Category Archives: phonics

Ah ha!

My first grade grandson had an “Ah ha!” moment while reading to me this week.

He was reading a short chapter book especially meant for beginning readers.  Almost all the words were short-vowel, one-syllable words.  Many of them were repeated for reinforcement.  Most pages contained only four or five short sentences.  Every page had line drawings to give extra meaning.

Usually when he reads, he sounds out every word and then says the complete word.  But this time—except for unfamiliar words—he said aloud just the word, not the phonics within the word.

“Gramma,” he said, his eyes bright.  “I read fast!  I didn’t have to say all the letter sounds.  Did you hear?”

“You read great!” I said, and we high-fived.

My grandson didn’t know it, but he made a transition that all good readers eventually make.  Instead of reading individual letters, he read individual words and in a couple of cases, individual phrases.

When children are learning to read, we tell children to sound out words, not to memorize the look of words.  But in fact, when we encounter a word often enough, we no longer need to sound it out.  We recognize it from its appearance.

Elite athletes go through a similar phase.  A great diver doesn’t need to think about which way his palms are facing or which leg to lead his spring with or how to tuck his body or whether his feet are pointed at the same angle.  He has done the individual parts of the dive hundreds—thousands—of times and he has developed muscle memory.

As adults, that’s what you and I do whenever we read.  Unless we encounter an unfamiliar word, we recognize words and phrases and no longer need to read individual letters or even individual words.  We read chunks.

Test this idea on yourself.  As you are reading these words, are you pausing over each word?  Or are you reading chunks of words?  For example, in the second sentence, didn’t you read, “As you are reading—these words—are you pausing—over each word?”

I am so proud of my grandson’s progress in reading.  From the day kindergarten ended abruptly in March, he has continued to learn to read using a phonics approach.  How wonderful for him to recognize his own progress.  And how lucky for me to be sitting by his side when he did.

“How do I teach my grandson to read remotely?”

How do I teach my grandson to read remotely?” asked a grandmother. She plans to use Zoom, Facetime, and ready-to-go reading materials for an hour daily.  After testing the boy informally, she believes she needs to start from scratch to fill in any gaps in basic phonics.

Here is what I advised her:

First, buy two copies of “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Rudolph Flesch.  Send one to your grandson and you keep one.  Go to the back where there are lists of words.  Start on page one, asking the boy to pronounce the sound of each letter shown.  When he can do that, move on to the page of short a words.  Have the boy read the short a words, or a portion of them.

Reading lists of words is tiring, so do maybe ten minutes of such work and ask the boy’s parents to do another ten minutes at night.  Or read from the list at the beginning of the lesson, then do something else, and then come back to the list.  Move through the lists at whatever pace indicates that the boy is mastering the words.

Why use “Why Johnny Can’t Read” a 65-year-old resource?  The simple answer is because I know it works.  I have used this phonics-based resource for almost 35 years with native born children and with immigrant children.  All of them hated it, true, but all of them learned to read quickly.  There are other reading primers, but for me this is a tried and true resource.  It’s available in bookstores and online.

Second, buy two copies of “Explode the Code” workbooks 1, 1 ½, 2 and 2 ½.  (Eventually, buy the next sets in this series, but for starts, these workbooks are enough.)  This series teaches reading using a phonics-based approach.  Kids like it because of the silly illustrations.  Have the child start reading while you follow along on your copy, noting and correcting mistakes.  Eventually, the child might do some of the pages for homework or with his parents.

“Explode the Code” reinforces the harder work of reading lists of words.  It does not follow the exact sequencing of skills in “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” but you can adapt one to the other easily.

Why “Explode the Code”?  I have used this series with dozens of children, and all have liked the silliness of the drawings.  For children whose vocabulary is limited, the drawings and distractor words offer opportunities to develop new vocabulary.  There are other workbook series, but because of the humor and sequence of phonics development in “Explode the Code,” I like it.

Seated young boy is playing a portable video game..Third, buy a set of letter tiles.  You can use the tiles from a Scrabble game or from Bananagrams.  Or  use a keyboard.  What you want to do is to introduce, teach and review new concepts. using tiles or computer words.  If you are teaching short a, for example, manipulate the tiles so the child can see them to form “cat” and then “hat” and then “fat,” etc.  Changing the first letter while keeping the ending vowel and consonant is easier for beginning readers to decode.  Using tiles or computer-generated words enables you to go quickly.  Later, you can move from “mat” to “mate” or from “mick” to “mike” and back and forth quickly to show differences in spellings and sounds.

