Big Five of Literacy #4: Vocabulary

Vocabulary is an interesting part of the Big Five Components for Literacy because it can be considered in multiple ways and can be taught in just as many.  No matter what you think of it or how you teach it, there’s no doubt that vocabulary is definitely an integral part of reading.  Words convey meaning.  When you are reading anything, if you come across a word that you have never heard before (or seen in print before), you are likely to stumble.  Anyone will.  This is part of reading.  We can’t know EVRYTHING!  Once the unfamiliar word has been decoded, we need to apply meaning to it.  This is where the Whole Language folks tell kids to just guess from the context clues.  While it is certainly true that context can often provide clues to the meaning of a word, it’s also a good thing to look words up in the dictionary so we can apply the precise meaning that the author of the text intended for the word. That’s one way of going about the study of a vocabulary.  In fact, in the upper sciences, if you can get your hands on the textbook and read the glossary, you can learn much of the course simply by studying those words.  Nowadays, a Quizlet “deck” of the words might work too.

That’s not the only way to go about the study of vocabulary, though.  You can also approach vocabulary from the other direction, from the morphology (or word parts), which means studying base words and their derivatives.  The ideal time to embark on this is late elementary through middle school.  The study of Latin, Greek, French and even some Germanic word parts can offer a tremendous boost to readers.  The more words kids can decipher without having to stop and look up, the more they will be able to keep the thread of a sentence or paragraph in their minds, which leads to greater comprehension of whatever they are reading.

Another aspect of word study lies in the history of the word, or the etymology.  All of the older dyslexic students I’ve taught are fascinated to learn about how a word came into the English language.  These vocabulary discussions help students with both the input and output skills involved with language arts because once a word is known, it can be used.  We all have a speaking vocabulary and another more extensive vocabulary of words we know.  When we move words into our speaking vocabulary, we readily recognize them when we read.  They no longer give us any trouble.   Readers who struggle to decipher text tend to have a much smaller overall vocabulary and a limited number of words in their working vocabulary.   The aim of vocabulary study is to expand the amount of words in both of these areas.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Big Five of Literacy #3: Phonics

Oh boy, this is going to a long post!  (Fair warning)

Phonics, in its simplest definition, means a way to teach reading by mapping sounds to letters or combinations of letters in order to decode words. Using this definition, the opposite of phonics would be spelling, where a child would map the graphemes to the sounds and thus, encode a word. The word Phonics is derived from Phonetics which is the study of speech sounds. Using those speech sounds falls into the realm of Phonology. Both Phonetics and Phonology are part of what Linguists study.

Phonics is the historic, or classical, way to teach reading, having been in use in this nation since before America even WAS a nation! The Pilgrims knew that the Bible in English was the road to freedom because within its sacred covers lay truth that encompasses so much more than most people think about on a daily basis. Those Pilgrims felt it a special duty to teach their children to read so that those children could read the Bible for themselves. That Pilgrim Seed of reading is in large part what paved the way for the Declaration of Independence! Too many people today think that the people who lived here two hundred (and more) years ago were an illiterate bunch of barbaric farmers. Nothing could be further from the truth. I always challenge that assumption by challenging the person who disagrees to read the Federalist or Anti-Federalist Papers. When they were originally printed, these articles appeared in newspapers all across the Colonies as a way of circulating the debate about what our nation COULD become. Frankly, they are tough reading—and I read for living! See for yourself. The sentence structures are long and convoluted and many of the words are equally long and dense. While this was the way people wrote back then, the fact remains that this is what the people then were used to reading. In fact, the people of that era were the most literate that this nation has ever seen! About the only people group that tops the Colonial and Early American people are the Jews all throughout history, and that is because they have always been considered “People of The Book” (meaning the Torah, which corresponds to the Old Testament today).

Phonics was how everyone learned how to read until things began to change around the Depression Era. Eventually, we had a full fledged war on our hands between Phonics and Whole Language.  A classic Whole Language text would be the old Dick and Jane Readers that so many of us grew up on.  They seemed so wholesome!

Let me backpedal a bit.  This post was supposed to be JUST about phonics, but I found myself treading on the ground between phonics and whole language. Most people today know what phonics is, even if they aren’t clear on the exact details. Then too, some people—and curricular choices—say they are pro-phonics, but they are really doing things that are more from the Whole Language camp. Why would Whole Language be a “bad” thing, you may wonder? Well, Whole Language isn’t what it sounds like it is. It is not about teaching students the WHOLE Enchilada about how the English language works. Instead, it is about children being encouraged to “discover” the code for themselves. This sounds like such a great idea! I’m all for discovery learning, but not when that discovery leads children to embrace mistaken ideas. Here’s one saying that I wish never got a toehold in educational circles: When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking. That sounds very cute. It’s also very wrong because it only works about a third of the time! Why would you lay a phony rule on a child’s back? I’m all about being reasonable. It simply isn’t efficient to teach a child a rule that doesn’t work often enough to be called a rule.  Unfortunately, Whole language is riddled with things like this.  Sure, some kids will learn to read with it.  Some may even learn how to spell.  However, struggling learners need something better!

