Category Archives: English grammar

Children learn sounds from big to small

children pronouncing elephantLittle children who are learning about sounds in words move from larger units of sound—phrases and words—to smaller units of sound—sounds within words and syllables.  Adults hear “On your mark, get set, go,” but a two-year-old hears “Onyourmark, getset, go.”  Children need to hear distinct sounds within words and to reproduce those sounds properly before they start pairing sounds with letters.

For this reason, most two-year-olds are too young to learn to read.  Even some five-year-olds might not be able to distinguish sounds within words.  In some countries, children don’t learn to read until they are seven. 

A good example of this is when children learn the ABC song.  Most three-year-olds can start the song with A-B-C-D. . .E-F-G-. . .H-I-J-K .  But when they get to L-M-N-O-P they sing L-um-men-oh-P or M-uh-let-O-P.  They don’t hear L-M-N-O as distinct sounds.

I still remember the day when I was in first grade when  my teacher taught my class the words of and the.  I thought, wow, those are two different words.  I didn’t know that.  I thought ofthe was a single sound.

Most two-year-olds are too young to learn to read.  Even some five-year-olds might not be able to distinguish sounds within words.  For this reason, in some countries, children don’t learn to read until they are seven. 

What can you do to help your child hear sounds more clearly?  Speak distinctly.  Slow down.  Face your child and let her watch your mouth when you talk.  When you hear her slurring sounds together which should be pronounced separately, don’t correct her but instead repeat the sounds properly.

While we’re on the subject of hearing words correctly, children will subconsciously learn the rules of grammar without instruction.  A four-year-old might say, “Mommy goed to the store,” properly making the verb past tense by adding the d sound to the end of the word without realizing go does not follow the rules.  Or he might say, “I amn’t done yet.”  He is learning contractions, not realizing that am can’t be contracted in the negative form.  Or a child might say, “Her said so.”  Objective pronouns are learned before subject pronouns.

To correct these mistakes, repeat what the child says correctly without comment on the error.  When the child hears words said properly enough times, he or she will say words that way too.


Parental expectations for ELL can be too high

How long should it take for an English Language Learner (a student learning English as a second language) to read at grade level?

Longer than many parents want.

I am working with an ELL fifth grader from another country.  I tested her by having her read a list of basic English words, all of which she said she knew.  Then I had her read passages at a second, third and fourth grade level, and answer questions.

What I noticed is that she could score 100% on the second and third grade questions, providing the questions were multiple choice.  If she had to write a definition, she could copy what the passage said, but she could not paraphrase the words.  If she had to write sentences in her own words, she couldn’t do it.  If she could say the sentences aloud rather than write them, she couldn’t do it.

This is typical.  Multiple choice responses are easiest since the answer is provided; you just have to identify it.  Putting ideas into your own words is harder because you must rely on vocabulary which might not be in the passage and you must create sentences, a task which calls on so many skills—vocabulary, grammar, syntax, subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, articles—the list goes on and on.  A person can learn to read English without learning to speak or to write, but in the US students are tested verbally and in writing, and of course both skills are needed for 21st century success.

Another factor to consider when judging how long learning to read will take is whether English is spoken at home.  For this student, it is not.  She cannot ask a parent what a word means.  She cannot hear proper pronunciation.  She is on her own.

Still another factor is the student’s motivation to learn English.  My student is motivated.  She focuses for the full hour we are together and completes her homework.

The mother of this student hoped that her daughter would learn to read quickly enough to be ready for fifth grade state exams in three months.  I told the mother that is unlikely, watching sadness fill her eyes.

Could it happen?  Yes, for an extremely intelligent and motivated learner living in an enriched English environment.  But is it likely?  No.  Becoming fluent in a language takes time, more time than many parents want.

What does sentence difficulty mean? I’ve read that Lexile scores predict the difficulty of a reading passage based on two things: word difficulty and sentence difficulty.

The number of words per sentence can be a measure of sentence difficulty. Sentences written for beginning readers usually contain a handful of words while sentences written for more proficient readers contain one, two or even three dozen words.

