Writing to Support Reading

It is heartening to hear from parents who are struggling to support their kids' learning--not because your issues are easy to solve--but because this issue is so pervasive and so many parents feel alone as they face such challenges. If you're reading these posts and experiencing your own mismatch between learning and school, please share it!

Leslie has posted a second comment in response to cat6, who suggested Leslie ask "does that make sense?" both at times when Shelby's reading does make sense, and also when it doesn't. This way Leslie is not giving the subtler message that Shelby hasn't read the passage correctly. Rather, she is teaching the direct lesson that readers stop along the way to monitor their comprehension.

Leslie now has new information about Shelby as a reader:

Here is the latest. My sister-in-law is a Reading Recovery trained teacher and reading specialist (unfortunately she lives a couple hours away and we don't see her often). She did a basic reading assessment with Shelby to try to pinpoint what we need to focus on. Her decoding is very weak, which I'd already figured out on my own. My sister in law feels that we need to find someone to work with Shelby using a multi-sensory approach (she mentioned SLANT or Wilson's). She isn't a believe in focusing heavily on phonics instruction but thinks this is the root of Shelby's issue. Of course Shelby's teacher can't provide this type of support and heck if I know how. So I'm on the hunt for someone who can work with her but not having much luck. So the frustration continues!

I have wanted to post on writing so will use this opportunity to make three suggestions for Leslie and Shelby, focused on writing instead of reading. Writing gives us one window into how learners are making sense of the grapho-phoneme system (what most people call phonics), as writers put down on paper what they know. Reading Recovery lessons include sentence writing instruction, and in this post I'll suggest 1) an adaptation of a sentence writing activity, 2) creating a personal spelling sheet, 3) and last, my favorite Donald Graves strategy for writers who lack confidence. These may or may not be appropriate for Shelby at this time, but I'm predicting that they're worth a try.

Sentence Writing
Use a bound journal or composition book for this engagement, dedicating one page to each writing session. Here is one possible sequence:

1) The adult partner writes a sentence about something worth sharing, i.e. "I had a challenging day at work because two projects were due at the same time." Something simple and real. Say the thought out loud, and then "think aloud" to Shelby as you write, telling her the decisions you're making as a writer.

So something like, "I ... had ... a ... challenging, that starts with /ch/, then /al/ and I know there's another /l/, /enj/, interesting, it sounds like a /j/ but it's a /g/, and /ing/ is easy, i-n-g ... day, interesting how /ay/ makes the long a sound ... at ... work. I know it's /or/ in work because I've seen it so many times, but all the vowels can say /er/ when they're next to an /r/ ..." Etc.

That might be too much talking for that one part of the sentence, but you get the picture. You're talking aloud about your writing. Yes, you won't know as much about phonics as some of us reading wonks, but you should do okay with it.

2) Then ask your child to share an idea from her day/write a sentence. Unlike RR (where the teacher talks the spelling of words through with the writer before s/he writes , I would encourage her to do her best as she writes. After she finishes her idea/sentence, ask her how she made her decisions, both for words that are spelled conventionally and those that are not. If she made a reasonable decision on a misspelled word, like using /ow/ where she should have used /ou/, which both make the same sound, tell her her decision was a good one, even if it is not how that word is spelled in print.

If she's unsure about spelling, say if a consonant should be doubled, tell her, sharing the related spelling rule. Few phonics/spelling rules are helpful to kids, since there are so many exceptions to the rules, but Sandra Wilde offers a short list of rules worth learning (
Routman, 2000).

Spelling rules worth learning
• Put i before e (as well as the ei pattern)
• Drop e before adding a suffix
• Change y to i before adding a suffix
• Double final consonants before adding a suffix

So, one sentence a day for each of you. Talk about what and how you write it, 10-20 minutes max. My RR colleagues say that the sentence writing experience really shows up in kids' confidence as writers in as little as 6 weeks. Then again, RR is done with younger kids.

You could do this on the computer, but you'll need to turn off the automatic spelling correction feature. You also lose the original spellings, which are interesting to track, but most kids will write with more enthusiasm on the computer.

Personal Spelling Sheet
Type up a one page (front and back) sheet with 3 or 4 columns, black lines for entering words, and capital letters in the margins. Etc. Obviously include more lines for frequently occurring beginning letters, like T & W. After you work out the spelling of a word from her written idea, ask her if she wants to add it to the spelling sheet. This could take other forms (a small booklet), but the idea is to keep it simple, for her to make the decisions, and for her to use it. Too many words become cumbersome, especially when they look alike, i.e. were, when, where, which. And better for her to enter words she uses, rather than to use a prepared sheet with many words. Tuck it into the notebook.



