Teaching the Schwa Sound in Unaccented SyllablesSchwa is one of those phonics concepts that can be really confusing to students as they learn to decode longer, multi-syllable words. The schwa sound is the most common vowel sound in the English language, accounting for 20% of all vowel sounds (Yule, 1996), and it often is the cause of spelling mistakes. The schwa sound is formed with a neutral mouth position, and it replaces a vowel sound in the unaccented syllables of multi-syllable words. It is sometimes called the “lazy” vowel.
Pre-K Literacy InstructionKeys to Literacy recently introduced a new professional development program titled Keys to Emergent Literacy for Pre-K educators which caused me to review resources related to preschool literacy instruction. A short piece in Psychology Today titled "5 Science-Based Tips for Promoting Literacy in Preschool" (Gentry, 2020) reminded me of the importance of providing developmentally appropriate and research-based literacy instruction to preschoolers.
What is Structured Literacy instruction?Keys to Literacy recently launched our new "Understanding Dyslexia" online course, and one of the major topics in the course is the importance of using a structured literacy approach to teaching reading to students with dyslexia. Structured literacy is a comprehensive approach to literacy instruction that research shows is effective for all students and essential for students who have difficulty with reading. This approach addresses all the foundational elements that are critical for reading comprehension. It is characterized by the provision of systematic, explicit instruction that integrates listening, speaking, reading, and writing. It includes instruction for multiple levels of language.
Reading Intervention for Older Struggling StudentsIn the last few months I have seen a growing interest in adolescent literacy. This includes content literacy instruction for all students that is integrated across subject areas, as well as intervention instruction for older students who struggle with reading and writing. Between 2005 and 2015, a number of adolescent literacy research reports were published based on meta-analyses of research on effective practices for teaching reading and writing to older students, and the website AdLit.org was also launched (see the reference list).
Phoneme & Letter-Sound LaddersOne of the most well-established findings in beginning reading research is the relationship between phonemic awareness and reading acquisition. Phonics is the system by which symbols (i.e., letters, also called graphemes) represent sounds (i.e., phonemes) in an alphabetic system like English. Some sounds are represented by just a single letter (e.g., b for /b/ as in tub) while some sounds are represented by two or more letters (e.g., bb for /b/ as in rubber). In order to learn this phonics system where "print maps to speech" students rely on their phonemic awareness ability to isolate, blend and segment sounds as they learn which letters/graphemes represent those speech sounds. This is why, of all the phonological awareness tasks, phonemic awareness is most closely associated with phonics and learning to read. One activity that can support both phonemic awareness and learning letter-sound correspondences is Word Ladders, sometimes called Word Chains.
What is adolescent literacy?Ever since the report of the National Reading Panel in 2000, significant emphasis has been placed on research-based practices for teaching reading in the elementary grades. Early literacy achievement, however, is not necessarily a guarantee that literacy skills will continue to grow as students move beyond grade 3. Scores at the secondary level, where there has been relatively little investment by school districts or states, have remained flat. A growing body of research has developed about what students beyond grade 3 need in order to keep growing their reading and writing skills, why some struggle, and what effective instruction looks like, beginning with two seminal research reports: Reading Next (2004) and Writing Next (2007).
High Frequency Sight WordsEducators sometimes confuse the following related terms: sight words, high frequency words, decodable words, irregular words. Sight words are words that are instantly recognized and identified without conscious effort. High frequency words are the words most commonly used in the English language. Because high frequency words are essential to learning how to read, teachers should begin to teach some high frequency words as sight words to children in primary grades at the same time children are being taught how to use phonics to decode words. Teachers introduce these words as soon as kindergarten if their students are ready.
Semantic Mapping to Grow VocabularyKnowledge helps you remember new information, and people who know a great deal about a topic also know its vocabulary. One critical finding from research is that word learning takes place most efficiently when the reader or listener already understands the context well. In fact, we learn words up to four times faster in a familiar context than in an unfamiliar one (Landauer & Dumais, 1997; Hirsch, 2006). Vocabulary instruction that compares and contrasts word meanings and that activates prior knowledge not only helps students learn new words, but also has been shown to improve comprehension of a reading selection (Graves, 2006). Therefore, an important goal of instruction in any subject grade, in any grade, should be to help students acquire the vocabulary associated with the content and to make connections between known and unknown words.
