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What is a vowel?

 

 

Pop quiz time:   What’s the difference between a vowel and a consonant?

 

Do you know?  I didn’t take linguistics in college (not required for education majors).  So I didn’t learn this until I read some research textbooks on-line after becoming a reading specialist 5 years into my teaching career.   (nerd alert! I read literacy research textbooks for fun so you don’t have to). Anyway, I don’t recall the exact “researchy” definition of a vowel or a consonant, but this is the way I explain it to students:

 

Vowels open your mouth; consonants close your mouth.

 

Did you know this?  It was an eye-opening, jaw-dropping moment for me when I realized this (pun intended).   I immediately tested it to just to make sure it was true for every letter and, SPOILER ALERT, it is!  All of a sudden, I understood why there’s such thing as a closed syllable versus an open syllable.    Now I knew why the vowels are “a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y”.   Finally I realized when the “sometimes y” occurs.

 

After I learned what a vowel is, I started teaching it to the kids in my reading segments. Now it’s one of the first lessons I will do when beginning the school year or launching a new reading group.  Curious the exact language I use? Check out this teaching powerpoint. And here is a freebie I made for the students to use for reference.

 

I use two types of images to help my visual learners remember this key difference.

 

  1. Open mouth face versus closed mouth face
  2. Open door versus closed door

 

For kinesthetic learners, I keep small pocket mirrors in my reading supplies.   The students and I watch in the mirrors as we practice saying all the vowel sounds and see our mouths open wide as we produce them.  Then we see and feel how our mouth must close (partially or all the way) to make the consonant sounds. As a science experiment/performance task, I’ll ask the students to “prove it” for each sound.  I give them 26 index cards (one for each letter) and have them say each sound while looking in the mirror. Then they sort by open or closed mouth/vowel or consonant. This is a fresh way to think about the letters, and my students have always enjoyed and learned from this hands-on task.   It helps them internalize the difference in the letter types, which sets them up for future success when learning the various vowel sounds and syllable types.

TEACHING NOTES: Sometimes students get confused on /g/, /h/, /p/.    The /m/ and /v/ sounds are some of the more obvious ones. I’ll tell them to make a pile of ones they’re not sure about, and we’ll go over them at the end.   If they’re really stuck and confused, show them the jaw and how it is hinging as you say the sounds. You have to start opening your mouth to get out a vowel sound (be it long, short, r-controlled, truly ANY vowel sound).  Your mouth HAS to open to make that sound. Consonant sounds, however, are made by starting to close your mouth. To make the /h/ sound, you have to slightly close your mouth to push the sound out. You have to push your lips closed to make the /p/ sound.

 

Over the years, I’ve been told by my administrators that my ideas are “outside of the box.”  This instruction falls in that category. It’s not a typical lesson that occurs beyond kindergarten or first grade classrooms.  But it’s an essential piece of my literacy content and one that I’ve taught to all my reading groups, even to students in fourth and fifth grade.  I’ve found that when students truly internalize the difference between vowels and consonants, they have an easier time understanding the categories of syllables and how to change vowel sounds.

 

Try this lesson with your students and let me know how it goes.   Comment below or email me at shannon@readingdevelopment.com.

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How to Introduce Sight Words in 7 Easy Steps

Speak to any elementary teacher about reading and shortly into the conversation, you’ll hear about the importance of sight words.  We stress how essential it is to practice them during parent conferences.  We see evidence of students’ practice in classroom lists, graphs, and other artifacts.  We all agree that sight words are an integral part of the reading program.

But I was frustrated early in my teaching career because I wasn’t sure how to teach the sight words, beyond using word cards and lists and asking students to memorize them.  What was I supposed to do as the teacher to help the students learn the words?  My school at the time was using a scripted literacy program that taught them in a strange way.  Whenever the students encountered a sight word in a passage, we were supposed to interrupt and say “Funny word!  Let’s sound it out the funny way.   That’s not how you say the word.  This word is ____.”

Frankly, I hated that method of introducing the sight words.  I thought it dumbed down the teaching and interrupted the flow of students’ reading.  It treated the students like idiots incapable of thinking and analyzing words on their own.  Out of desperation I created a different approach.

