Tag Archives: attention span

How do I read to my two-year-old? Is he even ready?

Some one-year-olds are ready to be read to, and some two-year-olds are not yet ready. But most are. Reading to a two-year-old can be fun and educational for the child, and subconsciously, prepare the child for more sophisticated reading.

Two-year-olds are all about physical motion, so reading to them should include movement. You could start with board books, and ask the child to tell you what he sees. He might say, “Baby.” Probe a bit. “What is the baby doing? Show me.” Even if he can’t put into words the baby’s actions, he might be able to act them out.  Helen Oxenbury’s books are great for children who cannot speak yet.

baby reading a bookHis physical needs might include holding the book and turning the pages. He will learn to turn pages correctly if you help him. But he will want to go back and forth. He might see a dog on page eight and remember seeing the dog on an earlier page, and he might flip the pages to find the dog. Don’t expect formal sequencing of pages with a two-year-old.

Some books for young children have textured parts for the child to touch. Others have flaps that open and close, or they offer pop-up parts that unfold. Little children love these books, but roddlers tend to rip the pages. Beware. They love to move things in a trial-or-error way to see what happens. Yet their touch is usually not delicate.

You might start reading a picture book and the child might interrupt, pointing to a picture and talking about it. He might not care for the story yet, but he might be fascinated by the pictures. Don’t think that just because there are words you must read them. Let the child guide you.  If he doesn’t want you to read, look for some wordless books or just discuss the pictures.  Most wordless books are intended for toddlers.  They are also great for older ESL students new to English.

Two-year-olds are acquiring language rapidly. If you point to a picture and say “bug” or “triangle,” the child might remember the new word. Two-year-olds are also picking up grammar, so be sure you use grammar correctly, even if the child doesn’t. You don’t need to correct him most of the time.  By hearing you say grammar correctly, he will eventually say sentences correctly.

I remember my preschoolers choosing the same books over and over. I was bored reading them repeatedly, but they weren’t. Children find it comforting to hear, day after day, how the little bird found its mother or how Sylvester returned to his family.

father reading Old McDonald to childNursery rhymes are great for the littlest readers.  Some, like “The Itsy, Bitsy Spider” and “This Little Piggy,” encourage finger or toe play. You can tell the child enjoys nursery rhymes when he starts doing the finger play himself.  Plus, children love rhymes, anticipate them, and race to complete the rhyme.  Rhymes teach children about word families (spout, out; rain, again), too.

You might use reading to a toddler to establish routines, such as what you and your child do before or after a nap.

If there are older children, you might want to read to them at a different time, since a two-year-old’s abilities are quite different from a four- or five-year-old’s.  On the other hand, a patient toddler might pick up reading skills and vocabulary by listening to his older sibling read with you.

So should you read to a two-year-old? Definitely, but keep in mind the abilities of a child that age.


My child is a reluctant reader. How can I encourage him?

First, commit to working with your child every day for many months or even years.  He will not become an eager reader without your help, or the help of a dedicated tutor who works with him several times a week.

Boy at mailbox discovering skateboard magazineNext, find reading material that your child enjoys.  Boys—and most reluctant readers are boys—prefer nonfiction—how an engine works, for example, or how to build a bird house, or sports stories.  Nonfiction offers certain pluses:  illustrations (photos, charts, and diagrams), subheadings, a separate introduction, and maybe a summary.  Tempt your child with a skateboard magazine or a comic book or graphic novels.  Find online sites too.  Then:

  • Build on past success.  Ask your child to reread material he has mastered, but which he couldn’t read a short time ago.  Remind him of his gains.
  • Introduce new reading material which you suspect your child can read with 90% success.  Increase the difficulty level in tiny, tiny increments so the child has a growing feeling of success, not failure.
  • If a child stumbles through a sentence, focusing on individual words and not on the sentence, repeat the sentence for him with fluency, so he knows what the sentence means.
  • Stop the child after a passage and ask what it means.  Don’t let him move on until he knows the meaning of what he has already read.
  • Take turns reading.  You read one page; he reads one page.  Or for older students, you read one paragraph; he reads one paragraph.
  • Let him read to you without distractions.  No TV calling from another room.  No cell phone in your hand, or tablet in your lap.  No brother on a video game in another room.  Give him your undivided attention.
  • Read to your child—maybe at bedtime?—without any expectation that he will join in.  Let him enjoy reading as pure entertainment.
  • If he has only one reading strategy—such as guessing at a word—model other strategies.
  • Cover part of the word to show a part he can read.  Reveal more of the word.
  • Point out prefixes and suffixes, and cover them so the child can see the basic word unit.
  • Ask him to read a sentence leaving out a difficult word.  Together discuss what that word might mean.
  • Ask him if a word looks like any other word he knows.  Talk about word families or rhyming words which often sound the same.
  • If the child’s attention span is short, have more reading sessions but limit their time, and use a timer so the child can monitor how long the reading session will go on.
  • Praise his efforts.  Point out successes like
    • Knowing a word he missed in the past.
    • Sounding out a word.
    • Pronouncing a word using correct syllable breaks.
    • Putting inflection into his reading.
  • Talk to your child’s teacher.  She might know appropriate reading materials to recommend.  She can keep you abreast of reading skills the class is working on so you can work on them at home.  She will carefully watch your child for reading problems or successes if she knows you are working with him too.

