Saturday, 15 August 2009

The First week

The first week must introduce the children to letter names. The children, all of them, learn the alphabet song quite easily. A good place to start is the ABC song done to the Twinkle... twinkle little star tune. See

Once the alphabet is clear and easily recalled, it is time to move on to the next step- letter names. Now the child needs to identify the letters by the sounds. It is preferable to do three to five letters in one session and build in small increments. Thus, the child would now say the letter sounds

  • A as in cAt
  • B as in Bat
  • C as in Cat etc
It does help to have picture cues for the child to start with. Gradually the picture cues will not be needed and can be done away with.

When the letter sounds are clear and the letters can be read as letter names ( sounds), the next step can be introduced.

This will need to be repeated and revised everyday for at least a month for difficult children and as little as a week for children with a strong sense of language.

Early clues to dyslexia may include a delay in speech. Later, baby talk that persists beyond a reasonable age may indicate some problem in language processing, too. These children also have a difficulty in sound letter association so that recognition and understanding of rhyming words may not be easy. The sensitivity to and recognition of rhyme indicates that the child is developing an awareness that words have component sounds and these sounds can be broken down.

Thus, present words like cat and bat, and ask your child whether they sound similar. Explain that a similar ending sound means rhyming. When the child seems to understand this move on to more familiar words- walk and talk. Also present some words with common beginner phonemes rather than endings and ask whether these rhyme. So you could present bit and boon with the bit and pit and ask the child which is the matching pair.

You could start working on building your own lists. Roughly these lists should fall into three categories:
  • Rhyming words
  • Alliterative words
  • Phonetically Unrelated words
Thus a rhyming word pair list would have examples like
  • Car, Bar
  • Mat, Hat
  • Bet Let
  • Get Pet
  • Let Met
  • Hit Pit
  • Kit Lit
  • Pot Lot
  • Cot Not
  • Hut But
  • Cut Gut
Once the rhyme is clear as a word ending sound, move on to introduce letter combinations:
TH- the, this, that, them, these, those, with, Beth, Math, path
take care that you focus on word beginnings and endings specifically. Help the child identify patterns and sequencing. Take him through baby steps. Help her identify the phoneme being introduced. It is now time to introduce words with these phonemes in the middle... Bethlehem, Wither, weather, bother, brother, mother, father. spend a week on one phoneme. Go slow. Allow the child time to understand the sequence of sounds. Do not insist on correct written spelling for the time being. There will be the time for that, too. Let reading become more natural and effortless before insisting on correct written form from children.

SH- Shop, Shoe, Shampoo, wash, wish, bash, washer, bashful
Try to introduce these concepts with familiar words. This makes it easy for the kids to follow the words and the phonemes. Always introduce the sequence in this order- beginning, end and the middle. Repeat. reinforce.

CH- chop, Chicken, which, watch, CHurCH, watchful

Finally, we must understand that a dyslexic KNOWS what he or she wants to say, it is pulling out of the correct word from the memory bank that is defective. So constant MULTI SENSORY INPUT is the only way around the difficulty. Repetition is never too much for these children. They can often IDENTIFY the correct word from a set of words. So show a child a written word, write it in front of him, use magnetic letters that the child can feel, encourage the child to write his own letters and say the sounds.

For the first month of a reading programme with an early reader, this is as much as a child may be able to digest. All this will need to be repeated in varying degrees throughout the programme to keep the circuits fresh and open.

How to measure the reading/ language ability?

By the time a child can sit or, in some cases, even earlier, children will begin to enjoy picture books. Even before they can begin to articulate words, the children hear and form memories of words. These words then form the data bank from which retrieval helps children to develop language. Colourful pictures and associated words help them to tackle more complicated tasks later.

Though, controversial, the writing ability tends to lag a little behind the reading skill. Controversial, because most reading writing experts and programmes treat the two skills in a parallel manner.

Motor skills develop later than cognitive and sensory skills. thus, it is easier for a child to 'read' a picture book than write a word in the early stages. Writing, when it does develop, aids and speeds up reading proficiency. Language is a learned art.

When a child is exposed to literature early in life, he has a bigger memory bank. This has been shown to give a child a distinct advantage in later learning years.

The child in preschool to kindergarten years should be able to:

  • Understand that things have names.
  • Name and label objects
  • Maintain focus for short durations- say follow a short book of 15 to 16 pages with one to two lines per page and not more than one to two word changes a page.
  • Start to make the association of written letter to letter sounds.
  • Begin to understand that words are formed of letters.
  • Begin to understand the concept of chronology.
  • Develop enough skill to start using 'bookish' language- Once upon a time. Long, long ago. etc
  • Form letters.
  • Decipher small words and form early word memories. A, An, The, their own name.
These form a reasonable benchmark for a kindergarten child's caretakers to lead the children on into the magical world of words and fairies or even monsters.

The early scribbling and squiggles begin to appear on paper and newspaper and even walls. At this stage provide the young ones with several media to experience the words. Paper, play dough, card board, crayons, pencils and even paints. You will be surprised at what a child can accomplish given the opportunity. I still have both my children's 'art' work!

When allowed to DO something with their hands, the motor skills become proficient enough to handle usual writing instruments on usual writing surfaces.

Activities like play dough and cutting- pasting and tearing-pasting tend to promote the development of these motor skills. At the same time, it is important to promote small tasks like zipping up and down, buttoning and unbuttoning, tying laces and untying laces, putting and taking out things from pockets to the same end. It also has a spin-off in making the kids more independent in their daily lives.

Next we will explore the first few lesson plans to have ANY CHILD, yes ANY child reading in the short span of a few weeks. It takes a lot of repetition and reinforcement... and a lot of dedication but it works.

The children's early reading programme Hooked on Phonics or HOP works on the same general principles and gives a ready made easy to follow plan. You can preview the programme at

The programme emphasises on early start. There is a programme for babies- upto 18 months, toddlers, preK, Kindergarten, and upwards.

The programme is fun- very important, and effective- equally vital.

So.... on to the lesson plans.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Is my child reading? Well enough?

Each child must LEARN to associate the written word with the spoken sound it makes. This is ultimately the code that needs to be cracked. Reading is NOT a natural ability, IT IS AN ACQUIRED SKILL.

