Category Archives: reading readiness.

Teaching vocabulary

If kids get low grades on reading comprehension, number one on my checklist is vocabulary. If kids don’t understand the words they read, how can they possibly understand the sentences containing those words?

But how to solve this problem?

CVC means consonant-vowel-consonant, and refers to one syllable, short vowel words beginning with a consonant.

For ELL students lacking basic English words, I make flash cards: a picture on one side and the word or words used to identify that picture on the other side. A picture of a child pitching a baseball might use the words “pitch.” “toss,” or “throw.”

I start with pictures of CVC words: “cat,” hat”, and “bat,” for example. Picturing nouns is easy. Picturing verbs like “sat” and “win” is harder, and often I need to demonstrate the actions.

With my students I use the Explode the Code phonics series, so I picture vocabulary words in the order in which the student encounters the words in the series. To these I add a few sight (Dolch) words so that we can make sentences, such as “A cat is not a dog.”

What I have discovered is that students can identify the pictures with just a bit of study, but they cannot use the words in sentences. When they see the word “pitch” they can move their arms in  pitching motions, but they cannot make a sentence using the word “pitch.”

Even for students learning advanced vocabulary words, like in the Wordly Wise series, this is true. They can define a word using a synonym but they have trouble using the word in a meaningful sentence.  (For many students using this series in school, their teachers do not assign the part of the lesson in which students write the new words in sentences, a big mistake.)

When I review already learned vocabulary words, I ask for synonyms, but also for usage. “It is a cat” works for beginning ELL learners. But “It is a catapult” does not work for older ELL students or for English-speaking students.

Another method to increase ELL learners’ vocabulary is to use picture word books meant for preschoolers. Because I want to use the vocabulary my students study to teach them reading, I prefer to begin with CVC words even though a word like “pizza” might be more frequently heard.

Teaching inferences

If students’ vocabulary is good but comprehension lags, the problem could be inferences.

Inferences are connections between what is said in the text and what we know to be true based on our experiences.

Good students delight in bringing their own world view to their reading, enriching the reading experience. But struggling readers don’t know they are supposed to do this. They think everything must be right there on the page. If asked to answer a question based on inference, they might say, “It doesn’t say,” or “The answer isn’t here.”

How can you teach inferences? According to Kylene Beers*, using the “It says—I Say—And So” chart helps.

Suppose, for example, the students read “The Three Little Pigs.” You ask, “Why can’t the wolf blow down the house made of brick?”

It says: The third little pig made his house out of brick.

I say: Brick is strong and heavy. And it is stuck together with cement.

And so: The brick is too strong to be blown down by the wolf.”

For the “It Says—I Say” strategy to work, this strategy must be used regularly, with modeling by the teacher or by students. A good place to start is with fairy tales or other well-known stories. Later, move on to grade level texts.

*When Kids Can’t Read; What Teachers Can Do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004

Best picture books of 2017

As it does every year before the holidays, The New York Times has announced its best illustrated books of the year.  This year the New York Public Library has joined with The New York Times to select these books.  The winners were chosen based only on the illustrations in the books.


 
And those ten winners are:

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, by Michael Mahin. Illustrated by Evan Turk.

Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos, written by Monica Brown. Illustrated by John Parra.

On a Magical Do-Nothing Day, written and illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna.

Plume, written and illustrated by Isabelle Simler.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality, written by Jonah Winter. Illustrated by Stacy Innerst.

The Way Home in the Night, written and illustrated by Akiko Miyakoshi.

Town Is By the Sea, written by Joanne Schwartz. Illustrated by Sydney Smith.

A River, written and illustrated by Marc Martin.

King of the Sky, Written by Nicola Davies. Illustrated by Laura Carlin.

Feather, Written and illustrated by Rémi Courgeon.

For more information on each book, go to https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/books/review/best-illustrated-childrens-2017.html

 

Kids need to know the facts

When I go to students’ homes to tutor them in reading and writing, I bring a pocket-sized  atlas.  That is because inevitably a geographical place is named in a reading passage, and when I ask the students if they know where “Scandinavia” or “New Zealand” is, they don’t know.

It’s not just knowledge of geography which students lack.   It’s when the American Revolution happened, or what news event happened in Egypt this past week or why it’s correct to say the sun is a relatively close star.

Kids just don’t know.

But this lack of knowledge has serious effects on their reading comprehension scores.  I was working on a reading passage with a middle schooler recently, and one of the questions was why Charles Darwin was mentioned but not identified in a passage about the Galapagos Islands.  The student shrugged.  “Who is Charles Darwin?” I asked.  The student shrugged again.  How could he answer the question if he didn’t know who Darwin is?

This problem becomes more acute when the student is from another country and from another first language (or if his parents are).  Years ago I taught two brothers, third and second graders, who were English language learners.  They were reading a passage about Halloween.  They had no idea what “Halloween” meant,  nor jack-o-lanterns nor trick-or-treating.  How could they answer the questions about Halloween in the reading passage?  I took them trick-or-treating on the next Halloween, but their parents were mystified why people would give their children candy.