My son was a reluctant reader, way behind at the end of first grade.  I consulted an expert and followed his advice.  I worked with my son for at least a half hour every day over summer vacation, asking him to read lists of words (for phonics) and easy reading books (for comprehension).  He hated it.  Every session was a struggle.  Yet he started second grade reading on grade level and was an eager reader after that.  By sixth grade he was devouring a chapter book a week, anticipating the publication dates of books in series he enjoyed.

The sooner you can intervene with a reluctant reader, the more likely you are of success.  Analyze your kindergartener’s or first grader’s reading habits.  If he is a reluctant reader, commit yourself to working with him now, before he becomes discouraged or evasive.  –Mrs. K

Can my child become smarter? If so, how?

According to Annie Murphy Paul, the author of The Brilliant Report, a blog about the science of learning, intelligence is a somewhat fluid quality which can be increased. In a recent blog, Eight Ways of Looking at Intelligence, she gives eight insights into how intelligence can change. I have paraphrased her ideas as they might apply to children, and I have added information about how her insights might apply to teaching children how to read.child who's tired,cold, hungry, tells his mother he probably won't learn much in school the way he feels.

1. Situations can make children smarter. Children’s intelligence is not a locked-in trait; it is a fluid condition than can improve over time. Genes probably play the biggest role in creating intelligence, but environment has a powerful effect too.

For example, if a child is in an angry mood, or is bothered by itchy clothes, or needs a nap, or is hardly ever read to, or gets little exercise, that child will not be receptive to working on reading skills. But if the child is alert and rested, in comfortable clothes, and gets regular daily exercise, the child is ready for that “teachable moment.”

2. Beliefs can make children smarter. If a child thinks, “I can’t read that. It’s too hard,” this self-imposed limit becomes a fact. On the other hand, if a child thinks, “I can do that,” her openness to success becomes a fact too.

So how can you help a child who puts up barriers to learning? Analyze your child’s reading level and then find books at that level or just below, so that the child encounters success. For example, if your child can read some short vowel words (hat, can, did) but hasn’t yet learned about silent e (cake, kite, bike), find books with mostly short vowel words. As he reads aloud, you jump in and read the difficult words to give him a sense of mastery.

3. Expertise can make children smarter. Experts in any area think differently from nonexperts. Yes, they know more, but they also think deeply, and almost unconsciously, like an athlete who has done a particular dive or dance routine thousands of times. What we would have to focus intently on, they can do almost thoughtlessly because the knowledge has been learned so well.

A kindergartener might already be an expert skier or video game winner. How did he become that expert? Practice, practice and more practice. You can help your child to become an expert reader by encouraging the same degree of practice.

4. Attention can make children smarter. Double-tasking—like watching a parade while eating an ice cream cone—means the child gives less attention to both tasks. Babies are notorious for their short attention spans, but by preschool or kindergarten, those attention spans are much longer.

Can you lengthen a child’s attention span? Sure. Work with a child on her reading for ten minutes every day this week; for twelve minutes next week; for 14 minutes the following week. If necessary, as the lesson lengthens, take a two minute break partway into the lesson, and encourage the child to move her body before resuming study. Let the child know her attention span is lengthening and that you are proud of her.

5. Emotions can make children smarter. If a child is in a positive mood, he is more apt to work at learning to read. If he is anxious, part of his brain won’t be available for learning since it is already busy being scared.

So how can you create a positive mood in your child when it’s time to read? Try turning reading time into a warm, one-on-one, special occasion between your child and you. Make reading a safe experience (no laughing at the child’s ignorance; no chiding him for not remembering how to read a word). This will allow the child to use his whole brain for learning.

