Category Archives: phonics

Behavioral signs that your student might be having trouble reading, writing

Students are really good at hiding or masking reading and writing problems.  If your student shows any of these signs, take another look at his or her cognitive skills.

Slurring over long words.  Some kids stop phonics instruction before they get to dividing words into syllables or deconstructing prefixes and suffixes.  When they see a long word, they say a word which begins the same way and slur the rest, hoping you won’t hear.  If you ask them to repeat the slurred word, they can’t read it.

Speaking softly.  Kids think, “If my teacher can’t hear it, then she can’t tell me it’s wrong.”  So they read or speak to you in a whisper.  Confident readers or speakers speak as loudly as you do.

Rarely asking questions.  If a student reads but doesn’t understand what he’s reading, it’s hard for him to ask a question.  But students who do understand often want more information.  Beware of silent students.

Talking off-topic.  Some students who are socially adept will precede a lesson with small talk, or interrupt to ask about your family or haircut.  They are stalling because they find the work hard.

Going last.  If a student routinely wants to go last, it can be because she is hoping against hope that there won’t be time for her complete lesson.  These students are reluctant because they are unprepared or don’t understand what is being taught.

Needing to use the rest room during the lesson.  Good students rarely need to be excused for part of the lesson, but poor students routinely do.  They say they need to use the rest room or to get a drink of water, taking more time than seems reasonable.

Checking the time.  Some students check their watches or phones every few minutes.  That’s not because they want the lesson to last.  They know to the second when the lesson should end and remind you when that time comes.

Coming to a lesson without workbooks, texts or homework.  “Oh, let me get it,” they will say, cheerfully, heading to their bedroom or locker and wasting three or four minutes.

What can you, the parent or teacher do?  We’ll discuss that in our next blog.

How to solve some behavioral problems masking trouble reading, writing

Hiding unpreparedness or lack of knowledge can become an art form for some students.  In the last blog we spoke of some of the ways students do this.  Now we will talk about how you can overcome these strategies.

You diagnose the reading problems.

Slurring over long words.  Assume the student needs advanced phonics instruction.  Work on dividing words into syllables and how to pronounce those words.  Work on prefixes and suffixes by separating root words.  Then discuss what each prefix and suffix means.  Put them back together again.  After four or five such lessons, ask the student to read a new passage and see if he still stumbles.  Ask about particular words which might be hard to pronounce or understand.

Speaking softly.  Ask other teachers if the student speaks softly in their classes.  If it is just in your class, there is probably no speech impediment.  Make sure there are no distracting noises.  If there are, move to a quieter spot to work.  Insist that the student face you when she speaks, and that she reads or speaks slowly.  Have her repeat if you still can’t hear her.  If this leads to tears, offer a moment for the student to collect herself, but keep going.    You could always bring a microphone.  Or bring a tape recorder and replay the student’s voice on “loud.”  The student needs to know the stalling tactic won’t work.

Rarely asking questions.  Turn the tables.  You ask the questions which you think your student should be asking.  Wait patiently for the answers.

Talking off-topic.  Interrupt Mr. Congeniality and say you would love to chat about your weekend after class.  Check your watch each time your student goes off-topic and make sure the student know you are adding that time to the original start time.  Continue to add minutes if the student interrupts.

Going last.  Mix the order of students if there is more than one, so the student who prefers to go last goes first or second.  If this is not possible, arrange your teaching time so you will have more than enough time for the one who desires a short lesson.

Needing to use the rest room.  If possible, five minutes before the lesson begins, call the student who usually needs to use the rest room and instruct him to use it now because there will be no time during the lesson.  If that is not possible, tell the student at the beginning of the lessons that there will be no bathroom break, and stick to it.  If the student still insists, time the student and make the student aware that you are extending the lesson by that amount of time.

Checking the time.  Tell the student he may not check his phone or watch during the class period.  Instead, you tell him every ten minutes or so how much longer the class will last.  Make sure he knows the time exactly when you begin—you could show him your cell phone—and show him the time again when class ends.

Coming to a lesson without workbooks, texts or homework.  If possible, before the lesson begins, remind the student what materials will be needed and tell her to get them now.  If that is impossible, tell the student as she approaches for her lesson that she has exactly 30 seconds to get what she needs.  Start counting aloud from 30 backwards.  Then add 30 seconds to the end of the lesson.

Your hope is that the student will improve his or her behavior.  If they do, say  thank you.  If there is another parent or a homeroom teacher whom the student respects, make sure you also let that person know the student’s behavior has improved.  Always spread good news.

When the student becomes the reading teacher

Sometimes my best teaching strategies come from children themselves.

I was working with a PreK student the other day.  She has mastered reading CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant words like “cat” and “six”).  Now we are focusing on blends at the beginning of CCVC words like “swim” and “spill.”

One at a time I was showing her illustrations of CCVC words.  At the same time I was sliding a handful of letters near the illustration.  The letters included the letters needed to spell the word plus some distracting letters.  My student’s job was to pull out the letters needed in the correct order and “write” the word under the illustration.

Except that she didn’t want to do that.  She wanted to write her name using the letter tiles.  We were getting nowhere, so I let her write her name.  Then, after her name she wrote the word “is,” and after “is” she wrote “not.”  Then she wrote the word we were trying to spell in the picture, “twin.”

“Chaulian is not twin,” she said aloud, laughing because she knows she is not a twin.  I pulled out the letter “a” and inserted it into her sentence.   “Chaulian is not a twin,” she read.

