At a loss for words

One of the best radio reports I’ve ever heard on what is wrong with reading instruction in American schools is available at the following website:  It will take 52 and a half minutes for you to listen to it, but if you are a reading teacher or a parent of a child learning to read or struggling to read, it is well worth your time.

Or you can read the report at the same website.

“At a loss for words” produced by Emily Hanford describes the correct way to teach reading—the way backed by research.  That way is to teach children that sounds correspond to letters, and that letters when combined, form words.

But despite almost 20 years of research endorsing a sound / letter correspondence, many teachers with the backing of their school districts and teacher education programs teach reading in ways proven not to work, such as memorizing whole words, using pictures as clues, skipping words, and thinking of an appropriate word that begins with the same letter as an unknown word.

In future blogs I will discuss aspects of this excellent radio report.  But for now I recommend you listen to it or read it.

Reading scores are down in American public schools

The just released results of tests that fourth and eighth grader public school students take every other year show that

  • The average eighth grade reading score declined in 31 states, compared to scores from 2017.
  • The lowest performing students who took the test slipped more than better performing students, though better performing students also slipped.
  • Black, white, Hispanic and Native American students showed lower scores while Asian scores remained unchanged.
  • For fourth graders, 17 states showed lower reading scores in 2019 compared to 2017.

The tests, officially called The National Assessment of Educational Progress, are sometimes called “the nation’s report card.” They are taken by representative groups of students from around the US.

Should you hire a tutor to help your child to read?

Under these circumstances, I recommend hiring a reading tutor:

  • You, the parent, are not a native English speaker. Even though you can read and speak English well, you want your child exposed to a wider variety of words or better grammar than you know.  You want your child to pattern a native speaker of English.
  • You, the parent, are not a native English speaker. You are embarrassed by your spoken English.  You cannot answer your elementary school-aged child’s questions about words, story meaning and grammar.
  • You, the parent, are not a native English speaker. You want someone immersed in the culture to explain idioms or allusions.
  • You are not well-educated and your child is surpassing your knowledge of English. You can no longer give your child the support you want to give.
  • Your child has learning problems. You have tried to help, but your child is not making progress.
  • You suspect your child’s teacher or school is not good, and you want to supplement the instruction your child is receiving.
  • Your child is stubborn and out-of-control. If the child were more pliant, you could probably offer the needed help, but the child’s history suggests an outsider might be a better match.
  • You know how to help, but you have no time. It’s easier to find the money to pay a tutor than it is to find the time to work with your child.
  • By the middle of first grade (or sooner), your child can barely read.
  • Your child is hyperactive and needs one-on-one instruction in order to pay attention.

I have tutored students in reading and writing for more than 20 years.  I believe most kids can benefit from tutoring, but most kids don’t need tutors.

How to help your child learn well

Little children are naturally curious about the world.  They don’t need stickers, stars or m&m’s to encourage them to crawl,  play peek-a-boo or sing.

But as they start to read, sometimes parents think that natural rewards—a hug from Mom or an “Atta boy” from Dad—are not enough. Parents substitute internal motivators—feeling successful, learning a new skill—with external motivators-“Read ten minutes and then you can play on my iPad.”

Psychologists have terms for reward systems:  internal locus of control and external locus of control.  The external ones—when we are controlled or rewarded by things outside ourselves—are effective in the short term, but they soon lose their power.  When kids balk at a reward of one cartoon, parents up the ante to two cartoons, and then three.  External rewards undermine kids’ natural reward system.  These kinds of rewards frustrate children’s desire to learn.

Instead we should be focusing on internal rewards:  the child being aware that he or she is thinking independently, that he or she is able to do things “all by myself.”

If you want ways to encourage children to develop an internal reward system, check out this recent article in The New York Times.  It offers practical ways for parents to encourage children to learn without resorting to stickers, a new Lego set or a donut. 

The secret to outperforming schools: committed parents

What if there were an urban public school system which was beating some of the best nearby suburban schools in end-of-year state tests?  What if that same public urban system drew its students from predominantly low-income and minority families?  Wouldn’t you want to know how that school system succeeds?

Well, there is such a school system in New York called the Success Academy, a network of charter schools.  And it is outperforming public schools from nearby wealthy suburbs.  And now we know how it is succeeding, thanks to a reporter who embedded himself in the schools, observing for a year what makes the Success Academy successful.

The answer:  committed and involved parents.

That is the conclusion of Robert Pondiscio, a former public school teacher and author of How the Other Half Learns:  Equality, Excellence and the Battle over School Choice.