Fourth, recommend to the child’s parents that the child watch the Netflix series “Alphablocks,” an animated series using silly letter characters to teach phonics.  This British series offers tiny segments of  three or four minutes to teach particular phonics skills.  Even three-year-olds will learn to recognize letters from watching this series.  Older children will be able to read words as they pop up on the screen.

All of these materials are readily available, allowing you to start teaching immediately.  Young children need variety, so move from one resource to another every 10 or 15 minutes.  The younger or more distractible the child, the more necessary it is to have a variety of approaches—as well as learning materials the child can manipulate, like the tiles.

Reading lists and reading tile-made words or computer-screen words does not require the fine motor coordination some beginning readers lack.  When I use “Explode the Code,” for some children I allow drawing lines from words to drawings rather than writing words.  Keep in mind you are teaching reading, and even though it would be nice for the child to print the letters, or to spell correctly, that is not necessary to read.  For particularly uncoordinated children, I will write or draw or encircle providing they do the reading.  Anything to keep them reading!

Start each lesson with a quick—two or three minute—review of past work, slowing down if the concepts haven’t been learned.  Then introduce new work or repeat old work if that is needed.  At the end of the lesson, review the new work of the lesson.  Review, teach new, review again.

Finally, FYI, I am not being paid to suggest these particular products.  I am suggesting them because I know they work, they are available and they are affordable.

Please share your experiences teaching reading online.  That is the kind of information we are all wanting right now.

Review phonics by playing a card game

Looking for a fun way to teach or review basic phonics with your beginning reader?  Try the game “Blah Blah Blah” Level 1000.

This game focuses on reviewing three kinds of words:  three-letter short-vowel words (CVC words) like “bat” and “dig”; four-letter long-vowel words with double vowels like “mail” and “feet”; and words using digraphs like “catch” and “thick.”  The three types of words are divided into three color-coded groups of playing cards.

Each player receives seven cards.  One player lays down a card such a “big.”  The next player has to lay down a card containing one of those letters in the same position in the word, such as “hog.”  The player has to say the word aloud too.  And so on.  The winner is the first player to go out.

But strategy counts too.  Some cards allow players to force the next player to draw two or four more cards.  Other cards force the next player to lose a turn.

Because the directions are simple, kindergarteners can catch on in one or two rounds.  Without “cheating” by tenderhearted adults, the child can win.

Any time I can find a way to teach a skill through a game, I am all for it.  This game does that using a proven method—phonics—to improve literacy skills.

Add “Alphablocks” to your strategies for teaching phonics

If your beginning reader is enamored with all things technology, let me highly recommend a colorful animated series which teaches basic phonics.

Alphablocks

Alphablocks is a step-by-step reading program created by British literacy experts and award-winning web designers.  The “stars” consist of 26 colorful letter blocks with distinctive faces who jump, twirl, sing, and dance to form words like “hen” and “tub.”

The series is divided into five levels.  Level 1 teaches young viewers to recognize sounds associated with the most commonly used letters, creating short-vowel, one-syllable words.  Level 2 introduces the rest of the alphabet.  Level 3 teaches about “letter teams” or digraphs.  Level 4 teaches blends.  Level 5 introduces long vowels formed with “Magic E.”

Segments last about four or five minutes.  The innocent letter blocks find themselves in silly situations as they hunt for other letter blocks to help them form words.

I watched with my five-year-old grandson who read aloud the words as they  formed onscreen.  Even his three-year-old brother was engaged.  At one point I said, “Now I wonder what letter that is?” as a letter skipped across the TV screen.  “L,” shouted the three-year-old.  He was right.

We watched on Netflix, but Alphablocks is also available through YouTube, and apps can be downloaded free.  A companion series on numbers is also available for preschoolers and primary grade students.

For more information, go to https://wwwlearningblocks.tv.

 

Hooked on Phonics

When you are teaching a child to read, it is important to use supplementary materials.  One such reading instruction series is Hooked on Phonics.

