them on the refrigerator, on the kitchen counter, and on the car dashboard.  Use that word several times a day in sentences which the child can understand.  You can make learning the word a game.  For every time the child can tell you what the word means, she gets a sticker.

Draw pictures of words to help the child learn them.  You can put together weekly vocabulary books of the pictures drawn that week, and read them at night to help the child remember the words.  The more the child uses the words, the more likely the child will remember them.

For parents working more than one job or away from home for long hours, finding time for summer reading can be hard.  But if you think of it as a necessity for your child’s future—like brushing teeth or eating fresh fruit—you can build reading into your routine.  If money allows, you can hire a middle schooler or high schooler to come into the home and read while you prepare dinner or after the kids have had their baths.

If you have ever felt behind your classmates, you know how debilitating that feels.  Make a promise to hone your child’s reading summer skills so next fall he or she starts school on level or even advanced.  Your child’s triumphant smile will thank you.

Avoid the summer slide in reading

Research shows that students loose reading skills during the summer if they don’t continue reading.  Educators call this loss the “summer slide.”  It is most severe among low-income students who lose up to two months of reading skills.  Yet it is sometimes nonexistent among middle class students who make slight gains in reading during summer months.  Why the difference?

Summer slide (decline) of reading scores.

  • A study of 3000 sixth and seventh graders in Atlanta Public School showed that students who read at least six books during the summer maintained or improved their reading skills.  But students who didn’t read lost up to a whole grade of reading skills.  (B. Heyns, 1978)
  • A study of Baltimore students over 15 years found that By the end of fifth grade, Baltimore students who didn’t read during the summer measured two years behind their classmates who did.  They concluded that 2/3 of the reading difference in ninth graders can be attributed to reading or not during summer school breaks.  (K Alexander, D. Entwisle and L. Olson, 2007)
  • A study of students completing third grade who took part in their local libraries’ summer reading programs scored 52 Lexile points ahead of their classmates who did not. (Dominican University)
  •  Children’s absence from reading during the summer is a major hurdle for achieving good reading skills by the end of third grade.  (The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading)
  • The summer slide is cumulative.  Some estimate that by the end of high school the summer slide can account for up to a four year lag in reading achievement, and it can have an effect on high school graduation rates.  According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “one in six children who are not reading proficiently in 3rd grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers.”

So how can you combat the summer slide?

  • Sign your child up for your local library’s summer reading program, and make sure your child completes the reading.
  • Go to the library regularly and let your child select books she will enjoy.
  • Help your child to read a chapter book a week, or a picture book each night.
  • Encourage your child to read the newspaper, television guides, magazines and online articles.
  • Reward your child with a trip to the book store to select her very own book.
  • Read to your child every evening, and let him read to you.  Your reading will teach fluency and pronunciation, and establish the notion that reading for pleasure is fun.

(This blog first appeared on May 16, 2014.)

Teaching children to recognize syllables

Recognizing syllables can be difficult for some children.  Yet recognizing syllables is an important skill to learn to read more advanced words once children have mastered CVC, one-syllable words.  How can you help children recognize when one syllable ends and another begins?

Student holding paper and reading it as he is writing

You might start with compound words, saying “snowman” or “doghouse” aloud and asking where the first part of the word ends and the second part begins.  These need not be words a child can read yet, but words the child is familiar with.  You can find lists of such words by searching online for “compound words.”

Using such familiar words, you and the child can clap after each syllable.  The more senses the child uses, the more apt she is to remember the skill.  Clapping, listening and speaking uses three senses, increasing the odds.

Another approach I have seen some children use is to hold their lower jaw with one hand while saying a word.  Each time the jaw moves, that is a syllable.  This is harder than clapping I think, so I like the clapping method better.

When you introduce two syllable words to read, you might start with words which have a double consonant in the middle like “mitten” and “rabbit.”  The double consonants are a visual clue that one syllable has ended and another has begun.  I have seen children stop to clap for some words but recognize the double consonant rule immediately and not need to clap for those words.

