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.

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. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Don't Kill the TV Just Yet

My oldest child would tell you that she wasn't allowed to watch TV until she was 12.  This is an exaggeration, but it's pretty fair to say that my kids were discouraged from watching much TV.  I always believed that the less TV they watched the more they would read.  I still think there's really good reasons to seriously restrict all kinds of screen time, but I read about some new research today about emerging literacy that has me very excited.

It seems that India has been experiencing a soaring literacy rate in the last five years or so.  The reason?  TV (really.)  It seems that people of all ages like to gather in front of television sets in villages and watch their favorite Bollywood movies.  If you saw the Jai Ho dance in Slumdog Millionaire  you've got the idea.  There's extravagant costumes and glamorous singing and dancing.  The movies reach everybody in society: young, old, rich, poor-- everybody.  India has a huge proportion of people who are only beginning readers-- the result of too few years of schooling or none at all.

An Indian student studying in the US had the idea that seeing the words as the stars sang and danced might help boost literacy. He managed to persuade the Indian state channel to broadcast movies and music videos with Hindi subtitles (the same language the movies were already in.)  People started singing along, karaoke style and even copying down the lyrics as they watched the movies. If you want to read the whole article you can read it at

This is what occurred to me as I was reading the article.  Closed captioning is available on almost all DVD's and for many shows on TV. All you have to do is select it from the menu.  You don't make it part of school.  You don't increase the amount of TV your kids are watching. Just set the closed captioning when they watch a Disney movie or whatever you would normally let them watch for a treat.  Apparently, part of the magic of this is that it is inherently enjoyable.  The Indian ladies in their saris got together to watch because they loved to see movie stars, not because somebody convinced them that it would be good for them.

TV can't teach anybody to read from scratch.  But what it has been shown to is help people who are semiliterate or lacking in fluency. ( Sound like anybody you know? )   I remember from learning to read myself and in seeing my kids learn, there comes a point when the world is filled with print.  You can't not read it.  Some less fluent readers have not reached this point.  It is still work to decode every word and for some, plodding through books is torture.

It turns out that subtitles are almost impossible to ignore and that people just naturally read along.  It's not frustrating, because they can hear the words in their own language. It turns out the musicals or music videos with song lyrics are especially good.  Songs build phonemic awareness, which is the ability to break a word into individual sounds and syllables.

You don't have to say or do anything except change the menu or push a button on a remote. Give it a try.  I'd love to hear about your results.