Category Archives: reading readiness.

Teach 16 consonant sound-letter associations first, not vowels

If you are teaching your child to read, and you wonder what letters to begin with, choose the 16 consonants that almost always make the same sound at the beginning of English words.  Those letters are b, d, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, t, v, x, and z.

Why these 16?  These sound-letter pairings follow one-to-one logic.  A d always sounds like a d when it begins a word.  An r always sounds like an r when it begins a wordLater your child will learn that certain letters can represent more than one sound (all the vowels, for example) and that certain sounds can be represented by more than one letter (the z sound can be represented by z and s, for example).  That can be confusing.

But for now, as your child learns to read, sticking to one-to-one relationships gives your child confidence.  An m always sounds like an m.  A k always sounds like a k.

Start with sounds that have meaning to children.  If your child’s name is Marco, start by teaching the letter sound m, and tape Marco’s photo on an Mm card to hang on the refrigerator.  If your dog’s name is Bandit, tape Bandit’s picture to a Bb card.  However, don’t use pictures of words beginning with blended sounds (br as in Brian) or digraphs (sh as in Shelly).

Teach children to pronounce the sounds of English

Before children learn their letters, be sure they can pronounce the sounds of English distinctly.  There are 48 sounds of standard American English, although regional dialects might include more or fewer sounds. The 48 single, distinct sounds are listed on the chart below.  Say those sounds and then ask your child to repeat those sounds.

You might wonder, “Is this really necessary?” Yes, it is. Almost always, you will encounter a sound that your child cannot hear or say properly. Let the child listen and repeat the sounds correctly until you are sure the child can hear and say the sounds. You can do this with a child as young as two. Only when the child can hear and say the sounds is it time to associate sounds with letters.

48 distinct sounds in standard American English:

 

Children learn sounds from big to small

children pronouncing elephantLittle children who are learning about sounds in words move from larger units of sound—phrases and words—to smaller units of sound—sounds within words and syllables.  Adults hear “On your mark, get set, go,” but a two-year-old hears “Onyourmark, getset, go.”  Children need to hear distinct sounds within words and to reproduce those sounds properly before they start pairing sounds with letters.

For this reason, most two-year-olds are too young to learn to read.  Even some five-year-olds might not be able to distinguish sounds within words.  In some countries, children don’t learn to read until they are seven. 

A good example of this is when children learn the ABC song.  Most three-year-olds can start the song with A-B-C-D. . .E-F-G-. . .H-I-J-K .  But when they get to L-M-N-O-P they sing L-um-men-oh-P or M-uh-let-O-P.  They don’t hear L-M-N-O as distinct sounds.

I still remember the day when I was in first grade when  my teacher taught my class the words of and the.  I thought, wow, those are two different words.  I didn’t know that.  I thought ofthe was a single sound.

Most two-year-olds are too young to learn to read.  Even some five-year-olds might not be able to distinguish sounds within words.  For this reason, in some countries, children don’t learn to read until they are seven. 

What can you do to help your child hear sounds more clearly?  Speak distinctly.  Slow down.  Face your child and let her watch your mouth when you talk.  When you hear her slurring sounds together which should be pronounced separately, don’t correct her but instead repeat the sounds properly.

While we’re on the subject of hearing words correctly, children will subconsciously learn the rules of grammar without instruction.  A four-year-old might say, “Mommy goed to the store,” properly making the verb past tense by adding the d sound to the end of the word without realizing go does not follow the rules.  Or he might say, “I amn’t done yet.”  He is learning contractions, not realizing that am can’t be contracted in the negative form.  Or a child might say, “Her said so.”  Objective pronouns are learned before subject pronouns.

To correct these mistakes, repeat what the child says correctly without comment on the error.  When the child hears words said properly enough times, he or she will say words that way too.

 

Check your child’s prereading skills before teaching her to read

The place to start teaching reading is by assessing her prereading skills.  This is easy.  Hand your child a picture book upside down with the back cover facing up.  Watch what happens.

Does the child turn the book over so the cover is right side up?

Does the child open the book with the bulk of the pages near her right hand?

