Category Archives: ABC’s

How to know ahead of time if a child will do well in reading, part 2

In our past blog, we discussed one of the two best predictors of later reading achievement, an awareness of letter sounds, based on the research of Dr. Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University.

Today we will look at the second predictor, an ability to rapidly name objects.

Do you remember the story of Helen Keller, the blind and deaf child, who with the help of a gifted teacher, Annie Sullivan, learned to read and speak? Her progress began when one day she recognized that water has a name. From that “Eureka!” moment, Helen realized that everything has a name.

A toddler goes through the same process of learning that everything has a name. This happens at about 18 months when various parts of the child’s brain work in sync to integrate concepts. First, the child names concrete things (what we call nouns), such as Mom, Dad, cat, and dog. Every day the child adds new words, many of which come from the books read to him.

A little later, a child begins to name letters. This activity is sophisticated. The child realizes that those abstract shapes we call letters mean something. One time my friend offered a two-year-old a small stuffed animal which she had received at a fast food restaurant. The toddler looked at the tag on the toy and said, “Chick-fil-A.” Of course he couldn’t read, but he recognized the familiar shape of the letters on the red background.

Learning to recognize letters and numbers and to give them names is the beginning of reading. Here is how you can help a child learn to name things.

  • Play “Simon Says” so that the child learns her body parts.

Simon says Put your left arm up

  • Play “I see something. . .blue” so that the child needs to name objects in the room, in the car or in the grocery store.
  • Teach your child the ABC song, making sure she eventually learns that “elemeno” is actually four separate letters.
    child making the letter T
  • Point to familiar letters in unfamiliar places, such as the first letter of the child’s name in a sign or on a cereal box.
  • Read to your child. For the youngest children, let them absorb the pictures and name objects in the pictures. For three-year-olds and up, read the words, using your finger to point to the words as you read.

For a well-prepared child, reading doesn’t begin in school. It begins years before.

Is there any way to know ahead of time if my child will do well in reading?

Yes. According to Prof. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, the two best predictors of later reading achievement are

  • an awareness of separate sounds (42 in English) and
  • the ability to rapidly name objects.

Today we’ll discuss sound awareness.

When I was a high school student studying French, I used to lie in bed listening to a Montreal radio station. I would try to figure out where one word ended and the next word began.  This same skill is what babies do when they listen to adults talk to them although they don’t realize it. Luckily for most babies, their mothers or caretakers speak slowly and distinctly and repeat words over and over.

With time toddlers begin to hear parts of words and realize that some words have one part (for example, Mom) while other words have more than one part (for example, Grandma).

Still later, usually around age four, children learn their ABC’s, not understanding what they are all about. But with instruction, they learn that each sound in English corresponds to a letter or a pair of letters in the ABC’s.

How can you enhance your child’s success in reading?

Make your child aware of words, syllables and individual sounds.

  • Encourage prereaders to write using invented spelling, advises Dr. Wolf. When the child writes, he sounds out a word and uses the letter symbols which seem appropriate. The “words” might not conform to proper spelling, but that is not the point. The child is working to figure out sounds, a skill he will need in order to read.Girl reading "inventive" writing of younger sister.
  • Encourage the child to listen to someone reading nursery rhymes. Then encourage the child to say the rhymes herself, advises Dr. Wolf.  Take “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” for example.

The itsy bitsy spider
Climbed up the waterspout.

Down came the rain
And washed the spider out.

Out came the sun
And dried up all the rain.

So the itsy-bitsy spider
Climbed up the spout again!

  • Notice how “itsy bitsy,” “waterspout” and “out,” and “rain” and “again” rhyme. Notice the repetition of the word “rain” and the emphasis on the words “down” and “out.” Other nursery rhymes show alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds). When children listen to these sounds they learn to discriminate among similar sounds, figuring out what sounds the same and what sounds different.
  • Research shows that exposure to rhymes and alliteration helps children to figure out sounds and later, to read.

In our next blog we will discuss the other predictor of reading achievement, the ability to name.

Is recognizing patterns important for little kids?

I was working with a rising first grader over the weekend, using a hands-on parts-of-speech activity to help kids learn nouns, verbs, article adjectives, etc. The student’s job was to manipulate the parts of speech words over the appropriate words in printed sentences. For example, in the sentence, “The stinky dog farts,” the student put the word “article adjective” over the word “the,” “adjective” over “stinky,” “noun” over “dog,” and “verb” over “farts.”

Young boy sorting buttons.

Click graphic to enlarge it.

