It is in reading and writing that we learn to think. I love helping kids enter the world of readers and writers. This is a place for me to share tricks for multisensory learning of reading, spelling and writing. I'll share thoughts and strategies and recommend books for emerging readers.

Monday, March 21, 2011

What is this Fluency Stuff, Anyway?

       My sister was reading to her 8 year old son recently and he commented, “Mom, you have really good fluency.”  She responded, "I knew that degree in English would be good for something!" When our kids are picking up educational jargon, you can tell that an idea has been discussed at a lot of teacher workshops.  So what is  this fluency stuff anyway and how do we get it? 
      Fluency is another buzzword in the wonderful world of teaching reading . It means just what you would think it means, plus a bit more.  It is usually explained as when reading sounds natural, like speech. It is measured in a unit called WCPM (words correct per minute) and it is assessed by listening to a child read aloud and counting his errors or miscues.  This informal definition leaves out something crucial, however. Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, says that fluency is" not a matter of speed; it is a matter of being able to utilitize all the special knowledge a child has about a word--its letters, letter patterns, meanings, grammatical functions roots and endings--fast enough to have time to read and comprehend." There is a point in our language development where we are able to decode words and read them aloud, but we can't necessarily truly understand what we are reading.
      I am quite familiar with this point in one's language development because it is my level in  Spanish.  I know how most  words are pronounced.  I can read aloud a children's book or the newspaper and  someone listening to me could construct meaning from the words I pronounce.  But here's the thing.  I can't construct meaning out of it beyond a very elementary level.  I can read Corduroy and Jorge el Curioso and the pictures will help me understand these very simple stories.  If I am reading a magazine article or a newspaper editorial, my level of understanding drops dramatically.  I can still read the words and I can get an idea, but it is rough and sorely lacking in nuance.  My knowledge of grammar and syntax is so poor that I simply can't get at the meaning.  A sentence like, " He will have had 3 meals by the time he leaves." would leave me utterly mystified, although the vocabulary in use is very simple.  The construction of the future perfect tense is way beyond me. There is far more to reading or speaking fluency than being able to recognize and pronounce words at a quick pace.
     So how do we help our kids improve their fluency?  The research seems to indicate that oral reading, particularly repeated oral reading of a familiar text is the best thing.  As adults, we're addicted to novelty.  We hate re-runs and the same old thing.  We want to get a new pile of books from the library and the kids just want to hear Goodnight, Moon or Where the Wild Things Are for the thousandth time.  If kids are at the "you read to me, I'll read to you" stage-- go ahead and encourage repetition.  If you feel that their reading could be more fluent, but they are struggling through something new every night, try adding some poetry to the mix.  Re-reading poetry is its own reward.  It becomes more pleasurable and  more poetic as we re-read.  I've written elsewhere about the importance of rhyme (See "What is Phonemic Awareness?" a few posts back) and the rhyming and rhythmic nature of poetry encourages language development.  Kids generally enjoy poetry-- just keep it short and funny at first and then branch out.  It can be fun to perform or recite for the family or a small group and the desire to practice and do well is a great incentive to build fluency.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dick King-Smith: Appreciation and Farewell

    I'm always surprised at how many thousands of people are affected when a celebrity dies.  I mean, really, I didn't know Princess Diana or Michael Jackson. Their deaths weren't  major events in my life. But a few weeks ago, Dick King-Smith died and I found myself sorry to hear it and glad that he had lived. Over many years of reading aloud to my kids, running book groups for kids and choosing library books for my own kids and my students he had given us many happy hours. I don't know anything about the man other than the this little blurb that always appeared on his book jackets:

Dick-King Smith was a farmer for twenty years before becoming a writer.  Most of his books are based on his farming experiences.  He lives in Gloucestershire.

       He was most famous for having written the book upon which the movie, Babe, was based.  He also wrote the book The Water Horse.  I hope he never saw the terrible movie that was made from it.  The movie actually involved  practice bombing in Loch Ness.   The world King-Smith created for children was always gentler than that.  He wrote dozens of children's books, almost all of them short chapter books of under a hundred pages.  Many of his protagonists are animals and while they speak the Queen's English, they retain the real motivations of pigs or mice or hedgehogs.  They don't dress up ala Beatrix Potter.   He continued writing well into his eighties-- in fact, two of my favorite among his books, Lady Lollipop and Princess Lollipop were among his most recent. (By the way-- Lollipop is a pig-- the titles of  these books make them sound "girlie" but the hero is, in fact, a boy.)

