Category Archives: phonics

Teaching ĭ CVC words and ĕ CVC words

Ĭ and ĕ are the two hardest vowel sounds to distinguish.  Here is how I suggest you work with children to differentiate these sounds.  Mix the ĭ CVC words with the previously learned ă, ŏ, and ŭ CVC words.  Then mix the ĕ CVC words with the previously learned words, not including the ĭ words.  Lastly mix only the ĭ CVC words with the ĕ CVC words.  Repeat these steps indefinitely until your child can read the majority of ĭ and ĕ CVC words correctly.  Learning the ĭ and ĕ CVC words can take longer than the other three letter sounds combined.

Sample ĕ words

bed fed led red Ted
beg egg keg leg Peg
Ben den hen men pen
bet get jet let pet
bell dell fell Nell sell
Bess less mess Tess yes

Sample ĭ words

bid did hid kid lid
big dig fig pig rig
dim him Kim rim Tim
bin din fin pin tin
dip hip lip quip zip
bit fit it pit zit

Problem: Distinguishing between nearly identical sounds and words

Short ĕ and short ĭ are difficult sounds to distinguish for most beginning readers.  When I teach these sounds, I rely on two game-like activities.

For one of the activities, I gather the pictures of  words which start with ĕ and ĭ, or which use them in the CVC pattern.  I put these Ee and Ii cards in front of the child and we practice saying those letter sounds.  Then the child sorts the deck of cards I have created, putting cards under one of the two letter sounds.  We say the word aloud to reinforce the letter sound.

For another activity, I have created BINGO-like cards of ĕ and ĭ words.  I limit each BINGO card to nine words.  More words can seem overwhelming.  I say one of the words and the child finds and covers it, using a marker.  To extend this activity, the child and I exchange places.  The child says the words and I find the correct spelling.

big beg dig
set sit bet
lit let bit

Learning to read, one sound at a time

A six-year-old kindergartener learning to read VC and CVC words worked with me yesterday for the first time.  We met the day before via zoom.  He was nervous, sitting on his grandmother’s lap for support.

I started by assessing his phonics skills.  Because he doesn’t know me and has not worked online, his responses to the phonics assessment I did might not be spot on.  After a few lessons, when he is more relaxed, I will have a better idea of his skill level.

 

But for now he was able to show me he knows letter names, consonant sounds and short vowel sounds.  He can sound VC words easily.  When he reads CVC words, he cannot “slide” all the sounds together to form words.  So that is where my reading instruction will begin.

 

Yesterday we worked using letter tiles.  I put before him the word “at,” and then I added one onset letter sound at a time, forming words like “fat” and “rat.”  He sounded out words from several word families using short a, o, and u.  After 20 minutes, his squirming became excessive, and we ended the lesson.  Today I will teach him again for another short lesson.

 

His grandmother showed me a “beginner” picture book the boy has, but as is often true, that book is not a good “beginner” book for students learning phonics.  In that book, advanced reading words are mixed in with sight words and CVC words.  I recommended she set it aside for a few months.

 

She wondered if she should use flash cards with words printed on them to help her grandson learn.  If the words are sight words which cannot be sounded out phonetically—words like “are” and “the”—then yes.  But if the words are capable of being sounded out, I said the student should learn them by sounding them out.  Otherwise he might think he should memorize the look of a word to pronounce it.

 

Should he guess at words?  No.  If a child learns to read following the rules of phonics, eventually he will be able to sound out almost any word, even long words like “dinosaur” and “alphabet.”  Teaching a child to guess introduces a habit which will hobble him the rest of his reading life.

 

This student has learned to read the way phonics experts recommend, sounding out each letter.  With time, almost all CVC words will become sight words for this student and he will no longer need to sound them out.  But to reach that stage of reading, he needs practice sounding out words.

Teach ŭ before teaching ĕ and ĭ

Suppose you have taught your child VC (vowel-consonant) and CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words using ă and ŏ and the 16 consonants that always sound the same at the onset of words.  You have had your child read lists of words with ă and ŏ shuffled.  Your child is able to pronounce those words correctly.

Now it is time to move on to ŭ.  I recommend teaching ŭ before teaching ĕ and ĭ.  In my teaching experience, children recognize the sound associated with ŭ quicker than the sounds of either ĕ and ĭ.  Some children do have trouble pronouncing ŭ, but they don’t confuse the sound with either ĕ or ĭ.  They can distinguish a difference between ŭ and ĕ / ĭ.  Children have a harder time distinguishing between the sounds of ĕ and ĭ.  So I recommend teaching ă, ŏ and ŭ in that order.

