Tag Archives: decoding words

My child is almost four. She wants to learn to read. Where do I begin? Or does it matter?

It matters, according to research. You should start with teaching her “the code,” that is, the connection between the sounds of the English language and the letter symbols we use to mean those sounds. Here’s how. (Look for more information on all these ideas in previously published blogs at comicphonics.com.)

  • children moving letter tilesFirst, make sure she can pronounce all 42 sounds of English. Listen to how she pronounces everyday words and make sure she is saying the sounds correctly. Help her with pronunciation.
  • Then connect sounds with letter symbols, a few at a time. Start with the beginning sounds of a few key words such as the child’s name, m for mom, d for dad, b for baby. Help her to hear those sounds in the beginnings of other words. For example, if you are pouring her milk, ask her what sound milk begins with. Then show her an “m” and explain that is how we show that sound.
  • Beginning sounds are always the easiest to hear, so focus on them.
  • Help her to write the initial of her name and a few other meaningful letters.
  • child on floor reading picture bookSince each vowel has many sounds, teach her to associate each vowel with a word and an image that begins with a “short” vowel sound such as apple, egg, igloo, octopus and umbrella. Later, she can compare the vowel sounds in new words to those vowel sounds.
  • In speaking, start putting letter sounds together to form one-syllable short-vowel (CVC) words she knows, like “cat” and “dog.” When she can hear how words are formed (phonics) by combining sounds, use letter tiles to show her what the combining of sounds in words looks like using letter symbols.
  • When you are reading stories to her, point out words she might be able to decipher, and help her to sound them out.
  • When she knows most of her sound – letter matches, she is ready to start reading books which use one-syllable, short-vowel words. Unfortunately, few good ones exist. We at comicphonics.com have written five humorous books for new readers. (See the links to the right of this blog.) Your librarian can point out where other books are shelved, but many labeled “first” readers contain difficult words. Margaret Hillert has written some good beginning books, and so has Dr. Seuss. Good illustrations can help the child figure out the meanings of difficult words, but she will probably need your help as she begins.

Figuring out the code of written English is how a child begins to learn to read. There are lots of commercial methods to do this, but the best I have found is the Explode the Code series. Children find its combination of goofy pictures and sequenced phonics instruction fun.

Later you can focus on other aspects of reading including fluency and comprehension. But the place to begin is demystifying the code by connecting the sounds of our speech to individual letters and pairs of letters, and then combining them to form words.

Is it necessary to teach “r” words like “car” and “or” separately or should I include them with short vowel, CVC words?

Although children will pick up r-controlled words as they learn to read, it is a good idea to have a separate lesson on them since they are neither short nor long vowel words, and since “ir,” “er” and “ur” sound the same.

Just like it helps to have a reference word for short vowel words, it is a good idea to teach reference words for r-controlled words. I suggest you use nouns whose image is obvious to a child, such as

ar car, jar or star
or fork, stork or sword
er Bert (from Sesame Street) or fern
ir bird or skirt
ur church or turtle

pictures of R-controlled words to use for memory

When you begin to teach r-controlled words, choose words whose spelling follows the rules, such as

far bar fir her
purr slur stir for
nor sir sort start

Don’t choose “store,” “floor” or “boar,” or other words whose spelling varies. Start with one syllable words, and then move on to two syllable CVC-CVR words with twin consonants such as

better bitter butter differ
hammer dinner ladder matter
offer pepper rubber zipper

Continue with two syllable CVC-CVR words whose middle consonants are not identical such as

timber under lantern fender
lobster master silver winter
lumber member butler monster

Then put the r-controlled syllable at the beginning of the word, using words such as

carpet organ carbon hermit
perfect serpent verdict perhaps
perfume person Vermont artist

At this point the student should be able to add consonants after the r-controlled syllable to create flirt, squirted and discard.

If your child has already learned CVC-CVC words, adding r-controlled words should be easy for the child. Even so, take small steps, and when he is ready, move on. As for “store,” “floor” and “boar,” you can tell your child that there are some variations in the spelling of r-controlled words. Rather than confuse the child at this point, when you are reading together, point out alternate spellings as you come upon them. –Mrs. K

Strategies good readers use

Suppose you need to read something new to you, something you find hard to understand. What would you do?Discouraged child thinks there are too many words in a book she is reading

  • Would you slow down?
  • Would you start over?
  • Would you look for help on the page, using headlines, boldfaced words, diagrams, photos or highlighted words explained in the margins?
  • Would you underline main ideas as you go along?
  • Would you mark unknown vocabulary words to look up later?
  • Would you look up those words now and write the words in the margins?
  • Would you realize you recognize a word but not the way it is used, and look up this other meaning?
  • Would you take away prefixes and suffixes to see if there is a root word you understand?
  • Would you draw a diagram, sketch, or chart to make sense of relationships?
  • Would you read the whole thing from beginning to end to get a gist of the passage, and then go back to figure out individual parts?
  • Would you write paragraph summaries in the margins or on post-it notes?
  • Would you ask for help from someone who might understand it?
  • Would you seek out an easier version (assuming one exists), read it, and then try reading the harder version again?
  • Would you try to explain what you read to someone else to see if you really understand it?
  • Would you monitor your own struggle, trying to figure out why the reading passage is hard for you?
  • Or would you read until you are totally bewildered and then give up?

