Raising readers is a joy forever!
Our mission is sure, no matter how we get there.
There’s not a pony in every yard anymore. Imagine how many kids learned to read with Dick and Jane readers, life was different in those stories, couple sight words and colorful pictures on a page, and there you go.
Look-say approaches were really popular until 1955 when Rudolph Flesch jumped on the bandwagon. That pendulum has continued to swing mightily despite the fact that literacy organizations, researchers and teachers as action researchers know what works best to teach kids to read. By kids, I mean all ages, because we are never done learning to read, read better or faster. That means digital or book, also.
Lately I’ve noticed articles suggesting that systematic, explicit phonics is the best way to teach emergent readers to read. Over the years I was fortunate to experience a wide variety of reading programs and approaches, including phonics instruction. I loved using language experience, too, as it really quickly added in the writing piece of the pie. For way-behind 9th-12th graders one year I taught in a reading lab, smuggling books out of my drawer.
Here are some ideas for you to think about.
1. So what’s the best way to teach readers how to figure out unknown words?
The best ways to teach reading fundamentals have been argued for years. Researchers including Adams, Kohn, Chall, Goodman, Veatch, Routman and many others offered compelling reasons for code versus meaning and balanced approaches.
Educators traditionally argued there are only two ways to teach reading, whole word, read for meaning processes or phonics, teaching the alphabetic code. The NRP (National Reading Panel Report, 2000) made sense at the time, including five key areas needed for reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
2. Did you know reading is also a mechanical process? Hmmm.
There’s more to beginning reading than phonics versus whole language. Reading starts mechanically, through visual perception, the process of recognizing words. Tracking is very important, following along the line of print, orientation, realizing that an ‘a’ is always an ‘a’, whether upper or lower case etc.
3. Eye movement: Know and do.
Watch kids’ eyes move across the page, (pretty much all ages and stages). Number of words you notice at each stop is the eye span, or width of eye stop. Eye movement from one line to the next is a return sweep (about 125th of a second). If attention fluctuates or eyes keep going backward, these are called backstops or regressions and explain why readers plod along and possibly don’t remember what they read. Make your child or students aware and practice seeing more letters or words at each stop. Pick easier reading material.
- Instead of reading with a book flat on desk or table, tilt it up, at a slight angle. This way the student reads more words at a glance, larger eye span. Always do this. All ages. Likely same with tablet. Kids with books flat on desk lose their place more easily, too.
4. Reading levels and readability: Does it matter?
Yes, of course. Let students self-select most books. Display books with covers facing out.
5. Know Kids’ Reading Level:
Independent: Highest level which student reads without help, fluently. Word recognition errors (miscues) don’t exceed more than one per hundred words of running text, comprehension is 90% or better. With assistance, student is at instructional level, with errors not exceeding more than five per one hundred words of text and comprehension of 75% or above. Frustration is thought to be less than seventy percent comprehended, but it’s more obvious than that. You just know when the kid is frustrated.
6. Do consider readability:
- Select readable books.
Easy selections, including picture books, include short sentences, simple words, obviously more challenging selections have longer and more abstract words. Type size counts, smaller type is harder to read. Type is measured in points. Roman or other easy- to- read type is best because of the serifs; serifs are tiny projections you see sticking out at top and bottom of the type. It’s thought that serifs make type more readable as they help letters blend together as parts of the word. Kind of like blending into cursive.
- Easy on the eyes books.
Leading is the space between lines; even a small amount helps readability. Lower case letters are easier to read than upper because they offer characteristic shape (configuration) clues. Beginnings of words contribute more to recognition than endings. Consonants with ascending or descending letters are easier to recognize than vowels. Moreover, the top half of print is easier to identify than the bottom. And I suggest you watch out for too many capital letters which are harder to read, even in titles. Pretty amazing.
Easy hack for quick reading level.
My favorite way to see whether a book is at your student’s independent or instructional level is to do the “five finger technique”. Selecting a book page, ask your kiddo to put down a finger each time there is an unknown word. If more than five fingers per page, book is probably too hard. If the child wants to read it anyway, think Dewey, importance of interests, and just provide back-up assistance.
7. How do kids recognize new, unknown words? Hacks for Word Recognition Skills:
- Teach time-tested, cueing:
Graphophonic: “Does it look right?” What letter or sound does it begin with? Point to the letter or word. Ask: does this look familiar? Take another look at this. What does this letter (or word) look like? Look for a smaller word inside the word. Check this with a word you already know.”
