Showing posts with label Beginning Reading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Beginning Reading. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Is rhyming ability in important in reading?

Our district is wrestling with how much emphasis to give rhyming as an early literacy skill. We had previously downplayed rhyming as a necessary focus but the new CA ELA/ELD Framework and CCSS where rhyming is specifically called out has resurfaced old questions.  

Our struggle is this.... with our very high (87%) English Learner population, rhyming is one of the later skills acquired for these students in Preschool through grade 1.  Reading research seems to support the idea of rhyming as a pre-requisite to reading; exposure to this kind of play with words and "word families" gives children another pathway to reading. However, students who are not native to English miss this early exposure and much of their cognitive energy seems to be taken up with meaning-making. Often in our classrooms it seems we are successful at teaching the students to decode and then have to go back and teach them to identify and produce rhyming words.  Doesn't this defeat the purpose for using rhyming as a building block for reading?

This is not to say that our teachers aren't talking about rhyming words as they are encountered in text or pointing out word families but our question, as we decide where to put our educational dollar, is will an emphasis on rhyming give us a reading payout?

When I was a young reading specialist (a very long time ago), I wondered about this myself—though I certainly wasn’t aware of any research on it. I noticed that some of my low readers were surprisingly thick when it came to rhyme. Rhyme had always seemed automatic to me, and it made me wonder about its role in reading. As a result, I started to check out the rhyming ability of my students (grade 2-6). Just as I suspected, poor rhyming appeared to be an important marker of low reading ability.

What I had informally noticed as a teacher, the research community noticed as well. In the 1980s (and especially the 1990s--though it continues today), rhyming as a precursor to reading became a big issue. It made sense: many low readers struggled with rhyming, the research community was increasingly interested in how kids perceive language sounds, and phonological awareness (PA) became a big deal. It is rare that one sees a list of those early PA skills that doesn’t include rhyming.

There was so much research on this that the National Early Literacy Panel (2008) was able to meta-analyze it. Here is what we concluded:

1.     Rhyming ability is predictive of later reading achievement, but it had the weakest correlation of any of the phonemic awareness skills. Being able to segment words into single phonemes or to blend phonemes together into words, were significantly better predictors of decoding. (There were no significant differences in these predictors with regard to later reading comprehension growth).
2.     With regard to the teaching of PA, it was concluded that there were few instructional interventions that used rhyming activities as a primary teaching approach, but that the teaching of letters and sounds had a significant impact on student learning.

What do I conclude from this? First, rhyming ability is a predictor of later reading development, but it isn’t as accurate or sensitive as other skills (like letter naming or phonemic awareness—children’s ability to distinguish or segment single sounds in words). If I noticed a youngster was having trouble with rhymes, I would pay attention to it, but if I was setting up a screening program to identify potential problems, rhyming wouldn’t be the way that I would go.

Given that there are no studies showing that teaching rhyming improves reading achievement (or even makes kids more amenable to and successful with phonemic awareness instruction), I wouldn’t want to spend much time teaching it. There are some recent studies that suggest that as students learn to read, their ability to rhyme improves (McNorgan, Awati, Desroches, & Booth, 2014). Thus, instead of better rhyming leading to better reading, the knowledge of words and letters and sounds allows students to gain access to this somewhat separate skill. 

That may be why your second language students do better with rhyming once they can read; they would have greater knowledge of vocabulary and the language in general once they were reading--and these skills are evidently important in rhyming. That is also probably why rhyming has a more similar relationship to reading comprehension as the other phonological skills: These skills have little or no functional relationship in reading comprehension, but they do serve as markers of language proficiency or sophistication. The better one is with language, the better one will be with comprehension. But since rhyming plays little or no functional role in decoding, it is less predictive of decoding skills. 

There is no question that all of these various phonological awareness skills—awareness of the sound separation between words, the ability to separate syllables within words, the ability to segment onsets (first sounds) from rimes (b/ig), the ability to rhyme, the ability to segment or blend phonemes are all correlated with each other. But it is the segmenting and blending of phonemes that has functional value in reading.

I would not put a lot of emphasis on the teaching of rhyme. It sounds to me like your teachers are approaching this appropriately and the policy is, perhaps unintentionally, steering them in the wrong direction.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Informational Text and Young Children

So the woman who runs my local children’s book store told me that more and more parents of young children are asking for “non-fiction beginning readers” because “that’s what Common Core wants.” Really? In kindergarten and first grade? Aren’t beginning readers supposed to develop their decoding and word recognition by reading simple stories (the ones populated by talking pigs). 

I’ve seen “easy” nonfiction books that are full of difficult multisyllable words and proper names.  The publishers have made the books (supposedly) appropriate for beginning readers by reducing the number of words in the sentences (until the point they are almost incomprehensible), putting fewer words on a page and enlarging the font.  The result is a dumbing-down of the content.

I agree that teachers should be reading more nonfiction to young children but is the interpretation that Common Core wants young readers to be reading more nonfiction on their own correct?

The short answer is that Common Core says nothing about kids’ personal choices and how they spend their out-of-school time. The standards do set educational goals—that is, they establish what it is that schools need to ensure students know and can do. These standards require that kids have the skills to read informational text effectively (which are somewhat different than the skills needed to read literary text).

I assume the anecdote reveals a parent who wants to help her child do well at school. What a great parent. She might not understand, very clearly, what the standards require—the standards also require that students learn how to read literature effectively, too—but she recognizes that schools need help and isn’t going to leave her kid’s success to chance. Good for her.

I have no doubt that the practice will help. But, let’s remember there are more reasons for reading than just to do better in school. I’m pleased about this parent, but I might be even more excited if she had said, “I want some non-fiction texts for my child because he’s interested in spiders.”

