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.

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.