Some of the commercially available support materials you might use with your child do not sequence the short-vowel words in this order.  In that case, I recommend you jump ahead to the ŭ word section and return to the ĕ and ĭ sections later.

Sample ŭ  VC and CVC words include:

up hub pub rub tub
bud dud Judd mud Rudd
bug dug hug jug lug
dull gull hull lull null
but cut gut nut rut

Sample ŭ  VC and CVC words with ă and ŏ in sentences include:

  • Judd cut a nut.
  • Rudd dug up a bug.
  • Tess can run in the mud but not Tom.
  • Tom dug a rut.
  • Jan can hug a mutt.

How to teach words using ă and ŏ

Suppose you have taught your child the 16 consonant sounds which don’t vary at the beginning of words: b, d, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, t, v, x, and z.  Now you are ready to teach vowel sounds.

Explain what vowels are

Because you will be using the words vowel and consonant with your child as you teach, make sure you take time to explain what these words mean.  Vowel refers to five letters all the time (a, e, i, o, and u) and two letters sometimes (y and w).  Consonant refers to all the other letters and to y and w most of the time.  For now you can leave out the y and w, but when you teach small words like by and now, mention that y and w act as vowels sometimes.

Should you say short / closed vowels?  Or long / open vowels? 

Today many support materials refer to vowels followed by a consonant in the same syllable (cat, hot) as closed vowels.  Years ago these vowels were called short vowels, and they were pictured with a curve over the vowel as in ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ and ŭ.  Similarly, vowels coming at the end of a syllable (go, hero) are today called open vowels by some reading support workbooks.  Previously they were called long vowels and pictured with a horizontal line over them as in ā, ē, ī, ō, and ū.  I will use the terms short and long since those are the terms most parents recognize.  I will use markings over vowels such as ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ and ŭ when referring to a particular short vowel sound and ā, ē, ī, ō, and ū when referring to a particular long vowel sound.

Naming vowel sounds as short or long is important because we need a vocabulary to use with children when we refer to vowels pronounced like their letter names and vowels pronounced more softly.  Whichever terms you use, make sure your child understands them.

Teaching words with a ă sound

While you are teaching the 16 consistent consonant-letter sounds, you can begin to teach one short vowel sound.  I recommend starting with the letter ă because almost all phonics support materials start with the vowel ă, and because ă might be the easiest short vowel sound to master.  The support materials I suggest for my students are the Explode the Code series.  That series starts with ă words.

When I am teaching in person, I use flash cards with pictures of words beginning with ă such as alligator, astronaut, and apple.  I recommend you teach your child to say “ă as in apple” to reinforce the letter connected to the sound.

Choose five or six consonant letter sounds your child has mastered.  Using letter tiles, form two and three letter words such as am, an, at, bat, bam, tan, and mat, etc.  Place the letter tiles for one word an inch or so apart and ask your child to say the sounds, keeping the picture of the apple on the table too, for reference.  Repeat saying the sounds as you slowly move the letters closer and closer together until the child says the word.  It might take many tries, but usually there is a Eureka! moment when the child realizes she is reading a word, not just letter sounds.  Reading teachers call these tiny words CVC words, meaning consonant-vowel-consonant words.

Gradually add more consonant sounds and form more words with ă as the vowel sound.  If the child loses interest, one way to extend the lesson is to use her name and write a goofy sentence such as Kim is a pan or Kim is a map.  Another way is to use your name and have her end the sentence.  Mom is a ____.  Teach her that the vowel goes first or in the middle.  Try mispronouncing a word she writes and ask her if you said it correctly.

You can buy magnetic cards which you can cut into small rectangles to attach to the back of letter tiles.  Then you can work in a metal lasagna pan or pizza pan or on the refrigerator.  If your child is four or five, a short lesson (ten minutes) teaching in one mode followed by another short lesson in another mode (writing words on an iPad or laptop, writing in a workbook) might be all she can handle for one session.  I have given one-hour lessons to a four-year-old, but I needed to have six mini-lessons to sustain her interest.

Teaching words with a ŏ sound

When, after several days or weeks, you are sure your child can read ă words, move on to ŏ words.  Create a reference card—an octopus, for example.  Work on two and three letter ŏ words such as on, off, odd, Oz, nod, fob, and Bob, etc.  After several days or weeks—whatever it takes—mix ŏ words with ă words.

