I was contacted recently by a Title I coordinator with a question: “What is meant by real, connected text?” Here’s the backstory: the coordinator, currently working with her teachers to research and then restructure their district’s reading interventions, asked if I’d give my two-cents on a point David Kilpatrick made in his 2015 book, Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, namely, and I’m paraphrasing, that effective reading interventions share the following:
Because reading research tells us “the components of effective reading instruction are the same whether the focus is prevention or intervention” (Foorman & Torgesen, 2001), we know Kilpatrick’s trio is just as important to classroom reading instruction as it is to reading interventions. But what, exactly, is meant by real, connected text? How much time should students be given to read it? And in what settings are the various types of text appropriate? I’ll tackle the first question this week and the last two later in August.
What is real, connected text?
Defining educational terms is challenging. Our field seems to constantly create, refine, redefine, and deconstruct its vocabulary while rarely discarding any of it. Still, I’ll try to give a definition, starting with the “connected” part of the phrase.
I take connected to mean multiple sentences, contiguous on a page or presented over pages, relating to each other in ways that ultimately tell a story or present cohesive information. These sentences, a.k.a. connected text, can be found in:
Unlike the term “real text,” authentic text has been repeatedly defined by others. Here’s what the Florida Department of Education, which says: “Authentic text may be thought of as any text that was written and published for the public… written for “real world” purposes and audiences: to entertain, inform, explain, guide, document or convince” (FLDOE, 2020). Educators like Scott Thornbury and Lesley Morrow also weigh in, saying “…text is authentic if it was originally written for a non-classroom audience” and “[authentic text is a] stretch of real language produced by a real speaker or writer for a real audience and designed to convey a real message” (Thornbury, 2008; Morrow, 1977).
An example of text most definers would classify as authentic is Nancy Shaw’s entertaining Sheep in a Jeep, a picture book featuring simple sentences of varying structure; colorful, active illustrations; a plethora of phonic patterns; and a variety of engaging verbs (go, yelp, push, grunt, shove, leap, splash, thud, shout, cheer) which provide the reader with, as Catherine Snow puts it, “rare and sophisticated” vocabulary. Although teachers and parents can use this text to expose children to language and teach concepts (sequence, verbs, using context to gain meaning, and so forth), the book was not originally written with teaching in mind.
Definers of authentic text often go beyond books to classify blogs, novels, pop songs, newspaper articles, recipes, and road signs as authentic. Some also include radio shows, podcasts, photos, and video clips as examples. For me, podcasts and video clips won’t contribute much to teaching students the fundamentals of reading written words and so I’ll put them aside. And while environmental text certainly helps children understand that text is an integral parts of the world, I don’t think it is a central tool of K-3 reading instruction. So, in the end, I define connected, authentic text as text 1) that features connected sentences over one or more pages, 2) is not created for instructional purposes, and 3) is one of the main tools for fundamental reading instruction, K-3. Varieties of text that work within this general definition are poems and rhymes, picture books of all kinds, and chapter books, simple and more advanced, both narrative and informational. Once again, many of these types of texts can exist in digital format although I think the science of how well digital text works to teach reading is still in its infancy (and there are many unanswered questions).
A broader definition of “real and connected”
My sense is that Kilpatrick’s real and connected is a bigger category than authentic. Thus, in the file drawer of real and connected, I’ll include books written specifically to help children learn how to read. Here I am thinking of the leveled books and predictable (pattern) books often used in kindergarten and 1st grade instruction.
Unlike authentic text, leveled readers are written with instruction in mind. Typically they support young readers with controlled vocabulary, a measured number of words in a sentence, and sometimes a repetitive sentence structure. For example, the first four pages of an early leveled reader might be this:
These types of books also fold in supports typically associated with picture books, such as photographs and illustrations. Also like authentic books, these texts present children with multiple, relating sentences in a book form (with title, cover art, and illustrations) that often tells a story or gives topical information. Finally, I’ve found that young children are excited when they finish one of these contrived texts – because they can read them! – and the excitement that springs from their reading success is a very real thing.
Text written with teaching in mind
Other pieces of text I categorize as “real and connected” are the informational articles and short, fictional stories found on sites like Readworks.org. Specifically authored for a website or program, these passages are written with reading levels and teachable content in mind. Like leveled readers, they typically have measured vocabulary loads, controlled sentence structure, and confined sentence lengths. Even with their constrained writing, these informational passages and short stories seem real to me (and almost authentic) because they closely follow text forms (newspaper articles, short stories in magazines) that are written without instruction in mind.
Is decodable text real?
Writers create decodable text with a narrow teaching focus in mind: giving beginning readers practice in breaking the code through carefully constructed sentences that use a small number of phonic patterns. The construction of decodable text consistently points students towards the strategies of “look at the letters,” “look for patterns” and “sound out the word.” This is why decodable sentences and paragraphs are an important part of many curriculums, such as Barton Reading and Wilson Reading among others, that aim to help students who have dyslexia. By using a limited number of phonic patterns, decodable text gives students who need it more repetition and distributed practice in phonic decoding, and fosters literacy development by helping beginning readers build detailed and accurate replicas of patterns and words in neural circuitry (Shaywitz, 2020; Duke, 2019).
Because decodable text is written by authors who use very narrow parameters to accomplish a specific task, some may see it as the opposite of real or authentic. But I’d say it becomes more real and authentic if it makes sense as a story and builds topical, background, and vocabulary knowledge (Hiebert, 2020). In my mind, the best example of highly controlled text that is real, connected, and perhaps even authentic is Dr. Suess’s Green Eggs and Ham. After using only 225 different words to tell the tale of The Cat in the Hat, Suess’s editor bet him he couldn’t write another book using fewer. He did, using only 50 words to write Green Eggs and Ham. A classic in the world of children’s literature, this highly controlled text features memorable characters, humor, conflict, resolution, and character growth.
Use it all to read, read, read
In the end, all of this might be mere semantics. The big idea is to get kids to read, read, read! No matter what text you have available, do your best to program opportunities for children to read. It's best when students are reading everything and anything, from traffic signs and recipes to poems, website articles, graphic novels, and picture books. Give more support for those who need it. For example, if some students need more practice in breaking the code, give them additional opportunities to read decodable text. But don’t forget to also give them rich, authentic children’s literature. Support all students through read alouds, leveled readers, and a kick butt classroom library laid out in browsing bins. No one type of text will teach all children to read and certainly you can’t teach all children with only one reading textbook!
In my next blog I’ll discuss programming time to read all types of text, every day and for long periods of time.
Sources / Citations
Reading fluency - the ability to read accurately at an appropriate rate and with proper expression and phrasing - is essential to reading comprehension (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974; Stevens, Walker, & Vaughn, 2017). Thus, it makes sense to use classroom practices that build all elements of fluency. Parents can also play a part in helping their children build fluency through reading activities. One especially effective and efficient practice is repeated oral reading.
