Struggling Readers Need Encouragement

Struggling readers, especially those in the upper grades, tend to carry with them a low reading esteem.  They are aware that they just can’t do it and many times, they lack the motivation to read altogether.  It may even sound like: “I hate to read” or “Reading is boring”.  I know I’ve heard these phrases uttered by some of the upper elementary grade students I’ve tutored.

When I would type up the initial assessment report for the parents, the last thing I wanted to do was focus all my attention on their child’s reading weaknesses.  I always included a section on his/her reading strengths…and that was the part I liked to share with the student. 🙂

When looking through my reports, here are some of the actual comments I used for strengths (feel free to use these if they apply to your child or a child in your classroom):

  • She is skilled in word recognition and decoding (this applied to a 4th grader who could decode on a 6th grade level, but was only comprehending at a 2nd grade level)
  • He has mastered beginning and ending consonants and most short vowel words.
  • When given more than one second, he was able to figure out 4 more words on the word list (10 words long).
  • She went back and self-corrected her errors most of the time while reading the passage.
  • She was able to answer all of the explicit questions correctly on the passage.
  • He went back and re-read when something didn’t make sense in the passage; a sign that he understands that reading is supposed to make sense.

When I’m reading with students or doing word study, I tell students what I like about their reading or spelling.  Here are some things I say to them:

  • You made a very smart mistake because the word you said looks a whole lot like the word in the text.  (This happened just the other day with the words thought and though.)
  • I thought it was really cool how you went back and corrected your mistake when you realized it didn’t make sense.  I do that all the time!
  • You spelled the word exactly how it sounds.  Way to use your ear!
  • I like how you erased that part of the word and spelled it again.  It looked like you were trying to picture the word in your head.  And it paid off, because you spelled it correctly the second time.

By focusing on students’ strengths, it helps them to see specifically how they are growing as readers (aren’t we all??).  It also builds their motivation and reading esteem.  I firmly believe, through my experiences as a teacher, tutor and reading mama, that motivating kids is half the battle.  If a child believes he can’t, he won’t.  Oh, but the power of positive thinking.  If we can instill that into our young readers by being explicit about their reading strengths, then by all means, let’s spread some reading encouragement! 🙂

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New Series on Struggling Readers

I just got information that it will take 7 days for my blog to switch over.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep my posts coming…:)

For the next few weeks, I’d like to use my Tuesday’s teaching tip posts to focus on struggling readers.  Struggling readers are a passion of mine.  I’ve tutored several of them, from K through 5th grades, and have seen them become confident and capable readers (who actually enjoy reading).

Part of why I love working with them is that I used to be one.  I can remember being in the lowest reading group, mispronouncing words while other students giggled, and hating (and I mean HATING) to read out loud; even in high school!  The sweaty palms, my heart beating out of my chest, the butterflies raging war in my stomach, serious doubts in my head…the emotional scars of a struggling reader.  I can so relate to the students I’ve tutored.

Where do I start with a struggling reader?

When a child is struggling to read, the first thing I do as a tutor is try to pinpoint the root of the reading problem.  Is he struggling with basic phonemic & phonological awareness, phonics skills, decoding, word recognition, fluency, or comprehension?  Perhaps the student is even dealing with other issues such as ADD, difficulty processing, difficult circumstances at home, lack of motivation or self-esteem.  These other issues can have a negative impact on reading as well.

As a reading tutor, I gather as much information as I can through a series of assessments and surveys.  These include:

  1. parent survey
  2. teacher survey
  3. student reading questionnaire
  4. reading attitude questionnaire
  5. Primary or Elementary Spelling Inventory (from Words Their Way)
  6. phonological or phonemic awareness assessment (for younger students)
  7. various leveled fiction and non-fiction texts read aloud by the student, followed by comprehension questions
  8. a listening comprehension assessment done on the student’s actual grade level

It’s quite an extensive assessment…I’d venture to say more extensive than most schools have time to do for individual students.  The report I type up and show the parents is usually 12-14 pages long!  Needless to say, it was (I am not doing these currently with 3 young ones at home!) very time consuming.  But I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It was similar to putting a puzzle together without knowing exactly what the picture would look like.

