Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Don't Forget to Talk About the Books!

I might be exaggerating a tad, but we seem to be facing a national epidemic of children who can read lots of words and really hard books, but are not thinking about or engaging with their books at all.
It's not enough to be able to say the words.
It's not enough to be able to recall everything the happened in the book.
It's not enough to do some basic inferring (his brother pushed him so I infer that he is upset).
Children have to learn to read with an understanding that authors often communicate information to us without stating it clearly in the words. Furthermore, they need to read with... here comes some educational jargon... responsive and evaluative comprehension.
Let me translate:
Responsive. Listen to your internal mind-voice next time you read something. Or now, since you are reading something right now. Is it talking to you? Is it asking questions about what I might be trying to say? Is it making connections between something I'm saying and something you already knew? Or something you heard somewhere else? Is it thinking about how it talks to you when you read other things, like great fiction or political news? Is it wondering where I'm going with this line of thinking? That voice (Maria Nichols, author of Comprehension Through Conversation, from Heinemann Publishers), refers to this as the raging conversation in the mind. Active minds are busy when we read. This is the source of reading response. NOT, read a chapter and write a summary, like I was taught. In order to help children discover where their own voices and thoughts fit into the reading experience, we need to talk to them a lot about what they are reading and about what you read to or with them. Don't stop reading to or with them just because they seem to have learned how to read, because they'll be learning how to think while they read for a long time still. And don't be afraid to stop from time to time and air your thoughts:
  • Why did he just do that?
  • Ooooh, I wonder how this is going to turn out.
  • Hmmm, I used to think this kid was kind of a pain, but now I see he can be nice, too.
  • This is a big problem. What should she do to fix it?
  • Anything else that is naturally coming up.
Evaluative. This can be as simple as saying whether or not you like something, and why (or why not). Over time, this includes things like listening for a writer's angle (is she trying to make me more conscious of how I treat my friends?), fantasy vs. reality, character development, how much or little empathy a reader has for a character, whether you like, or agree with , how everything turned out, or any other way you might be practicing a little independent thinking. Even the youngest readers are entitled to have opinions! Sometimes we start by asking them what books they love and why. We might also ask them what they think is the most important page or part of a book, and why. With books that have stories (with a problem and solution structure) we might ask if and how the character changed, and if they think it was for the better.
Bottom line- Don't just read books, talk about them.
Don't just talk about what literally happened, talk about what the author might be saying that's NOT in the words. And no matter what, always talk about what you and your child think about it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Reading with a Baby

Before going further you should know that I consider my reading expertise to kick in around, say, four years old. So this post is based on some stuff I've been reading and how I've seen it play out with my own actual baby. A research group of one. So take it or leave it.
I think there is no special formula for reading with your baby. Except DO NOT BUY THAT INSANE BABY FLASHCARD READING PROGRAM. Unless you hope to raise an automaton who is incapable of actually thinking. Just saying. Just look at books together and talk about them. Read the books (meaning read the words of the books rather than just talking about what's in the pictures) when you can, and when your baby wants to skip ahead or go back, you can do that, too. If you don't finish the book, it's OK. If your baby wants you to read a book for the hundredth time and you happen to hate that book, skipping a few pages will not do any damage. If your baby wants to get up and walk around her room and you are in the middle of your bedtime book, keep reading it. It's OK if she's not right there next to you. When she is right there next to you, invite her to participate. She can turn the pages or fill in a missing word that you strategically leave out. I guess I'm saying, do what feels right. For both of you. You don't want reading to feel like a chore.

