Category Archives: comprehension

7 symbols early readers can use to annotate texts

Annotating texts is an important reading skill.  Finding the main idea, identifying ideas which support that main idea, identifying facts (not opinions), discovering new or unusual words—as adults we know to look for this kind of information and to annotate it in the margins as we read.

But what if you are a beginning reader and can’t write words like “main idea” or even “fact”?  How do you annotate a text so you can go back and understand it better?

An elementary school in the Bronx has figured out how.  The school teaches preschoolers to mark texts with the following seven symbols.  (The meaning of the symbols follows.)   

Marking the text this way is part of Concourse Village Elementary School’s way of helping students understand what they read.  And it works!  88 percent of students scored at the advanced or proficient levels on the New York State exams in both math and English language arts in 2018.  That’s more than 40 points higher than the citywide averages.  To find out more information, go to an article in Edutopia at https://www.edutopia.org/article/driving-deep-reading-comprehension-k-5.

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).

 

 

 

Decoding or encoding to learn to read?

So often when people talk about reading instruction, they talk about “decoding.”  By “decoding” they mean looking at a written word, such as “cat,” pronouncing each letter sound or digraph, and putting those letter sounds together to pronounce the whole word, with or without meaning.  I teach many children who can decode words correctly, but who have no idea what those words mean.

This decoding process starts with a visual image of a word.  But as brain research teaches us, a better way to start the process of reading is with sounds.  To start with sounds, though, means to start not with decoding but with encoding.  “Encoding” means starting with sounds and joining them together to form words.

How would we teach reading by encoding?  We might show a picture of a cat.  Children would say, “cat.”  They would think about what a cat is. Then students would sound out the word “cat,” listening for and then saying the separate sounds in the word–“c,” “a,” “t.”

With decoding, students break apart an already written word.  With encoding, students construct a word orally from a spoken or pictured word.  With decoding, students start the reading process by using the visual center of the brain, the right hemisphere.  With encoding, students start the reading process with the listening and speaking parts of the brain, the left hemisphere.

What difference does it make?  Students who encode start the reading process with sounds.  As toddlers, we learn words—their pronunciation and their meaning—through listening and repeating the sounds we hear.  If those words are nouns, we usually see an image of the word as well.  Later, when we see a cat or talk about a cat, we remember the image, how the word was pronounced and how we pronounced the word.  We don’t remember letters because we didn’t learn “cat” using an alphabet.  “Cat” was not originally stored in our brains in alphabetic form but rather in sound-picture associations.

With encoding, after the student has practiced weeks or months of oral sounding out of words, a teacher would introduce the alphabet a few letters at a time, and immediately help students construct words they know using sounds they already know.  With encoding, the child creates meaningful words.

Recognizing sounds come first, not recognizing letters

Which comes first, reading or speaking?  Speaking, of course.  A one-year-old can say a few words, but hardly any one-year-old can read.  Most two-year-olds can say hundreds of words and can form tiny sentences, but hardly any two-year-olds can read.

Which comes first, recognizing sounds or recognizing letters? Recognizing sounds, of course.  A one-year-old can recognize and repeat the sounds of many words, but few one-year-olds can recognize letters.  A two-year-old knows hundreds of words, but hardly any two-year-olds recognize more than a handful of letters.

So if sounds and speaking come before recognizing letters and reading, why do some teachers teach the ABC’s first—recognizing visual “pictures” of sounds—rather than teaching the sounds of our language first?

Are we teaching reading backwards?

What if instead of teaching children to read “cat” using ABC’s, we taught children to read “cat” orally, with no ABC’s?  What if we taught children how to recognize the separate sounds that form words like “cat”?  What if we said “c-a-t” slowly, emphasizing the “c,” “a,” and “t” sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?  What if we asked preschoolers to break down little words like “cat” into their beginning, middle and ending sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?

This would be a radically different approach to teaching reading.  But this approach would align with what researchers are learning about how our brains learn to read.

The foundation of reading is not ABC’s.  The foundation of reading is sounds, sounds listened to by a child and sounds repeated aloud by a child.

How would that work in practice?