It would take me many, long hours to explain how to do all those assessments, surveys, and questionnaires; so I won’t.  I’d probably bore you anyway!  If you’d like the “cliff notes”, Reading Rockets has several great articles about struggling readers.  I hope you’ll check them out.

What I’d like to zero in on are the teaching practices in regards to reading that are almost universal for all struggling readers.  I hope you’ll join this reading mama tomorrow and for the next few weeks as we explore some ideas for struggling readers each Tuesday.

More Butterfly Writing

As we’re wrapping up our study on butterflies, I wanted to post a couple of ways we integrated writing into our unit.  I have been SO proud of his attitude while writing lately.

1.  Butterfly Life Cycle

I read Becoming Butterflies by Anne Rockwell.  This book tells about the life cycle of Monarch butterflies and we compared it to what had happened with our painted lady butterflies.

He worked the butterfly life cycle puzzle from Lakeshore.  This served as a quick review.  I believe it is discontinued now, but I found the set at yard sale recently for $2.

I folded over pieces of paper and created a flip chart to show how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly.  He used pictures and words from the book to help him draw and write the words.  Something I noticed is that chrysalid and chrysalis seem to be interchangeable.  Maybe I’m wrong…and if I am, please correct me!

On the top page, he wrote Becoming Butterflies.

Here are a couple of his inside pages:

egg- 1st page

butterfly- last page

This flip chart concept could be adapted and used with many different content areas.

Just a few that pop in my mind right away are:

  • retelling a story in order
  • helping a child understand where they live: city, state, country, continent would go on the pages and the child would draw pictures of those things on the inside flaps
  • writing math problems: for example, 4+5 could be written and when it’s  flipped open, the child writes the answer and maybe draws pictures or writes words to show how she got the answer

2. What Did You Learn?

I read It’s a Butterfly’s Life by Irene Kelly.  This is VERY interesting book.  For example, did you know that a caterpillar’s poop is called frass?  Some caterpillars can even “shoot” their frass up to 3 feet (we pulled out a yard stick to see just how far that was)!  There were parts of the book that were WAY over his head, so I paraphrased or skipped those.

Before reading, I told ALuv that this book contained very interesting and even gross facts about butterflies.  This really engaged him, as he wanted to get to the gross parts.

During reading, I kept commenting, “Wow!  I didn’t know that before!” or “That’s so cool!”  He made comments as well.

After reading, I asked him what facts he remembered the most.  We engaged in dialogue about this, as I shared mine.  Once he established his favorite, I asked him to draw a picture showing it.  I walked away as he worked, so as not to “hover” (as my husband calls it).

This is what he drew:

A green caterpillar with large eye spots.

Once he had his picture drawn, I asked him to tell me about it.  I helped him narrow down the sentence he wanted to write and I set him free to write it.  I listened.  No whining…no crying…not an utterance of  “But I can’t!”.  After a couple minutes of silence, I was intrigued.  I simply walked by to see what was happening.  He had already written two words: The caterpillar.  He had used the flip chart I mentioned above to spell caterpillar!  I was so proud!!

He used the Word Wall to spell several other sight words.  A few times, he did ask for help.  When he did, I modeled how to stretch out the words.  He said the words, too and wrote down the sounds he heard.  Stretching out words and writing down the phonemes is a great way to further develop a child’s phonemic awareness; a necessary skill for reading!

This is the final work:

The Caterpillar can scar othr animls uwa with thr big is.

(The caterpillar can scare other animals away with their big eyes.)

This reading mama’s favorite was UWA for away…brilliant!  Okay, so I am aware that he has a capital C at the beginning of caterpillar and that this “fact” isn’t entirely true…they’re really eye spots, but who cares?!?!  I could not stop praising him for his good attitude and hard work.  His handwriting looks amazing!  Just about a month ago, he didn’t even understand how to use the lines.  Now, he can use them independently!  Yay!

What do I think made such a big difference in a month’s time?  I believe it all boils down to best teaching practices that work in any content area:

  1. Modeling: If you remember, when he wrote in his journal about our butterflies, I modeled “correct” letter formation on a lined dry erase board; which I found at Target in their $1 bin last year.  He has also repeated the sentence strip handwriting activity; which gives him a good model with letter formation.
  2. Multiple Exposures:  I bumped up my expectations with him.  We write almost every day now.
  3. Meaningful Practice: Not worksheet after worksheet, but fun and authentic reasons for writing.