In a few minutes, however, my student did what all my students seem to do: she organized piles of the word “noun,” piles of the word “verb” and piles of other parts of speech. “That’s not important right now,” I told her, but she persisted as if the organizing of like words became as important to her as identifying parts of speech.

So what?

Recognizing patterns is a skill all human beings do. When doctors listen to the complaints of patients, they hope to find patterns to identify ailments. Quilters repeat sizes, shapes and colors to create pleasing arrangements. Mozart repeated patterns in his music for harmony and to tie elements together. When I was a three-year-old, I would sort my grandmother’s box of buttons by color, or by size, or by the number of holes in each button. There is something about being human being that seeks out patterns.

Finding patterns in groups of words helps children to read. I was working with a four-year-old this weekend, using letter tiles to construct letter sounds which when moved close together, created words. I said the sounds for “c,” “a,” and “t,” slowly moving the letters representing those sounds closer and closer until the child could say “cat.” When I took away the “c” and put a “b,” the child quickly said “bat.” For other words—“hat,” “rat,” and “sat,” she was even quicker. She had recognized a pattern in those words and realized she didn’t need to figure out the middle or ending sounds because they stayed the same.

Later a child will learn how patterns are important in alphabetic order; or how words with the same roots show a pattern in meaning; or how most words which end with –ly are adverbs. He will learn that stories show a familiar pattern—beginning, middle, and end, or that in fairy tales with princesses, “they all lived happily ever after.” He will learn that pronunciation of words follows patterns as do spelling rules most of the time.

If you are looking for fun pattern-building activities to do with your child, I recommend you check out the Reading Rockets website which suggests four easy activities to do with your preschooler to develop pattern thinking. This site also lists and describes five picture books which focus on pattern thinking. While you’re there, look at some of the other great information Reading Rockets provides for parents and teachers of young children learning to read.

How can I test my child’s basic reading skills so I know what skills he has mastered and what ones he needs to learn?

If your child knows a little bit about how to read, but you are not sure how much or where to begin, I came across a series of tests that might help you.

Mother sointing to Letters on flash card and asking, "What does the letter sound like/"The tests are from a 1981 book by a Montessori educator, Aline D. Wolf.  She wrote Tutoring is Caring for tutors of students who are experiencing difficulty in learning how to read.  Here is what she suggests, updated by Mrs. K to suggest online resources not available 32 years ago:

First test—recognizing sounds.  With a deck of ABC’s (available where school supplies are sold) or letter tiles (Scrabble pieces or letter tiles sold as parts of games) or an online site of moveable ABC’s, ask the student to say aloud the sound each letter makes.  The order of the ABC’s is irrelevent.

You might think, “Johnny can already read some words.  I can skip this step.”  Don’t.  Your child might have memorized the look of certain words the way a two-year-old can recognize “McDonalds” without being able to read.  Or he might have had a certain book read to him so many times that he can say the words from memory.  Test the letter sound of every letter.

A word of caution:  Test the letter sound, not the letter name.  This is not a test of ABC’s.  It is a test of the sound that the ABC’s make.  For vowels, listen for the short vowel sounds.

Another word of caution: Certain letters—a, g and q—can be written different ways in different type faces.  The child needs to recognize the common ways these letters are written as well as recognizing capital and lower case forms of every letter.  If you are writing the letters yourself, show all the common ways these letters are represented, but in general, use the letter form children use when they print.

If the child knows none or few of the letter sounds, begin by teaching some consonants that are generally pronounced the same all the time.  You don’t need to teach them all before you begin the vowels.  Teach ones that look different (not both “b” and “d,” or “m” and “n” or “p” and “q”).  You might start with “b,” “g,” “n,” “s,” and “t,” for example, and then add a short vowel sound (not i or e for starts since they sound so much alike).  From these few letters you can form words and show the child how words are formed.  He should be able to maneuver the cards or tiles or online letters to form words and to pronounce them.

Second test—combining the sounds.  Once the child knows the alphabet sounds, ask her to construct words by moving the cards or tiles around.  Have the child use all the letters.  If this is difficult, brush up on the sounds she finds troubling and try again.

Third test—reading simple words with short vowel sounds.  Create a list of CVC words and ask the child to read them.  You can find lists of such words online, or you can create your own list.  Try to use all the letter sounds.  If the child can’t read these words with ease, Wolf suggests preparing color-coded word lists (which our blog will explain soon).  If the child can read these words, move on to the fourth test.