Teaching Literacy Skills VirtuallyDuring this unprecedented 2020 to 2021 school year educators, students and parents across the country are struggling to adjust to ever-changing instructional models that combine in-person teaching, virtual online instruction, and asynchronous online learning. The numbers of students prior to the pandemic who had difficulty developing grade-level reading and writing skills was already too high, and the disruption to teaching and learning will only make things worse. Reading and writing skills are the foundation of all learning, so we must do the best we can to teach students of all grades the literacy skills they will need to be able to access the content in all subjects that they are missing because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I have met and heard about so many dedicated literacy educators and organizations who are meeting the challenge by developing resources to teach literacy skills virtually. This month's post will focus on resources for teaching reading and writing virtually.
Understanding DyslexiaOctober is Dyslexia Awareness Month, so I decided to focus this post on providing information and resources related to teaching reading to students with dyslexia. I first learned about dyslexia at the start of my teaching career in the mid-1970's when I started teaching at the Landmark School in Massachusetts. At that time, Landmark was a pioneer in the field of learning disabilities and dyslexia, serving over 400 students of all ages each year. The first thing I learned is that even though dyslexia poses challenges to students, it can also be seen a gift. I say this because, while it may be difficult for many dyslexics to learn to read and write, the same neurobiological factors that cause dyslexia also cause many dyslexics to be extraordinarily bright and gifted in many other areas.
What are Cohesive Devices and how do they affect comprehension?I was recently developing some PowerPoints and activities for a comprehension training session about the role that text structure plays in reading comprehension. One of the related topics that is unfamiliar to many teachers was Cohesive Devices (sometimes called Cohesive Ties, and also known as anaphors). I thought I'd devote this post to explaining cohesive ties and how they might affect reading comprehension, especially for younger students or English language learners.
The Power of Transition WordsWhat are transition words and phrases? Sometimes called linking words, transitions connect sentences, paragraphs and sections of text. They also allow us to connect ideas when we speak. Instruction about transitions supports student reading and writing. When students are aware of transitions while reading, they provide powerful clues to support comprehension. When students include transitions when writing, the message and ideas they want to convey are clear and organized.
Syntactic Awareness: Teaching Sentence Structure Part 2I posted part 1 of Syntactic Awareness on June 2. As noted in that post, the ability to understand at the sentence level is in many ways the foundation for being able to comprehend text. The ways in which authors express their ideas through sentences greatly affects a reader’s ability to access and identify those ideas. Sentences that are complex, contain a large number of ideas (also called propositions), or have unusual word order will make it difficulty for students to comprehend what they are reading, especially students who enter school with limited oral language exposure or for whom English is a second language. Developing sentence skills is also essential to becoming a good writer.
Literacy and Equity in EducationHaving solid reading and writing skills is at the heart of student achievement and therefore must be part of the solution to achieving greater equity in the United States. As Suzanne Carreker points out, "With literacy comes academic success, informed decision-making, improved self-esteem, personal empowerment, greater economic opportunities, and active participation in local and global social communities. Ultimately, it is the gateway to lifelong learning... Without equity in literacy education, achievement gaps will persist and too many students will not reap literacy's innumerable benefits." Unfortunately, too many students do not have access to quality literacy instruction. As the recent publication of the AFT's American Educator devoted to reading instruction notes, "Today, about 20 percent of elementary students across the country struggle with learning to read, and another 20 percent are not meeting grade-level expectations in reading. But these nationwide averages mask a tragedy: among students growing up in under-resourced communities -- mainly African American and Hispanic students and students whose home language is not English -- about 60 to 70 percent have weak reading skills." (p. 3)
Syntactic Awareness: Teaching Sentence Structure (Part 1)The ability to understand at the sentence level is in many ways the foundation for being able to comprehend text. The ways in which authors express their ideas through sentences greatly affects a reader's ability to access and identify those ideas. Sentences that are complex, contain a large number of ideas (also called propositions), or have unusual word order will make it difficulty for students to comprehend what they are reading, especially students who enter school with limited oral language exposure or for whom English is a second language.
The Role of Orthographic Mapping in Learning to ReadEvery word has three forms – its sounds (phonemes), its orthography (spelling), and its meaning. Orthographic mapping is the process that all successful readers use to become fluent readers. Through orthographic mapping, students use the oral language processing part of their brain to map (connect) the sounds of words they already know (the phonemes) to the letters in a word (the spellings). They then permanently store the connected sounds and letters of words (along with their meaning) as instantly recognizable words, described as “sight vocabulary” or “sight words”.
