Tag Archives: letter awareness

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

More tips to help a child read bigger words

  • The same rule that applies to CVC/CVC words applies to CVC/CVCE words; that is, to words of two syllables which have (usually) a short vowel in the first syllable, two consonants in the middle of the word, and a long vowel in the second syllable controlled by a silent “e” at the end of the word.  The syllables split between the middle two consonants unless there is a blend, in which case the syllables split before or after the blend.
  • To teach these words, it might be easier to find some compound words that form this way, such as “tadpole,” “backbone” and “pancake.”  Make a list and let the child circle the two separate words which form the compound word.  Then ask the child to put the separate words together to form a new word.  Some words you might use are
    Two words that together make one word
  • When these words are mastered, move on to CVC/CVCE words which are not compound words such as “membrane,” “umpire” and “pollute.”  The same rule applies as above.  Have the child divide the word between the syllables.  If the child has trouble deciding where to divide, remind her that usually one syllable ends and another one begins between the two middle consonants.  Help her to identify blends that need to stay together in the same syllable.  Some words you might use are
    two syllables divided by middle consonants
  • When your child understands the pattern, you might explain that some bigger words follow the same pattern.  Introduce three syllable words with the CVC/CVC/CVCE pattern, such as “illustrate,” “vaccinate” and “indispose.” But if the child is struggling to understand the previous CVC/CVCE words, hold off on three syllable words.  Some words you might us are
    Introduce three syllable words.

Our blog will continue to teach multisyllabic words in the near future.  Let us know if you find this information useful or if you have particular problems teaching your child reading.  We will investigate for you and offer the best advice we can find.  –Mrs. K and Mrs. A

My granddaughter can read small words, but she stumbles over bigger words when we read together. How can I help her?

Here are some tips to help with bigger words:

  • If you are reading for sheer enjoyment, anticipate the words she might not know and say them quickly, so she can keep reading and not lose her thought.  Don’t worry that she might not be learning new word attack skills in your reading session; she is learning other aspects of reading such as fluency and comprehension which are often hard to learn when she stops to consider every new word.  Also, if she is tired or ornery, this kind of reading lesson gets her to read without causing frustration.grandparent reading with grandchild.
  • But if you are reading with your granddaughter to help her decipher words, and if she is in a receptive mood, you might cover parts of the word (usually syllables) and then uncover them, so she can join them together.  For example, if the word is “continent,” cover the “tinent” part with your thumb and let her say “con.”  Then cover the “con” and the “ent” parts and let her read “tin.”  If she mispronounces “tin,” pronounce it correctly.  Then cover all but the “ent” and let her figure out those four letters.  If she can put it together, fine, but if not, you do it while covering and exposing parts of the word as you say it.  Then move on to another word.  The goal should be to teach her a method of figuring out words, not mastering every word you encounter in a particular lesson.
  • If you own the book, and don’t mind marking it, you could highlight every word she can read correctly.  She will see that the number of words she can read far outnumbers the few she can’t.  You might ask her what she notices about the words that are not highlighted.  She might say, “They are long,” or “They have lots of letters.”  Tell her there are ways to figure out those words just like there are ways to figure out three-letter words, and you will work with her on those long words.
  • A good place to begin is with compound words.  They can be easy to decipher if the child looks for small words inside big words.  Try some with her such as “pancake,” “popcorn” and “forget.”  Make a list of such words and let her be the detective, discovering the small words inside the large words.  Have her circle each of the small words and then pronounce them together.  Some words you might use are:compound words are small words inside big words
  • Some longer words have pronunciation rules that are easy for a child to remember.  For example, if a six- or seven-letter word has double consonants in the middle (biggest, kitten, flabby), that means the word usually has two parts, or syllables, and the first syllable ends between the “twin” letters.  (Use the word “syllable” since this is a term your granddaughter will need to learn anyway.)  Phonics books sometimes refer to these words as VC/CV or CVC/CVC words since they generally have short vowel sounds in both syllables.  You could practice a handful of those words, writing them on notebook paper for your granddaughter to pronounce.  Choose words whose letters follow the rules of phonics so she is not confused.  Have her draw a line between the double consonants and then pronounce each syllable.  Some words you might use are:"twin" letter words have double consonants in the middle.
  • Some other six- or seven-letter words have one vowel near the beginning, another vowel near the end, and two or three consonants in the middle.  These are a variation on VC/CV or CVC/CVC words with twin conconants.  Show her words like “contest,” “nutmeg” and “insect.”  Explain that the words have two syllables, and that the first syllable ends between the two consonants.  Have her draw a line between the middle consonants and then pronounce each syllable.  Some words you might use are:two syllable words with vowels in the first and last syllable

Our blog will have more on how to teach multisyllabic words in the near future.  Let us know if you find this information useful or if you have particular problems teaching your child reading.  We will investigate for you and offer the best advice we can find.  –Mrs. K and Mrs. A

My child is struggling to learn short vowel sounds. What can I do?