For some it must be acquired painfully slowly or even not at all. This is sad because it is unnecessary. Every child can read. And if any child that enters a schooling system fails to do so, it is the failure of the teachers and the system, not the child. This requires a deep understanding of the process of reading, its developmental landmarks and its natural history. It also requires immense courage on the part of the teacher or the primary caretaker to admit that a system may not be working for a given child and switch to something that does work.

The 'Whole language' method of teaching language skills was how even I learned my language skills. I was lucky to be naturally endowed with the ability to decode. Some children may not be so lucky. The whole language method expects the children to 'work out' the words they do not know in the text from the clues in the text. This method relies on clues EXTERNAL to the word that needs to be decoded. Sometimes struggling readers, and even experienced readers unfamiliar with the text may not be able to 'work out' these words. This method of teaching or learning language does not equip the reader to tackle unknown words. It makes reading easier and faster IF the vocabulary is already strong enough...

My daughter was not so lucky... The systems at the time of her early schooling were neither decided completely FOR nor completely AGAINST this method of learning. .Her teachers did not make any special effort to make sure that children read. My daughter has a very strong auditory memory. And once her mind was exposed to spoken lesson, she could repeat it VERBATIM. Her teachers never realised that she was not reading at grade level. I kept pleading with them. I even suggested accomodation and special instruction so that she could catch up. She is brilliant! Her teachers would not have any of it! One even threatened to SHOOT me! That is if I ever mentioned the "D" word in relation to my own daughter. It is left to me to DIAGNOSE, 'MEDICATE', STRATEGISE, REMEDIATE and EDUCATE my extraordinarily gifted child whose brain is wired differently.

I set upon my own quest and came upon the Phonics method of teaching Language. Now this was FABULOUS even for a gifted adult reader like me. It gave me an anchor to peg my daughter and monitor her progress. It has been an uphill task, surely. The schools do not accommodate for borderline cases that can not be clearly labeled. They CANNOT! The doctors cannot make an unequivocal diagnosis. As a mother and a highly literate adult, I am left with no option but to find my own way in this stormy sea and teach my daughter to swim not only with the current but also sometimes hold her own against it.

SHE ABSOLUTELY REFUSED TO BE LABELED. SHE ABSOLUTELY REFUSED TO GO TO THE SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGIST. She is not like Darsheel, she retorts. Aamir Khan may have, infact, done a disservice by depicting a dyslexic in as bad a light as he did in TZP.

Dyslexia may not be as dramatic as depicted in that movie. It may be a hidden inability to develop reading skills as naturally as other age matched children. It may not be associated with attention deficit or with distractability or even with destructive behaviour.

In preschool, my daughter could not only memorise what was going on in her own class, but also what was being sung in the neighbouring class. It only needed to be loud enough to reach her ears. She learned nearly double the number of rhymes that her official class did. She was phenomenal. Even today, her learning is based majorly on being read to. Her ideas are remarkable, astounding, and ground-breakingly creative. She can say things better than she can write them. She has not yet started using the computer to her advantage. I am hoping she soon will. She loves Mathematics. Not because she has an extraodinary mathematical ability, though that may be part of why it is enjoyable for her- she loves Mathematics because "I do not have to write much in it!" She may be a borderline dysgraphic or someone who is lagging in a certain decoding skill, so she makes up in several other areas. This is not unusual. This often is more likely than the Darsheel story. Often these children are mistaken to be lazy/ simply uninterested. Far from it.

Teachers need to note that at some stage when the child is transiting from" learning to read" to "reading to learn", the gaps in reading skills can critically affect the performance and the self- esteem of the child.

Fortunately, now there are scientifically designed tests available that take less than five minutes and can be delivered with ease to your child even on a weekly basis. Unfortunately these tests have not become a part of Indian curriculum. It is extremely important for early educators, whether at home or at school to be watchful for the landmarks that reassure them that the child is on track or warn them that the child needs attention and to provide a nurturing and encouraging environment for the child to progress at an acceptable pace. This may factor in his or her natural learning (dis)ability or may provide that oft needed nudge to a struggler transforming him into an expert swimmer who will gracefully and easily cross the seas without drowning.

The Texas Education Agency has one such assessment availaible for early reading assessment- TPRI ( Texas Primary Reading Inventory) at This assessment takes less than five minutes and is easy to conduct. There are a few others which are all from the US and validated for the various states there in. These are the PALS from University of Virginia and DIBELS from Oregon.

The Reading Panel constituted in the US strongly recommends identifying those who are falling behind and remediating EARLY. This benefits ALL children irrespective of the nature if their learning disability. And additionally this provides the children with strategies to break what has now come to be called the reading code.

Unequivocally I would strongly recommend any parent or teacher to start the Phonics way and do it in a structured and explicit manner. The structure needs to be logical and incremental. It needs to expose the children to progressively more difficult words and equip the child to read even the words he does not know by using the understanding of sounds they develop from their Phonics instruction.

A suitable sequence would be
  1. English alphabet 'names'
  2. Reinforcing the consonant sounds
  3. Introducing the concept of vowels and the short vowel sounds- bat, beg, big, bog, bug
  4. Introducing the long vowel sounds and the concept of the silent 'e'. Mat-e, bit-e, cop-e, cut-e.
  5. Introducing common digraphs- a letter combination composed of two letters that say a single sound- sh(shoe, ship wish); ph(phone, photo), ch ( church, chirp, chill), th( thing, three, Beth), -ck( clock, black)
  6. Progress to trigraphs or even quadrigraphs (-dge as in ledge, -tch as in itch), (-eigh as in neigh, -ough as in roug, -augh as in laugh). From here clusters of words can be taught to the children involving bigger and bigger letter clusters- SHOULD, WOULD, OUGHT, NAUGHT etc.
  7. Specific emphasis on alliteration and rhyme. Introduce the concept of beginning sound and the terminal sound. Here it is helpful to use flash cards with printed letters and play with the child. Ask hin to make a word with the letter cards b, i, g beginning with the B sound. Now ask the child to replace teh BEGINNING sound with a P sound and ask what they get. Similarly with the terminal sounds, play replacement to get bit etc.
  8. Introduce the concept of syllables, create the awareness for sounds that go on to make the syllable- PHONEME. Start SPELLING GAMES.
  9. Introduce letter blends ( commonly occuring clusters where each consonat is pronounced- CLock, rOUnd,
  10. Practice writing.
If you notice, I have arrived at writing at the tenth step in the sequence. It is important to recognise that the cognitive skills required to read develop earlier than the motor skills needed to hold a stylus. Also, as a general rule in early reading and literacy programmes, it is preferrable to make a child spell only the words that he can read.