How the Brain Learns to ReadReading is a relatively new cultural development. While there were some people who could read dating back to the invention of writing during the 4th millennium BC, it was not until after the Industrial Revolution in the 1800’s that large numbers of the population in many countries learned to read. The human brain did not evolve to be able to read the way it did for spoken language. In order to read, the brain has to learn to re-purpose brain functions that were developed over thousands of years for other, more basic needs.
How Parents Can Support Their Children During School ShutdownsGiven the stress that educators, students, and their parents are under because of the current national health crisis, I thought it would be helpful to share this post written by one of our Keys to Literacy trainers, Noel Foy. She is also a neuroeducational consultant. As you step in and support your child’s learning, a certain amount of stress is to be expected. Your child’s well being is a priority, and so is yours. Since parents don’t leave the hospital with their newborns and a parent toolbox in tow, allow me to equip you with a crash course of information, tips, and strategies about the science of learning and managing stress. If there was ever a need for a parent toolkit, it’s now.
Systematic Phonics Scope and SequenceSystematic phonics instruction follows a sequential and planned set of phonics elements that gradually builds from base elements to more subtle and complex structures. Teachers follow a scope and sequence, as opposed to implicit phonics instruction that addresses phonics as it comes up in text. While there is no universally agreed upon scope and sequence, any logically ordered sequence begins with the most basic phonics concepts and progresses to more difficult concepts, with new learning building on prior knowledge (Carreker, 2011). Sequences vary somewhat among phonics programs. If teachers are using an explicit, systematic phonics program it is best to follow its sequence for the order of teaching. If this is not the case, or if the program is not systematic enough, Keys to Literacy has developed a "generic" scope and sequence.
Levels of Language & LiteracyQuestion: What role does knowledge of language play in reading and writing? Answer: A huge role! Teachers tend to focus on the “five components of reading” when thinking about what’s needed to teach students to be good readers (i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension). But there is another model that should be considered: the seven levels of language.
Science of Reading in the NewsAs the number of articles, podcasts and blog posts related to the science of reading grows, I've been updating a list I started for our Keys to Literacy trainers to share. We have been getting so many requests about the list, that I decided to make it the focus of this post.
We Need a “Writing Rope”!The literature and discourse related to literacy instruction tends to focus on reading, even though writing is just as important for student literacy achievement. In addition, significant attention is paid to the multi component nature of skilled reading, while writing tends to be referred to as a single, monolithic skill. With a nod towards Hollis Scarborough’s “Reading Rope”, in 2019 I developed a model that identifies the multiple components that are necessary for skilled writing: The Writing Rope: The Strands That Are Woven Into Skilled Writing. In 2001, Scarborough published a graphic that depicts multiple components of language comprehension (i.e., background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, literacy knowledge) and word recognition (i.e., phonological awareness, decoding, sight recognition) as strands in a rope. As students develop skills in these components they become increasingly strategic and automatic in their application, leading to fluent reading comprehension.
Previewing Vocabulary Before ReadingExisting background knowledge is a critical component for comprehension, and word meanings are part of larger knowledge structures about a topic. Knowing the vocabulary words associated with a given topic enables students to connect their background knowledge to what they are reading. What if students aren't unfamiliar with some of the vocabulary in the text? Many studies have shown that previewing unfamiliar words before students read improves comprehension.
We Need to Pay Attention to the Science of Reading!
The scientific evidence base on how we learn to read and how to best teach reading has been growing and converging over 40 years. This includes brain imaging studies that show how our brains learn to read and underlying causes of why some students have difficulty learning read.
Sadly, teachers often do not have access to this evidence base. Many teachers report that their preservice education in college did little to prepare them for teaching reading. Many veteran teachers report a lack of quality professional development once hired that could help them improve their reading instruction. And for too long, the reading wars have confused teachers and administrators. These wars started in the 1990's when whole language advocates succeeded in convincing too many schools that learning to read comes naturally without the need for explicit instruction in decoding skills. Even today, there are many reading "experts" that say they promote a "balanced" approach to beginning instruction, but what that actually represents is a little bit of incidental phonics thrown in on top of the same approaches to reading instruction that have not worked for the past 25 years. The latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card, were just released—and things aren't looking good for the country's young readers.