Category Archives: reading readiness.

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.

Teaching the letter q

Q is a letter that deserves a reading lesson of its own for many reasons, as I discovered while working with a kindergartener.

  • The shape of the lower case qlowercaseQ is confusing, changing its appearance depending on the typeface used.  It can be made with a straight descending line only, a straight descending line with a forward slash attached to it,  or a straight descending line with a forward curve attached to it. And then there are serifs, which add another visual element.
  • A lower case q can be mistaken for a p or a g.  It needs to be taught with p and g distractions to help students recognize the differences in those letters.
  • The presence of the silent u can lead the child to pronounce a word like quick as kwuh-ick.  So qu- words need to be pronounced among CVC words.

I would begin by telling the child that the u is silent.  The u has to be there for spelling reasons, but it is not pronounced.

Then practice simple CVC-like words such as quack, quad, quest, quill and quit.

You could create a BINGO-like card with words and nonsense words like quad/quab, puest/quest, and guit/quit, to test the child’s recognition of the real q.

You could pour sand or sugar into a pan and have the child draw the first letter of words you say, such as pest, quest, pack, quack, pick, and quick.  Using multiple senses helps the concepts studied to stick better than reading aloud or writing with a pencil.

You could show an assortment of flashcard words and ask the child to pronounce them in order to reinforce that the u is silent.

My point is that q is more complicated than most other consonants and needs to be taught with special emphasis.

Hooked on Phonics

When you are teaching a child to read, it is important to use supplementary materials.  One such reading instruction series is Hooked on Phonics.

Why I like and recommend Hooked on Phonics:

  • Book 1 of Hooked on Phonics teaches VC and CVC words, introducing short a, i, o, u, and e in that order. Most phonics instruction begins this way.
  • New words are introduced in rows of up to six words, often with fewer than ten new words per page. With lots of white space, the appearance of the pages is friendly.
  • The large typeface looks like children’s printing with the a’s and g’s easy to read.
  • Each new vowel sound is introduced with a vivid picture of a word which begins with that letter sound (although not many children today know what an ox is).
  • Hooked on Phonics intersperses 17 one- or two-page illustrated stories, throughout Book 1. The attractive stories are well-illustrated with humorous black and white line drawings.  The captions of the stories use mostly CVC words.  The stories continue through all five of the instruction books.
  • Newly introduced words are reviewed over and over.
  • Book 2 continues with CVC words, teaching beginning word blends, which continue the one-letter-to-one-sound relationship established in Book 1. This kind of logic makes sense to children.
  • Book 3 expands CVC words by introducing end-of-word blends; it also introduces a few suffixes like -ing and -ed, which create two-syllable words.
  • Book 4 introduces long vowels (silent e and double vowels)in one-syllable words.
  • Book 5 introduces two-letter vowel sounds (harder than Book 4 words), three-letter beginning blends (harder than book 2 blends), and soft c and g.
  • Students don’t need to write anything to use this series, a plus for students who balk at writing.

What I don’t like about Hooked on Phonics:

  • Book 1 introduces 44 sight words along with 168 VC and CVC words. In other words, about 20% of the words to be learned in book one are sight words, not phonics words.  With so much memorizing to be done, children might think memorizing words is as important as sounding out words.  This misunderstanding of how new words are decoded—memorized rather than sounded out—can inculcate bad reading behaviors in beginning readers.</li
  • The first blends introduced to children (ch-, sh-, and th-) are not blends at all. They are digraphs, letter combinations whose original sounds are ignored and replaced with new sounds. This  can confuse children who are learning that English is a logical sound system.  Teaching digraphs at this point does not make sense.
  • The reading books that accompany the series can be hard to read. One Level 2 book, for example, uses the words “detective,” “ghost,” “house,” “kitten” “thanks,” “meow,” “blanket” and “white,” words which are far beyond the reading ability of a child learning to form beginning blends in one-syllable, short-vowel words.
  • Some easy phonics rules (adding an s to form plurals, pronouncing double consonants such as -ll at the end of words as a single sound, and pronouncing -ck at the end of words as a single sound) are not mentioned. Why not?
  • Two- and three-syllable words are barely mentioned, and advanced phonics is not covered at all. In my teaching of reading, I meet children who learn phonics using one-syllable words only.  Yet children need word attack skills for pronouncing long words, for recognizing roots, prefixes and suffixes, and for spelling certain kinds of words.  Phonics for so many children stops before these skills are learned and guessing at words begins.

