Monthly Focus is the repository for the Firm Foundation blog posts. Our posts often address specific concerns a parent may have, or highlight a particular technique or educational theory that may ben of benefit.
click to open
Why bother learning to read in the 21st century?
In today’s world, do we really need to worry about whether our children are learning to become good readers? Is it truly a skill that will make a difference ten, twenty, or fifty years from now? Or will it become a “nice to have” but not really necessary? Will technology find a way to make reading somewhat outdated?
A concerned parent recently asked me if becoming a skilled reader was still important. Her child – an elementary school boy – was really struggling with reading. He seemed to spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out the words on the page or screen. In fact, the whole process was so difficult that by the time he had gotten through all the words, he couldn’t remember much about what he read.
She wondered if taking advantage of some of the available technology might be a better use of everyone’s time than struggling to help this child become a better reader. This mother was not alone. Others ask me these questions too. Some have a child that can read simple words but doesn’t like to read. Others complain that it is hard to make the child stay still and focus on a page. It’s more fun to play video games, practice throwing hoops or kicking a soccer ball, or text friends.
I can relate! We all have a lot on our plates. And because we are concerned about preparing our children to be successful in today’s world, we:
- Read to them;
- Enroll them in sports and other activities; and
- Help them with schoolwork.
Maybe we should leave reading to the schools and electronic devices and find other – less frustrating – things to do with our children…
I went home and spent some time thinking. It was a fair question. In today’s world, do we really need to worry about whether our children are learning to become good readers? Is it truly a skill that will make a difference ten, twenty, or fifty years from now? Or will it become a “nice to have” but not really necessary? Will technology find a way to make reading somewhat outdated?
I looked at the other options out there. We have audio books. Many materials have a text-to-speech feature so you can listen to the content. We can watch movies, videos, and documentaries for both pleasure and education. Many signs and instructions rely on images to tell us what to do.
And we hear that the really good jobs involve science, technology, engineering, and/or math. How much reading do you need to work in those fields?
I decided two things: (1) it isn’t easy to help a child learn to read, and (2) it is well worth the time and effort. Every day I interact with people. Those who are good readers seem to have an easier time than those who struggle. Not that anyone’s life is perfect. But being able to read well makes a big difference not only in school but in life. In my opinion, that makes it a critical life skill. This is why:
- Our children are taught to read in grades kindergarten through third. After third grade, a child must be able to read well enough to understand and apply the information from reading the books, articles, etc. on their own.
- A child who does not read well faces obstacles in many subjects. Because reading is the prerequisite skill, they don’t finish their work as quickly as their classmates. They don’t do as well on tests. It’s harder to do some things independently.
- Poor readers realize they have a problem. They are not stupid, but they often feel that way. This feeling causes personal distress. Confidence and self-esteem drop. They may begin to experience frustration, anger, or even depression. We frequently see behavior problems inside and outside of the classroom. In other words, their grades and ability to learn aren’t the only areas to suffer.
- Children who struggle to read have a difficult and more distressing social experience. They may be placed in groups with others who are not considered “the smart ones.” They may even be bullied or laughed at. Their general quality of life takes a hit.
The sad part is that very often children who struggle to read are bright and creative. They are far from stupid. If reading this blog makes you think of your child, take heart. Most children can become good readers using an approach that emphasizes sounds, letters, and lots of hands-on fun activities. Once children understand that reading well helps them do things they like, they usually become motivated. Even children who are not excited about reading stories and chapter books may get motivated to read some of the online instructions for advancing in video game levels. Or reading graphic comic books. Or cooking a recipe. Or learning about a famous athlete. The list goes on. And once your child has the firm foundation needed to become a skilled reader, that critical life skill will open doors for him/her for years to come.
Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
click to open
Don’t schools teach children to read?
I looked at the 2016 4th grader reading performance in 58 countries. Those children took the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). The US didn’t do so well, when compared to other countries. When I thought about how many activities require some amount of reading… well, results are results. If my child is not developing good, age-appropriate reading skills, trusting “the system” to come through in the end feels too risky.
I’m starting off with a disclaimer. This blog is not about blaming schools. Most teachers care. They work hard and sacrifice much to help children learn. I know. I used to be a teacher. And I have friends and relatives who are teachers. Schools care about children learning to read. They make sure teachers spend appropriate amounts of time on that skill. But today’s teachers work in inclusive classrooms with many children. Some kids need more than the usual amount of time and attention. In the current economy, state and local governments struggle to provide teachers with additional resources to help with such students. Good, caring people are frustrated because they became teachers to make a difference by helping children learn. They know how important reading is – not just in school but throughout life.
