Category Archives: phonics

Will avatars improve learning how to read?

What’s the future of reading?

Kindle pronunciation and definition pop-up

Already available on the Kindle, readers just touch unfamiliar words and a definition pop-up appears. (shown is an excerpt from “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett) CLICK on the picture for a link to the pronunciation.

A student who knows she has trouble reading long words creates an avatar—say an owl—to help her.  Then whenever she is reading online, the avatar would appear before every long word.  The avatar will help her to figure out long words–three and four syllable words.

The student could skip the avatar if she thinks she knows the word.  But if she  needs help, she could click on the owl and the owl might segment the word into syllables, making the word easier to deconstruct.  “Conversation” might show in a tiny screen as “con-ver-SA-tion.”

If the word does not follow the rules of phonics, the word might be shown as it is pronounced.  “Business” might appear as “BIZZ-ness.”

An option for the avatar to pronounce a word might also exist.  If a student can figure out “discreet” but not “discretion,” the avatar might pronounce the latter word.

With technology, we have the ability to personalize reading instruction, offering individual help for students.  Fast learners could have an avatar which acts as a high speed dictionary and thesaurus, allowing students to read difficult words without a word search.  Slower learners’ avatars could offer private tutoring help, allowing students to progress at their own slower pace with no one the wiser.  ESL students could get help with pronunciation.

Even older students reading advanced text books could use this help with the avatar segmenting the word, perhaps showing its root, pronouncing it, and defining it.  It could refer to previous pages in the book where the word is used the way an index does—all at the click of an avatar.

Sound farfetched?

With Google’s Alexa, some of this technology already exists.  If a student is stumped by a word, the student can spell the word and ask how to say it or what it means, and Alexa, after a split-second of “thinking.” would respond.

It’s only a matter of time before this kind of technology will be custom fit to meet individual students’ reading needs.

When and how to teach blends

Blends are two adjacent consonants in a word which maintain the sound each has when pronounced separately.  For example the “s” and “l” in “sled” are blends, but the “t” and “h” in “that” are not blends because the usual sounds of those letters are not maintained when they are used together.

The right time to teach blends is once students master CVC words (words formed by a consonant, vowel, and consonant, such as “cat”).   Make sure students can pronounce CVC words made with every vowel before moving on.

Teach beginning-of-word blends first.   End-of-word blends are much harder for students to learn.

The letter “s” is a good letter to start with since it forms more beginning-of-word blends than any other letter.  Use real CVC words which become real CCVC words when the “s” is added, such as nap/snap, led/sled, kid/skid, top/stop and lug/slug.  Little children are concrete learners, so being able to picture the words helps with the learning.

You can write the CVC word and then put an “s” in front of it.  Or you can use letter tiles, gradually moving the “s” closer and closer to the CVC word, saying the “s” sound and the CVC word separately at first and then more quickly until the child can hear the blend happen.

The child might consider the process a game if you slide the “s” letter tile gradually while you say the “s” sound and the CVC word.  Usually the child will shout out the blended word when he figures it out.  At first this will be after you say the blended word.  But as a child learns the skill of blending, he will shout out the word before you get close to saying the blended letters.  The process needs to be repeated with many consonants and many CVC words.

Some consonant blends are easier to hear than others.  CVC words that begin with “l” and “r” are easy to hear.  

Don’t be concerned if the child adds the blended letter to the end of the word, such as saying “leds” instead of “sled.”  Remind the child that the “s” is going at the beginning of the word, and repeat the process.  This is a common occurrence and will gradually lessen as the child practices blends.

Try to teach every letter that can be blended.  These include “b,” “c” “d,” “f,” “g,” “p,” “s,” and “t.”

Don’t teach three-letter blends at  this point.  They are much harder to hear than two-letter blends.  Wait until the child is farther along in learning to read.

Guessing at long words means more phonics work is necessary

Suppose you have a reader  who  scores well on teacher assessments through first grade.  But then in second grade, she falters and starts guessing wrongly at new words.  What is going on?