Fourth test—reading words with blends.  Create a list of about 25 short-vowel words with blends at the beginning, at the end, or both.  If the child cannot read these words, go to the color-coded word lists.  If the child can read these words, move on to the fifth test.

A word of caution:  Blends are two or three consonants which together sound exactly like they sound when used separately.  The “s” and “t” in “stop” sound like they should in “sit” and “Tom.”  Don’t introduce digraphs at this point, that is, two or three consonants which, when used together, create a completely new sound.  The “t” and “h” in “the” do not sound like a “t” and “h” in Tom and hen.

Fifth test—reading short vowel words with two syllables.  You can find word lists online, or in some workbooks, or you can create them yourself.  Make sure each syllable uses a short-vowel.  Blends are okay.  If the child can’t do this, Wolf suggests a method to teach two-syllable words which our blog will talk about soon.  If the child can read these words, move on to the sixth test.

Sixth test—reading words with digraphs or unusual consonant sounds.  Now introduce a word list of about 25 words that uses sh, ch, th, wh, qu, ck, tch, ce, ci, ge, gi, gy, and other unexpected consonant pairings.  If the child can’t read these words fluently, a future blog will explain what to do.  If he can read the list, move on to the seventh test.

Seventh test—reading words with long vowel sounds.  This list should consist of about 25 one-syllable words with various patterns of long vowels—a silent “e” at the end; twin vowels side-by-side; two different vowels side-by-side, including “y”; “-ight,”  “-ild” and “—ow.”  If the child has trouble, then begin teaching long-vowels; if not, proceed to the final test.

Final test—reading words that cannot be pronounced using rules of phonics.  These words are exceptions to every rule—“should,” “was,” “mother” and “do,” for example.  They are sight words whose sound must be memorized.

If the child can score well on all these tests, and the child is still having difficulty reading, Wolf suggests that the problem is not decoding.  It might be fluency, phrasing, or comprehension.

Is there a low tech, inexpensive way to teach my children their letter sounds?

I’ve had success teaching reading to brand new readers by matching pictures to the correct letter using homemade flashcards.  Both native English speakers and ESL preschoolers have found this a fun way to learn letter sounds.  It can be done in five minutes here and there, making it a good way to teach children with short attention spans.

Child sorting picture flash cards to match with the letter B.

To enlarge the picture, click on it.

I suggest you try this method:

  • Cut some index cards in two, each about 3 by 2 ½ inches.  Or use the index cards whole if you prefer.
  • On ten or twelve blank cards, paste pictures of words which begin with the same consonant sound, such as the letter “b.”  Use pictures of a ball, a balloon, a bear, a banana, a ballerina and others until you have about ten to twelve cards with “b” pictures.
  • On another ten or twelve blank cards, paste pictures of words which begin with other letters, such as an apple, a cat, a dog, a kite and a piano until you have about the same number of cards as “b” cards.
  • On one blank card write or paste a capital B and a lower case b, “Bb.”
  • Lay the card labeled “Bb” on a table.  Shuffle all the picture cards, or let your child do that.  The more she can participate in the process, and eventually control it, the more likely she is to be eager to play the “game.”
  • Now taking one card at a time, have your child say the word of the picture.  Emphasize the “b” sound for her, and ask her if the card starts with a “b” sound.  If so, tell her to put the card next to the “Bb” card.  If not, tell her to put the card a little distance away.
  • Keep doing this until you have gone through all the cards and made two piles of picture cards.
  • With practice, your child will be able to match the words to the letter quickly.
  • After she has mastered “Bb,” make a set of cards using another consonant sound.  You can keep the same set of random cards or add to them.  Some of the random cards will eventually become the letter cards, so you need to add to that group of cards as you develop more letter cards.
  • Begin with the 16 consonants which almost always sound the same:  (Bb, Dd, Ff, Hh, Jj, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Pp, Qq, Rr, Tt, Vv, Xx and Zz).  You don’t want to  do the ABC’s in order, starting with Aa.  Begin with any of the consonants I just listed.  If the child’s name is Tom, start with “Tt.”  If it is Hannah, start with “Hh.”
  • Try not to use pictures of words that start with blended sounds.  For example, don’t use “blue” or “braids” yet.  Later, after the child is sure of the single sound of a letter, you can start combining letter sounds.
  • Don’t start with a consonant that has multiple sounds, such as Gg, Ss or Cc.  For starts, choose letters and words that follow the rules of phonics.  Try to reduce confusion as much as possible.
  • Also, don’t start with vowels.  I teach vowels slightly differently.  I’ll tell you about that in my next blog.

