Sunday, July 20, 2014

Teaching My Daughters to Read -- Part IV, Success

Previously, I described how I taught my daughters about print, sight vocabulary, phonological awareness, phonics, and early writing skills, while fostering their interest in being literate—all essential to learning to read.

But they still could not read.

While I was doing this at home, I was teaching undergrad teacher candidates at the university. My nascent teachers were puzzled: E. could read 25 words, knew her letter sounds, and could print using invented spelling (her best friend was named “KD”, for instance). Why couldn’t she read?

They assumed that knowing the letter sounds meant someone could read. They assumed that knowing some words made you a reader. Those skills are valuable, but there is no set amount of them that transform you into a reader.

Reading requires that you be able to make sense of the words and ideas of messages you’ve never seen before. If reading were only about word memorization, then we could only read texts of words already studied. If reading were mainly about “sounding out” words, then we’d all read much slower than we do.

One more element had to be added to this mix, an ingredient akin to the push that mama birds give to their babies when they want them to try to fly.

We got ahold of some old preprimers—these are the first books in the old basal readers. In most programs, there were three preprimers and they had rigorously controlled vocabularies. That just means that the texts used very few different words and they repeated them again and again.

We got our children reading these little books, telling them words that they didn’t know or getting them to sound out words that they could. In other words, we got them to try to read.

Surprisingly, this went more smoothly with our second daughter, M., the one who struggled with language and who was less interested in reading and books. I was puzzled by E.’s slow start, and in frustration asked, “Why can’t you read?”

Her answer surprised me. She said that if she could read, then I wouldn’t read to her anymore. She expressed what so many children (adults) feel about learning: learning can set you free, and they don‘t always seek such independence; it’s scary.

I explained that even if she could read, I would still read to her—and, by the next day, she could read. M. wasn’t as anxious about independence at this point, so she didn’t balk at all—though she had to work harder at this than her sister.

I used an approach that Pat Cunningham touted at the time and that still makes sense to me. Most schools took kids through these books over a semester. Pat argued that students should read two or even three sets of these little books in the same time period.

I obtained preprimers from three different companies, and my girls read all 9 of those books over a three-month period. By the end of that time, they could read. E. could read about a third-grade level when she entered Kindergarten, and M. read like a first grader.

How did we teach our girls to read? By reading to them. By teaching them letter sounds with curricula purchased at the local grocery store. By encouraging them to write. By having them dictate stories that we could write down for them. By having them read simple controlled vocabulary readers. By working with flash cards.

Many years ago, Dolores Durkin studied precocious readers; children who entered school already reading. Parents told her that they had not taught their kids to read. This finding was replicated repeatedly and teachers were told about these amazing children who taught themselves to read.


Eventually, the late Aileen Tobin asked the right questions. Instead of just asking parents whether they taught their children to read, she asked if they taught their kids the letters and letter sounds, how to print their names, words with flashcards, etc. She found that no one taught their children to read, but the parents of precocious readers were doing all of these things.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Teaching My Daughters to Read -- Part III, Phonics

And what about phonics?

So far, I have explained the literacy environment, print awareness, and sight word teaching that were part of teaching my daughters to read, but phonics also played an important role.

I have explained that my children were remembering words from their language experience stories. My teacher preparation students at the university asked me how many words my daughters would need to know before they could read; a very interesting question. In fact, there is no set number. Memorizing some words is always part of beginning reading, but reading is more than memorizing words.

Phonics both reduces students’ reliance on word memorization and makes such memorization easier. It accomplishes the former, by allowing students to sound out words that are yet unknown. Phonics allows the young reader to approximate the pronunciation of a word from nothing but the letters on the page, a liberating tool.

But phonics instruction also sets students off on trying to figure out and use the spelling patterns in text. Those patterns are not usually used to “sound out” words in any obvious way (except initially), but learning them does seem to increase how quickly and easily students come to “remember” words. Initially, children struggle to remember words, but as they learn the spelling patterns and sound-symbol relations the words get stickier—they seem to stay in memory with much less work.

Our girls received their systematic explicit decoding instruction from cheap workbooks purchased at the grocery store. These workbooks were neither thorough nor especially well constructed, but they gave my daughters practice auditory discrimination (hearing the phonemic contrasts) and sound-symbol correspondences.

We didn’t’ just assign pages to them to do independently, but usually we did these pages with them—these sessions ran for as little as a few minutes (when they weren’t interested) to several minutes at a time when they were engaged. Believe it or not, lots of kids enjoy workbook pages. It is a kind of playing school that can be profitable.

I never set particular amounts of phonics to accomplish (such as 3-pages a day). But we worked on these several times a week and both girls were able to go through them pretty quickly.

