Category Archives: methods of teaching reading

When two letters equal one sound: teaching digraphs

mother works with child reading story bookWhen children learn to read using a phonics method, they start by learning that each sound has a one-to-one relationship with a letter.  This makes reading seem logical to little children.  See a B and say “b.”  As teachers we don’t muddy beginning readers’ thinking by telling new readers that some letters mean more than one sound or that some letters, when paired with other letters, make totally different sounds or that some sounds can be represented by multiple groupings of letters.  We save that for later, after children have “mastered” the concept of CVC words and blends.

But eventually children learn that written English is not as logical as it seems at first.  Most advanced phonics instruction begins by teaching children consonant digraphs, two letters which, when paired, represent a sound that neither of the individual letters represents.  The pairs which are taught first usually include ck, qu, sh, ch, and th.

If you find that children balk at learning this part of the “code,” this is normal.  A four- or five-year-old’s understanding of logic is not the same as an adult’s.  One-to-one relationships between sounds and letters makes sense to little children, but one-to-two relationships do not.

I recommend you start with one digraph per lesson.  Just like beginning-of-word blends are easier for children to learn than end-of-word blends, beginning-of-word digraphs are too.  The exception is “-ck.”  I  teach that while I am teaching CVC words containing blends.

But for other digraphs, I usually start with “sh” because there are lots of “sh” one syllable, short-vowel words such as shag, shed, shin, shot, and shut.  I try to make learning “sh” at the beginning of words a game, using letter tiles and BINGO cards with “sh” words.

After a student becomes comfortable pronouncing “sh” at the beginning of words, I move on to another beginning-of-word digraph.  The order isn’t important, but it is important that you constantly review the previously learned digraphs as you move along.  For children who find remembering difficult, it is especially important to advance slowly, spending a large part of each lesson reviewing.

When the student is reasonably secure with pronouncing these digraphs at the beginnings of words, I might tackle teaching how to pronounce digraphs at the ends of words, one at a time.  Or I might delay this kind of instruction, depending on how difficult it was for the student to learn the beginning of word digraphs.

Teaching silent E

Phonics instruction guides vary as to when to teach silent “e.”  Some suggest teaching it before teaching digraphs starting or ending one-syllable, short-vowel words.  Others suggest teaching silent “e” after teaching digraphs.

My best advice is that it depends on the student.  I have spent months teaching CVC words to a student, and thinking she had “mastered” that concept, started teaching silent “e.”  But when we reviewed CVC words at the end of the lesson, she pronounced all the CVC words as if  they were silent “e” words.

Yet I have taught another student who understood the silent “e” concept by the end of our first lesson on that concept. She could accurately go back and forth from CVC words to silent “e” words.  Some students recognize silent “e” patterns in a single lesson.  Some students take months.

I use letter tiles to write a CVC word like “cat” and beside it to write the silent “e” word “cate.”  I explain that the “e” is needed for spelling and to signal that the previous vowel is pronounced like its name.  I start with “a” vowel word pairs:  ban, bane; fat, fate; hat; hate; mad, made, etc.  If the child catches on, I move on to other vowels.  But if the child cannot go quickly back and forth from CVC words to CVCe words, I slow down and focus on one vowel, and one or two consonants after that vowel, such as “t” and “d” as in mat, mate; Nat, Nate; mad, made, and bad, bade.

As always with young children, I try to break up a half hour lesson with game-like activities to keep them motivated.  Even the quickest to catch on prefer to learn using games.

Should you take care to use only real words?  I use non-words all the time, but after the student has pronounced a non-word correctly, I mention that there is no such word.  This offers more pair combinations, especially for the vowels “e” and “u” for which there are not many silent “e” words.

 

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.)

Bob Books author dies

The author of one of the easiest-to-read and most popular reading series has died.

Picture of 9 Bob Book sets.

Click the photo for a link to the Scholastic selection of Bob Books.

Bobby (Bob) Lynn Maslen, 87, author of the Bob Books, died August 16 in Portland, OR, of Alzheimer’s disease.

Mrs. Madden created the first Bob Book in the 1970’s when she was teaching reading to preschoolers.  One day she took typing paper, folded it in quarters, and asked her students to help her write a story.

The result was the first Bob Book.  It comprised about 12 pages and used just a handful of letters which spelled CVC words.  “Mat sat.  Sam sat.  Mat sat on Sam.  Sam sat on Mat.”  Mrs. Maslen stapled the pages together and sent the books home with her students to reread and to color.

The illustrations were almost as simple as the stories.  Eventually, Mrs. Maslen standardized her books into three sets of 12 books each.  She printed hundreds of copies and packaged them into little sandwich bags for her students.