Repeated oral reading provides less skilled readers with the opportunity to hear a model of fluent reading and then practice it (multiple times) in a way that minimizes errors. Additionally, when students read together, especially with a teacher or parent, those who feel shy or nervous are supported, their stress of reading independently is lessened, and their self-confidence is boosted.
Using the practice of repeated reading typically leads to improved reading performance, with the biggest payoffs being more accurate word reading, improved oral reading fluency, and more reading comprehension (Shanahan, 2020). The effect can be especially powerful for low performing readers (Zawoyski, et. al., 2014). Still, some schools don’t make use of this powerful practice. As dyslexia researcher Sally Shaywitz has pointed out “…the proven effectiveness of guided repeated oral reading to increase fluency is too often ignored. That is unacceptable. In fact, the evidence is so strong that I urge adoption of these programs as an integral part of every school reading curriculum throughout primary school” (Shaywitz, p. 233).
Fortunately, it is easy to understand and then adopt the practice of repeated reading. Here are the key ingredients of the practice, as well as descriptions of a few variations.
All versions of repeated reading have a few key ingredients. They are:
Pioneered by reading researcher Jay Samuels, Repeated Reading been shown to be effective at improving the oral reading fluency of elementary students, including those with learning disabilities (Kim, Bryant, Bryant, & Park, 2017; Stevens, et. al., 2017; Lee & Yoon, 2017). This particular variety of the practice is capitalized because it is a specific routine. According to Timothy Shanahan, “Repeated Reading is a particular method … to develop decoding automaticity with struggling readers. In this approach, students are asked to read aloud short text passages (50-200 words) until they reach a criterion level of success (particular speed and accuracy goals)” (Shanahan, 2020). Key components of Samuel’s Repeated Reading go above and beyond the previously mentioned key ingredients and include instant error correction, peer mediation, and a specific criterion (or specific goal of speed and accuracy). If you would like to further explore the specifics of Repeated Reading, I refer you to this posting on the Iowa Reading Research Center’s blog:
Repeated reading of the uncapitalized kind can be young students reading a previously read book during independent reading time or as the first activity in a guided reading group. It can also be choral or echo reading during small group instruction or with a large group during poetry practice.
Choral and Echo Reading
Choral reading is when students read in unison with the teacher. Echo reading is when the teacher reads first and then the students echo it back. For kindergarten students, the echoing is typically one sentence. To determine the number of sentences for older students, I consider the demands of the text and the abilities of the students. If students need support and sentences are relatively difficult (longer and/or with higher decoding demands), perhaps one sentence will do. But if sentences are shorter and easier to decode, pick two or three sentences to echo back. Otherwise, students with good short term memory will simply “parrot back” a sentence without ever reading it.
How To Do Choral and Echo Reading
Repeated reading in the form of echo reading can occur in either the whole group or during a small group situation like a guided reading group. When working with students who need a lot of support, I incorporate regular bouts of echo and choral reading. It looks like this:
Let's imagine the students have just finished whisper reading this piece of text.
Here is what the routine looks like with a 3rd grade guided reading group.
Fluent reading unfolds smoothly, with expression, and in broad brushstrokes of phrasing. To drive the point home, consider putting out a can filled with small paintbrushes. Then allow your students (independently or in small or large groups) to grab a paintbrush and re-read a poem or passage by pulling the brush smoothly below the sentences. It’s a kinesthetic feedback trick that keeps kids engaged as they re-read. Read like a painter, not…like…a…pointer!
Fluency is Much More Than Rate
Regardless of whether you use echo reading, choral reading, paintbrush re-reading, or some other form or combination of repeated reading, the students’ goal is always the same: to read the words of the text accurately, at a reasonable pace, and with expression and phrasing that sounds like oral language.
Notice that the definition of fluency I gave is much more than rate (or pace) of reading. In “The Great Fluency Rush” that followed the 2000 release of the National Reading Panel’s Report, fluency work was everywhere in schools, assessments like DIBELS and programs like Read Naturally were ubiquitous, and reading rate sometimes became synonymous with fluency. I like to say that “rate was overrated.” In some schools, rate is still overrated! So, I am glad that researchers like Shaywitz and Shanahan, and organizations like the Iowa Reading Research Center, are here to remind us it is important to build accuracy first and not lose sight of expression and phrasing (Shaywitz, 2020; IRRC 2019; Shanahan, 2020). As the IRCC puts it, “Reading quality rather than reading speed.”
SOURCES and CITATIONS
Playful, lyrical, musical, moving,
Hopeful, joyful, anguished, blue.
Concentrated yet expansive,
To the norm they may not hew.
Read in classrooms and on stages,
Through the ages, old and new.
Small but mighty, I applaud them, and
Wonder if you laud them, too.
Why Use Poems?
For me, a poem is like a pop-up book, or maybe Yoda and a can of Popeye’s spinach. A poem is minute but mighty, compressing a ton of surprise, wisdom, and fortifying energy into a small space.
Efficient and powerful, poems are perfect for teaching, and then having students practice, a wide variety of important literacy elements, including comprehension through close reading, asking and answering questions, genre and author study, vocabulary building, grammar and sentence structure study, phonic-spelling patterns, fluency, and speaking and listening. Additionally, poems are relatively easy to find and manage. They can be used for shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. Finally, most children find poems engaging and enjoy reading and presenting them. I attribute this to the brevity, rhythm, and rhymes of poems, as well as their ability to evoke a wide variety of feelings and wonderment. When striving readers fluently read and then present poems to others, they gain a real sense of accomplishment and success
All in all, poems are an effective tool for teaching primary grade reading. What follows are places to find them, thoughts on leveling them for differentiated teaching, and a flexible routine for using them to teach a variety of important early reading skills.
Where to Find Poems
Old school nursery rhymes, traditional poems from years past, and poems from modern and contemporary authors are all at your fingertips, easily found online. Here are three sites to get you started.
By The Way: Shakespeare for 3rd Graders
I found this Renaissance classic in the Poetry Foundation’s children’s section. In mid-October, pass out the witchy-poo pointer fingers, model a good ghoul voice, and let your third graders have at it. By Halloween, some will be clamoring to present!
Published poetry collections are the ultimate source of classroom text. Collections often include upwards of 100 or more poems meaning you can generate a collection of appropriate poems for your class in no time. Here’s a list of twelve respected and beloved children’s authors and a poetry collection from each to get you started.
Collecting and Storing Poems
Between well-stocked websites and comprehensive print collections, you can amass dozens of poems for kids to read in a short amount of time. Storing them as PDFs or word document files allows for easy sharing with other teachers. For use during shared reading time, print poems on poster-sized sheets or present them on SmartBoard slides. For guided and independent reading, copy poems as single sheets.
My mother, now retired, presented two poems a week to her first graders. During my years in third grade, I presented about three poems a month. But knowing what I know now (the power of poetry, the myriad ways it can be used), whenever I teach children, I use three or four poems every two weeks. Presenting a number of poems allows you to differentiate for different reading levels, provides numerous possibilities for classroom activities, gives students choices on what they read, and provides options when creating personal poetry anthologies for each student (more on this at the end of this section).