Through these kinds of materials (including alphabet blocks and magnet letters on the refrigerator), they learned all the letters and sounds. E., with her special strengths in language, caught on pretty quickly and could do all the pages with minimal adult instruction; M. needed more explicit support to complete them, and the work went a bit slower. They both managed to learn all of the letter names (lower case and capitals), and all of the single consonant sounds and beginning consonant digraphs (sh, ch, th, wh) before they could really read. Just as reading is not the mastery of some number of words, it is also not the mastery of some number of sound-symbol relations.

By the time they knew their letters and sounds, the dictation work had started to disappear, replaced by their own writing. Both could do simple writing before they could actually read. They knew how to use the sounds to produce letters and could represent words they wanted to write. (I would make a big deal out of how wonderful this was and would print the words in standard spelling on the back).

At this point, they knew all the letters and many of the letter sounds, could recognize some words, understood how print worked (that the words told the story, the direction that print ran), and were surrounded with reading and writing in their environment. All of the raw materials of reading were in place, but what about reading?


In the next entry in this space, I’ll explain how they finally crossed the boundary and entered into the land of literacy.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Teaching My Daughters to Read -- Part II, Print Awareness

Last week, I began a multi-part series on how I taught my daughters to read. My oldest daughter wryly replied to that entry, suggesting I could have saved a lot of pixels if I had just said that I hired a tutor…. And her son who just had his third birthday (and who did not read that entry) informed me that his goal for being 3-years-old was to read words.

In that first entry, I described the literacy context in which my daughters grew up. Now, let’s turn to the more formal side of the teaching.

When the girls were 2-3 years old, more explicit teaching was introduced. Each child was encouraged to tell stories (often recounting personal experiences—I think this may have started with a family vacation). Essentially, these were language-experience approach stories. They would tell the story and I’d print them out in letters, two-lines high with plenty of space between words (initially on pieces of paper, and later in composition books—which they still have). I’d read the stories back to them, and they would choral read with me.

Over time, they came to recognize some of the words in their stories. This was less direct teaching (I did not set out to teach particular words), but I was just responsive to what they were picking up. If they seemed to remember a particular word, I’d add it to an index card (yes, a flash card); if they forgot it at some point, that word would disappear from the pack.

The point was to build a collection of words that they would recognize at sight. Like most children, they were fascinated by words like mommy, daddy, grandma, grandpa, as well as their names and their sister’s name. They each managed to develop a sight vocabulary of approximately 25 words—words they could recognize out of context—before they could actually read.

This facet of what I did probably accomplished several goals beyond getting some written words into their memories:

(1) it would have developed an understanding of print awareness (including directionality, the idea that letters are used to write words, the concept of word—the idea that words are separable);
(2) it would have further sensitized them to the relationship between language and reading (since they saw language being recorded and read back);

(3) it would have started to sensitize them to the idea of the permanence of literacy, that we could read back the words and that they didn’t change over time;

(4) it may have provided them with some baseline insights into sound-symbol relationships (as I would repeat their words as I wrote them)—however, I don’t think it was particularly powerful in this regard and I did not stress that.

Thus, we built an early base of both word knowledge and print awareness.

Authorities argue over whether you should start with words or letters and sounds. My reading is that here is no convincing evidence on either side; research seems to show that both approaches work and that they do not need to be mutually exclusive.

In our case, the whole time we were meeting the goals listed above, we were also explicitly teaching letters and sounds, and later spelling patterns. Thus, when they were telling these language experience stories, they were also memorizing their letters and learning the letter sounds.

(The same thing is currently going on with my grandson. He is currently learning some words, but he already knows all of the letters—lower case and upper case, and the simple sounds that go with all or most of the consonants. He isn’t decoding yet, but he is gaining the raw materials needed to do that well).


We did many language experience stories and this soon morphed into the kids doing their own writing--they could both "write" before they could read. But let me add one additional "print awareness" activity that we found beneficial.

I have already described the extensive shared reading that we did with our girls. Remember, I was a young professor at the time, still learning lots about my craft. One day I was reading some research studies by Ferreiro & Teberosky. They described how the children they were studying had to learn that the words on the page told the story (the kids thought their parents made up the stories based on the pictures). I'd never noticed that confusion before--whether it had been there or not--but I brought this one home right away.

That evening when I was reading to E., she put her hand on the page as young children do. Usually I would have just moved it away and kept reading, but this time I stopped in my tracks. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"You've covered the words, so I can't read them."

"You read that?"

"Yes." 

She was amazed and the rest of that reading was spent with her trying to interfere with it by anticipating where my eyes were going to be looking. Despite having the benefit of outstanding parents, she had no idea what to look at during reading before this. Not surprisingly, I introduced M. to this little game earlier than I had done with her sister. 

