I Can Read That

Thoughts on Teaching Reading and Writing

The Dangerous Deeohjee

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The Deeohjee is stalking students.

Under a different name, it lives in harmony with children in many homes. But some people call it the “Deeohjee”, and that’s when it starts to sow confusion and frustration among young learners.

When the language problems mount, those in charge blame such conditions as “learning disabilities”, “dyslexia”, or “attention deficit disorder”, when really, it’s the Deeohjee that’s to blame.

I’ll explain why I think the Deeohjee is such a problem, but first some background.

The Sounds of Spoken Language

Kids usually learn to speak their native language early in life, without any particular “speaking” program. They listen to the speech of others, try to imitate what they hear, and make corrections that will help them clearly convey their ideas to their listeners. How do they do that? Even before going to school, kids intuitively learn how to use two important components of spoken language, namely syllables and speech sounds. They don’t know what syllables and speech sounds are, but they also sing songs without knowing either the names or the lengths of the musical notes they’re singing.

“Mama” is usually the first word acquired by children learning English. When they master it, they can say it using two syllables — ma-ma — and two blended speech sounds — “mmm” and “ah” — both spoken twice. If they say, “ma-am” or “mi- mo” or “bo-nu”, the people they’re speaking to may fail to respond. In that case, kids usually work hard to make their version of the word resemble or even match the version spoken by others. This means that they must use an appropriate number of syllables, present them in correct order and include appropriate speech sounds in each of the syllables in order to get attention.

Similarly, they can learn to say many different words, such as

1. “a”, like the “a” (cat): one syllable (or beat) and one speech sound.

2. “sit”: one syllable/beat and three speech sounds.

3.“candy”: two syllables/beats — “can” and “dy” and five speech sounds.

Let’s look at that last example. What’s the first sound in the word “candy”? It’s not “see”, as we might pronounce the name of the letter “c”. It’s the same sound (not the name) of the letter “k”. Here’s what that sounds like

The Sound of the Letter “k”

Likewise, the sound of the second letter in “candy” isn’t “ay”, as we might say the name of the letter “a”, but this:

The Sound of the Letter “a”

And this is where the Deeohjee comes in and makes a mess.

Sowing Confusion

Some language teachers insist on using the names of the letters when they teach speaking or reading. And so, in place of the sounds of the letters “d”, “o” and “g”, they use the names of those letters. As a result, young children have to try to figure out how “dee-oh-jee” can possibly give them the word “dog”.

By telling students that they should pay attention to the names of the letters instead of the sounds of the letters, teachers and parents ignore what those children have been eagerly learning about language during their first five or six years of life. Instead, they ask them to change to a system that does not appropriately deal either with the syllables or the speech sounds that they had been identifying and reproducing.

In an upcoming post, I’ll give you some examples of how you should teach children to sound out words.

Written by Olga

April 13th, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Posted in Teaching Tips

Tokens to the rescue

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If you’re going to help your child learn to read, you’ll need to know how to deal with syllables. I’ve got a tip for teaching these word parts, but first… my moment of discovery!

Years ago, I wondered if a child about to start grade school could identify the syllables he/she uses in speaking. A syllable is one of the “chunks” we use to pronounce a word. So, for instance, if you say “zombie”, you say it in two parts: zom and bie. Zom-bie. Zombie.

Mark, Early Edition

Mark: Ready to tackle syllables

Could my five-year-old son, Mark, break a word into parts, into syllables? I found him sitting among a pile of Lego pieces – as per usual — busily putting the tiles together to model the buildings he had seen in his travels around town.

I sat down beside him.

  • Me: Markie, I am going to say something. Listen carefully. ‘Paper’. Can you say this word back to me?
  • Mark: Sure. ‘Paper’.
  • Me: I can say ‘paper’ in parts. Listen again. ‘Pa-per’. How many parts are there?
  • Mark: Two.
  • Me: Great! I’ll tell you another word. ‘Tiger’. Can you say it back to me?
  • Mark: Sure. ‘Tiger’.
  • Me: Can you say ‘tiger’ in parts?