Loosely Leveling Poems
Leveling poems enables a number of instructional best practices, including providing choice, challenge, and support. Some poems come with a Lexile or grade level. For those that don’t, you can type a poem into a website or word document and generate an ATOS or Flesch-Kinkaid grade level and readability score. But I find these scores are often misleading, sometimes egregiously so. That’s why I roughly determine the appropriateness of a poem for any particular group of students by considering the following:
To illustrate, here are two poems I might present to second graders:
Comparing these two poems, I see that although Macaroni and Cheese has a complex layout (the poem is written for two or more readers), it has half the number of words of Bed in Summer, fewer phonic patterns, more repeated words, more contemporary language, and relatively simple subject matter. Thus, I think Macaroni and Cheese would be appropriate for readers who need more support. Meanwhile, the Stephenson poem would be appropriate for shared reading because its meaning is more complex, its subject matter more nuanced, it would lead to more questioning and inferring, and some of my striving readers might find its number of words frustrating to read without support. Finally, I would assign the Stephenson poem to my more advanced readers for independent reading, although I would give all my students the choice to read both.
Routine for Teaching Reading Skills Through Poems
After I have decided on the two or three poems I want to use, I generally follow this 3-day routine to teach a variety of reading skills, from applying comprehension strategies to noticing phonic patterns and re-reading for fluency.
First Day (15 t0 20 minutes)
Personal Poetry Anthologies
Personal poetry anthologies grow and expand as the months goes by, reflecting a child’s personal preferences. Each poem in the anthology provides an opportunity for students to re-read and build fluency during independent reading time, as well as share their reading with others.
Regardless of whether you use the 3-day routine (given previously) or not, put the poems each child has read into a 3-ring binder with his or her name on it. If students are able to do their own 3-hole punching and operate a binder, then so much the better. I give students the option to take a second or even a third poem, each one typically at a different level of difficulty. Thus, after two months, some children will have a dozen poems in their anthology while others may have only four or five.
If your budget and/or storage space is limited, you can store poems in a two-pocket folder with or without fasteners. If you don’t use fasteners, I suggest you gradually staple the poems into packets of six to eight poems (so papers don’t go flying if the poems fall out). Illustrating the cover of the poetry book is always a fun and engaging thing to do at home or in the classroom.
What can a child can do with her poetry anthology? Here's a list of poetry reading possibilities: During independent reading time, read your poetry anthology...
By The Way: Paintbrush Reading
Fluent reading unfolds smoothly, with expression, and in broad brushstrokes of phrasing. To drive the point home, consider putting out a can filled with small paintbrushes. Then allow your students (independently or in small or large groups) to grab a paintbrush and re-read a poem or passage by pulling the brush smoothly below each sentence as it is read. It’s a kinesthetic feedback trick that keeps kids engaged during re-reading. Read like a painter, not…like…a…pointer!
Note for Parents and Teachers
To help with National Poetry Month, I’ve put free PDFs and sound files of some of my most popular poems online. Just go to this File Cabinet tab on this website (top of the page, immediately to the right of the blog tab). Then look in the right hand column. There you will find PDF poems and dramatic readings of A Bug, A Bug!, poems for two voices, like Nuh Uh! and Mac & Cheese, and more. The mp3s are super fun readings done by actors Chris Laitta & Biff Baron.
According to Kilpatrick (2015) and Scarborough (2001), metacognition, background knowledge, and topical knowledge are components of language comprehension, one of the two variables that describe the Simple View of Reading (the other being word recognition). Other components of this important variable include vocabulary knowledge, grammatical and syntactical knowledge, and self-monitoring. The more a student has of each, the more chance he has of understanding what he has read. Additionally, when the many parts of language comprehension are strong, reading difficulties are less likely to occur. Conversely, if the parts are weak, reading difficulties are more likely to occur.
Making meaning is foundational to what it means to read; one’s ability to construct meaning from written text is dependent on knowledge. When language knowledge is combined with the automatic recognition of correctly spelled words, the brain’s reading circuits are connected and the reading process can unfold. In a 2018 overview of the reading process, researchers Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation said this: “When children begin to learn to read, they usually already have relatively sophisticated spoken-language skills, including knowledge of the meaning of many spoken words.” We know, however, that due to differences within families, languages, and social and economic environments, some children come to school with deficits in spoken word (language) knowledge. So, to head off reading difficulties caused by a lack of language comprehension, we have to build language comprehension knowledge of all types, especially background knowledge.
It’s well known that background knowledge is essential for reading comprehension (Coppola, S. 2014; O’Reilly, T., Wang, Z., & Sabatini, J., 2019). Just think about it: to construct a mental model of what you are reading, it helps to know something about the text topic. The knowledge can consist of specific information, general information, or both. Regardless, the more a reader knows about any topic, the easier it is for him to read a text, understand it, and retain its information (Neuman, Kaefer, & Pinkham, 2014). Thus, a teacher will find it easier to digest the concepts presented in this blog than a fighter pilot or financial advisor.
Interactive read aloud
Reading to children is a simple pleasure. When infused with thought-provoking questions and purposefully modeled reading strategies, reading aloud becomes an effective and practical way to build language comprehension. More specifically, interactive read alouds can build background knowledge, topical knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, genre knowledge, and the ability to use metacognition strategies (such as predicting or visualizing).
In any give classroom there is a wide range of reading achievement. Thus, reading out loud gives some students a way to access and discuss a book written well above their independent reading level. For other students, a read aloud piques interest in a book they can read independently at a later time, once it is placed on a book-shelf or in a browsing bin. Finally, an interactive read aloud not only generally strengthens components of reading comprehension, but it also provides explicit opportunities to model specific reading skills, such as fluent reading, re-reading, and defining vocabulary from context.
It all begins with a carefully chosen quality children’s book, one that is engaging, of any genre, and full of rich vocabulary and concepts. You’ll also need a strong sense of what language comprehension components you want to focus on and an understanding of how to teach them. Let’s tackle this last element first.
A series of purposeful activities makes up a typical interactive read aloud. They can include any or all of the following, done for a variety of purposes:
Title talk, picture walk, and/or book walk.
Rich and complex practices like an Interactive Read Aloud demand rich and complex study, more than what this blog can provide. Perhaps you’ll want to check out these resource books and material, as they might help you take your instruction to a higher level.
For decades, the educational community has known of the importance of phonological awareness. Many researchers pointed it out prior to 2000 (Bradley, L. & Bryant, 1983, Stanovich, K.E. & Siegel, L.S., 1994, Ehri, L.C., 1998), but it really moved front and center when the National Reading Panel report named it as one of the Five Big Ideas of Reading. The Panel said that teaching phonemic awareness not only helped preschoolers, kindergartners, and 1st graders learn to read, but also helped older readers with reading problems. (NICHD, 2000).