It’s true that many children become basic readers without too much difficulty. Over time, and with sufficient exposure to print, they see enough words to identify patterns. But a shockingly low number of children become skilled readers. I looked at the 2016 4th grader reading performance in 58 countries. Those children took the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). The US didn’t do so well, when compared to other countries. When I thought about how many activities require some amount of reading… well, results are results. If my child is not developing good, age-appropriate reading skills, trusting “the system” to come through in the end feels too risky.
But it is hard to know what to do. We parents are not the experts in this area, right? If we are not a teacher – or not a reading teacher – we may not feel qualified to do anything. So, we wait. And then one day we get that letter. Or that call. Or have that conversation during a parent-teacher conference. It’s tough to ignore the situation once that happens.
Too often, by the time we hear that our child is doing poorly – possibly even failing – he/she is already behind. And unless there is a learning disability diagnosis, accommodations are rarely available. Meanwhile our child continues falling behind. Month after month. Only now, unlike in the earlier school years, we see that poor reading doesn’t just affect one subject. By now, it is affecting lots of areas.
So, I decided to empower myself. It turned out that there were some very basic things I could do – both with my child who was having difficulties and younger ones who were not yet in school. I decided I wanted to help them be as ready as they could be to learn that important skill.
For my preschool children, I took some time each day to:
Have a conversation. Obviously, the specifics depend upon the child’s age. Any subject that will capture their interest for a few minutes will do – the important point is to talk to them and have them talk back to you. I must confess that it did take some thinking on my part – I was used to talking to them, but it usually involved giving instructions or telling them to stop doing something!
Play with sounds. Play rhyming word games. I started with giving them choices. I asked “What rhymes with cat? Is it fish or bat?” Once the kid could identify the correct word, I started making him/her come up with his/her own words: “Give me a word that rhymes with boat!” I’ll admit that sometimes the result wasn’t a “real” word – just something that sounded like it! Later, we switched to emphasizing the first sound of a simple word (like cat or hat). I’d say “Hhhhhhh -at.” My child had to listen and say the h sound back to me.
Read lots of books aloud. I’d run my finger under each word as I said it. I wanted my child to see that when I saw this group of letters, a word came out of my mouth. I tried to make reading a special time. Sometimes I would play games with a favorite book (like How the Grinch Stole Christmas) by reading most of a sentence and having someone else fill in the last word or two. Or we’d count the number of words in a sentence. Or draw a picture of what that the story was about.
Teach the names of the alphabet letters. I started with capital letters and then moved to lower case. I used cards, magnetic letters, even apps on my kindle. When my kids knew the letters in order, I started mixing them up. When they got really good, I started asking questions like, “What letter comes after t?” My goal was for them to be able to tell me without having to start saying the alphabet from the beginning.
Teach the sounds associated with each letter. It’s important to be sure you are saying the sounds correctly. I was taught to read using phonics and discovered as an adult that there were a few I wasn’t saying correctly. Before beginning this step, I found it helpful to be sure I was saying the sound for each letter properly. I found this link to be very helpful in saying alphabet sounds correctly
Once I had done this a few times, it was easy to incorporate these activities into my day. It didn’t take long with my preschool kids – maybe 15 – 20 minutes each day. And I could break it up so it wasn’t done in one long block of time. We talked and played rhyming games in the car. Books were a before bed activity (what child doesn’t look for ways to stay up a bit later?).
My school-aged child needed some different strategies. Here are some of the things I did. I:
- Developed a relationship with my child’s teacher. I explained that I was very interested in my child’s progress. I wanted to support the work in the classroom and help my child. I didn’t want the report card to be a shock but rather like a (good) job performance evaluation. It tells you what you already know in terms of successes and challenges. That approach usually worked.
- Asked my child to read aloud to me. I paid attention when my children refused to read aloud. Children who struggle with reading usually hate to be asked to do that. We started with grade-level books to get an idea of his/her ability. Depending upon how he/she was doing, we switched to easier or harder books if the reading level was wrong. I wanted the time together to be fun, so we took turns reading pages and started with books that he/she found interesting. It just took about 5 – 10 minutes.
- Listened carefully and with patience (not always easy!) to the reading. I wanted to know if the reading was accurate. What did he/she do with an unknown word (Guess? Try to sound it out?). Did the reading sound smooth? Was the pace appropriate? Did he/she read with expression or was the tone flat?