As an easy assessment, whenever a new rule is introduced in the Phonics based teaching, a child can be made to read nonsense letter combinations that do not really make words. This tests their ability to sound out the letter combinations even if these do not make sense to them.

Specific exercises will come next.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Automaticity and fluency.

Automaticity is the ability to recognise words automatically... that is- without making effort or taking time. Automaticity is a good predictor of comprehension and fluency. Automatic recognition of words marks the Stage 1, 2 in Chall's Reading staging. In stage one, the early reader begins to decode letter sounds and put them together to form words. This progresses to word recognition and decoding of Stage two. By Stage two, the early reader not only begins to decode the words but also begins to attach meanings to the text.

Fluency, however, is not only automatic word recognition but also addition of expression and prosodic features to the text being read ( rhythm, intonation and phrasing). Apart from these components that add to the comprehension of the written text, fluency also involves Anticipation. Fluency, thus, can easily be seen as a function of speed of recognition of words ( automaticity) and of the meanings there in ( prosody).

Both are vital to reading comprehension.

Reading is uniquely a human attribute and one that has no genetic basis! So... we do not have genes that decide whether we will read or not, or how we read. There is some evidence, however, that the brain wiring may play a significant role in the reading abilities or the lack of them. It is encouraging to note that reading, like several other behaviours CAN be learned. It may take a sporty child one evening to learn how to cycle and another not so sporty child a week to do so. Once the skill of cycling, or swimming, or driving is learned, however, it is yours for life... a spinal reflex. So is reading.

Exposing the children to written word early, repeating often and making it fun all go a long way in nurturing automaticity. A child who KNOWS more words verbally, is able to readily recognise them when exposed to them even if they do not follow the rules of phonics.

English is not an easy language to master. A set of twenty six alphabets presents us with forty phonemes. The same sounds may be represented by several letter combinations, or even letters. Consider Car, Kite. Both the c, and the k say the K sound. Circle and set both say the S sound. If this was not bad enough, ch can say Church and Chemistry, ea can say EAr, hEArt, hEAd, rEAd ( as in reed AND as in red!)

The clues provided by contexts in these situations are readily used by fluent readers to attach not only the right sounds but also the right meanings to those sounds.

Thus, fluency also involves abstraction and synthesis of teh written words into meaningful texts. The quiggles become words BECAUSE we are able to CONSISTENTLY attach teh same meanings to them. It is this attaching meanings that MUST be taught early and reinforced periodically.

Also important is the fact that struggling readers are working with a psychological handicap. Who, in his right mind, would WANT to do something that they are not good at?! It is, therefore, important to move in logical steps, presenting easy to decode age appropriate texts, allow the child to succeed(!) and progressively raise the difficulty level of material presented.

It is also important to emphasise on HOW a child learns not WHAT a child learns. This is a concept difficult to grasp for present day parents as they focus on Class appropriate scholastic skills. If a child is able to read and answer questions from their text books, they are smart! This could not be farther from the truth. Today, the schooling is, infact, killing creativity of our children. It forces them to conform. It does not allow them to make mistakes. And if they do not make mistakes they do not uncover anything new for themselves.

In the initial stages, the child is 'learning to read' and then goes on to 'read to learn' in the middle school. Orthographic knowlege and its application necessarily has to become automatic by this reading stage. While most readers move effortlessly from stage to stage, some students need special strategies to be taught in order to acquire word automaticity. This is most easily taught by
  • Introducing and expanding sight word recognition. These lists may be fifty to hundred word long for kindergarten and expand to 150- 250 words in a single academic year in class I. Language acquisition is rapid at this time. Repeat often.
  • Use syllable patterns to teach word vocalisation. There rae essentially six patterns of syllables. These can be introduced at progressive stages as the child begins to understands and recognise each pattern. These patterns are:
  1. Closed- where the vowels are 'closed' by consonants on either side- BaT. The vowel makes a short sound in these orthographic patterned words.
  2. Open- where the vowel is bounded by a consonant only on one side- Go. The vowel speaks its own sound here, except with the 'e' endings where the preceding vowel speaks its own sound... Mat v/s MaTe.
  3. Silent e- where teh e is not spoken but makes the preceding vowel say its own sound ( mentioned above)
  4. vowel combinations- these are a little difficult to teach and must be introduced with care and in clusters of words. EA- read, bead, head, plead/ AI- ail, bail, fail, grail, hail, pail/ EI/ IE/ OU/ etc.
  5. Controlled r- as in girl, bird, weird Here the ' i' is saying the 'u' sound.
  6. Consonent l + vowel e- as in table, able, fable, circle etc
English orthography can be seen to result in four major types of words:
  • Words that are read and spelt regularly. These words follow the phonics rules and are easy to read and write. Red, Bed, Mat, Ink, Drink etc
  • Words that are read regularly but can be spelt wrongly following phonics principles. 'Goat' may be spelt Gote; Head may be spelt as HED.
  • Rule based. These can easily be taught through well defined and consistent rules." i always after e except before c, or when said as A, as in neighbour and weigh". Or doubling for making continuous consonant ending words - run- ruNNing.
  • Irregular these are the words that do not seem to follow any rules nor phonics- cue/ queue, beautiful.
Each of these orthographic patterns must be presented to readers and reinforced and repeated for orthography to become an automatic response to the written word.

For fluency to become as reflexive as automaticity, functions of syntax, chunking, punctuation marks, intonations and emphases need to introduced early.

On a light note, we may end this heavy section by an anonymously writtena nd often quoted poem that once found its way into my mail box, too!

I take it you already know,
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps. Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead - it’s said like bed, not bead,
For goodness’ sake, don’t call it ‘deed’!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt). A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword. And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start! A dreadful language? Why man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

How to become a good reader?

