* What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness refers to the manipulation of individual sounds, of which there are 44 in conventional English (and several more in the Southern US!).  A basic phonemic awareness skill is blending an onset and rime  (a rime is a vowel and any consonants that come after it, more popularly called a “word family”).  In my experience, this is a skill that most teachers emphasize and is often mastered by dyslexic students before they begin specialized instruction.  However, there are nine other skills relating to phonemic awareness;  depending upon the severity of their disorder, dyslexic students may need systematic instruction through all of these skills.  Phonemic awareness instruction is often improved by the use of visual cues (such as blocks or tapping the sounds using fingers).  Phonemic skills instruction is not phonics instruction.  Phonemic awareness is sound manipulation, whereas phonics includes the use of letter-sound associations and spelling patterns.

See the post under Reading.

* What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is a broad category that includes identifying and manipulating spoken language, from words to syllables to phonemes (individual sounds).  At the sentence level, students distinguish between words in a phrase or sentence.  “She borrows my pencil” has four words (not six, when a student may be confusing syllables with discreet words).  At the word level, students identify whether words are the same or different and recognize and produce rhyme.  At the syllable level, students blend syllables (starting with compound words and progressing to multi-syllabic words), segment syllables (the same progression of complexity as blending), and delete syllables (same progression of complexity).

See the complete post under Reading.

* Blocks used in phonological awareness

I’ve had a question about what I use to assist students in visualizing the manipulation of sounds.  When I do my initial assessment, I use small wooden blocks.  Nothing fancy, just blocks like these which probably came from my son’s toy collection.


During actual instruction, I teach kids to use their fingers for blending and segmenting.  They touch their thumb to each successive finger (starting with the index finger) for each sound.  (You model it on YOUR left hand so the sounds are presented in a left-to-right sequence).  If kids want to use this strategy unobtrusively in their regular classroom, I teach them to tap single fingers in order on their lap (or on the edge of their desk).

* High functioning AU kids and bullying

I have yet to work with a high functioning student on the autism spectrum (AU, PDD) who has not been bullied.  When I refer to bullying, I am using part of the definition from StopBullying.gov; I am not referring to teasing. which may occur in isolated instances and is often reciprocated.   Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.  Bullying can be verbal or nonverbal and include systematic exclusion from the group.  The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.  Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems. 

Why have AU students been targets of bullying behavior?  I have seen the following factors at work.

1.  AU kids usually don’t have peer support as protection.  The “bystanders” may not have a vested interest in the well-being of the kid being ridiculed. (See #3 below.)

2.  AU kids often have at least one atypical behavior that makes them an easy target.  For instance, a number of my high functioning AU kids had some grimacing or “stretching” behavior that had become habitual, related to earlier sensory input issues.  (Students may still need additional support in this area.)  Even very high functioning kids may have a bit of hand flapping or repetition of sounds/comments as they enter kindergarten.  Many of them have not yet eliminated asocial behaviors such as nose-picking or groin-touching.  Some atypical behaviors emerge as a reaction to the social pressure of a regular classroom setting.

3.  AU kids don’t often appear “friendly” as they enter kindergarten.  They may not appear to listen or look at others.  They may not respond typically to classmates’ comments or questions.  They are unlikely to initiate conversations or appropriate play interactions.  Bullying behavior may, in fact, simply reinforce false impressions that kids have already formed, such as “That kid doesn’t even notice the ‘teasing,’ or “That kid isn’t friendly, anyway.”

4.  AU kids are often an anomaly to the regular classroom teacher, who can then inadvertently set the stage for them to appear even more atypical.  That teacher may have lowered expectations for their participation, may not use effective strategies for engaging them, and/or may be fearful of outbursts.  In such a case, the other students may follow the teacher’s lead. 

Can anything be done or is this a hopeless situation?

