Category Archives: fluency

This Kid Can’t Read

Before you can help students to read, you need to know why they can’t read. An umbrella statement like, “This kid can’t read” is too broad to be helpful. You need to be more specific in identifying the problem. For example,

• Does she know how to read maps, charts, graphs and political cartoons?

• Can she decode CVC, CVCe and other one-syllable words?

• Can she segment and pronounce two-, three-, and four-syllable words?

• Does she struggle so much with decoding English sounds that she cannot take in meaning?

• Is her English vocabulary limited?

• Does she recognize prefixes, suffixes and root words?

• Does she apply punctuation when she reads?

• Does she read in a monotone without inflection or expression?

• Does she monitor her understanding as she reads, rereading whenever she realizes she doesn’t understand?

• Does she know how to use context clues?

• Can she predict what will happen next as she reads?

• Does she make inferences?

• Can she identify the main idea in a reading passage?

• Can she summarize a passage, paraphrasing?

• Can she distinguish between important details and less important details?

• Can she detect author bias?

• Does she know how to think deeply?

• Does she believe she can read?

Reading problems can be divided into dozens of smaller, specific problems. And those smaller problems can be tackled—and usually solved—by a skilled teacher using appropriate strategies.

Talk to babies, even before they are born

Recently I visited my two-month-old grandson for a week.  As much as possible, I held him.  And when he was awake, I talked to him.

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I would look into his alert grey eyes and jabber on and on—about the inch of snow expected, about a book I had read, about what a terrible burper he was.  I used the same adult vocabulary I would use to talk to you but perhaps with more inflection and facial animation.

His eyes would follow me but mostly he would listen—listen to me describing the soft, touchable fabric of his onesie, or listen to my theories about why he slept so little.  I would ask him questions. “What do you want for lunch?  Milk or milk?  Do you want to look over my shoulder or look straight ahead?  How’s your diaper?”  He stared back attentively at first, but by the end of the week when I would talk to him, he would smile, quiver and say, “oo, oo,” the only sound he could make.

Now there is research which confirms that babies not only hear before birth but once they are born, they prefer to hear the language they have heard in utero.  Above all newborns prefer to hear the voice of their mothers, but next in priority they prefer to hear the voices of people who speak the same language as the mother, voices with the same rhythms.

We know that phonemes—the basic sound units of language—can be recognized by new babies in the weeks following birth.  Previously it was thought that babies couldn’t recognize slight differences in language sounds until the babies were several months old.  But now we know that babies’ sound perception and preference begins in the womb.

How can we help new babies to develop language skills?

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  • Pregnant women should talk to their babies before birth. They should provide opportunities for unborn children to hear language spoken.  This can mean babies’ overhearing conversations between mother and father; it can mean babies’ overhearing phone conversations or radio news; it can mean babies’ hearing the mother talk to herself.  Little ears are listening, so we should give them language to hear.
  • Newborn babies are far from “empty-headed.” Already they have heard hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of spoken language, and have developed a preference for the language of their mothers.  Once born, babies are refining their understanding of that language’s sounds as they listen to their caregivers’ speech.  We should provide opportunities for babies to hear speech—while mothers are feeding babies, while caregivers are changing babies’ diapers, while grandparents are holding babies.
  • Babies’ brains are functioning at an abstract level from their earliest days. They hear phonemes like the sound of “m” in “milk,” and then hear that same “m” sound in “mom,” and learn that the same sounds are used over and over with different results.  Years later, they will take this knowledge and apply it when they learn to read.

Did you know that according to a 1995 study*, the most important thing we can do while caring for a child is to talk to the child?  Or that the three-year-old children of well educated, professional parents hear three times as many words as the three-year-old children of poorly educated parents?

In fact if you listen to the vocabulary of a child, you can predict his success in life.  That’s how strong the correlation is between vocabulary and career success.

Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk to your children, including your babies.  If you have never chatted with an infant, swallow your pride and allow yourself to seem foolish.  It’s one of the best things you can do to ensure your child’s future success.

*Hart, B and Risley, T.  (1995).  Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children.  Baltimore:  Paul Brookes.

When I work with my son on reading, should he read silently or should I interrupt and ask questions?

If you are working with your son, you should be involved.  What does an involved reading teacher do?

  • Before he reads a selection, you could read it, understand it, and preview it with your son. That does not mean giving away the ending if it is a story.  But it might mean explaining the setting or motivation of the main character.  In nonfiction, it might mean showing him a map or other graphic to make the reading easier to comprehend.

Tutor teaching a child.

  • Before reading, you and your son together could look at any graphics accompanying the article. You could ask him to interpret the graphics to be sure he understands the data.  You could ask him to read headlines and subheadings, and then ask him to predict what he is about to read.
  • If he has trouble pronouncing words or if he slurs big words, ask him to read a short section at a time aloud. Go back to the words he missed and discuss them, asking him to pronounce them, writing the words in syllables on notebook paper so he can see the structure of the word, explaining prefixes, suffixes or word roots.  If there are vocabulary words you suspect he might not know, ask him the meanings, and if he can’t explain them correctly, discuss their meanings.  Then ask him to read that part of the selection again.
  • Now ask him what it means. Don’t accept, “It’s about a farm,” but ask for more specific meaning.  “It’s about a small baby pig that a farmer is going to kill.”  Ask him if his prediction was right or should he change it.
  • Fluency can only be judged by a teacher if the child reads aloud.  Listen for pacing, inflection, changing of voice tone, loudness or softness.  If you know your child is a fluent reader, you needn’t have him read aloud often for fluency.  But if he is not a fluent reader, you might want to read a sentence at a time using fluency and have your child mimic you.
  • If you read along silently, and your child finishes a selection long before you do, probably he is racing. Ask him about the meaning.  If his answer is vague, ask him to read again but slower.
  • If your child is a competent reader, your job might consist of asking for feedback—orally or written. If your child is reading fiction, you might ask about setting, characters, theme, ups and downs in the story and the climax.  If he is reading nonfiction, ask for the thesis and organization of the article.  Ask a question which the article answers and let the student find and read the part which answers your question.
  • If you can’t be engaged with your child during the reading, you could leave questions to answer so you know the child has paid attention.