Once the initial hurdles are crossed...
Once the child has learnt to take the first tottering steps...
Once the child can be called a READER...

The next milestone is in grooming the reader into a GOOD reader.

While the degrees of good and the acceptance of standards may vary, a good reader, essentially :

  1. Reads fluently and in flow.
  2. Understands what he reads.
  3. Is able to get meanings in context even when exposed to hitherto unknown words.
  4. Follows some basic techniques, knowingly or unknowingly, to make sense of the text presented.
  5. Is able to connect the text he reads to the real life requirements he faces.
All of the above require the basic steps in a hierarchical step ladder:
  1. Sound/ letter recognition
  2. Word decoding and recognition
  3. Vocabulary adequate to build flow and fluency
  4. Comprehension and motivation to move beyond the above mentioned into joyful, entertaining reading with expression- tons of reading...
When asked to operate the ipod, I am not at step 1; I donot recognise beyond the on/off and forward/ back controls. But my daughter can listen, play, shuffle, browse the web, read/ send her e-mails, download/ upload pictures/ songs/ text with ease that I find mind-boggling!

I could teach her a thing or two about reading, and strategic reading; she can, however, teach me loads on loads of other things in which I am a true illiterate!

I do have the strategies in place to achieve 1,2 and 3 by having the most important ingredient that children have abundance of but that which adults rarely do. tenacity. Stick-to-itiveness. Motivation.

We need to encourage all children that we connect to that the single most important trait that can help them in life is just 'showing up, everyday, despite all the odds.'

Introduce an element of excitement into the classroom or home. Play games that incidently teach the lesson you need to teach.

Spelling? Take it up from basics, build it up- mat-mate-material. Even complex words can be broken down into phonetic components that are easy to spot.

Grammar? TAke it up from basics! Words are formed from letters and words go on to form phrases, clauses and sentences. Sentences can be simple or compound/ complex. Sentences also grow. The very basic NOUN-VERB-OBJECT can transform into Adjective- NOUN-VERB- adverb-Adjective OBJECT or further into ones with several interrelated nouns/ pronouns and prepositions and so on.

The building that starts from the foundation is stronger and more resilient. Build everything from the basics. While it is easy to provide answers, it is infinitely more ewarding to provide strategies to look for the answers. A teacher who simply focuses on the curriculum to finished in an academic year is doing a great disservice to the task he has taken on- teaching.

Allow the children to make mistakes and proceed from these mistakes. In fact make a mistake diary! Use the initial mistakes as memory pegs for the corrections.

Be spirit whisperers.

Be mentors.

Be patient.


Prepare the young ones for their future. It is going to be very different from the future our childhood predicted.

Address the following issues when teaching languages/ linguistic skills:
  1. Vocabulary- use good language and encourage the children to madel the same behaviour.
  2. Flow/ Fluency- encourage reading out loud- with appropriate stops. Allow for smooth word recognition.
  3. Expression- reading can make sense only if read appropriately. A flat monotone without any stops or with very frequaent stops and word breaks impair comprehension.
  4. Comprehension strategies like predicting/ inferring/ analysins must be explicitly taught and make conscious practices rather than unconscious or subconscious behaviours.
EAch of the above can be taught actively and explicitly. This shall be the course of further chapters.

Monday, 9 March 2009

The first few sight words

Sight words are those words that do not follow discernible phonics principles. For example NO, KNOW; TO, TOO, TWO.

Many of the sight words cannot be taught through pictures. Examples are of words like IF, BUT, AND, TO.

These words occur frequently enough in most routine texts for the students' fluency and flow to be affected if they are not readily recognised.

Though children may find it hard to learn ALL the sight words, it is worth the effort to teach these words along the way. The strengthening phonics make the child motivated and emotionally confident to read at or beyond grade level. Adding sight word ( or Dolch words, or Fry words) vocabulary to this expanding foundation makes a sound preparation for a strong and resilient reader.

Psychologist and reading researcher Diane McGuinness has found that there are about 100 very commonly used words. This requires word level memorisation rather than figuring out the sound while reading. She has dramatically reduced the Dolch list to a more manageable length.

The other important aspect of sight words is that these words are used frequently enough to affect fluency. In order to improve reading skills and the comprehension, the children have to be introduced to the concept of sight words. These words then contribute to the automaticity rather than interrupting the flow of reading.

As we discussed earlier, the first word recognition or decoding must introduce the short vowel sound. Alongside, the teacher (or parent) must introduce the first sight words by the time the child is in kindergarten.

There are some readily available lists like the Dolch/ Fry lists that can be used as a starting point. The original Dolch list contained 220 words. Diane McGuinness made it easier and less daunting by shortening the list to about a hundred words, as we have mentioned earlier. Or a list can be generated by the teachers while reading an age-appropriate book.

A kindergarten list could be something as follows:
  1. A
  2. An
  3. The
  4. Who
  5. He
  6. She
  7. Number names one/ two/ three/ four/ five/ six/ seven/ eight/ nine/ ten
  8. And
  9. Colours red/ blue/ yellow/ green
  10. From
  11. Are
A teacher can generate lists according to the reading material they use. Some of the early readers from Lady Bird Series are excellent to introduce both the early phonics as well the early sight words. A few titles that I found especially useful are
  1. Three little pigs
  2. Chicken Licken
  3. The gingerbread man
  4. The magic porridge pot
For teachers who can and for children who want to, this is also an excellent opportunity to create your own books. These could introduce concepts like good manners, colours, animals, emotions- happy, sad, angry, hurt etc. The teachers can follow the principles laid out in the previous chapter to generate a template for the children. For the beginning readers of pre-school to kindergarten level this would mean:

  1. Ten to fifteen pages per book.
  2. Two to five words per page.
  3. One word change per page.
  4. Relevance. Introducing the concept of balls/ dolls/ cars is something the children can easily begin to visualise. Introducing the concept of Ball-room, however, may not be easy for them.
  5. One example :
The cat.
The hat.
-Page 3-
The cat with the hat.
Funny hat.
-Page 5-
Funny cat.
-Page 6-
The rat.
The mat.
-Page 8-
The rat on the mat.
-Page 9-
The cat and the rat.
-Page 10-
The cat chases the rat.