Mark shook his head. I tried this routine with a few other words, but all I got was a lot of head shaking. Mark returned to his building, adding the next Lego tile to his construction.

I sat there, watching. A few minutes passed. As I watched, I recalled reading about the difficulties some speakers have in forming spoken sentences. Unaided, they cannot do it. But if they use a concrete aid to represent each word – “The” (put down a token) “dog” (token again) “sat” (token) – then they can create sentences.

Using a similar technique, could Mark identify syllables, if I gave him some concrete aids? Grabbing two Lego tiles, I turned back to Mark.

  • Me: Look, Markie, I can say ‘paper’ in parts and I can put a Lego piece down for each part. See? I am putting down one tile for ‘pa–’ and another for ‘–per’. How many parts are there?
  • Mark: Two.
  • Me: Can you say ‘tiger’ in parts and put down a tile for each part?
  • Mark: Sure.

He repeats the word, puts down a tile for ‘ti-“ and another for “-ger” and says it in parts. My enthusiastic congratulations please him greatly. But he seems disappointed by my obvious inefficiency.

  • Mark: Why didn’t you show me how to do that right away!

Since then I have used this natural syllabication technique with students of all ages, both with beginners and with experienced readers. Armed with a few rules and some background information and supported by some practice, they learn how to divide English words – both spoken and written — into syllables.

Written by Olga

May 30th, 2011 at 9:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Why (orthographic) rules rule

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While my son Kevin was attending Grade 1, his teacher called me in for a special meeting.  I was puzzled. What did she need to tell me? What had gone wrong?

When we met, she explained that Kevin had been looking over her shoulder recently as she read a book aimed at adults. “I can read that,” he announced. The teacher didn’t believe it.  After he read what she had been reading, she still could not believe it!

I think that he was able to read her book because before he enrolled in school his grandmother had diligently taught him some of the basic orthographic principles, the connections, in other words, between how words are said and how they are written.

Easier if he knows the code

So, by Grade 1, Kevin had three strategies at his disposal.  He could

  • identify unfamiliar written words, using the orthographic principles that he knew at that time. (Strategy 1)
  • recognize, immediately,  frequently occurring words, without sounding them out. (Strategy 2)
  • by using the context of selections as a guide, he could often guess the identity of unfamiliar words that he could not yet fully change to spoken language,  (Strategy 3)

So, for the most part, he was able to translate what his teacher was reading into spoken language.

When students first come to me for instruction, things look quite a bit different.

  • They use Strategy 2. They read by recalling words that they had previously memorized as wholes, without orthographic analysis and synthesis. I asked Parker,  one of my Grade 4 students, how he memorized the words he was instructed to remember. He told me that he wrote each word again and again, trying to  memorize the names of the letters in each word. As a result,  even though he uses English speech sounds every day while talking and listening, he did not  know how to match these speech sounds with the letters and/or groups of letters of our alphabet. (He knows how to do it now!)
  • They cannot use Strategy 1, because they don’t know how to identify unfamiliar written words independently.
  • They cannot  use Strategy 3, unless the selection they are reading contains enough memorized words to enable them to use context as a guide.

Asked to read, they sometimes succeed. How do they feel when they try to identify a word they had not previously memorized? They feel Stumped!

I know a bright little girl who’s in Grade 3. One day, while reading a story, she tried to translate an easily decodable word into spoken language. She thought… and thought… and thought…

Finally, in exasperation, she exclaimed, “I have never seen this word in my whole life!”

If only she had been able to use Strategy 1!

Written by Olga

March 26th, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Posted in Philosophy

Sense out of sounds

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"Dog"... or "Deeohgee"?

Jack, my seven-year old student is lucky.

