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Category Archives: phonemes
You can teach your child to read. Start with a phonics assessment.
Are you are planning to teach your child how to read this summer, either starting at the beginning or filling in the gaps? If so, where do you start? I suggest you give your child a pretest to see what reading skills your child has learned well, and what ones he has not yet grasped. The words on this pretest are more or less divided into four kinds of words in this order: 1. Short (closed) vowel, one-syllable words. These include one- and two-letter words, words beginning or ending with blends and digraphs (black, church) words which end in twin consonants (fell, jazz), words which end in “ck,” and words to which an “s” can be added to make plural words or certain verbs (maps, runs). 2. Long (open) vowel, one-syllable words. These include words ending with silent “e,” words with double vowels which have only one vowel pronounced (goes, pear), and certain letter combinations (ild, old). They also include words with “oi,” “oy,” “ow” and “ou” letters. 3. Two– and three-syllable words which follow the above rules (catnip, deplete) and two- and three-syllable words which don’t follow the above rules but which follow a pattern (light, yield). These words include words with certain suffixes (le, ies) and words with a single consonant between two vowels (robin, motel). 4. Exceptions. These include words with silent letters (gnaw, lamb), words from other languages (debris, cello), and words which fit no pattern (business). Ask your child to read the words in the pretest below. Each row across tests a particular phonics skill. If you child hesitates at all, that is the place to begin teaching him or her phonics. I will talk more about how to teach these four groups of phonics skills in my next blog. Phonics assessment bad, hem, fit, don, pug, am, if, lass, jazz lock, Mick, bills, cliffs, mitts, catnip, Batman grand, stent, frisk, stomp, stuck chuck, shun, them, branch, brush, tenth star, fern, birds, fork, purr, actor, doctor, victor muffin, kitten, collect, pepper, gallon complex, helmet, falcon, napkin, after tantrum, muskrat, constant, fulcrum, ostrich skate, bike, Jude, mole, dare, shore, tire, pure need, cheer, aim, hair, bay, pie, boat, oar, Joe, low, soul fruit, few, child, blind, fold, colt, roll, light, high earn, worm, rook, pool fault, claw, all, chalk, Walt boil, so, pound, down comet, dragon, liver, salad, denim total, ever, student, basic, demon, vital apron, elude, Ethan, Owen, ideal, usurp inside, nearly, absent, unicorn, degrade, tripod advance, offense, fence gripped, planned, melted, batted, handed sweeping, boiling, thinning, flopping, biking, dating rapper, saddest, finer, bluest, funnier, silliest easily, busily, massive, active, arrive, wives keys, monkeys, armies, carried action, section, musician, racial, crucial, nuptials brittle, pickle, carbon, dormer parcel, decent, gem, urge, badge lose, sugar, nature, sure graph, Phil, then, moth bomb, thumb, gnat, gnome, high, sign whip, whirl, echo, ghoul, knee, knob could, calf, folk, hustle, listen, wrist alone, bread, bear, chief, young, squaw, swan, waltz, word decision, exposure, gigantic, polarize, occupant, quarantine If you want to help your child learn to read, one of the best things you can do is not to let him guess. Most words can be deciphered if the student has a phonics background. Also, don’t let your child depend on pictures for meaning once the child starts to read. Most adult reading material is not accompanied by graphics. Students must learn to gain meaning from the text alone. If you have decided to help your child read this summer, good for you. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to help your child read better. Years of research show that the best way to teach reading is to start with letter sounds (phonemes) and then to combine those letter sounds into words (phonics). If you do this in a systematic way, such as following the four-part sequence I describe above, your child will learn to read.
Largest US school system to change how reading is taught
With half its students unable to pass reading tests, the City of New York has decided to change the way it teaches reading.
Starting this fall in some schools and in the fall of 2024 in others, “the science of reading” will ground all reading instruction. This means that students will focus on learning sounds associated with letters (phonemes) and on joining those letter sounds (phonics) to form words.
Chancellor David C. Banks will announce the change today (May 9, 2023). He hopes the new approach will change the current outcome in reading instruction in which half the city’s third through eighth graders are not proficient in reading.
The city’s schools are divided into 32 local districts. Each district can choose one of three acceptable reading programs, all of which focus–to varying degrees–on phonics. Research has shown that a phonics-based approach to learning to read produces the best results for primary grade students.
The city’s principals’ union is opposed to a one-size fits all approach in the city’s 700 elementary schools. Teachers say they need training.
Local school districts within the city will have some choice in how to proceed. They must choose one of three reading programs: Into Reading, Expeditionary Learning, and Wit & Wisdom. They can and in some cases must supplement these programs with more systematic phonics instruction.
One advantage of the unified approach is to provide students who transfer from one New York school to another a single reading curriculum. Another is to follow the mandate of New York’s Mayor Eric Adams, who has dyslexia, to teach reading using a phonics-based approach. Still another is to provide teachers with materials that have been shown to work, so each teacher doesn’t need to seek materials independently.
The change will start this fall in city school districts showing the least proficiency in reading.