The children can be taught to make simple line drawings for the cat and the rat, for the hat and the mat and then allowed to colour their own book. It is always thrilling for the children to create their own books. They become keepsakes for parents, too.

Another idea is for the rainbow... you could explore the same...
Pages 1 to 7
Blob of colour and the colour name.
Page 8
All seven colours in a rainbow. Word Rainbow
Page 9

Sight words may be taught in the following ways:
  1. Flash cards
  2. Computer games
  3. Group activities and board play
Most methods of teaching sight words involve repetition. This is important- a child who sees a word and hears it often enough will learn to read it. For natural readers this may be effortless, whereas for struggling readers, this may take hours upon hours of patience and slogging.

Rhyming is another great technique to teach any new concept. Children can be encouraged to create their own (nursery) rhymes around the focus for a given day... he/she, and/ hand/ band/ sand.

The excitement of creating their own poems makes it fun to remember the poems, too.

These activities exploit the principle of phonetic as well repetitive reinforcement to teach early readers. Teaching sight words purely as whole words can introduce an element of confusion and promote dyslexic ( dysfunctional- lexicography) reading problems. There are a significant number of words in the original Dolch list of 220 that can be pegged phonetically and can as easily be confused dyslexically. Look at the following examples:
  1. is/ in, no/ on
  2. is/ as, an/ am, and
  3. at/it/if/ of/to
  4. he/ her/ here
Interestingly, most of these above mentioned words are also possible to decode phonetically.

It is important to understand, as Kylene Beers writes in When Kids Can't Read, that the goal of reading is to make sense of the written word! It is quite simple and infinitely complicated. Were we to condense human history into a single day, we probably started reading in less than last ten minutes!

Humans do not have any specific reading genes nor do they have any specific reading anatomical regions of the brain. Many areas of the brain light up in recognising, putting together, and then making sense of the written word. And things can go wrong at a lot of functional levels without there being any structural abnormality to define it!

In conclusion, therefore, it can not be overemphasised that teaching sight words has to follow the following principles:
  1. Associative learning. Pick out the sight words from a book the child is comfortable with. Early readers are great for this.
  2. Phonetic reading where possible
  3. Memory pegs to learn clusters of words together.
  4. Repetition.
  5. Rhyming
  6. Creative learning games- create your own books/ create your own poems
  7. Encourage leveled reading. Take the child through baby steps and build them into a tottering walk into a comfortable stroll and onto a happy run with the wind blowing into their faces making it fun and motivating to go on.
  8. Encourage voluminous reading. Reading does NOT come naturally. It has to be worked on. Just as we work on our relationships with people, we must work on our relationship with the written word. The more we nurture our reading 'muscle' the stronger it gets. Even good readers benefit from reading more and more.
  9. Encourage children to find something that will interest them. introduce them to various genres early rather than late. So while one child might find fantasy of fairy tales alluring, another might be captivated by mystery or a heady mix of adventure and fantasy in the Rainbow Fairies series that my daughter picked up voraciously. Once a child has found something of interest- give more and more and more. Keep the fire burning!
  10. Words can be converted into 'buildings by making lines around the letters creating a profile of the word. Thus /word/ would end in a tall tower while /verb/ would have the tall tower trailed by a small box at the end! These and other ingenious games introduce the children to the several cues they can use to beat reading difficulties when they do occur.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Identifying a struggling reader

Dyslexia is a widely used and as widely 'un'- understood term of the modern day education system. Many use the term to denote several different disabilities. This is the classical Humpty Dumpty situation of Alice in Wonderand. Humpty Dumpty had, in a gruff and summary manner told Alice that the words he used meant what HE wanted them to mean. Nothing more and nothing less. Nothing else! I may mean something and say it; yet I cannot hope to be understood if my words mean something else altogether to the reader.

The first step, then, is to identify those children who might need attention, even special attention.

There are a few children who can make sense of the various phonemic representations in English without noticing the paradoxes. The language has come naturally to these children and the automaticity of reading is well estabilshed. These children rapidly move higher along Bloom's heirarchy and face little or no challenge in reading tasks.

There are some children, however, who cannot figure out why Sir and Cir-cle both make the 'sur' sound. They are decoding rather than reading. They have to be helped to move beyond the stage of decoding into fluency. For these children, the sight word lists would necessarily include these few words that strictly do not follow phonics. It is also helpful to do word groups like CIRCLE and CIRCUS to reinforce the letter combinations like CIR. Several such combinations can be worked out by any teacher who spends only a vfew minutes on levelled readers.

Thus, children who have reached the level of the short vowel sound can progress to long vowel sound. Thereafter, they can move on to letter combinations like SH, and CH. This makes it easy for the child to progress from HIP to SHIP and CHIP. The problem comes for the child who cannot decode HIP!

These initial letter combinations then make way for letter blends- BL, BR, TR etc. Now, the child progresses from LACK to BLACK or TRACK easily. It is always more effective to provide a context and a peg for the child to retain this memory. So it does not help very greatly to simply say ( or write) all these words for the child and expect him to remember not only the words but also make sense of their usage. The strategy I follow is to read the levelled readers with the children. This provides the context. From the levelled reader I pick up any one ( or a few- upto three) letter combinations and write down the high frequency words that follow the same phonemic principles for the children. This provides the story as a start. The word from the story provides the context and the remaining words can be pegged to this word as an aid memoire.

The steps to follow, then for the bveginning reader are:
  1. Alphabet names and sound recognition.
  2. Introduction of the vowel sounds through rhymes like Old Mac Donald
  3. Short vowel sounds - BAT, BET, BIT, POT, BUT
  4. Long vowel sounds- MAT- MATE, MET- METE, BIT- BITE, DOT-DOTE, CUT- CUTE
  5. Letter combinations- SH- Ship, Shock, Shape, Shake
  6. Note here that the above words can be used as starters for another journey! SHIP- HIP, SHOCK-ROCK, DOCK, LOCK. Your imagination and the child's pace of picking up the new sounds is the only limiting factor!
For beginning readers, try to find or make (Yes! more about this in just a little while) books that follow the following principles:
  1. One to three words per page, ten to fifteen pages in all
  2. One word change per page
  3. High frequency words
  4. Words from day to day activities of the child.
  5. Easy to follow rules of phonics. Avoid sight words at the very beginning. Gradually ease into sight words in an age appropriate manner

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The first baby steps...

