Wednesday, August 10, 2011


“Teaching phonics is a lot easier than teaching children to use the phonics they know. When taught in isolation children often learn what letters makes what sounds but are unable to quickly apply this knowledge. The logic is in the pattern, not in simple “vowel rules.” Psychologists tell us that our brains separate unknown words into their onsets* and the rimes. **   To be good decoders and spellers, children need to learn to quickly separate words into these parts, think of sounds associated with the patterns, and recombine the sounds.”  Dr. Dottie Hall

Several years ago when I was teaching second grade, I was introduced to the Four Blocks reading program. It is the most comprehensive program I have ever come across for teaching phonetic reading and spelling skills to students. It approaches learning from a hands-on method, the preferred learning style of most children.  In this post I will explain two components:  the word wall and making words.

The program begins with the word wall. In the classroom, the teacher will begin adding the children’s names, a few each week, so you can add your child’s name. If your child’s name happens to rhyme with other words like Lane or Pat you have the beginnings of some great lessons.  If your child’s name doesn’t rhyme with real words, you can have fun playing the Name Game and making nonsense words. (You might have fun making up definitions for them.) Add a word a day perhaps on your refrigerator or another specified area.  Be stingy with your choices, mixing sight words and pattern words. Mix nouns and verbs so you can eventually construct sentences. As you add the word, cheer and clap the letters. “There. T-H-E-R-E There!” You can continue this throughout the day.

 Play games with the words by breaking down the rime of the word and adding other onsets.  For example, say your word wall word is kind.  Make a flash card with ind. Then add:  f, m, b, bl, gr, r, etc. Discuss the meaning of unknown words such as rind. Now add t, z, g, fl, etc.  As you make nonsense words make up definitions for them. You are not only learning phonics, but you are developing vocabulary.  You could even write a rhyming story about a fantasy kingdom.   What a way to practice context clues!

The second component is making words. To begin, make a strip of mixed letters that make a word. Cut into individual letters.


Have (help) your child make words in a logical succession such as.








Now is the exciting part.  Have your child put all the letters together and find the “magic” word, plate.

Making words is for children who have learned most of their basic phonetic sounds. It helps them put meaning to the sounds, and the manipulation of the letters stimulates learning.  It also solidifies learning to write the words on a piece of paper after each one is put in place. You might even write a simple story and have your child place the missing word into the correct slot.

This is just an introduction to the concept of making words.  If you are interested in learning more you can buy Making Words for different grade levels. They are written by Patricia Cunningham and Dottie Hall.

* Onsets are beginning consonant sounds.
* *Rimes are vowels followed by consonants. Some examples are:

ack; ail; ain; ake; ale; ame; an; and; ank; ap; ash; at; ate;
aw; ay; eat; ell; est; ice; ick;  ide; ight; ill; in; ine; ing;
in; ip;  it; ock; oke; op; ore; ot; uck; ug; ump; unk

This is the School Marm,
 Ringing her bell. 
School’s out!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


That is the question that has been contemplated among reading educators for many years. My basic philosophy is:  Everything in balance. Tedious phonics programs with endless worksheets that belabor phonics rules are not the answer, but neither is throwing out phonics instruction entirely. 

Solid foundational phonics training is a crucial connecting piece of the reading puzzle. Regardless of how convoluted our language might seem, there are enough patterns of sounds and language to justify learning phonics.  Of course, to gain smooth, fluent reading with comprehension, good readers must gradually incorporate sight words into their repertoire, but learning certain patterns of the language will help children decode and spell words. 

Basic vowel and consonant sounds can be learned via a variety of programs.  You can choose a program to teach phonics, or create your own, but make it mostly fun and games with lots of manipulatives. Remember that children learn in different ways, some auditory, some visual, some tactile. The best instruction incorporates all three senses, but concentrate on the learning method that best accommodates your child. 

As I delineated previously, music enhances learning by stimulating endorphins, and movement, well let’s just say kids are made to move. I Googled phonics song and phonics dance and was immediately inundated with a plethora of resources. Looks like fun!  Of course, you’ll want to do some worksheets to develop small motor coordination, and it has also been proven that writing by hand helps solidify learning better than typing on a keyboard. Also, remember that color can be used effectively.  Vowels one color, consonants another.  Or easy letters one color, hard letters another.  Customize your instruction to meet the needs of your child; that’s the beauty of teaching your own child.

Yikes! I just listened to one of those phonics songs, and they committed the phonics cardinal sin. NEVER EVER teach your child that the letter R says “er!”  ER, IR, and UR say “er.”  If you teach a child that R says “er,”  he/she will add an extra syllable to every R word.  You will have, “erats, terucks, and erings.” R is pronounced with the vowel sound following it.  “Ra  -  Rat,.  Tru -  Truck, Ri  -  Rings.”  Okay. I just had to get that off my chest.  I feel much better now.