It could be that this child has not learned the rules of phonics, or has learned the rudimentary rules but not the more advanced rules.  Instead, this student relies on a system of memorizing the look of words.

A child can get by for years using whole word guessing.  But then because of the sheer number of new long words, this system no longer sustains learning words with two, three and four syllables, words with prefixes and suffixes, words which must be sounded out first one way and then another to figure them out.

Research shows that a “whole language” approach to learning to read—that is memorizing new words—doesn’t work nearly as well as a system based on phonics.

I have worked with many students who can sound out one- and two-syllable words but who guess at longer words.  They say a word which begins the same way as the longer word but which doesn’t make sense.  They continue reading without stopping to consider that what they just said makes no sense, a clue that they are not comprehending what they read.

For example, suppose a sentence says, “The President issued an executive order.”  A student reads, “The President issued an exercise order.” In a split second the student searched her mind and retrieved “exercise,” a familiar word that begins the way the original word begins.

If you have a child who slurs longer words or who substitutes a word that begins the same way as the original word, this child probably needs advanced phonics work.  By advanced I mean learning rules for splitting long words into parts and for understanding how prefixes and suffixes attach to a root word and change the pronunciation and meaning of a root.

Even after children can read, they need to continue to work with phonics.

How to teach –ight, -ought, -ind, -ild and word families that don’t follow rules

Words ending with –ight don’t follow the rules of phonetics.  The “g” and “h” are silent, and there is no silent “e” after the “t” to make the vowel “i” long.

Some word families, such as –ought, -ind, -ild, and -ight need to be taught as exceptions to phonics rules.  Essentially, they are a group of sight words which follow the same spelling rule, but they are not pronounced the way they look.

It’s probably better to delay teaching words like these until students learn the basic rules of phonics.  Exceptions to rules are confusing.  Better to get the rules understood before introducing exceptions.

That said, how do you teach such exceptions?

  • Teach one exception family of words at a time, giving several days for the student to get used to that family.
  • Post a list of the family of exception words so students can see them on and off many times a day.
  • Ask the children to read short paragraphs containing such words.
  • Ask the children to compose a silly verse using a familiar song for rhythm. For example, to “Old McDonald Had a Farm” students could write, “My brother Dwight did pick a fight, EE I EE I Oh.  He picked a fight with a mighty knight, EE I EE I Oh.”  The sillier the better.  Write down the song, show the words to the students, and sing it daily to reinforce the family pronunciation and spelling.
  • Play games using the exception word families. Students could write the 15 –ight words plus 10 –ite words on a blank BINGO board. You could call off a definition of each word which students would need to identify on their boards.
  • Have a spelling bee using the words.
  • Students could write a paragraph using as many of the words as they can. This could be a group project the first time and later an individual project.

Students should be reminded about words with the same sound as the exception but which follow the rules of phonics.   Students need to remember which words go with which rule.

English has many words which don’t follow the rules, but it helps when there are a whole group of them which follow their own strange rule.  They can be taught in groups rather than singly.

How to teach a child to read with little cost

If you are attempting to teach your child to read, and you go to Amazon or your local book store and find literally hundreds of instruction books, dozens of video games, and all kinds of apps and CDs, and boxes of flash cards, where do you begin?  Is all that “stuff” really necessary?

I suggest a method which includes spending time with your child but not much money.

Start with the sounds of English. There are about 42 in most parts of the US.  Say the sounds aloud, one at a time.  Let your child listen and repeat the sounds aloud.  If he can’t say one or two of the sounds, work on those sounds for a few minutes each day until he can hear and repeat all the sounds.  (Supplies you will need:  a list of the 42 sounds, available free on this website and online.)

Next, explain that we associate letters with those sounds.  Start with consonants and teach the child to match each sound with a letter.  Move on to vowels and explain that some sounds share the same letter.  (At this point, don’t try to teach digraphs or exceptions.)  Say a particular sound and ask your child what letter goes with that sound.  Show a handful of letters to choose from and add more options as the child gains accuracy.  (Supplies you will need:  a set of the ABC’s on cards, on letter tiles or written by hand on index cards.)