Pondiscio claims that the charter schools which are part of Success Academy cull from its applicants parents who are most likely to support the rigorous demands of the schools.  This means parents who can transport their students to class each day and pick them up promptly in the afternoon (no bussing, no after-school programs).  This means parents who sign contracts to read one book a day to their children through second grade, and who log older students’ reading and homework efforts, discussing these logs with teachers.  This means parents who make sure their children are not disruptive, and if they are disruptive, who remove them from the schools.

Are the Success Academy criteria unfair to parents who can’t pick up their children on Wednesdays at 12:30?  To parents who can’t take time off from work to take part in school orientation day?  To parents who can’t read books to their kindergarteners in English?

Pondiscio says yes.  But he adds that such criteria winnow parents who can’t engage and commit the same way that the high cost of housing in suburbia winnows low income families from suburban school systems.

The result in New York is that the children of parents who are committed and involved make the cut into Success Academy’s schools, and the children of parents who cannot be committed and involved are left to study in underperforming city schools.

Is it fair?  No.

What Pondiscio shows is that even among the poor, there is a hierarchy when it comes to education.

5 ways to keep beginning readers engaged

The younger the reading student, the more activities a teacher needs to keep the student engaged during a lesson.  For four- and five-year-olds, I come prepared with a bagful of reading activities such as

  • A stack of pictures showing CVC words (flag, map, dog, cat, and pen) which the student sorts into two piles: those that have the desired vowel or consonant sound, and those that don’t.
  • Letter tiles which I use to form words, phrases and sentences for the student to read. Sentences using the student’s own name attract the youngest readers.  Letting the student create some of the words. also keeps the student engaged.
  • Stories written with the simplest CVC vocabulary which the student and I read together, and then which she reads independently.
  • Twelve pictures of rhyming words on index cards .

Another kind of reading assignment that my youngest reading students like is reading and answering silly questions like the following:

  1. Can an ant wink to a cat? Yes   No
  2. Can a bug land on a lip? Yes   No
  3. Will a duck swim in a mug? Yes   No
  4. Can a big cat fit in a bag? Yes   No
  5. Will a dog dig with a pen? Yes   No

The questions consist of whatever examples of the reading concept we are studying at the time such as CVC words, blends, or two-syllable short-vowel words.  Almost all the questions are ridiculous and the more ridiculous the better.  Having colored pencils or markers to use intensifies the fun.

I find that the more hands-on the activity, the better.  Early readers sometimes cannot print letters, but they can make ovals around words or draw matching lines.  They can hold a small stack of pictures and sort them into piles.  They can move around letter tiles.

The more busy their bodies are, the more likely they are to stay engaged.

How the “Not Yet, Baby” book came to be

I have been asked where the ideas for the beginning reading books came from.  Are they real stories?  Did we make them up?  The truth is somewhere in between, as Mrs. A, the illustrator explains below about the book, Not Yet, Baby:

The idea came to me as I was traveling through national parks in Utah and Arizona a few years ago.  Occasionally I would get a text or a picture from my son, Tom, the dad of two little boys.  The younger one was walking and following his three-year-old brother everywhere.  Whatever the older boy had, the baby wanted.  Whatever the older boy was doing, the baby was underfoot.

I reminded Tom that he too, had been a younger brother and had been a pain in the neck to his big brother, Lou.  Lou would build elaborate corrals with wooden blocks, enclosing a dinosaur in each compartment.  Tom would totter across the rug, destroying the entire habitat.  On the tour bus in the Rockies, as I remembered spending hours restraining the rambunctious Tom, the ideas flowed, and within a few days I had a book full of sketches!

Not Yet, Baby is the story of a big brother and the family baby.  The little one wants to do whatever the big brother does.

If big brother swims, baby wants to swim.  If big brother eats a hot dog, baby wants to eat a hot dog.  If big brother kick-boxes, baby wants to kick box.  Often in danger, the baby is dragged away just in time.

Not Yet, Baby illustrates typical yet humorous situations that a four, five, or six-year old would understand.  The book uses mostly one syllable, short vowel words appropriate for beginning readers.  Interactive activity pages follow—word searches, matching rhyming words, filling in the correct vowel and completing a crossword puzzle.

As you read Not Yet, Baby, you may remember being the older child trying to understand the limitations of a younger one.

Or maybe you can relate to a baby trying to keep up, or the adult who works tirelessly to keep one child safe and another one happy.  Maybe the story will lead to talks with your child about your childhood or his.  There’s so much to talk about in Not Yet, Baby.  You can find Not Yet, Baby at