Thursday, February 16, 2017

Teaching Phonics and Word Study

Wiley Blevins' book, Teaching Phonics & Word Study in the Intermediate Grades, is a wonderful reference. The online resources that accompany the text are highly useful- including sample assessment tools, game templates and decoding skill templates. I have two previous posts here and here that I have written as I read this book. As a reference, I will definitely keep this on the shelf. It provides a detailed description of why to teach phonics and how to do it. While it focuses on the intermediate grades, it touches on the earlier grades as it does describe interventions for struggling learners.

Initial phonics instruction begins with understanding letter- sound correspondence. This is the first required step. Then it moves to using analogy to help with decoding words. For example, if a student knows that "cat" says cat, they can be taught that "bat" shares the /-at/ and thus should be read as bat. This is at the primary level with normally progressing readers. As students enter the intermediate grades they become exposed to longer words such as sedentary (bed--> sed, den--> en, Harry--> tary). This can be broken into syllables and known words can be used to help with pronunciation, decoding and ultimately comprehension. The challenges with decoding by analogy is that a) students need well developed phonemic awareness and alphabetic knowledge, b) students need a large sight word vocabulary and c) they need to know the word when they say it so that they can identify it as the correct word. When it comes to struggling readers at the high school level, some students still struggle with phonemic awareness (a small percent but they are there) and some have not mastered the alphabetic principles. Some of my students have very limited sight word vocabularies. They cannot search a big word for small words within them that are similar to words they know. Many of these students have limited vocabularies. If they are unaware of the word, they cannot tell if they have gotten it right because they do not recognize it. Unfortunately a percentage of these kids also have suppressed their curiosity about word knowledge and are not eagerly hoping to learn this newly discovered word. As such, teachers of older struggling readers need to carefully assess where the breakdown in reading occurs and provide remediation there, not in the place determined by a curriculum guide. Blevins clearly understands this concept and emphasizes it in his work.

Blevins identifies several reading intervention programs including Wilson reading, with which I am familiar. Using it as a reference, I looked at how it demonstrates good phonics instruction page number represent where in the Blevins text the component of phonics instruction is discussed.

explicit- The teacher teaches letter names, the sounds each letter stands for and reviews it. teaches blending sounds. provides opportunities to blend unknown words in context (p. 42).
readiness skills- the system always begins with level 1 where alphabetic awareness is assessed and taught so that all letters and their most common sounds are introduced- cards are used to teach and review every day. Oral blending and segmentation are taught- cards are used to teach blending and segmentation as is the motor skill of tapping. Blank cards are used to teach relating sounds to graphemes. (p. 47-9)
scope and sequence- the system is composed of 12 steps ranging from simple CVC words to multisyllabic CVC words, through the other syllable types and it includes both exceptions (ex. English words do not end in v, we add an e to the end of the word) and covers rimes and analogy instruction throughout (ex. early word families of -an and later -tion and -sion) (p. 47).
blending- Wilson uses finger tapping to represent blended sounds and to assist with counting sounds. It uses card manipulation and pointing to demonstrate blending. Blending is taught from the very beginning of the program. (p. 47)
dictation- Each Wilson lesson moves from decoding to encoding. The teaching element of the encoding portion of the lesson includes manipulating cards or magnetic letters or writing on a whiteboard to compose dictated words which are then “scooped” to demonstrate syllabication.  Dictation is one element of this as well. Students must write dictated sounds, words and then sentences. (p. 47)
word awareness- opportunities to play with words and combining word parts. Word sorts and studies are one of the 10 parts of a Wilson lesson. Wilson has students read nonsenses syllables that are later used in words. Word cards are used. They can be read and then various word sorts and games can be engaged in. Students are asked to read and write (or build with cards) words and word parts. Students engage in both reading(decoding) and writing (encoding) with the letter/digraph/morpheme cards (p. 47).
High Frequency words- Wilson has a sight word list to teach and reinforces their use through sentence and passage reading as well as dictation activities. (p. 47)
Reading connected text- Wilson has reading passages that include both high frequency words, words taught at earlier steps and novel words displaying patterns currently being taught. The controlled nature of the text means that students are not expected to read spelling/phonetic patterns they have not been taught. In fact the author of Wilson concurs with Blevins in that readers should not be asked to independently reading material beyond their independent reading level- more complex content and vocabulary can and should be introduced through listening comprehension activities. This helps develop skill in reading in general. (p. 48, 331-2)
Wilson clearly demonstrates the characteristics of a high quality, phonics intervention and is appropriate for students with phonics weaknesses.