Since that time, reading researchers like Sally Shaywitz (2003/2020), Maryanne Wolf (2008), David Share (2011), and Mark Seidenberg (2017) have been highlighting the research on and importance of phonological and phonemic awareness. Here’s Seidenberg talking about it in his book, Language at the Speed of Sight: “For reading scientists, the evidence that the phonological pathway is used in reading and especially important in beginning reading is about as close to conclusive as research on complex human behavior can get” (p. 124).
In his 2015 book on preventing and overcoming reading difficulties, David Kilpatrick spotlighted phonological and phonemic awareness within intervention programs, saying that the especially effective ones "…aggressively address and correct students phonological awareness difficulties and teach phonological awareness to an advanced level” (Kilpatrick, 2015). Robust teaching is critical to the development of orthographic mapping: if children cannot analyze and discriminate between the individual sounds of a language, it is very difficult for them to assign letters (alone or in combination) to each sound, and if sound-symbol associations are not mastered, reading and spelling cannot develop. Kilpatrick also mentioned a study that shows how “training in phonological awareness and letter-sound skills reduced the number of struggling readers by 75%” (Shapiro & Solity, 2008).
But why wait until students are struggling to teach phonological awareness to an advanced level? To prevent reading difficulties, let’s teach advanced sound analysis skills in regular education classrooms at the Tier I level.
What follows are classroom activities that begin moving young students towards advanced phonological awareness. The first focuses on large chunks of sound – syllables. The second has to do with the smallest bits of sound – phonemes.
Hands Together, Apart, and Away
Advanced phonemic skills include adding, subtracting, and substituting phonemes to make new words out of existing words. Set the stage for this by teaching students to delete or add larger sound chunks such as syllables. One practical way to do this is to practice the deletion of one word in a compound word. Then, practice a more advanced version by replacing the deleted word with another word, thus forming a new compound word. To help children better understand how these deletions and additions work, use hands together, apart, and away.
To do this activity with hand motions and preserve “reading left to right,” you’ll need to turn your back to your students and present the back of your hands. With your hands together, thumb touching thumb, say a compound word like “Daylight.” Pull your hands apart and say the compound word as separate words: “Day, light.” Next, put your hands back together and say, “Daylight.” Then, ask your students to say daylight without day. Model taking away your left hand and gently shaking your right. If they don’t know the remaining word, say, “Light.” Ask your students to say daylight without light, taking away your right hand and gently shaking your left. If they don’t know the word, say, “Day.”
Here are other words to say as you move your hands to show syllables and syllable deletion:
An advanced form of Hands Together, Apart, and Away is not using hands at all! Bump up to an even higher level by using three syllable words. At this point you will definitely give up the use of your hands to segment syllables (unless you are an octopus). Have students say a three-syllable word like November. Then ask them to say only the first syllable, the last syllable, or the middle. A more advanced version is to ask them to say the word with a syllable deleted. For example, “Say November without the No.” (Vember) Or say, “Say November without the last syllable.” (Novem).
Stretch and Zap the Word. Then go beyond!
Sound stretching helps students hear the individual sounds of a word. Later they can segment the phonemes more discretely by zapping out the sounds.,
Use the I Do, We Do, You Do sequence to first model the action and then have students practice.. To stretch a word, tell your students to imagine the word as a big rubber band. Or if you live in western Pennsylvania, tell them to imagine a “gum band.” They’ll know what you mean. Grab hold of either end of the word (make two fists and hold them close to each other in front of you). Then slowly pull your hands away from each other, stretching the word out, holding out the vocalization of each phoneme as you stretch.
After the rubber band is stretched as far as it can go and all of the phonemes have been drawn out, snap the band back together with a handclap. When students clap, they say the word. In this way, phonemes are brought back together to make a word. For example, flip would be modeled ffff-llll-iiii-p, (clap) flip! And dream would be d-rrrr-eeee-mmmm, (clap), dream!
Some teachers teach this technique as “bubble gum words,” stretching the word out from the mouth as they were stretching a wad of chewed bubble gum. Is this disgusting? Perhaps. But if kids are engaged, do it. We do whatever it takes to get students to learn, right?
Second graders stretching a word
Add zapping to the stretch routine to help students phonemically segment words and feel that segmentation in their bodies. To model zapping, first say the target word as you make a fist. Next, segment the word into the sounds you hear, pumping your hand and throwing out a finger for each sound you say. For example, the word it gets two pumps. The index finger comes out when you say /i/. The middle finger comes out when you say /t/. Finally, draw your fingers back into a fist, blending the sounds together, and saying the word - it!
When giving words, it is important for you to say the word and have your students repeat it with you (I Say, We Say) before the zapping begins. I Say, We Say gives a model of the correct pronunciation of the word prior to sound segmentation and an opportunity to repeat that correct pronunciation. After all, one cannot segment phonemes correctly if the word isn’t pronounced correctly.
Here is an example of a teaching routine I ran in classrooms. If I used a total of six or seven words, it took about five minutes. My instruction was direct and explicit, used modeling, and proceeded at a brisk pace. The point was to work in lots of practice so the kids could master the technique. Once mastered, children can use zapping as an independent strategy for spelling and reading unknown monosyllabic words. In this lesson, we’ll imagine the teacher is working with a group of second graders on the r-controlled syllable.
With short bursts of repeated practice distributed over time, students can master the art of stretching and zapping in just a few weeks.Then they will be ready for more advanced work: sound identification and sound deletion. For example, after students have segmented stork as /s/ /t/ /or/ /k/, ask, "What is the first sound?" The answer should be /s/. Then ask, "What is the final sound?" and "What is r-controlled sound?" The answers are /k/ and /or/. Sound identification is a more advanced form of phonemic analysis than simple segmentation.
Finally, ask students to delete a sound. For example, and once again using stork as the target word, ask your students to "Say stork without the /s/." The correct response is /tork/. Then ask them to "Say stork without the /k/." The correct response is /stor/.
Sound deletion activities are a great way to build advanced phonemic awareness. They also have the added benefit of being sensitive to some types of reading difficulties. This means that sound deletion tasks can provide clues as to why a child is having a difficult time learning to read and write, and here I am thinking of students who have dyslexia due to phonological processing impairments.
One last thing: if you prefer to use a program, and you are looking for effective, low-cost options, here are three excellent resources:
“No single truth does not mean no truth.” - Iain McGilchrist
It’s the first month of the first year of a new decade and I’m ready to tackle new blog postings. This month I’ll start with thoughts on the truths of reading instruction. In upcoming weeks and months, I’ll post activities, routines, and strategies that flow from these truths.
From Research to Practice
In our modern era, the definition of truth has become increasingly open to debate. Nowadays, there’s a lot of emphasis on personal truth, truth is equated with authenticity. and your truth might not be my truth. In many instances, truth, like beauty, now resides in the eye of the beholder. Historically, however, the word’s definition was rooted in objective facts, observable phenomena, and measurable standards. Because I believe teaching is the melding of art and science, I am going to use truth as defined by facts, phenomena, and agreed upon standards as my starting point.