6. Technology can make children smarter. Computers, tablets, digital watches, and calculators can extend a child’s mind just like a flash drive can extend your computer’s memory. But they can also make children lazy. (For example, do you memorize phone numbers any more or do you program them into your cell phone and let the phone remember for you? Can your child read an old-fashioned clock or does she need a digital one to tell time?)

A positive way for your child to use technology is to extend knowledge he already has mastered. When he knows how to read enough words to write a short message, help him to send an email to Aunt Carol. Turn off “Spell check” and let him write the words he doesn’t know phonetically. Or let him FaceTime or Skype an out-of-town relative and read a book to show what he has learned.

7. Children’s bodies can make them smarter. Compare the learning abilities of a well-fed child with a malnourished one. Compare the responses of children who get adequate sleep with those who do not.

Requiring the child to eat well-balanced meals and to go to bed at a certain hour can be hard, especially as the child grows older and more independent. Yet, if we want our children to learn optimally, we must enforce rules of behavior which are in their best interests. Call the rules “house rules” to separate them from you. “House rules: Everyone eats at 6. Kids take baths at 7. Kids go to bed at 8. Adults go to bed at 10. House rules.”

8. Relationships make children smarter. Children learn by watching, listening, helping, and asking questions. One sign of a smart kid is that she asks many questions. But to be successful gaining knowledge, the child must have an adult or older sibling who is willing to take her questions, not someone who says “Scram.”

You can encourage your child to ask questions when you are reading to her or when she is reading to you. Make asking questions as natural as turning a page. “Why does the caterpillar make a cocoon?” “Why can’t the king’s soldiers and king’s men put Humpty Dumpty together again?” Some important questions to ask for reading comprehension are “What is happening? What’s it all about? Can you tell me the story in order. What do you think will happen next?” If your child is shy about asking questions, reward her for doing so with a hug or a comment like, “Great question!”

What should a typical reading lesson be like for a beginning reader?

First, review work from the previous lesson that the child can do.  If he can’t be successful yet with the past lesson’s work, review work from an earlier lesson that allows the child to be successful.  This gives the child confidence and eases the child into a learning situation which he may not like.

Reviewing past lessons before adding a new lesson.

Adding a new letter combination to an already learned long A sound list.

An education teacher of mine once drew two sets of circles on the board.  The first two circles were side by side, but they did not overlap.  The second set overlapped.  The teacher said the first two circles represented learning new material with no connection to what we already know.  If we read and speak English (the first circle), and we are trying to learn Spanish (the second circle) with no common words or culture, the learning is extremely hard.

But if the English circle and the Spanish circle overlap, with words in common, learning Spanish is easier.  And the more information in the intersecting part of the circles, the easier it is to learn new material.

Reviewing what is in the first circle is a good way to begin lessons.  Help the student recall what she already knows and the progress she has made so far before introducing new work.

 “Emily, you’ve learned so many letter patterns for the sound of ‘a.’  Good for you.  Now let’s learn another one.”

Next, introduce new work.  Use several approaches, if possible, and encourage plenty of hand manipulation so the new ideas stick.

The younger the child, the shyer the child, and the less confident the child, the more important it is to have multiple ways to learn and to demonstrate learning.  In school, a teacher often asks a child to read aloud to assess reading skills, but many children are not comfortable reading aloud.  Provide other ways to show mastery—matching pictures with letters or words; acting out words in mime; drawing letters with a finger in the air; moving letter tiles around; writing; or telling a story in pictures.

Third, end the lesson with a game.  If the child knows there will be a game at the end, he will endure the difficult learning for the pleasure of the game.  Plus, he will feel good about coming back for another lesson knowing he will be rewarded with another game.

You might think you are wasting time with a game, but my experience says you’re not.  I’ve played word BINGO, Scrabble, who can write the most words from the letters in a phrase the fastest, pantomimes, and games the child makes up herself.  If you can, relate the game to the topic you’ve been teaching.  Or relate the game to a favorite interest of the child—dinosaurs, for example.  Or read to the child.

In the last minute of the lesson, review one more time the new information. Research shows this is a good teaching practice that leads to retention.

Do you have a successful lesson procedure?  We’d love to hear about it.

Is there a low tech, inexpensive way to teach my children their letter sounds?