The Wiki article about this debate is actually quite good, but be sure to check out the references, especially Louisa Moats’ article, Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science.  If you want to read more about this debate, Ruth Beechick wrote a wonderful book, The Language Wars, that goes into considerable detail about it.

That’s all very interesting, but what does that history have to do with how children should be taught how to read TODAY? That is indeed the million-dollar question. You’ll probably be very surprised when I tell you that the research into the best practices about how to teach reading is not what is being taught in today’s schools. You read that correctly. Today’s teachers are not being prepared by their colleges to teach English and reading in ways that match what the researchers have discovered about how the brain works! If your child happens to be in a school where the teachers DO know how to teach reading and they are encouraged to do it in its optimal manner, you have struck gold! Sadly, even homeschoolers are not immune. While most home educators do indeed teach their children how to decode using phonics, these skills are not built upon. I see far too many students who are stuck at the 2nd stage of reading as defined by Jean Chall (The Stages of Reading) See this page for more info:

What I mean by this is that nearly every homeschool mom I’ve ever encountered in over two decades does a wonderful job with the “learning to read” stage. However, it is also true that almost all of their children atrophy somewhere in that “reading to learn” stage. How do I know this? I have been teaching literature and composition for many years and I’ve seen how difficult it is for today’s students—homeschooled and otherwise—to synthesize and analyze information. Before you think I’m off my rocker with this, let me assure you this is not a new development. Mortimer Adler, of How to Read a Book and The Great Ideas of Western Civilization fame, bemoaned this fact soon after WWII and again in 1972 when he revised his groundbreaking treatise on how to tackle all those books that are over everyone’s heads.  Back then, he insisted that most new college students were not adequately prepared to be able to read at a college level and, sadly, reading levels have only gone down since then.

I STILL haven’t discussed what I mean by phonics instruction and instead have opened yet another can of worms! Sorry about that.

Phonics instruction should be systematic, intensive, explicit, and multisensory. It can be taught without frills. It needs no gimmicks. It can even be fun.   Ideally, phonics instruction (and the rest of the strands of the language arts) will take the bulk of the school day, especially in the critical early years. The 1999 edition of the Rigg’s Institute’s Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking manual has a phenomenal graphic on page 50 that breaks down exactly what phonics instruction should include. (I will ask them for permission to scan and publish this page here.) In the meantime, another good link is:

I love this quote from one of the slides on this Florida Intervention PowerPoint: “Reading instruction effectiveness lies not with a single program or method but, rather, with a teacher who thoughtfully and analytically integrates various programs, materials, and methods as the situation demands.” (Duffy & Hoffman) What every struggling reader NEEDS is someone in their corner who will do the hard work WITH them and not say “I want him to learn independence” or something along those lines. The way to independence is through dependence. The only thing a child learns from not having his needs met is that others cannot be counted on to help when help is needed!  (Sorry, I’m showing my old La Leche League training!)

Here are some more great documents to read about Phonics:

Unlike most people who deal with dyslexia and its remediation, I do not think that it is ever too late to counteract a shaky beginning with holes left from inadequate or incomplete instruction. Perhaps I feel this way because I’ve had late readers in my own household. That doesn’t matter. I staunchly believe that it is never too late for someone to learn to read and read well. Moreover, I also believe that the rest of the language arts strands can also be remediated with good results.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Big Five of Literacy #2: Phonemic Awareness

I’ve already discussed Phonemic Awareness on the blog posts I’ve created this Dyslexia Awareness Month but it’s such a big deal that it’s worth another look. I also already posted the best resource I’ve ever seen for that, but you can increase phonemic awareness just by playing with sounds. Before someone told me about Kilpatrick’s book, I used to use another curriculum for this: Phonemic Awareness Activities for Young Children. Because Kilpatrick’s book is out of stock again on his site, I looked for a few other ideas to share with you.  This website has some great information about how to go about increasing phonemic awareness.

Of course, you can also do what parents have been doing for eons—reading to their children and playing enjoyable games with words! For example, the age-old pastime of reciting nursery rhymes is a great way to help with phonemic awareness. Ticklish tongue twisters offer lots of amusement as well. Half of the fun with those is stumbling over the words. The other half is when someone finally nails it!

