As one parent said, “He wasn’t in kindergarten last year, and now they're demanding that he start reading.”
As I explained in an earlier blog post, “redoing” a grade is not a good idea. Instead, what we need to do is reteach the material that was missed.
For More Information: Should Children “Redo” a Year Because of the Pandemic?
Schools should also not simply skip over a year and think that students will figure it out as they go along. No, schools must reteach.
So, the question then is: What is the best way to reteach in order to bring students back up to where they should be in school?
If we use better teaching methods in the classroom, we can bring children up one to two to three grade levels in only a few months. At my reading clinic, I had two struggling students move up two grade levels in reading after only 48 hours of instruction.
Yes, we can correct the educational problems that were created by the coronavirus pandemic. We just need to use the correct teaching methods. Phonics and whole language are not the correct teaching methods for struggling at-risk students.
For More Information: Reading Wars are Over! Phonics Failed. Whole Language Failed. Balanced Literacy Failed. Who Won? It Certainly Wasn’t the Students.
Phonics and Whole Language Were Failing Before the Pandemic
Dr. Jeffrey S. Bowers, professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Psychological Science, Bristol Neuroscience states that we cannot expect phonics, whole language, or balanced literacy to help struggling students learn how to read. In his research, he explains how these methods have been proven not to work with struggling students.
Therefore, just placing children back in the classroom, with or without masks, will not automatically teach them to read. While we are teaching children to wash their hands (Yes, I think teaching children to wash their hands is important. Wearing masks is important, too), we also need to change how we teach children to read.
What Bowers and others are saying is that you can not blame the pandemic or the students. This problem existed long before COVID-19.
Gerald Hughes, Director of the Neuro-Linguistic Learning Center, explains in his book, Gifted--Not Broken: Overcoming Dyslexia, ADD and Other Learning Challenges, states that long-standing research shows that phonics programs have little benefit:
“20% of all children will show little or no lasting improvement in reading ability using phonics-based programs….using a phonics-based program on this particular group of children, is more than likely doomed to failure because it is focused on the very weaknesses of the child. Experience has repeatedly shown that when subjected to an extensive phonics-based program, many of these children will experience frustration, anger and ultimately continued failure.”
So, what we are saying is that schools are using an ineffective teaching method that fails students, and then blames those students for failing.
For More Information: Is Teaching Decoding and Encoding A Form of Phonics? No!
What Should Kindergarteners Be Learning?
Back to the plea for help from the parent of a first grader who is being pushed into reading without the benefit of kindergarten. No, the answer is not to send the child back to kindergarten. The answer is also not to push the child straight into reading.
The answer is to teach the child to work with letter sounds. Then, and only then, will the child be ready to learn to read.
Learn The Alphabet: Capitals and Lower-Case Letters
First, start by making sure the child understands the alphabet letters, both capitals and lower-case letters. By understanding, I mean that the child is able to do more than just sing the alphabet song. I love the alphabet song, but it will not teach children how to read.
Four- and five-year-olds should be working on consonant letter sounds instead of trying to learn to read. Some children naturally read at four and five years of age, and that’s fine. What I am saying is, do not push reading too early.
Teach consonant sounds first. Memorizing a word list will not teach children how to read. Teaching children to work with letter sounds and to understand the sounds that letters represent is the path to successful reading. If your school is sending home a list of words for your child to memorize each week, tell them they are doing it wrong. That is not the way to teach children to read.
To succeed in the classroom, students need to go beyond just recognizing that letters represent sounds. They need to learn how to work with letter sounds.
Letters in the English alphabet have both a LETTER NAME and a LETTER SOUND. In order to read, write, and understand English, children must learn both the letter name and the letter sound. For example, when we spell a word, we use the letter name. When we read, even when we read silently, we use letter sounds, saying only the sound each letter represents. It is important that you teach children how to say the letter sound correctly. Remember, we are training the brain, so we want to train the brain to hear and identify the letter sound correctly. My reading clinic also uses auditory, visual, and hands-on teaching techniques for helping children learn tricky letter sounds.
Handwriting Is Essential
Handwriting and reading are connected, so, if you want to teach a child to read, you must also teach a child to write. Improving a child’s handwriting is one of the first steps in helping a child learn to read.
The way a child writes or shapes letters is very important. Researchers Karin James and Laura Engelhardt conducted neurological research that showed the benefit of teaching children to correctly shape letters when they write. Improved handwriting is the pathway to better reading.
Neurological research also shows that typing on a computer does not give the same benefit that handwriting does. If you want to teach your child to read, first, teach your child how to write and shape the alphabet letters correctly.
For More Information: Correct Handwriting Helps Children Learn to Read
Why Should Students Spend Time Building Words?