Now, in a teeny nutshell, here's some interesting research that's helping me refine how I think about reading. This research has to do with language learning, but I am thinking about it in terms of literacy learning and it makes sense. So check this out:
OK, we have attentional following and attentional redirection.
Imagine you're out pushing your stroller and you hear your baby make a noise. You peek over the stroller and see your baby looking to the side, where a tree is growing. You say, "Ooh, what's that? That's a tree. Look at all those leaves! They're just turning orange, but some are still green. That's a big tree." This is attentional following. You are noticing what your baby is already attending to and providing a lot of language to go with that. Research shows that babies acquire language most effectively when it surrounds things that they are already paying attention to.
Now, imagine the same scenario. Except when you peek around the stroller to chat with your baby, you say, "Hello, sweetie! Yes, we're going to the store. We're going to get some crackers!" This is attentional redirection. You are providing language, but the context is all mixed up. Your baby has a tree on his mind, and you're talking about things that have nothing to do with trees. It is harder for babies to acquire language this way.
So what does this have to do with reading?
Let me illustrate with school-age reading first. Many adults have a tendency to guide children toward their own particular interpretation of a book. Meaning, we see a right way and a wrong way of understanding what's going on in a book. If we think children are misunderstanding a book, we might redirect them to our own way of thinking. There are a couple of problems with this. First, it doesn't leave a lot of room for debate or discussion about the meaning of the book. Debate and discussion about meanings of books is what sort of defines the adult reading experience, so these things are important to develop young. Second, and related, is that when we tell children how to interpret what they read, we are not teaching them how to interpret what they read. We need to let them approximate (this means basically that we need to let them try, make mistakes, think about their mistakes, and try again. Approximation is another one of those conditions of learning I mentioned in my post of March 2, 2009). More on talking to kids about books later. For now, back to babies.
When I read with my son, he often wants to read the single most annoying book in his collection, despite my efforts to hide it under his giant dog pillow. My usual habit of redirection means I try to make him choose another book. I'm guessing the research is telling me to follow his attention and read the book I don't like. Then, when I do, he doesn't always follow along the way the book goes. Or at least he doesn't always put his attention on the things I think are most important. So we'll be looking at a page of his book, and way over in the corner a zoo employee is feeding fish to a seal. Huck says, "fish." I want to direct him back to the actual narrative and say, "Look here, sweetie, the animal wants to stay in the zoo with all the other animals. Here's a lion, and these guys are combing his hair. This animal wants his hair combed, too." But this would be attentional redirection. So now I try to say, "Oh, look! The seal is eating fish. They are feeding fish to that seal there. We saw that one time at the zoo." Then I might continue to read the actual text in the book. I'm still getting used to this. I think I already see a difference, but so do people who take sugar pills in experiments, right? I mean, maybe I just see a difference because I think I should?
Anyway, I think I'm seeing Huck become more engaged with his books, looking more carefully at the pictures and talking more about what he sees. I believe this is because I am following his attention more, talking to him about the things he wants to focus on, rather than the things I am focused on. I guess I'm giving him a little more ownership over his reading experience, and that can't be bad.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Too easy" is just right!!!

OK, if there's one thing I think parents really don't understand, it's this. Don't get me wrong...there's no reason parents should understand this. It's completely counterintuitive!
Here's the deal. In America, we have a mythology built up around the value of hard work. No guts, no glory. No pain, no gain. The classic American story describes the poor so-and-so, born into modest circumstances. Nothing came easy, but through hard work and determination, blood, sweat, and tears, this so-and-so became a CEO. Have you heard this one? It's a good story. Hard work IS important.
The problem is, it doesn't work this way with reading. I have a suitcase full of research to back me up on this one, but please don't make me go get it. What it shows is that in order to become better readers children need a lot of time every day reading EASY books. That's right. EASY. In the lower levels, there may be a word or two that children have to grapple with, but starting at about the level of Henry & Mudge books, children should be able to figure out 99% or more of the words without having to slow down too much. That means that when you see your child struggling, something is wrong. The book is too hard. This is not a good thing to see. Children need to read with accuracy and fluency in order to have good comprehension. It should not be a struggle. I like to live by the following rule of thumb: If it sounds like torture, it is.
Why do their books need to be easy, and how are they getting better if they are not working hard? Well, reading is not the same as lifting weights. I mean, reading muscles don't grow by being taxed. Or, more accurately, the reading muscles we need to tax are not the ones involved in decoding (the ones we can see working when a book is too hard), they are the ones used to comprehend (the ones we can't see working when we watch a child reading). If your child can decode a chapter book like Horrible Harry or Junie B. Jones, she can decode almost anything. From this point on, books get more demanding not because they have harder words, but because they have harder concepts, plot structures, settings, character development methods, and themes.
So next time you find yourself thinking your child's book is too easy, think again. Ask her what the book is about, what's going on with the characters, how she feels about it, what she thinks will happen next, what it reminds her of, or anything else you'd ask an adult friend about her book!

