Tag Archives: letter awareness

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.

Case study: Julie, a seven-year-old, high-achieving reader

Julie had just turned four when I began to tutor her in reading. Her mother, a native of China, had been taking Julie to a tutoring agency since she was barely three. The mother worked with her daughter daily on the reading lessons which Julie brought home.

Child looking at flash cards of two and three letter words.


When I met Julie, she could read many one-syllable words and some two syllable words. However, I noticed that when confronted with a new word, she could not figure it out. She had memorized the look of the words she knew but she had not learned phonics skills to sound out new words.

We began by reviewing ABC names and consonant sounds, almost all of which Julie knew. Then we spent many lessons on vowel sounds, focusing on short vowels first, and later mixing both short and long vowel sounds. We did this using pictures (pig, hat, run) which Julie would match with cards labeled ā ē ī ō ū and ă ĕ ĭ ŏ ŭ. We would spend about ten minutes of a lesson on this kind of work. Julie’s attention span was about ten to twelve minutes, so this was one of several activities in a single, hour-long lesson.

Tutor teaching a child.

When she mastered the vowel sounds using pictures, we worked on forming three-letter words using short vowels. At first I moved letter tiles around to form words, and with time, Julie made her own combinations and tested me to see if I knew what words she had formed.

Next, I added blends to short vowel words, first at the beginnings of words, and later at the ends of words. She found the beginning blends easier than the ending blends, as most children do. I made index cards with blend words on them, and when Julie would read a word on a card correctly, she would use a date stamp to mark the card—a way to make the learning fun. After a few weeks she mastered the blend words.

Late in our first year together, Julie began work on long vowel words ending with a silent “e.” She knew many of them by sight but not by sounding a word out. As our first year ended, we were working on long vowel single syllable words with double vowels such as “beat,” “fuel” and “rain.”

We were also building words using roots, prefixes and suffixes whose parts were written on little cards which Julie would push together to form words such as re-mix-ing and un-read-able. In the months which followed, when she encountered a long, unfamiliar word, she sometimes covered the prefix or suffix to figure out the middle part, and then constructed the word bit by bit as I had demonstrated.

Young girl reading a book

Julie could read many picture books. She enjoyed short paragraphs with colorful pictures on each page, but she would not try a chapter book. “Too many words,” she would say. She continued to go to the tutoring agency and do the reading homework with her mother, and to work with me once a week. When Julie was five, we began adding spelling and sentence writing to her lessons.

Julie is 7 now and has finished first grade. She is in the gifted program at her school. She reads voraciously, everything from Ranger Rick magazines to hundred-page chapter books. She has exhausted the phonics-like reading materials I have. She can read fourth or fifth grade materials as fluently as I can. She is working on expanding her vocabulary and on using more details in writing.

Julie is an example of the progress a child can make with a tutor or tutoring center augmenting school instruction. She is also an example of what studying during school breaks can do. She goes to school year round—nine months in her public school, and 12 months with tutors and her mother. Julie has a mother committed to Julie’s education, a mother who scours the library for appropriate books for Julie, subscribes to Ranger Rick, and oversees Julie’s homework and her piano practicing. She also teaches Julie how to write using Chinese pictographs.

For Julie, education is a way of life.

Julie—mischievous, hardworking and accomplished—could be your child’s classmate.

Did the Common Core eliminate handwriting as a skill kids need to learn? I can’t believe it!

The Common Core requires legible manuscript (printing) in kindergarten and first grade, but after that there are no standards relating to handwriting. 3rd grade student writing

In fourth grade, the Common Core requires students to be able to keyboard or type a full page at one sitting.  Learning cursive writing is not required.

However, the Common Core developers have encouraged individual states and school districts to modify the standards as appropriate for their populations. Some states have included handwriting. In California, kids need to learn printing in second grade and cursive in third and fourth grade. Massachusetts requires legible handwriting of any kind in fourth grade. Private schools, which may or may not follow the Common Core, usually include handwriting as a necessary skill.

Does your state require children to practice handwriting? You can find out by going to your state’s department of education and searching for the state-required curriculum. You may find that your state has adopted the Common Core as a whole, without modification, in which case handwriting will not be taught after first grade.

But that does not mean you can’t augment your child’s learning. Teacher supply stores sell booklets on how to write in cursive. Or you can go online to buy such materials.

There is good reason to do so. Handwriting (as opposed to writing with a keyboard)

  • Develops dexterity in fingers
  • Improves hand / eye coordination
  • Activates many parts of the brain not used when keyboarding
  • Encourages children to write longer passages, and
  • Improves letter recognition.

