Category Archives: reading research

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.

Does your state require poor readers to repeat third grade?

Fifteen states plus Washington, D.C, require third graders who are not reading at a “proficient” level by the end of the school year to repeat third grade.  Those states include Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and Washington.  Three more states are about to join the list:  South Carolina at the end of the 2017-2018 school year; Nevada on July 1, 2019; and Michigan at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.*

Eight other states allow third grade retention but do not mandate it: Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

States offer exemptions to some students, such as ESL students, special ed students, students who have recommendations from parents and teachers, and students who have been retained once already.

Even so, almost half of all states require or allow a student who is not reading well at the end of third grade to repeat it.

Why?

  • Educators consider fourth grade a transition year. In kindergarten to third grade, students learn to read.  In fourth grade and beyond, students read to learn.  Starting in fourth grade, students can’t learn well unless they can read.
  • Research in 2015 showed that about two out of three American fourth graders could not read proficiently, that is, at a basic level. Almost 4/5 of African American, Native American and Latino students could not read at a proficient level.
  • Down the road, about ¼ of those below basic level readers won’t graduate from high school.

In  the next blog we’ll look at some of the pros and cons concerning third grade retention.

* http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/third-grade-reading-legislation.aspx

Maintain reading skills during the summer

Students loose reading skills during the summer if they don’t continue reading.  Educators call this loss the “summer slide.”  It is most severe among low-income students who lose up to two months of reading skills.  Yet it is sometimes nonexistent among middle class students who make slight gains in reading during summer months.  Why the difference?

Summer slide (decline) of reading scores.

  • A study of 3000 sixth and seventh graders in Atlanta Public School showed that students who read at least six books during the summer maintained or improved their reading skills.  But students who didn’t read lost up to a whole grade of reading skills.  (B. Heyns, 1978)
  • A study of Baltimore students over 15 years found that By the end of fifth grade, Baltimore students who didn’t read during the summer measured two years behind their classmates who did.  They concluded that 2/3 of the reading difference in ninth graders can be attributed to reading or not during summer school breaks.  (K Alexander, D. Entwisle and L. Olson, 2007)
  • A study of students completing third grade who took part in their local libraries’ summer reading programs scored 52 Lexile points ahead of their classmates who did not. (Dominican University)
  •  Children’s absence from reading during the summer is a major hurdle for achieving good reading skills by the end of third grade.  (The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading)
  • The summer slide is cumulative.  Some estimate that by the end of high school the summer slide can account for up to a four year lag in reading achievement, and it can have an effect on high school graduation rates.  According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “one in six children who are not reading proficiently in 3rd grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers.”

So how can you combat the summer slide?

  • Sign your child up for your local library’s summer reading program, and make sure your child completes the reading.
  • Go to the library regularly and let your child select books she will enjoy.
  • Help your child to read a chapter book a week, or a picture book each night.
  • Encourage your child to read the newspaper, television guides, magazines and online articles.
  • Reward your child with a trip to the book store to select her very own book.
  • Read to your child every evening, and let him read to you.  Your reading will teach fluency and pronunciation, and establish the notion that reading for pleasure is fun.

(This blog first appeared on May 16, 2014.)

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.

Vocabulary comes in three tiers

Educated people use a three-tiered vocabulary, according to research* done thirty years ago.

  • Tier 1 words include basic words, the working vocabulary The X factor in type facesof little children. Children do not need to be taught these words; they learn them from interacting with their caretakers and other children.  In kindergarten, some of these words are called sight words.  Usually these words do not have multiple meanings.  Such words include “no,” “dad” and “dog.”

  • Tier 2 words include words we use frequently as adults but which little children do not use. These “adult” words can be used in many contexts.  They are harder for children to learn since they have multiple meanings.  Tier 2 words add detail to our speech and writing and are necessary to learn in order to understand what we read.  ”Obvious,” “complex” and “verify” are examples.
  • Tier 3 words are used infrequently, but are necessary to speak and to read about particular areas of study. In an English class, such words might include “predicate,” “narrator” and “sonnet.”  In a medical journal such words or phrases might include “prefrontal cortex,” “neuroplasticity” and “synapses.”  These are often “idea” words used as scaffolding to build further knowledge.

The Common Core State Standards are asking teachers to teach and use Tier 3 words more.  Instead of saying the “action word,” teachers say the “verb.”  Instead of asking for the “total,” teachers ask for the “sum.”

What this means is that students, beginning in primary grades, are being taught Tier 3 vocabulary words.  Children are expected to know what “analyze” and “cite” mean, and they are expected to use those words, not euphemisms, in explaining their thinking or behavior.  And when words like those appear on state-wide, end-of-year exams, children are expected to know what they mean and know how to respond accordingly.

You, as parents, can reinforce Tier 3 vocabulary by using appropriate academic vocabulary with your children.  Harry Potter is the protagonist of his stories.  Three and two are factors of six.  Anne Frank’s diary is a primary source.  Arthropods have an exoskeleton.

