Category Archives: reading comprehension

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)
  • Vocabulary
  • 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.

*https://www.collaborativeclassroom.org/blog/the-settled-science-of-teaching-reading-part-1/?_hsmi=76082821

7 symbols early readers can use to annotate texts

Annotating texts is an important reading skill.  Finding the main idea, identifying ideas which support that main idea, identifying facts (not opinions), discovering new or unusual words—as adults we know to look for this kind of information and to annotate it in the margins as we read.

But what if you are a beginning reader and can’t write words like “main idea” or even “fact”?  How do you annotate a text so you can go back and understand it better?

An elementary school in the Bronx has figured out how.  The school teaches preschoolers to mark texts with the following seven symbols.  (The meaning of the symbols follows.)   

Marking the text this way is part of Concourse Village Elementary School’s way of helping students understand what they read.  And it works!  88 percent of students scored at the advanced or proficient levels on the New York State exams in both math and English language arts in 2018.  That’s more than 40 points higher than the citywide averages.  To find out more information, go to an article in Edutopia at https://www.edutopia.org/article/driving-deep-reading-comprehension-k-5.

Recognizing sounds come first, not recognizing letters

Which comes first, reading or speaking?  Speaking, of course.  A one-year-old can say a few words, but hardly any one-year-old can read.  Most two-year-olds can say hundreds of words and can form tiny sentences, but hardly any two-year-olds can read.

Which comes first, recognizing sounds or recognizing letters? Recognizing sounds, of course.  A one-year-old can recognize and repeat the sounds of many words, but few one-year-olds can recognize letters.  A two-year-old knows hundreds of words, but hardly any two-year-olds recognize more than a handful of letters.

So if sounds and speaking come before recognizing letters and reading, why do some teachers teach the ABC’s first—recognizing visual “pictures” of sounds—rather than teaching the sounds of our language first?

Are we teaching reading backwards?

What if instead of teaching children to read “cat” using ABC’s, we taught children to read “cat” orally, with no ABC’s?  What if we taught children how to recognize the separate sounds that form words like “cat”?  What if we said “c-a-t” slowly, emphasizing the “c,” “a,” and “t” sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?  What if we asked preschoolers to break down little words like “cat” into their beginning, middle and ending sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?

This would be a radically different approach to teaching reading.  But this approach would align with what researchers are learning about how our brains learn to read.

The foundation of reading is not ABC’s.  The foundation of reading is sounds, sounds listened to by a child and sounds repeated aloud by a child.

How would that work in practice?

  • You, the teacher, would say, one-at-a-time, the 40-plus sounds of the English language. Your student would repeat those sounds, one at a time.  If some sounds were hard for the student to say, you would repeat those sounds and ask the child to repeat those sounds until you were sure the child could hear and pronounce those sounds correctly.
  • Next, one-at-a-time, you would say some tiny words and ask the child to say each word and to say the sounds in the word. You would model how to do this with many words until the child knew what was expected.  You would make it a game, looking around and saying the name of an object nearby like “bat.”  You would sound out the word slowly—“b,” “a,” “t”—and ask the child to do the same.  At first this might be hard for the child, but once she figures out what is expected, she would sound out words quickly.
  • With practice, the child would understand that individual sounds, when combined, form words. Only then would you introduce ABC’s.

Pronunciation of words is an important aspect of learning to read.  Our brains store the sounds of words just like they store the meaning and the look of words. In your mind, right now, as you are reading these words, you are saying the words, right?  And you are remembering the meaning of those words, though at this stage of your life, that might be so automatic that you are unaware of it.  Long ago when you were learning to read, it was the sound of the words which came first to you, long before you knew what the words meant or before you could decipher the letter patterns of words.  Sounds come first.

For more information, read the research of Linnea Ehri (2002).

How much do you know about teaching reading to little kids?

  1. Which should be taught first—blends at the beginnings of words (flag, stop) or blends at the ends of words (hand, fist)?

  1. Is it important for pre-K or kindergarten students to know their ABC’s in order?

 

  1. Which are the hardest vowel sounds for a child to distinguish?          A and E      E and I      I and O      O and U

 

  1. Do children who can name many items  read better?

family reading together

  1. Is the best way to teach reading to have the child memorize words so that every word becomes a sight word?

 

  1. Are all kids developmentally ready to learn to read by kindergarten?

 

  1. What two letters is a child most likely to mix up?

 

  1. If a child ignores punctuation, is that child likely to have reading comprehension problems?

young child attempting to touch his ear with opposite hand

  1. Is following your child’s teacher’s advice on how to teach reading a good idea?

 

  1. How many letter sounds does your child need to be able to hear and pronounce?

 

 

Answers

 

  1. Blends at the beginnings of words are easier for children to learn. So are single consonants at the beginnings of words.  End of word sounds are harder to hear.

  1. No, the order of ABC’s is not important until a child is old enough to sort words into alphabetical order—a second or third grade skill.

 

  1. E and I are the hardest. That is why it is better to teach CVC words with A, O, and U vowels first, and to spend more time teaching E and I words after the A, O, and U words are mastered.

 

  1. Yes. Research shows that the two best predictors of reading achievement are an awareness of letter sounds and an ability to rapidly name objects.

young girl with pencil in mouth

  1. No. The best way to teach reading is to use a systematic phonetic approach.  Eventually, the words we read repeatedly become sight words, but we need to know how to decipher new words, and to do that we need to understand the rules of phonics.