I’ve had success teaching reading to brand new readers by matching pictures to the correct letter using homemade flashcards.  Both native English speakers and ESL preschoolers have found this a fun way to learn letter sounds.  It can be done in five minutes here and there, making it a good way to teach children with short attention spans.

Child sorting picture flash cards to match with the letter B.

To enlarge the picture, click on it.

I suggest you try this method:

  • Cut some index cards in two, each about 3 by 2 ½ inches.  Or use the index cards whole if you prefer.
  • On ten or twelve blank cards, paste pictures of words which begin with the same consonant sound, such as the letter “b.”  Use pictures of a ball, a balloon, a bear, a banana, a ballerina and others until you have about ten to twelve cards with “b” pictures.
  • On another ten or twelve blank cards, paste pictures of words which begin with other letters, such as an apple, a cat, a dog, a kite and a piano until you have about the same number of cards as “b” cards.
  • On one blank card write or paste a capital B and a lower case b, “Bb.”
  • Lay the card labeled “Bb” on a table.  Shuffle all the picture cards, or let your child do that.  The more she can participate in the process, and eventually control it, the more likely she is to be eager to play the “game.”
  • Now taking one card at a time, have your child say the word of the picture.  Emphasize the “b” sound for her, and ask her if the card starts with a “b” sound.  If so, tell her to put the card next to the “Bb” card.  If not, tell her to put the card a little distance away.
  • Keep doing this until you have gone through all the cards and made two piles of picture cards.
  • With practice, your child will be able to match the words to the letter quickly.
  • After she has mastered “Bb,” make a set of cards using another consonant sound.  You can keep the same set of random cards or add to them.  Some of the random cards will eventually become the letter cards, so you need to add to that group of cards as you develop more letter cards.
  • Begin with the 16 consonants which almost always sound the same:  (Bb, Dd, Ff, Hh, Jj, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Pp, Qq, Rr, Tt, Vv, Xx and Zz).  You don’t want to  do the ABC’s in order, starting with Aa.  Begin with any of the consonants I just listed.  If the child’s name is Tom, start with “Tt.”  If it is Hannah, start with “Hh.”
  • Try not to use pictures of words that start with blended sounds.  For example, don’t use “blue” or “braids” yet.  Later, after the child is sure of the single sound of a letter, you can start combining letter sounds.
  • Don’t start with a consonant that has multiple sounds, such as Gg, Ss or Cc.  For starts, choose letters and words that follow the rules of phonics.  Try to reduce confusion as much as possible.
  • Also, don’t start with vowels.  I teach vowels slightly differently.  I’ll tell you about that in my next blog.

Perhaps this sounds like too much work?  I use the cards over and over with new reading students, so for me the time it took to make the cards was well worth it.  If you have more than one child, you too can reuse the cards, and if you laminate them, they last forever.  (Laminating is expensive, but clear packing tape protects the cards well.)  And the cards are easy to make.  I made mine while watching TV.

In addition to being low tech, the cards are an inexpensive method to teach sounds.  A pack of index cards; old books, magazines or stickers to use for pictures; and tape together probably cost a few dollars and can be used to create many sets of cards.

How about you?  Were you taught your letter sounds by another low tech method?  How are you teaching your children their letter sounds?  Tell our readers by clicking the comment button.

Are nursery rhymes still important?

Yes, they are, but sadly, more and more children come to school today with little knowledge of them.

boy pretending to be Humpty

There are many reasons—busy parents without time to read the rhymes, foreign-born parents unfamiliar with the rhymes, and competition from TV and electronics for children’s time.  Yet, for many reasons, nursery rhymes should be part of a child’s education, and the earlier the better.