Now that the foundations are laid, we may proceed further.

Making sure that the children are ready for the not always easy task of reading and trying to keep it fun and undaunting are prerequisites to a good reading ( or beginning to read) program.

I have been a voracious reader. I devoured books- my love affair started when I was still in pre-primary or kindergarten. The lovely picture books invited me into a world I could not visit physically. The words had a musical quality for me. I may have been sounding them out ( a little more of that later. We will address different learning styles to make learning to read an effective process) and therefore, have still the memories of early words I read.

In class I, when other children were taking early tottering steps in trying to make sense of school text books, I was reading outside the curriculum simply because I loved it! To top it all, we had a teacher who knew not a word of our first language. She was Mrs Nair, a tall, somewhat heavy woman from south India who spoke even English in a heavy south Indian accent. To say the least, she was difficult to understand. For mere six year olds, it was a difficult task. I became the interpreter by default! I could read and speak both Hindi and English, fluently. And I loved the opportunity to be able to do something extra that many others in the class could not do.

In short, reading was a natural talent. I never really faced any difficulty or struggle.

Take a different scenario. A few years preceding my linguistic adventures, another child was trying very hard to fit into a system he found difficult. He could not make much sense of the squiggles people called print and did not want to write. He was not lazy. He was not intellectually impaired. He could learn most of what was read to him without difficulty. However, if he were to read it himself, his eyes had to go back to the beginning of sentences to re-read and form a continuity that kept breaking despite best efforts. This boy, somewhere along the way figured out how to crack the code and went on to top the Medical entrance exam, and further to earn himself a Gold medal in a field that required tremendous hand eye co-ordination as well as fine motor control that is precise and LASER like in quality! He became an eye surgeon.

I am relating my husband's childhood and mine. Two very different skill sets. It was impossible for me to understand the existence of an entity called struggling reader, let alone accept the fact that such a fun activity can indeed be tiring for anyone!

Needless to say, I have struggled with the realisation that reading may not be easy for some children. My daughter finds it tiring to read and write. She is a brilliant girl who is multi-talented and does several activities with an enviable proficiency. She, however, finds it just a little bit too much of a task to read and somewhat more so to write.

Her grasp of verbal instructions and her early efforts to fit into the schooling system made her a teacher's pet. This made the identification even more difficult.

The baby steps then in beginning to read are really in first identifying when and which child is ready to read.

My son began early and revelled in each new successful attempt. So... I have experienced a child who has had a degree of difficulty and one who has had it rather easy in terms of beginning to read.

The first baby steps involve BEING INVOLVED with your children. Provide a rich linguistic experience to them. Read books. Sing songs. Carry on conversations. Introduce words. The more words we are able to give to a child BEFORE he/ she enters the school, easier is the transition into reading.

Most children respond well enough to the early story reading attempts and begin to 'read' the story by rote! Encourage these early decoding attempts. A full throated Hurray! goes a long way in keeping the child at the task of reading. Much longer any way than a blunt or mute response to failed or partially successful attempts to read.
The children will begin to form a visual impression of teh early words that can serve as building blocks for further progress. The first 'o' leads quite easily to 'no', 'go' and 'so'. Then we can move on to 'to', and 'do'. The children always laugh at the travesty of the language that treats the same symbols so differently. But they have formed a memory peg to start their journey. These words often do not pose any problem for the beginners.

The phonics way is my preferred way to go beyond these early attempts. I would suggest introducing the concept of vowels through such poems as Old Mac Donald and creating awareness of the short vowel sound to start with. The concept of 'bat', 'bet', 'bit', 'pot' and 'but' is not very difficult to teach. It is helpful to make an alphabetical grid and help the child along for these early sounds...

'at' sound
  1. bat
  2. cat
  3. fat
  4. hat
  5. mat
  6. pat
  7. rat
  8. sat
The next steps depend upon and are decided by how well these early steps are taken. Bat could well transform into battle or cat into cattle if the phonics and phonology are clearly laid out for the child.

Struggling readers may need more time and different strategies. These are not difficult, only different. These children are not stupid, they are different! They are smart. And they are tenacious. They hang on to their self esteem despite realising that they may become the butt of class jokes. Or they may crumble.

Early attempts at teaching and learning can define the direction that a child takes.


We can help the process. We must.

Monday, 23 February 2009

learning to read!

Learning to read can be an exciting adventure for some children and an extremely difficult decoding exercise for a few others. It falls on the shoulders of the care-givers how they would approach each and how best they inculcate the reading habit in the young. It is this ability... skill, if you may, that is a prerequisite for performance in a majority of tasks later in life. Unless a child decides to become a Dancer or a Barista, he or she will need to read (and write) in most life situations. And he may need to do so even in the two mentioned choices.

Early reading is typically a fun exercise of recognition and recall. A child first begins to recognise the letters of the alphabet and understand that they denote separate sounds. These sounds can be put together and new sound combinations are produced. Each time a sound combination is put on paper, it says the same thing. These revelations may be unrecognised but are dramatically coded into a reading ( or early reading ) brain. The facts that the typical print is read from left to right ( except Urdu and some related languages when it is read from right to left) and that the page has a right side up which does not change are indeed vital pre-reading skills that make reading a possibility.

The human brain was not built to read. In fact, reading (and writing) are skills acquired very late in our evolutionary life. It was as recent as perhaps 6000 years ago that we learned to wrire and read while we have been around for nearly five lakh years. The areas of the brain that light up when we simply visualise certain shapes on a surface are the areas of the visual cortex at the back of the head- The occipital cortex. However, when we recognise these squiggles to be symbols denoting sounds, a virtual forest fire starts off in the brain, lighting up several areas radiating from the visual cortex and involving right up to the front in the frontal cortex and also involves, significantly the language area of the brain hidden in the temporal cortex. There are, thus, no specific neurons involved in the task (or the skill) of reading but several connections that have evolved over the past few centuries making language a refined system of communication in its written and spoken form.