When the child turns the pages, does she turn them from front to back?

Ask the child to point which way the words are read.  Does she point top to bottom?  Left to right?

Ask the child where the cover and back page are.  Where is the title?

If your child can answer these questions correctly, she knows basic pre-reading skills for the English language.  If she cannot answer these questions correctly, teach her. 

How?  Read often to your child and point out these basics.  You could also play games by holding the book upside down, or by beginning to read from the last page, or by looking at the back cover and saying, “Is this where we begin?”  If your child corrects you, she has absorbed these pre-reading skills. 

If you read to your child in two languages such as Chinese and English, or Arabic and English, make sure your child understands these skills as they apply to English.  Some languages do not follow the English language pattern.  You might want to stop lessons in the other language for a few months until the English pattern is established.

Ask children to use body language and gestures to learn

When my one-year-old son was still mostly pre-verbal, I “read” to him books about a baby doing the simplest of tasks—jumping, crouching, and clapping, for example.  Each time I turned the page, I asked him, “What’s the baby doing?”  He would act out the drawing—jumping, crouching low and applauding—all without words.

child making letter T with his body

My son was engaging in the world of books long before he had verbal vocabulary to explain what he saw.  He used what he had—the gestures, the motions of his body—to “say” what he saw.

Another time, I worked with a third grader who had excellent verbal fluency, but she could not read.  We worked on phonics, and she slowly acquired skills to take apart words into letter sounds and to assemble letter sounds into words.  She was an excellent actress, so when she would learn a vocabulary word, she would act it out—standing, moving about the room, using her whole body to memorize the meaning of a word.  I was flabbergasted.  And when she came upon a word she had previously acted out, she would go through the same motions—this time sitting in her seat—to remember what the word meant. 

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter L

Working with these children opened my mind to using gestures and body language to learn.  These  allow a child’s thinking to progress even when he doesn’t have the vocabulary to explain what he is thinking.  Or sometimes he does have the vocabulary, but it is quicker to respond with gestures than to recall the appropriate words.  What is “slope,” for example? Doesn’t lifting a hand and sliding it downward on a diagonal show understanding?  What is “ferocious”?  If a child bares her teeth and makes a growling sound, doesn’t she show that she knows that word?

Large numbers of children in preschool and in the primary grades are kinesthetic learners.  Yet teachers rarely call upon these children’s body language and gestures to help them learn.  With a little imagination, it’s possible.  Three students stand in a row, holding hands.  One student lets go.  Three minus one equals two.  A child curls herself into the letter “C.” Another creates a big “O” with her arms.  A third stands tall and stretches out both arms into a “T.”  They move close together.  “COT.”  Three students act out “ice” by hugging and not moving.  Three more act out “water” by making swimming strokes.  Three more act out “steam” by dancing rapidly.

Performing to learn takes time, yes.  But it’s also fun.  It engages students.  It uses many of the senses.  It works.

Which is better—online or in-hand books—for little kids?

According to former professor of linguistics at American University Naomi Baron, we must consider two components of reading, the physical medium and the child’s mind-set, to say which is better.

Professor Baron recommends using physical reading materials with young children.  This is because a child often asks questions or makes comments to the adult reading the book.  The child is less likely to pause to speak when seeing a book online.  Online materials sometimes have ads, pop-ups or such visually stimulating material that the child is distracted from the meaning of the material. 

Dr. Baron says that because children use online modes for games and socialization, they are used to absorbing material on tablets or cell phones effortlessly.  When they see a book online, they expect to understand it just as effortlessly.  They are unprepared for deep engagement with online reading materials.

For more information, see Dr. Baron’s new book, How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen and Audio.

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.

Frustration in teaching remotely

As many teachers and students head back to their virtual classrooms this week, I’d like to share my experience learning Zoom and Google Docs, changing from a PDF to an editable format and teaching reading and writing to students ten miles and three time zones away.

In four words:  I have been overwhelmed.

Before the pandemic, I had used GoToMeeting with one student whose father set everything up for us.  That worked, in part because the father hovered nearby and anticipated his daughter’s and my needs.