Japanese scholars have long believed that when parents point at the text that they read to their children, that they are teaching important aspects of print awareness. You don't always have to print at what you read, but it is a good idea to do that some of the time.

Next week I’ll get into the home decoding instruction more explicitly.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Teaching My Daughters to Read; Part I -- Context

Hi Dr. Shanahan,

I couldn't help but notice in your latest blog post the mention of how you "remember vividly teaching your oldest daughter to read."  I am writing in hopes that you'd be willing to share - either with me or your readers on your blog - what you did (either in broad strokes or even specifics) to teach her to read.  

I would not expect you to publicly endorse a program or approach nor am I asking you to divulge anything about your family publicly - I'm simply in the same position as a father of a four year old daughter and sincerely interested in how you approached this fun and special opportunity.

Response- Part I:

Yes, we taught both of our girls to read at home before they started school. I’d be happy to tell you how, but that will have to spread out across a few entries to do the topic justice.

Anyone who has had one child is usually a deep believer in the power of DNA; anyone with two realizes that couldn’t be the explanation. Children can be pretty different, and my daughters definitely were not cut from the same cloth. Some of what we did with them was the same, and some of our efforts differed because of their differences.

For instance, language came much easier to my oldest (E), while my youngest (M) was a late talker (or, perhaps, more accurately, her development was slowed by having an older sibling who spoke for her—not surprisingly her spokesperson eventually became a lawyer). When M was three, we took her to the neighborhood elementary school to get speech services, focused on pronunciations and general vocabulary.

Let’s start with context. Most kids don’t “learn to read” just from being in a literate environment; teaching is needed, too. But that doesn’t mean that context does not matter so let me describe that. There were lots of opportunities for our kids to find out about literacy and language and to develop some motivation for it.

Both girls were read to a lot, though E received more of this—mainly because she was more attentive and interested from an early age. Shared reading started within hours of birth for both, and they were exposed to typical picture books (usually read by their mother) and advanced chapter books (my contribution). There was no set schedule for this reading, but it typically took place several times per week throughout their childhoods, including when they were learning to read from more explicit lessons.

E stayed interested in my book sharing once she was a toddler, so reading Charlotte’s Web or Grimm’s Fairy Tales to her was a joyful duty. M, once mobile, made it clear that having her father read to her was something to avoid.

This will sound horrible, but I’d have to “capture” her—that is, I’d grab her up in my arms for reading—initially for very brief periods (often fewer than 15 seconds at a time). She’d wiggle, wrestle, and squirm away, giggling all the way, but resistant to the book sharing.

Over time, she grew less resistant and could sit longer and longer; it was never unpleasant, but at first it was unusually brief and was not something to which she submitted willingly. [Lest this description sound too negative, I would point out that M. and I continued to read together until she was a freshman in high school—and those exchanges and the books themselves are something that we are quite both sentimental about today).

Each girl owned their own little library and books were often given as presents to them. They also had magazine subscriptions, too, and the public library was close. Rarely did a week go by that they didn’t bring home an armful of books.

The books that my wife read to them tended to be these library books (picture books for the most part) and from the girl’s own libraries while the books that I read tended to be in our library (or they were classic books with which they had been gifted).

It can take a long time to read books like “The Yearling,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” “The Hobbit,” or the “Odyssey.” Given that I often tried to follow the completion of these books up with some fun activity. Sometimes we would rent a videotape of the book and pop some corn and make an evening of it. A couple times we even built vacations around particular books (“Tom Sawyer” led to a visit to Hannibal, Missouri, and “Misty of Chincoteague” had us meeting the island ponies in Virginia).
  
The TV was often on in our house and they would watch Sesame Street often (and there are some reading and language lessons there). Later they became big fans of “Little House on the Prairie” and “Anne of Green Gables” (we read a lot of those books, too).

Lots of toys in the household had literacy or language themes, too, including alphabet blocks, early electronic toys that taught about flags, musical instruments, and flags. And, they definitely saw their parents reading and writing both for pleasure and work.

Not only did we read to the kids a lot (from the first day), but we spoke to them a lot, too. Reading is a language activity and our children had lots of opportunity to hear language, to engage in language—including songs, nursery rhymes, and language games. For example, we used to play Game of Fives. I’d name a category and the kids would try to come up with five examples (5 toys, 5 kinds of jewelry, 5 family members, 5 colors—and later 5 lakes, 5 states, 5 shapes, etc.).