Once you get to the point where you want to blend reading activities into phonemic awareness, you can use the word family idea and change words by changing the onset (the single consonant, blend, or digraph at the beginning of a word) or the rimes (the last part of the word, starting with the vowel).  When you do these activities, you will most often confine this to single syllable words with short vowels.  Harder, longer words with other syllable types can work too, but since this activity is usually done with young readers, those words aren’t often appropriate.  You can facilitate this activity with chalk on a blackboard, paper plates, or even blocks.  In fact, doing these activities with an many of the senses involved is best.

As your child gains more proficiency with word families, take it a step further with this neat idea, which is a take on those games where you change one letter of the word to something else that makes a whole new word. Instead of playing these games on your phone, just use your minds and the words. Because Phonemic Awareness is really about the SOUNDS involved, you don’t need anything else.

Segmenting words is another often overlooked activity.  Call it what you like, Glue-Unglue the word, or whatever, the idea here is to have the child break the words into the component sounds.  Once they can do that well, you can have them break the words into their component phonograms by using finger-spelling.  Don’t expect your child to be good at this right off the bat because there are a number of ways you could spell many of the phonograms.  Here’s how to do this: say a word and have your child say the word back to you using segmented sounds.  Then you say it again holding up the number of fingers that correspond to the number of letters, but with your fingers “stuck” together for any that may be multi-letter phonograms.  It’s a visual and tactile way of doing orthographic mapping.

Here’s a video of Britta McColl doing Finger Spelling with one of her children: (This one begins with her talking her child through creating some letters.)  Here is Denise Eide (Logic of English) teaching a group of teachers how to do it with several examples, sometimes even running out of fingers:  I find finger spelling to be a useful tool, not just for phonemic awareness, but also as I teach spelling lists in my day-to-day tutoring.  In fact, you can get the kids involved with doing it too!  Remember, any time you can add more of the senses to your lessons, you are doing a good thing!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Big Five of Literacy #1: Print Awareness

Print Awareness is exactly what it sounds like, an awareness of print being one of the modes for transmitting information from one person to another. One of the factors that experts like to cite about the potential for reading success in young children is that they come from homes where books are valued and that they own their own books that can be enjoyed over and over again.

I’ve seen families where both parents are avid readers who are constantly discussing what is going on in the world. I’ve seen families where one of the parents is a true bookworm and the other is more of a TV person. I’ve also seen families where the children don’t own books, but the family goes to the library quite often and they enjoy many selections from that venue. Sadly, I’ve also seen households where there isn’t a book in sight—nobody reads.

Since I’ve seen families from all across this spectrum, I’m not sure that the correlation the studies I’ve mentioned are trying to make about the physical acquisition of books is a reliable indicator for reading success. To make a real impression on children, books should read and enjoyed by parents,  children should grow up seeing their parents reading, and should also be read to by their family members.  Frankly, these actions are a much more reliable measure of reading success.

Even then, however, if reading is hard for the child, there’s not much that will make a struggling learner want to push through the discomfort of learning how to overcome that struggle, especially if that child perceives that the other people in the family don’t have that same trouble.

The take-away for this blog post is to allow your children to see you struggle. More than that, though, let them see you wrestle with difficult text until you “get” it. If all your son or daughter sees is people doing the things that are easy for them, you can bet that reading will fall by the wayside if that’s an area that’s hard for that child!

That’s print awareness that makes a difference!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Big Five of Literacy

Essential Components of Reading

The information in this article, along with its accompanying graphics, go a long way to explain what is necessary for optimum results in reading instruction. Unfortunately, the folks at Reading Naturally have forgotten what I feel is an essential component—writing. When I say writing, this time I mean BOTH sides of that particular coin—the actual physical act of forming letters on paper as well as the communication of ideas through the written word. Both of these things are necessary for helping solidify reading in a child’s mind—or they should be! Like listening and speaking, reading and writing go together like … cookies and milk, bacon and eggs, peanut butter and jelly, or any other iconic pairing.  As i began writing this post, I realized that I actually have more than FIVE biggies on this list.  Right now, I have the necessary components divided into 9 sections.

Here are my BIG Components for Literacy:

Print Awareness

Phonemic Awareness





Writing (Handwriting)

Writing (Communication)


Because I have already given all of these some attention on the more detailed pages of my website, I won’t go too deeply into them here. This week, however, I’ll discuss what you can do to help your child with these things—and talk about how you can ensure that your child isn’t being left behind his or her peers.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


What a great word! The Japanese coined this to explain the phenomenon that readers don’t always read all the books they own. Another author named this the ‘antilibrary,’ which doesn’t sound like such a good thing. The New York Times had an article about this concept not too long ago and it popped up on my personal FB feed tonight. Before I launch into a week-long discussion about the Big Five of Literacy, I thought this article would be worthwhile.