As I started writing this, I discovered I had more to say about phonics than I realized. So I’m going to start with this as the first part to a three part series.  Part two will be how to teach word reading through making words.  Part three will be how to teach phonics skills to older children.
This is the School Marm,
 Ringing her bell. 
School’s out!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Note from the Schoolmarm

If you are new to my blog, I must explain that it is sequential.  It will make a lot more sense to you if you start at the first entry and read through.  The very first entry is DR. SEUSS HAD IT RIGHT.

After I started this blog, I realized the sequential style lends itself more to an ebook than a blog, but at fifty-six I can only tackle one newfangled technology at a time.  I hope to have an ebook ready by July.

Thanks to both my readers!  lol

The Schoolmarm

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


             Schools deliver 85% of the curriculum using printed words in books, written words on chalkboards/white-boards and digitized words on computer screens. Reading is the most fundamental skill your child will use during his or her 12-20 years as a student.  (The Children’s Reading Foundation)

Nothing can replace practice.  Whether it is basketball, piano, art, or gardening, to become proficient in any endeavor requires practice. According to The Society for Research in Child Development, “Mothers who begin reading to their children at a very early age have toddlers with greater language comprehension, larger, more expressive vocabularies and higher cognitive scores by the age of 2.”  Obviously, this not only applies to mothers; that was just the subject of this research.  I’m sure if fathers, grandparents, siblings, and caregivers read to the child, it is just as effective.
Children learn by example.  If reading is an important component in your home, it will just become second nature to your child. If television and video games, Facebook, twitter, and texting are the most important elements in your home, that is what your child will gravitate toward. 
The following information is from The Children’s Reading Foundation:

Read Aloud. Read aloud 20 minutes a day with your child. From birth to age five, this enjoyable activity provides 600 hours of essential pre-literacy preparation before entering school. Once in school it's essential to continue the read-aloud habit through elementary school.

Bonding with Books  Reading together every day builds strong minds and strong relationships. Your child, snuggling in your lap, and enjoying your attention and laughter, is learning to love reading. As long as it is a happy experience there is no wrong way to read together. Reading aloud is practically free, you can do it anywhere, and children often beg for "just one more" story. Even parents who are not fluent readers can provide a good experience for their children by telling stories from their lives, from their imaginations, or from pictures in wordless books. It is best to read to your child early and often, but it is never too late to start opening the reading door for your child.

The Value of Literacy   Children who read, succeed, in school and in life. The simple act of enjoying books together every day from birth through elementary school establishes essential reading skills while building warm relationships. Your love and time are priceless. The reading skills you nurture are worth a quarter of a million dollars. For every year you read with your child, average lifetime earnings increase by $50,000. You can make a $250,000 gift to your child by reading aloud just 20 minutes a day!

            What should you read?  I have found with children younger than two the best books are intriguing picture books with a sentence or two on the page.  Most tiny ones do not have the attention span to sit and listen to very much text.  As they mature, they will enjoy more and more text and begin to require more challenging books. Make sure you pick books you like because little ones will pick the same book they like and will want to read it over and over and over.
How do you read to a baby?
  • Use small, chunky board books that your baby can easily hold onto.
  • Talk about the pictures with your little one.
  • Sing the text to keep baby's attention.
  • Play peek-a-boo with lift-the-flap books.
  • Help your baby touch and feel in texture books.

 Try to remember the books you loved when you were young.  Your love of a book will be contagious to your child.  There are many new books to explore.  Ask your friends, or ask the librarian for suggestions.  You know your child best, so you can pick the best match.  There are also websites that can help you.  
           Children will let you know when they are ready to transition to chapter books.  When our youngest daughter was five she crawled in our bed every night for weeks,  and we read one chapter of Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White each night.  What a precious memory! Growing up to the present, she has maintained a voracious love for reading, and she just graduated from college with a degree in English education
Word of wisdom for the day:  Love them while they love you.  Today you are the center of their world. If you want your children to grow up to embrace your values, spend all the time you can with them while they are young.  Soon enough, they will start breaking away from you, and their friends will become more important and more influential than you.  Hold them close while you can. 

This is the School Marm,
Ringing her bell. 
School’s out!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Conclude: What Did I Just Read?

The final comprehension strategy is to conclude or summarize.  Have you ever been reading something, stop, and suddenly realize you have no idea what you just read?  It’s because you were simply decoding words without thinking about the content.  Some beginning readers get so caught up in the challenge, the game, of decoding that they forget to pay any attention to the content of the text.

