Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Sequential Phonics for Struggling Readers

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Many students struggle when learning to read. One of my children had a very difficult time learning to read and after testing it was determined that he had a reading disability. About 10% to 17% of the U.S. population has a specific reading disability sometimes called dyslexia, which is the major cause of reading failure in school. It is important to note that reading difficulties exist on a continuum. Some children will do well with a quick intervention and other children, like my son, will need lots of support and explicit instruction in reading.
After researching different ways to help my child, I found that a systematic, multisensory approach to teaching phonics was needed. According to the prominent dyslexia researcher Dr. Sally Shaywitz the key ingredients of an effective early intervention are:

Systematic and direct instruction in:
  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Syllabication
  • Spelling
  • Reading sight words
  • Vocabulary and concepts
  • Reading comprehension strategies
  • Fluency Training-Fluency is the ability to read quickly, smoothly, accurately and with good comprehension. 
  • Enriched language experiences-Interactive dialogue involving listening, speaking and storytelling.  
In this blog post, I want to focus on the first three in the list!

Phonemic Awareness
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In order for children to learn to read print, they must be aware of how the sounds in words work. They must understand that words are made up of individual speech sounds, or phonemes. Phonemic awareness involves segmenting (dividing spoken words into individual sounds), blending (putting these sounds together), and manipulating (adding, deleting, or substituting sounds). Although people often use the terms interchangeably, phonemic awareness is actually a subcategory of phonological awareness, which refers to a more general understanding of the sound structure of language. Here is a guide by the University of Virginia on phonemic awareness instruction.
Phonemic Awareness is so important! Research indicates a strong relationship between early phoneme awareness and later reading success, and it links some reading failure to insufficiently developed phoneme awareness skills. Reading Rockets has more ideas for developing this important skill. The best news about learning phonemic awareness is that it is and should be fun!
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Mrs. Judy Araujo has a wonderful website that is just full of great ideas! Don't miss this one!

Phonics involves the relationship between sounds and their spellings. Phonics is the understanding that sounds and print letters are connected; this is the first step towards “reading.” The goal of phonics instruction is to teach students the most common sound-spelling relationships so that they can decode words. This comes naturally for the majority of students. For some students, like my son, this did not come naturally. I learned that students who fall into the moderate to severe spectrum of dyslexia need to learn language in a structured way from the simple to the complex. It needs to be multisensory (students are taught using all pathways to learning: auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic (movement).  This instruction needs to be cumulative where new learning is connected with what is already learned. 
There are different ways of structuring phonics instruction. I teach phonics based on the six types of syllables (closed, open, silent e, vowel teams, r-control and consonant le). This is an approach to teaching phonics that does not rely on a program. The goal is not to teach phonics rules. The goal is to teach the student to recognize the patterns of the syllables in words. I have taught many struggling readers over the last 25 years to decode this way. Remember, children with dyslexia are intelligent! They can pick up the patterns when taught in a systematic way. 

A very helpful book that uses this structure of teaching phonics based on the six syllables is Angling for Words- Basic Angling Practice Book by Dorothy B. Montgomery - Linda M. Gipson. It allows the teacher to take students through word work in a sequential order. It gives you a word list for all 6 syllable types and has sentences that match the word pattern you want to practice. Be sure to get the teacher's manual that comes with the student book. Corresponding phono-cards are also very helpful. They can be found here. Here is an outline of the progression. In the teacher's manual there is a blank fish that can be filled in for each child as they move through the syllables. 
Option: Here you can find a similar lesson plan and guide for free. A free list of words can be found here!

Helpful Ideas and Supports
  • One helpful tidbit is to give each of the vowels a hand motion. This allows the teacher to remind the student what to say without actually saying it. Mine are: short a-an open palm, holding the largest apple that they have ever seen! Short e-rubbing a finger along the "edge" of the table (this positions the mouth and teeth correctly). Short i-itch by scratching my hand. Short o-opening my mouth, saying the short o sound and circling the opening in an o shape. Short u-pointing up. You may have different motions. Just make sure they are quick and subtle. My students will use these on their own to help them remember. It is a great kinesthetic connection to the short vowel sounds.
  • Comprehension is not always an issue for a student with dyslexia. It wasn't for my child. To foster his comprehension skills, I read books aloud to him, watched movies (asking questions) with him, and bought many picture books and magazines for him to read. This helped him enjoy reading until his decoding skills improved. In the classroom, we foster this idea by approaching literacy in a balanced way. We use read alouds, shared reading, listening to reading, and many literacy activities that support struggling readers.
  • Cursive Handwriting is important! Maria  Montessori’s extensive observations of children revealed the importance of learning through movement and the senses. Research corroborates the vital hand/brain connection, proving that new pathways in the brain develop as children use their hands to explore and interact with the world. I love this quote: "Only three fingers write, but the whole body works.”-Medieval Scribe. Students with dyslexia need the motor memory and tactile experience that comes with handwriting. Cursive letters can all begin on the line (the way I teach) and letter reversals are almost impossible. Maria Montessori believed that writing of single letters could begin with three or four-year-olds. She noted that children try to write before they begin to read.I have seen this countless times with littles! I encourage you to take the time to research this vital link for struggling learners.You can find out more here and here

Multisensory Approach

Example of the lesson plan steps:

1. Visual drill- Students see the letters or groups of letters for the sound(s)/spelling pattern(s) you are working on. They can name the letter(s) and say the correct sound(s) for the letter.

2. Auditory drill- The sound the letters or groups of letters make.  Teacher says sound(s)and student repeats.  Then, the student writes all the ways that sound is spelled.

3. Read words- blend sounds they are learning into words and break the word into sound parts. Elkonin Boxes are great for this!