     The books are memorable, charming, non-commercial and very well written.  They are great both for reading aloud and quite accessible to a child reading on a solid 3rd or 4th grade level.  Their age appeal is pretty broad, too, so if you have an older child who is reading on a 3rd grade level these would suit quite well.  It can be a little tricky to find books for kids like this.  The last thing a ten or eleven year old boy wants to read is about the goings on in a first grade classroom.  Since I have both boys and girls, I was always looking for books that appealed to both. One of the things I always appreciated about these books was that they weren't focussed exclusively on school.  In fact, his child characters generally seem to have their real lives taking place out of school.  One of our favorites is The Cuckoo Child, which is  about a boy who has a longstanding interest in raising chickens, ducks and geese.  On a field trip to the zoo he steals an ostrich egg (which was destined to be fed to snakes) and actually manages to raise the ostrich.  (He does apologize and make amends over the theft of the egg by the way.)

     There are occasion Britishisms which might require a context guess--but not really too many.  If you have ever tried to read Winnie the Pooh aloud to a young child you will have found many more.  I think the American publishers have changed the bonnets of cars to hoods, for instance.  The books are not tightly controlled for vocabulary, but the occasional word or expression that a kid doesn't know can be guessed from context.

     His books are not a series, although there are several sequels.  (I think there are three of the Sophie books.) His child characters are believable; not perfect, but not obnoxious either.  In the tradition of the best children's books, parents are nearly invisible.  (Think of James and the Giant Peach, whose parents are eaten up by a rhinoceros on the very first page. ) The children often make friends with eccentric older people.  In a few books, the eccentric older people are actually some of main characters (Mr. Ape and The Invisible Dog.) The Invisible Dog is about a girl who has an invisible harlequin Great Dane.  I used it with our  second and third grade boys book group a few years ago and the boys loved it.

    The next time you are stumped for a great read aloud, or a by a kid who seems to have run out of good stuff to read, look for one of Dick King-Smith's many books.  They are not all equally good;  I've mentioned some of our favorites in this post, but browse around a little and I'm sure you'll find something that would appeal to most early chapter book readers.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


     Last night my twelve year old son walked into the kitchen and asked me a question I can truly say I've never been asked before.
      "How's it hanging', Mom?"
      Now, I know where he has heard this expression.  His older brother and his friends use it among themselves.  Even older gentlemen of his acquaintance have been known to use it in settings which involve beer and sporting events.
     "Jack.... um, that's not really something you say to a woman."
     "Eeewww!  Is that what it means?  I never really thought of that!  EEEEWWW! EEEEWWW!
        I feel pretty safe that he won't say it to any of his teachers.

   This story makes me laugh, but it also make me think about how much practice it takes kids to 'get' language.  Even for a kid like my son who loves to read and has a great vocabulary, the whole world of idiomatic expressions lies in wait.  There are idioms that are acceptable in speech, but not in writing.  There are idioms that are appropriate in some settings and not in others. Anyone who has ever attempted to learn another language knows that idiomatic expressions don't quite translate and trip up even long users of a second language. My husband was taught in school to ask for the bathroom in French using an expression which translates to something like "find a little corner."  Waiters in Quebec have found this uproarious.

     Kids need  lots of experience with talk and with print  to begin to discern the differences between spoken and written language. They are constantly learning and refining and making distinctions. Mostly we need to talk and listen .  The dinner table is the perfect safe place for kids to practice their oral language skills. Vocabulary acquisition is all about moving from being a receiver of language to being a producer of language.  Kids need to try out new words and expressions in a safe place.  Unfortunately, school is not that place.  Our homes can be places where we welcome big words and new words and make clear which are suitable and which are not.  In the days before computers were ubiquitous we kept a dictionary and a one volume encyclopedia and and atlas in the kitchen.  At least a  few times a week, we would look up a word we read in the paper or that someone mentioned at the table. (Now, I still grab the dictionary and somebody else looks it up on the internet.)

      As kids begin to write we need to read what they write, paying more attention to their  thinking than to the errors they make.  When babies talk, we make something of what they say even if it doesn't amount to much. We don't expect a two year old to have perfect pronunciation  and syntax. The same is true for early writing. Their error rate will go down with practice.  We can help them do with hints here and there. At a certain point, everybody needs to understand that 'gonna' and 'gotta' are not  acceptable in print except in dialogue. It didn't take Jack much to catch on that the idiom he chose wasn't appropriate As they get older, they need to learn about the different languages of exposition and dialogue and various levels of formality for different kinds of writing. It's like everything else. There is no substitute for lots of experience and lots of practice.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