Just to let you know

I just want to say that I have a deadline in January for a book, and that's why I have not been posting! This will be my fourth book for teachers, on teaching reading. Sorry!
I'm going to try to do short sweet posts for parents , though.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sounding it- Out the Responsible Way

OK, so one of my mantras is, "Don't say sound it out. Ever." I'm going to stick by that, at least for now, but in the mean time I want to talk about helping kids use letter/sound information in a way that actually means something.
What we need to think about is how much kids are ready for in terms of making the connections between letters and the sounds they make, and then blending those sounds together, listening as they do so to make sure they are making a word, and adjusting as necessary. This is a pretty complicated process. Children do not just suddenly learn it.
Let me illustrate with a small story about my son. You probably have your own version of this story. When he first started talking, he pronounced 'milk' as 'mmm.' After a while, he would say something that sounded like 'miw.' Still later it was 'meeyoo.' He was pretty excited when he got the ending sound and he said it a lot for a while: 'miyuk' with a lot of emphasis on the /k/. Nowadays it sounds almost like 'milk' but the /l/ is still a little tricky. This has been MONTHS of approximation.
Reading and writing happen the same way. Children start out wherever they start out and gradually over time make their way closer and closer to the target.
So back to sounding it out. Here is an abbreviated set of steps children generally take as they move toward learning how to sound words out. But please remember that sounding words out without also thinking about meaning is not reading!
Also, knowing all the letters and/or their sounds is not a prerequisite for these things. That often happens alongside these steps.
Your child might...
  • recognize some letters in what they are reading (they may also recognize some whole words, but that's a different conversation)
  • memorize books or parts of books, then be able to actually point to some of the words they are saying (like repeated refrains or parts in a different typeface)
  • use the beginning of a word to try to predict what the word will be (we call this predicting and not guessing because guessing implies that children are not using any information. When they predict, they use the fist sound of the word, and also their knowledge of what would make sense based what's going on in the book). Instead of saying, "Sound it out," try to prompt children to do this by saying, "get your mouth ready." This is the very beginning of sounding it out.
  • Somewhere in here, children get pretty good at decoding simple words that have a consonant-vowel-consonant pattern (CVC words in the trade). Dog and cat are two good examples of these. The short vowel sounds are sort of the easiest vowel sounds to deal with early on. Instead of saying SIO with these words, try, "Put the sounds together."
  • The next thing children might be able to do is look for familiar groups of letters that make a predictable sound. These are called onsets and rimes, but many teachers call them chunks. sp- and -ent are chunks. We don't sound out the letters separately. Instead we take them in almost as a single sound. Early on, children may know a small number of these chunks. They can make the sound of the chunk accurately, and try to predict the rest of the word. For instance if the word is together, children might first see to as a familiar chunk, and then try to predict the rest based on context. Instead of SIO, try, "Do you see any chunks you recognize?"
  • As they learn more of these chunks they get better and better at putting them together to figure out words.
  • The next stuff they start to learn is how different letter combinations affect vowel sounds. This is REALLY confusing, and takes a long time to figure out. Kids may recognize that a silent e makes an earlier vowel long (as in hike), but have no idea that a single consonant after the vowel in a multisyllabic word (as in hiking) also makes the vowel long. This is partly because it is more complicated, and partly because it is not as consistent a rule. Most CVC words have a short vowel, but many CVCe words do not have a long vowel. Have and love are common counterexamples to the rule. Instead if SIO, try, "remember how the vowel sounds when x is happening in the word," or something like that.
  • So the more kids read, the more words they learn, the more new words they can learn by comparing them to their growing repertoire of memorized words. When they start reading books similar to Henry and Mudge, or thereabouts, they are able to do what we mean when we say, "sound it out." Except that we don't say that anymore. Instead of SIO, try "You know all these chunks because you've seen them in other words. First let's look at them all separately, then you can put them together to figure out the word."
  • During every one of these stages, "what would make sense here?" is also a really great prompt. It reminds children to hold onto meaning even as they are focusing on letters and sounds."
This is a pretty short primer on early reading, but it should get you started, and arm you with some less frustrating ways to help your child through. And just so you know, all these steps typically happen over a 3 year period. So let your child spend a long time getting good at each thing. Remember, they get better at reading by reading a lot. They get better at reading by reading books that FEEL EASY, and they want to keep reading when they feel GOOD AT IT.
Let me know how it goes!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What is Reading?