Perhaps this sounds like too much work?  I use the cards over and over with new reading students, so for me the time it took to make the cards was well worth it.  If you have more than one child, you too can reuse the cards, and if you laminate them, they last forever.  (Laminating is expensive, but clear packing tape protects the cards well.)  And the cards are easy to make.  I made mine while watching TV.

In addition to being low tech, the cards are an inexpensive method to teach sounds.  A pack of index cards; old books, magazines or stickers to use for pictures; and tape together probably cost a few dollars and can be used to create many sets of cards.

How about you?  Were you taught your letter sounds by another low tech method?  How are you teaching your children their letter sounds?  Tell our readers by clicking the comment button.

Why is reading such a complex skill?

According to an April 2000 study ( researched by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (a division of the National Institutes of Health) and the federal Department of Education, there are four main components to reading, each of which can be further divided.

Chart of 4 reading components

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

The first component is systematic phonics instruction.  The study defined phonics as how a letter corresponds to a sound in English, and defined systematic phonics as planned, sequential letter-sound instruction.  Some English letters have one corresponding sound (such as most consonants like b and d).  Some letters have two sounds (hard g and soft g, for example).  And some letters have many sounds (vowels and y).  Most systematic phonics instruction begins with teaching consistent consonant sounds and later moves on to vowels with multiple sounds, and then to consonants whose sounds change in combination with other letters (th and kn, for example).

Another component is phonemic awareness.  Phonemes are the smallest units of spoken English, 41 in all, represented by one or more of the 26 letters of the alphabet.  Some words have one phoneme (oh, for example, has the one phoneme o) while most words have two or more phonemes (go, for example, has two phonemes, g and o, while style has four phonemes, s, t, i and l.).  Putting together the phonemes to form words is an important component of reading.

Fluency is the third component.  The federal study defined fluency as reading aloud with speed, accuracy and proper expression.  When a child pauses at a comma or period and changes his pitch if he is reading a quote from a mean witch or a baby duck, that child is showing fluency.  Children who ignore punctuation or who read in a monotone or who plod along do not show fluency.

Reading comprehension, the fourth component, is perhaps the most complex.  It involves understanding vocabulary in the context of a text.  At the same time, reading comprehension means a student is actively engaging with a text so that the student can draw meaning.  If a child can read “trek” but does not know the word’s meaning, comprehension is limited by the lack of vocabulary but not by phonics or phenomes.  If a child can read a text but has little interest in the subject, and reads in a monotone, the child’s comprehension may be limited by fluency or passivity.

Adding to the complexity of reading is that all four of these skills work in unison as a child reads.  When a child is reading words accurately; when that child is grouping words in phrases and sentences with proper inflection; when that child is moving at a moderate rate; and when that child is laughing or questioning or pausing to consider what might happen next, that child is truly reading.

Do electronic games teach kids how to read?

A father of a four-year-old told me his son recently said, “Dad, I know how to spell exit.  E-X-I-T.”

“You’re right.  How did you learn that?” the father asked.

“Easy,” the child replied.  “Playing Mario.”

Seated young boy is playing a portable video game..

Click on picture to enlarge it.

The father explained that the boy is crazy about Mario games.  He can read little words, but not big ones, so sometimes he pauses the game and asks his father what a particular word means.  “He wants to know all the words so that he can beat the game,” the father explained.

So eager is the boy to win the games that on his own he learned how to navigate to YouTube on an iPad and typed in “Mario” and “Super Mario Bros. U.”  Then he listened to college kids commenting on how to win the games.  “He picked up the lingo and improved his vocabulary,” said the father.  And he won the games.  Now he wants to teach other little kids how to win the Mario games which are the rage at his preschool.

This child has been raised with electronics.  At two he received a Leapster and a dozen games, some of which taught letter recognition and small words.  On the family iPad he routinely searches Google for tips on playing Mario games.

Kneeling young girl is playing a portable video game.

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

Sometimes he finds what he thinks might be useful information, but he can’t read it, so he and his father read it together.

Similar to how bilingual children merge words from one language into another, this child mixes “electronic” terms into his “analog” life.  On a family vacation his grandfather was reading a book to him when his mother called the child for a minute.  “Pause it, Grandpa,” the four-year-old said.  “Navigate” is as natural to him as “go.”

How about your child?  Has he or she learned how to read from playing electronic games?

Can flashcards be used with preschoolers? If so, how?