This is NOT a hopeless situation.  There are a number of effective strategies for addressing these four factors.  I’ll link the following strategies to each numbered item above:

1. Teach all students how to respond to bullying.  (This is in the domain of regular education.)

  • If it is not already in place, conduct regular (weekly) anti-bullying sessions with the entire class.  Give kids a definition of bullying which includes systematic exclusion of others.  Teach “bystanders” how to respond.  Since much bullying occurs at recess or lunch, make sure that adults are vigilant in protecting at-risk kids during those times (that means physical proximity to address verbal aggression or exclusion from activities).  Adult responses such as “Go play,” or “Stop tattling,” should be few and far between when kids ask for help. 
  • Be explicit in teaching kids how to respond positively to differences among themselves.  Be culturally proficient as well as special ed-proficient.  Use community meetings to teach social skills, including not prejudging others. 

2 and 3.  Teach needed social skills.  (This is the special education teacher’s domain.)

  • Assuming AU kids have at least resource support, teach them social norms for what they do with their bodies at school.  This can be a balancing act for specialists because the last thing AU kids need is another person telling them they aren’t OK.  Prioritize skill instruction.  Use observation and classroom teacher comments to determine which behaviors most impact the student’s inclusion in the group.  It is possible to substitute a more acceptable form of sensory feedback through breaks or activities done “privately.”  Occupational therapists have provided mini-trampolines for some kids, I’ve purchased bendable materials for others, and taught kids how to press down on a table or pull up on the sides of their chair without drawing attention to themselves.  Parents have played a vital role in providing after school gymnastics, martial arts, or other physical activities which give kids a chance to really move around.  A little chewing on a pencil may be more acceptable than chewing a shirt into pieces.  Incorporating subtle, prearranged visual cues in the class may be helpful.  And which kid doesn’t enjoy games which explore the perimeters of “personal bubbles?”
  • Teach social skills systematically and provide opportunities for generalization, such as lunch bunches or buddy activities.  Use videotaping and rubrics to assist kids in learning new skills and seeing their progress.  Team with the classroom teacher, other specialists (OT, speech), specials teachers (such as art, music, etc.), and the student’s family for consistency in practice and vocabulary related to specific skills. 
  • Support your AU student in reporting bullying incidents.  I have yet to meet ANY child who didn’t internalize bullying and respond initially with shame and embarrassment.  Explain what bullying is and how kids feel when they are bullied.  Develop the kind of relationship where kids feel safe to talk honestly about their school day.  Teach them how to talk about problems with someone (their parents or guidance counselor, if not you). 
  • Balance social skills instruction with regular and frequent opportunities for AU kids to “shine.”  They may have a unique ability to recite all the basketball and football scores for the week, or perhaps they’ve completed every level of a certain video game.  You can let them share these skills with a small group, share digitally with family members, or share with their classroom.  Some schools have daily morning video announcements.  Your AU kid might be thrilled to share the latest weather information or sporting stats.  Be creative! Making them a “big buddy” is a perfect opportunity for them to amaze others with their special talents, to be admired and sought after.  Remember that none of us could survive an environment that consists solely of correction and emphasis upon our weaknesses, even if the intentions are good.

4.  “Normalize” your AU kid.  (This is under the domains of both special and regular education, but the specialist must lead  the way.)

  • If at all possible, prepare the classroom teacher ahead of time for her special needs student/s.  Reassure her that you will be there to provide support and instruction in social skills and any behavior issues.
  • If at all possible, set up a transition meeting for the AU student and family to give the child a chance to explore his or her environment before the official back-to-school melee.  Prep the teacher for this orientation as well.  After she introduces herself, and perhaps points out where the student will sit, let her talk to the parents while the kid explores.  The specialist should be there to observe and provide support.  Once the student has roamed freely, the teacher can then review the cubby assignment (which should be easily reached without having to get through a maze of kids), expectations for bathroom breaks, etc.  The student may have some questions to ask (parents can check on this before the orientation). 
  • A classroom teacher cannot be expected to provide the systematic and individualized instruction needed in managing potential frustration or outbursts.  The specialist must address these from day one in order to help the student fit into the classroom and reduce the wariness of peers. 
  • Work with the classroom teacher to seat the AU kid with potential playmates during group and table work .  Make sure the AU kid is lining up between kids with good social skills.  Besides seating positions, you can provide support for effective strategies for teaching, following classroom routines, managing transitions, and practice related to ongoing social skills instruction.
  • Normalize your role (that is, of the specialist).  Assist other kids in the classroom, not just the AU kid.  I always had a sizable group of kids who begged to come to my room once I started pull-out services.  Note:  You may have to deal with teachers and assistants who say, “Oh, THAT one will be joining you soon enough!”   “Yay! Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” is one of my responses.