Stone Soup book cover• For example, take the first page of Spectacular Stone Soup, a novel often read in first grade. Here are the first page’s sentences and the number of words in each sentence:

Stacy Arrow hung her jacket on a hook. (8 words) Next to her Jiwon took off her coat. (8 words) Stacy pointed to a sweater on the floor. (8 words) “Whose is that?” (3 words) “No one’s.” (2 words) Jiwon shook her head. (4 words) “It’s been here all year.” (5 words)

• Now compare that novel for beginning readers to a novel for more advanced readers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Here are its first paragraph of two sentences:

Harry Potter book coverThe two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. (16 words) For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction. (32 words)

The type of sentence (simple, compound or complex) can be another measure of reading difficulty.

• In the Spectacular Stone Soup selection, each sentence is a simple sentence with one subject and one verb. Some of the sentences have a prepositional phrase; some have adjectives; some have pronouns, but because of the short length of the sentences and the way each sentence limits itself to one idea, comprehension is easy.

• In the Harry Potter selection, the first sentence is a simple sentence but there are two prepositional phrases and an adverb phrase. The second sentence is a complicated compound sentence. Its first clause begins with a prepositional phrase followed by a subject, verb and two adverbs, followed by a noun phrase and a prepositional phrase. Its second clause (after the semicolon) begins with a participle phrase and a subject, but then begins one predicate with a verb, direct object and prepositional phrase and then begins another predicate with a verb, gerund, adverb and prepositional phrase.  Each sentence contains more than one idea.

Word order can be a measure of difficulty.

• In Spectacular Stone Soup, all but one sentence begin with a subject followed by a verb, the usual word order in English. The exception is a sentence which begins with an easy prepositional phrase.

• In the Harry Potter selection, the first sentence begins with a subject and a verb. The second sentence begins with a prepositional phrase, but the second clause in that sentence begins with a participle phrase.

Pronoun antecedents can be a measure of difficulty.

• The Spectacular Stone Soup selection uses the word “it” to refer back to the sweater used two sentences earlier.  It also uses the word “her” to refer back to each girl, but that pronoun is stated in the same sentence as its noun antecedent.

• The Harry Potter selection in the second sentence uses several pronouns (they, their, other’s) to refer back to the noun (men) used at the beginning of the first sentence.  The pronouns are father apart from their noun antecedent.

Parts of speech used can be a measure of difficulty.

• In Spectacular Stone Soup, the words are nouns, verbs, articles, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns and prepositions. Most are one syllable words but a few are two syllables.

• The Harry Potter selection includes the same types of words, but additionally uses a participle used as an adjective and as a gerund. The passage contains a three- and a four-syllable word.

Coupled with word difficulty, sentence difficulty can make reading passages easy or hard to understand. Authors consider their audiences and their reading abilities carefully before deciding how long to make sentences, whether to make sentences quite simple or complicated, whether to use pronouns or to repeat nouns and whether to write sentences in typical subject-verb word order.

As we mature we want more complicated vocabulary and sentence structure to entertain us. In fiction the story comes first, but how much we enjoy the story depends on the crafting of the sentences by the author. In nonfiction, the facts come first, but again, how willing we are to read those facts depends on the skill of the author in using the components of language, including sentence structure.

When my first grader reads aloud he plows right through periods as if they don’t exist. When I ask him about what he just read, he has only a vague idea. How do I help him?

It sounds like your son might be having a fluency problem. Fluency is one of the four components of reading and involves three skills:

  • Accuracy—decoding the words to pronounce each one correctly.
  • Speed—reading at a pace which is fast enough to connect words into ideas.
  • Prosody—reading with expression so that the words and sentences sound meaningful.

Assuring he can pronounce most written words properly is the first step. Since you don’t mention pronunciation problems, I assume he can decode just fine.

dhild running with book in handsSpeed is the next consideration. Is he reading at a normal reading pace—not too slowly because he is stumbling over pronunciation, and not too fast because he is racing? From your question, I assume he might be racing and jumbling too many words together to understand them. Insist that he stop at a comma and a period, and if he forgets, stop him and ask him to reread the sentence. Then ask him what it means.

Lastly, listen for the way he reads. Does he raise his voice at the end of a question? Does he change the tone of his voice when the big bad wolf is talking? Does he say some words louder and some words softer to show he understands the meaning behind the words? If he is not doing this, he will have a more difficult time figuring out the meaning because he is leaving out emotion.

One key for you to know that your child is comprehending what he is reading is his use of inflection, that is, altering his voice in tone or pitch. Children who plow through sentences don’t inflect. They are reading too fast to decode and to inflect at the same time.

When a child first learns to read, accuracy is most important. But it sounds like your child is beyond this stage of decoding, at least with the kind of books he is reading.

How can you help him?