As a temporary help, you could create word lists or flash cards using color-coded letters for the vowels.

Colors for vowel soundsIn Tutoring is Caring, Montessori teacher Aline D. Wolf suggests printing the letter representing the vowel sound in a particular color to help the child remember the sound.  She suggests using colors whose name has the letter sound that the child is trying to say.  So for example, short e words would be written with red e’s.  Since vowels are the most difficult sounds for the child to master, the color would alert the child that the colored letter is a vowel, and the color would also give the child a clue as to the letter’s pronunciation.

The colors Wolf suggests are

  • Red for the short e sound since red’s vowel sound is short e.
  • Rust for the short u sound since rust’s vowel sound is short u.
  • Silver for the short i sound since silver’s vowel sound is short i.
  • Tan for the short a sound since tan’s vowel sound is short a.
  • Olive for the short o sound since olive’s vowel sound is short o.
  • Black for all consonants.

Wolf says it is important that the child recognize the colors using their specific names.  If a child sees olive and says green, then the clue that the sound of “ol” gives would be lost.  She recommends beginning with “e” and then “u” because they are easier.

Wolf wrote her suggestions in 1981, before personal computers, so today we have other options.  Using a computer, it is easy to duplicate these colored letters in words, just as using crayons or colored pencils makes it easy by hand.

Another suggestion she makes is to use broken lines for silent letters, a signal to the student that the letter is necessary but it is not pronounced.  This is easy to do if you are handwriting the letters, but I could not find a broken letter type face on my computer.  However, the computer offers other options such as outlined letters or highlighted letters, either of which could indicate silent letters.

With her lists of color-coded words, Wolf puts a drawing of a word that begins with that letter at the top of the list as an extra reminder of the letter sound.  So for short e, there is a drawing of an elephant; for u, an umbrella; for i, an igloo; for a, an alligator; and for o, an olive.

Cautioning that color-coding is a crutch, Wolf says it should be used as long as necessary, but that gradually the child should be weaned from the colors.  For children who don’t need the extra boost that colored letters give, they should not be used at all.

How to wean a child?  Wolf suggests that the child could match color coded words with the same words printed in black.  Or the child could match words printed in black with objects around the house or at school such as milk, pan and egg.  The child could also match words with pictures.

Can dyslexia be identified in a preschooler?

By definition, dyslexia is a learning disability characterized by difficulty reading.  There are secondary characteristics—difficulty spelling, and illegible handwriting, for example—but until a child has attempted to read, it’s probably too early to identify dyslexia.

Even so, the National Center for Learning Disabilities has listed several warning signs for dyslexia, shown in the chart below, and some of them apply to preschoolers.

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, affecting about five percent of American children.  Its cause is unknown, although scientists think it probably has more than one cause.  About a quarter of the children who have dyslexia also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, though most children with dyslexia don’t exhibit ADHD.  If an older child in the family or a parent has dyslexia, then the younger child has an increased chance of having it too.

Children diagnosed with dyslexia have normal intelligence and vision, yet they cannot figure out how to read by first grade.  Eventually they do, but they often require intervention from the school system, a tutor or a dedicated parent.

Dyslexia affects information processing in the part of the brain controlling language.  Usually children without dyslexia begin to realize that sounds combine to form words or parts of words, and that those sounds can be represented by letters.  Children with dyslexia have difficulty making these connections.

Children with dyslexia do learn to read, but it takes longer.  Teachers need to repeat the phonemes or basic sounds of English (about 44) and help children recognize these sounds in words and in syllables.  “Go” for example, has two phonemes, g and long o.  Then teachers need to connect these phonemes to letters, and the letters to tiny words which follow the rules of pronunciation.

If you are concerned about dyslexia, the National Center for Learning Disabilities website offers a 40-page toolkit about dyslexia, including several pages about characteristics of children pre-K to second grade and strategies to help them learn.  Your right to have your child tested by the public schools, the type of testing done and a video from an educator who has dyslexia are included in the toolkit.