When viewed in light of reading theory and classroom instruction, Iain McGilchrist’s opening quote on truth speaks to the idea that there are many ways to teach reading and writing, and that no single way of instructing children is best. But the quote is also a reminder that no single best way does not mean no best ways at all. In fact, when it comes to helping children become competent readers, some instructional practices are better than others, and by better I mean more effective.
Reading researchers know a lot about how kids learn to read and write and the theories of reading and writing processes (as well as instruction) developed by researches are increasingly stable and predictive. Here, for example, are two recent statements from well-known literacy experts. Both put a point on what others have been saying for decades:
On the one hand, statements such as these can be helpful because they point to truths about reading instruction. On the other hand, these types of statements provide little insight into what teachers can actually do in a classroom on a Monday morning. A lack of practical classroom activities built on scientific truths may be one reason the field of teaching still isn’t moving large numbers of students to the point of proficient reading (NAEP, 2017). There are other reasons, of course. Societal ills, such as drug abuse, poverty, and a weak social safety net for children, negatively impact student learning in a big way. Also, uninformed or ideological thinking among teachers and professors of education can lead to a dearth of effective instruction. A 2009 study in the Journal of Learning Disabilities found many teacher preparation programs lacked attention to concepts put forth by the National Reading Panel in 2000 . Fast forward seven years and things weren’t much better. Here’s what a 2016 Journal of Childhood & Developmental Disorders article said about one important area of reading and instruction: “Although the Science of Reading provides considerable information with regard to the nature of dyslexia, its evaluation and remediation, there is a history of ignorance, complacency and resistance in colleges of education with regard to disseminating this critical information to pre-service teachers.”
One of my interests is giving teachers instructional practices, rooted in a stable theory of how reading arises in the brain, that lead to lots of learning in phonologic, orthographic, and language comprehension knowledge. These practices include teaching decoding and encoding (sometimes a lot of it) as well as metacognition and meaning (sometimes a lot of it). The parenthetical comments “sometimes a lot of it” are important because I believe reading instruction shouldn’t be balanced at all times for all kids. There are times to focus on one skill set more than another. For example, capable readers who are ready to explore genre, authors’ purpose, and metacognition strategies can be given these and for these children, pattern work and re-reading for fluency will take a back seat. Meanwhile, students still trying to “break the code,” need higher doses of encoding, decoding, and re-reading for fluency. Of course we don’t want to go overboard. Reading is always about meaning, and engaging children’s literature and comprehension activities should always have a seat at the table.
The Components of Reading Success
I think of effective reading instruction, grades K-2, in terms of four basic components. Because each component reinforces the other, the effect that is greater than the sum of the parts, and literacy instruction works best when all are in place.
Each of these components can be taught through any number of techniques, activities, routines, and/or strategies, which I collectively call practices. In upcoming blogs I’ll highlight ones useful for teaching low achieving readers as well as typically achieving ones, effective with young children and older children, and applicable in classroom instruction as well as specialized interventions. Also, none of the practices will be programmatic, which means they can be integrated (to varying degrees) into any number of instructional frameworks, from balanced literacy and Reader’s Workshop to basal reading programs such as Reading Street and Wonders. In my next blog, I’ll start with two ideas for building language comprehension.
Preventing Reading Difficulties
When appropriate instruction and intervention are provided, most students with literacy problems in their early years do not have long-term difficulties. This is wonderful news! If we identify areas of concern early and instruct specifically and effectively, serious reading difficulties might never arise. Some research states that interventions can greatly reduce the number of children with continuing difficulties in reading, perhaps even below 2% (Torgesen, 2003; Vellutino et al., 2000).
So, here’s to 2020 and to looking at instructional practices that provide foundational reading skills and help prevent reading difficulties from occurring. Thank you for joining me in the important action of teaching children to read!
Reading involves identifying letters, mastering sound-letter associations, combining letters into phonic “chunks,” learning word meanings, reading through every word on a page, making connections between text ideas, understanding genre, employing strategies to stay on task, and much more. In other words, reading is complex!
Are there simple ways of entering into the complex world of reading theory? For sure. In earlier blogs, I presented the Eternal Triangle, which describes the foundations of the reading process through three terms: semantics, orthography, and phonology. Amazingly, these terms can be condensed even further.
The Simple View of Reading
The formula that is the Simple View of Reading was put forth more than 30 years ago in a seminal article entitled “Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability.” Then, reading researchers Philip Gugh and William Tunmer proposed the following equation: R = D x C. In other words, “…reading equals the product of decoding and comprehension”
Over time, this elegantly described process of reading has come to be understood in increasingly nuanced ways. Thus, the formula’s terms and definitions have changed a bit. For example, shortly after the National Reading Panel released its report in 2000, Dr. Hollis Scarborough[ii] presented the Simple View of Reading as a braided rope, constructed of two main strands, each consisting of numerous threads. Anchoring her innovate and illuminating graphic is a slightly-tweaked formula: SR = LC x WR. Here SR is skilled reading, LC is language comprehension, and WR is word recognition.
Later, in 2015, David Kilpatrick wrote the Simple View’s equation as R = LC x D, where LC equals linguistic comprehension and D is actually word-level reading[iii]. He then broke down the two variables – linguistic comprehension and word-level reading - into components and sub-components, all of which overlap and interact in complex and interesting ways.
The chart below provides a synthesis and a summary of most, but not all, of the components and subcomponents of the Simple View of Reading according to Scarborough and Kilpatrick. When I look at the chart, I realize the Simple View of Reading is really not so simple! Nonetheless, Scarborough’s and Kilpatrick’s organizational schemes help me in my quest to understand why many children experience varying degrees of difficulty while learning to read.
Because narrowly defined skills influence the development of broader ones, small problems often beget big ones. For example, if a child fails to develop strong phonological skills, especially in the area of phoneme analysis, her ability to map letters onto sounds is diminished. In turn, word-level reading is diminished and this ultimately leads to deficits in reading comprehension. Likewise, if a child lacks knowledge about words (vocabulary knowledge) and the world (background knowledge), her language comprehension is diminished. In the end, this leads to deficits in reading comprehension.
I love the Simple View of Reading for many reasons. First, research has widely supported the ideas inherent in the model. Second, the Simple View reflects the same reading process described by the Eternal Triangle. The two inform one another. Third, the equation is a clean, straightforward way for teachers like me to enter the intricate world of reading theory, including how reading works, how reading can be assessed, and how reading can be instructed. Fourth, the Simple View helps me to quickly conceptualize and organize my classroom reading practices so they prevent reading difficulties from happening in the first place.