My favorite Donald Graves strategy
This strategy is a good one for kids who are reluctant or inexperienced older writers. If the writer is "stuck," ask her what she wants to say about the topic. As she talks, write down her ideas in phrases (rather than entire sentences). Spend some time talking about the focus of the writing, and then offer your notes: "If you want to use some of your great ideas, here they are." Keep the focus on the ideas, rather than spelling.

Leslie and I will see each other soon, so I can demonstrate these suggestions face to face. We'll find out, over time, if writing with Shelby will give her insights into Shelby's knowledge of letters and sounds. And in the meantime, I would negotiate that Shelby talk with you or the teacher about the books she reads, rather than take the AR tests. Just a thought!


Reading with 5th Grader, Bryce

This week I read with another 5th grader whose homeschooling mom wanted an idea of his strengths and needs as a reader. Bryce is an engaging, confident kid who described himself as someone who liked to read 5th grade books when he was a first grader, even though his first grade books were sometimes hard to read.

After hearing Bryce read from several books (my selections, his choice), I gave him the Burke Reading Interview (Goodman, Watson & Burke, 1987). Carolyn Burke is one of my mentors and this interview is a valuable tool for educators who want to learn more about how a reader makes sense of reading. (Readers who want to know more about this seemingly simple but carefully constructed and researched tool are encouraged to read more about it in the RC Owen Publishers text cited above.) Here are the questions with Bryce's responses.


When you are reading and come to something you don't know, what do you do? Sound it out for a long time or my mom helps me with it. Do you ever do anything else? Sometimes look in a dictionary.
Who is a good reader that you know? Why is s/he a good reader? Can I say two? Case and Olivia. Olivia was really advanced. She could read really well. She was so advanced for preschool so she automatically went into kindergarten. Case's parents worked with him until he got it.
Do you think s/he ever comes to anything s/he doesn't know? Probably. If s/he did, what do you think s/he would do? Sound it out. Look it up in a dictionary or on a computer.

If someone was having trouble reading, how would you help that person?
Sound out each word with them. How would a teacher help? Help them figure it out.

Are you a good reader?
Why? Medium. I can't read like 8th grade words, but I can read 5/6th grade. How did you learn to read? Sounding it out. When I was in first grade I could read like 5th grade words but it was hard to read first grade words.
What would you like to do better as a reader? Just continue practicing.

How could we help you more at school? At home?
I get to pick what I want to read.
I invited Bryce to choose from 10-12 nonfiction books on the natural world (the 500 section of the library) and several short chapter books. He debated reading about worms or planets, then settled on worms. I asked him to read the table of contents, and we read the chapters that interested him most.


Bryce is a happy kid and coming to read with me appeared to be comfortable for him. He was also an active learner and curious about the world around him: I know ants can be enemies to worms because I've seen ants crawling on a worm on the sidewalk. Is ring worm a worm? I know some other tall tales too, like the guy that caught tornadoes. These interests served him well when he selected books.
Bryce's primary strategy when he came to something he didn't know, as he reported, was sounding out words. This worked for him some of the time, and when it didn't, he looked to me for help. Taken together, these two behaviors disrupted the flow of his reading and weren't particularly successful or efficient.
I asked him to guess the percentage of words that people can successfully "sound out." He guessed 7 out of 10, but the answer is closer to 5 out of 10.

After reading several short chapters, I asked him to choose another book and we talked about a couple more strategies readers use. He chose a book on weather and again read the table of contents. We turned to a chapter on electrical storms and I asked him to predict what he might read about. I was struck that he didn't look at the photograph on the opposite page (a full page photograph of lightning). (Often times readers will use strategies they don't name, and then teachers can help them be more aware--more metacognitive--of their reading behaviors. In this case, however, Bryce did what he reported doing: sounded out words and looked to me for help.)

This was the opportunity to share that good readers also look at the visual images. We turned to the chapter on hail storms, and used the picture to successfully predict words/concepts that he then was able to quickly locate on the page. I went back to the word lightning to illustrate that he might have gotten stuck sounding it out (a reader has to recognize ight, or will get bogged down sounding out each letter). Yet if he would had predicted that the text would include information on lightning, he would stand a better chance of successfully reading the text.