  • You, the teacher, would say, one-at-a-time, the 40-plus sounds of the English language. Your student would repeat those sounds, one at a time.  If some sounds were hard for the student to say, you would repeat those sounds and ask the child to repeat those sounds until you were sure the child could hear and pronounce those sounds correctly.
  • Next, one-at-a-time, you would say some tiny words and ask the child to say each word and to say the sounds in the word. You would model how to do this with many words until the child knew what was expected.  You would make it a game, looking around and saying the name of an object nearby like “bat.”  You would sound out the word slowly—“b,” “a,” “t”—and ask the child to do the same.  At first this might be hard for the child, but once she figures out what is expected, she would sound out words quickly.
  • With practice, the child would understand that individual sounds, when combined, form words. Only then would you introduce ABC’s.

Pronunciation of words is an important aspect of learning to read.  Our brains store the sounds of words just like they store the meaning and the look of words. In your mind, right now, as you are reading these words, you are saying the words, right?  And you are remembering the meaning of those words, though at this stage of your life, that might be so automatic that you are unaware of it.  Long ago when you were learning to read, it was the sound of the words which came first to you, long before you knew what the words meant or before you could decipher the letter patterns of words.  Sounds come first.

For more information, read the research of Linnea Ehri (2002).

How much do you know about teaching reading to little kids?

  1. Which should be taught first—blends at the beginnings of words (flag, stop) or blends at the ends of words (hand, fist)?

  1. Is it important for pre-K or kindergarten students to know their ABC’s in order?

 

  1. Which are the hardest vowel sounds for a child to distinguish?          A and E      E and I      I and O      O and U

 

  1. Do children who can name many items  read better?

family reading together

  1. Is the best way to teach reading to have the child memorize words so that every word becomes a sight word?

 

  1. Are all kids developmentally ready to learn to read by kindergarten?

 

  1. What two letters is a child most likely to mix up?

 

  1. If a child ignores punctuation, is that child likely to have reading comprehension problems?

young child attempting to touch his ear with opposite hand

  1. Is following your child’s teacher’s advice on how to teach reading a good idea?

 

  1. How many letter sounds does your child need to be able to hear and pronounce?

 

 

Answers

 

  1. Blends at the beginnings of words are easier for children to learn. So are single consonants at the beginnings of words.  End of word sounds are harder to hear.

  1. No, the order of ABC’s is not important until a child is old enough to sort words into alphabetical order—a second or third grade skill.

 

  1. E and I are the hardest. That is why it is better to teach CVC words with A, O, and U vowels first, and to spend more time teaching E and I words after the A, O, and U words are mastered.

 

  1. Yes. Research shows that the two best predictors of reading achievement are an awareness of letter sounds and an ability to rapidly name objects.

young girl with pencil in mouth

  1. No. The best way to teach reading is to use a systematic phonetic approach.  Eventually, the words we read repeatedly become sight words, but we need to know how to decipher new words, and to do that we need to understand the rules of phonics.

 

  1. No. Usually by age 7 most kids are ready to learn how to read, but even then there are outliers.

 

  1. Lower case b and d are the most mixed up. Some kids recognize the difference immediately, and others take years to discriminate between those two letters.

  1. Yes. Ignoring punctuation means ignoring meaning.

 

  1. It depends where you child’s teacher was educated. In 2016 the National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed the syllabi of teacher training programs in the US and found that 39% of the schools teach what the research proves.

 

  1. In most places in the US, 42 sounds comprise our spoken language. However, regional dialects can increase or decrease that number of sounds slightly.

 

How’d you do on this quiz?  Read comicphonics regularly to know how to teach your child reading based on what the research shows.

 

How to solve some behavioral problems masking trouble reading, writing

Hiding unpreparedness or lack of knowledge can become an art form for some students.  In the last blog we spoke of some of the ways students do this.  Now we will talk about how you can overcome these strategies.

You diagnose the reading problems.

Slurring over long words.  Assume the student needs advanced phonics instruction.  Work on dividing words into syllables and how to pronounce those words.  Work on prefixes and suffixes by separating root words.  Then discuss what each prefix and suffix means.  Put them back together again.  After four or five such lessons, ask the student to read a new passage and see if he still stumbles.  Ask about particular words which might be hard to pronounce or understand.