But as I returned to teaching in November, after seven months of babysitting grandchildren, I struggled to learn Zoom.  For my first classes, my husband (my IT person) sat at my side off camera and slipped his hands on the keyboard from time to time to rescue me.  I couldn’t have done it without him.

For me, teaching via Zoom has been like my trying to teach English in Vulcan aboard the Starship Enterprise with Mr. Spock at my side.  I know the content, but grapple with how to use the technology.  For example,

  • If my student writes her homework in a workbook, how can I see her answers via Zoom? She can hold the workbook in front of the camera, but she might hold it too close or too far away or she might jiggle it.  With time, I learned how to solve this problem.  Her parents can scan her work before our lesson and send it to me as an email attachment which I can then open and share on Zoom.  It took me weeks to learn that.

 

  • And what if I want to scan information to send to my student as an email attachment? Before, I would make a photocopy and bring it with me to a lesson.  Scanning and inputting is on my to-learn list.

 

  • If I want to see what my student is writing by hand, how can I? Her writing surface is out of camera range.  I learned that if I ask her to reread the corrected writing, I know if she changes it.

 

  • For some students, I can see only the tops of their heads. Asking a student to sit up works until the student slumps a minute later.  I have asked parents to adjust the camera angle, and that helps, but some children deliberately hide.

 

  • One of my students is hyperactive, sliding in his chair, contorting his body, standing, stretching, walking around and darting off camera. He even falls asleep.  When I teach in person, I use eye contact or a tap on the desk to engage him.  But via Zoom, if he is not looking at the camera, I have only my voice.  I am still working on this problem.

 

  • Many of my students are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Sometimes I ask my students to bring their parents to the camera at the end of our classes. When I try to explain homework expectations or student behavior to the parents, they nod, smiling without saying a word, and I know I have not made my message clear.  I have learned to recap a lesson in writing immediately after the lesson concludes.  I include the homework assignment and any other work a student might need—like a prewriting organizer the student worked on.  I send everything as an email to a parent’s email.

These are small problems.  Bigger ones are caused by my lifetime of relying on my husband to handle online technology.  On Monday, for example, I kept losing Google Docs I had downloaded and opened, ready to revise with a student.  My husband pointed out something basic that I was unaware of:  At the top of my screen are tabs for documents I unload from the internet.  At the bottom of my screen are browser and application icons.  Duh.

I am writing about my frustration using virtual technology because many of your children’s teachers are going through the same ordeal.  They were trained in math or reading, not in how to teach remotely.  They were trained to walk the classroom to engage students, but they were not trained to monitor two dozen children on a computer monitor, peering at faces the size of postage stamps.  Older teachers, who are experts in their subjects, are wrestling with a technology learning curve.  What might seem so basic to a thirty-year-old who was born with a smart phone on her hip seems odd and even frightful to a veteran teacher.

Two months teaching in this new mode is not enough for me to master it.  Nor is a semester for many of your children’s teachers.  My New Year’s resolution is to forgive myself for my ignorance and to practice, practice, practice Zoom and Google Docs and any other technology that will help me be a better teacher.

As Mr. Spock said, “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.”  I have no wish either, but we all must to get through this pandemic and beyond.

How to teach beginning compound words

After students learn to read two- and three-letter words (consonant-vowel-consonant or CVC words), many are ready to learn compound words.  Because compound words are longer, reading them makes students feel like they are making progress.

It is important to select the words you use carefully.  Many compound words are not CVCCVC words.  Some words the child should be able to decipher include those below.

backpack Batman bedbug
bobcat cannot catnap
catnip cobweb hatbox
hilltop hotdog hotrod
laptop pigpen pinup
sunset sunup zigzag

Let the child study a word for a few seconds.  Tell him the word has two little words in it.  If he cannot figure it out, tell him that the two little words come together in the middle of the long word.  If he still is stumped, put your fingers over the syllables, one at a time, and ask the child to sound out each part.  Then ask him to put both parts together.  If he has already forgotten the first syllable, do it again.

“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.