Category Archives: literacy

The place of phonics in reading instruction

True or false?

  1. Speaking is natural. Reading is not.
  2. All students learn to read differently.
  3. Kids in early grades should receive explicit phonics instruction.
  4. About 2/3 of US fourth graders can read proficiently.

(The answers are at the end of this blog.)

How kids learn to read, how reading should be taught, and how teachers of reading should be taught are still controversial in the US. This is despite an 18-year-old exhaustive study of research on reading—the National Reading Panel— authorized by Congress in 2000 which found that phonics should be the basis of reading instruction.

Even with overwhelming research, many teacher training colleges do not teach would-be teachers how to teach phonics.  And so the graduates of those schools do not teach their students through a phonics-based approach.  As a result, 60% of US fourth graders are NOT proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Students who don’t read well by fourth grade

  • Are more likely to fall behind in other subjects.
  • Are less likely to finish high school.
  • Are more likely to be poor readers their whole lives.
  • Are more likely to be poor.
  • Are more likely to be imprisoned.

Scientific research shows that a phonetic approach to reading is crucial.  Our brains are wired to learn to speak and walk without instruction, but we cannot read without instruction.

Yet in 2016, the National Council on Teacher Quality, after reviewing the syllabi of US teacher training programs, found that only 39% are teaching their would-be teachers how to teach reading based on phonics.  This is 18 years after the US study was published!

In other words, teacher training school are either ignoring the research about how children learn to read or are willfully disregarding it.  And as a result, many students are not learning to read.

When I studied for my master’s degree in education in the early 1990’s, I took a reading course in which the instructor belittled the role of phonics in learning to read.  She said it was one of many factors, all about equal.  I thought phonics was fundamental, but I didn’t have the scientific research to back up my position.

But for the past 18 years we have had overwhelming research that shows that a phonics-based approach to teaching reading is what works best.

If your child is struggling to read, find out if his or her teacher is teaching reading using a phonics-based approach.  If you are taking your child to a tutoring center to learn reading, make sure the center is using a phonics-based approach.  If you are teaching your child to read, use phonics.

What do I mean by phonics?

  • Identifying the sounds of English. Sounds, not ABC’s, come first.
  • Matching those sounds with symbols (letters) which represent those sounds
  • Merging those sounds and symbols to form words.
  • Identifying patterns among the symbols (for example, an “e” at the end of a one-syllable word) which change or influence the sounds letters make.

(The answers are true, false, true and false.)

When a word has a single consonant between two vowels, sometimes (not often) the consonant goes with the first syllable.

Usually when a two-syllable word has a single consonant between two vowels, the consonant goes with the second syllable.  This pattern forms a first syllable ending in a long or open vowel.  Some words like this include

  • minus
  • tulip
  • pupil
  • motel

Because the majority of two syllable words with a consonant between two vowels follow this pattern, children should learn this as the rule before they learn exceptions.  Lists of words like this are available in many reading workbook series or online.

But students need to know that a few words don’t follow this rule of pronouncing the consonant with the second syllable.  Some words are pronounced with the consonant ending the first syllable and forming a CVC first syllable.

I have not found readily available lists of words like these, so I am including some here.

  • manic, panic, colic, comic, frolic, sonic, tonic
  • oven
  • Janet, planet
  • punish
  • olive
  • livid, timid, valid
  • delta
  • rebel, shrivel, level, civil, devil, hovel, Nevil
  • deluge
  • lizard, wizard
  • driven, given, Kevin, seven
  • second

To find if a word is an exception to the rule, have the student pronounce the word with the consonant starting the second syllable (following the rule).  If the student does not recognize the word, then have the student pronounce the word with the consonant ending the first syllable.  Many times this second pronunciation will make sense, but not if the student is unfamiliar with the word.  In that case, you will need to pronounce the word correctly for the student to hear and explain the meaning of the word to help the student remember it.

Which comes first—reading or writing?

For many little kids, writing comes first.  Not writing words but writing pictures to tell stories.