Once the child can associate sounds with letters accurately, form CVC (consonant—vowel—consonant) words, such as “c a t.” From years of experience I have found that letter tiles work best at this.  (I use Scrabble game tiles, but there are other kinds.)  Set the three letters an inch apart.  Say the letter sounds one by one.  Move the letter tiles together slowly and then more rapidly, saying the letter sounds so that they eventually slur together.  Help the child learn that when we put letter sounds together, we form words.  (Supplies you will need:  lists of CVC words available free online.)

At this point, your child can read many of the words in some books, such as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and  Hop on Pop.   Encourage the child to read the words she can and you read the other words.  If you own the books and don’t mind marking them, you can underline the words your child knows as she reads–a visible proof to the child that she can read.  (Supplies you will need:  a few early reading books available free online or for less than a dollar each at most resale stores.)

CVCC twin consonantsNext you need a plan to sequence the teaching of various types of words.   You can find plenty online.  Most plans start with two- or three-letter short vowel words like “cat” and “ax.”  Then they move on to blends, first at the beginnings of short vowel words (“blot”) and when those are understood, at the ends of such words (“blotch.”)  Adding “s” to form plurals is considered such a blend.  Then teach digraphs and sight (Dolch) words.  (Supplies you will need:  Lists of sight or Dolch words available free online.)

Some authorities suggest teaching two- and three-syllable short vowel words at this point, such as “catnip” and “tunnel.” Others suggest tackling one-syllable long vowel words beginning with words ending with a silent “e” such as “bake” and “tune” and then moving on to other long vowel combinations such as “ee” and “oa.”  There is no right or wrong sequence.  It is important to keep reviewing words the student already learned and mixing them up while you are teaching new kinds of words.  (Supplies you will need:  Lists of such words available free online.)

boy choosing right root for a prefixAt this point, you might teach prefixes and suffixes, or words which don’t follow rules such as two-syllable words with one consonant between the two vowels. Does the consonant go with the first syllable (“robin”) or with the second syllable (“robust”)?  (Supplies you will need:  Lists of such words available free  online.)

Three- and four-syllable words follow the same rules as one- and two-syllable words, but the problem is where to put the inflection so that they are pronounced correctly.  Help the child pronounce such words all possible ways until she hears the correct way.  You and your child might read books you own or library books, and when you come to long words, stop, and figure them out together.  (Supplies you will need:  Picture books, and lists of multi-syllable words available free online.)

By now your child is reading.  She might need help occasionally pronouncing a particular word, or more likely, understanding the meaning of an unfamiliar word.  But learning the sounds of English (phonemes) and linking those sounds to form words (phonics) is largely done.

Is my child on schedule to read?

The US Department of Education has put together a list of accomplishments* relating to talking and reading for children from birth to six years old.  This list shows the growth of typical children developing normally, but variations exist.  By seven years old, most children are reading.

From birth to age 3, most babies and toddlers become able to

  • Make sounds that imitate the tones and rhythms that adults use when talking.
  • Respond to gestures and facial expressions.
  • Begin to associate words they hear frequently with what the words mean.
  • Make cooing, babbling sounds in the crib, which gives way to enjoying rhyming and nonsense word games with a parent or caregiver.
  • Play along in games such as “peek-a-boo” and “pat-a-cake.”
  • Handle objects such as board books and alphabet blocks in their play.
  • Recognize certain books by their covers.
  • Pretend to read books.
  • Understand how books should be handled.
  • Share books with an adult as a routine part of life.
  • Name some objects in a book.
  • Talk about characters in books.
  • Look at pictures in books and realize they are symbols of real things.
  • Listen to stories.
  • Ask or demand that adults read or write with them.
  • Begin to pay attention to specific print such as the first letters of their names.
  • Scribble with a purpose (trying to write or draw something).
  • Produce some letter-like forms and scribbles that resemble, in some way, writing.