“You wrote a sentence,  Chaulian.”

She was engaged again.  I pulled another illustration, this time of a plum.  I took away “twin” and put six letters in front of my student.  From them she picked “plum” and changed her sentence to “Chaulian is not a plum,” laughing once more at the ridiculousness of that thought.

We continued, with Chaulian writing little sentences about herself using CCVC words.

A few days later I tried this same approach with an even younger child.  She is learning CVC words, but of course she already knows how to spell her name.  I asked her to spell her name with letter tiles and then I added “is not a” and pulled illustrations.  Nneka is not a cat.  Nneka is not a map.  Nneka is not a ten.  Like Chaulian, Nneka’s interest in our reading game increased when her name was used.  And when she read aloud her nonsense sentences, she laughed and laughed.  Our work together had turned into a silly game.

Little children are self-centered, so of course it made sense to use their names.  And wacky little sentences made our work fun.  I was thrilled to keep their attention longer than usual.  Win-win.

Chaulian is a teacher.

Knowing ABC names isn’t important to beginning readers

When most children are four, they can say, or should I say sing, their ABC’s properly, except for the L-M-N-O part.

But can they pronounce the basic sounds associated with each of those letters?  I know they can’t.

For example, I ask what sound is “pictured” by “y.”  The child says “w” as in “why.”  Or I ask what sound is represented by “w.”  The child says “d” as in “double you.”  The children are giving me the sound of the letter’s name, not the sound represented by the letter.  This causes confusion when they try to pronounce CVC words.

Look at the disconnect between how letters are named and the basic sounds which those names represent.  In the case of vowels below, the basic sound is considered to be what has been called “short vowel sounds.”

ABC name    basic sound    pronunciation

A                      a                     ay

B                      b                     bee

C                      k                     see

D                      d                    dee

E                      e                     ee

F                      f                     eff

G                      g                    jee

H                      h                    aech

I                      i                      eye

J                      j                      jay

K                      k                     kay

L                      l                      el

M                     m                    em

N                      n                     en

O                      o                     oh

P                      p                      pee

Q                     kw                   kue

R                      r                      are

S                      s                      ess

T                      t                      tee

U                      u                     you

V                      v                      vee

W                     w                     double you

X                      x                      ex

Y                      y                      why

Z                      z                      zee

Of the basic sounds of our language, only eight are represented by letter names which begin with that sound.  (Sounds represented by more than one letter, such as “ow” and “th” are not shown here.)

This made me wonder how important knowing the names of the ABC’s  is compared to knowing the sounds those letter characters represent.  I have concluded that it is the sounds which are important, not the names or graphics we assign to those sounds.

To prove this, look at the sounds which children from other countries say when they see certain  letters.  When children in Germany see “v,” they pronounce the “f” sound in English.  Those same German children, when they see a “w,” pronounce it like a “v” sound in English.  When children in Russia see a “p,” they pronounce it like an “r” sound in English.

So the picture/character/graphic is arbitrary.  Someone long ago in England (or more likely, ancient Rome and Greece) assigned certain letter symbols to portray certain sounds.  But other persons in other parts of the world assigned the same letter symbols to portray different sounds.

Since I discovered this, I teach letter “sounds” differently.  When I work with beginning readers, I try not to use words like “A,” “B,” and “C” when I refer to letters.  Instead I say the sounds those letters represent.  I say “a,” “b,” and “k,” and I ask students to do the same.

If you are teaching your child beginning reading in English, I recommend that you focus on the sound, not on the name of the letter.  The sound is what children need to know in order to read, not the name we give to the letter representing that sound.

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.

Teaching vocabulary

If kids get low grades on reading comprehension, number one on my checklist is vocabulary. If kids don’t understand the words they read, how can they possibly understand the sentences containing those words?

But how to solve this problem?

CVC means consonant-vowel-consonant, and refers to one syllable, short vowel words beginning with a consonant.

For ELL students lacking basic English words, I make flash cards: a picture on one side and the word or words used to identify that picture on the other side. A picture of a child pitching a baseball might use the words “pitch.” “toss,” or “throw.”

I start with pictures of CVC words: “cat,” hat”, and “bat,” for example. Picturing nouns is easy. Picturing verbs like “sat” and “win” is harder, and often I need to demonstrate the actions.

With my students I use the Explode the Code phonics series, so I picture vocabulary words in the order in which the student encounters the words in the series. To these I add a few sight (Dolch) words so that we can make sentences, such as “A cat is not a dog.”

What I have discovered is that students can identify the pictures with just a bit of study, but they cannot use the words in sentences. When they see the word “pitch” they can move their arms in  pitching motions, but they cannot make a sentence using the word “pitch.”

Even for students learning advanced vocabulary words, like in the Wordly Wise series, this is true. They can define a word using a synonym but they have trouble using the word in a meaningful sentence.  (For many students using this series in school, their teachers do not assign the part of the lesson in which students write the new words in sentences, a big mistake.)

When I review already learned vocabulary words, I ask for synonyms, but also for usage. “It is a cat” works for beginning ELL learners. But “It is a catapult” does not work for older ELL students or for English-speaking students.

Another method to increase ELL learners’ vocabulary is to use picture word books meant for preschoolers. Because I want to use the vocabulary my students study to teach them reading, I prefer to begin with CVC words even though a word like “pizza” might be more frequently heard.

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.