If he had lived in ancient times, he would have had trouble interpreting messages presented in pictured or written form.  He would have had to guess what a particular artist was saying by carving a picture in stone. Or he might have had to memorize 50,000 different written symbols that matched every word in one of the languages. Pretty tricky.

Luckily for him, some observant language experts invented alphabets. They noticed that the stream of spoken language could be separated into smaller units, namely words, and these, in turn, could be subdivided into even smaller units, the speech sounds.  Speech sounds, in combination, reflect the auditory composition of each word. Now all the experts had to do was to assign written symbols to each of the identified speech sounds–and there was an alphabet.

Some early alphabets had serious problems.  They pinpointed only the consonant sounds of words, but ignored the vowels sounds.

Using such an alphabet to teach a seven-year old how to read or write would pose an insolvable problem.  For example, having shown him two consonant letters, such as “bn”, a teacher might persuade him that they stood for “bun”. On other days, the teacher would have to explain that “bn” also represented  “ban”, “bin”, “been”, “bain” or “bone”, and numerous other possibilities.

Happily, today our English alphabet contains not only 20 (or 21) consonant letters but also includes 5 (or 6) vowel letters.   Now a child can look at the word “bun” and try to decode it. But how?

One approach might be to have him memorize the names (and not the sounds) of the letters of the alphabet. He could then read “bun” as something like “bee-you-en”– not a word whose sound he would recognize.

He could also memorize the word as a whole, by repeated reading and/or writing. Eventually, he would be able to read and spell it, just as pre-literate children can read and write their own name without knowing or understanding the principles of reading and writing.

Regrettably, techniques like these are implemented in many schools.

There are approximately 171,476 English words in current use. All of them can be represented in written form. Does it really make sense to have children memorize some of them, or as many of them as possible?  Or should we, instead, teach them a finite group of rules of English orthographic principles that would arm them with useful reading and writing strategies?

If the latter idea makes sense to you, the next question is “How do we begin?”

I’ll have the answer in my next post.

Written by Olga

March 6th, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Posted in Philosophy

The root of the problem

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She can...

She can... if you show her how

One of my students this year is Jack, a seven-year old student enrolled in Grade 2.

When he arrived for his first lesson with me, he announced that he hated school and reading. He used determined and—inventive—strategies to avoid reading and writing as much as possible. Previous testing by the school identified him as someone who had strong learning abilities but who was plagued by a “learning disability”.

I’m certain something is plaguing him, but it isn’t a disability.

You may know a child with a “learning disability”.  He or she can’t read or write at the expected level. But have you ever wondered whether a child’s reading and writing may be blocked not by some mysterious disability but rather by an inappropriate teaching strategy?

Reading and writing in English is based on an alphabet, consisting of 26 letters. These letters, singly or in groups, have been associated with the speech sounds commonly used by native speakers, forming patterns of rules and relationships, together with some exceptions. This means that learning to read and write involves understanding and remembering such relationships, together with their exceptions.

Unfortunately, for years some educators have assumed that the relationships between English speech sounds and the letters and groups of letters of their alphabet are too unpredictable, that the effort required to learn them can’t be justified. As a result, several educators have devised teaching methods—which are now being used in many schools—that require students to memorize whole words, rather than having them learn English orthographic guidelines–spelling rules, in other words– that underlie both reading and writing.

This is wrong, for two reasons.

First, experience and research show that the spelling of most written English words falls into particular, predictable patterns. Fewer than ten percent of English words have to be memorized as wholes. Second, the strategy of simply attempting to read whole words  seems to have produced numbers of students, some with “learning disabilities”, who don’t read or write very well.

That would include my “disabled” student. The one who hated school and reading.

What happened to him?

We’ve spent several months studying the established correspondences between English speech sounds and the alphabet. He now reads at grade level, is able to explain newly acquired principles of the written forms of English, both to me–and to an audience of stuffed animals. And, if his invitation to join him in his school’s Celebration of Learning is an indication, he is proud of his achievement.

Our work continues.

Written by Olga

February 21st, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Posted in Philosophy

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