In Praise of the Series

       Today I was working with a seventh grader who has struggled with reading.  This is the third year we have worked together and while I have seen her carry lots of books around and open them in class, I've never had the sense that she has truly read with understanding or that she has finished a book.  Today we talked about the Cam Jansen book I had given her the last time. She had read it with her mom (who is working to learn English)  and really seemed to have understood what happened. After a little search around the school, we found another one in the series and we began reading it together.  She came to the second paragraph and she just started sailing along.  "Cam," she read, " has a photographic memory."  "When  she closes her eyes and  says 'click' she makes a mental picture."  To come to an idea as complex as this and understand it  on the first try  is probably a new experience  for this girl.  She was able to tell it back to me in her own words and clearly understood the words 'photographic' and 'mental' ("that means in her brain," she told me.)

          There are two different things that we call reading.  The first is decoding;  that is, the actual sounding out and pronouncing the words.   The second is constructing meaning out of text.  Many kids struggle so much with the decoding piece that they literally don't have enough energy and attention to get at the meaning. The girl I worked with today falls into this category.  In the book we started reading today, Cam Jansen looked at her watch and thought, "I have to keep my parents at the park a little longer."   The title of the book was The Birthday Mystery.  I did a little probing to see if she could predict a surprise party coming up, but it took a few leading questions for her to get there. Students who are working hard at decoding can't make inferences or predictions about what will happen. They can't empathize with the characters.  They can't engage in any kind of mental conversation with the author.  They are just working too hard on decoding.  Anything we can do to make reading more automatic frees up the brain to make meaning. That, "aha" moment that my student experienced this morning is the reason she should read at least a  few more in the series.  With every one that she reads she will have the experience of meeting old friends and familiar vocabulary. The more fluently she reads, the less of her brain she will have to devote to the hard work of decoding the words and the more of her brain she will be able to use on higher order skills like inference and prediction. 

       Most libraries now have a whole section devoted to series books and this is a great thing.  Fifteen or so years ago, there was a real gap between Frog and Toad and books and real chapter books, but now, starting with the success of the Magic Tree House books there are many series written at a 2nd or 3rd grade reading level.  (Arthur Adventures, Bailey School Kids,The Cobble Street Cousins, The Babysitters' Club and many, many others.)   The sheer number of them shows how popular they are with emerging readers. They are uneven in quality and frankly as an adult reader, many of them are unspeakably boring. Don't feel guilty if you don't enjoy reading them aloud; that isn't what they are good  for.   Whether or not you think The Boxcar Children is a great read has nothing to do with whether it is a good book for your child to read.  The great thing about picking up a new one of these books is that the child has the powerful experience of activating background knowledge to make reading easier and more pleasurable.

       Think about it this way...would you rather get together  with old friends over a casual meal or get all dressed up in uncomfortable clothes and high heels and meet a dozen new people you know nothing about?   For most of us, the first  is pleasure and the second  is work. There are lots of good reasons to get dressed up and meet new people, but nobody wants to do it all the time.   Our reading life is like that, too. I  read many different kinds of books, but there are plenty of times when I don't feel like working at it. For a lighter read, I like mysteries by Donna Leon. These mysteries are set in Venice, a city I have visited.  Commisario Guido Brunetti doesn't let any case get in the way of anticipating and enjoying a beautiful meal. . He and his wife are raising teenagers and dealing with problems I recognize  For all these reasons it is easy and pleasurable to slip into one of these books.  I know the characters, I can visualize the setting.  It's like slipping into a pair of sweatpants. 

     So, if your child has found a book he or she loves and can't put down, the first thing to find out about it is whether it is part of a series.  I love the idea that readers have books "on deck."  If you can have the next 2 or 3 in the series at your fingertips, that is a great thing.  I would argue for spending the money on some of these books just to have them accessible.  When a certain book is hot at the library, but also the very next thing your child must read, it is worth it to keep the magic going. When my kids were in love with the Series of Unfortunate Events books there was a wait of months at the library.  All four of my kids read the series and now most of them have been passed on to my nieces; so they have been well loved. After all, being able to share a great read is another readerly pleasure we want our kids to experience.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What is Phonemic Awareness?

     Back in the days when homeschooling was a little less common, I would be carting my four  kids around the supermarket or a museum or a nature trail or whatever and someone would invariably ask, "why aren't you kids in school?"  The kids would say "we're homeschooled" and then the person would say, "Wow, I could never do that."  Their next question would usually be, "Are you a teacher?"  When I said that yes, I had taught high school English, they would say, "Well, that must make it a lot easier."

     I never really thought it did all that much, except for one thing.  Having been to graduate school in education, I could not be intimidated by educational jargon.