New York is the latest and biggest school district to show dissatisfaction with the way reading has been taught and to turn to a research-supported approach. Poor student performance on reading tests, parents’ demanding change after Covid 19 educational losses, and a growing cohort of students who cannot read are propelling changes in reading instruction throughout the US.
Reading instruction is finally catching up to research
Increasing numbers of state legislatures are mandating that a phonics-based approach be used to teach young children how to read. Not all states are on board yet, despite a massive study more than 20 years ago that culled research and concluded that teaching children phonemes (the sounds associated with letters) and phonics (assembling letters into words) is the most successful way to teach reading.
Beginning in 2014 in Mississippi, states have forced teacher training programs, school districts and public school teachers to switch to a phonics-based approach to teaching reading. Here are states* which have passed legislation mandating a phonics-based approach or strengthening laws already mandating such an approach.
- 2013: Mississippi
- 2014: South Carolina
- 2015: Nevada
- 2016: Michigan, Mississippi
- 2017: Arkansas
- 2018: Montana, Nebraska
- 2019: Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, West Virginia
- 2020: DC
- 2021: Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas
- 2022: Arkansas, Arizona, Kentucky, Utah, Virginia
As you can see, the number of states passing laws to require phonics-based reading instruction has steadily increased with the greatest increase in 2021. Educators surmise that because students were home for months in 2020 because of the Covid 19 virus, parents became more aware of how their children were being taught to read. As a result, they demanded change.
While not all states have updated their education laws concerning the teaching of reading, the trajectory is in that direction. Expect improved reading scores on national tests as students being taught using this approach infiltrate into higher grades. Mississippi has already noted this positive change.
*according to Education Week
Number of primary grade students reading at grade level declines in US
Almost a third of children in kindergarten, first and second grades were reading below grade level at the start of the 20-21 school year, according to research reported on earlier this month.
When first grade students were tested at the beginning of this school year, about twice as many as before the pandemic (school year 2019-20) showed kindergarten level or lower scores.
The federal government is spending billions to try to close the gap in student reading achievement. But the US lacks enough qualified reading teachers to do so. Nearly half of the public schools have teacher openings, many in the lower grades. These openings are due to resignations and retirement.
“Nearly half (44 percent) of public schools currently report full- or part-time teaching vacancies,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a part of the US Department of Education. Schools report that the Covid-19 virus prompted many of these vacancies.
Some of the federal money is funding a new phonics-centered curriculum called Fundations. Fundations is part of Wilson Language Training, a well-known program for teaching reading.
Government funded research more than 20 years ago shows that a reading program focusing on phonemes (sounds as represented by letters of the alphabet) and phonics (combining sounds and letters to form words) is a superior way to teach young children how to read.
Posted in phonemes, phonics, reading research
Teach 16 consonant sound-letter associations first, not vowels
If you are teaching your child to read, and you wonder what letters to begin with, choose the 16 consonants that almost always make the same sound at the beginning of English words. Those letters are b, d, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, t, v, x, and z.
Why these 16? These sound-letter pairings follow one-to-one logic. A d always sounds like a d when it begins a word. An r always sounds like an r when it begins a word. Later your child will learn that certain letters can represent more than one sound (all the vowels, for example) and that certain sounds can be represented by more than one letter (the z sound can be represented by z and s, for example). That can be confusing.
But for now, as your child learns to read, sticking to one-to-one relationships gives your child confidence. An m always sounds like an m. A k always sounds like a k.
Start with sounds that have meaning to children. If your child’s name is Marco, start by teaching the letter sound m, and tape Marco’s photo on an Mm card to hang on the refrigerator. If your dog’s name is Bandit, tape Bandit’s picture to a Bb card. However, don’t use pictures of words beginning with blended sounds (br as in Brian) or digraphs (sh as in Shelly).
Posted in consonants, digraphs, letter sounds, phonemes, reading readiness., vowels
Defining basic terms used to discuss reading
When you are learning how to teach your child to read, you need to familiarize yourself with a few words. If you read widely about reading, you will encounter these words all the time. But even if you don’t, understanding them will make reading instruction easier to follow.
One such word is “phonemes.” The smallest sounds we utter are called phonemes. About 48 such small sounds exist in standard American English. These sounds are not letters; they are sounds to which we pair letters in order to read and pronounce sounds. Some words such as eye have one phonemes (a long ī), but most words have two or more phonemes. Snow, for example, has three (s, n, ō). Putting together phonemes to form words is an important reading skill.
Another important word is “phonics.” Phonics means combining phonemes to form words. For example, the phonemes b, ă, and t combine to form the word bat. 250 letter patterns represent the 42 to 44 phonemes in American English. Most children cannot figure out phonics on their own. They need instruction to match a phoneme to a letter or to a pair of letters.
systematic phonics instruction
Systematic means that concepts are taught in a particular order. For example, phonemes which are always represented by a single letter such as b are taught before phonemes which are represented by more than one letter such as th. Short vowel words such as cat are taught before long vowel words such as bike.
