* Phonics instruction

There are whole courses devoted to this topic, but you can relax.  I am going to focus on two issues: the current controversy regarding phonics instruction and the type of phonics instruction that is best suited to students with reading disabilities.  If your deductive powers are at work, you already know where I stand on this issue.

Is phonics a bad word?  In some groups, it certainly is.  The conflict over phonics instruction goes back at least to the 1950’s and has continued to this day.  The last decade has seen heightened rhetoric about what works for kids, especially after the National Reading Panel concluded that phonics was one of five key components of effective reading instruction.  And educational research has been used to substantiate both sides of the debate.  In actual practice, there are teachers who will not allow kids to sound out words, even preventing those little fingers from tapping out sounds.  Phonics instruction becomes a subversive activity, only allowed behind closed doors.    (I personally haven’t seen the other extreme, but perhaps someone in my audience has.)

Many teachers are convinced that phonics instruction rules out the use of good literature, is a skill that can only be applied to words in isolation, and is primarily taught through tedious “drill and kill” routines.  Another concern is that those assessments which are correlated to reading success (such as fluency in decoding nonsense words) are creating havoc, forcing teachers to abandon authentic assessment and instruction.

First, it is possible to use good literature to teach phonics.  And it is also true that many decodable books (see below) are lousy literature.  Use both.  Second, the whole purpose in teaching phonics is its application to authentic reading.  Good readers are fluent and don’t labor over words, so they can engage with text at more abstract levels.  Phonics helps dyslexic kids achieve that fluency through practice.  By definition, a child with a special education label is intervention-resistant.  This simply means that these kids need something more than regular instruction.  It does take practice, but that practice can be meaningful and engaging.  No question, it’s a struggle for those smart kids whose brains are hard-wired differently.  And those fluency assessments? They measure a sub-skill of reading, but one that acts as a closed door to literacy if students don’t learn the alphabetic code.

What type of phonics instruction is best for students with reading disabilities?  

Systematic. That means phonics is taught by following a scope and sequence of skills. Each child should start at the point in that sequence which is appropriate for his or her ability level.  Incidental or embedded phonics instruction occurs when a teacher selects reading material and then points out or teaches a phonics rule.  This random approach does not work effectively for kids with disabilities.

Explicit.  Phonics instruction is not learned by taping a poster of letter sounds on a wall.  Teacher instruction, modeling, and guidance in applying rules to text are all needed.  Students must be taught letter-sound associations and specific rules.  They learn a skill and practice it.  This practice often involves reading decodable texts, but other books work as well.

Early.  Dyslexic kids who receive early intervention are more likely to avoid a cycle of reading failure in which they fall farther behind their peers while their self-esteem takes major body blows.  Early intervention (that is, teaching the alphabetic code) can support ALL kids, whether or not they are at risk for reading failure.  True, many kids come to school already equipped with some phonics skills.  But those kindergarteners who aren’t even aware that words are made of individual sounds are already behind the curve.

Reading instruction shouldn’t be narrowed to a debate of “phonics” versus “meaning.”  Phonics instruction encompasses more than isolated skills and gives kids the ability to access literature.  Meaning-based instruction fosters higher level thinking but can’t occur in a letter-correspondence vacuum.  Enough said?  Want to share your perspectives?

* Helping Kids Understand Reading Difficulties

NeuronaHelping kids understand their reading difficulties is an important component of specialized reading instruction.  It can help children and their families cope successfully with a disability. Why and how?

Why talk about the reading disability? Doesn’t it just cause more anguish?  Isn’t that likely to make the child feel worse?  Most kids are already thinking a lot about their reading problems.  They are comparing themselves to others in their class.  They are probably worrying and imagining the worst.  They are also likely to come to the wrong conclusion: “I can’t read so I must be stupid.”   The greater a child’s self-awareness, the more they need to have the problem demystified.

How do you talk about this with a young child?  Won’t it be confusing?  Hopefully, the reading disability is recognized early on because that will certainly lessen the emotional impact of the problem.  Match your discussion to the child’s needs and developmental level.  I have found that even first graders are fascinated with colorful, magnified pictures of neuron growth, those little “trees” that keep growing as the child develops more skills.  I also use a ladder analogy.  Dyslexic kids may be on the fourth rung of the memory ladder for reading but on the first rung for the phonics and “word play” (phonological skills) ladder.  They may be much higher on math ladders.  The essential point is that there are ladders, a way up, and that they have already accomplished a lot in some/many areas of learning.