I have actually had children in class who enjoy decoding entire books without having a clue as to the meaning.  The sad thing is that their parents think they are reading.  Sadder yet, the children think they are reading.  But if the teacher thinks the child is reading, they’re in a peck of trouble.

A recent teaching strategy to assist children in thinking about their reading as they read is called Think aloud.  I love the way academia tries to complicate these methods, but there is nothing in this strategy that your great grandma couldn’t have done.  In this strategy the mentor reader reads aloud and shares her thoughts with the child as she reads, to model how an active reader’s thought process functions. Here is a simple example:

“I knew an old lady, who swallowed a fly.” Why would an old lady swallow a fly? Maybe she was talking too much.  Maybe she was cleaning her house.

“I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.  Perhaps she’ll die.”  I wonder who is singing this song, and why is she singing it?  (first person narrative, author’s purpose)  Is she going to die?  (prediction)

“ . . . I knew an old lady who swallowed a cat.”  Somebody couldn’t swallow a whole cat! I don’t think this story is true.  (genre:  fiction / fantasy)

Guided reading is the next step after think aloud.  With this strategy the mentor reader interacts with the beginning reader by stopping and asking questions to check the child’s comprehension. Instead of just modeling what you might think, you will ask questions that require thought.  Beginning questions will provoke thought about:  character – who, setting – when, where, and plot – what.  As the child progresses, why and how questions will flow.  If you pattern your questions in the QVCIPC mode, the appropriate comprehension questions will flow.

Comprehension only occurs when readers think about what they read and embrace the content as their own.  That is my conclusion about reading comprehension.
This is the School Marm,
 Ringing her bell. 
School’s out!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Predict: Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

The fifth strategy is prediction. When I first started teaching prediction and inference, I had trouble helping my students discern between the two.  In fact, I have noticed that even reading teacher instruction books do not make a big distinction between the two.
Both inference and prediction invoke similar thinking skills, but the difference is in perspective.  Inference is making decisions and gaining insight into event and character information that has already been written in the text.  Prediction is taking what has happened so far, based on clues, foreshadowing, and evaluating the characters’ character, and then deciding what the next logical scenario might be. Inference mostly involves judging characters, and prediction involves future events.
Pauses in reading help us think about what we have read which is a key element of comprehension. It gives us time to reflect upon or summarize what has happened so far, and it allows us time to evaluate what we have read with what we know to be true, to determine what might happen next.  Some authors such as O. Henry like to play with us and twist the ending, but most preschool stories are fairly predictable even for the youngest preschooler.
To start implementing this strategy, begin with a picture walk.   A picture walk through a book is just what it sounds like. Take a book and predict what the story will be about just by looking at the pictures. Then read the book. The interesting thing about predicting is you can only use this strategy once per book because after the mystery has been revealed, there is nothing more to predict. 
Another way to use this strategy is to read a book with a simple plot, and before you get to the ending, have your child predict the ending. Predicting forces us to think about what we are reading, and that’s what comprehension is all about.  Imparting reading comprehension strategies to children is not an enigma if you know a few tricks of the trade.

This is the School Marm,
 Ringing her bell. 
School’s out!

INFER: What Do You Mean By That?

The fourth comprehension strategy that all good readers use is inference, a life skill we must all develop.  In everyday life we use body language, expression, and gestures to determine the true meaning of what people say.  This is just part of maturity in communication. Without these skills, adults “just don’t get it.” Inference is a crucial skill in reading, but without body language, expression, or gestures, we must learn to interpret the meaning and implications of phrases appropriately to completely understand text.
What does inference look like to a preschooler?  Let’s begin with pictures.  Choose pictures from anywhere:  family albums, coloring books, books, or just random pictures.  Have children determine emotions or judgments based on the pictures.  The people are happy, sad, lonely, excited, naughty, helpful, etc.
As your preschooler develops this skill include text.  “Goldilocks knocked at the door of the Three Bears house.  Nobody answered, but since the door was unlocked, Goldilocks entered the house anyhow.”  What does this tell you about Goldilocks?  Later, add vocabulary:  What can you infer about Goldilocks from her actions?  This is a skill called indirect characterization which is crucial to understanding characters in stories.  Good readers need to be able to judge the content of characters’ character from their actions and words, not just from the direct text that is specifically stated by the author.
Remember, this is not just a reading skill; this is an important life skill.  Children need to be savvy in their development of reading people on a day-to-day basis, not to walk around criticizing and judging others, but to be able to make wise decisions in choosing friends, discerning appropriate behavior, and eventually understanding how to respond appropriately in conversation, whether it involves “chit chat” or resolving conflict.
Language arts are built on four components: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  All four skills must interrelate and interact to produce communication synergy.  No matter what path your child chooses in life, proficient communication skills are paramount to success.

This is the School Marm,
 Ringing her bell. 
School’s out!