I was with a four-year-old recently, and listened as he explained his drawing on a white board in his house.  On the left were three smiling stick figures—a tall one who was waving, a medium-sized one with long hair, and a short one.  “That’s my dad, that’s my mom, and that’s me,” he said.

Next was what looked like a rocket ship in motion.  “We are flying,” he explained.

Farther along in the drawing was a circular object.  “That’s the moon,” he said.

“Are you going to the moon?” I asked.

“No!” he said, rather disgusted with my reasoning.  “We are going to Brazil.”

At the far right of the white board were the long-haired stick figure and the short stick figure, almost falling off the edge of the white board.  “Now me and Mom are in Brazil.”

This story’s ideas came from the child’s head—he will be traveling to Brazil soon with his mother—but also from the many books his parents have read to him (and the many cartoons he has watched).  From those sources he has unconsciously learned that stories are written in English from left to right; that they have a beginning, middle and end; that they are told in chronological order; and that they contain characters who do something.

This child can write his name.  He knows the alphabet in English and in Portuguese.  He can read some sight words in English.  But he cannot write a story in words.

Yet he can write a story in pictures, incorporating many of the fundamental aspects of story-telling.

So which comes first—reading or writing?

The younger the student, the shorter the reading lesson

Many four-year-olds can learn to read, but their lessons must be short and involve games and manipulatives to keep them engaged.

That’s what I have learned from many years of teaching little kids to read.  After about ten minutes, many little ones lose interest or become distracted.  Then it is time to stop or to move on to a different approach.

For example, last week I worked with a four-year-old girl who is learning to associate sounds with letters and to form her first CVC words.  The lesson was supposed to last 45 minutes, but after 30 minutes, she could no longer sit still.  Here is what we did in that half hour:

  • We began using letter tiles which she loves to touch. She would pull one of the 26 letters I had presorted and tell me the sound associated with that letter.  She knew all but two, “v” and “y,” so we set aside those two and every few minutes we reviewed them.
  • Next, we reviewed last week’s lesson, making CVC words with tiles the vowel “a,” words like “cat,” “man” and “bad.” For five minutes she participated, moving some of the letters herself, but then she noticed my necklace and wanted to wear it.  I let her, but from her attention was diverted.  After another few minutes we moved on.
  • I had created BINGO cards using CVC words, so her next task was to identify the word I said from among the nine words on her card. This worked for a few minutes, but then she became distracted by the BINGO markers themselves—pieces of plastic I had cut out—and she started making patterns with them.  Enough of that.
  • We returned to making words with the tiles to no avail. I cut the lesson short, grateful that she had worked for a half hour.

With a five-year-old last week, the situation was much the same.

child playing card memory game

  • I corrected the few pages of phonics homework she had done while she dumped a container of letter tiles and put them in ABC order, chatting all the time.
  • She told me the sounds associated with each letter, reminding me that “k” and “c” make the same sound. She gets mixed up with “g” and “j,” so we set them aside to review as the lesson progressed.  I pulled letters to make words with beginning blends, such as “smell” and “stun.”  She said the words but in a few minutes, she lost interest.
  • We moved on to a workbook in which she read tiny sentences using CVC and CCVC words.
  • Finally I dictated a few words with blends in them and she wrote them.
  • A half hour passed, the scheduled time for her lesson.  Now she got her reward:  time to build houses out of the letter tiles.

For all elementary school aged children I plan several parts to each lesson, but for the youngest, I need one activity for each seven to ten minutes to keep them engaged.

When is it most useful to discuss a reading passage with poor readers?

Is it most useful before reading? During reading? Or after reading?

During reading.

From my experience, engaging students while they are reading makes the greatest positive impact. It helps students pull greater meaning from the text they are reading, and it models the kinds of thinking good readers do.

What kinds of questions help?

• What does that mean? “That” could refer to a vocabulary word, a sentence or a concept.
• What is confusing or hard to understand? Often a teacher can tell that something the student has read confuses him, but the student doesn’t say so. Even if the student says, “I don’t know,” the teacher likely has ideas about what is difficult to understand. Identifying the problem—an idiom, a metaphor, a reference to another part of the text—and explaining it can be vital to the student’s understanding.
• Who is she? What is her relationship to ___? Sometimes poor readers fail to recognize relationships among characters or the role of a particular character in the text. Or they may fail to recognize that Jean Louise and Scout are the same person.
• What will happen next? Predicting shows students know enough of a story to say what is possible. Not being able to predict might indicate students are not following the plot or a character’s emotional response to a situation.