      The jargon that goes along with teaching reading can be especially intimidating to a homeschooling parent.  Of all the things we don't want to screw up, reading would surely come at the top of the list.  In  the preschool  and kindergarten  years you can start  to hear the terms phonemic awareness and phonological awareness.  It sounds like it must be as difficult as calculus and that you must have to be an expert to impart it to children.  What is this stuff?  Why is it so important and how can I make sure my kids are on track with it?

     You don't have to have an extensive background in teaching to understand and foster phonemic awareness.  You just need to pay attention to your child's language development and know a little bit about it.

     Phonemes are the individual sounds that make up words.  Phonemic awareness is simply the ability to notice, think about and manipulate the individual sounds in  spoken words. This is something that you can notice long before you are thinking about teaching reading. Can the child play with language, substitute one sound for another, make words families, rhyme?  If you leave the rhyming end off a Dr. Seuss line, can the child fill it in?  I remember my kindergarten age daughter rhyming luck, buck, truck, duck, muck (and yes, the inevitable f---) while swinging  away on the swing set.  I didn't know it then, but the pieces were all in place for her to learn to read.  If you notice that these things are not falling into place, it is probably time to schedule a few minutes a day to work with words and sounds.

     A friend told me a story the other day. Erica was sitting in her booster seat at the kitchen table and she was looking over at her brother in his booster seat on the other side of the table when her mom handed each of them a drink of milk.  Erica's was in a bigger cup than her brother's and she seized the opportunity to tease..."Ha, ha I got the big gl---."  My friend was in no mood for teasing and stopped her mid word with a stern,"just don't!"

     Erica then bemoaned, "All I said was gl-- I never even got to say ass!"  After I got through laughing, the first thing I said was, "Is she reading?"  Erica is reading, surprising her mother every day with how much and how fast she is learning.  Being able to break a word into parts and put it back together again is a sure sign of well developed phonemic awareness and the single best predictor of early reading acquisition.

    I'm going to repeat that.  It is the single best predictor of early reading acquisition. Better than eating a good breakfast or having two parents or socioeconomic status or IQ.   A single mother in the projects who sings, plays and talks and reads to her child can do a better job than a two college educated parents who let their kids spend all day in front of the computer and the TV. 

     The really good news, then,  is that phonemic awareness can be developed and improved.  You don't need to buy some special curriculum  or computer program or a bunch of worksheets to do this.  A lot of the things we traditionally do with babies and children are the very best things to develop phonemic awareness.  Songs, nursery rhymes, finger plays (Itsy-bitsy spider, 3 little pigs---that kind of thing.)  If you have forgotten, or never knew these things, get a book from the library.  Jump rope rhymes and those clapping games like "Miss Mary Mack" that we used to play in the  schoolyard are great too. This stuff is all just fun to do with kids, too. There are many books of phonemic awareness activities, but use them sparingly.  A few minutes a day can make a big difference.  Keep it a happy time. It comes naturally if we are talking, playing around with language, paying attention, limiting screen time and spending time with our kids.

    My next door neighbor is a first grade teacher who retired recently and she had noticed a real decline in that last 10 years of kids having been exposed to nursery rhymes.  I guess if you have political objections to Mother Goose, you could choose other rhyming poetry.  Music that is especially recorded for kids tends to have lyrics that are enunciated more clearly and contains more rhyme than music you might otherwise listen to. (Actually country music is good this way, too-- if you like it)   We had quite a few CD's from the line made by Music for Little People and the adults enjoyed them and sang along.  Look around and try to find music that you and your kids enjoy together and can listen to repeatedly.

     When my kids were early readers, we had a game called Up-Words.  I never really knew how to play the game--I had gotten it at a yard sale, but they still make it.  It is just a square board and letter tiles that stack on the board and on one another.   We used to just sit on the couch and fool around with it for 15 minutes or so each day.  I'd put down the word CAT and then we would change the initial sound and the ending sound to make new words or nonsense words.  Changing the middle sound is the hardest and can wait until the kid is solid on beginnings and endings.  I didn't even know the term phonemic awareness at that time, but we were building it.

     Orton-Gillingham lessons contain  phonemic awareness activites in each session, but a kid doesn't necessarily need that level of intervention to benefit from activities that build phonemic awareness. The  reading and spelling of all kids will be stronger with stronger phonemic awareness.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Let Them Write

     I'm in the midst of teaching my third child to drive and I had a flash of insight tonight.  You know what is really cool about teaching kids to write? It is completely safe. It is completely different from driving instruction. Tons of metal and massive oak trees are not involved. Errors are not dangerous.  Paper is cheap. In writing, you can let them make mistakes.  Don't  feel compelled to correct them every time.   My sister recently posted a  story about having mixed up her kids' lunches (one got 2 granola bars one got 2 baggies of carrots-- you can imagine the consternation.)   She posted the illustrated letter that her son wrote to her  complete with 2 dejected looking boys one of whom had 2 gunola bars. (39 For the First Time )  (She's funny-- read what she has to say.)