And…an old trick I had forgotten until recently:  Let him draw his picture first.   Drawing tends to be easier (and more fun) for kids at a young age and a less daunting place for them to start.  Encourage them to fill their pictures with lots of details.  When they’re done, ask them to describe their picture to you so they can verbalize their thoughts.  They may even allow you to label their picture.  Then, help them to figure out what they want to write down based off their picture.

Tuesday’s Teaching Tip

“I have a 3rd grader and she still reverses her b‘s and d‘s.  My friend has a daughter in the 3rd grade who doesn’t do this and she told me that my child  shouldn’t be doing this anymore either.  Should I be concerned?”  This was a question a mama recently asked me.  And I thought it was a good one at that!

I probed further to find out that her child was reading and writing on a 1st grade level.  Developmentally speaking, this student was a 1st grader, despite what “grade” she was actually in.

My response went something like this (cliff note version):

“Your daughter is demonstrating the spelling behavior of a 1st grader because that’s the developmental level she’s in.  Students in this stage still do reverse their letters on occasion, so for her developmental stage, she is ‘normal’.”

We need to remember to look at the whole child as we observe and assess.  Instead of expecting literacy behaviors based solely off of a student’s grade level,  we need to make sure we take into account what developmental stage he is in.

As for the b and d reversals, it can be a source of embarrassment for kids who are the older grades, yet in a different developmental stage.  This is what I tell the students I tutor who struggle with this particular reversal: With a pencil, lightly write a capital B at the top of your page.  The lower case b will fit inside of it.  When you’re done with your writing, erase your B and no one will ever know that you needed it. 🙂

And a big P.S.– Even if this mama’s 3rd grade girl was developmentally in the 3rd grade, ALL KIDS ARE DIFFERENT!  We need to be careful that we avoid playing the comparison game with our kids.  It can negatively affect how they see themselves as writers and readers!

Tuesday's Teaching Tip

“I have a 3rd grader and she still reverses her b‘s and d‘s.  My friend has a daughter in the 3rd grade who doesn’t do this and she told me that my child  shouldn’t be doing this anymore either.  Should I be concerned?”  This was a question a mama recently asked me.  And I thought it was a good one at that!

I probed further to find out that her child was reading and writing on a 1st grade level.  Developmentally speaking, this student was a 1st grader, despite what “grade” she was actually in.

My response went something like this (cliff note version):

“Your daughter is demonstrating the spelling behavior of a 1st grader because that’s the developmental level she’s in.  Students in this stage still do reverse their letters on occasion, so for her developmental stage, she is ‘normal’.”

We need to remember to look at the whole child as we observe and assess.  Instead of expecting literacy behaviors based solely off of a student’s grade level,  we need to make sure we take into account what developmental stage he is in.

As for the b and d reversals, it can be a source of embarrassment for kids who are the older grades, yet in a different developmental stage.  This is what I tell the students I tutor who struggle with this particular reversal: With a pencil, lightly write a capital B at the top of your page.  The lower case b will fit inside of it.  When you’re done with your writing, erase your B and no one will ever know that you needed it. 🙂

And a big P.S.– Even if this mama’s 3rd grade girl was developmentally in the 3rd grade, ALL KIDS ARE DIFFERENT!  We need to be careful that we avoid playing the comparison game with our kids.  It can negatively affect how they see themselves as writers and readers!

Tuesday's Teaching Tip

Literacy encompasses more than reading and writing.  It includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  I know that I’m not a linguist, but there are a few things I’ve noticed and observed myself about kids and their literacy development.

Literacy typically develops in this order:

1.  Listening  I just had to share what my sweet MBug is doing at 11 months old.  She can clap her hands, put her hands up, shake her head when you say, “No way, Jose”, and look out the window when we say, “Where’s the airplane?” (we live near the airport)

2. Speaking

3. Reading/Decoding

4. Writing/Spelling

Not all kids spend the same amount of time in each stage before adding on the next one.  ALuv was almost 3 years old before he really started talking, whereas NJoy was speaking in complete sentences at 2 years old.