I'm hoping to keep this short, so forgive me if I oversimplify.
Reading is constructing meaning from text.
OK, well I guess I don't need to keep it that short.
Many adults who do not work in fields involving teaching, reading, or writing, mistake the concept of reading with the concept of decoding. Decoding is just saying the words. Decoding is what you do when you read this:
blophen gribluck weevin smid.
You use your knowledge of English to pronounce these words in a particular way. You probably didn't concern yourself too much with thinking about what was being communicated because you could tell early on that this was nonsense. You are still decoding when you read this:
With door black onion.
These are words, of course, so you are no longer looking at nonsense. Each of these words makes something happen in your brain. When you put them together it all sort of falls apart, though. When you read that last bit, you read it as a list of words, not as a chunk of meaning.
So we know what decoding is. Now let's talk about reading.
Reading is decoding PLUS thinking. (Don't worry, I'm not going to try to define thinking here.) Reading is saying the words, putting them together to figure out what is being communicated, thinking about what we already know about that, thinking about how we feel about it, being reminded of other things we experienced or read about, wondering new things, predicting words, ideas, events, or changes that may come later in the text. And there's more. When you read, saying the words is only the beginning. After that a whole lot of other things happen in your head. That's part of what makes it so rewarding!
When we help our kids read, we need to recognize this. They don't learn to decode first and only then make meaning. They must learn to make meaning, or do all that thinking work, AS they learn to decode. Even in the easiest of books! So when you are sitting with your little one reading a book, take a look at your input. Do you talk mostly about decoding, saying things like, "sound it out," or "you know that word, " or "look at that word again, is that right?" or "no, that's not what it says there"? If so, you are not alone, but you can do something about it. For every decoding-type thing you say, try to say TWO meaning-oriented things, like:
  • What's going on here?
  • Look at the picture
  • That was funny
  • I love this part
  • Oh, no! He tore his shirt!
  • Ooooh, she's going to be in trouble
  • That was a nice thing to do
  • What a good friend!
These are the type of comments that show our children that reading is a social act. When they read, they too will begin to comment more on the meaning than on the strategies they are using to figure out words.

Don't Say Sound it Out!!

Just don't say it!
This is a tool that one must fully understand in order to use it correctly!
Here's the deal. You can ask any child who just successfully figured out a word, "How did you do that?" and most of the time the answer will be, "I sounded it out." But most of the time that's not actually what she did! See, SIO has become a meaningless catch-all. I want children to use a wide variety of strategies to figure out words and I want them to have some awareness about what strategies they are using and how they work. I want that child to say, "I looked at the beginning of the word and it was a /th/ sound and the girl in the picture was throwing a ball so I tried 'throw' and that made sense, so then I looked at the rest of the letters and they all worked to make the rest of the sounds of 'throw'."
Also, the most appropriate strategy to use depends heavily on what your child can already do. You might more simply equate this with book level. Certain levels of books require children to use certain strategies. In very early books children should look at the pictures to help figure out words, and maybe sometimes look at the first letter. Children should not be 'sounding words out'- looking through the letters of the word left to right and blending the sounds together- until they are already reading pretty well. I'm not going to get into what strategies to use with what levels because that would be a really long long long post. However, there is sort of an order to things.
This is not exhaustive...
  • Look at the picture
  • Remember the words you know by heart. (Children should not try to 'sound out,' or decode, high frequency words such as the, it, and, me, etc. These should be memorized and recognized instantly. Most early books have just a few of these.)
  • Look at the first letter(s) and make the sound (sometimes we call this getting your mouth ready. It is a precursor to sounding words out)
  • Look for parts of words you know (if you know str- or -ike then you can figure out strike just by connecting those two chunks. This also applies to affixes, like re- or -tion)
  • Always be paying attention to what would make sense or sound right. This is not guessing. This is predicting and we adults do it all the time.
If your child is struggling to figure out a word for a long time and is becoming frustrated, if you are becoming frustrated, if the connection to the meaning of the book is getting lost because of this one dumb word, just tell it to him! If there are several words like this (more than 1% in a chapter book. Yes, you heard right, children need to read with 99% accuracy in order to become better readers) change books. Reading should be easy. EASY. This idea does not compute for most of us. In our culture we believe that success comes from facing struggles and working really hard. We say, "no pain, no gain," and "nothing worth getting was ever gotten the easy way." But reading doesn't work like that. All the research shows that in order to become better readers (and therefore to go up through the levels of books, if that's what matters) children must have a lot of time reading books that are EASY. In chapter books this means over 99% accuracy. In very early books (with one sentence on a page) sometimes one error is already 5% of the words, so the rule in books with fewer words is a little less stringent. Regardless of level, children need to feel successful in their reading if they are going to put in the time that is required for further success. (Read the post on praise for some ideas on how to help children feel successful)
And try some other ways to support your child in figuring out words!