Your letter expresses concern that Common Core is transforming home reading practices. There are other observers who fear that it is imposing reading experiences that are not “developmentally appropriate” for young children (your letter might have been prompted by that, too).

Those claims are Loony-tunes (with apologies to Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck). It's great that the standards are encouraging young readers to take on informational texts. Nell Duke reported that first graders had the opportunity to read such texts at school only about 3.6 minutes per day (and she even included the bulletin boards)—that’s less than 11 hours per year!

This gap is even more important given the large percentage of youngsters (Correls, 2011), who are dying to read about snakes, horses, dinosaurs, rocket ships, skeletons, submarines, pirates, etc. (I get to see that these days with my grandkids and nephews, and I used to see it with the first-graders that I taught in my own classrooms).

What you say about beginning level texts is often true, sad to say. Too often the content is dumbed down… but that is no less true for stories. Let’s be honest, beginning reading texts have rarely merited praise for their literary quality (Dr. Seuss being one of the rare exceptions that proves the rule). The limits on children’s decoding skills definitely limits what can be put into the texts for young readers, but this is true for all texts, not just informational ones. Teachers rarely read non-fiction texts to kids, and they rarely make such texts available to children to read on their own.

However, these practices seem to be changing. Even the National Association of Educators of Young Children—a group focused heavily on the learning of preschool children (ages/grades not covered by CCSS) are encouraging the promotion of informational text even with younger kids.

Kids definitely can learn from talking pigs, but they can learn from pigs (and dinosaurs) that don't talk. In fact, many of them prefer it that way.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Why Does He Want to Hurt Kindergartners?

Two groups that are strong advocates in early childhood education (Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood), released a report called Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose (see They claim there is no research base for the importance of learning to read in kindergarten (so that its inclusion in the Common Core as a goal for K is potentially harmful).   

I think they are wrong about the research here, but wanted to seek out your reaction. Does research suggest that learning to read, especially as indicated in the Common Core, is associated with long-term positive or negative effects? 

Great question. This is one that I’ve been thinking about since I was 5-years-old (no, really). My mom asked my kindergarten teacher if she should do anything with me to help and the teacher discouraged any efforts in that regard. At the time, the “experts” believed that any early academic learning was damaging to children—to their academic futures and to their psyches.

When I became a first-grade teacher, we were still holding back on such teaching, at least during the first-semester of grade one. We didn't want to cause the mental disabilities, academic failure, and vision problems predicted by the anti-teaching types. 

These days we are doing a great job of protecting poverty children and minority children from this kind of damage. Of course, many of us middle-class white parents are risking our own kids. It is not uncommon these days for suburban kids to enter first-grade, and even kindergarten, knowing how to read. As I’ve written before, I taught both of my kids to read before they entered school.

There are not now, and there never have been data showing any damage to kids from early language or literacy learning—despite the overheated claims of the G. Stanley Halls, Arnold Gessells, Hans Furths and David Elkinds (and many others).

Let me first admit that if you seek studies that randomly assign kids either to kindergarten literacy instruction and no kindergarten literacy instruction and then follow those kids through high school or something… there are no such studies and I very much doubt that there will be. Given how strong the evidence is on the immediate benefits of early literacy instruction I don’t think a scholar could get ethics board approval to conduct such a study.

That it wouldn’t be ethical to withhold such teaching for research purposes should give pause. If it isn’t ethical to do it for research, should it be ethical to do so for philosophical reasons? Yikes.

What we do have is a lot of data showing that literacy instruction improves the literacy skills of the kids who receive that instruction in preschool and kindergarten, and another body of research showing that early literacy skills predict later reading and academic achievement (and, of course, there is another literature showing the connections between academic success and later economic success). There are studies showing that the most literate kids are the ones who are emotionally strongest and there is even research on Head Start programs showing that as we have improved the early literacy skills in those programs, emotional abilities have improved as well.

And, as for the claim that early teaching makes no difference, I wonder why our fourth-graders are performing at the highest levels ever according to NAEP?

The studies showing the immediate benefits to literacy and language functioning from kindergarten instruction are summarized in the National Early Literacy Panel Report which is available on line.

And here are some of studies showing the long-term benefits of early literacy achvievement:

Early reading performance is predictive of later school success (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Duncan, Dowsett, Claessens, Magnuson, et al., 2007; Juel, 1988; Snow, Tabors, & Dickinson, 2001; Smart, Prior, Sansor, & Oberkind, 2005). This means that young children’s reading performances tend to be pretty stable: kindergarten literacy development is predictive of 1stgrade performance; 1st grade predicts achievement in various upper grades and the performance at each of these levels is predictive of later levels.

If a youngster is behind in reading in grade 3, then he/she would likely still be behind in high school, which can have a serious and deleterious impact on content learning (science, history, literature, math), high school graduation rates, and economic viability (the students’ college and career readiness). 

The research seems clear to me: teach kids reading early and then build on those early reading skills as they progress through school. Don’t expect early skills alone to transfer to higher later skills; you have to teach students more literacy as they move up the grades (something that has not always happened).

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E., (1997). Early reading acquisition and the relation to reading experience and ability ten years later. Developmental Psychology, 33, 934-945.
Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., et al. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1428-1446.
Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 437-447.
Smart, D., Prior, M., Sansor, A., & Oberkind, F. (2005). Children with reading difficulties: A six year follow-up from early primary to secondary school. Australia Journal of Learning Difficulties, 10, 63-75.

Snow, C. E., Tabors, P. O., & Dickinson, D. K. (2001). Language development in the preschool years. In D. K. Dickinson & P. O. Tabors (Eds.), Beginning literacy with language: Young children learning at home and school (pp. 1–26). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes. (preschool literacy and language predicts 7th grade performance)

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.