To Understand Reading Difficulties, Graph the Simple View
The Simple View of Reading describes the constant interaction between two dynamic processes: language comprehension and word recognition. Graphing the two processes makes this interaction even easier to see. To create a graph, first think of a child. Then think of how much difficulty or ease that child has with each process. This difficulty or ease can be represented as a specific point on each process line. For instance, a point on the far left end of the word recognition line would represent a student who is experiencing great difficulty in decoding. Meanwhile, a point somewhere towards the middle of the line shows a child who finds decoding to be only somewhat difficult (or somewhat easy), and a point on the far right denotes a student who has automatic and effortless word recognition.The same holds true for any child’s position on the language comprehension line.
Next, show the Simple View’s two processes as two perpendicular intersecting lines. Viola! We now have a graph with quadrants of reading variability.
We can use these four quadrants to frame our observations and assessments of any child’s reading behaviors. [iv][v] [vi] Any reader not in the “typical reader” quadrant can be said to have some type of regularly occurring reading difficulty.The figure below shows and defines categories of readers as described by their position in the quadrants.
Of course, assessments helps us to pinpoint a reader on the graph. Information from reading words lists, running records, and oral reading fluency probes give information on word recognition. Assessments that measure vocabulary, metacognition skills, and background knowledge give us information on language comprehension. Plotting a reader as a point on the graph gives a student’s general reading profile or category[vii]. Plotting many students gives a scatter plot that generally describes the make up of a classroom or roster. Below are scatter plots from a hypothetical general education classroom (20 students) and a reading remediation roster (10 students). The second graph shows one student with hyperlexia, three students with dyslexia, two students who are having some difficulty with word recognition, and four students who have deficits (to varying degrees) in both word recognition and language comprehension.
Keep in mind that reading comprehension is strong only when a reader has strength in both variables. Conversely, reading comprehension is always negatively affected by a weakness in either variable. Thus, even though a boy has a high degree of language comprehension, he could still show a low degree of reading comprehension. In this case, a lack of word recognition (decoding) keeps the child from accessing meaning. If you were to read this sentence to this boy – “A volcanic eruption was imminent” – he’d know just what it meant. But if you asked him to read it independently, he would struggle through the words volcanic, eruption, and imminent, and in the end, might have no idea of the sentence’s meaning.
The End Goal
In earlier blog’s, I’ve described the reading process in terms of the Eternal Triangle. This time it’s been The Simple View of Reading. When I think of how the two inform one another, my takeaway is this: successful and happy readers effortlessly recognize words as they read AND exist in a constant state of language comprehension and meaning-making. Conversely, unsuccessful readers have a limited ability to break the code, cannot effortlessly recognize words as they read, and/or lack the skills and knowledge that generate high amounts of language comprehension. So, as a teacher of reading, where do I put my instructional eggs? Into two baskets, of course: practices that help kids “break the code" and promote effortless word recognition, and practices that develop a child’s ability to make meaning and comprehend language while reading.
Reading is a complex process. Many things can go wrong as teachers teach it and learners learn it. Still, reading difficulties can be prevented. One way to accomplish this goal is to employ general classroom instruction that offer all children many opportunities to learn and practice important skills while simultaneously supporting striving readers and writers. In upcoming blogs, I’ll share examples of this type of instruction.
Recently I was talking to an editor, discussing an idea for a teacher resource book. “I think you should include information on what a reading difficulty is,” she said. “Good idea,” I thought. “No problem.” Later, after hours of pouring over articles and studies on reading difficulties, disabilities, and disorders, my thought was, “Yeah, that was easy for you to say!”
Reading, and learning to read, is a difficult for many children. Some experts say up to 20% of our nation’s kids experience reading difficulties. Others, like Dr. Kathryn Drummond, put a number on the problem: “One estimate is that about 10 million children have difficulties learning to read.” Meanwhile, reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that about one-third of America’s fourth graders are reading below a Basic level. According to the NAEP, these children are having a difficult time reading. (Sources below).
The good news is that reading difficulties can be prevented and even overcome. Dr. David Kilpatrick, reading expert and professor of psychology, says research studies indicate that the the number of struggling readers can be reduced by 70-80% or more. Others are even more optimistic. The International Literacy Association, citing the research of Frank Vellutino and Joe Torgesson, asserts that appropriate interventions can “… reduce the number of children with continuing difficulties in reading to below 2% of the population."
But what exactly is a reading difficulty? Who decides how to define them? Are there different types? If yes, what do they look like and what causes them?
Before we consider difficulties in terms of reading behaviors, let’s look at non-reading behaviors, which are also important to note. When you scan your classroom, it’s easy to spot the kids who enjoy reading. They willingly tackle text, independently reading for long periods of time, focusing intently as they read through paragraphs and pages. When they read aloud their fluency is strong. After reading, they happily discuss their thoughts, feelings, and opinions about all they have read. All in all, these children enjoy the act of reading.
Other children are not so involved and contented. They may avoid books. Some don’t want to read in front of their classmates. Others may actively try to avoid the task. Avoidance behaviors include acting silly, asking to go to the bathroom or nurse, or becoming painfully shy.
When it comes to the actual act of reading, as well as spelling and writing, struggling readers exhibit a wide range of behaviors. Each can have a differing degree of severity. The list below, based on the work of Seidenberg, Kilpatrick, and Wolf, gives examples:
Some children show only a few signs of struggle. Others show many. Some students have only mild impairments. Others have severe. For some, reading difficulties are easily corrected and short lived. But other children have problems that are tenacious, long-lasting, and debilitating.
Difficulty vs. disability
Behind each observable reading difficulty is an underlying reading weakness. In other words, there is a reason, or a combination of reasons, why a child makes spelling errors, fails to accurately decode words, cannot remember what was read, fails to read fluently, or doesn’t understand the meaning of the text. Like the behaviors themselves, the reasons for reading difficulties are varied and exist in varying degrees of severity.
Some students may have a reading-related disability or disorder. Often these conditions are rooted in biology. Most, like dyslexia, manifest as a group of specific reading difficulties that are moderate to severe in their impact, persist over time, and are not caused by environmental factors such as economic or environmental disadvantages, a lack of reading instruction, or difficulties speaking and/or understanding the language.
For special education purposes, a struggling reader might be identified with a specific learning disability, an intellectual disability, or a speech-language impairment. Meanwhile, over in the clinical realm, a child might be diagnosed with dyslexia or dysgraphia. Each of these is a specific learning disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association. For example, dyslexia is a learning disorder that is neurodevelopmental in nature and begins at school-age.
To illustrate a reading difficulty severe enough to be labeled a disability, I offer Robert (not his real name). Teachers were concerned about Robert even when he was in kindergarten. He was always a happy child, friendly and outgoing, and he didn’t shy away from reading. But learning to read was chronically difficult for him. He was slow to recall the names of letters. Spelling words using sounds-letter associations was difficult for him, as were generating rhyming words and segmenting the individual sounds of CVC words. In first grade, his progress through the guided reading levels was slow. Because he wasn’t learning through the general classroom instruction, Robert was given instruction in an intervention group twice a week for 25 minutes. By the end of 1st grade, Robert was behind in his reading.