One item that Blevins spends some time at the end of his text focusing on is reading high interest text. He quotes studies that say that the average middle schooler reads 1,000,000 words a year while the struggling one reads 10,000; good first grade readers read 1900 words a week whereas struggling readers only read 16 (p. 332). When you think about what the word deficit is, there is no wonder that students who struggle to read often have poor vocabularies. My daughter, who is a voracious high ability reader, was reading close to 10,000,000 words a year in middle school, a level she tries hard to maintain in light of her work schedule and reading light school assignments. Her junior classmates who are struggling readers cannot hope to have her vocabulary or background knowledge. Our students need access to books they are interested in at their reading level. All too often we give students reading material that does not interest them. We need to work hard to find reading material that engages them. Hi-lo publishers and librarians can be immeasurably useful in this activity. Kids need to read and be read to in order to increase their background knowledge and vocabulary. This is critical to improving their reading comprehension. We need them to read. Anything that engages them. Everything that engages them.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Teaching phonics- word study

When I first heard of word study I was uncertain what on earth people were talking about. I gradually created an understanding of word study. Wiley Blevins's book Teaching Phonics & Word Study in the Intermediate Grades includes a quote from Moats (2000) that "word study refers to the process of learning words, including their spelling, meaning, pronunciation, historical origin, and relationship with other words" (p. 241). When reading teachers talk about word study they often do not mean the entire spectrum of features. Mostly they refer to pronunciation and meaning.

Blevins's includes some general guidelines for word study (p. 239-40):
  • Introduce or reinforce the concept that words can be made up of several elements- this includes affixes, compound words and roots.
  • Be sure your instruction is explicit- Madeline Hunter rears up again. Direct instruction is the most effective and efficient way to deliver instruction. This is not the place for inquiry learning. Teach the elements of word analysis. Teach how to discover the meaning of the words. Teach how to use the word. Learning words may take a bright student only a couple of exposures, but some students with disabilities might need as many as 100 exposures to the word or root. Teach- review- review. For students with disabilities prioritize the word study to the most common and useful elements.
  • During instruction, rely more on concrete, known examples rather than abstract rules, principles or definitions.- Teach the relationship between the word's structure and the role in the sentence. Evaporation- includes -tion which means an act or process. Evaporation is the act or process of evaporating. See it. Highlight it. I worked with a teacher who assigned a vocabulary exercise of locating the vocabulary word in the text and define it. If it was a nomination, they were expected to be able to change the definition to the noun form of an act or process of whatever. If it had an -ly ending, they were supposed to know that it was a characteristic of whatever. The problem is that she never taught how the suffixes did this work. A great beginning if the rule had been taught and a resource, like an anchor chart or sheet of how suffixes change words, were available.
  • Alert students to the diversity of English words- English comes from many places- mostly Latin, Greek or Anglo-Saxon origins. Latin and Greek roots are combined to form larger words often found in social studies and science. There is overlap and some words are from other sources as well. English has more words than any other language. This makes English very complicated to learn, but since about 60% of English is derived from Latin or Greek, it makes understanding high frequency roots important.
  • Be sure students are aware of the limitations of structural analysis- not all word parts are discrete roots- under is not a combination of in- and -der.  
  • Apply, apply, apply. They need to practice the activity repeatedly. This is not limited to any grade or subject. It needs to be done across the curriculum and over the entire spectrum of years.