Demand for her books grew.  Mrs. Maslen’s husband, an artist, provided new drawings.  The books were published by Portland State University, then by the Maslens themselves, and later by Scholastic.  Today more than 16 million books are in print, according to Scholastic.

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.

The challenges of teaching an autistic child to read

One of my students is a primary grades student with autism.  She speaks in single words, much like a toddler.  Sitting still for her is hard , so she eats an apple or some Cheerios while we work.  But that diverts her attention.

Through previous years of schooling, she has learned her letter sounds and many CVC words.  After working with her on how to pronounce blends with CVC words and observing her for many lessons, I have concluded that my phonics work may be in vain.  She seems to have memorized all the words she recognizes.

So now I am bringing flash cards with pictures of items and their names on one side, and just the names on the other side.  I am attempting to increase her reading vocabulary using a few sight words during each lesson, a method which I know is less effective than phonics.

Working with her is discouraging because she cannot tell me what works and what doesn’t.  I must observe her behavior, and based on my findings, figure out how to proceed.

Although I have taught several children with autism who are less impaired than this student, I have not taken courses in this field of special education.  On my own I have researched how to teach reading to a child with autism.  I have found that

  • Some children with autism cannot learn to read using phonics, but some can.
  • Teaching nouns is easier than teaching any other part of speech.
  • If you are teaching action verbs, it helps if you “perform” the verb—jumping, waving, singing.
  • Reading factual information—nonfiction—works much better than reading fiction.
  • Reading about a child’s interests helps motivate a child for a reading lesson.
  • Forget inferences. A child with autism cannot pick up subtle clues.
  • Expect no questions.

With my young student, I have made some inroads.  She accepts me as a teacher, as someone who interacts with her weekly.  She enjoys reading words she knows and receiving compliments and high-fives from me.  She willingly starts each lesson though she says “all done” many times throughout.  She scatters my materials with a brush of her arm less frequently now.  She no longer screams during our lessons.

But have I taught her any reading?  I honestly don’t know.

Use cloze activities to test reading comprehension

If you are trying to assess whether your student, especially your English Language Learner, can understand what she is reading, use cloze activities.

Cloze activities are written passages with words left out.  Students need to supply the missing words.  Sometimes random words are omitted—such as every seventh word—and a blank space replaces a missing word.  Sometimes a particular part of speech is omitted.  Sometimes words that are important for the structure of a sentence,  like prepositions, are omitted.

Let’s take a paragraph and show several cloze variations which yield particular information about a student’s reading comprehension.

This morning, I woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with the new puppy.  Max was in a cage, so I opened it, and let him out.  Quickly I took him to the back of the yard where he knew what to do.  I threw a ball which he liked and a rubber bone which he didn’t like.  Then we came inside and I fixed him a simple breakfast.

Now suppose we leave out every eighth word of the above paragraph.  Here is the result.

This morning, I woke up early and _______ downstairs to play with the new puppy.  ________ was in a cage, so I opened ________, and let him out.  Quickly I took _______ to the back of the yard where ________ knew what to do.  I threw a ________ which he liked and a rubber bone _______ he didn’t like.  Then we came inside ________ I fixed him a simple breakfast.

Depending on the word choices the student makes, you can learn if the student understands the meaning of the paragraph.  You can ask her to justify her choice by explaining which context clues she used.

Now suppose we try a different cloze paragraph, this time leaving out all pronouns.

This morning, _______ woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with the new puppy.  Max was in a cage, so _______ opened _______, and let _______ out.  Quickly _______ took _______ to the back of the yard where _______ knew what to do.  _______ threw a ball which _______ liked and a rubber bone which _______ didn’t like.  Then _______ came inside and _______ fixed him a simple breakfast.

From this exercise, you can learn whether the student knows both subject and object pronouns and when to use them.

Now suppose you are testing appropriate use of articles.  You can remove all articles, and in addition, put spaces before all nouns or adjective-noun groups to see if the student knows whether articles are needed and if so, which articles are needed.

This morning, I woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with _______ new puppy.  _______ Max was in _______ cage, so I opened it, and let him out.  Quickly I took him to _______back of _______ yard where he knew what to do.  I threw _______ ball which he liked and _______ rubber bone which he didn’t like.  Then we came inside and I fixed him _______ simple breakfast.

If a student is studying vocabulary, a word bank can be supplied and from those words the student chooses words to fill in the blanks.

Before you use a cloze activity, know what you are testing for and then create or find a cloze activity which will yield that kind of information.