      That letter was worth at least 50 worksheets.  He had a reason to write it.  Nobody had to make him  write it.  Nobody made him edit it and it got everybody's attention.  So much so, that his mother and now his aunt have written something in response to what he wrote.  Powerful stuff. You could build a better than average writing curriculum out of these few things.  Motivation.  Approval.  Genuine Response.  Error correction can wait. Misspelled words and missing commas are not oak trees.

      I actually had to sign my name to the following statement in my son's sixth grade language arts curriculum on the first day of school this year:  "basic skills...are the very foundation of good writing."   I restrained myself from disagreeing with the teacher on the very first day,  but I totally disagree.  Thinking is the foundation of writing.  Thinking like: "I've got 2 granola bars!  That means my poor brother has 2 bags of carrot sticks! I need to alert someone to this outrage!"  A kid who has lots of reasons to write, will have lots of experience writing. A kid with lots of experience will gradually want to correct errors and bring his writing into line with  the conventions he sees in print.

Writing is the basic stuff of education.  It has been sorely neglected in our schools.  We have substituted the passive reception of information for the active expression of facts, ideas and feelings.  We need to right the balance between sending and receiving.  We need to let them write. 

                                                                                                            Donald Graves

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Art and Science of Picking the Right Book

       I've always thought of guiding kids toward the right books as something of an art.  Knowing the right book to spark a kids' interests or expand their  world is a powerful thing.  Some teachers, librarians and parents know just how to lay their hand on the perfect book.

     For emerging or struggling readers, it may be that there is more science and less art to it than I thought.  I had the chance to attend a workshop with Dr. Ilda King last week.  Dr. King consults with school districts all over Massachusetts and evaluates struggling readers and makes plans to help them.  Some kids will need focused tutoring like Orton-Gillingham or Wilson but many kids benefit from what she calls "Systematic Guided Reading."  Most of the people who are implementing her plans in schools are  paraprofessionals or volunteers. There's nothing very unusual that happens when one of these tutors sits down with a student.  For the most part,  the child reads and the tutors gives one of several prompts to help the kids through the tough places.  (I'll write about how to respond to errors in another post.)

     The magic mostly comes in the picking of a selection of books for the student to read.  Here's the basic idea:  (there was supposed to be a diagram here, but that seems to be beyond my technological abilities at the moment--but picture a pyramid.)

     Kids should be reading lots of books.  Dr. King says 60 in a school year for 4th and 5th graders. I'd put it higher than that for homeschoolers, because we have the time. At any given time, the student should have a bin or basket with 7-8 books.  Most of the books should be really quite easy for the student-- they should be able to read with 97 or 98% accuracy. (These easy books are base of the pyramid.)  Students benefit from repeated readings of these books to read fluently.  Repeated readings of easy texts have been shown to be the greatest builder of fluency. I'll write more about the different scales used to determine readability and how to use them at a later date.

     The books that they are reading with an adult can be a little harder, with slightly more complex sentence structure and slightly harder vocabulary.  (Maybe 1 or 2 of these for every 5 or 6 of the easy ones.) It should still be a happy  experience to read this text . The adult mentor can allow 2 or 3 attempts at a word and then just supply the word without comment.  (I will introduce and pronounce the characters' names before we start a chapter.  There are more "rule breakers" and foreign pronunciations in names than in almost anything else.)

       Every once in  while, suggest a book that is a real reach.  (Maybe after 5 or 6 really easy books and 1 or 2 slightly harder ones.)  A kid's non-fiction interests are the perfect way to do this.  Non-fiction tends to have more unfamiliar vocabulary and it's perfectly okay not to read the whole book.  If you have a new car and you  want to know how to set the clock, you don't necessarily make yourself read the whole manual.  Kids are no different.  It's perfectly fine to read just for information sometimes.

     The most important thing I took away from the workshop with Dr. King was essentially this:  we need to give our kids permission to use books the same way adult readers do.  We don't pick a chemistry text or Nietzche for our pleasure reading.  A lot of what we read is easy for us, containing the same plots and characters as the books we have read before. Sometimes we read just for information.  We take what we need and leave the rest for another day.  Kids can  and should do this, too.