For more details on the sequencing of learning sounds, go to http://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200901/BTJPhonologicalAwareness.pdf. While you are there, check out 1) the list of read-aloud books that emphasize sounds, and 2) activities you can do with a child who is learning sounds.
A vowel is the primary speech phoneme in every syllable (one vowel phoneme for one syllable). Vowel phonemes are made by the mouth without any blockage by the tongue or lips. Short vowel phonemes are the vowel sounds in Pat, Ben, Jill, Tom, and Bud. They are sometimes represented by a curve over the vowel. Long vowel phonemes are the vowel sounds in Kate, Eve, Mike, Joe, and Lou. They are sometimes represented by a straight horizontal line over the vowel. Other vowel sounds are also represented by a, e, i, o, and u, and by combinations of these letters. W and y can also be vowel phonemes in combination with other vowels or alone as in cow and by.
short and long vowels
Short and long are a traditional way to describe certain vowel sounds. Short vowel sounds can be said quicker while long vowel sounds take a fraction of a second longer to pronounce. In recent years, the terms closed and open are used the same way to mean, respectively, short and long.
A consonant is a speech sound made by partially blocking the air as you breathe out. Most phonemes are consonants, but they cannot be pronounced without connecting them to vowels. American English includes the consonant phonemes b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, and z.
Syllables are units of sound containing one vowel phoneme and usually one or more consonant phonemes. Mitten has two syllables: mit and ten. Robotics has three syllables: ro, bo, and tics.
Knowing these terms gives you a basic vocabulary enabling you to follow instruction about reading.
Learning through phonics is the best way to learn to read
If a child is having trouble reading, what is the most likely cause?
- Reliance on pictures for meaning?
- Weak word recognition skills?
- Reliance on context word clues?
Weak word recognition skills is the mostly likely cause, and because of that, students guess at words or search for clues from pictures and other words.
Weak word recognition skills means an inability to sound out the letters which form words. If a child comes upon a new word—for example, “trek”—and the child cannot sound out the individual letters, the child cannot read the word.
Since 2000 we have known that the most effective way to teach reading is through a system of associating sounds with letters and combining those letters to form words—in other words, a phonics-based approach. A National Reading Panel authorized and funded by Congress assessed scientific research on reading. The Panel’s goal was to determine the most efficient way children learn to read. The Panel concluded in 2000 that to read well, children should associate sounds of English (phonemes) with letters or letter pairs and to combine the letter-sounds into words.
The word “it,” for example, has two sounds, each of which is associated with a letter. The word “shop” has three sounds with “sh” corresponding to a single sound.
By deconstructing words into their basic sounds, children learn to sound out words. Without guessing, without context clues, without pictures, children can figure out how to read words. Even though there are some words which defy this sounding-out system (words like “one” and “two”), the vast majority of words in English can be sounded out.
The problem is, even though we know what works best, teachers are still asking children to guess at words, to look at pictures to figure out what words mean, to read other words nearby and use those context clues to figure out words, and to memorize the look of a word. In other words, some teachers are not teaching phonics as the primary way to learn to read. They are relying on methods which research shows do not work as well as phonics.
When I went to first grade, I was taught to read using a memorization approach. The first page of my first reader had the word ”look” under a picture. The next page had the words “Oh, look” with a different picture. The next page had “See, see, see” with another picture. It wasn’t until fourth grade that my teacher, Sister James Bernard, CSJ, offered lesson after lesson on phonics. What a revelation!
If your child hasn’t learned phonics, teach him or her. If your child is guessing at words, make him sound out each letter or each syllable. No guessing allowed! This is the surest way to create a strong reader.
Worth reading: The Settled Science of Teaching Reading*
I thought the time for discussion was over, that the correct way to teach reading had been established by research almost twenty years ago.
Apparently not. On social media the discussion continues. Is it better to focus on teaching phonics and how letter sounds form words or to focus on whole language (memorizing words and discovering meaning).
After a study of hundreds of research reports of how children learn to read, the US government reported in 2000 that the best way to teach English reading is to focus on phonemes and phonics first. Children need instruction on how sounds correspond to letters, and how combining those letters forms words. New readers also need to memorize high frequency words that don’t necessarily follow the rules of phonics (words like “was, ” “do,” and “the”).
According to the 2000 National Reading Panel, students need to learn five concepts relating to reading:
- Phonics (combining letters to form words)
- Phonological awareness (how sounds correspond to letters)
- Fluency (reading in phrases with appropriate stops and starts and with voice inflection)
- Comprehension (understanding what is read)
Decoding the language comes from studying phonics, phonological awareness and fluency. Combine that with vocabulary and you achieve the desired result of reading comprehension.
Yet research also shows that even today not all reading teachers know, or even if they know, apply the correct approaches to teaching reading.
If your kindergarten child comes home with lists of words to memorize, beware. If those words are sight words, okay. But the main focus of his or her learning should be how sounds correspond to letters, and how combining those letters forms words, and how combining those words forms sentences with meaning.