Photosynthesis is a term introduced in elementary school, and reinforced and expanded upon in middle school and high school. Students can learn about the roots- photo means light, synthesis means putting together. These two roots can be used to understand many other words. From a word study standpoint activities like the one below can be completed by small groups to examine the concept. From a phonics standpoint, reading photo- as a unit becomes a method for reading other words with the root more quickly. It becomes like a sight word making the word, and others using the root, easier to read. Engaging in the activities in the boxes allows students to study the word- photosynthesis, but it also allows for learning about related words as well.

What does photo- mean?

What other words do you know with the root photo-? What does each word have to do with light?

How does photosynthesis showcase the meaning of the root?
Describe the process of photosynthesis.

This represents a word study that could be continued as students learn words like photogenic, photon, and phototropism. Knowing that they all have to do with light means it is easier to learn their specific meaning, pronunciation and spelling.

Throughout the section on word study children's books are suggested to demonstrate concepts. Secondary students can benefit from children's books if they are introduced carefully.  Blevins also includes worksheets to use almost as a graphic organizer to complete word studies.

This book is an amazing presentation on how to utilize phonics instruction at the intermediate level. Many of his guidelines are equally valid for older students with disabilities as well. I look forward to the rest of the book.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Vacationing beyond your capability

Years ago my son was in a study and I had to fill out a questionnaire about how he impacted our lives. Initially I said he did not prevent us from doing the things we wanted to do. Then I went home and thought about it. He controls what we do. We craft our existence around him. We do not go out to dinner or entertainment as a family. We rarely have people over. We stick to a routine that is crazy strict and have pushed that on our extended families when they interact. Carefully selecting battles becomes essential.

When you have a child who thrives on consistency and routine, vacations are problematic. By their very nature they are not routine or consistent. We spent many years with our vacation bet being how long it would be before a public meltdown. We have had tantrums in any number of places. The best ones do not involve me holding him so he cannot run off through glass and traffic. The meltdown becomes an expectation. The first time we had a vacation without a meltdown, he was in high school. We celebrated.

As a teacher, this path of being a parent of a child on the spectrum has been eye opening. I have mentioned hating vacations to my peers who look at me like I am crazy. Surely I enjoy the time off and away. No, my circumstances have made it extra work. I spent his entire elementary years planning each vacation day- two activities a day. We had a calendar of events and we stuck to it. Schedules were put together ahead of time and explained. Yes, we did lots of crafts. We spent an hour at the museum and drove home. Sometimes we would return in two days to spend an hour doing the same things again. We went to the grocery store with a behavior plan for behaving appropriately. When he was at school, this was his teacher's job. At home, it is mine.

My husband and I came to the conclusion that our vacation hell was partly our fault. We were vacationing beyond his capability.  It frustrated us that every piece of the vacation had to have a plan for him. I'll take one, he'll take the other kid and we each do something specially chosen for the child. We traded off so that the drain of constantly being on edge and planning for contingencies and managing behavior did not wear too heavy. And so that my daughter had the opportunity to do some of the things she wanted to so. Flying meant trading off- the puker- my daughter gets air sick and has used the air sickness bag and my body several times- or the behavior- entertain for the entire trip with a schedule of activities. We had to plan lots of down time because he needs it. We could not have any outing take more than an hour and a half or there would be hell to pay as he reached his limits.

Many comedians have bits about needing a vacation to recover from vacation. I suspect that is true for all parents. It is especially true for parents of children with ASD. It makes me say that a work day is less work than a weekend or vacation day. As teachers we tend to dismiss, or at least not think too much about, the challenges our parents have with their children. We think everyone must relish vacation. So not true.

Personally we have resolved to pay more attention to him in our vacation planning. That means he does not get to go on every trip we take. He can stay home with his amazing grandparents. (I am, without a doubt, hugely blessed to be have family that gets him. So many families of children on the spectrum do not.) Or one of us can stay home with him. It means when he goes on vacation, we can tailor it to him without feeling cheated. Shorter trips, private space, and informal meals become a must with him.

Walking in my shoes has taught me the wisdom of trying to understand the shoes of other parents.