4. Dictated spelling words- teacher says word(s), student repeats it and then writes the word down.

5. Dictated sentences- student writes complete sentences with that contain the sound taught throughout the lesson.

6. Reading passages/books- The student will read a passage or book that has many words containing the sound presented from step 1. I have used phonetic readers (Primary Phonics) to match my phonics skills to a text. The goal is to move the child into a variety of books and genres, especially ones that interest them. Here is a resource in finding books matched to levels. 

This lesson plan format can be used in small group or individual reading instruction. It is an excellent way to provide intervention for those students needing this level of support. 
I hope that this information has prompted you to discover different ways of supporting students with dyslexia and those who are struggling in other ways. We must be persistent in our efforts to help them be successful.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Generative Questions

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Our students need the skill of generating thoughtful questions. The ability to routinely generate mental questions while reading, listening, or viewing something not only boosts attention and alertness but also strengthens comprehension (Duke & Pearson, 2002). We want them to be critical thinkers!
What can we do to help students develop the practice of questioning while reading or listening? One way is to use generative questions (handout). Generative questions are questions asked by the student to deepen meaning and comprehension as they read. Use these questions interactively with any text read with students. Provide instruction in how to pose these questions while reading to develop understandings and deepen comprehension. Create an anchor chart with students so they can refer to questions on their own as they learn to ask these of themselves. The goal should be that students routinely and independently ask questions like these of themselves.

Generative Questions
Generative Questions are questions students can ask THEMSELVES to develop meaning and deepen comprehension as they read any text.
What do we know so far? How do you know?
What else? …What else?
Let’s reread.
What are you seeing? How did you figure that out? What words or phrases did the author use to help you paint that picture in your mind?
What does the author want you to think? How did s/he accomplish that?
Who is the author writing for…who is the audience?
What is the tone? How do you know? How should our voices reflect that?
What is the author trying to do here? What words or phrases did the author choose to show that?
What does the author want you to feel? How did s/he accomplish that?
What DON’T we know? What questions do you have?
What words did you have to puzzle through mentally to figure out possible meanings?

Jennifer Young, 2012

Clemson University's Reading Recovery website has more information on questioning. Check out Introduction to Answering Questions! 


Sunday, December 4, 2016


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Fountas and Pinnell tell us that there are three components to reading fluency:
1. Accuracy (also known as automaticity, the person’s ability to read words correctly in a text)
2. Rate (the speed a person reads)
3. Stress, intonation, and pauses

(Fountas & Pinnell, 2009)

To gain a deeper understanding of fluency and how it supports or hinders reading, I recommend the work of Timothy Rasinski.
 "It may be helpful to think of reading fluency as a bridge between the two major components of reading – word decoding and comprehension. At one end of this bridge, fluency connects to accuracy and automaticity in decoding. At the other end, fluency connects to comprehension through prosody, or expressive interpretation." 
Rasinski has a multidimensional fluency rubric that breaks down the different components of fluency. I like to use it along with a running record. You are looking for expression and volume, phrasing, smoothness, and pace.

Visit Tim Rasinski's website and find a wonderful list of resources!

In her article, Shared Reading: Listening Leads to Fluency And Understanding, Janet Allen discusses the importance of Shared Reading in building fluency. Please take the time to read this article. Shared reading is appropriate for any grade! She mentions some of the advantages of using shared reading:

  • Students were more motivated to read.
  • Attendance improved when students didn't want to miss what the class was reading.
  • Students' speaking and writing vocabularies were changing to reflect the texts they read.
  • Students were reading more on their own -- in school, in detention, at home and even in jail. (Allen received several letters from former students who were there, asking her to send books similar to those she had read with them.)
  • The class was more like a community and less a collection of individuals who happened to be in the same place.
  • Students' writing improved.
  • Students began to see themselves as readers.   (Allen, 2002)

Building fluency involves decoding and comprehension!  Some of my favorite resources for helping students with fluency are listed below:

Fry Phrases by Rasinski- These can be on cards or you can find power points that have them on each slide. Students can practice them in pairs or it could be part of a guided reading lesson. They are based on sight words. I have found that the phrases work so much better than just one word.

Readers Theater- This is a great resource. There are many links!

Poetry- This is a lesson with resources. Any fun poem will do!

Songs- I love the idea of using popular songs!

I hope that this sparks your interest in building fluency in fun ways!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Informational Text

Most children like to read informational text. If they are interested in the topic, students can engage in this genre with excitement. There is no disagreement that children will need to be fluent readers of informational texts as they move forward in their learning. So, what do our students need to know about informational text?

Google or Pinterest the topic and you will see that the main focus of instruction is text features. I call these the "tricky parts" of reading informational text. While they are important, there is so much more to teach. 

Out goal is to create readers, writers, and researchers. Students must be able to comprehend informational texts and use them in authentic ways. This requires the teacher to model the reading of informational texts and teach reading strategies that will promote reading comprehension. Explicit teaching of comprehension strategies can foster comprehension (Duke & Pearson, 2002). Here is a book that will help you understand the importance of comprehension strategies!

Teachers must differentiate instruction within the classroom. Selecting books on different levels will help teachers meet the needs of their students.   Here is an exceptional article with videos that will encourage you to support all students. Don't forget to refer to the Continuum of Literacy Learning to see what the text demands are at each level. 

Mentor texts are a vital part of informational text reading and writing.  Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli in their book NonFiction Mentor Texts, offer a wide range of mentor texts and show how these models illustrate the key features of good writing. This is a great resource!

I encourage you to think beyond the "tricky parts" and go for the development of the genre. We want our students to comprehend and enjoy a wide variety of informational texts. To authentically read and write about topics of interest.