Speaking softly.  Ask other teachers if the student speaks softly in their classes.  If it is just in your class, there is probably no speech impediment.  Make sure there are no distracting noises.  If there are, move to a quieter spot to work.  Insist that the student face you when she speaks, and that she reads or speaks slowly.  Have her repeat if you still can’t hear her.  If this leads to tears, offer a moment for the student to collect herself, but keep going.    You could always bring a microphone.  Or bring a tape recorder and replay the student’s voice on “loud.”  The student needs to know the stalling tactic won’t work.

Rarely asking questions.  Turn the tables.  You ask the questions which you think your student should be asking.  Wait patiently for the answers.

Talking off-topic.  Interrupt Mr. Congeniality and say you would love to chat about your weekend after class.  Check your watch each time your student goes off-topic and make sure the student know you are adding that time to the original start time.  Continue to add minutes if the student interrupts.

Going last.  Mix the order of students if there is more than one, so the student who prefers to go last goes first or second.  If this is not possible, arrange your teaching time so you will have more than enough time for the one who desires a short lesson.

Needing to use the rest room.  If possible, five minutes before the lesson begins, call the student who usually needs to use the rest room and instruct him to use it now because there will be no time during the lesson.  If that is not possible, tell the student at the beginning of the lessons that there will be no bathroom break, and stick to it.  If the student still insists, time the student and make the student aware that you are extending the lesson by that amount of time.

Checking the time.  Tell the student he may not check his phone or watch during the class period.  Instead, you tell him every ten minutes or so how much longer the class will last.  Make sure he knows the time exactly when you begin—you could show him your cell phone—and show him the time again when class ends.

Coming to a lesson without workbooks, texts or homework.  If possible, before the lesson begins, remind the student what materials will be needed and tell her to get them now.  If that is impossible, tell the student as she approaches for her lesson that she has exactly 30 seconds to get what she needs.  Start counting aloud from 30 backwards.  Then add 30 seconds to the end of the lesson.

Your hope is that the student will improve his or her behavior.  If they do, say  thank you.  If there is another parent or a homeroom teacher whom the student respects, make sure you also let that person know the student’s behavior has improved.  Always spread good news.

Identify the main idea with a colored pencil

I find colored pencils or highlighters are so useful when teaching writing.  But they can be just as useful when teaching reading, especially if the same colors are used consistently.

Suppose you are teaching students to identify the main idea in a reading passage, and that the students are reading from a source which they can mark.  First, have students read a passage.  Then help them discover the main idea.  Instruct them to underline or highlight the main idea with a particular color, such as red.  Later, whenever you are working on main idea, ask students to identify it with a red underline.

Sometimes a whole sentence is a main idea, but sometimes the main idea is not identified so neatly.  Sometimes a phrase can be underlined.  Or sometimes the student needs to write the main idea over the title using red ink if it is implied but not stated directly.

Many times all or part of the main idea is repeated in paragraph after paragraph.  Students need to know that the main idea is often repeated, and they need to identify examples of it by underlining those repeats with their red pencils.

What if you are teaching supporting details?  A different color—say orange—could be used to underline supporting details.  If the main idea in a Cinderella story is that Cinderella wants to go to the ball, then all the details helping her get there should be underlined in orange—the fairy godmother, the pumpkin carriage, the mice footmen, the ball gown and of course the glass slippers.  Even the clock striking is an important detail.

Almost every reading test asks for the main idea.  Students need practice, lots of practice in all kinds of reading materials, to identify the main ideas and the details which support the main ideas.

If you are consistent with your color choices, students will get used to seeing their reading through the colors they apply.  And if you are checking to see if students are identifying correctly, all you need to do is look for the color red or orange or whatever color scheme you decide on.  Walking around a classroom, you can easily tell if the students identify correctly, or if they are fooled.

You might be thinking, but students can’t mark textbooks.  True.  But so many schools today use workbooks in many subjects for each student.  Even if the purpose of a particular passage has nothing to do with finding a main idea—a science or math passage, for example—you can still use it to identify main ideas.