Good teachers interrupt when they hear mistakes or hesitancy.  They ask questions if they suspect the student is not understanding.

But if your son is reading strictly for his own pleasure, back off.  Maybe when the day’s reading is done, ask him what his reading selection was about or what he liked, but don’t pressure him.  If he is asking you questions like, “Hey, Mom, what does contentious mean?” or “Why do hunters want elephant tusks anyway?” he is doing what you want—consulting an expert when he doesn’t understand.

Can dyslexia be identified in a preschooler who can’t read yet?

Yes.  Check this list of indicators developed by Decoding Dyslexia, New Jersey.  But keep in mind that a child exhibiting one or two of the indicators isn’t necessarily dyslexic.  For example, almost all children learning their letters mix up b and d.  But a child EPSON MFP imageshowing several of the indicators might foreshadow problems learning to read or spell.  That child should be tested.

Dyslexia is defined as a neurological learning disability.  Children having difficulty with word recognition, fluency, poor spelling or decoding might be dyslexic.  The sooner it can be identified in a child, and the earlier intervention can begin, the better the chances that the child will learn to read.

A key indicator is family history.  If a parent or a sibling has had trouble learning to read, there is a greater chance that another member of the family will have trouble.

According to Decoding Dyslexia, New Jersey, Language indicators could include:

  • delayed speech
  • trouble learning the alphabet, numbers, and days of the week
  • difficulty rapidly naming people and objects
  • lack of interest in stories and books
  • mispronouncing words
  • difficulty using new vocabulary words correctly
  • trouble distinguishing words from other words that sound similar
  • struggling to identify or produce words that rhyme

Reading indicators could include:

  • difficulty naming and recognizing the letters of the alphabet
  • problems matching letters to their correct sounds
  • scoring below expected reading level for his/her age
  • trouble understanding the difference between sounds in words
  • difficulty blending letter sounds within words
  • trouble recognizing and remembering sight words
  • confusing letters and words that look similar
  • losing his/her place—and skipping over words—while reading
  • avoiding reading tasks

Writing indicators could include:

  • problems copying and writing at an age-appropriate level
  • confusing the order or direction of letters, numbers and symbols
  • spelling words incorrectly and inconsistently most of the time
  • a tendency to spell phonetically
  • poor ability to proofread and correct written work
  • handwriting which shows poor letter formation and placement

Social / emotional indicators could include:

  • Lack of motivation about school or learning
  • lack of confidence in learning
  • negative self-image compared to grade-level peers
  • expressing dislike for reading and other academic tasks
  • exhibiting anxiety or frustration

Other indicators could include:

  • poor sense of direction/spatial concepts, such as left and right
  • performing inconsistently on daily tasks
  • appearing distracted and unfocused

If your child shows some of these characteristics, don’t be discouraged.  Most children show some of them.  And if your child is dyslexic, there is so much you, as a parent, can do to prepare your preschooler to read fluently.  In the next blog we’ll identify some of those activities.

 

Should my kindergarten son read aloud to me? How about my third grade daughter?

Reading aloud to a parent or teacher has two purposes:  to show that the child can decode words properly and to show that the child can read with fluency.  If the child is learning English as a second language, showing proper pronunciation is also a purpose.

child with adult helping to read

First decoding.  Probably your kindergarten son is at the decoding stage, that is, learning how to link language sounds with letters to form words.  If he is at this stage, then yes, he should read aloud.  That way you can tell what he knows, what he needs more practice on, and what he needs instruction on.

If you know from previous reading aloud that your third grader has mastered decoding, then your daughter needn’t read aloud for that purpose.  You might sit next to her as she reads.  If she has questions about pronouncing an unfamiliar word or if she asks about the meaning of a new word, you can help.  Occasionally you might ask her to tell you what she has read to be sure she has understood.

If your older child comes to English from a second language, she might be able to pronounce words perfectly yet have no idea what they mean.  If so, ask her to underline words she doesn’t know so you can talk about them.  If there are context clues, you might help her identify them.  With such a child, you should work on vocabulary development.

As for fluency (reading at a normal speed with voice inflection, pauses for punctuation and emotion in the voice) the kindergartener and ESL child should read aloud.  Some readers who are at the decoding stage spend so much energy on decoding that they miss the meaning.  By listening to how you say a line and then mimicking the way you say it, the child can pull together decoding and fluency.

Your third grader should be able to read fluently within her head.  However, if you notice that your child has trouble with comprehension even though she can decode well, then her reading aloud could help you to figure out why.  Is she ignoring punctuation and lumping parts of one sentence with another?  Is she sliding over longer words without decoding them because she is lazy or in a hurry?  Does she have short term memory problems, allowing her to forget the beginning of a sentence or paragraph before she gets to the end?  Is her emotional voice flat?  Is she missing inferences?  Some of this you can tell by listening to her read aloud, and some by asking her about what she has read.

In general, newer readers should read aloud with instruction and monitoring while experienced readers should read silently.

Avoid the “summer slide” in your child’s learning

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.)

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.