Even if kids know the code of reading—the sounds of our language and how putting letters together forms words—they cannot score well on comprehension if they don’t know what the facts in the passage are, and what unstated facts are expected to be known as general background knowledge.

I was working with Georgia students using a passage from a New York State test.  The passage concerned winter, snow and sledding.  “I’ve never seen snow,” said my student.  I put the passage away.

If you have young children, read them not just fairy tales and nursery rhymes, but nonfiction—facts.  If you have middle schoolers or older, talk to them about current events, and if they don’t know where something is happening, point to the location on a map.  Use dinners or car rides to offer information.

Ignorance is no advantage in reading or in life.

Help! My daughter reads words backwards

My daughter was reading, “The cat saw catnip,” and she read, “The cat was catpin.”  She does this all the time, and she can’t tell the difference between “b” and “d” no matter how many times I teach her.  What’s going on?

Young child writing C-A-T.

There could be many causes.

Vision problems.  Some children have subtle vision problems not detected by distance charts.  You might have her vision tested by an eye doctor.

Directional confusion. This is a particular vision problem.  Can your child mimic your arm movements when she stands facing you?  Does she mix up down and up, and top and bottom?  Does she mirror write letters and numbers—writing a “b” for a “d”?Two fists with thumbs up and knuckles touching make letter "b" and "d" with a BeD visualized between the two thumbs.

Sequencing problems. Does she say “felt” when she reads “left” or “form” when she means “from”?  (I still do that when I am stressed.)

When a word ends with an “s,” does she say the word as if it begins with an “s,” such as saying “slow” when she reads “lows”?  Does she move words around in sentences, changing the word order?

Mixing up little words. Does she stick in articles (a, an, and the) where they don’t belong, or omit them entirely?  Does she substitute one small word for another, such as “and” for “a” or “for” for “from”?

Maturity.  How old is your daughter?  Every youngster I have taught reading to has had the problems you mention.  I gently correct the child when she makes a mistake, or I say “d” or “b” before she can read a word to help her.  Usually by the age of seven, these problems disappear.  If your child is four or five, these reversals are probably developmental.  However if your child is in first or second grade, you should ask to have your child tested for dyslexia.  Most public schools have reading experts who are trained to deal with these problems.

To Kill a Mockingbird banned again and reinstated again

Biloxi, Mississippi, Public Schools  banned–and then a few days later–and unbanned To Kill a Mockingbird from being taught to eighth graders.  The reason given for the ban is that some of the language in the Pulizer Prize-winning novel makes people uncomfortable.

This novel, published more than 60 years ago, concerns racism and discrimination during the 1930’s in a fictional Alabama town.

Mockingbird has been banned many times in the past, and once again joined a list of children’s books banned at one time or another.  They include

–for language:  Huckleberry Finn, Junie B. Jones and the Stupid, Smelly Bus

–for poor grammar:  the Junie B. Jones series

–for religious insensitivity:  A Wrinkle in Time

–for magic:  the Harry Potter series

–for child nudity:  In the Night Kitchen

–for potty humor:  Captain Underpants

–for exploring puberty:  many Judy Blume books

Ironically, as soon as a book is banned, many children read it on their own without the guidance of teachers and without discussion of its controversial aspects, thus defeating the purpose of the ban.  Go figure.

The illogical logic of English confounds children

Suppose you were teaching a kindergartener his numbers.  You would  start by explaining that “1” means one of anything:  one shoe, one horse, one star.  The student would get it.

But what if later you explaine that sometimes “1” doesn’t mean one.  Sometimes “1” means “two.”  Huh?

And weeks later, you explain that sometimes “1” doesn’t mean on”1” or “2” but “3”!  What?

How is the poor kid expected to learn math?

Yet that is exactly what happens when we teach sounds associated with letters.  We teach that “a” represents the sound in “apple” and “cat.”

But later, we explain that sometimes “a” doesn’t represent the sound in “apple” and “cat.”  It represents the sound in “Abe” and “cake.”

And later, we explain that sometimes “a” doesn’t mean the sounds in “apple” and “Abe” but represents the sounds in “ball” and “awful.”

And weeks later, we explain that sometimes “a” also means the sound in “aha.”

Aah!

In English, some consonant sounds have a one-on-one relationship with a letter.  The letter “b,” for example, always sounds the same.  Young children can easily learn a one-to-one relationship.

But some consonants have double sounds, such as “c” and “g,” whose sound depends on the letter that follows.  Now the child needs to learn not a one-to-one relationship, but a one-to-two relationship.  And some consonants, like the letter “t,” have a one-to-three relationship (“top,” “the,” thin”).

To little kids, a one-to-one logic makes sense.  “I’ll give you my lollipop if you give me your balloon.”  But one-to-two or one-to-three or one-to-seven logic confound children.

That is one of the reasons why learning to read in English is so hard.