Skillful Readers

Today’s post was supposed to be about writing, but that’s a huge topic for me and time is short.  Instead, I am going to insert a picture for you to consider.  It’s about everything that goes into being a skilled reader.

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I learned a new word.  Dysteachia means “confusion in teaching” and the gist of it is that it deals with teaching that is ineffectual.  This could very well be the state of reading instruction in many schools–public, private, and personal–around this nation these days.  I’ll have to look for the post I saw that explained it.  Sorry!

Found it!

The important take-away from this post is in one of Faith’s comments on her post:  we need better teaching for all students!

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Spelling is critical to reading success! Great spellers are nearly always great readers; however, great readers don’t always make great spellers. How can this be? Let’s examine what spelling is.

Spelling takes place in an area of the brain quite close to where reading and handwriting reside, near the left ear, on the underside of the brain. (Check out these brain pictures to see exactly where.) This review of Stanislas Dehaene’s book, Reading and the Brain, discusses what happens in the reading center when we see print, but if you are really interested in this stuff, do read the book. It’s a tough slog at times, maybe because it’s written by a neuroscientist, but it contains a wealth of information. In a sense, spelling is the opposite of reading. Specialists even have similar words for both tasks: reading is called decoding; whereas, spelling is considered encoding. I sit in the Spalding camp where I believe that children should be taught to ENCODE words before they DECODE them.  The reasoning behind this philosophy is that you can read what you can spell. Now, there is a caveat to that statement. You can read what you can spell IF you correctly orthographically map the sounds to their symbols, in the correct order, AND then, when you read the words, you can chunk the word into its syllables and apply the correct set of rules that govern those particular words. So, while it is true that you can read what you can spell—without memorizing the words and “what they look like”—you can really only do so when you remember the various syllable types and how to divide them, as well as any other rules that might need to be applied. In addition to that, you have to be able to blend the various phonemes into one smooth sounding word, and then into multiple smooth words—obeying punctuation and cadence—when you get to the sentence level. Spelling, at its most basic level means retrieving a word, sound by sound, using the right phonograms, and putting the letters in the correct order, while simultaneously forming those letters correctly. Whew, no wonder why learning to read and spell is such hard work!

Because you have to get the letters in the right order, learning to spell can often be more troublesome for some folks than learning to read.  English spelling can be particularly problematic because our language is so vast and brings words in from several language streams. Due to this, we not only have to consider the phonology of a word, but also its etymology and its morphology. If you have ever watched the National Spelling Bee, top spellers always ask for the language of origin, the definition, and to hear the word in a sentence. Using the word in a sentence tells the speller the part of speech, which often yields clues about the word parts used to make the derivative. Hearing the definition clarifies the exact meaning, which can tell the speller more about the specific word being requested. Knowing the language of origin tells the speller to consider specific phonograms that come to us from that particular language. All of these things come into play when we are spelling words. When we read words, we really just need to know how to divide up the syllables correctly and the impact those syllable types have on the way we pronounce them. Spelling, because you are moving from the invisible to the visible of the two actions, has many more choices and, therefore, more opportunities to make a mistake!

Not only do you have to have the phonograms mapped accurately in order to spell a word correctly, the letters themselves must be in the proper order, and they all have to be formed correctly. Andrew Pudewa has a great talk about what he believes about spelling “retrieval in the right order” concept called Spelling and the Brain that is well worth listening to if you have time.  (I found a YouTube version of it!)  While I don’t absolutely agree with every word he says in this, there’s certainly a lot of really good stuff packed in there.  Anyway, this last part of spelling–the getting the letters out in the right order–is more properly addressed under the topic of handwriting, but since you can’t really spell on paper without some sort of handwriting system in place, we can group it with spelling. Did you know that in early American schools, this entire subject area was considered something called Orthography? Back then, the school subject of Orthography, which literally means correct writing, also incorporated all the first principles related to language: speech sounds, penmanship, reading, spelling, even conventions such as capitalization and punctuation. School children spent considerable time with Orthography in preparation for the act of composition. In addition to orthography, under the English Language Skills heading, students worked on syntax, which we now usually call grammar, and etymology, which we now consider vocabulary. All of these strands culminated in composition, just like it does today. After all, the purpose of writing anything—including spelling things correctly—is to communicate with others. Composition is thinking on paper, and we’ll talk more about that another day; for now we are focusing on the art of spelling things properly so that our readers can understand what we are trying to explain.

Surprisingly, the formalized spelling of English didn’t come into practice until the middle of the 1700s with the publication of Samuel Johnson’s ground-breaking Dictionary. Noah Webster desired a distinctive American Dictionary for our nation in the early part of the 1800s. If you have ever read letters written before these times, you quickly notice how willy-nilly the spellings are—sometimes even for the same word repeated throughout the same letter! This page has an interesting history of our language written by Suzanne Kemmer.  Contrary to what George Bernard Shaw postulated, English spelling DOES makes sense—but only if you remember to consider the morphology, the etymology, and the phonology!