  • Make sure your child is reading books just slightly beyond his level of reading, not books too advanced for him.  Does he understand the vocabulary he is reading?  Does he understand the topics?  If not, comprehension will go down.
  • Consider reading aloud to him more, modeling inflection. Just because he can read alone is no reason why you should stop reading aloud to him. He still has so much more to learn about reading—vocabulary, for example, and making conversation sound real.
  • Is he allowed to stop reading when he has finished a certain number of pages? If so, he might be racing in order to end his reading session early. Change your strategy.  Ask him to read a certain amount of time no matter how many pages he reads.
  • Let him know he is going to need to explain what he has read when he is done, and if he can’t explain it, he is going to need to reread it with you. Needing to explain or redo will force him to slow down.

Another possibility is that your child is a high functioning autistic person.  People with autism can have high intelligence, but emotions baffle them.  Because they cannot “decode” emotions in their everyday lives, they cannot “decode” emotions in books, so stopping for punctuation might add no meaning to what they read.  If your child is autistic, early intervention can help.  Contact your school counselor or your pediatrician for an evaluation.

But from what you have said, I suspect your son is in a hurry and needs to learn that speed reading without understanding is a waste of his time.

My kindergartener wants to read chapter books. What features should I be looking for so she doesn’t get discouraged?

Congratulations! Some early readers are ready for chapter books, but that doesn’t mean all chapter books are right for them. Here’s what you should be looking for.

  • Characters whom the child relates to and cares about are really important. That means child characters, ones the same age or just a bit older than the reader, or characters who behave in child-like ways, such as Toad in the Frog and Toad series. The characters in books for young readers must be encountering situations that the reader can relate to—like Junie B. Jones fearing to take the school bus, or of Nate the Great visiting his friends’ houses in search of a lost cat.
  • girl reading Junie B. JonesCharacters should be different from one another—their names, gender, and personalities. Junie B.’s friend, Lucille, is prissy and wears pretty dresses while her classmate, May, is a tattletale. Frog’s friend, Toad is a short, brown scared follower while Frog is a taller, green, organized leader.
  • If the chapter book is part of a series, familiar characters or activities should appear. Children delight in recognizing these patterns. They know that when reading Nate the Great stories, for example, Nate always takes a break to eat pancakes. His friend, Rosamond, always appears with her four black cats. Nate’s dog, Sludge, helps him solve crimes, while another dog, Fang, always makes an appearance.
  • Asian girl reading book Plots should be straightforward with no flashbacks or complicated subplots. If the story concerns finding one of Rosamond’s cats, then that becomes the whole focus of the story. Good books remind children what they have learned. A character like Nate might think about the clues he’s uncovered, and a list of them might appear as an illustration. The plots are shallow and move quickly through a series of events.
  • Good chapter books for young readers should contain illustrations. A page of text will appear harder to read than a page with a line drawing on it. The drawings should provide additional information that the text might not dwell on. For example, drawings of Junie B. show her with fly-away hair and one sock up, one sock down, telling us in pictures about her personality. Illustrations don’t need to appear on every page, but more illustrations make the book appear easier to read.  Also, illustrations lengthen the number of pages, so the child thinks she is reading more than she actually is.
  • girl looking at book displayPicture books are printed with large type, but chapter books have reduced size type. To offset this change, good chapter books for young readers will increase the space between the lines of type and increase white space by making margins larger. This makes the text easier to read and the page “friendlier.” Good children’s books use dialog too. Dialog is usually short, so more white space surrounds it. Hyphenations will not be used at the ends of lines to split words, and sentences will end on the bottom of a page rather than being carried forward to the next page.
  • Discouraged child thinks there are too many words in a book she is readingThe vocabulary of chapter books for young readers should be easy enough to read so that the child can read for enjoyment, without help. New words can be introduced, but in context, and should be repeated during the story so the child can master them.
  • Sentence structure should be normal, that is, subjects followed by predicates. When complex sentences are used, the dependent clause should come second. That is the way children speak and write, so that pattern will be easy to understand. Sentences should be shorter than adults would expect. Not all sentences need to be short, but longer sentences should make sense on the first read through.

Right now I am working with a second grader who is reading his first chapter book, Charlotte’s Web. It was assigned by his teacher. Some of the characters’ names are similar (Avery, and Mr. Arable, for example). The vocabulary is advanced. The pig is called “radiant”; he is put into a “crate”; he is watched by “goslings.” For a suburban child, these words are mysterious. The sentence structure is too sophisticated. Even though Charlotte’s Web is an excellent novel, it is not an appropriate first chapter book for my student. He is not ready to read it without help.