Another reason to learn cursive is to be able to read letters and documents of the past. I have many letters from my aunt—written in cursive. I have a letter and post cards sent home from Europe by my father during World War II—written in cursive. I have copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—written in cursive.

Like much of the Common Core, the reduction in emphasis on handwriting is controversial.

Kids learn sounds from big to small

Little children who are learning about the sounds in words move from larger units of sound—phrases and words—to smaller units of sound—sounds within syllables.

Take the word “elephant,” for example.

Word: elephant
Syllables: el-e-phant
Onsets/rhymes e-l e f-int
Phonemes e l e f i n t

children pronouncing elephant

First, children learn that sentences are composed of words. (I can remember being in first grade and learning that “of the” is two words, a revelation at the time).

Next, children learn the sound of the whole word. They might mispronounce “elephant,” saying it as a two-syllable word (el-phint) as they grow accustomed to it. Eventually they say it right.

Children then learn to break the word into parts (syllables), pronouncing each syllable distinctly.

With a teacher’s or parent’s help, they learn to identify sounds within the word.

Later, they learn to match those sounds to letters.

This sequence—from a phrase to whole words to syllables to the smallest distinct sounds—provides a useful guide for adults teaching reading to preschoolers. We should make sure a child can hear the sounds of a word and can reproduce them properly before we begin to break a word into parts and associate letters with those parts.

What are some activities that help a child to master the phonological awareness sequence?

• Say a two or three-syllable word, leaving pauses of a second or two between syllables. Ask the child to combine the syllable sounds into a word.

• Ask the child to break a two or three-syllable word into its parts. This is a harder skill than combining.

• Ask the child to say (not spell) the sound before the vowel sound in a word (the onset sound). For example, in the word “dog,” the onset sound is the sound a “d” makes.

• Say tongue-twisters and ask the child to identify the alliterated sound. For example, in “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” the onset sound is the sound a letter “p” makes.

• Sing songs with rhymes. Ask the child to identify the rhyming sounds.

• Ask the child to say the rhyme part of a word or syllable. The rhyme part is all the sounds beginning with the vowel. So in “dog,” the rhyme is “og.”

• The hardest activity is for the child to break down a syllable into every sound (phoneme). American English has 42 phonemes, or sometimes more depending on regional pronunciations. (Sounds made by “th,” “sh” and other digraphs are considered distinct sounds, which is why English has more phonemes than alphabet letters.)

While learning the ABC’s is a skill most preschools stress, the other skills explained need to be learned first. Some kids are ready to break a syllable into phenomes at four years old, but many more are not ready until part way through first grade. Don’t rush them. Instead, spend time on all the preliminary steps.

For more details on this sequencing of learning sounds, go to http://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200901/BTJPhonologicalAwareness.pdf. While you are there, check out the list of read-aloud books that emphasize sounds, and the additional activities you can do with a child who is learning sounds.

How should spelling be taught?

What does research show is the best way to learn how to spell?
a. memorize spelling words
b. learn rules (i before e except after c)
c. write with a purpose in mind
d. a combination of all of these

The answer is d. Memorizing words and learning rules have their place in learning to spell, but far more important is that little children have many reasons to write throughout the day, unconcerned with getting the spelling right.

How does the teaching of spelling progress?