So, why am I telling you this?  This is supposed to be a teaching tip Tuesday, right?

My tip (and sometimes soap box, but I’ll keep it somewhat short and semi-sweet) is that we need to consider how kids develop with literacy before we try and make them fit into a curriculum that isn’t so considerate.

For example, I recently attended a homeschool conference in which I was introduced to a literacy curriculum (that will remain nameless) that claimed kids should be able to spell every word they can read…that reading and spelling development should happen at the same time.   Really?!?  Maybe I’m just naive and inexperienced, but I’ve yet to find a child who can do that!  Actually, I can’t even do that.  I can read the word ophthalmologist, but I just had to look it up to spell it for you.

Writing and spelling, in their essence, are much more demanding than reading.  A beginning reader may rely heavily on context clues to read words, not necessarily paying attention to much more than the pictures and the first letter in each word.  This is not so with writing.  A young speller has to not only think of what he wants to write, but also how to:

  1. listen for letter sounds in each word (phonemes)
  2. pick the right letter/letter combination that matches each sound (phonics)
  3. remember what the letter(s) looks like (visualize)
  4. form each letter correctly (handwriting)
  5. remember the exact order in which the letters come to spell some words conventionally (spelling)
  6. then remember what message he was trying to portray in the first place; so he can start the whole process all over again to spell the next word in his sentence

No wonder it may take him ten minutes just to write three words!

Sometimes you just need trust your gut and use your own judgment as a reading mama or teacher.  Just because the curriculum (or the school) says it’s supposed to be done a certain way doesn’t mean that your child will fit that mold.  And just because an “expert” or “researcher” in the reading field says it, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily developmentally appropriate.

Tuesday’s Teaching Tip

Literacy encompasses more than reading and writing.  It includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  I know that I’m not a linguist, but there are a few things I’ve noticed and observed myself about kids and their literacy development.

Literacy typically develops in this order:

1.  Listening  I just had to share what my sweet MBug is doing at 11 months old.  She can clap her hands, put her hands up, shake her head when you say, “No way, Jose”, and look out the window when we say, “Where’s the airplane?” (we live near the airport)

2. Speaking

3. Reading/Decoding

4. Writing/Spelling

Not all kids spend the same amount of time in each stage before adding on the next one.  ALuv was almost 3 years old before he really started talking, whereas NJoy was speaking in complete sentences at 2 years old.

So, why am I telling you this?  This is supposed to be a teaching tip Tuesday, right?

My tip (and sometimes soap box, but I’ll keep it somewhat short and semi-sweet) is that we need to consider how kids develop with literacy before we try and make them fit into a curriculum that isn’t so considerate.

For example, I recently attended a homeschool conference in which I was introduced to a literacy curriculum (that will remain nameless) that claimed kids should be able to spell every word they can read…that reading and spelling development should happen at the same time.   Really?!?  Maybe I’m just naive and inexperienced, but I’ve yet to find a child who can do that!  Actually, I can’t even do that.  I can read the word ophthalmologist, but I just had to look it up to spell it for you.

Writing and spelling, in their essence, are much more demanding than reading.  A beginning reader may rely heavily on context clues to read words, not necessarily paying attention to much more than the pictures and the first letter in each word.  This is not so with writing.  A young speller has to not only think of what he wants to write, but also how to:

  1. listen for letter sounds in each word (phonemes)
  2. pick the right letter/letter combination that matches each sound (phonics)
  3. remember what the letter(s) looks like (visualize)
  4. form each letter correctly (handwriting)
  5. remember the exact order in which the letters come to spell some words conventionally (spelling)
  6. then remember what message he was trying to portray in the first place; so he can start the whole process all over again to spell the next word in his sentence

No wonder it may take him ten minutes just to write three words!

Sometimes you just need trust your gut and use your own judgment as a reading mama or teacher.  Just because the curriculum (or the school) says it’s supposed to be done a certain way doesn’t mean that your child will fit that mold.  And just because an “expert” or “researcher” in the reading field says it, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily developmentally appropriate.

Tuesday's Teaching Tip

I wanted to connect you with a couple of blogs I follow for today’s teaching tips.