Why I like and recommend Hooked on Phonics:

  • Book 1 of Hooked on Phonics teaches VC and CVC words, introducing short a, i, o, u, and e in that order. Most phonics instruction begins this way.
  • New words are introduced in rows of up to six words, often with fewer than ten new words per page. With lots of white space, the appearance of the pages is friendly.
  • The large typeface looks like children’s printing with the a’s and g’s easy to read.
  • Each new vowel sound is introduced with a vivid picture of a word which begins with that letter sound (although not many children today know what an ox is).
  • Hooked on Phonics intersperses 17 one- or two-page illustrated stories, throughout Book 1. The attractive stories are well-illustrated with humorous black and white line drawings.  The captions of the stories use mostly CVC words.  The stories continue through all five of the instruction books.
  • Newly introduced words are reviewed over and over.
  • Book 2 continues with CVC words, teaching beginning word blends, which continue the one-letter-to-one-sound relationship established in Book 1. This kind of logic makes sense to children.
  • Book 3 expands CVC words by introducing end-of-word blends; it also introduces a few suffixes like -ing and -ed, which create two-syllable words.
  • Book 4 introduces long vowels (silent e and double vowels)in one-syllable words.
  • Book 5 introduces two-letter vowel sounds (harder than Book 4 words), three-letter beginning blends (harder than book 2 blends), and soft c and g.
  • Students don’t need to write anything to use this series, a plus for students who balk at writing.

What I don’t like about Hooked on Phonics:

  • Book 1 introduces 44 sight words along with 168 VC and CVC words. In other words, about 20% of the words to be learned in book one are sight words, not phonics words.  With so much memorizing to be done, children might think memorizing words is as important as sounding out words.  This misunderstanding of how new words are decoded—memorized rather than sounded out—can inculcate bad reading behaviors in beginning readers.</li
  • The first blends introduced to children (ch-, sh-, and th-) are not blends at all. They are digraphs, letter combinations whose original sounds are ignored and replaced with new sounds. This  can confuse children who are learning that English is a logical sound system.  Teaching digraphs at this point does not make sense.
  • The reading books that accompany the series can be hard to read. One Level 2 book, for example, uses the words “detective,” “ghost,” “house,” “kitten” “thanks,” “meow,” “blanket” and “white,” words which are far beyond the reading ability of a child learning to form beginning blends in one-syllable, short-vowel words.
  • Some easy phonics rules (adding an s to form plurals, pronouncing double consonants such as -ll at the end of words as a single sound, and pronouncing -ck at the end of words as a single sound) are not mentioned. Why not?
  • Two- and three-syllable words are barely mentioned, and advanced phonics is not covered at all. In my teaching of reading, I meet children who learn phonics using one-syllable words only.  Yet children need word attack skills for pronouncing long words, for recognizing roots, prefixes and suffixes, and for spelling certain kinds of words.  Phonics for so many children stops before these skills are learned and guessing at words begins.

The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages of using Hooked on Phonics as a supplement to beginning reading instruction.  With online access now available for phones, computers and tablets, kids who are attracted to technology have a reason to like the series as much as their parents and teachers.

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?
  • Guessing?
  • Weak word recognition skills?
  • Reliance on context word clues?

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter LWeak 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.

Child with arms stretched out at his sides, forming the letter T.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.

Three cueing—a popular reading theory proven wrong by research

For almost twenty years we have known that the best way to teach children to read is by focusing on phonics—pairing the sounds of English with one or more letters and then joining those sounds to form words.

But in the US from 1967 to the beginning of the 21st century, another method was thought to be better, a method known as three cueing.  It was proposed by Ken Goodman, a university professor and noted reading expert, who believed that readers predict what words mean using three cues:

  • cues from the letters themselves;
  • cues from the part of speech the word could be;
  • and contextual cues from pictures, a sentence, or a paragraph.

Goodman said we read by guessing at words based on the three cues.  His ideas replaced the two reading methods then in use:  memorizing whole words as in the Dick and Jane books from the 1930s (“Oh look.  See Spot.”) and using phonics to decipher words (as popularized in the 200-year-old McGuffey Readers series).

Using the three cueing method, teachers would encourage students reading a given passage to think of a word that made sense —like “horse”—when students couldn’t figure out a word.  Teachers would encourage students to look at the letters.  Do they look like “horse”?  Do the letters sound like “horse”?

A similar method that some teachers might be more familiar with is the “MSV” reading method.  Similar to three cueing, MSV is a system developed by Marie Clay of New Zealand.  The “M” means figuring out meaning, often from contextual clues; the “S” means sentence structure, or figuring out what part of speech is needed in a particular sentence; and the V means visual information, or the look of the letters in the unknown word.

Goodman’s approach became known as “whole language” and became popular in the US.  Clay’s approach led to the Reading Recovery program, a first grade reading intervention program started in New Zealand and now found all over the English-speaking world, including in the US.

But eventually research proved that both of these approaches were not as effective as phonics.  More about that in our next blog.

 

Don’t let your child guess at words

A reader of my past blog wrote about a first grader who did well in reading.  But by second grade she was no longer doing well.  Why?