To reinforce your work, read together picture books.  When you come to a word she can pronounce, point to it and ask her to say the word.  Two or three times are enough to show her that what she is learning applies to her real world.

 

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.

 

 

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.

phonemes

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. 

phonics

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.

vowels

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.

consonants

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

Syllables are units of sound containing one vowel phoneme and usually one or more consonant phonemes.  Mitten has two syllables:  mit and tenRobotics has three syllables:  ro, bo, and tics.

Knowing these terms gives you a basic vocabulary enabling you to follow instruction about reading.

How to teach a child to read

When my older son neared the end of first grade, his teachers told me he would need to repeat because he could not read.  What!  I couldn’t believe it. I phoned my brother, a special ed teacher, and he said, “Relax. You can bring him up to grade level if you work with him all summer.”  He recommended I buy Why Johnny Can’t Read by Rudolph Flesch, a then out-of-favor approach to teaching reading using phonics. My brother said to turn to the word list at the back of the book and start there.  I trusted my brother, bought the book, and worked with my son every day.  He hated the lessons—lists of progressively more difficult words—but in September he started second grade reading on grade level.

Thus began my interest in how to teach reading.  Time and research have proven Flesch and my brother right.  A systematic—not random—phonics-based approach yields the best results in teaching children to read.  Even so, today many teachers do not teach reading using phonics.  And as a result, many children fail to learn to read.

If your child has been left behind, or if you want to be sure that never happens, this blog is for you.  In coming weeks I will advise parents and teachers of beginning readers

1) how to teach reading skills by sounding out letter patterns, and

2) in what order to teach those letter patterns. 

If your child already knows how to read some words, you can assess his or her skills by using the word lists below to know where to begin.

These lessons start with one sound represented by one letter, a simple yet reliable decoding system.  While these lessons introduce the most common letter patterns of English, they do not introduce them all.  That is not necessary.  As children read widely, they encounter new letter patterns which they figure out from context clues, by asking questions, or by using a dictionary.

If you choose to supplement the ideas in coming lessons with lessons from reading sources like Why Johnny Can’t Read or Explode the Code (both good), their lessons might not sequence letter sounds or letter patterns in the same order as I do.  That is because reading experts do not agree upon a single sequence for teaching reading.  The sequence I will use here extends the one-sound, one-letter pattern as long as possible, reinforcing what seems logical to little children.

IMPORTANT: Beware of any reading advice which encourages your child to guess at words, a strategy that can lead to lifelong reading problems.  Instead, ask your child to sound out words based on the rules of phonics.  That leads to reading independence.

Phonics assessment

The following words are listed in the same order as the lessons I will share in coming weeks.  If your child can read some words, and you wonder where to begin teaching her phonics, ask her to read these words in order.  When she starts making mistakes, stop her and turn to my corresponding lesson.  Proceed from there.

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, offence, 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

No wun ever sed lerning Eeng-lish iz e-zy

When I was a child, I needed to write the word “business” for some reason.  In my dictionary, I looked up “bizness,” “bisness,” “bizzness,” and “bissness,” growing more and more frustrated as my searches ended futilely.  Then I asked my mother who told me the correct spelling.  A “u”!  Who would ever have thought a word which sounds like “biz-nes” would be spelled with a “u”?

If only “business” were the only one.  English has many commonly used words which do not follow the rules of phonics and spelling.  Here are some with their pronunciations following.

been (ben)

broad (brod)

busy (biz-y)

color (kul-ler)

do (du)

does (duz)

friend (frend)

eye (i)

iron (i-urn)

of (ov)

one (wun)

said (sed)

sew (so)

shoe (shu)

to (tu)

two (tu)

was (wuz)

who (hu)

why (wi)

wolf (wuhlf)

woman (wuh-min)

women (wi-men)

you (yu)

Since part of these words follows rules of phonics, when teaching them you can point out that part.  Usually the vowel or vowels are the part which are abnormally sounded and spelled.  That is the part which needs to be pointed out by the teacher and memorized for reading and spelling by the student.  For example, in the word “friend,” the “f,” “r,” “n,” and “d” sound as they should.  Even the “e” does if you take away the “i.”  But you can’t take away the “i,” and that is the part which needs to be pointed out and practiced.

Some words make sense if you point out their history or their connection to other words.  “Two” makes little sense.  Why a silent “w”?  And a single “o” rarely sounds like “oo” or “u.”  But if you explain that some other words which mean two begin with “tw” such as “twin” and “twenty,” recognizing the word becomes easier.