As, I said, context alone is usually insufficient to cause someone to be a reader, but it does carry lessons, opportunities to learn, and motivation. My daughters were surrounded by literacy and language and this likely played an important role in the eventual success of the lessons that we provided to them. I’ll write about those lessons next week.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The New Bane of Beginning Reading Instruction: Phony Rigor

I’m pro rigor. And I believe my bona fides are in order on that one. I’ve argued for teaching children to read very early for more than 40 years; even teaching my own kids to read before they entered school (and, yes, I’m working on the grandchildren already; their ages range from 5 months to 3-years-old). The time to teach young kids to read is when you become responsible for the child and not a moment earlier.

I’m not a big fan of some of programs like “Teach Your Baby to Read,” but only because I don’t think their designs match what we know about teaching young’uns. I admire their enthusiasm, however.
I’ve also have long argued for reading challenging books to little kids. Like everybody, I love picture books, too, yet I ‘m a bigger fan of sharing chapter books with preschoolers. The day my youngest came home from the hospital, I began reading “Through the Looking Glass” to her. By the time, my daughters entered kindergarten they new books like “The Odyssey,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Yearling,” and Jane Goodall’s “In the Shadow of Man” (my daughter who is now an engineer picked that one out herself).

As should be clear to any reader of these pages, I also support Common Core, specifically because those standards are higher than past standards. They are ramping up the rigor for kids and I’m on board. (I even believe in Algebra for most 8th graders though I know nothing about the teaching of math). 

Given all of that, I find myself in an uncomfortable position: I think beginning reading instruction (Grades K-1) is going off the rails, specifically because of attempts to impose rigor on those grades that goes beyond anything that makes sense.

This phony rigor—phony because it appears to be demanding, though it would be unlikely to actually elevate children’s learning in any productive way.

Some examples may help.

One example of this kind of phony rigor is the first-grade teachers who have told me that they are going to teach with complex text. They have looked at the second-grade Lexile demands of Common Core and they want to ensure that the kids will be able to handle those text demands when they get there.

That enthusiasm is admirable, but it would be wrong headed for most kids. Instead of helping them to progress faster, it would make text less transparent (harder to figure out the spelling patterns and sound-symbol relationships). That’s why CCSS didn’t raise text levels for beginners; the standards recognize that would appear to be more demanding, but it would be phony because it would just make us adults look tougher when we were actually slowing down the kids’ learning progress (in the end lower achievement, but we rigor-demanding adults could feel better about ourselves).

Another example is how fast some people are trying to teach phonics. It’s apparently clear to them that if they teach enough phonic elements to 5-year-olds, they’ll be seen as rigorous. But displays of rigor aren’t what we are looking for. “What’s more important, teaching lots of phonic elements in a brief time or ensuring kids become effective decoders?”

Part of the problem with introducing phonic elements that quickly initially is that you reduce their decoding progress. Studies, for example, have shown the foolishness of teaching complex patterns (like long vowel spelling patterns) before kids have effectively digested short vowels. It is not just that they don’t learn the long vowel patterns very well, but those patterns can mislead kids into thinking that reading is about reading the letter names—it is not; it is about matching sounds and letters, quite a different (and more abstract) idea.

Or, what about the crazy number of sight words some programs are striving for? I’m a big sight word and flash card guy (that was certainly part of my teaching approach in Grade 1, in various reading clinics, and with my own kids), but is the point to memorize a long list of words or to become readers as early as possible?

I remember vividly teaching my oldest daughter to read. I was teaching a group of pre-service teacher candidates at the same time and I’d tell them about her progress. At that point, my four-year-old daughter knew her consonant sounds and had managed to memorize about 25 sight words… but she still couldn’t read (by reading I mean being able to make sense of a written message from nothing but the words on the page).

My students asked a really good question: How many words does it take to make someone a reader?

The answer, of course, is that knowing lots of words will eventually be helpful, but there is no particular number of words that have to be known before a child crosses the line to being a reader. The smartest people in the field, after carefully and thoroughly reviewing the research literature on this issue decided that kindergartners should probably master a small number of sight words—certainly much less than the dozens being espoused by some programs. 
One gets the sense they want to pile up big numbers only to impress their rigor-seeking customers, but these schemes aren’t based on research, the demands of the new standards, or even the experience of those who have most successfully taught young children to read. 

The reason for the high numbers: It's a kind of selfie. Teachers and administrators stung by the charges that they have been too soft and sloppy in the past want to look rigorous. They sincerely hope to do good, but have nary a clue about what good might be. If someone tells you 5-year-olds need to master 92 sight words to become readers, grab your wallet and run. 

Pointless learning goals won’t help kids more if they appear to be rigorous and demanding. They're still pointless. Remember, the real goal is to teach kids to be wise readers--not to see how fast we can introduce particular lists of skills. Such lists, no matter how quickly, introduced don't make kids readers.