  • For the child learning to assign a sound to a letter, spelling might begin with a single letter representing a word. Or the child might write more than one letter, leaving out the vowels. The name John might be spelled “JN.”Young child writing C-A-T.
  • Some parents might want to intervene immediately to teach the right way to spell, but that would be a mistake. Let the child use invented spelling at first.
  • Meanwhile the parent or teacher could be supporting this learning with teaching about the alphabet, the correspondence of all 42 sounds in English to letters or pairs of letters, understanding what words are, and understanding how words are written in English—left to right and top to bottom.
  • As the child gains confidence (not correctness), she can be asked to write useful items such as grocery lists, a daily schedule, a sign welcoming Dad home, or an email to Grandma. As she writes, she thinks about sounds and letters and makes decisions in an experimental way.
  • Aware of the child’s increasing sophistication in writing sounds and words, the parent or teacher can continue to teach basic writing ideas such as word families (rhyming words).
  • As the writer matures, the teacher can introduce simple spelling patterns. But it is better if the child discovers the patterns herself with the parent’s guidance. “Do you notice anything that is the same about ‘bake’ and ‘rake’ and ‘make’?” Let the child talk about her findings. Congratulate her on her discoveries. Then when the silent e rule is taught, it will have more meaning.
  • Practice makes perfect with spelling too. If the child has many reasons to write, she will encounter success in getting her meaning on paper, but she will also encounter problems to solve. This is important since the parent can offer ways to solve these spelling problems, such as
  • Try writing the word two or three ways. Does any way look like a word you already know how to spell? Does any way look wrong? Look right?
  • Try using a dictionary. Little children will need help, but the adult can show the child how useful a dictionary is for figuring out spelling. ABC order can be introduced to show how the dictionary is organized. (I keep a spelling dictionary for first toMother shows child spelling of her name Kelly fourth graders. It’s much easier to use than a real dictionary because the meanings of words are not given, just the spelling. And because it’s easy to use, children use it.)
  • Try finding the word in a familiar book.
  • Try asking the parent. Sometimes it’s good for the parent to tell the child the spelling of a word so the child can keep writing. But for the child to become an independent speller, this cannot be the default solution for spelling words correctly.
  • Try using an online spell checker if the child is composing online. This, too, can become a crutch once kids become aware of it.
  • Try creating an individualized speller. A child can label each page with a letter of the alphabet. Then the child can fill the book with words she can spell, or reserve it for words that cause her problems or which she is trying to learn.
  • When the child has turned the corner from invented spelling to standard spelling, the child should be introduced to roots, prefixes and suffixes, and how the spelling of those affixes alters (or not) the root word.

If the parent or teacher recognizes that each child learns at a different speed, and if the teacher relates spelling to reading and writing, good spellers usually emerge. But not always. Some children require more explicit spelling instruction.
More on that in a later blog.

Cn U rd ths? Iz ths nvntid spln?

Yes, this is invented spelling. Invented spelling (a term that goes back to the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget) is a kind of spelling that little children use as they learn to write. It is not the same thing as phonetic spelling; it is bigger than that. Phonetic spelling is one of the stages of invented spelling for most children.

Invented spelling goes through stages. Dr. Richard Gentry, a researcher in spelling, says that children go through five stages in learning to spell.

Girl reading "inventive" writing of younger sister.

  • Precommunicative stage–At this first stage of spelling, children use alphabet letters but they seem unaware that a letter stands for a sound. Children are often still learning the alphabet, both upper and lower case letters. They might also be learning that English is written from left to right and from top to bottom. Dr. Gentry compares this stage to babbling.
  • Semiphonetic stage–At the second stage, children begin to learn that a sound can be represented by a letter. One or two letters might stand for a sound, syllable or whole word (U for you, or CT for cat). Dr. Gentry calls this stage abbreviated spelling.
  • Phonetic stage–At the third stage, logic takes over. Children use a single letter or a group of letters for every sound. They repeat the same letter patterns in different words, such as kwik and kwen (quick and queen). Spelling is not yet conventional, yet adults can readily understand the meaning of the children’s writing. At this stage children depend on their hearing for spelling.
  • Transitional stage–At the fourth stage, children begin to use traditional spelling patterns, depending less on the sounds they are trying to write and more on how the words look on paper. So instead of writing “feet,” the child might write “fete.”
  • Correct stage–At the fifth and final stage, children have learned basic spelling rules. They know about silent letters, homophones and homographs, and alternative spellings (to, too and two). Children might write a word to see if it looks right, not if it sounds right. Children have formed many rules which they can turn to for spelling, even if these rules have not been formally taught to them. At this stage, children depend on sight (how letters look, how words look) more than sound for spelling.

Moving from one invented spelling stage to another happens gradually for most children, but they rarely slip back to a previous stage once they have experience with the next stage. Some children fly through the stages in a year or two; others can get stuck at one stage for more than a year.

Research has led to this change of thinking about spelling. Until the 1970’s, most children were taught to memorize standard spelling words. Spelling was a separate part of language arts courses. But now studies have shown that spelling, like speaking and reading, happens in stages.

Invented spelling has certain benefits.

  • Children can write meaningful sentences before they can spell or even read.
  • Children can use a more advanced vocabulary if not constrained by spelling.
  • Children don’t need to concern themselves with the standard way of spelling.
  • If children compose in a “flow” way of thinking, they can write long passages without stopping for spelling and thus losing their concentration.
  • Children can encounter spelling in an experimental way—the way they learn to speak, for example. They can try something, see if it works, figure out why and build on their own knowledge base.