Reading does not start automatically. It has to be taught. Once the process has kicked in, however, reading is so automatic that it really cannot be turned off!

Reading has been traditionally taught by two major methods- the whole language method and the phonics method. Both have their supporters and detractors. As a mother who is a voracious reader and who has taught two enormously different kids how to read, I would like to propose a good and heady mix of both, blending them into an elixir that the child finds almost as exciting as chocolate!

The phonics method teaches the child how to read letter sounds rather than letter names ( aa, b, k) and then build from short vowel sounds ( cat, ten, hit, pot,bun) and moving onto combinations or blends. It is an extremely effective method for early readers. The children are always excited at being able to decode newer words on their own simply because these consistently follow the phonics principle. So the child rapidly and dramatically progresses from mat to mate to material and the thrill is matched by acquisition of few other acquired skills.

At the same time, it helps the child to understand that the English language does not always follow this principle and introduce them to the concept of sight words. The earliest sight words introduced to children are often number names and the simple words he, she, be, to do, no, go, so. As the child advances in his skill, so does he in acquiring new and more complex sight words.

Both these methods rely heavily on the child's ability to retain and recall from memory. Thus, a child who knows the words in spoken language finds it much easier to recognise them and form memories for the written representation. Thus, early reading skills are greatly helped by the exposure to a rich linguistic environment at home sooner better than later. The habit of reading stories especially bedtime stories to children exposes them to new words and magical journeys. The words they hear are the words they will be able to recognise and read much easier.

Brightly coloured picture books that introduce a few words and use the method of repeating them ( especially good are the Early readers of the Ladybird series- Chicken Licken!) exploit this principle to the fullest and produce fluent readers almost effortlessly.

There are a few who need more effort than simply recognising the print. These children need special and patient teaching.

Reading may be better understood as being composed of three main components- decoding, comprehension and retention. Decoding itself is a highly complex neural activity. This involves perception of the written signal ( letter) , identifying it, putting the several letters together, 'speaking' the same group together in the mind and then constructing a word out of all these activities. Then comes the difficult task of remembering each preceding word with the next, retaining it in the short term, making sense of each word combination- making meaningful sentences out of the written material.

That does not look too simple, does it?

Therefore, the earliest beginnings to promoting reading lie in preparing good pre-reading skills, building reading from phonics, helping with sight words and repeating, repeating, repeating.

Most importantly, material selected for these early readers and pre-readers MUST be colourful and fun, exciting and enticing.

So- go ahead and enjoy the early tottering steps in the road to reading with as many smiles and as much support as you do for early walking trials of the little ones. Be patient and encouraging and allow the children to proceed at their own pace. Do remeber that those who cannot see or hear properly may not be able to acquire language easily and it is extremely important to see a specialist ( Eye/ ENT doctors) who may identify an organic cause of failure to acquire these skills by otherwise able children.

Monday, 9 February 2009

And then growing into it... building vocabulary

Building vocabulary has traditionally been done by the teachers simply by giving a class some new words in each session and expecting the words to be memorized by the next session.

This... simply... does NOT work.

For one, it is very difficult to remember words without context and without memory pegs. If it were so simple to remember new words, dictionaries would be memorized without much effort. The fact is that even very good linguists have a good dictionary at hand- infact, the good linguists DO have a good dictionary at hand.

Vocabulary building exercises start with good conversation. The teachers and parents who use more and better words find, sooner or later, their students and children use more and better words.

Follow a theme. This creates a natural memory peg for the brain to remember new information. So one day the teacher ( or the parent) could simply refuse to accept "GOOD" from the class/ child. And insist on defining good.
  • Food is good- delicious.
  • Dress is good- trendy
  • Weather is good- pleasant/ sunny/ bright
  • Mood is good- happy
  • Class was good- enjoyable
  • Swim was good- exhilarating
  • Game was good- exciting
  • Book was good- unputdownable
  • Song is good- melodious
And so on... This is just an example. Other themes that relate to everyday life can be
  • Weather words- pleasant/sunny/ bright/ rainy/ cloudy/ dark/ foggy/ stormy
  • Colours- red- crimson/ burgundy/blood/ brick/ terracota/scarlet/vermillion/ rose
  • Moods- happy/ sad/ excited/ depressed/ devilish/ naughty/ exuberant/ philosophical
  • Journey- travel-expedition- trip- voyage- trek- odyssey- pilgrimage- excursion
Many others can be thought of by an imaginative teacher.

Another method of expanding a child's vocabulary is to read good literature out loud for a class that is not ready to read it by themselves or to allow the class to read when they can. Simply reading is unlikely to have the effect of building vocabulary and comprehension skills. Reading with the idea of writing, say, one new word per page read could do that! If the page does not lend to such an opportunity, encourage the students to pick a word and go to a thesaurus with it to come up with alternatives.

Following the alphabet also is a wonderful way to expand skill of playing with words!

Building vocabulary is a slow and laborious process. It takes a brick, laid on another on another till a building can finally be made out! Teach a single new word each day or each week or even each month, if you have the time. But teach that word with meaning, usage, context, grammar, and throw in a little bit of interesting game play to go with it! Plenty of web sites are now available to help you achieve that without much effort. is an excellent site that allows you to play with anagrams, palindromes, oxymorons etc.

Take the time to enjoy the journey. It will be fun many a time and tiring, too some of the times. It will be exhilarating and depressing. You may love it or hate it, but you will never be able to just ignore it. Once the adventure begins- it is a roller coaster you just don't want to get off. The good teacher will make that happen in any class- irrespective of labels applied to her ( or his) students- gifted or dyslexic, brilliant or average.

So... go ahead... venture out... the adventure is just waiting to happen.

Friday, 6 February 2009

The next milestone... Fluency

Once the child begins to decode easily, (s)he must then achieve a smooth flow. It is this smooth flow that is often termed Fluency in scientific jargon. Fluency is the important bridge between decoding and comprehension.

Many readers read in a flat monotone without stops ( or with too many stops), without a thought to punctuation and with little expression. This makes the reading aloud difficult to follow and almost impossible to retain. These difficulties of comprehension are a result of poor fluency.