 

  1. No. Usually by age 7 most kids are ready to learn how to read, but even then there are outliers.

 

  1. Lower case b and d are the most mixed up. Some kids recognize the difference immediately, and others take years to discriminate between those two letters.

  1. Yes. Ignoring punctuation means ignoring meaning.

 

  1. It depends where you child’s teacher was educated. In 2016 the National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed the syllabi of teacher training programs in the US and found that 39% of the schools teach what the research proves.

 

  1. In most places in the US, 42 sounds comprise our spoken language. However, regional dialects can increase or decrease that number of sounds slightly.

 

How’d you do on this quiz?  Read comicphonics regularly to know how to teach your child reading based on what the research shows.

 

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.

Identify the main idea with a colored pencil

I find colored pencils or highlighters are so useful when teaching writing.  But they can be just as useful when teaching reading, especially if the same colors are used consistently.

Suppose you are teaching students to identify the main idea in a reading passage, and that the students are reading from a source which they can mark.  First, have students read a passage.  Then help them discover the main idea.  Instruct them to underline or highlight the main idea with a particular color, such as red.  Later, whenever you are working on main idea, ask students to identify it with a red underline.

Sometimes a whole sentence is a main idea, but sometimes the main idea is not identified so neatly.  Sometimes a phrase can be underlined.  Or sometimes the student needs to write the main idea over the title using red ink if it is implied but not stated directly.

Many times all or part of the main idea is repeated in paragraph after paragraph.  Students need to know that the main idea is often repeated, and they need to identify examples of it by underlining those repeats with their red pencils.

What if you are teaching supporting details?  A different color—say orange—could be used to underline supporting details.  If the main idea in a Cinderella story is that Cinderella wants to go to the ball, then all the details helping her get there should be underlined in orange—the fairy godmother, the pumpkin carriage, the mice footmen, the ball gown and of course the glass slippers.  Even the clock striking is an important detail.

Almost every reading test asks for the main idea.  Students need practice, lots of practice in all kinds of reading materials, to identify the main ideas and the details which support the main ideas.

If you are consistent with your color choices, students will get used to seeing their reading through the colors they apply.  And if you are checking to see if students are identifying correctly, all you need to do is look for the color red or orange or whatever color scheme you decide on.  Walking around a classroom, you can easily tell if the students identify correctly, or if they are fooled.

You might be thinking, but students can’t mark textbooks.  True.  But so many schools today use workbooks in many subjects for each student.  Even if the purpose of a particular passage has nothing to do with finding a main idea—a science or math passage, for example—you can still use it to identify main ideas.

 

Use cloze activities to test reading comprehension

If you are trying to assess whether your student, especially your English Language Learner, can understand what she is reading, use cloze activities.

Cloze activities are written passages with words left out.  Students need to supply the missing words.  Sometimes random words are omitted—such as every seventh word—and a blank space replaces a missing word.  Sometimes a particular part of speech is omitted.  Sometimes words that are important for the structure of a sentence,  like prepositions, are omitted.

Let’s take a paragraph and show several cloze variations which yield particular information about a student’s reading comprehension.

This morning, I woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with the new puppy.  Max was in a cage, so I opened it, and let him out.  Quickly I took him to the back of the yard where he knew what to do.  I threw a ball which he liked and a rubber bone which he didn’t like.  Then we came inside and I fixed him a simple breakfast.

Now suppose we leave out every eighth word of the above paragraph.  Here is the result.

This morning, I woke up early and _______ downstairs to play with the new puppy.  ________ was in a cage, so I opened ________, and let him out.  Quickly I took _______ to the back of the yard where ________ knew what to do.  I threw a ________ which he liked and a rubber bone _______ he didn’t like.  Then we came inside ________ I fixed him a simple breakfast.

Depending on the word choices the student makes, you can learn if the student understands the meaning of the paragraph.  You can ask her to justify her choice by explaining which context clues she used.

Now suppose we try a different cloze paragraph, this time leaving out all pronouns.

This morning, _______ woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with the new puppy.  Max was in a cage, so _______ opened _______, and let _______ out.  Quickly _______ took _______ to the back of the yard where _______ knew what to do.  _______ threw a ball which _______ liked and a rubber bone which _______ didn’t like.  Then _______ came inside and _______ fixed him a simple breakfast.

From this exercise, you can learn whether the student knows both subject and object pronouns and when to use them.

Now suppose you are testing appropriate use of articles.  You can remove all articles, and in addition, put spaces before all nouns or adjective-noun groups to see if the student knows whether articles are needed and if so, which articles are needed.

This morning, I woke up early and slipped downstairs to play with _______ new puppy.  _______ Max was in _______ cage, so I opened it, and let him out.  Quickly I took him to _______back of _______ yard where he knew what to do.  I threw _______ ball which he liked and _______ rubber bone which he didn’t like.  Then we came inside and I fixed him _______ simple breakfast.

If a student is studying vocabulary, a word bank can be supplied and from those words the student chooses words to fill in the blanks.

Before you use a cloze activity, know what you are testing for and then create or find a cloze activity which will yield that kind of information.