No wun ever sed lerning Eeng-lish iz e-zy.

Understanding content–the later part of reading comprehension

Reading comprehension requires a child to understand two broad skills according to The Simple View of Reading, proposed in 1986.**  Those skills include recognizing words (usually through organized phonics instruction) and understanding the content of language.  In our last blog we talked about word recognition.  Today let us discuss language comprehension.

Understanding content depends on four elements:

  • Understanding vocabulary,
  • Having a wide and somewhat sophisticated knowledge base,
  • Understanding sentence structures, and
  • Understanding figurative language.

In kindergarten, first and second grades, children focus on building phonics skills so they can code and decode words.  In third grade, children’s focus shifts to understanding the content of written language.  This is the time when children recognize as sight words many of the words they have worked for two or three years to code and decode.  With less thought going into deciphering letter sounds and combining them into words, children have more energy to focus on understanding what those words, phrases and sentences mean.

By third and fourth grade, children have mastered the basics of phonics, including words of many syllables.  They recognize letter patterns quickly if the reading is grade appropriate, though they still struggle with technical language, subject specific vocabulary, and words of foreign derivation.  They rely on their understanding of prefixes, root words, and suffixes as well as context to figure out the meaning of new words.  They might reread a passage when they realize they don’t understand it.  They might look up words in dictionaries.  They might predict, summarize and conclude.  They might scan headlines, subheadings, captions and graphics to gain understanding.

Until third and fourth grade, most students’ oral language skills—using precise words, speaking in complicated sentences and using irony, for example—outstrip their reading skills.  But in third and fourth grades that gap narrows.  A child’s comprehension depends far less on decoding skills and more on understanding a wide vocabulary, having a sophisticated understanding of the environment and understanding how sentences, paragraphs and various genres of writing are constructed.

Sometime in late middle school, children’s oral language converges with their reading comprehension.*  Students gain new vocabulary and understanding of their environment more from reading than from conversation.  At this time of life, it is important for students to read widely and often to increase their vocabulary and knowledge base, to understand how ideas are structured and to appreciate how figurative language enriches comprehension.

This understanding of reading skills—a combination of word deciphering skills and comprehension skills—was proposed in 1986 by Gough and Tunmer.** They called this understanding The Simple View of Reading (SVR).

*Biemiller, A.  (1999).  Language and reading success. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

**Gough PB, Tunmer PB. Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education. 1986;7:6–10. doi: 10.1177/074193258600700104.

Four stages in learning to read

The saying goes, in kindergarten through third grade, a child learns to read (think phonics); in third and later grades, a child reads to learn (think comprehension).*

But practically, what does this mean?

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

By the end of kindergarten:

  • Students can recognize almost all letters, upper and lower case.
  • Some students can state the sound represented by an individual consonant letter, and they can recognize closed (short) vowel sounds.
  • Some students can read consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words.
  • Most students cannot yet read open (long) vowel patterns such as oa and ight.
  • Many students rely on first and last letters in words to sound words out.
  • Students rely on pictures to help figure out words.

By the end of first grade:CVCC twin consonants

  • Students can decode one-syllable CVC words, including those with blends.
  • Students can decode one-syllable words ending in a silent e.
  • Students can read one-syllable open (long) vowel words like he and my.
  • Students can read one-syllable r-controlled words like star and dirt.
  • Students can read some one-syllable words with two-vowels like bee and boot.
  • Many students need to sound out common one-syllable words rather than recognizing them as sight words.
  • Students depend less on pictures and context clues to decipher words.

By the end of second grade:children looking at picture of Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln

  • Increasingly, students are able to decode two- and three-syllable words if those words follow rules of phonics.
  • Students can decode words by separating familiar suffixes and prefixes to find root words and then reassembling the parts.
  • Students recognize common letter patterns.

By the end of third grade:girl reading Junie B. Jones

  • Students have mastered decoding of words using phonics, including many multi-syllabic words.
  • Students recognize most common words by sight.
  • Students recognize word families and can use that knowledge to decipher new words.

This breakdown covers word recognition.  But there is another part of learning to read, namely, language comprehension.  We will discuss that in the next blog.

*Researcher Jeanne Chall (1983) first coined this idea.

See researchers Linnea Ehri (1991, 2005) and Spear-Swerling (2015) for more indepth discussion of reading stages.