It was around Christmas time, so I decided to categorize the sight words as nice or naughty, like they say in the carol lyrics.  My first grade class took to this new way of dealing with sight words quickly, and within a month, they were transferring their understanding to other words they found in books.  Since then (which was December 2013), I have used this method with hundreds of my reading students, ranging from first to fifth grade, and they all understood the technique.

the RDNG sight words method

  1.  Teach the whole class and/or small groups the difference between regular and irregular words.
    • Nice/Regular words are easy to read.  They follow the sound rules.  The letters you see match the sounds you hear.
    • Naughty/Irregular words are harder to read.  They break the sound rules.  The letters do not match the sounds.
  2. Teach a list of 20-30 words at a time.  I usually divide the Dolch word lists in half.
  3. Go through each word with students and code it as regular or irregular (nice or naughty).  Most students enjoy putting smile and frown faces/emojis beside the words.
  4. For words coded as irregular, help students come up with the way the word should be spelled.  I ask the kids “How would you spell this word if you were the boss of English?”  Examples: said=sed (like red, bed); of=uv; where=wair (like lair, hair).  My students need more help with this the first few lessons but can gradually do it on their own as we progress through the sight word levels.
  5. Provide students with practice time to read and spell the words.  They should locate them in books and use them in sentences.  They can build the words with letter tiles, rainbow markers, and other reading manipulatives.
  6. Assess the words after a period of 1-4 weeks.  Test students’ reading and spelling of the sight words.  Aim for 80% mastery or higher to advance to the next list of words.
  7. Listen, observe, and discuss words with students. More and more of your readers will show you words from their books, sharing statements such as “Hey, this is one of those naughty words” or “I noticed this word has letters that don’t match the sounds” or “Oh, this must be one of those irregular words that can’t be sounded out.”   Do an inner happy dance (or outward one if that’s your teaching style) when you observe these because they’re signs of sight word learning being internalized and transferred!!!!!

 

This is my way of teaching sight words to my at-risk and ESOL students.  It has helped my struggling readers develop a strategy for decoding and recognizing high frequency words.

How do you approach sight word instruction in your classroom?  What methods have helped your students master the sight words?  Please share your best practices below in the comments or write me at shannon@readingdevelopment.com….I’d love to hear more!

 

 

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Troubleshooting, Problem Solving

 

A few weeks ago, I posted about all the struggles I’ve been encountering in my Readers Workshop.      I’m a reading specialist.  Most of my career has been spent providing intervention to low readers to catch them up to their peers.    Give me a low reader, and I can determine why he/she is struggling and know how to close their reading gap.

But give me classroom full of readers at all different levels and with multiple behavior problems, and I’ve got more of a struggle.    Now that I’m back in the classroom, I’m experiencing what homeroom teachers around the country are dealing with, especially those in Title 1 schools, serving at risk populations of students.   TEACHING IS TOUGH, y’all!    I get it.    There is so much to do and so little time and resources and copies to do it in.

So, here I am a few weeks later, and the struggles are still there, but I’m tacking the problems one by one.     Here is a list of the issues I posted previously and a brief description of my troubleshooting.     My readers workshop is not all smooth sailing at this point, but I have been able to get to a place where I feel I’m better addressing my wide range of students’ needs.

 

 

img_5956   A picture of my messy desk in the midst of my research for solutions.

 

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PROBLEM:

  • Where do I fit the grade level lessons and activities in my plans?

FIRST STEPS SOLUTION:

I’m focusing on broad level phonics and comprehension skills each week whole group and differentiating the depth of work/mastery required, depending on the students’ reading development level.

 

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PROBLEM:

  • How do I provide support to those grade level activities so even my lowest readers can be successful?

FIRST STEPS SOLUTION:

The type of support differs depending on what I’m teaching: decoding or comprehension.    For decoding, I’m teaching the phonics skill to all the students, but then differentiating the word quantity and difficulty that students must learn.  For example, next week I’m teaching final consonant blends.  All the students will receive an overview of the skill and then each reading level group will practice and be tested on different word difficulty.    My emergent group will practice much fewer words than the on-grade level and above students in my room.

For comprehension, I’m again teaching the same grade level skill to all the students, but the practice materials and assessments are tailored to the students’ reading levels.  I like using http://www.readworks.org/ passages because they match the students’ Lexile levels, and they can be used for a variety of comprehension skills.