I have worked successfully using flash cards with three and four-year-olds.  The children were learning the alphabet.  I used a deck of cards with all 26 letters printed on them, plus pictures of words which begin with each letter.  Here’s how you might use the cards:

Child holding a pile of flash cards that she's studied and now knows.

Click on the picture to enlarge.

  • Use flash cards to recognize the names of the A, B, C’s.  For very young children, start with just a few cards (such as the letters in family names, Mom and Dad).  Later increase the number of letters until all 26 could be identified.
  • Use flash cards to recognize the sounds of the A, B, C’s.  Start with a few cards whose sounds the child already knows and add more until all 26 letter sounds can be identified.
  • Use flash cards to pair letter names and sounds.  Once the child knows the names of the A, B, C’s and the sounds individual letters make, shuffle the cards and pull them one at a time for the child to identify both names and sounds.  Resist the urge to place all the cards face up on a table.  For some children, seeing all 26 cards at once is overwhelming even though they know the letters and sounds.  Showing one card at a time is not so intimidating.  Start small.
  • Use flash cards to order A, B, C’s.  Taking a handful of cards at a time (A to E, for example), place them face up in mixed order on a table.  Let the child arrange the cards in order.  Sing the ABC song slowly with the child if she hesitates.  Then add another set of cards (F to J, for example) until all the cards are in proper order.
  • Use flash cards to identify a letter and its sound with a word.  It’s important for the child to memorize a word which comes to mind immediately for each letter.  This will be useful when the child is beginning to sound out words.  When learning with vowels, choose words that begin with short vowel sounds.  For example, A is for apple, E is for egg, I is for igloo, O is for octopus and U is for umbrella.
  • Flash cards are also useful for learning sight words.  Not all tiny words follow the rules of phonics (the, as, of, is, was and they, for example).  Yet children need to be able to recognize these words to read.  In many kindergarten and first grade classrooms, teachers have lists of these words on the wall for students to use when writing.  Manufacturers sell boxed sets of commonly used sight words too.

How can I help my child not to mix up b and d?

When children are learning the lower case alphabet, they frequently mix up certain pairs of letters:  p and q, g and q, l and I, and especially b and d.   This is normal.  As they get experience, they recognize differences in these letter pairs.  But mix-ups with b and d might linger well into elementary school.

b sees dOne solution is to tell the child that b and d look at each other.  Draw the letters with the b loop facing the d loop, and put dark irises in the loops.  Tell the child that b comes before d in the alphabet, so when looking at b d, b is the first letter and d is the second letter.

two hands making letter b, d with a bed spelled out between the thumbs.Another way to handle the b d problem is to have the child make fists with both hands while holding up the thumbs.  When the child looks at his left hand, it looks like the letter b with the thumb the stem and the fist the loop of the letter.  When the child looks at his right hand, it looks like the letter d.  Now tell the child to bring her fists together until they touch and to look at the shape.  Her hands should look like a bed with the thumbs the bedposts and the fists the mattress.  If the child knows the word “bed,” the child can easily figure out b and d.

What letter sounds should I teach first?

Suppose your child knows her ABC’s.  How do you start teaching letter sounds?  With vowels?  With consonants?  In ABC order?

Child seeing letter on dog's collarThe English alphabet includes 26 letters, of which 16 letters, almost always make the same sound.  If you begin teaching letter sounds using those letters there are advantages for your child.

  • These 16 letters follow rules for the sounds they represent.  A ”B,” for example, always sounds like a “B.”  An “M” always sounds like an “M.”  This predictability is reassuring to children who are deciphering the alphabet sound code.
  • Whether those 16 letters come at the beginning of a word, or in the middle, or at the end, the child can identify a consistent sound.  The “N” in “not” sounds the same as the “n” in “pencil” and the “n” in “pan.”  Compare that to a “Y” which has one sound at the beginning of words (such as “yo-yo”) and multiple sounds at the end of words (“party,” “boy” and “buy”) or no sound at the end of words (“day” and “key”).

It makes sense to begin by teaching letter sounds that follow rules.  It also makes sense to begin with letters that have meaning to the child.  If the child’s name is Pranavi, start by teaching the letter sound “P.”  If the child’s brother’s name is Bhavik, teach the “B” sound.

If the child can remember a particular letter with a particular word, the child can go to that special word to compare new words for sound.  “Z” is for zoo is great, but if the child’s brother’s name is Zachary, then “Z” is for Zachary might be more meaningful, and so more easily remembered.

The 16 letters that almost always make the same sound are B D F H J K L M N P Q[u] R T V X and Z.