Retention (repeating a grade) does not work, neither does social promotion (simply moving a student on to the next grade). For a more complete discussion on why retention does not work for failing students, see my article in The Group Psychologist.
We know that one of the main causes for reading failure is the method used in the classroom to teach students to read. Whole language teaching methods, even when combined with phonics, simply do not work (see my blog on 1-21-19).
If we use the correct teaching methods, neuroimaging research proves that even children who have previously failed can be taught to read. Neuroimaging research shows that intensive training in phonemes (letter sounds) changes the “brain and the way it functions.” This change allows even struggling at-risk students to make significant improvement in reading (Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008).
As Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015 explain, “teaching students to sound out ‘C-A-T’ sparks more optimal brain circuitry than instructing them to memorize the word ‘cat.’” They conclude that “different instructional approaches to the same material may impact changes in brain circuitry.”
I still think Dr. Sally Shaywitz (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003) explains the problem best, “Children do not learn to read by memorizing a word list. Most children, especially those who struggle in reading, do not learn to read by memorizing phonics rules” (p. 78). Therefore, the first thing a parent must do is seek a new teaching method for their child. Merely repeating a grade will not necessarily teach the material to the child. A new teaching approach should be instituted. This may be tutoring, an afterschool program, or one-on-one with the parent at home. I use vowel clustering. We have had students move up four grade levels in one year in reading using vowel clustering.
In this, the fifth in our series on vowel clustering, I want to speak directly to the parent of the first grader. Yet, the suggestions that I offer apply to every single student of any age who is struggling in reading. I taught a 15-year-old to read who had failed for nine straight years. I used these same vowel clustering principles. Must start at the very beginning with all students, regardless of their age. If the student is failing or struggling, completely reteach.
Make sure that the student knows and understands the sounds for all alphabet letters. We often think that students know their alphabet. In the classroom, the capital alphabet letters are taught side-by-side with the lowercase alphabet letters. Many children do not learn the lowercase alphabet letters. We read primarily with lowercase letters; therefore, when students encounter these lowercase letters in words and stories, they are confused and lost. Separate the capital and lowercase letters. Have your student practice capital and lowercase letters separately. Also, do not always practice alphabet letters in alphabetical order. Mix the letters up. Practice the sounds for each letter both with the capital letters and with the lowercase letters. For the vowel sounds: A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y, teach each vowel separately. Since the vowels have numerous sounds, practice only the letter name at first.
In phonics, they teach the short vowel sound for each vowel. No. It is much better to teach just the letter sound. For example, the letter a says its name A. Explain that there are seven different sounds for the letter a, but we will begin by just learning the letter name for the vowel. In this way, you let the child know that vowels have many sounds, not just a long and a short sound.
Practice handwriting. Handwriting and reading are connected. If the brain cannot recognize the words that a student writes, the brain is not going to learn the words. Dr. Shaywitz (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003) explains that handwriting is one of the critical steps in “rewiring the brain.” Instead of “rewiring,” I call it retraining the brain. Therefore, improving a student’s handwriting is one of the first steps in helping a student learn to read. It is not enough to just be able to sing the alphabet song. The student must be able to identify and say the name of each alphabet letter. Then, the student must be able to write the letters correctly.
Once your student is familiar with identifying and writing capital and lowercase letters, you are ready to begin teaching vowel sounds. Vowel clustering recognizes that vowels are the most important sounds for children learning to read and teaches all of the sounds for a vowel in a cluster. With the letter a, the children learn all seven sounds used by letter a and the 22 different letter combinations that can be used to make those seven sounds. The traditional phonics approach was to teach the short vowel sounds and then the long vowel sounds using silent e. The other sounds were called “irregular sounds,” but irregular vowel sounds cause children the most confusion. Teaching vowels in clusters teaches children to learn all of the sounds for each vowel in an organized pattern. It’s easier and less confusing, and it works directly with how the brain assimilates and organizes letter sounds—connecting synapses and building pathways. Vowel clustering simply means to teach words by sounds rather than by letters.
The next question is, how do we teach students vowel sounds? Vowel clustering teaches all the vowel sounds in clusters. Remember, there are seven different sounds for the letter a, and the long a sound is just one of those seven sounds. The long a vowel sound can use: ea, ai, ay, ei, ey, eigh, and silent e. Of course, the letter a can also make the long a vowel sound when it stands alone, as with the word apron. So, if you are only introducing students to the long a sound through silent e, you have created a problem and confused struggling students, especially when you come along later and introduce irregular vowel sounds. Irregular vowel sounds that are thrown in later is how most students get lost while learning vowels. This is also one of the main reasons that phonics fails with at-risk students.
Reading, spelling, and writing (creating sentences or a paragraph or more) are all interconnected in the brain. They should all be taught, starting in kindergarten and throughout school. If a teacher uses vowel clustering, a beginning student can learn to read, spell, and write a vowel-clustered sentence. Vowel clustering teaches students to work with letter sounds.
For example: While teaching the short a vowel sound on the first day of class, you can teach students to combine the word at with various consonants and spell a list of words by just using at. Examples would be: at, bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat, and vat. Children can practice pronouncing, spelling, and writing these words. Then, you might ask the children to write a story. Tell them they are only allowed to use at words. You'll need to allow the and a just to make sentences complete.
Example: The cat sat at a mat. A fat rat sat at a hat. The cat spat at the rat.
The children can then add to this story when they learn an. They might add:
The rat ran. The cat ran at the rat. The rat ran faster.
Young children do not need long, complicated sentences. They do need to learn vowel sounds. Learn one vowel sound at a time. Start with a. Do not go on to the next vowel sound until the child has learned all seven sounds for the letter a.