Teaching the alphabet and handwriting are just the beginning. Kindergartners should also learn how to build words from letter sounds.
The concept of building words is a better teaching method because, as Dr. Nadine Gaab from the Children’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School, explains, students must learn how to “map” oral sounds to written letters.
Dr. Gaab goes on to explain that relating letter sounds to written language is one of the essential elements required before a child can learn to read. Preschool children, early readers, and even adults have shown positive improvement in reading skills upon receiving training in letter-sound relationships. A research team from the McGovern Institute for Brain Research also stated that the sound structure of spoken words must be “mapped” onto the letters of the alphabet before children can learn to read
“Sound training,” as Dr. Gaab explains, is the first step in learning to read.
Children automatically learn a spoken language just by listening to their parents speak, but children do not learn to read just by listening to someone else read. Children must learn and understand letter-sound relationships so that they can “map” or relate the oral sounds of spoken language to the corresponding printed letters that represent those sounds
This is one of the reasons why vowel clustering is so much more successful with at-risk readers than phonics. Phonics does not teach students to build words. All children need to learn about letter-sound relationships, but for children who struggle, letter-sound relationship training is essential. Vowel clustering provides this letter-sound training by teaching students to build words.
How Does Vowel Clustering Teach Building Words?
Remember, letters represent sounds. For learning the sounds, we mostly use the lowercase letters. Do not let your students substitute capital letters into the words. When students substitute a capital letter in the middle of a word, it usually means that they do not know the lower-case letter. Teach lower-case letters. We also know that vowels are one of the key factors in how a word is pronounced, so we want to teach letter sounds in relationship to vowels. Building words with a common vowel sound helps students visualize how words are formed.
When I teach vowel clustering, I teach students to build words, such as with the sound at. Students start with: at, bat, cat…. Then they change to: an, can, fan…. Also use ap for cap, map, …. We begin teaching letter-sound relationships with simple one syllable words. The main rule for word building by sound is that the vowel sound stays constant--does not change. For example, building words with the short a vowel sound would mean that you cannot insert such words as able, cake, car…. Yes, these words use the letter a, but they use different sounds for the letter a. Remember, there are seven sounds for the letter a and 22 different ways to make those sounds. In word building by sound, you teach one sound at a time.
Do not fall into the trap of teaching letter sounds with multiple vowels or by focusing on the first letter in the word. This is often done in school. It is wrong. The dictionary arranges words in alphabetical order based on the beginning letter, but the brain does not. Do not try to teach: ball, bell, big, bog, bug. At-risk students will be totally confused because this is not how the brain organizes letter sounds.
The brain focuses on the vowel sound in the word. Therefore, we need to teach children to read by focusing on common vowel sounds: at, cat, fat, hat, mat…. If we teach using the organizational structure that the brain uses, it makes it easier for at-risk students to learn. This is what vowel clustering does.
For More Information: Grade Retention Doesn't Work; Better Teaching Methods Work
Students must see, indeed, visualize, how words change in spelling, pronunciation, and in meaning while they are working with very simple words. The process of writing and correctly shaping letters on a manuscript page helps students accurately identify letters in words as they read
Teach letter sound relationships and basic spelling one sound at a time, particularly with the vowel sounds, because we are training the brain. Spelling and handwriting should always be taught at the same time as reading. When you have students build words by sound, have the student read the words on their word list. Then, call out each word and have the student spell each word on their list. Make sure the student knows the definition for each word and can orally use the word in a sentence. When the student writes, make sure that the student is shaping all letters correctly. Words or letters sprawled across an unlined page do not count as handwriting.
When we are building words by sound, the vowel sound stays the same even though the consonant sounds are changing. You want the student to learn to work with words, changing letters to make new words, but you do not want the student to memorize a word list. Memorizing is the wrong way to teach. Instead, we want to train the brain to recognize letter-sound combinations.
Will My Child Ever Catch up from the Pandemic?
Yes, we can teach at-risk students to read. Neuroimaging studies show that students who have failed for multiple years can be taught to read. Even students who fell behind during the pandemic can be brought back up to their age-level in reading.
My own work with vowel clustering demonstrates that students who have failed for multiple years can definitely be taught to read.
- A student diagnosed with ADHD and failing in reading moved up two grade levels in one year.
- One student started at the pre-primer level (pre-K) and ended the year at the third-grade reading level.
- A second grader started the year reading below first grade and ended at the fourth-grade level.
Don’t let your child’s education suffer from the coronavirus pandemic. Insist that your school teach using methods that have been proven to work. It’s time for a change.
For More Information:
After-School Programming and Intrinsic Motivation: Teaching at-Risk Students to Read examines the eight-year development of the Reading Orienteering Club after-school program, showing how to develop, test, change, and adapt an after-school program to fit the needs of the children who attend.