In second grade, Robert received instruction in a co-taught classroom staffed by a general education teacher and a reading specialist. The class size was limited to 16 students. Still, Robert only made 0.3 to 0.5 year’s-worth of growth on various reading assessments.. In third grade, Robert was once again placed in a classroom with low student numbers and two teachers. This time his program included more guided reading, more direct and explicit instruction, more phonics and spelling practice, more guided writing, and a class-wide behavior reinforcement program. Robert made more progress than before (0.8 year’s-worth of growth) but it still wasn’t enough to allow him to reach important reading benchmarks or catch up with other students. At the end of 3rd grade, Robert was referred to the school psychologist who, after giving a battery of assessments, determined he had a specific learning disability.
In contrast with Robert, who had a diagnosed learning disability, I offer my niece Morgan, who graciously gave me the go ahead to write about her. In kindergarten and first grade Morgan was a typically achieving student, neither struggling nor high flying. But her reading took a turn for the worse in 2nd grade. At the beginning of the school year she came down with mononucleosis. For almost seven weeks, she was mostly at home. Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks added to her days out of school. By January, she was experiencing reading difficulties.
Truth be told, Morgan’s school was ill-equipped to help children in her class who were falling behind but weren’t in special education. I know this because I did volunteer work there. Second grade instruction was basal-based, mostly whole group, with lots of workbook assignments. There was a dearth of direct and explicit instruction, little differentiated instruction, and no guided reading. Additionally, non-special ed reading intervention groups met twice a week for 30 minutes, and after subtracting the minutes it took kids to transition, the time left for instruction was more like 20 minutes.
Through January, Morgan fell further behind. At an early-February parent-teacher meeting, Morgan’s mother was shown her daughter’s low reading scores. The homeroom teacher suggested Morgan be assessed for the special education program. Morgan’s mom was dead-set against that option. Instead, she asked me to help.
Before I began tutoring my niece, I listened to her read. It was slow, hesitant and full of errors. Morgan failed to understand portions of the stories she read. She didn’t engage in much self-monitoring or employ meta-cognition strategies. And when I gave her a phonics inventory and spelling inventory, it was obvious she lacked foundational decoding and encoding skills.
Over the next four months, I tutored Morgan two to three times a week for 60 to 75 minutes. She studied phonic patterns, built words with the patterns, and read word lists. She wrote and practiced applying sounds and letters, patterns, and other strategies while spelling. She worked on fluency through repeated readings of passages and I made sure that she looked at every word and read through the entire word using decoding strategies. She read for an extended amount of time in books that were on her independent and instructional levels and we discussed how she could fix up her mistakes, as well as make connections, visualize, and ask and answer questions. And we ended the session with my reading a bit rom a chapter book she had picked.
By early June, Morgan was back on track. I talked to her mom about making sure she read a lot over the summer and Morgan did this. I did a bit of tutoring over the summer, too. Since then, there have been no major problems. Morgan recently told me she has to work extra hard to achieve in school, probably harder than most students, and she’s not much of a recreational reader. Nonetheless, Morgan went on to get her bachelor’s degree. Now she’s working on her master’s degree and pulling a 4.0.
Both Morgan and Robert experienced reading difficulties. Robert’s were severe and long lasting. Morgan’s were not. Both students, however, were helped by specific instructional practices. And in Morgan’s case, specific practices prevented further problems.
All striving readers require instruction that speaks to the underlying causes of the problems. In my next blog I’ll use the Simple View of Reading to go “behind the scenes” and examine the actual causes of many reading difficulties.
You may have heard that “In primary grades, kids learn to read, and in upper grades, kids read to learn.” It’s a cleverly constructed saying, but it’s not true. Children in all grades do both. So, if you’re a middle school teacher focusing on using text to convey information (reading to learn), you can also help your students learn to read.
One practical way to help middle grades students improve their reading skills is to provide direct and explicit spelling instruction. Did you know spelling is for reading? It’s true! Spelling instruction helps students store the correct letter sequences of words in their “brain dictionary.”
Once a word is stored, it is available for reading as well as for writing. To read, children (and adults) make use of the sounds, meanings, and spellings of words resident in their brains. The three elements – sound, meaning, and spelling – interconnect through brain circuits that bring about reading.
Morphology is the fancy word for studying the meaning-making parts of language. Younger children will be exposed to simple letters, like the letter “s,” which in the word forks means more than one. For middle grades students, one logical way to connect spelling to sound and meaning is through syllables, the “chunks” of spoken and written language. Spoken or “audiated” syllables are encoded when students spell words in writing. Conversely, written syllables are decoded into sound during reading.
In the upper grades, syllables often take the form of prefixes, suffixes, and Greek and Latin roots. Middle school kids see them all the time in English, History, Science, and Geography. When you help students understand the meaning of syllables, be they affixes or roots, you connect spelling instruction to reading and vocabulary. Wow – talk about synergistic, powerful teaching!
Common chunks taught by category
What spelling syllables should be taught in middle school? Here are three suggestions. The first two are based on fascinating work done by reading researchers Patrick Manyak, James Baumann, and Ann-Margaret Manyak. The third is featured in my spelling resource book, Super Speller Starter Sets.
Let’s start by considering some prefixes that mean “not.” According to researchers, the prefixes im-, non-, il- and ir- appear frequently in text. So teach them, perhaps grouping them two at a time. Do the same for post, mid, inter, and fore, which are commonly occurring and united by their relationship to position. Treat Greek and Latin roots similarly.
Charts are adapted from Patrick C. Manyak, James F. Baumann, Ann-Margaret Manyak, Morphological Analysis Instruction in the Elementary Grades: Which Morphemes to Teach and How to Teach Them, The Reading Teacher, 72, 3, (289–300), (2018).
Spelling instruction is stronger when it is focused. So consider teaching just three spelling patterns per week, rather than five or six. Spelling instruction is also more powerful when it supports a variety of achievement levels. So, rather than giving the same spelling list to all students, create two lists, thus providing options.
A focused but rich master list, containing many words built from only a few patterns, is a good way to go. I discuss the idea of the master list in my books Super Spellers and Super Speller Starter Sets, and in previous posts on this blog.
Above is a master list of words built from two Latin roots: rupt (break) and struct (build). Because these roots are commonly occurring and thematically related, teach them together. To get at the meaning of words, you’ll have to touch upon the meanings of additional prefixes and suffixes (-tion, un-, de-, in-, con-, dis-), but these won’t be the focus of your instruction. The main focus is word meaning that flows from the roots rupt and struct.