For more information, check out Dr. Gentry’s book:  Gentry, J. Richard. (1987). Spel . . . is a four-letter word. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Teaching CVC words ending in double consonants

When a child is learning to read, the child is learning to spell as well. Since most one-syllable, short vowel words (CVC) have three letters, all of which are pronounced, these words are usually easy for the child to spell. If you use letter tiles or cards with individual letters written on them, reinforce spelling as you and the child move the tiles around to form new words. At this stage, merging reading and spelling is easy.CVCC twin consonants

Another set of words are almost as easy to learn to spell. These are words which end with the double consonants of l, s, and f and z. If you take the time to point out to the child the double final consonants in these words, the child will learn to spell them easily. Be sure to tell the child that these double consonants are pronounced as a single sound. What are some common CVC word families with double ending consonants?

  • –ell: bell, dell, fell, hell, sell, smell, spell, tell, well, yell
  • –ill: bill, dill, fill, hill, kill, mill, pill, sill, still, till, will
  • –oll: doll
  • –ull: dull, gull, hull, mull, skull
  • –ass: ass, bass, class, glass, grass, pass
  • –ess: bless, dress, less, mess
  • –iss: bliss, criss, hiss, kiss, miss
  • –oss: boss, cross, floss, loss, moss, toss
  • –uss: fuss, muss
  • –aff: staff
  • –eff: Jeff
  • –iff: cliff, miff, sniff, stiff, tiff,
  • –off: off, scoff
  • –uff: bluff, buff, cuff, fluff, gruff, huff, muff, puff, scruff, scuff, snuff, stuff
  • –azz: jazz, razz
  • –iz: fizz, frizz
  • –uz: buzz, fuzz

It is important to point out to the child that even though most of the time l, s, f and z are doubled at the end of short words, sometimes these letters are not doubled. So as not to confuse the child, list just a few exceptions to this doubling rule (pal, gas, bus, yes, us, and plus), using words that the child is likely to encounter.

Also point out that a few common words that don’t end in l, s, f and z double the final consonant even though most other words do not. Add, odd, egg, inn, and mitt are some examples that the child might read and use. When the child understands the concept of syllables, you can explain that this rule of doubling the l, s, f and z usually applies to one syllable words only. Many times children try to write “until” as “untill” (proving they have internalized the rule), so it is worth pointing out the correct spelling when the child is ready to learn two-syllable, short vowel words. –Mrs. K


One example of how to teach a four-year-old to read

For several weeks I have been tutoring a four-year-old, teaching her to read.

  • I started with letter tiles, placing one before her at a time and asking her what sound each letter represented. She knew many of them, but not all of them.  As I expected, she couldn’t sound out “e” and “i” and was vague on “u” too.  The consonants “d,” “j,” “q,” “x,” “y” and “z” also were mysteries.
  • On a paper I had written all the sounds associated with individual letters, and as she said them properly, I crossed them out, to know which letters we needed to focus on.
  • Reading tutor with 4-year-oldSince she was confident about “o” and “a,” I used those letters to form CVC words, real and imaginary, spelling them phonetically. With the letter “a” I sandwiched two consonants, one on either side, separating the tiles and then moving them closer and closer until they looked like a word.  All the time I was pronouncing the sounds, such as “c” “a” and “t.”
  • Since the hardest letter sounds for beginning readers to hear are the middle sounds in CVC words, I kept using the same vowel sound, the letter “a,” for one half-hour lesson. I put a “t” after the “a” and kept it there for several minutes, exchanging one beginning consonant for another as she read the words.
  • My little student caught on quickly that the sound in the middle and at the end of the word didn’t change, so all she had to focus on was the beginning sound. When we encountered one of her difficult letter sounds, I would say it and then she would.
  • At our next lesson, I repeated much of the first lesson, asking her to pronounce the sound for each letter tile. This time she sounded the “q” consistently correct, so I crossed out that letter sound on my list.
  • I made CVC words using the letter “o.” Some words were real; some were nonsense words or real words spelled phonetically.  What she showed me was that she knows the sounds of various letters.
  • The next week I used both “a” and “o” words. This was more difficult because my student needed to keep track of two sounds in CVC words.
  • This past week I used “u” as the vowel. At first, my student would forget the sound “u” represents, but by the end of the lesson, she was remembering it.

Because the lesson lasts just 30 minutes, this student hangs in there, but by the end of a half hour she is losing interest.  I compliment her work often, telling her, “You didn’t know that letter last week, and now you do!” or “You figured out that word all by yourself.”  Sometimes she acts out a word or tells me what it means, and I compliment her on that too.

