Sunday, July 20, 2014
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
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.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
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.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
Could you comment on first grade small group reading instruction, specifically round robin, "whisper" reading, echo reading, choral reading, etc.? You have mentioned partner reading and echo reading. Is there research to clearly favor one over another? My practice is to use a variety, although not round robin with the whole class, but my principal is pushing student driven discussion, partner reading, with the goal of student engagement. What does the research say?
Beginning readers cannot read silently. They need to read aloud to be able to figure out the words and to understand the author’s message; so round robin, whisper/mumble reading, choral reading all might have a place—for a little while. Several of these techniques are also useful throughout the grades to help students build oral reading fluency (e.g., repeated reading, echo reading, paired reading, reading while listening, neurological impress). There are no studies that I am aware of that compare these with beginning readers, but in fluency studies they all tend to do pretty well: each has students reading aloud, with repetition, and with some kind of feedback or guidance.
Until beginning readers are able to read silently with understanding, ALL of these techniques (including the much reviled round robin reading) could have a profitable place in your classroom. If the point is to get kids started with reading, choral reading makes great sense. But you want to try to get away from that soon, because kids need to figure out/remember the words themselves (and choral reading allows one to pretend to do that). If students are a bit further along, and the point is to guide kids through a story to begin building reading comprehension, then round robin can make sense, for a little while. Whisper reading or mumble reading tend to be used when teachers are trying to get kids to shift from oral to silent reading (it is a transformational strategy).
It is important to move on from round robin quickly not because the reading practice it provides is so bad, but because there is so little of it. Not much reading happens on a per child basis in round robin, so methods that allow more than one kid to read are a better choice. Studies suggest that the only one doing any learning during round robin is the child who is reading; that’s great for the reader of the moment, but it is a big waste of time for the others.
When kids are independent enough to read aloud on their own (or when paired with another kid without the teacher), then paired reading and those other fluency builders become essential tools. While they all work, I use paired reading most often—again, for efficiency sake; with that approach kids have to do the reading and half the class can practice at the same time.
Think of the various things you need to accomplish to reach the learning goals:
- · Introduce students into reading itself (not just listening to someone else read), but trying to put words to text oneself
- · Give students experience in sustaining this reading through a whole selection to comprehend it
- · Making it possible for kids to read text silently (with understanding)
- · Developing oral reading fluency
Select instructional activities that would facilitate each of these goals… considering research (what has worked successfully), efficiency (which methods allow the most reading experience/instruction for the most kids), and classroom environment (balancing efficient routines that kids can negotiate quickly and easily with variation of activities to hold their interest).
Saturday, February 22, 2014
I've been looking for online and workshop information on close reading and everything I've seen and heard has recommended doing close reading on material that is well above kids independent reading level. Your post talks about the futility of doing a close read on preprimer material, which I completely agree with. What do you think about using higher text, say second grade, with second semester first graders in a teacher-supported group lesson?
I recently tried a bit of close reading with my first graders (see the second section of this post if you have time to read: http://firstgradecommoncore.freeforums.net/thread/4/close-reading - if not I completely understand) While I found it valuable, I'm struggling with there being not enough hours in the day and prioritizing the needs of my students.
The reason why I challenged close reading with young children is because of the lack of depth of appropriate texts for them to read. Close reading requires a deep or analytical reading that considers not just what a text says, but how it works as a text (e.g., examining layers of meaning, recognizing the effectiveness of literary devices, interpreting symbolism). Beginning reading texts simply lack this depth of meaning (or are usually too hard for kids to read).
Your email and the youtube link that is included in that imply that the idea of close reading is simply to read a challenging text with comprehension (challenging in this case meaning hard rather than complex—a very important distinction). For example, the video shows students interpreting word meanings in a hard text. A good lesson, yes indeed, but not really a close read.
I definitely would not assign second-grade texts to second-semester first-graders unless they were reading at a second-grade level (that is not uncommon, so if your kids are reading that well, go for it). For more typical first-graders (and those who are struggling), I would not do this. You can definitely engage kids in close listening activities with richer texts read by the teacher (a lot of the reading, by the way, seemed to be done by the teacher in the video that was included here), but that should not take the place of the children’s reading.
I agree with the idea that phonological awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, writing, and reading comprehension (not close reading) should be the real priorities in grade one… so should oral language, of course, and close listening fits that idea nicely. You’ll have plenty of time to ramp this up when students are reading at a second-grade level.