Finally, differentiate your list based on the number and type of syllables in each word. Two-syllable words are less complex than three-syllable words. Likewise, words made from only one or two syllable types are less complex than words made from many syllable types. Here are two spelling lists that vary in complexity
The words in your master spelling list can be used for phonics and vocabulary lessons, too. Here are some activity ideas:
Spelling deserves instructional time
Even in middle school, students are still learning how to read. Because spelling is for reading (as well as writing), spelling is an important part of the instructional day. When you find it difficult to find enough time to teach everything, think of how spelling, vocabulary, and reading overlap. By conceptualizing spelling instruction as a way to also teach decoding and vocabulary, you can be both efficient and effective.
This blog post first appeared as an article published in MiddleWeb (07/09/2019)
To more effectively build students' foundational reading skills, help children build a storehouse of words in their brain, and teach this basic body of store-able words in in a way that is different than traditional "sight word" instruction.
Over the last three years, as I have read the research and writing of Linnea Ehri, Mark Seidenberg, and Maryanne Wolf, I often found myself reflecting upon how words are really learned and read, and how the sight word instruction I gave to my reading impaired third graders and developmentally-typical kindergarten children was, at times, inappropriate and ineffective. In March of 2018, I wrote a blog titled “No More Sight Words.” Then, just this month during a spelling presentation and in an email response to a teacher, I found myself once again discussing sight word instruction. So I thought it appropriate for me to devote this month’s blog to the body of words that many call “sight words” and a few call “early automatic reading vocabulary words” (Rawlins & Invernezzi, 2019). But my preferred term is brain words, a term coined by Richard Gentry and Gene Ouellette in their book Brain Words: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).
I prefer the term brain words because I want to move away from the term “sight words," its associated meaning, and its associated method of word instruction: presenting high-frequency and “irregular” words on cards, four to five at a time, using instruction routines that force kids to rely solely on sight to move the words into long-term memory.
I’m using quotes around “sight words” and “irregular" because as we will soon see, words such as when, said, all, and some aren’t solely learned through sight, nor are they outrageously difficult to decode (and thus they are not truly irregular). The term brain words more accurately reflects how foundational reading is brought about by the workings of our brain, which encodes words in the dictionary of the mind, and best-practice instruction that presents highly-usable words in activities that connect meaning, pronunciation, and spelling. Here’s what Gentry and Ouellette have to say about words and instruction: “Teaching students to read [is] about fostering developmental changes within each student’s brain that lead to improved reading. The missing piece of effective reading instruction enables the brain to become specialized for reading so that it can store brain-based spelling representations. This process is called orthographic learning, and the resulting brain-based representations are what we call brain words” (p. 3).
As I have discussed in previous posts, Mark Seidenberg’s Eternal Triangle is my go-to model for understanding the foundational workings of the reading brain. The three points of his amazing triangle are sound, spelling, and meaning (or phonology, orthography, and semantics). When we consider the triangle in light of Linnea Ehri,'s research, we know that fluent word reading occurs when children immediately pronounce and understand the words they see. These instantly recognizable words are read from memory, with no need to sound them out (Ehri, 2005, 2014). In other words, they are brain words.
All words recognized automatically are brain words. A brain word is stored in the brain’s dictionary, ready for instant use in reading (or writing) whenever it is seen on a list or in a sentence. It can, of course, be found on the Dolch list and the Fry list, but it can also be found on a word wall, in a picture book, on a spelling or phonic list, and in early chapter books found in your classroom library.
Linnea Ehri’s research illuminates how words are stored in the brain through repeated opportunities to engage in a process that involves decoding (turning letters into sounds) AND attaching a meaning to the combined sounds. Unfortunately, some teachers try to get children to store words in their brain dictionary through instruction that looks and sounds like this:
A week later the teacher presents five more words in the same manner. Then, a week after that, five more are given. At the end of the month, the teacher pulls the students aside, one at a time, and tests each child on the twenty words. What does she typically find? After four weeks of instruction, a few kids know most of the twenty, some know ten or twelve, some know only five, and one has failed to store any words.
Presenting high-frequency words on cards to children and drilling them in a sight-based routine is something of a tradition in schools. Now, I am not necessarily knocking tradition. Traditions preserve history, foster togetherness, provide comfort, and build strength in a community or family. But some traditions hold us back and shield us from the truth. The traditional word instruction routine described above falls into the latter category. It is a practice that results in too little learning over too much time, it ignores the neuro-scientific truth of the reading process, and when students fail to master the 100, 200, or even 500 words their teachers are trying to cram into their heads, it causes worry and stress in the kids and their parents.
The “learn it strictly by sight” method is problematic because it doesn’t make use of the way a human brain actually encodes written information. The human brain is a pattern recognition machine and a meaning making machine, and at its most foundational level it reads words through a seamless process of connecting sound, spelling, and meaning. This means that to efficiently and effectively teach children brain words - words that are instantly pronounced and understood when they are seen - we need instructional routines that:
For example, the word ME is best taught by teaching a child to recognize the letters M and E, associating the sounds /m/ and /e/ with the letters, building the word from letter tiles or blocks, presenting the word ME in association with other similarly patterned words (such as BE, WE, SHE, and HE, as in the "Keys of e" shown below), reading the word in books, and writing the word in sentences such as “Look at me” or “My mom wants me to go to bed.”
Many, if not most, high-frequency words contain highly mappable (phonetically regular) letter-sound associations. These associations often appear in analogous words that demonstrate the same pattern. Thus, most “irregular words” aren’t very irregular! One truly irregular word is OF. It has no analogies and thus no mappable sounds. But many other words, such as put and said have highly regular consonant pronunciations -it is only the vowels that are out of the ordinary. And so, a teacher can point out that the P and T in put is the same as the P and T in pot, pit, pat, and pet, just as the S and D in said is the same as the S and D in sad, sled, and slid. And most words on the Fry and Dolch lists, such as in, that, it, just, him, ask and day, contain totally predictable patterns found in many analogous words (like spin, cat, little, must, rim, little, and say).
One last thing: teachers miss the boat when they concentrate too much on brain words that convey little meaning. These are the words of Fry’s First 100 Words, words like the, was, have, are, for and from. Rawlins and Invernezzi remind us that the research of Ehri (and others) has repeatedly shown that children learn concrete nouns, adjectives, and action verbs more readily than articles and prepositions. This means it makes more sense to emphasize words such as these: food, woman, water, people, run, play, happy, and big. These are the words we want to teach to the point of becoming brain words, for once children have a repository of brain words, they are ready for guided and independent reading and writing.
In their excellent Reading Teacher article Reconceptualizing Sight Words (May/June, 2019), Amanda Rawlins and Marcia Invernezzi offer five helpful assertions that speak to word learning and teaching early readers (and I would add struggling readers). They are:
In conclusion, I encourage you to talk to parents and other teachers about how children best learn words and I challenge you to swap out the term "sight word" for the term brain word. And keep your eyes on the prize: promoting lots and lots of real world language comprehension and extended reading in school and at home. As Gentry and Ouellette say in Brain Words: “The more you read and study and experience life, the more words you add to that dictionary in your brain.” (p. 4).
Articles and Books Cited and Referenced
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.