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.