These early lessons focus on letter sounds and how combining sounds gives us words.  It might seem boring to an adult, but brain research shows that there are no built-in pathways in our brains for reading, the way there are for movement and speech.  A novice reader, like my student, must activate much more of her brain to read “cat” than an experienced reader like me.  Over years of reading, my brain has built shortcuts to figuring out words that this child’s brain hasn’t done yet.

At our next lesson, we will do more CVC words using “u” as the vowel, and then exchange the “u” for “a” and “o.”  We will focus on letter sounds my student is still learning.  Her progress may seem slow, but it is steady.

Should I call vowels “long” and “short”? If I don’t, what do I call them?

When a vowel sounds like its name, we have traditionally called it a long vowel. When the vowel can be said with the mouth only partly opened, we have traditionally called it a short vowel.
Long and short sounds of a and e
long, short i, o, u
Most Americans learned this way of naming vowel sounds, but today some experts recommend tossing out this old-fashioned naming system for several reasons.

    • First, calling a vowel sound either long or short does not accurately describe the vowel sound since both kinds of sounds take about the same amount of time to say.
    • Second, if the amount of time to pronounce these vowels is about the same, then what does long and short measure? Some experts say it is the length of the opening of the mouth. True, the mouth does open a bit more for long i’s and o’s, but not for the other long vowels.
    • Third, there is a whole other group of vowel sounds which is neither long nor short (ou and oi, for example). Reading specialists call these diphthongs, but that term is usually not used with little children. These vowel sounds are usually called by the sound they make.

You can teach vowel sounds without ever using the terms long and short vowels, but eventually in school, the teacher, or a workbook, or a test probably will use those terms. If your child has not heard the terms before, she might be confused.

I recommend focusing on the sounds until the child knows them. Associate the sounds with letters only after you are sure your child can hear and pronounce the sounds correctly. Mention long and short vowels in passing, but don’t dwell on those terms. After all, it’s not what you call a vowel sound that is important in learning to read; it is being able to pronounce the vowel sound correctly.

When your child notices that the ten common vowel sounds are represented by only five letters, explain that hundreds of years ago, when people were first writing down our language, they ran out of letters to use, so they doubled up on some letters, using them to represent two different sounds. But quickly add that there are clues in the words which tell you which way to pronounce the sounds, so it’s usually not a problem.

Can writing make my child a better reader?

Yes.  The skills are entwined and reinforce one another if taught together.

  • Brain research shows that the more modes of learning which we use, the more apt we are to remember.  Children who are learning how to recognize a letter shape, or to distinguish between two similar letter shapes, will reinforce reading these shapes if they write the letters as well.
  • Children with poor reading skills often have poor handwriting skills. Yet practice at handwriting (drawing letters with their fingers, forming the shape of letters with their bodies, tracing letter strokes and patterns,  or giving directions to another person on how to write a letter) can improve not only writing skills but reading skills.
  • If a young child likes a certain genre, say fairy tales, and attempts to write one (even just a few sentences), she may encounter problems—how to begin, sequencing, spelling, or how to describe the frog’s voice.  The next time she reads a fairy tale, or has one read to her, she will be more aware of the way another author handled the same problems.  Her reading comprehension will develop in more sophisticated ways than if she had not written her own fairy tale.
  • Sounding out letters and then assembling groups of letters into words is one of the first steps of reading.  Many methods from flash cards to letter tiles help children grasp the connection between letters and sounds, but one of the best methods is writing.  The child wonders about the spelling of a word and sounds it out before writing it down, sometimes erasing, until he is satisfied.
  • Kindergarteners might not be ableGirl reading "inventive" writing of younger sister. to read many words, but if they know their letter sounds, they can write any word they can think of using phonetic spelling.  Then they can read their passage back.  With adult help, they can understand that stories, emails and even books are within their grasp both as writers and as readers.
  • The phrase “reading and writing” puts the reading first, but research in the past thirty years has shown that writing comes first for most children.  The old philosophic idea of a child being an empty vessel who needs to be filled up with knowledge (often from reading) has been shown not to be true.  Children are vessels bursting with ideas, longing for an audience to share them with, sometimes through writing.  –Mrs. K

When my son was in kindergarten, phonetic spelling was called inventive writing.  I loved it since I could read his thoughts even in kindergarten.  But many parents didn’t like it.  They claimed that their children would never learn to spell words correctly.  That has been an ongoing criticism which young adults now blame for their not being able to spell well.  However, with spell-check, this is becoming a moot point.  –Mrs. A