We ended our brief session with me complimenting Bryce's strengths as a reader and reminding him to add prediction and looking at illustrations to his growing repertoire of strategies.

Before reading:
Read the title and subtitles, and browse the illustrations.
2) Predict what the text will be about. What do you expect to read?

During reading:
1) use your knowledge of letters and sounds
2) use the illustrations
3) use your knowledge of the topic

After reading:
(Stay tuned for more information. One has to chose the one or two most important things to teach a learner if you want the teaching to be helpful, so this is where my session with Bryce ended.)


Helping 5th Grader, Shelby

If you read Leslie's comment to the October reading post, you'll know that her daughter Shelby is resisting help with reading. I know Shelby, as Leslie and I worked for the same organization for several years.

Four years ago Shelby and I spent a Saturday afternoon together while her mom caught up on a project deadline. Shelby happily read the books I offered, and was most interested in the Birds of Illinois. For over 90 minutes she used it to identify birds at the bird feeder outside the window, sketching them on separate pieces of paper and adding their names and a few facts about each one. I worked nearby and touched base with her once or twice. She was seven. She was successfully and happily reading and writing.

Several years later Leslie wrote to tell me that Shelby had a serious interest in Abraham Lincoln and wanted to read everything she could find about him. It's hard to believe this is the same kid that is now disinterested in reading!

One can't know precisely when and how things went awry, even for a knowledgeable and involved parent like Leslie. Several of my hypotheses are that 1) Shelby is experiencing the reading and writing assignments in school as exercises or burdens (e.g. finish reading a book/write a report or take a test, study words for a test) rather than experiences that help her accomplish learning goals that she can shape, and perhaps 2) the feedback she's been given about her work hasn't been perceived as helpful and supportive.

Kids who are responding emotionally to what I call a mismatch between their learning and the expectations of school may sometimes be able to talk about why they are upset. Occasionally Nick would offer a comment about the cause of his struggles. But most learners are responding to them rather than reflecting on them.

The good news is that Shelby has many skills as a reader and Leslie is committed to her support. I'll offer a couple of suggestions and invite Leslie to make a guest post next month if she is willing.

There is no doubt that Shelby knows that something is wrong. She's been tested, her mom is concerned, and she's resisting even reasonable work. The good news is that the more people read, the better their fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, even without help from others. Instruction can wait for another time. Set aside any interactions that cause emotions to flare up. Relax.

Let Shelby know that you expect her to read every night and that she can choose what that reading looks like 5 nights out of 6. And mean it! If you read together, let her decide where you should stop and talk. If she reads "gibberish," offer to swap that book for a simpler one ("one you might like better") with a strong story line (e.g. Because of Winn Dixie or Out of the Dust or Love That Dog) that pulls her along, rather than focusing on figuring out words. Read joke books or American Girl magazine, and talk about what you read like you would talk with a friend. Read cookbooks together and choose recipes to make. Invite her to read picture books to a younger reader, maybe a friend's child.

Ask her to learn something with you. Find a few good books that answer the genuine questions that either of you are asking about the topic. Make sure the texts are rich with illustrations, charts, and photographs. If you can get out into the world to study the topic (like Nick's interest in crows), all the better. Or use the cooking experience to learn together and create a file of favorite recipes.

Use your best judgment to negotiate school assignments that work for Shelby. Do the same with any tutoring you might arrange. You know she's bright and has loved learning in the past. Let that knowledge keep your sights on better times ahead. And please stay in touch!


Supporting Jacqueline Offline

Jacqueline was the first parent to comment to my introductory posting, and her question helped me frame the second post on reading with beginning readers. After my response, she contacted me by email to help her respond to her daughter's situation. We will continue to communicate offline, but my next posting--following the election--is also inspired by her question and will focus on writing with young children. If you have found this blog and have questions yourself, I'd love to hear them and will do my best to respond.

In the meantime, I will share a favorite language story. My friend Kristina was out of town and her six year old daughter, Sophie, was walking to school with her dad and a best friend. The friend commented that their teacher was like a princess, and Sophie responded: "Yeah, but my mom's a queen. She's getting a crown next week." Have you figured it out? Sophie had overheard Kristina making a dental appointment, and thought royalty rather than dentistry. This is a perfect example of how kids think as they interact in the world and sort out its complexity. Such a rich glimpse into kid thinking! If you have a language story, please share it!