Teaching children to recognize syllables

Recognizing syllables can be difficult for some children.  Yet recognizing syllables is an important skill to learn to read more advanced words once children have mastered CVC, one-syllable words.  How can you help children recognize when one syllable ends and another begins?

Student holding paper and reading it as he is writing

You might start with compound words, saying “snowman” or “doghouse” aloud and asking where the first part of the word ends and the second part begins.  These need not be words a child can read yet, but words the child is familiar with.  You can find lists of such words by searching online for “compound words.”

Using such familiar words, you and the child can clap after each syllable.  The more senses the child uses, the more apt she is to remember the skill.  Clapping, listening and speaking uses three senses, increasing the odds.

Another approach I have seen some children use is to hold their lower jaw with one hand while saying a word.  Each time the jaw moves, that is a syllable.  This is harder than clapping I think, so I like the clapping method better.

When you introduce two syllable words to read, you might start with words which have a double consonant in the middle like “mitten” and “rabbit.”  The double consonants are a visual clue that one syllable has ended and another has begun.  I have seen children stop to clap for some words but recognize the double consonant rule immediately and not need to clap for those words.

Syllables are harder to recognize when there are two unlike consonants in the middle of a word such as in “often” and “under.”  I have seen first graders say the word correctly, pausing at the right spot to clap, and yet draw a line for the syllable break at the wrong spot.

If you are teaching a child who is having trouble figuring out where one syllable ends and another begins, slow down.  Give the child plenty of time to master this skill.  Use part of each reading lesson to reinforce this skill, moving from oral work with compound words to written work with double consonants to words with one consonant between two vowels.

Being able to read and pronounce longer words correctly depends on this skill.

 

Which to teach after CVC words—double syllables, double vowels or silent e’s?

Reading experts agree that CVC words—two consonants sandwiching a short or closed vowel—should be taught first to children who are just beginning to read.  The reason has to do with logic.  Almost all CVC words pronounce sounds in the expected way, that is, with a one-to-one correspondence between the sound and the letter representing the sound.  The few words which are exceptions to the rules—words like “was” and “gym”—are not taught yet.

Experts also agree that one-syllable CVC words containing blends in which each letter is sounded should be taught next.  Words with blends at the beginning, words like “spot” and “drum,” should be taught before words with blends at the end, words like “bend” and “lump,” because beginning sounds are easier to master than ending sounds.

Teaching reading in this order is important because most beginning readers are four to six years old, and their sense of logic does not allow for exceptions.  All red lights mean stop, no exceptions.  Every time Dad says “no,” that means no, no exceptions.  One plus one equals two every time, no exceptions.  Every “z” is pronounced “z,” no exceptions.

The problem for teachers is that after children learn CVC words, what kinds of words should they learn next?

  • Two syllable words containing two CVC segments (CVCCVC) such as “rabbit” and “Justin”?
  • CVCe one-syllable words containing a silent e at the end such as “make” and “kite”?
  • CVVC one-syllable words containing double vowels such as “Jean” and “boat”?

There is no correct approach after teaching CVC words.  Teaching two-syllable CVCCVC words maintains the logic of one sound per letter, but two syllables are harder to learn than one.  All those letters can look intimidating to a tiny child.

child with adult helping to read

CVCe words require that the last letter not be sounded, which breaks the rule of one sound per letter.  If lots of silent letters were not pronounced, this would wreak havoc in a child’s mind.  But since the same letter—“e”—is not sounded, this maintains a one-to-one logical relationship that is easy to remember.

The hard part of CVCe words is that the silent e changes the sound of the vowel to a long or open vowel sound.  Previously children needed to know five vowel sounds; to learn CVCe words they need to know ten.  (Actually, they need to know eleven if both sounds of u are taught.  In “mule” the u sounds like “yu” and in “tune” the “u” sounds like “u.”)

One child I taught could not make the transition from CVC to CVCe words even after several months of work.  She could remember how to pronounce either CVC or CVCe words, but when I mixed them, she could not go back and forth sounding the words correctly.