From ages 3-4, most preschoolers become able to

  • Enjoy listening to and talking about storybooks.
  • Understand that print carries a message.
  • Make attempts to read and write.
  • Identify familiar signs and labels.
  • Participate in rhyming games.
  • Identify some letters and make some letter-sound matches.
  • Use known letters (or their best attempt to write the letters) to represent written language especially for meaningful words like their names or phrases such as “I love you.”

At age 5, most kindergartners become able to

mother works with child reading story book

  • Sound as if they are reading when they pretend to read.
  • Enjoy being read to.
  • Retell simple stories.
  • Use descriptive language to explain or to ask questions.
  • Recognize letters and letter-sound matches.
  • Show familiarity with rhyming and beginning sounds.
  • Understand that print is read left-to-right and top-to-bottom.
  • Begin to match spoken words with written ones.
  • Begin to write letters of the alphabet and some words they use and hear often.
  • Begin to write stories with some readable parts.

At age 6, most first-graders can

Young child writing C-A-T.

  • Read and retell familiar stories.
  • Use a variety of ways to help with reading a story such as rereading, predicting what will happen, asking questions, or using visual cues or pictures.
  • Decide on their own to use reading and writing for different purposes;
  • Read some things aloud with ease.
  • Identify new words by using letter-sound matches, parts of words and their understanding of the rest of a story or printed item.
  • Identify an increasing number of words by sight.
  • Sound out and represent major sounds in a word when trying to spell.
  • Write about topics that mean a lot to them.
  • Try to use some punctuation marks and capitalization.

*Based on information from Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, a report of the National Research Council, by the Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children, 1998; and from the Joint Position Statement of the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), 1998.

Can dyslexia be identified in a preschooler who can’t read yet?

Yes.  Check this list of indicators developed by Decoding Dyslexia, New Jersey.  But keep in mind that a child exhibiting one or two of the indicators isn’t necessarily dyslexic.  For example, almost all children learning their letters mix up b and d.  But a child EPSON MFP imageshowing several of the indicators might foreshadow problems learning to read or spell.  That child should be tested.

Dyslexia is defined as a neurological learning disability.  Children having difficulty with word recognition, fluency, poor spelling or decoding might be dyslexic.  The sooner it can be identified in a child, and the earlier intervention can begin, the better the chances that the child will learn to read.

A key indicator is family history.  If a parent or a sibling has had trouble learning to read, there is a greater chance that another member of the family will have trouble.

According to Decoding Dyslexia, New Jersey, Language indicators could include:

  • delayed speech
  • trouble learning the alphabet, numbers, and days of the week
  • difficulty rapidly naming people and objects
  • lack of interest in stories and books
  • mispronouncing words
  • difficulty using new vocabulary words correctly
  • trouble distinguishing words from other words that sound similar
  • struggling to identify or produce words that rhyme

Reading indicators could include:

  • difficulty naming and recognizing the letters of the alphabet
  • problems matching letters to their correct sounds
  • scoring below expected reading level for his/her age
  • trouble understanding the difference between sounds in words
  • difficulty blending letter sounds within words
  • trouble recognizing and remembering sight words
  • confusing letters and words that look similar
  • losing his/her place—and skipping over words—while reading
  • avoiding reading tasks

Writing indicators could include:

  • problems copying and writing at an age-appropriate level
  • confusing the order or direction of letters, numbers and symbols
  • spelling words incorrectly and inconsistently most of the time
  • a tendency to spell phonetically
  • poor ability to proofread and correct written work
  • handwriting which shows poor letter formation and placement

Social / emotional indicators could include:

  • Lack of motivation about school or learning
  • lack of confidence in learning
  • negative self-image compared to grade-level peers
  • expressing dislike for reading and other academic tasks
  • exhibiting anxiety or frustration

Other indicators could include:

  • poor sense of direction/spatial concepts, such as left and right
  • performing inconsistently on daily tasks
  • appearing distracted and unfocused

If your child shows some of these characteristics, don’t be discouraged.  Most children show some of them.  And if your child is dyslexic, there is so much you, as a parent, can do to prepare your preschooler to read fluently.  In the next blog we’ll identify some of those activities.