Syllables are harder to recognize when there are two unlike consonants in the middle of a word such as in “often” and “under.”  I have seen first graders say the word correctly, pausing at the right spot to clap, and yet draw a line for the syllable break at the wrong spot.

If you are teaching a child who is having trouble figuring out where one syllable ends and another begins, slow down.  Give the child plenty of time to master this skill.  Use part of each reading lesson to reinforce this skill, moving from oral work with compound words to written work with double consonants to words with one consonant between two vowels.

Being able to read and pronounce longer words correctly depends on this skill.

 

Which to teach after CVC words—double syllables, double vowels or silent e’s?

Reading experts agree that CVC words—two consonants sandwiching a short or closed vowel—should be taught first to children who are just beginning to read.  The reason has to do with logic.  Almost all CVC words pronounce sounds in the expected way, that is, with a one-to-one correspondence between the sound and the letter representing the sound.  The few words which are exceptions to the rules—words like “was” and “gym”—are not taught yet.

Experts also agree that one-syllable CVC words containing blends in which each letter is sounded should be taught next.  Words with blends at the beginning, words like “spot” and “drum,” should be taught before words with blends at the end, words like “bend” and “lump,” because beginning sounds are easier to master than ending sounds.

Teaching reading in this order is important because most beginning readers are four to six years old, and their sense of logic does not allow for exceptions.  All red lights mean stop, no exceptions.  Every time Dad says “no,” that means no, no exceptions.  One plus one equals two every time, no exceptions.  Every “z” is pronounced “z,” no exceptions.

The problem for teachers is that after children learn CVC words, what kinds of words should they learn next?

  • Two syllable words containing two CVC segments (CVCCVC) such as “rabbit” and “Justin”?
  • CVCe one-syllable words containing a silent e at the end such as “make” and “kite”?
  • CVVC one-syllable words containing double vowels such as “Jean” and “boat”?

There is no correct approach after teaching CVC words.  Teaching two-syllable CVCCVC words maintains the logic of one sound per letter, but two syllables are harder to learn than one.  All those letters can look intimidating to a tiny child.

child with adult helping to read

CVCe words require that the last letter not be sounded, which breaks the rule of one sound per letter.  If lots of silent letters were not pronounced, this would wreak havoc in a child’s mind.  But since the same letter—“e”—is not sounded, this maintains a one-to-one logical relationship that is easy to remember.

The hard part of CVCe words is that the silent e changes the sound of the vowel to a long or open vowel sound.  Previously children needed to know five vowel sounds; to learn CVCe words they need to know ten.  (Actually, they need to know eleven if both sounds of u are taught.  In “mule” the u sounds like “yu” and in “tune” the “u” sounds like “u.”)

One child I taught could not make the transition from CVC to CVCe words even after several months of work.  She could remember how to pronounce either CVC or CVCe words, but when I mixed them, she could not go back and forth sounding the words correctly.

Learning CVVC words containing double vowels is readily grasped if the double vowels are identical, as they are when the vowels are “ee” as in “seen” and “deed.”  Usually when the vowels are different, as in “mean” and “read,” the second vowel is silent but its presence means the first vowel is pronounced like a long or open vowel.  The new reader needs to remember two ideas:  that the second vowel is not pronounced, and that the first vowel is not pronounced like a CVC vowel.  For some children this is difficult even if exceptions are not mentioned.

What to teach after CVC words?  The choice is yours, but each option comes with its difficulties for children.  I usually teach the silent e words next.  I have tried printing words with a shadowy “e” which helps children to remember not to say the “e.”  But when I take away the shadowy letter “e,” it is like starting over.  What I thought would be a short cut way to learn turns out to be a dead end detour.

One thing I have learned:  Integrating whatever you teach next with CVC words can take a long time.