To summarize, it is possible to create an environment where the AU kid is accepted as one of the gang.  I’ve seen my AU kids celebrated by their classmates instead of being bullied.  It is possible to break the cycle of bullying, even if it has already begun.   Both take perseverance and a red-hot desire to see all kids treated with respect.

* Classroom Reveal!

How about this well-planned room! Great set up!

Happiness is a Smiling Child

I have had some request from friends to see pictures of my classroom. I kept putting off the reveal because I never wanted to admit being done (I still have more plans!) but since I won’t be back in the room until the first day, I have to admit that this is as good as it will get before my students come. I have some decorations ordered and I made things to put on my word wall this morning, so there is more decorating to come!

Also a big thank-you goes out to my para-educators who have amazingly crossed almost everything off of my to-do list and have really given our classroom life! I couldn’t have gotten everything done in time without their help. Thanks also to my sister for coming in the first two days to get some major organization done. I am also grateful for my future mother…

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* Follow up to “So this happened today”

I love this post “So this happened today” and the wonderful opportunity it provides for a discussion of school climate.  The teacher shared a thoughtful observation of two kindergartners in distress and is wondering why the kids in her school seem so angry.        I have three hypotheses:

1.  Stress caused by academic overload.  I have seen this occur in the lower grades, especially kindergarten, when a school district increased the academic demands in reading.  For the majority of students, it was no big deal because they were already beginning readers.  Kids who came to school without knowing the alphabet and letter-sound associations basically had one report card period to get on board.  They were doomed from the start.  The reading train was moving forward and they were not even at the station.  Most of those kids felt stupid.  Those strong feelings manifested themselves in aggressive play at recess and disruptive behavior during reading and writing.

2.  Ineffective community building and behavior management.  Teachers play a crucial role in establishing norms for their classes.  Effective teachers are able to build a sense of community, despite variations in student ability levels.  Through modeling, discussion, explicit instruction, and class meetings, teachers can help kids pull together.  The use of cooperative projects, where each member has an important role, is another tool to use.  Making sure that all voices are heard is another.  Cognitive empathy is a powerful tool for engaging students.  Behavior management includes all of the above, plus consistency, structure, fairness, and motivation. Every aspect of behavior management is too broad to go into here, but I would love to ask the teacher who just posted to observe some other classes.  She has a good eye and may be able to point out some unhealthy classroom dynamics, as well as those practices which are effective.

3.  Cultural divides.  Does this school reflect and accept ALL its students?  Nationally, most teachers are white females (like me), which means we have to work harder to step outside our preconceptions and prejudices.  We have to match other cultural values by restructuring class interactions and instruction.  We know “our” way of doing life.  Now, what is their way?  How is it similar and how does it vary?  There are many resources on cultural proficiency available to educators.  One of my favorites is “How to Teach Kids Who Don’t Look Like You” by Bonnie M. Davis.

4.  A combination of the above.  Perhaps the problem is a critical mass issue of the above three hypotheses.  Exploring this through school-wide discussions may be helpful as long as the emphasis is upon finding solutions, not finger pointing.  Encouraging parental input (especially related to “cultural divide”), providing additional intervention in reading, and teachers spending more time observing one another could be effective.

Do you have any other hypotheses?  What would you suggest?

* So This Happened Today

This is an excellent post for beginning a dialog about the roots of this problem and how to best address it.