In my public library, chapter books for elementary school aged students are grouped together. Within those books, some are labeled on the spine, “First chap.” Those books are perfect for children reading their first chapter books. Or if you are lucky enough to have a children’s librarian, ask her what books she would suggest. Or phone or visit your school librarian and ask her for help.

Hundreds of wonderful books are appropriate for your kindergartener. Good luck!

My child knows how to read pretty well for a first grader. Should I still read aloud to her?

Yes! Here’s why:

  • A child’s reading level doesn’t catch up with a child’s listening level until eighth grade, according to Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook. A younger child can appreciate a book she cannot read yet—the plot, the descriptions, the characters and the vocabulary—if an adult reads it aloud to her.

    Father reading to child and child asks, 'How old is Old McDonald?"

    To enlarge, click on the picture.

  • Reading aloud to a child attracts him to reading by himself. He takes pleasure from being read to, and will want more of that pleasure even if an adult is not available to read to him. He will delight in life-long reading.
  • Books contain rich vocabulary, words more numerous than what we parents say on an everyday basis to our children. Children learn the vocabulary from the books we read aloud because we pronounce the words properly and because we explain them to our children. With such a rich vocabulary they are better prepared to understand their teachers and the reading they do on their own.
  • In books read aloud, children hear more sophisticated grammar than they read in grade-level books. Subconsciously they learn good grammar.
  • Good books contain the kind of values we want to pass on to our children. Reading these books aloud offers opportunities to discuss these values with our children.
  • Reading to fidgety children increases their attention span. It gives them practice sitting and listening which they need to do in school to succeed since so much school instruction is verbal.
  • Read-aloud time is bonding time. Do you remember in To Kill a Mockingbird how first grader, Scout, would sit on her father’s lap while he read legal papers aloud? She didn’t care what he read. It was their special time together.

Do I say “red new book” or do I say “new red book”? Is there some rule to teach my daughter?

Royal Order of Adjectives SignYou say “new red book,” and yes, there is a rule. It’s called the Royal Order of Adjectives—an imperious name for an ordering system. The list below begins with adjectives placed farthest away from the noun (Determiners) to those placed nearest to the noun (Specifiers).

Determiners: Which one (the, a, an, my, her, this, that, these, those). Most singular nouns in English are preceded by either an article, a possessive noun or adjective, or a demonstrative adjective. Plural nouns do not use “a” and “an” but may use the other determiners.

Subjective description: (slow, ugly, easy, delicious) These adjectives can be considered opinions of the speaker or writer.

Size: (large, small, three-inch-long, two-liter) The hyphens are used to create words that don’t exist in English. Notice that every adjective is singular (three-inch, not three-inches) even if the word it describes is plural.

Shape: (round, misshapen, skinny, elongated)

Age: (new, antique, fifty-year-old) Notice that the adjective “fifty-year-old” does not put an “s” on year because all adjectives are singular. “My fifty-year-old brother” but “My brother is fifty years old.”

Color: (red, striped, mottled)

Nationality: (American, Asian, Indian)

Material: (cardboard, polyester, paper, metal)

Specifier: (rocking [chair], player [piano], Apple [iPhone])

Related to this idea of ordering adjectives is the question of which ones need commas to separate them. The rule is that if the adjectives fall into the same category (both colors, for example), then use a comma. If the adjectives come from different categories, no comma is necessary.

 Correct: My successful tall, willowy Korean sister travels often.

Most Americans cannot explain the rule of ordering adjectives. If they have heard the adjectives ordered correctly as children, they use that same order. They go by what sounds right, but they cannot explain it. ESL students who have not heard adjectives ordered a particular way may not know there is an order, and may order the adjectives arbitrarily. It is important for teachers and parents to point out to ESL students that there is a correct order.

Even preschoolers can be told to say “a new red bike, with the color red right next to the bike” so that they become aware that there is a right way to order words. Little children often use size and color to describe an item, so it is important to point out that size comes first, then color.

Some Americans put commas between all adjectives preceding a noun, and others don’t use any commas. More and more the practice in the U.S. is not to use commas unless leaving them out leads to confusion.

Try this quiz to see if you understand the Royal Order of Adjectives:

Adjective test

–Mrs. K