  • Children—even one-year-old children—can appreciate nursery rhymes, often their first encounter with books, verses and rhythmical sentences.  If they are being read to, they learn what a book is, what side goes up, how to turn a page, what words look like in print and how to get meaning from pictures.  This experience is the beginning of getting meaning from printed words, a start to reading comprehension.
  • They learn that reading books can be fun, social occasions with Grandma cuddling as she sounds out the rhymes.
  • Children can learn what English sounds like.  They hear their mother’s voice rising and falling, speeding up and slowing down, getting softer and louder, and sounding scared or full of laughter.  This can be particularly important for ESL children who might hear these rhymes from preschool teachers.
  • They develop an ear for fluency, and when they are ready to repeat the rhymes themselves, they are likely to add the inflection of a good reader.
  • Kids naturally like rhythm which nursery rhymes offer in abundance.  If Dad claps out the rhythm to “Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker Man,” soon the child will mimic him, picking up the cadence of English.
  • Because nursery rhymes are so rhythmical, children become aware of units of sound (called phonemes) from which words are made.  They learn to progress through the sounds in a word in a particular order (called phonemic segmentation), a necessary prereading skill.
  • Children also love rhyme (one reason Dr. Seuss is so popular).  They begin to learn patterns, expecting a rhyme every so often in the rhythm, and are rewarded when that word comes.  They begin to share in the reading of nursery rhymes aloud.
  • Because nursery rhymes are short, children need only a short attention span for a single nursery rhyme.
  • Also because the rhymes are short, children can memorize them and recite them aloud.
  • Nursery rhymes contain words the child doesn’t hear every day or in a familiar context.  “Jack and Jill went up a hill to fetch,” “eating her curds and whey,” and “Jack, be nimble” are examples.
  • Many nursery rhymes tell simple stories with beginnings, middles and ends.  The children hear of problems they might encounter—falling down and getting lost—and hear how those problems are resolved, or in Humpty Dumpty’s case, not resolved.
  • Nursery rhymes are great for group chanting and singing, sometimes called choral reading.  Think of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and “London Bridge is Falling Down.”  Can you think about “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without singing it in your head?  The tune makes the rhyme easier to remember and makes reading fun.
  • Reading nursery rhymes to children preserves an older American culture and a connection with past generations.  Many of today’s grandmothers, as children, were read the same rhymes by their grandmothers.
  • Later on in life, the child will encounter many allusions to nursery rhymes (and allusions to Greek mythology, Shakespeare and the Bible).  But the child will only make connections—and have a richer experience—if he is familiar with the original rhymes.  For example, Agatha Christie called one of her mysteries One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.  Why?
  • Reading nursery rhymes online is a way to connect a child’s use of a tablet, phone or computer with literature from an early age.

    Father reading to child and child asks, 'How old is Old McDonald?"

    To enlarge, click on the picture.

The history of nursery rhymes in English goes back hundreds of years to a time when most people could not read or write.  Part of an oral culture, they reported events of their time for adults and children alike.  For example,

  • “Ring around the Rosy” is believed to have originated in 1347 during the Black Death in Europe.  The ring referred to a round mark on the skin which was the first sign of the bubonic plague.  The last line, “And we all fall down,” was no laughing matter.
  • “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,” refers to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was beheaded for her religious beliefs.
  • “Little Miss Muffett” refers to the daughter of a bug expert in Shakespeare’s day.
  • “Thirty Days Hath September” is believed to come from the 13th century, based on a similar rhyme in French to help remember how many days are in a month.

So are nursery rhymes important?  What do you think?  Did someone read nursery rhymes to you?  Can you recite any from memory?  Have you enjoyed passing along this tradition to your children and grandchildren?  Let our readers know.

Should my child sit still when she learns to read?

That depends on many factors, such as your child’s usual activity level, the learning site and your own expectations.

In general, little kids can’t sit still or focus Should my child sit still when she learns to read?on one topic for long.  They learn well through movement. To reach them, have short lessons and vary the method of learning (for example, moving ABC tiles, printing letters, playing Mother, May I? and walking through the house finding objects that begin with a certain letter).  If the child thinks he is playing a game and can move around, he will hang in there much longer.

If you have set up a table where you want to work with your child, evaluate the setting from the child’s vantage.  Does the chair allow her short legs to touch the ground?  Or if the chair is higher, is there a shelf for her to rest her legs?  (You can stack some books or a cardboard box under her feet.)  Does the chair support the child’s back?  (You can tie a pillow to the chair to fill the space if the chair seat is too deep.)  Is the table low enough (waist-high or just a bit higher) so that her arms can relax while she works?  All these accommodations to a child’s small size encourage a child to sit longer.

Some children prefer to stand while they work.  They can stand straight, slouch, spread their legs or lean—quite a bit of movement all while staying in one place and paying attention.  Some kids prefer to kneel or to squat on a chair or to stand on a chair and bend at the waist.  The child might look absurd, but if he is paying attention, who cares?

Maybe the real question is whether you are comfortable teaching a squirming child?  If you are not, let the child know up front that the lesson will last only a few minutes.  Use a timer so the child knows that when the timer rings, he can move around.

If another adult is watching, you might feel pressure to make your child sit still.  But is this in your child’s best interests?  If the child feels pressured to conform to some standard that he is not ready for, he will not learn as well as if he is relaxed.