Syntactic: “Does it sound right? Can you say it another way? What other word or phrase might fit here?
Semantic: “Does it make sense? Look at the picture again. Reread the sentence.”
Say: Does it look right to you? What sound or letter does it begin with? Point to the letter (words). What other sound might fit here? Does this make sense? etc.”
8. Context Clues: Know and do:
Practice looking at words surrounding new words, to gain meaning. Often by simply looking at initial consonants and other sentence parts, the kiddo infers the unknown word.
1, Read aloud a sentence in which an unknown word is omitted. Ask what a possible word might be.
- Provide sample sentences which show that context clues may come before or after a word.
- Provide sample sentences with contextual clues in form of a phrase, sentence or a paragraph.
9. Recognizing Sight Words. Start with real words, concrete objects:
Use experience, environmental print and sometimes word lists to practice sight words. Start with easiest words first, especially those things concrete and real, as objects around house or environment.
The problem with graded sight word lists is they include such abstract words. For example, what is a “the?” It’s always better to start with real things, concrete objects, called “actuals” or “realia”. Word walls, way better than data walls.
10. Structural Analysis Helps Figure Out Unknown words:
Besides sounding out words, another way to decode or recognize new words is by taking them apart. This process is called structural analysis.
Teach word parts, including roots, prefixes, suffixes, compound words, syllables, word families and contractions. So much fun!
11. About Phonics, the alphabetic code approach:
While there are certainly inconsistencies in our language, phonics works about 80-85% of the time, so I think it’s a really useful tool to teach kids, all levels. Beginning Reading champs are word detectives learning letters and combinations of letters. But all students encounter unknown words and it’s ok to review basic decoding strategies, it’s not baby, it’s smart. Teach consistencies of our language.
A basic understanding of this systematic phonics sequence will help you teach phonics. Really simplest idea is that sounds make letters and letters make words!
12. Hacking phonics: What You Need to Know. Quick stuff.
We know the English language is made up of twenty-six letters. Of these, five are regular vowels (a e i o u) and two (y, w) are semi-vowels. Remaining letters are consonants.
- Consistent sounds: First, teach the fifteen usually consistent sounds (b,d,f,h,j,k,l,m,n,p,r,t,v,z, and w, except as a diphthong, ow)
This is cool, once students know these fifteen letters, they have mastered more than half of the letters and one third of the sounds used in English and know enough letters to start making words. (Need a vowel or two to start, of course!)
- Remaining consonants have more than one sound and are called “consonant equivalents”. For example, model ‘c’ and ‘g’ sounds, soft and hard, (as city, can, or go, gym); and ‘s,’ as sounding like its name or z. ‘Y’ can have three sounds, like long I, long ‘e’, or says its own name. (yellow, cry, city).
- Consonant blends are two or three side-y-side consonants that blend into one new sound. The l, r, and s blends are most often found at the beginning or middle of a word, may be at the end.
‘T’ blends are found at the beginning and ending of many words. ‘D’ and ‘p’ blends are usually found at the ends of words (as pr, bl, str, etc.)
- Consonant digraphs: Double consonants with a single sound. Most common are ch, sh, wh, th, ch. You hear one sound, not individual letters. Teach that a digraph is usually found at beginning or ends of words.
- Vowels: When a vowel is at the end of a syllable, it usually has a long sound, an open syllable. Short vowels are referred to as closed syllables.
Vowel teams: au, aw, ee, ey, ea, oa, ei, ie, ui, ue
Special, or magic e: (cut, cute;)
R controlled vowels, bossy ‘r’: ar, er, ir, or, ur
Diphthongs: oi, oy, ou, oo, ow
And now a PS. Here are a few more hacking good ideas for you:
- Enjoy your classroom or home library. Remember to include those favorite classics!
- Read aloud with your kids at home and school, long past toddler time. Reading with your kids through their lifetime is the gift of gifts.
- Plan for plenty of time for free reading, student selected choice time. Model reading by reading.
- Mix it up, with info-text and just for fun pleasure reading. Offer lots of time to just read!
We are all reading teachers, schoolhouse and home. It’s important we have some idea of the reading process, not just programs, to best meet kids’ needs. I hope this helps you, by validating what you know and maybe an idea or two to explore. My next blog is filled with quick, time-tested, easy peasy, how-to- strategies to add pizzazz to your curriculum and enliven your lessons. In the meantime, stay tuned.
Leaving footprints on your reading hearts, Rita.