- Read aloud to him/her. I was surprised – just because my child didn’t read well at that time didn’t mean he/she didn’t like to hear stories. I realized that children who struggle with reading can grow to love books too.
- Read plays (or graphic comics) once he/she became more skilled. Once my kids became skilled enough, it was fun to explore plays and appropriate graphic comics. Each person could play a different character, so everyone participated. We found it fun and it was a great way to let the kids experiment with using expression when they read.
These simple steps helped us. I hope they help you too! Drop me a line and let me know.
Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: how we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. New York: Basic Books.
click to open
The Alphabetic Principle: Every Child Needs This Insight to be Able to Read
Reading is actually a fairly complicated skill set, with lots of abilities that have to work together. A skilled reader makes this process look easy, but it usually takes years of study and practice to become that proficient.
I used to think reading was a pretty basic activity. I was wrong. Reading is actually a fairly complicated skill set, with lots of abilities that have to work together. A skilled reader makes this process look easy, but it usually takes years of study and practice to become that proficient.
Sally Shaywitz, M.D. is a co-director for the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention. Her 2003 book, Overcoming Dyslexia, describes the process of learning to read as one where a child needs to solve two parts of the reading puzzle. The first is to "…understand that spoken words come apart and that they are made up of very small bits of language…called phonemes…" (Shaywitz, 2003, Overcoming dyslexia, 176)
The next step is to understand "how printed letters link to these sounds..." English has 26 letters and 44 phonemes. These are not learned all at once, but they all need to be learned. Once children understand that printed letters link to sounds, most learn which letters and combinations of letters make which sounds (decoding). Next, children break a word apart into its sounds and then put it back together again (blending). The concept behind these two steps is called the alphabetic principle, and everyone needs this insight to be able to read English. (Shaywitz, 2003, Overcoming dyslexia, 176)
Most children grasp this insight sometime in preschool and/or early elementary school. Some have more difficulty with it than others. Assuming no learning disabilities, the "ah-ha moment" is typically preceded by exposures to rich language experiences through conversations, stories, rhymes, alliterations, etc. These types of opportunities demonstrate the types of sounds that make up speech and illustrate how these sounds can be manipulated to make a vast number of words.
Reading science researchers, including David Kilpatrick, Ph.D., are also discovering that children continue learning how to manipulate sounds past first and second grade. This information is important, because most schools stop teaching it and testing for it around the end of first grade. Current research shows that children actually continue refining that skill well into fourth grade (Kilpatrick, 2015, Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties, 85). We see that in our day-to-day interactions with children. Many first graders are able to hear and say the word "meat," and then remove the /m/ to get "eat." But fewer can hear and say the word "smack," remove the /m/ and get "sack." Third graders are much better with that type of exercise.
Here are some quick and easy tips for things we can do to help children solve the reading puzzle and grasp the alphabetic principle.
- Play sound and word games. These sites have some good ideas for effective activities that don’t take long and can be done anywhere and anytime:
- Read aloud daily. The books don’t need to be long. Start with nursery rhymes and short rhyming books like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Chapter books can be read a chapter or two at a time. Children become involved in the story and look forward to the next "installment."
- Plan ahead and use small pieces of time for playing sound and word games. Many of these activities can be done while driving in the car or waiting for an appointment
- Fit reading activities into your daily schedule. Consistency is important. It is better to spend 10 – 15 minutes a day on these types of activities, most days of the week then to spend 45 – 60 minutes once or twice a week.
- Know when it is time to move on. There are varying levels of difficulty with phonemic awareness activities. Most children find it easier to remove or change an initial sound than a final one. Medial sounds are the most difficult to change. These skills build upon each other, so when a child demonstrates proficiency with a given skill phonemic awareness skill, it is fine to move on to a more challenging activity.
click to open
If I Read Aloud to My Children, Can I Be Sure They Will Be Good Readers?
You can surround most children with books and read aloud to them daily without having them actually learn to read. Why? Because most children must be taught to read.
Common knowledge dictates that reading aloud to our children helps them become good readers. So, one might ask why some children struggle even when their parents have been reading to them since birth.
Interesting question. It turns out that reading aloud to young children is a necessary but not sufficient activity when building proficient readers (Seidenberg, 2017, Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t and what can be done about it, 114). In other words, reading aloud is important - and it helps - but it will not do the job alone.