Learning CVVC words containing double vowels is readily grasped if the double vowels are identical, as they are when the vowels are “ee” as in “seen” and “deed.”  Usually when the vowels are different, as in “mean” and “read,” the second vowel is silent but its presence means the first vowel is pronounced like a long or open vowel.  The new reader needs to remember two ideas:  that the second vowel is not pronounced, and that the first vowel is not pronounced like a CVC vowel.  For some children this is difficult even if exceptions are not mentioned.

What to teach after CVC words?  The choice is yours, but each option comes with its difficulties for children.  I usually teach the silent e words next.  I have tried printing words with a shadowy “e” which helps children to remember not to say the “e.”  But when I take away the shadowy letter “e,” it is like starting over.  What I thought would be a short cut way to learn turns out to be a dead end detour.

One thing I have learned:  Integrating whatever you teach next with CVC words can take a long time.

Nate the Great’s author dies

Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, the author of the early reading series, Nate the Great, died on March 12.

Although she wrote 130 children’s books, Mrs. Sharmat is best known for her 27-book series about Nate, the boy detective who dresses like Sherlock Holmes.  Nate solves neighborhood crimes with the help of his dog, Sludge, while sustaining himself on pancakes, lots of pancakes.

According to Mrs. Sharmat’s son, Andrew, his mother began the Nate the Great books when her own children began reading, and she realized the reading material available for early readers at that time had no story lines.  She devised simple plots using a reading vocabulary appropriate for first and second graders.

No longer read just as English primers, Nate the Great has been translated into many languages and can be found in libraries around the world.  Some Nate books have been turned into films.

I have used these chapter books with my students who love Nate’s weird friends such as Rosamond, a gothic girl with four cats, Annie and her ferocious-looking  dog, Fang, and Claude, the stamp collector.  The chapters are short and the illustrations numerous, a winning combination for both eager and reluctant readers.

 

 

Is your four- or five-year-old ready to read?

At four years old, and even at five years old, most children cannot put a hand over the top of their heads and touch the opposite ear.  This was an old-fashioned way to decide whether a child was ready to read.

young child attempting to touch his ear with opposite hand

But even so, some children are ready to learn to read at four and five.  What are some of the signs?

  • The child can hear and reproduce sounds and words well.
  • The child shows curiosity about letters and words.
  • The child likes rhymes.
  • The child wants to know how to write his or her name.
  • The child has a big vocabulary and eagerly adds more words.
  • The child likes being read to.
  • The child studies picture books for meaning.
  • The child can sit still for 10 or 15 minutes at a time.
  • The child has a long attention span for his age.

Even with all these qualities, some four- and five-year-olds are not ready to read.  If you start to do sound-letter work, and he bores of it or pushes it away, back off.  But keep reading to him, and asking him to do oral work—describing what he sees in pictures, inferring what the pictures mean, predicting what will happen next, and asking him to identify the main ideas.

Eventually he will want to know more.  By six-years-old, usually kindergarten-aged, a child should be learning to read.  But even then some children balk.  In some European countries reading isn’t taught until a child turns seven, at which time the process generally goes much more quickly than at four- or five-years-old.

Contest offered for young writers even if they can’t read yet

If you have a kindergarten through third grade reader with a flair for telling stories and illustrating them, and if you live in Georgia, you might suggest your child enter Georgia Public Broadcasting’s (GPB) writing contest.

To enter* a student must write and illustrate an original story.  Prizes are offered, including publishing the winning entries on the GPB website.

GPB provides an activity packet which parents or teachers can use to guide the young writers.

Entries will be accepted until March 29 from Georgia residents only.  Each entry can be fiction or nonfiction, prose or poetry, but it must be written by a single individual.

Various word minimums and maximums are listed in the rules.  If a child does not know how to write, he or she can dictate the story.  The entries can be in the child’s own handwriting, or in an adult’s handwriting, or printed from a computer or a combination of all three.

Judging is based on creativity and originality of story idea; story structure and use of literary devices; and the illustrations.  At the website, you can read some of the winning entries from last year.

For writing students who thrive on competition, this is a great opportunity to vie against like-minded students their own age.  For young artists, it’s an opportunity to illustrate their own books and have them evaluated by judges.