The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages of using Hooked on Phonics as a supplement to beginning reading instruction.  With online access now available for phones, computers and tablets, kids who are attracted to technology have a reason to like the series as much as their parents and teachers.

What to do when a child says “It hurts” as he reads

I was talking to my friend about her summer visit with her grandson who is about to start first grade.  Together the two of them were reading a beginner reader.  The boy was reading the three- and four-letter words well.

But when he came to a longer word, he would look up with sad, sad eyes  and say, “It hurts!”

“What hurts?” his grandmother would ask.

“That word hurts.  It’s too big,” he would say.

It would be a funny story if the pain the boy felt were not real.  I have seen this with other children too.

In particular I have seen children squirm when we first attempt  CVCe words after mastering CVC words.  That silent e at the end of words seems like an impossible hurdle:  so intimidating that children would rather stop learning than face it.

I’ve seen the fear, too, when children are learning how to read two-syllable words.  When there are twin consonants, as in “little” or “yellow,” and I tell them to split the word between the identical consonants, there is no problem.  But when we attempt to read syllables in words with different consonants between two vowels such as “Wilson” or “random,” the children freak.

Their fear is real.

One time I moved from CVC to CVCe words with a girl who had had no previous phonics learning.  She could read most CVC words easily, so I spent only a few lessons reviewing them before moving on to CVCe words.  She looked at those words as if they were spitting fire.  She stopped speaking, shook her head, crossed her arms in front of her and pushed back her chair.  We had reached the limit of her understanding, and she feared what lay ahead.

If this happens to you, I suggest

Figure out where the student’s learning boundary is. What has the student learned fairly confidently, and what next step brings on fear.

Begin each lesson with a review of what the student already knows. Compliment the student.  Make students believe in their abilities.

Introduce the next concept slowly, incrementally. For example, if you are introducing CVCe words, start with only one vowel such as a.  Don’t try to teach all five vowels in the same lesson.

Show the child similar words with and without the silent e, such as “cap” and “cape,” and “tap” and “tape.” Or “mit” and “mitten,” and “kit” and “kitten.”  Since replacing first consonants is easier than replacing second consonants, stick to the same second consonant for the first lesson.  Keep as much of the words the same as you can so there are fewer variables.

If at the next lesson the student seems to have forgotten the previous lesson, accept that and start again. Some children move quickly through phonics, and others move slowly, or stall at learning certain skills.

If the child learns slowly, advance slowly. There is no right or wrong length of time to learn phonics skills.  What you are teaching the child is a life-long skill, so if it takes five months to conquer CVCe, so what?  Over a lifetime of 80-plus years, isn’t it better to learn to read well than to forever “hurt” when you see hard words?

When is a phone a bathtub?

Look carefully at the image below.  What is it?

According to a four-year-old connecting the lettered dots, it’s a bathtub.  The preK student thought the receiver looks like a shower nozzle, and the rest of it–well, who knows.

Wrote his mother, “Companies may want to update their workbook pictures.  Not sure anyone under 20 years old has ever used one like this.”

Fun picture books for beginning readers, plus learning activities

Are you looking for funny stories for your beginning reader? Silly stories using easy-to-read CVC and sight words?  With silly pictures to make kids laugh? And learning activities to reinforce the phonics?

We’ve made them!

Click on the image above for more information on these beginning readers.

Years ago, when my kids were learning to read, that’s what I wanted. But I couldn’t find them. So I started writing them. My sister, an art teacher, made them even funnier with her cartoon-like drawings. We tried them out on our kids and later my students, improved them, and now they are available for you to use with your beginning readers.

The story themes focus on little kids’ lives.

• A six-year-old receives a yo-yo for her birthday, but her father wants to play with it.

• A baby brother wants to do what his kindergarten-age brother does, but he’s too little.

• A wild child makes a mess while the babysitter gabs on the phone.

• A preschooler talks his grandfather into playing with his toys.

• A five-year-old devises ways to hide her father’s bald head.

After each story are several pages of game-like learning activities to reinforce the words and ideas of the stories.

My sister, Anne Trombetta, the illustrator, and I, the author, are teachers with masters’ degrees. We’ve applied educational research to devise story lines, words, activities and art to engage new readers.

Please check out our early reader picture books. We hope you’ll not only buy  them, but tell us how your little reader responded to the silly stories.