Several reasons could account for this change, but the most likely is that the second grade teacher is not teaching phonics.

  • Perhaps the second grade teacher is not aware of research showing that a phonics-based reading program is the most successful.
  • Perhaps the second grade teacher attended a teacher training college which did not emphasize any one approach, treating all approaches–phonics, memorizing words, guessing–the same.  Research shows phonics is clearly better.
  • Perhaps the student switched schools or school districts, and went from a phonics-based curriculum in first grade to a second-grade curriculum which does not focus on phonics.
  • Perhaps the child is going through trauma at home which is showing itself in poorer academic achievement.

If your child is in first or second grade and is struggling to read, or is guessing at a large number of words, your child is unlikely to be a strong reader in the future unless you intervene now.  What can you do to change this situation?

  • Talk to your child’s teacher and find out how she is teaching reading.  Ask if she is primarily using a phonics-based approach.  If she is, then ask her what else the school can do to help your child do better.  Is there a reading specialist who can work with your child?  Are there tutors (paid or volunteer) who work with individual students?
  • If the teacher is not using a phonics-based approach, you can ask that your child be switched to the classroom of a teacher who is using such an approach.  If that is impossible, you can hire a private tutor, or become the tutor of your child.  Or if all else fails, you can move your child to a school which does use a phonics-based approach.

Is it that important?  Yes.  The most necessary academic skill is reading.  If a child is a poor reader, she will stumble through school and life.  Many well-paying career doors will be closed to her.

Do all that you can to ensure that your youngster learn reading by sounding out letters and by blending the letter sounds together to form words.

 

Teach a child to decode words, not to guess

One of the worst things a parent or a teacher can tell a child is to guess when trying to read a word.  This “guessing” can take many forms.

  • Look at the pictures. What word makes sense?
  • The word begins with a “c.” Now what word beginning with a letter “c” would work here?
  • Yes, it’s a big word. But you can figure out the first part, “con.”  So what words do you know that begin with “con”?  What one of those works here?

All of these guessing strategies set the reader up for failure.  Sooner or later there won’t be any pictures to give visual hints.  Sooner or later the child will know many “c” words, too many to guess about them all.  Sooner or later the child will encounter two- and three- and four-syllable words which make no sense in the context of the reading passage.

Instead, what a teacher should do is to teach the phonics code.  Teach that sounds are represented by letters.  Teach that letters combine to form words.  This is the surest strategy to create confident readers.

If your child is sounding out the first letter of words and then guessing at the rest, your child is probably going to be a poor reader.  Go back to teaching him or her phonics so your child has a systematic approach to figuring out words.  Give your child the gift of confident reading and a better future.

How the “Not Yet, Baby” book came to be

I have been asked where the ideas for the beginning reading books came from.  Are they real stories?  Did we make them up?  The truth is somewhere in between, as Mrs. A, the illustrator explains below about the book, Not Yet, Baby:

The idea came to me as I was traveling through national parks in Utah and Arizona a few years ago.  Occasionally I would get a text or a picture from my son, Tom, the dad of two little boys.  The younger one was walking and following his three-year-old brother everywhere.  Whatever the older boy had, the baby wanted.  Whatever the older boy was doing, the baby was underfoot.

I reminded Tom that he too, had been a younger brother and had been a pain in the neck to his big brother, Lou.  Lou would build elaborate corrals with wooden blocks, enclosing a dinosaur in each compartment.  Tom would totter across the rug, destroying the entire habitat.  On the tour bus in the Rockies, as I remembered spending hours restraining the rambunctious Tom, the ideas flowed, and within a few days I had a book full of sketches!

Not Yet, Baby is the story of a big brother and the family baby.  The little one wants to do whatever the big brother does.

If big brother swims, baby wants to swim.  If big brother eats a hot dog, baby wants to eat a hot dog.  If big brother kick-boxes, baby wants to kick box.  Often in danger, the baby is dragged away just in time.

Not Yet, Baby illustrates typical yet humorous situations that a four, five, or six-year old would understand.  The book uses mostly one syllable, short vowel words appropriate for beginning readers.  Interactive activity pages follow—word searches, matching rhyming words, filling in the correct vowel and completing a crossword puzzle.

As you read Not Yet, Baby, you may remember being the older child trying to understand the limitations of a younger one.

Or maybe you can relate to a baby trying to keep up, or the adult who works tirelessly to keep one child safe and another one happy.  Maybe the story will lead to talks with your child about your childhood or his.  There’s so much to talk about in Not Yet, Baby.  You can find Not Yet, Baby at Amazon.com.