Aren’t you building false hope for these kids?  Won’t they always have difficulty?  Infusing hope is vital.  Who would start out on a mission that is doomed to failure?  Research demonstrates that physical changes occur in the brain as a result of effective reading instruction.  And while it does seem that the neurological differences will remain, research is “scant but suggestive” about the strengths of the dyslexic brain.  Certainly every child has unique strengths and the child will need to be reminded of that.  A lot.

What about the struggle in learning to read?  Should kids know how hard it will be?  The better the instruction, the less fatiguing the struggle will be.  Instruction should be paced in small, successful increments, with a way for kids to measure their growth.  But it is a marathon, not a sprint.  The typical learner is moving into chapter books while the challenged student is working on consonant digraphs.  Again, analogies are helpful.  There’s a steep climb ahead but also a point where the basics have been acquired and the struggle is lessened.  Some have called it “getting over the hump.”   With the right instruction and practice, it will happen.  Remember that it’s always easier to imagine the worst.  Help kids imagine the best.

How do you help these kids feel “normal?”  In the most important ways, they are just as normal as any of us.  You can normalize the reading disability just as you would the need to wear hearing aids or take insulin.  While teachers and parents should spend time talking with the child about dyslexia, that can’t be the child’s whole existence.  Explore activities or topics where the child can feel successful.  It may be math or science, or perhaps sports or scouting.  Remind your child that others are facing the same issues.  Follow this link for an excellent list of  books with characters who have reading difficulties, many of them authored by adults who themselves struggled to read.

If you have other questions I haven’t addressed, please let me know.

* Third POINT

Ah, a flow chart seemed like an excellent idea at the time.  And I think it would be effective if sorting out a student’s writing difficulties were as simple as following a recipe.  Here’s a sample of how my remediation for this particular student might look (taking into account my own approach to problem-solving, which is both linear and whimsical):flow chart

So scrap the flow chart idea on this blog.

Here’s what really happened. I decided to tackle four major issues at once and add components of other weaknesses as they best fit [refer to Write Away post]. First, we worked on graphomotor/visual perceptual problems. My eager student loved the mechanical pencils (and I gave her time to explore the intricacies of lead with me). Since the poor kid’s hand was no longer aching from writing, her classroom teacher was all for it. (Note: She had zero keyboarding skills and there was no way to add that to her life at present, although I recommended it as a summer opportunity).  I spent a little time each session teaching my willing writer to form the most problematic letters correctly. This was a student who processed information quickly and tuned out at a similar rate, so she hadn’t seen exactly how her kindergarten teacher formed each letter. The end result was that all her letters were formed from the bottom up, a feat I openly admired. I let her teach me how to make a few of those and I introduced her to a couple of new friends: the margin and the line.  After dictation of words that required use of the problematic letters, she had better habits (and I saw some glaring weaknesses in basic phonics).

The second issue we addressed was spelling.  After taking an inventory of required words for her grade level, I added those words, 5-8 at a time at first, to my account on Spelling City, where she could play cool games using her words. Once she started making some progress in this area, I let her practice through online games and left this issue until we could address phonics skills.

The third difficulty we addressed was her use of simple, repetitive sentences with minimal detail.   This was a kid who could talk your ears off with complex ideas and details, so I knew we were good to go.  I taught her “old fashioned” grammar, with each part of speech color-coded (based on Jane Fell Greene’s Language! program).  She was able to “write” using colored foam squares, with the goal of making her sentences more colorful and complex.  It’s a great strategy for writing because no pencil (or keyboard) is required! She learned the parts of speech quickly; I kept visual cues available to her as a reference and we played multiple bingo games and filled in cloze sentences related to her interests, adding new parts of speech every session.  The next step was to edit other students’ work for these features, using rubrics from Writing A-Z, and from there, to write her own sentences and edit those.  Eventually she dictated a 200+ word “how to” paper (using dictation because our focus was complexity, not spelling or handwriting).  You may have noticed that I added the use of rubrics and checklists into this phase of instruction.  This had been another area of weakness for her, so regular practice in editing other kids’ work was less threatening.  Who knows?  She may become an editor herself with that keen eye of hers.

The fourth area of remediation was complex (hence the flow chart burn out): phonological awareness, phonetic analysis, and syllable rules.  Her phonological skills were super, so we started up the ladders of phonics and syllabication.  She did not know short or long vowel sounds, which are near the bottom rungs for phonics instruction.  I linked syllable types to her phonics instruction, so she now identifies all six syllable types and only needs vowel diphthongs to top off her phonics skills.  I suspect your eyes are glazing over, as I know my husband’s would be, so this is a good stopping place.  I’ll save the details of this fourth area for later.  You’re welcome.