I'm Not Miss Beadle

This afternoon, as I was walking my first graders along the outside walkway to their Fine Arts class, we happened upon a kindergarten class returning to their room after lunch.  My group stopped to allow the little ones to cross in front of us to get to their door. 

Somewhere along the way, one of the kinders ran headfirst into one of the steel beams that supports the overhang.  I could hear the resounding ‘dong’ and figured stitches were in this little dude’s near future.  His teacher checked him carefully and, surprisingly, although he was wailing at the top of his lungs, he didn’t seem to be injured.  As this was happening, the teacher was trying to send another kinder ahead into the classroom due to his increasingly frantic ‘pee pee dance’. 

From my perspective, the next thirty seconds happened as if they were in slow motion.  Pee pee kid…

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* Reflections #2


This is my 18th day on WordPress!  My blog feels like a real place to me now.   So do other folk’s blogs.   It’s like I’ve moved to a great neighborhood with people who take time to say hi.  I continue to squeal with delight when I see flags from all over the world on my stats page.  Yes, I still check my stats at least three or four times a day (that’s down from every ten minutes).  I actually trash some of my drafts now.  I’ve written so much (or my memory is so sketchy)  that I’ll have to start a system for remembering in what posts I added “More on that later.”   I just figured out how to “claim” my blog on Bloglovin, thanks to a WordPress post by Michelle W. And in the past few hours, I learned how to add a Bloglovin icon instead of those words at the top of each post.   I’m making my way through the Daily Post tips and downloaded a free ebook,  I love this new experience and am thrilled to be a part of an online community.   Thanks for all your kind comments and encouragement.

Any other words of wisdom?  I’d love to hear from my neighbors!

* Start the day off right

Right now there’s a a lot of advice out there about how to start off the school year.  In fact, I have offered some.  But it’s important to remember that each day is a new start.  It’s worth learning how to do that.

The best way to start the day off right is to end the previous day right.  If it was a generally terrific day, spend time talking about what went well.  If it was a generally stinky day, spend time talking about what went well.  And then pull out your handy one-page-a-day calendar and rip that stinky day into little shreds.  I’ve seen relief and joy in kids’ eyes as their terrible, horrible day is torn to bits and tossed in the trash.  It’s gone.  No hard feelings.  No record of wrongs.  No punishment waiting in the wings.  Note that I said “their terrible, horrible day.”  Sure, it may have been mine as well, but it’s mostly theirs.  They came to school, as I did, with the best of intentions.  No kid walks into school saying, “I’m going to destroy the classroom today!”  No teacher walks in and says, “I’m going to make this day miserable for every child!”  So, reward good intentions and scrap the day.  Literally.  A caveat:  My primary response to a hard day is to analyze what I did and how I reacted to the kids.  I cannot control how they reacted, but I can control my own reactions.

So you are starting a new day.  You know that your kids may have endured a yucky bus ride or a fight at home or simply feel out of sorts.  They may come in the room crying.  Or perhaps they are ready to explode like a volcano, hot magma at the top.  How do you greet these kids?  It’s certainly easier once you know them, because you can read their cues more effectively.  Regardless, I try to remember that this class is about their needs, not mine.  I may want to look like a perfect teacher (read: have a perfect day), but teaching is messy.  Kids (and teachers) are messy.  The classroom should be a haven, a place where kids get what they need.  There’s no one right way to handle a kid starting off in distress.  Here are some options: Give them space.  Follow the classroom routine. Let them chill in their cooling-off space.  Hand them a favorite book.  Start them on a favorite activity.  Ask if they want to talk.  Let them draw or use other materials to express themselves.  I didn’t include “smile” because you are hurting for them and with them.  This wasn’t what either of you wanted.  A gentle and caring expression works well.

For kids who typically have a bumpy start to their day, you must get at the root of the problem to improve their first moments at school.  Is it some interaction with others?  Anxiety about school or transitions?  Testing to see how you will respond?  Hard-wiring?  Hating school?  Each of these possibilities will need to be handled differently.  Bottom line: It’s worth making the effort to start off each day right.