 

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PROBLEM:

  • Should I give a grade level specific phonics mini-lesson, even when it’s beyond 75% of my students’ instructional levels?    If not, then how do I choose the best mini-lesson that will be relevant to the various differentiated tasks the students will do in their groups?

FIRST STEP SOLUTION:

Some days, my mini-lessons are on grade level specific phonics skills.   Other days, I’ll teach short lessons on generic word solving strategies such as “Good Readers look for CHUNKS of words they know.”  Students then practice those decoding strategies in their independent and guided reading time and share during Closure of Readers Workshop.

 

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PROBLEM:

  • What’s the best way to manage the noise level and behaviors of the room during groups/center time?

SOLUTION:

Thank you, universe, for ClassDojo.    I leave it showing on my Promethean with the reading groups displayed.   The winning group each day receives small prize.   They’ve gotten pretty competitive about this.

 

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PROBLEM:

  • How do I train the students to stop interrupting my group?

SOLUTION:

Dojo has solved this one.  Interrupting is a behavior that makes students lose points.   Students will still try every now and then to interrupt, but after they lose points, they get peer pressure from their group members to stop repeating the behavior.   If it becomes a problem again, I will adjust the points deducted from each team for that behavior, and I think that will work.   If students lose 2 or 3 points for interrupting, they will self-monitor themselves and their group members.

 

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PROBLEM:

  • What are some of the best literacy activities for my students at each of their reading development stages?     What should my emergent students be doing?   What should my early readers work on?  What work can I give my on-level students that they could do independently?    How do I best challenge my advanced readers?  (Keep in mind, I have VERY VERY VERY limited printing and copying resources at my school.   So most of these activities must be paper-free.    That resource issue is contributing to the struggle)

FIRST STEPS SOLUTION:

This year, I’m relying heavily on Words Their Way because their sorting activities and games are organized by levels.  (Also our grade level used their spelling inventory as a benchmark common assessment at the start of the school year).  Using those assessment results and my own running record data, I placed my second grade students in four groups:

  1. Emergent (barely know letters and sounds)
  2. Letter-Name Alphabetic (limited sight words and decoding skills)
  3. Within Word (close to grade level)
  4. Syllables and Affixes (at or above grade level)

Student in each group are doing 2-3 word sorts a week, reading guided reading books, and playing sound and sight words games from my resource files (my favorites are from http://www.fcrr.org/).

 

 

 

Honestly, I need to beef up my games and activities for my highest reading group , beyond just the word sorts.     Because the majority of my teaching experience has been working with struggling readers, those are the most prevalent resources in my collection.

 

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PROBLEM:

  • What scope and sequence do I set up for all my groups so that they can all catch up and be on-grade level readers by the end of the year?  How do I accomplish that huge task when I can only meet with them 2-3 times per week?    (That’s why the activities I choose above must be of the highest quality.   Students must be learning and advancing in reading, even when they’re not at the kidney table with me.   Centers can’t just be “busy work”.)

FIRST STEPS SOLUTION:

The lowest reading groups are going to do more sorts a week to hopefully accelerate their progress.   The other reading groups are doing 2 sorts a week;  I plan to increase the lower groups to 3 sorts a week for a few months and then maybe even 4 sorts a week by the end of the year.     The lower groups also meet with myself or the Title 1 paraprofessional four days a week to experience more supervised guided reading and intervention activities.   This accelerated calendar should get the Emergent group to the middle of the Within Word curriculum by the end of the year, which would be 1.5 years of growth in 1 year, narrowing the achievement gap by half a year.

 

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PROBLEM

  • How I type all of this into a managed plan so that my grade level can understand and use these resources with their struggling students as well?

FIRST STEPS SOLUTION:

The whole group instruction follows a typical schedule, which should help my team with routine practices and expectations.    Mondays focus on the phonics skill of the week, Tuesdays are for sight words, and the other days of the week are for the word sorts, comprehension,  and decoding strategy minilessons and activities.    Interactive notebook pages are provided for the whole group skills, with 3 different pages for each skill (Easy, Middle, Challenging).     I think this is going well for my team, but you know each teacher has the power to shut their door and do what they think is best for the students, which I have no control over.  I’m just trying to suggest a variety of activities and resources that the team can use for their students, no matter the reading level.    Lastly, I’ve created a large resource folder on the network drive that everyone can access for Words their Way, center, and mini-lesson resources.  The “cloud” makes it so much easier to share files!