Most parents and some teachers look askance when this subject is broached. There are many children who have cracked the code, who speak fluently, are intelligent... but... their reading does not match their intelligence. These children, along with those who fail to crack the reading code, are often branded lazy or even plain insolent. Basket cases.

This is, in fact, the saddest treatment of otherwise intelligent children. Among the key performance areas of a teacher, the most important should be to be able to reach a child who fails to reach the teacher. Sometimes, often, the teachers simply call the parents and deliver a verdict. Your child does not read. Your child cannot read. Your child is lazy. etc.

It is the teacher's responsibility to teach. Period.

Parents may go the extra mile because it is their child in question. However, the teachers are trained to teach. It is their job. For children who can- the teachers are merely providing a direction. The rest is being done by the children, themselves. For those who are struggling, the teachers need to adopt strategies that can help and lift.

The foremost among these is to raise the bar! Yes! Surprising as it sounds, raising the bar actually raises the standards achieved. When a teacher talks as if she is speaking to kindergarten kids, she gets kindergarten results. When she raises the level of communication to a level of middle or high school, the students begin to use the words they hear and improve their linguistic and vocabulary skills. These are the most important prelude to fluent reading. My four year old son called me at work one day to tell me that their Karate class was canceled due to inclement weather. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. I asked him where he had heard the word. His answer was quite simple. "Mom, you were telling Didi ( his elder sister) about the swarming clouds and how the weather was inclement. I liked the sound of the word!"

Make a note of the last line- I LIKED THE SOUND OF THE WORD! Children are naturals at learning You just have to pique their interest. That is the next strategy. Vocabulary, the way it is taught is hardly the way the children will remember it! Even grammar. Vocabulary and grammar are best taught not as Black board sessions but as activities and games. The most common game played by children based on a grammar activity is Name Place Animal Thing. One child is to go thorough the alphabet in his head, the opponent stops him anywhere. Where ever the pause, that letter forms the cue. All the participants have to give a name/ place/ animal/ thing with the same alphabet. This is a sure fire game to teach simple nouns.

Instead of reading a lesson out loud or making the children do the same, teachers would do well to make it fun. Literary techniques like Alliteration and rhyming can generate a lot of laughter when the tongue twisters start rolling out. " The sixth sick sheikh's sixth sheep is sick!" The same letter as the start of the student name could be the prompt. So, Alice would have to generate a line with A alliteration. This exercise can further be used to teach parts of speech more effectively. Each sentence generated must have a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition etc. The funny alliterative sentences are more likely to form and cement memory circuits than simply reading and expecting to be remebered. For something to be remembered, it has to be memorable.

Reading teachers must introduce the concept of sight words to promote fluency. For a decoding child, phonics become the natural method to tackle new words. Howeevr, if these words do not follow the standard phonics, fluency takes a beating. Once switched on, reading does become so automatic that it is difficult to turn off. In some cases, teachers and parents have to work extra hard to achieve this.

Try this exercise. Read the following words
Now ignore the written colour name and speak out the colour it is written in.

How did you fare?

Overall, it is the interested teacher and the devoted parent who help a child achieve all of the components to crack the reading task- phonics, sight words, phonemic awareness, syllables and fluency can all be improved. It only needs patience sometimes. At those times, it is helpful to remember that the human brain is not genetically geared to read! Yes! There is no specific gene that can be linked to reading skills. And written language is a fairly recent adven in human history.

But, as I said earlier, once turned on, the reading is a largely auomatic skill that is difficult to turn off!

So happy reading...

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Reading A...B...C

Reading is not as simple a task as it is assumed to be, especially by fluent readers. A struggling reader or a child with learning/ reading/ writing disability can testify to the fact that the job is hard learned and hard earned!

A few strategies make the task easier. These are simple to follow and quick to produce results.

Phonics still are the best method of 'breaking a child into a reading habit'. The early leveled readers usually have one to two words per page, and usually ten to twelve pages to a book. Each page would have one word change and follows the principle of repetition. The child who can decode the short 'a' sound and read 'cat' can read easily the word rat, and hat, and mat and so on...

Thus, a caring teacher or parent can even create a book with the help of the child using a short vowel sound. And create a story around the words in pictures. In order to keep the child interested, draw in outlines, keeping the illustrations simple. Encourage the child to start holding the crayon and colour the pictures. Read the words to the child once or even twice. Follow the thirty second principle. If you wait for just thirty seconds, your child may surprise you by reading the text himself!

Allow the child to make mistakes. Read together with the child a third or even a fourth time. And then, watch. Watch the child get the thrill of reading the first passage or the first book. And one that (s)he created on his/ her own. When my daughter read her first board book of animals, we celebrated with a dinner. And when my son read his first book, we celebrated with ice-cream and cake. His was a HOP ( Hooked On Phonics) book. They both remember the thrill to this day. What is more, I do, too.

Incidentally, HOP is an excellent programme that literally takes the child from mat to mate to material.

It is best to start with letter recognition and do it with letter sounds rather than letter names. The reading in sounds, then comes easy. This builds sound circuits and memories.

The next step is to start teaching the short vowel sounds- sequentially. This would mean some time to be exclusively spent on cat, bat, mat etc. Teaching bet, let, ten, hen pen would come next. Then, would follow the sound 'i' as in igloo to reinforce bin, tin, pin, pig, bit etc. 'O' can then be introduced in pot, lot, cot. And finally, 'u', as in bun, but, hum, hut.

The short vowel sounds make initial reading fun and rhythmic. The memory circuits so established are strong foundations to build on later. These early exercises also can be made even more exciting by introducing nursery rhymes or Mother Goose or even songs that children can relate to.

Same language texting goes a long way in promoting literacy in those who know the songs and then are shown the lyrics. This only requires a good memory for the song or poem and a basic letter recognition so that the child can make out the sound of a written beginning and associate it to the memorized word.

Reading fluency develops rapidly after the initial work is done. It is surprising how easy it becomes to move from an early decoder to fluent reader. It only requires patience in the initial stages. Next battle to be won is that of comprehension. It might surprise some parents that their fluent reader child does not understand or remember what he has read only a few moments ago.

That requires special strategies to build comprehension.