Category Archives: reading strategies

When two letters equal one sound: teaching digraphs

mother works with child reading story bookWhen children learn to read using a phonics method, they start by learning that each sound has a one-to-one relationship with a letter.  This makes reading seem logical to little children.  See a B and say “b.”  As teachers we don’t muddy beginning readers’ thinking by telling new readers that some letters mean more than one sound or that some letters, when paired with other letters, make totally different sounds or that some sounds can be represented by multiple groupings of letters.  We save that for later, after children have “mastered” the concept of CVC words and blends.

But eventually children learn that written English is not as logical as it seems at first.  Most advanced phonics instruction begins by teaching children consonant digraphs, two letters which, when paired, represent a sound that neither of the individual letters represents.  The pairs which are taught first usually include ck, qu, sh, ch, and th.

If you find that children balk at learning this part of the “code,” this is normal.  A four- or five-year-old’s understanding of logic is not the same as an adult’s.  One-to-one relationships between sounds and letters makes sense to little children, but one-to-two relationships do not.

I recommend you start with one digraph per lesson.  Just like beginning-of-word blends are easier for children to learn than end-of-word blends, beginning-of-word digraphs are too.  The exception is “-ck.”  I  teach that while I am teaching CVC words containing blends.

But for other digraphs, I usually start with “sh” because there are lots of “sh” one syllable, short-vowel words such as shag, shed, shin, shot, and shut.  I try to make learning “sh” at the beginning of words a game, using letter tiles and BINGO cards with “sh” words.

After a student becomes comfortable pronouncing “sh” at the beginning of words, I move on to another beginning-of-word digraph.  The order isn’t important, but it is important that you constantly review the previously learned digraphs as you move along.  For children who find remembering difficult, it is especially important to advance slowly, spending a large part of each lesson reviewing.

When the student is reasonably secure with pronouncing these digraphs at the beginnings of words, I might tackle teaching how to pronounce digraphs at the ends of words, one at a time.  Or I might delay this kind of instruction, depending on how difficult it was for the student to learn the beginning of word digraphs.

Teaching VC and VCC words beginning with short vowels

Many beginning readers have trouble pronouncing two- and three-letter words which begin with a short vowel such as at and ink.  Children can pronounce “cat” yet not “at.”

Just as it is easier for children to learn consonant sounds, it seems easier for them to learn words which begin with consonants than to learn words which begin with vowels.

As a result, I teach CVC words first, including words with beginning and ending blends.  Then I teach VC or VCC words.  Many one-syllable short-vowel, words begin with a vowel and end with consonant blends.  I teach such CVCC words before I teach VCC words.

First I introduce two-letter words, some of which (in, on) children have already learned as sight words.  Other two-letter words include Al, am, an, at, ax,  Ed, ex if, it, ox, up and us.

One problem in teaching such words is that many of these words don’t have pictures which form a meaningful association for children.   How do you picture “us,” for example.  Two girls, arm in arm?  The student will say “girls” or “friends” or “sisters” but not “us.”  Another problem is that some of these words, such as “ex” and “ox” are not familiar to children.  When I can, I find pictures and make flash cards to help children associate words with pictures.  But that is hard.

After I teach two-letter VC words, I teach three-letter VCC words, including add, alp, ant, app, ask, asp, act, aft, and, egg, elk, elm, elf, end, egg, imp, ink, and off.  By teaching, I mean making words of letter tiles for children to read, and then asking them to make the words I say, again using letter tiles.  I also play BINGO using cards with these words on them.  I  make lists to read (boring but necessary).  We review these words often.  I write sentences using these words for children to read, sometimes in the form of a question which they must answer with a yes or no.  (Can an ant ask an egg to sit?  Can an elk add 2 + 2?  The sillier, the better.)

You can’t assume that because a child can read “cat,” she can also read “act.”  Tiny words beginning with short vowel sounds should be taught explicitly and should be reviewed until you are sure the child can sound them out properly.

When a word has a single consonant between two vowels, sometimes (not often) the consonant goes with the first syllable.

Usually when a two-syllable word has a single consonant between two vowels, the consonant goes with the second syllable.  This pattern forms a first syllable ending in a long or open vowel.  Some words like this include

  • minus
  • tulip
  • pupil
  • motel

Because the majority of two syllable words with a consonant between two vowels follow this pattern, children should learn this as the rule before they learn exceptions.  Lists of words like this are available in many reading workbook series or online.

But students need to know that a few words don’t follow this rule of pronouncing the consonant with the second syllable.  Some words are pronounced with the consonant ending the first syllable and forming a CVC first syllable.

I have not found readily available lists of words like these, so I am including some here.

  • manic, panic, colic, comic, frolic, sonic, tonic
  • oven
  • Janet, planet
  • punish
  • olive
  • livid, timid, valid
  • delta
  • rebel, shrivel, level, civil, devil, hovel, Nevil
  • deluge
  • lizard, wizard
  • driven, given, Kevin, seven
  • second

To find if a word is an exception to the rule, have the student pronounce the word with the consonant starting the second syllable (following the rule).  If the student does not recognize the word, then have the student pronounce the word with the consonant ending the first syllable.  Many times this second pronunciation will make sense, but not if the student is unfamiliar with the word.  In that case, you will need to pronounce the word correctly for the student to hear and explain the meaning of the word to help the student remember it.