Children need to master certain Tier 3 words in order to understand directions from teachers and directions on tests.  We will talk more about these words in future blogs.

*Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L.  (2002).  Bringing words to life.  New York:  Guilford.

How to make vocabulary stick

academicvocabIf you teach students vocabulary, check out 101 Strategies to Make Academic Vocabulary Stick by Marilee Sprenger.

Let me identify a few of the strategies:

  • Create a chart marked noun, verb, adjective and adverb. Make sure students know what those parts of speech are.  When you teach a new word, ask the students to write the word in the appropriate column.  Then talk about different forms of the word.  “Predict,” for example is a verb.  But “prediction?”  A noun.  “Predictable?”  An adjective.  “Predictably?” An adverb.
  • You, the teacher, “wear” the new word on your person. Write the word on masking tape and tape it to yourself.  Let students observe you walking around wearing the new word.  Let them think about that word.  Later, let students offer their thoughts about the word before you define it for them.
  • Teach students how to annotate their books or articles in order to learn new vocabulary words. For example, teach students to circle words they don’t know.  Write the meaning in the margin.  Now draw a line connecting the new word with the margin meaning.  Or draw connecting lines between a new word and its synonym or antonym.
  • Act out a word, and let students guess what the word might be. This is a good way to reinforce synonyms too.
  • To teach prefixes and suffixes, create a graphic organizer with the affix in the center. Around it write four words using this affix.  From each word, like spokes of a wheel, write the definition of the word.  Still farther out on the spokes, write a sentence using the words properly.
  • To categorize shades of meaning, draw five squares next to each other, forming a “train.” Study five words (on the board or on sticky notes for each student or group).  Using the squares, line up the five words in some kind of order (strongest to weakest, most informal to most formal, or most general to most specific, for example).
  • Use online dictionaries, but not just any online dictionaries. Lingro.com can offer students a definition every time they click on an online word they don’t know.  Blachan.com/shali defines a word, tells its part of speech, and shows images from Flickr, Google and Yahoo.  Wordhippo.com tells a word’s meaning, a synonym, an antonym, its pronunciation, and words which rhyme with it.  Wordhippo translates words into other languages too.  These dictionaries are great for English language learners.

These are just seven of the suggestions in 101 Strategies to Make Academic Vocabulary Stick.  Further information about each strategy is available in the References section of the book, including the names of educators who “invented” the strategies and the research to back them up.

And you thought you were creative!

What kinds of questions help students learn?

Asking the right kinds of questions can help students learn, according to Robert J. Marzano*, an expert in the field.  He divides questions into four kinds, those that elicit

Students shouting I Know to teacher

  • details (narrow information or facts),
  • characteristics (general information about the category into which the details fit),
  • elaborations (enhanced details about the information within a category, including the reasons why certain things happen) and
  • evidence (sources that bolster or debunk the reasoning made by the student when elaborating, or reconsideration by the student of his own thinking and logic ).

Let’s apply his ideas to some reading that children do.

For third graders reading Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great,

  • Details: What are some things Sheila is afraid of?  Where does Sheila live most of the time?  Where does she go on vacation?
  • Characteristics: Is Sheila the Great a book of fiction or nonfiction?  What kind of fiction?  Can you name some other books that fit into this category?
  • Elaborations:  Why is Sheila afraid to learn to swim?  Why are other kids afraid to swim?  Are they the same reasons why some kids are afraid to ride bikes or to touch spiders?
  • Evidence: Where could you find information about why kids are afraid to swim?  If you use the internet, what key words would you use to find out?  If you talked to a person, what person would be an expert?  a non-expert?

For preschoolers being read William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,

  • Details: What kind of animal is Sylvester?  Where does Sylvester find the magic pebble?  What kind of animal scares Sylvester?
  • Characteristics: Are there really such things as magic pebbles?  What do we call stories that are make-believe?  Can you think of another make-believe story?  Why do children like make-believe stories?
  • Elaborations: Why is Sylvester sad after no one can see him?  Why are his parents sad?  Would I be sad if you were lost like Sylvester?
  • Evidence: If you became lost, who could you go to so I could find you?  What would be some information about me that you could tell the police?

Each level of questions becomes harder to answer, so if you use this questioning strategy, begin with details questions and work your way to harder questions. The first two levels, details and characteristics, can be asked of a group, but the other two levels require more thought and might better be considered through discussion.  Evidence-based questions might require time to answer, so might be given as homework, or be talked over again when the child has had time to consider his response.

To make this line of questioning easy on you, the parent or teacher, think details first, then genre and characteristics of that genre, then questions beginning with “why,” and last sources for more information.

*Marzano heads Marzano Research Laboratory and is author of books on teaching.  He wrote about this questioning technique in the February 2013 issue of Educational Leadership.  For examples of his questioning technique, go to   http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el201302_marzano.pdf.