Good readers use many strategies as they read in order to figure out the meaning of what they are reading. They don’t use all the above strategies at the same time, but good readers “attack” difficult reading using many approaches.

Poor readers might just read the words as they appear, plodding along, hopelessly lost. Or they might try one strategy, and when they find it doesn’t help much, then give up.

In future blogs, we will discuss some of these strategies that good readers—even beginning readers—use to gain meaning from difficult texts.

How do I help my child figure out difficult words? She stumbles, stops and looks helplessly at me.

Many reasons exist for children stumbling on difficult words.

  • It could be “the code,” the way that certain sounds correspond to certain letter patterns in English. Sometimes a review of sounds and their corresponding letters helps children to figure out new words.
  • Young girl trying to read mysterious on a poster,It could be the number of letters (or syllables) in the word. Longer words are more difficult to read than shorter ones—more sounds, more word parts.  Covering up some parts of the word while revealing another part can help the child to focus on a little bit of the word at a time.
  • Many difficult words are actually words with prefixes and suffixes. Teach your child what prefixes and suffixes are, where to find them at the beginnings and endings of words, and what those word fragments mean.  You can find lists of words with particular prefixes and suffixes on line.  If the child is trained to look for these little parts of words, she can often figure out what a word means.
  • A word might be difficult because it has more than one meaning. The child might be familiar with a commonly used meaning, but not with secondary meanings.  When you are reading with your child and she stops, ask what that word means to her.  Then tell her there is another meaning she might not know about, and explain.  Words with the same spelling and different meanings are called homographs.  You can find common ones online.
  • Sometimes the context helps a child to figure out difficult words, but sometimes context is no help at all. Sometimes a dictionary becomes necessary.  When I tutor children, I make it a point to look up one word each lesson.  This teaches the students how to use a dictionary and that looking up words is sometimes the smart solution.
  • Too much information in context can baffle the child. What is important?  What doesn’t matter?  As an adult, you might know, so eliminate the distractors by covering them up with your fingers.  That leaves less information for the child to analyze.

Check the reading level.  The book might be too difficult for the child, replete with sentences that are long, with esoteric vocabulary words, with small type and with little white space.  If your child doesn’t have to read it, take the book away and recommend reading material better suited to her skills.  If she does have to read it, talk to her teacher about her struggles and see if there are alternative readings, especially easier ones.  Sometimes if she reads the simpler version first, she can gain confidence to tackle the harder version.  And sometimes the simpler version is good enough.

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

Assessing reading comprehension by using multiplication

Are you looking for a simple way to assess your child’s reading comprehension skills?  Take a look at the “Simple View of Reading.”

Although a “Simple View of Reading” (SVR) was proposed in 1986, its simplicity and success make it a useful tool to assess reading comprehension today.  Almost thirty years ago, two researchers, P. Gough and W. Tunmer, suggested that reading includes two primary steps, decoding words (using phonics skills to figure out words) and language comprehension (knowing the meaning of words especially when words are strung together to form sentences).

They represented their Simple View of Reading with a math equation:

Decoding x Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension

(This formula uses scores from tests in decoding and language comprehension.  For this formula to work, all scores for decoding and language comprehension must be between 0% and 100%.)

What does this simple formula mean?

  • Reading comprehension requires the child to master two areas, decoding words and language comprehension.
  • If a child can do one but not the other, or can do one better than the other, his reading comprehension score will be only as high as the lower of the two other scores.

How can you use this Simple View of Reading to identify your child’s reading comprehension skills or lack of them?

  • First, ask yourself:  Is my child’s reading problem decoding?  Is his problem language comprehension?  Is he having problems in both areas?
  • If you are not sure, test the child in both areas.
  • You can test decoding by having a child read lists of real and nonsense words.  Lists are available online.  Having the child read nonsense words (e.g., zups, thab, slig) is important because some children memorize the look of a word without being able to sound it out.  Also, to assess decoding, don’t use words from a reading passage because the child might figure out a word from the context.  To test decoding, you must remove context.
  • You can also test decoding by reading an unfamiliar passage aloud and asking the child questions about facts, main ideas, sequencing and paraphrasing .  If he can respond accurately when he is the listener, yet he cannot do that when he is the reader, his problem could be decoding.
  • You can test both decoding and language comprehension by having the child read aloud to you.  (If he can pronounce words correctly, or in a few cases, use phonetic pronunciation for unfamiliar words, decoding is not his issue.)  Stop and ask the child what various words mean.  Ask the child to paraphrase a difficult sentence.  Ask the child to paraphrase the passage.  Ask the child to predict what might happen next.  If the child can decode, yet he cannot explain what he has read, his problem is likely language comprehension.  Teachers often see this situation in ESL students who learn the rules of phonics well but whose vocabulary in English is not extensive.
  • To make the evaluation easy, use a scoring method of high, medium, and low based on your own mental tally from working with the child.  If the child scores high in both decoding and language comprehension, he probably does not have a reading comprehension problem.  But if he scores medium or low in decoding or language comprehension, he has a reading comprehension problem.
  • A medium or low score in decoding means he needs more work in phonics.
  • A medium or low score in language comprehension means he needs vocabulary building, work on pronunciation, time listening to a native speaker read a text aloud, and strategies to gain meaning from sentences and passages.