Learning to read is very different from learning to speak. Babies learn to speak when surrounded by people speaking. They spend months listening to the words that others are saying. They start babbling and then gradually make sounds that have meaning: Mama! Bah-bah! No! Bye-bye! Nigh-nigh! As they grow, they combine words into phrases, and sentences: Go bye-bye! Want bottle! No go night-night! We teach our children the names of things, but we don’t actually teach them how to speak.
Reading is different. You can surround most children with books and read aloud to them daily without having them actually learn to read. Why? Because most children must be taught to read. Reading aloud can instill a love of books, introduce children to new ideas and places, increase their vocabulary, and help them begin to experiment with manipulating sounds through hearing rhymes and alliterations. It can help them begin to associate the printed letters on a page with the words that come out of someone’s mouth. So, read aloud – it’s a great start. But don’t stop there.
There are many other concepts and skills that children need to become proficient readers. Acquiring these skills requires direct and explicit instruction for most children. And while schools are expected to teach children to read, many parents want to support that effort and do everything they can to raise a skilled reader. Here are some tips for parents with young children (4 years through second grade) and/or older ones who are struggling (third and fourth grade).
Help your child get to know the correct sounds associated with each letter. Use this helpful link to be sure that your child is saying the sounds correctly:
Be sure your child can name the letter that comes before and after each letter without having to go back to the beginning of the alphabet and say/sing it. You can make this a table game with a set of alphabet tiles or magnetic letters. Scramble them and pick one out. See if your child can name the letter that comes immediately before and after it. Then let him/her pick one out and you do it. Or, if your child is action-oriented, play the game while playing catch. The one throwing the ball selects the letter. Use your imagination and make up your own game – the important point is to familiarize your child with the order of the letters and make it fun.
Play sound and word games. Read The Alphabetic Principle (previous post) for some links to quick and effective games that can be done in short periods of time.
Give your child opportunities to read aloud. It doesn’t always have to be a book. Words are everywhere. Most children know the sounds of individual letters by early first grade. They should be able to start decoding and blending for simple consonant-vowel-consonant words such as cap, hot, mad, and cat. Maybe your child likes to cook and can read parts of the recipe. Or simple directions to a game. Or a sign.
Talk about what is read. Whether you are reading to your child or your child is reading to you, take a few minutes to discuss the story. Ask questions. Can your child describe what the story was about? Can he/she relate the events in order? Does he/she know who the characters are? What is the point of the story? Is there anything in the story that is meaningful in his/her life?
Work with your child’s interests. Use your child’s interests as a guide for discretionary reading. One child I work with loves sports and sports statistics. Our read aloud time incorporated opportunities for picking out an athlete in a sports statistics book. After reading it aloud, we’d discuss it.
Communicate with your child’s teacher. Even if your child is doing well, it is helpful to have a good, ongoing relationship with his/her teacher. I was never satisfied with "He/She is doing fine!" because my experience in life taught me that this type of status can change very quickly. I wanted to know what my child was learning so I could monitor their progress. If you notice that your child is having difficulty with a concept, ask how you can help him/her at home.
click to open
It’s 2020 - We Still Don’t Have a Standard Approach for Teaching Children How to Read???
Nope. We still don’t have a standardized approach for teaching reading...
Nope. We still don’t have a standardized approach for teaching reading. The reading wars have been going on for decades. If you have been reading my blogs, you know that I am NOT trying to blame teachers for this problem. A lot of different people have a stake in educating children – it is a multi-billion-dollar industry with multiple groups and different agendas.
Historically, there have been three classic approaches to learning to read. David Kilpatrick, Ph. D. (Kilpatrick, 2015, Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties) describes these three approaches:
- Whole word (also known as the look-say method, the basal reading approach, and the sight-word method). It teaches children that words are whole units and must be learned as such – sort of like looking at a picture of a tree and recognizing that it is a tree.
- Phonics which teaches children to sound out unfamiliar words (decoding) and then blend the sounds together (blending) so that a recognizable word is heard; and
- Whole language (also known as the literacy-based approach and different from whole word) that emphasizes the need to integrate reading, writing, speaking, and listening through authentic reading and writing activities.
Educators continue to debate the merits of each of these approaches and have been doing so since the late 1800s (Gillingham & Stillman, 1997, The Gillingham manual: Remedial training for children with specific disability in reading, spelling, and penmanship). What’s odd is that the field of reading science has learned a lot about how humans think, learn, and read in the last 10 – 20 years, but the debate still goes on. Apparently, there is a wide gap between what science is uncovering and what is still being practiced in the classroom.