Modeling by an adult is important for struggling students. “Hmm. I wonder what Nate the Great will do next?”  Or “What is a spinning wheel anyway? I’ve never seen one. Have you?” Or “A red letter day? What in the world is a red letter day?”

Struggling readers need to see that asking questions while they are reading is not a sign that they are dumb; it is a sign they are intelligent. They need to know that good readers ask lots of questions as they read, and if they don’t know the answers, they find out—stopping in the middle of their reading to ask an adult, a dictionary or the internet.

Help! My daughter reads words backwards

My daughter was reading, “The cat saw catnip,” and she read, “The cat was catpin.”  She does this all the time, and she can’t tell the difference between “b” and “d” no matter how many times I teach her.  What’s going on?

Young child writing C-A-T.

There could be many causes.

Vision problems.  Some children have subtle vision problems not detected by distance charts.  You might have her vision tested by an eye doctor.

Directional confusion. This is a particular vision problem.  Can your child mimic your arm movements when she stands facing you?  Does she mix up down and up, and top and bottom?  Does she mirror write letters and numbers—writing a “b” for a “d”?Two fists with thumbs up and knuckles touching make letter "b" and "d" with a BeD visualized between the two thumbs.

Sequencing problems. Does she say “felt” when she reads “left” or “form” when she means “from”?  (I still do that when I am stressed.)

When a word ends with an “s,” does she say the word as if it begins with an “s,” such as saying “slow” when she reads “lows”?  Does she move words around in sentences, changing the word order?

Mixing up little words. Does she stick in articles (a, an, and the) where they don’t belong, or omit them entirely?  Does she substitute one small word for another, such as “and” for “a” or “for” for “from”?

Maturity.  How old is your daughter?  Every youngster I have taught reading to has had the problems you mention.  I gently correct the child when she makes a mistake, or I say “d” or “b” before she can read a word to help her.  Usually by the age of seven, these problems disappear.  If your child is four or five, these reversals are probably developmental.  However if your child is in first or second grade, you should ask to have your child tested for dyslexia.  Most public schools have reading experts who are trained to deal with these problems.

How to find the main idea in nonfiction articles

Understanding the main idea of a piece of writing is probably the most important aspect of reading once children understand phonics.  Yet many children struggle to find the main idea.  How can we help them?

  • Ask the children to read the title and any subheadings. Ask the children what those words mean.  Ask the children to predict what the writing might be about.
  • Ask the children to look at any graphics such as photos, graphs, charts, maps, diagrams or other nontextual information. Ask the children what they have learned from those graphics.  Ask them to predict what the reading might be about.
  • In nonfiction, the main idea is often expressed at the end of the first paragraph. Ask the children if the last sentence of the first paragraph tells what the main idea is.
  • In nonfiction, many times the first paragraph or even two or three paragraphs are a hook. They might give hints about the topic of the writing, but they might not tell the main idea.  Ask the children if that is the case with what they are reading.
  • In nonfiction, topic sentences often start the body paragraphs of a reading. Ask the child to read the first sentences of the body paragraphs.  Are they topic sentences?  If so, what is the topic that they are giving details about?
  • In the last paragraph of nonfiction, the main idea is often repeated. Ask the children to read the last paragraph and to identify the main idea if it is there.
  • Reading the first important paragraph (not the hook) and the last paragraph, one right after another, can sometimes help children to discover the main idea. Do both paragraphs talk about the same thing?  If so, what is it?

Some children will understand immediately while others will need many, many lessons focused on the main idea.  If children need more examples, more tries at figuring it out, make sure they get those extra examples and time.  Figuring out the main idea will be on almost every reading test they ever take from first grade to the SATs.

But more importantly, it is a life skill which they will need.