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More on Fluency

Reading speed does matter, but it probably doesn’t matter as much as accuracy or comprehension, which are also critical aspects of the umbrella term “fluency.” Even the best readers will slow down their pace when faced with either densely packed fact-based pargraphs or sentences full of unfamiliar words. Both Mortimer Adler and Susan Wise Bauer commented on this fact many decades apart from each other when they each described how to approach the reading of the Great Books—which are notorious for being over most people’s heads! Both noted how good readers automatically change their reading pace depending on what they are reading. This doesn’t mean that if your child’s teacher has sent home a note stating that your child reads too slowly that you shouldn’t be concerned. Instead, you need to find out why your child’s pace is slower than her teacher would like it to be.

As mentioned, fluency, when applied to the world of reading, has three parts: speed, accuracy, and comprehension. When you add an oral reading component, you also need to include proper intonation and expression. It’s hard to teach these things because they take time and you definitely can’t do it until a child is already reading to a certain extent! This presents a problem because not every child will move from that initial blending stage to chunking words at the same rate.

When a child first learns to read, they are sounding out the words, sound by sound, using orthographic mapping for each and every phonogram. It takes a while before kids catch on to the concept of smoothly blending the sounds from one to another. Ideally, children should be required to reread the words they map in this manner, as well as to write sentences with these words, and then read those sentences too. Kids need lots and lots of exposure to these tasks. Struggling readers need even more tie to do this. It’s not unheard of for a dyslexic student to need to hear, spell, map, write, and read each word fifty times before they finally make the connection and that word sticks in their brain. Students for whom reading comes easily may only need to do these things two or three times for each word to be solid in their heads.

As you can imagine, struggling readers are at a great disadvantage when you consider the ramifications of such numbers. It’s no wonder that kids who find reading easy soar ahead of their struggling peers around 4th grade or so. It’s also not surprising that many stealth dyslexics don’t discover problems until around this time. Mainly this is because of the sheer volume of words being introduced as the child switches gears from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” around then.

Reading is a difficult subject area to teach because children learn at such varied rates. Some little ones really are ready to learn this at age 4 (and a few are ready even earlier), but many just won’t be ready until later—some much later! This is unfortunate because our society has been pushing things earlier and earlier on our children, yet they really haven’t changed much since time began. Indeed, our society had, but children have not. Think about that for a bit.

While you ponder that, here are a few pages that I discovered as I was preparing to write this post.

More about reading rate, words per minute, and overall fluency:

Excellent article in PDF format:

Although written by a proponent of speed reading, the following page has some useful ideas about how fluency affects speed:

Another fabulous article:



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Big Five of Literacy #5: Fluency

The word fluency is often applied to the speed that readers read. While the speed at which a person reads matters to some extent, fluency encompasses much more, such as intonation and cadence. Fluency has a lot to do with obeying the punctuation in a sentence. I’m sure you’ve noticed that beginning readers, as well as readers who struggle, often fall short here.

Years ago, there was a thing called Choral Reading that was done in classrooms where kids would all read the same thing at the same time, out loud, along with the teacher.  Some kids just pretended to follow along; I suspect these were the strugglers.  By the time the passage was finished, many participants had dropped out. (Maybe this was just what happened in my school?)  I guess the combination of too many things to teach in a too short a time period, along with the sing-song effect, spelled the end of choral reading in our classrooms—and this exercise just doesn’t really work in a homeschool, unless perhaps you have enough children in your family and they are close in age and ability. In any event, choral reading isn’t likely to make a come-back, but there are other things you can do.

Check out these pages:


The Measured Mom

The following leads to an excellent PDF:

Reading Rockets has some great information as well:

One of my favorite ways to build fluency is to simply read aloud with your child. All children need to have good reading modeled to them, but struggling readers especially need this. Nobody should ever outgrow read aloud time, but this isn’t strictly a read aloud session so don’t allow the child to play or draw or do anything except sit next to you on the sofa or at the table. You should sit at the left of the child so that you reinforce the “direction we read and write” phenomenon. This works best when you have two copies of whatever you are reading. As you read aloud, use your finger to follow the words. Have the child do the same with his finger. In fact, the child can sub-vocalize right along with you but slightly off track, meaning you should stay a few words ahead of him. This, more than any other thing, will help your child understand what you mean when you say that a comma indicates a slight pause, a period needs a longer pause, or that your voice should raise slightly at the end of a question. Yes, they need to learn these things explicitly—like everything else—but they also need to see good reading skills modeled.

We’ll talk more about speed tomorrow!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.


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