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.