 1. Teach Mama has a great post on what to say when kids make reading mistakes.  Her post is very thorough and well-thought out.  Amen, Amy!

2. I also found this one from Beginning Reading Help.  Michelle’s tip is how to separate syllables in words to sound them out.

While I do like her post, this reading mama would add two things:

1. By the time a child is reading words like metamorphosis, “sounding out” should not be the primary decoding strategy.  In this stage of reading, young readers should be looking for chunks or morphemes they know within the words.

2. If possible, read or at least skim through the text ahead of time and pull out words you know will be a challenge for your young reader to decode.  Talk about their meaning, break them apart into syllables, model and practice decoding strategies out of context before they see them in context.  This alleviates the need to stop during reading, which can compromise comprehension.  (With the kids I tutor, 4-5 words is my maximum number of words I pull out of context.  If I see that I need to pull out many more than that, it is a clue to me that the text is probably too difficult for that student.)

Tuesday’s Teaching Tip

I wanted to connect you with a couple of blogs I follow for today’s teaching tips.

 1. Teach Mama has a great post on what to say when kids make reading mistakes.  Her post is very thorough and well-thought out.  Amen, Amy!

2. I also found this one from Beginning Reading Help.  Michelle’s tip is how to separate syllables in words to sound them out.

While I do like her post, this reading mama would add two things:

1. By the time a child is reading words like metamorphosis, “sounding out” should not be the primary decoding strategy.  In this stage of reading, young readers should be looking for chunks or morphemes they know within the words.

2. If possible, read or at least skim through the text ahead of time and pull out words you know will be a challenge for your young reader to decode.  Talk about their meaning, break them apart into syllables, model and practice decoding strategies out of context before they see them in context.  This alleviates the need to stop during reading, which can compromise comprehension.  (With the kids I tutor, 4-5 words is my maximum number of words I pull out of context.  If I see that I need to pull out many more than that, it is a clue to me that the text is probably too difficult for that student.)

Tuesday's Teaching Tip

Disclaimer: Before I knew much about blogging (and I’m still learning!), I filled many pages with info and organized it in my navigation bar.  Little did I know that my blog would and could be viewed in many different venues that don’t allow the reader to see or use the navigation bar.  So, I thought this page would also make a good teaching tip for today.  I hope you enjoy it!

Making It Tangible

One of the things teachers learn in our training is to make things tangible for students.  Many things in life are abstract and it helps to start with the concrete and build up from there.  I’ll never forget in a teacher training session, we were to put in order from concrete to abstract these 3 items: the word apple, a picture of an apple, and an actual apple.

CONCRETE: an actual apple–it can be felt, manipulated, cut into, eaten, observed

LESS CONCRETE: a picture of an apple

ABSTRACT: the word apple

If a child has not had experience with the real apple, the word apple will not mean too much to her. It is the same with reading unfamiliar vocabulary words and content.  Our kids need to be able to feel it, manipulate it, “cut into it”, “taste it”, and observe it to make understanding come easier.

Here are some ideas on making it tangible (these are also some ways to build your child’s background knoweldge):

FIELD TRIPS:  And they don’t have to cost any money!  Visit a local fire house, a grocery store (behind the scenes), daddy’s work, an apple orchard, a farm, a post office, your own backyard, etc.  I think a mistake that we can make with field trips is that we go after we’ve studied a certain subject to “wrap up” our study.  But going first would actually be better because it’s the tangible.

FAMILY TRIPS: Take a trip to the mountains.  The beach.  The state capital.  The zoo.  Anywhere you can see something new.  Feel the sand between your toes.  Breathe in that mountain air.  Watch a monkey pick bugs off another one…and talk about it together.

MEDIA: Books, DVDs, the internet, even cell phones these days can show kids things that they wouldn’t be able to see any other way, making it more tangible than simply talking about it.  Quite often when I’m trying to explain something to ALuv, such as a volcano, I’ll get on youtube or google images and see if I can find a tangible way to show him.  (Caution: As innocent as your search may be on the internet, sometimes images pop up that you don’t want little eyes to see. Searching beforehand, bookmarking it, then showing later is always a good idea!)

I’d love to hear ideas as to how you make things tangible for your child!  Please feel free to share.


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