The challenges of teaching an autistic child to read

One of my students is a primary grades student with autism.  She speaks in single words, much like a toddler.  Sitting still for her is hard , so she eats an apple or some Cheerios while we work.  But that diverts her attention.

Through previous years of schooling, she has learned her letter sounds and many CVC words.  After working with her on how to pronounce blends with CVC words and observing her for many lessons, I have concluded that my phonics work may be in vain.  She seems to have memorized all the words she recognizes.

So now I am bringing flash cards with pictures of items and their names on one side, and just the names on the other side.  I am attempting to increase her reading vocabulary using a few sight words during each lesson, a method which I know is less effective than phonics.

Working with her is discouraging because she cannot tell me what works and what doesn’t.  I must observe her behavior, and based on my findings, figure out how to proceed.

Although I have taught several children with autism who are less impaired than this student, I have not taken courses in this field of special education.  On my own I have researched how to teach reading to a child with autism.  I have found that

  • Some children with autism cannot learn to read using phonics, but some can.
  • Teaching nouns is easier than teaching any other part of speech.
  • If you are teaching action verbs, it helps if you “perform” the verb—jumping, waving, singing.
  • Reading factual information—nonfiction—works much better than reading fiction.
  • Reading about a child’s interests helps motivate a child for a reading lesson.
  • Forget inferences. A child with autism cannot pick up subtle clues.
  • Expect no questions.

With my young student, I have made some inroads.  She accepts me as a teacher, as someone who interacts with her weekly.  She enjoys reading words she knows and receiving compliments and high-fives from me.  She willingly starts each lesson though she says “all done” many times throughout.  She scatters my materials with a brush of her arm less frequently now.  She no longer screams during our lessons.

But have I taught her any reading?  I honestly don’t know.

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.

 

Make a summer resolution to read

On January first, many of us make New Year resolutions.  Why not do the same thing on the first day of summer vacation?  In particular, why not make a resolution to encourage our children to read?

Here are some easy ways to get even the youngest readers reading.

  • Make time for reading every day. Turn off the TV.  Put away the phone.  Turn off the video games.    You can read to your little one, or you can share the reading with your youngster who is learning to read or is reluctant to read.  If you have a reluctant reader, you can read up to a suspenseful part, and then ask your reluctant reader to take turns.  Or you can read five pages while he reads one.  Whatever gets the student to read.

girl reading Junie B. Jones

  • Provide books, lots of books. This could mean weekly trips to the library for a stack of books.  Or trips to the local resale shop.  Or a special trip to the bookstore for one special book as a reward.  Let the child pick and choose.  If he finds one author he likes, find more by the same author or on the same topic.

Son and mother reading on a park bench.

  • Document the reading. On the refrigerator, start a chart for each member of the family.  List the title of each book read.  Make it a contest if your child is competitive.  Recognize that chapter books take longer than picture books and “handicap” the readers of longer books.  Offer rewards?

children looking at picture of Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln

  • Make sure children see you, the adult, reading for pleasure. Laugh out loud when you read a funny passage.  Whistle when you read something exciting.  Talk about what you are reading.  “Wow!  I didn’t know that!”  Entice your little ones into the pleasure of reading.

Research shows that some of the gains made by children during the previous school year are lost if they don’t read during the summer (called the “summer slide”).  Likewise,  those gains made during the school year can be solidified and even augmented by reading during the summer.  Read!

Breaking the habit of looking for word-for-word answers

I was working with a fifth grader the other day.  He read a passage and needed to answer questions about it in writing.   One question asked, “What is the value of doing X?”  He went back through the passage, turned to me and said, “It doesn’t say.”

“Yes, it does say,” I responded.

He scanned again.  “No, it doesn’t.”

I pointed to the paragraph containing the answer.

He read it again and shrugged.

“What are you looking for?” I asked to be sure he understood the question.

“I’m looking for a sentence that says ‘The value of doing X is . . .’ and it’s not there.”

I “translated” the paragraph for him, pointing out what the value of doing X was, according to the passage.

“Well, why don’t they just say so?”

“Because they are trying to get you to think.”

“Well, I wish they’d just tell me.”

I see many kids like this one, unaccustomed to understanding a passage well.  They can operate at the “knowledge” level just fine, but can’t make that giant step up to “understanding” or “comprehending.”  They can’t “translate” an idea into a form required by a question.

What can a parent or teacher do to help such literal learners?

  • Start with a comfortable reading passage for the student, such as a fairy tale. Read it together.  Ask questions, starting with literal, knowledge-level questions like “What is the name of the girl in the passage?”  “Little Red Riding Hood.”  “Where is she going?”  “To her grandmother’s house.”

 

  • Then ask questions at the understanding level. “Why is Goldilocks bringing her grandmother food?”  “The grandmother is hungry.”  “Yes, but why is she hungry?”  “I don’t know.”  “Look at the picture.  It shows a skinny white-haired woman in bed.”  “She can’t get out of bed.”  “And why might that be?”  “She’s old.”  “Most old people don’t stay in bed.”  “She’s sick?”  “Maybe.”  “But it doesn’t say she’s sick.”  “No, but why would an old grandmother stay in bed and need someone to bring her food?”  “Oh.”  “So why is Goldilocks bringing her grandmother food?”  “Because the grandmother is probably sick and can’t get up to cook.”

By fifth grade students need to expect that answers won’t be found word-for-word the way a question is worded.  Students need to realize they must bring their own knowledge to a reading passage.