Category Archives: reading tips

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.

The place of phonics in reading instruction

True or false?

  1. Speaking is natural. Reading is not.
  2. All students learn to read differently.
  3. Kids in early grades should receive explicit phonics instruction.
  4. About 2/3 of US fourth graders can read proficiently.

(The answers are at the end of this blog.)

How kids learn to read, how reading should be taught, and how teachers of reading should be taught are still controversial in the US. This is despite an 18-year-old exhaustive study of research on reading—the National Reading Panel— authorized by Congress in 2000 which found that phonics should be the basis of reading instruction.

Even with overwhelming research, many teacher training colleges do not teach would-be teachers how to teach phonics.  And so the graduates of those schools do not teach their students through a phonics-based approach.  As a result, 60% of US fourth graders are NOT proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Students who don’t read well by fourth grade

  • Are more likely to fall behind in other subjects.
  • Are less likely to finish high school.
  • Are more likely to be poor readers their whole lives.
  • Are more likely to be poor.
  • Are more likely to be imprisoned.

Scientific research shows that a phonetic approach to reading is crucial.  Our brains are wired to learn to speak and walk without instruction, but we cannot read without instruction.

Yet in 2016, the National Council on Teacher Quality, after reviewing the syllabi of US teacher training programs, found that only 39% are teaching their would-be teachers how to teach reading based on phonics.  This is 18 years after the US study was published!

In other words, teacher training school are either ignoring the research about how children learn to read or are willfully disregarding it.  And as a result, many students are not learning to read.

When I studied for my master’s degree in education in the early 1990’s, I took a reading course in which the instructor belittled the role of phonics in learning to read.  She said it was one of many factors, all about equal.  I thought phonics was fundamental, but I didn’t have the scientific research to back up my position.

But for the past 18 years we have had overwhelming research that shows that a phonics-based approach to teaching reading is what works best.

If your child is struggling to read, find out if his or her teacher is teaching reading using a phonics-based approach.  If you are taking your child to a tutoring center to learn reading, make sure the center is using a phonics-based approach.  If you are teaching your child to read, use phonics.

What do I mean by phonics?

  • Identifying the sounds of English. Sounds, not ABC’s, come first.
  • Matching those sounds with symbols (letters) which represent those sounds
  • Merging those sounds and symbols to form words.
  • Identifying patterns among the symbols (for example, an “e” at the end of a one-syllable word) which change or influence the sounds letters make.

(The answers are true, false, true and false.)

How does an almost two-year-old read?

How does an almost two- year-old “read”?  What does such a tiny child “read”?  How can we encourage the reading habit in such a tike?

I spent a week in early September with a 21-month-old who wanted me to “read” to him many times daily.  He taught me:

Toddlers love to hold books, turn their pages, point to objects they recognize and name those words.

They do not like to be read paragraph-long passages.

They do like to be read text if it is short. “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?” is an example of text that works.  Single syllable words, words the child knows, words which are repeated, tiny sentences—these hold a child’s interest just long enough before he wants to turn the page.

Pint-sized cardboard books are easy for a toddler to hold. The pages are easy to turn.  And the cardboard is able to withstand the rough handling that a tiny child gives.

“Reading” often means “studying” a picture to discover what it holds. “Balloon!” he might shout, or “Piggy eat.”

Order of pages is arbitrary to a tiny child. Sometimes he will prefer to skip some pages to head right for the picture he prefers.  Sometimes he will flip back and forth, making a connection between one page and another.  For example, he might find the moon on one page and then go back to a previous page to find the moon there.

Simple drawings are best. Bright colors with plain backgrounds help the child to focus.

Animals—especially baby animals with their mothers—fascinate many children. But one time an adult horse might be a “mommy” and another time that same image is a “daddy.”  There’s no need to correct.

Touchable books captivate toddlers. A child eagerly strokes books with inserted fabric for a sandpapery pig’s nose or a furry dog’s ear.  Books with flaps are fun to open even if the child has opened the same flap many times.  Books with cutouts—like the holes that the Hungry Caterpillar eats—are just the right size for a little one to stick his finger into.

Many times, you, the adult, needn’t read a word.  Rather you might wait for the child to take the lead.  He might point to a picture and say a word.  You might repeat his word to show you are listening or to offer correct pronunciation.

Many times all he wants is for you to listen, to share his reading time without distraction. By being willing to focus only on him, to listen wholeheartedly, you teach the child that you value what he is doing.  Your unhurried presence tells the child that this activity—reading—is important.

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.

Knowing ABC names isn’t important to beginning readers

When most children are four, they can say, or should I say sing, their ABC’s properly, except for the L-M-N-O part.

But can they pronounce the basic sounds associated with each of those letters?  I know they can’t.

For example, I ask what sound is “pictured” by “y.”  The child says “w” as in “why.”  Or I ask what sound is represented by “w.”  The child says “d” as in “double you.”  The children are giving me the sound of the letter’s name, not the sound represented by the letter.  This causes confusion when they try to pronounce CVC words.

Look at the disconnect between how letters are named and the basic sounds which those names represent.  In the case of vowels below, the basic sound is considered to be what has been called “short vowel sounds.”

ABC name    basic sound    pronunciation

A                      a                     ay

B                      b                     bee

C                      k                     see

D                      d                    dee

E                      e                     ee

F                      f                     eff

G                      g                    jee

H                      h                    aech

I                      i                      eye

J                      j                      jay

K                      k                     kay

L                      l                      el

M                     m                    em

N                      n                     en

O                      o                     oh

P                      p                      pee

Q                     kw                   kue

R                      r                      are

S                      s                      ess

T                      t                      tee

U                      u                     you

V                      v                      vee

W                     w                     double you

X                      x                      ex

Y                      y                      why

Z                      z                      zee

Of the basic sounds of our language, only eight are represented by letter names which begin with that sound.  (Sounds represented by more than one letter, such as “ow” and “th” are not shown here.)

This made me wonder how important knowing the names of the ABC’s  is compared to knowing the sounds those letter characters represent.  I have concluded that it is the sounds which are important, not the names or graphics we assign to those sounds.

To prove this, look at the sounds which children from other countries say when they see certain  letters.  When children in Germany see “v,” they pronounce the “f” sound in English.  Those same German children, when they see a “w,” pronounce it like a “v” sound in English.  When children in Russia see a “p,” they pronounce it like an “r” sound in English.

So the picture/character/graphic is arbitrary.  Someone long ago in England (or more likely, ancient Rome and Greece) assigned certain letter symbols to portray certain sounds.  But other persons in other parts of the world assigned the same letter symbols to portray different sounds.

Since I discovered this, I teach letter “sounds” differently.  When I work with beginning readers, I try not to use words like “A,” “B,” and “C” when I refer to letters.  Instead I say the sounds those letters represent.  I say “a,” “b,” and “k,” and I ask students to do the same.

If you are teaching your child beginning reading in English, I recommend that you focus on the sound, not on the name of the letter.  The sound is what children need to know in order to read, not the name we give to the letter representing that sound.