Mark Seidenberg, Ph.D. laments, "…the methods commonly used to teach children are inconsistent with basic facts about human cognition and development and so make learning to read more difficult than it should be. They inadvertently place many children at risk for reading failure…what happens in the classrooms isn’t adequate for many children, and this shows in the quality of this country’s literacy achievement." He complains that the field of education does not expose people to modern scientific research in cognition, child development, or cognitive neuroscience. Instead, it relies on the views of a few influential individuals (e.g., Lev Vygotsky who died in 1934) with educational theories based on their findings. And he notes that the field of education puts great trust in individual observation and hands-on experience even when the conclusions are not supported by research results (Seidenberg, 2017, Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it).
Kilpatrick summarizes his conclusions for the gap between reading science and teaching reading in the classroom as comprising:
- Inadequate training of teachers and school psychologists;
- Inaccessibility of research journals and the incredible volume of research on the topic ("…early childhood education, literacy, and special education all have their own journals and textbooks. Most of the scientific research on reading is outside the journals in those fields…");
- Limited resources for consolidating and summarizing the results of reading research for educators;
- Gatekeepers who seek to keep educators from implementing the research; and
- The ongoing reading wars (Kilpatrick, 2015, Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties).
Interesting. I suspect that no one of the three methods is sufficient in and of itself for taking a child all the way from illiteracy to reading proficiency. But which of the three methods is most effective in helping beginning readers learn to decode words into sounds and blend the sounds back into recognizable words? It turns out to be phonics (next post).
click to open
Phonics Helps Beginning Readers
When children are first learning to read, most words – if not all – are unfamiliar. Once they understand the Alphabetic Principle , they can associate printed letters and combinations of letters with specific sounds
After learning that there is no standard method for teaching children to read, I started wondering which method was best for beginning readers. Admittedly, learning to read involves multiple steps:
- Being able to identify and manipulate sounds associated with speech (phonemic awareness);
- Grasping the alphabetic principle;
- Learning which letters and letter combinations are associated with which sounds;
- Decoding words and blending the relevant sounds into words;
- Building an instantly recognizable vocabulary of words;
- Understanding the meaning of a phrase, sentence, paragraph, etc.;
- Moving past literal meanings to infer implicit information and meanings;
- Analyzing information; and
- Using critical thinking skills to apply the information and evaluate it for further use.
It seems logical that in order to accomplish 6 – 9 above, a child needs to be able to accurately identify the word. But what method will best help do that? On the surface, the whole word method seemed to make sense. It does appears as if fluent readers memorize words and then read them instantly and accurately…
But appearances can be deceiving! It only looks like we memorize words visually and store them in long-term memory for instant reading access. Using current technology, science tells a very different story. Because we don’t store words visually in our memory, phonics is the best way to help children learn to read (steps 3 – 5 above). Here’s why.
When children are first learning to read, most words – if not all – are unfamiliar. Once they understand the Alphabetic Principle , they can associate printed letters and combinations of letters with specific sounds (Shaywitz, 2003, Overcoming dyslexia, 44). At that point in time, phonetic rules help decode unfamiliar words. But eventually, children stop sounding out words and start recognizing them just by looking at them. How does that happen?
Despite appearances, we now know that the words are not stored visually in long-term memory. Rather, the words are stored as letter sequences translated into sounds and pronunciations. Kilpatrick describes the process as one where the sequential letters and their associated sounds align with the pronunciation of a spoken word already in long term-memory. This alignment is one reason that helping a child build a robust spoken vocabulary is important.
After several exposures *, most children can read that word just by looking at it. No decoding or blending required. Kilpatrick calls this process orthographic mapping, and it is responsible for building the large dictionary (i.e., lexicon) of words that proficient readers read accurately and automatically. Such readers continue to use phonics throughout life only when encountering an unfamiliar word. But phonics builds the initial vocabulary of instantly recognizable words known as the phonological lexicon. And at that point, we are reading the word as a unit. Our eyes see all the letters. The alignment of the letter sequence and associated sound renders the word instantly recognizable.
Of course, there is more to reading than just being able to identify the words on a page. Successful readers understand what is written and can work with the content to analyze it, apply it to other information, evaluate it, and create new material. But doesn’t all that depend upon the person being able to read the words accurately in the first place?
* The exact number of exposures needed to put a word in the phonological lexicon depends upon the child. Estimates are between one and four exposures for typical children. Children with reading difficulties still follow the same process but the number of exposures they need is much greater – some estimate between 25 and 50 exposures may be needed.
Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.