At the very least, take your child to the website and read and discuss past winning entries.  Sometimes seeing what another person has done can inspire a would-be author or illustrator to give it a go.

Eight ways you can become a better reading teacher

Here are eight ways you can become a better reading teacher.

One.  Evaluate four- and five-year-olds to see if they are ready to learn to read.  If a student is not ready, delay.

Two.  Teach your beginning readers to encode more and to decode less. Offer daily time to orally create words from sounds that the students already know.  Show a picture of a pig.  Ask students to sound out pig, not using letters, but using the sounds in the word.

Three.  Start with words whose sounds have a one-to-one correspondence to consonant and short vowel letter sounds—no digraphs, no silent letters, no exceptions to the rules.

Four.  Refer to letters by their sounds for beginning readers. Explain that letters are pictures of sounds, and that it is the sounds which are important for reading.

Five.  Teach children to pay attention to their lips and mouths when they sound out words. Each time their mouth opens or closes, or their lips change shape, their mouth is saying a different sound.  When we join together the sounds, we form words.When you introduce the ABC’s, start with a one-to-one correspondence between the sounds of English and a letter or letter pair. This is easy if a consonant makes only one sound, such as “b.”  But when a sound can be represented multiple ways (for example, “oi” and “oy”) pick one “default” way for starts and stick to it.  Avoid words which are not spelled with the default letters.  You might teach boy, toy and coy, but for now avoid teaching boil, toil, and coil.  On the other hand, if a child writes, “Mom spoyls me,” ignore the misspelling.  But when children repeatedly write a word wrong (“wuz,” for example), tell them the correct spelling so the phonetic spelling does not become embedded in their brains.

Six.  Don’t teach concepts such as digraphs, blends, and diphthongs to beginning readers. Teach sounds.  If there are fancy academic words to call these sounds, don’t use them.  You will only confuse beginning readers.

Seven.  Don’t become a speller for your students. Once they are writing and using ABC’s, write difficult words on the board.  Otherwise, tell students to sound words out.  Also don’t mark misspelled words wrong.

Eight.  When you introduce ABC’s, use typefaces which show the versions of letters which children will use when they handwrite. For example, use this type of “a” and “g.” Also, typefaces which slightly enlarge half-space letters like “a,” “c” and “e” are easier for kids to read.  (The typeface you are reading is such a typeface.)

Decoding or encoding to learn to read?

So often when people talk about reading instruction, they talk about “decoding.”  By “decoding” they mean looking at a written word, such as “cat,” pronouncing each letter sound or digraph, and putting those letter sounds together to pronounce the whole word, with or without meaning.  I teach many children who can decode words correctly, but who have no idea what those words mean.

This decoding process starts with a visual image of a word.  But as brain research teaches us, a better way to start the process of reading is with sounds.  To start with sounds, though, means to start not with decoding but with encoding.  “Encoding” means starting with sounds and joining them together to form words.

How would we teach reading by encoding?  We might show a picture of a cat.  Children would say, “cat.”  They would think about what a cat is. Then students would sound out the word “cat,” listening for and then saying the separate sounds in the word–“c,” “a,” “t.”

With decoding, students break apart an already written word.  With encoding, students construct a word orally from a spoken or pictured word.  With decoding, students start the reading process by using the visual center of the brain, the right hemisphere.  With encoding, students start the reading process with the listening and speaking parts of the brain, the left hemisphere.

What difference does it make?  Students who encode start the reading process with sounds.  As toddlers, we learn words—their pronunciation and their meaning—through listening and repeating the sounds we hear.  If those words are nouns, we usually see an image of the word as well.  Later, when we see a cat or talk about a cat, we remember the image, how the word was pronounced and how we pronounced the word.  We don’t remember letters because we didn’t learn “cat” using an alphabet.  “Cat” was not originally stored in our brains in alphabetic form but rather in sound-picture associations.

With encoding, after the student has practiced weeks or months of oral sounding out of words, a teacher would introduce the alphabet a few letters at a time, and immediately help students construct words they know using sounds they already know.  With encoding, the child creates meaningful words.