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.