While I’m an admitted bookworm, I haven’t read everything in my home library yet. I like the word ‘yet’ there. I may eventually get through all of them. According to the author of the NYT article, as well as the author of the book the article cited, most people read about 10% oh their personal libraries. I’m WAY above that average, much closer to the 80 or 90% range– depending on the season. Enough about me and my reading, let’s talk about what this article’s wisdom might have for a struggling learner.

Do readers have to read everything? Do we have to finish every book we begin? Do readers really have to dissect every last story, analyzing each one to the nth degree? As someone who loves literature and teaches composition classes, there is definite merit to doing these things. However, I caution both parents and teachers that to do these things to every single book is to kill what reading should be! I’m not naive enough to believe that all schoolwork will be pleasurable, but the converse is also true–it shouldn’t all be drudgery either!

Here’s the article I mentioned above:
When I get back on my computer, I’ll embed this link the same way as the rest of them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Stealth Dyslexia

As if parents of struggling learners didn’t have enough to worry about, here’s another term to become familiar with: Stealth Dyslexia.  I linked a page to my FB page today about this term.  The page I linked there, from Understood, explains the basics about what to look for in your child.  If you already suspect this might be the case, read David Kilpatrick’s book, Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. This is a tough book to get through, but the chapters are chock full of information.  Because it is so important to get your child the right remediation plan, you really do need an accurate diagnosis!  (Speaking of getting the right Dx, have you had time to read Wright’s Law yet?)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Over these past few days I’ve been talking about how dyslexic kids have lots of great strengths.  Very often, they are amazing with their visualization skills.  They are often very savvy with tools too–able to fix things or make them better in ways that others just barely see.  This is because they can often see things multi-dimensionally. Just like an expensive computer aided design program can rotate things on a screen, these kids can do that in their heads!  Very often, you will find that dyslexic kids are amazing at verbal skills.  Sometimes developed as a coping skills to hide their difficulty with reading, these kids can talk a great story!  Coming back to spatial skills for a minute, these can manifest themselves in another way–on a playing field–where dyslexic kids also often flourish.  They can move their bodies in such a way as to manage to catch the ball, break down the golf swing, or send the football exactly where it needs to go.

If you are curious about where your child’s giftings lie, you can try this little questionnaire that someone in the O-G community shared with me several months ago.  In order to test it, I answered the questions for everyone in my family.  The results were not only interesting, but spot on.  Since some of the questions really relate more to school-like things, I answered those as if each of us were still about 12 years old.  Be sure to save the map visual you receive after finishing the questions. Those results can provide great insights for your child’s IEP.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Phonemic Awareness

I posted this link on my FB page today and want to include it here as well because Phonemic Awareness is so vital.  One of the things that had me wondering if my own son might be dyslexic, all those years ago, was that he didn’t seem to “get” rhyme.  The Cat in the Hat and other similar stories didn’t tickle his ears the way they should have.   It turns out that the boy did indeed have a learning issue.  In fact, to this day he still can’t pass the Barton screening, but I shouldn’t be surprised by that.  It’s not like dyslexia or auditory processing disorders “go away” like a lingering cough eventually will.  Although that is certainly the case, phonemic awareness skills can indeed be improved!  This is great news because Phonemic Awareness really helps plug holes in the English code that most dyslexic students seem to have.

One of the best things I’ve found to help with this is David Kilpatrick’s book, Equipped for Reading Success.  What a treasure trove of fun (and short) activities!  Every single student I have used them with thoroughly enjoys them.  I do too, which is really saying something because I’m just not any fun!  (Ask my husband and kids.  They’ll tell you.)  Here’s the promised link.  I wish the page was larger, but this preview offers the directions for administering the test and how to play with the sounds.  It also offers four forms of the PAST Assessment, which should hold you over until the book is back in stock.  Enjoy!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cursive, Yes, Cursive!

Cursive writing should not be relegated to the realm of a secret code for older people!  Instead, it should be taught, perhaps even taught first, and definitely should be taught to dyslexic children.  The late Diana Hanbury-King wrote a wonderful (and short) article for the IDA on the merits of cursive that you can find here.  Liz Fitzgerald, who created a handwriting curriculum called, aptly enough, Cursive First, outlines her rationale here.  It makes so much sense when you think about all the great reasons for cursive, especially for children who are prone to reversals as dyslexic children are–you cannot make a reversal in cursive!  Think about it.  Try it.  You can’t.  Cursive can be so much more than either a secret code or just a scribble on a paycheck.  It can be the gateway for helping your child fully enter the world of reading and writing!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment