More Than the ABCs: Owning the Alphabet

More than abc with Shurley English.jpg

Lately, I have been pondering my linguistic journey. Over the years, it has been a journey of self-discovery. A journey that led me to use a fascinating method to teach systematic phonics and phonemic awareness.

If you could have visited my first and second grade combined classroom about 20 years ago, you would have noticed that I displayed traditional alphabet cards above my chalkboard. I didn’t really use it as a reference tool. It was more of a standard classroom decoration than a tool for learning. That is, until I gained some knowledge about teaching letters NOT as letters of the alphabet, but as pictures of sound. I didn’t realize the power the alphabet has when it is considered as a code made of symbols that allows learners to attach sounds to them.

The fact remains, we have an alphabetic language. In other words, letters provide us a way to encode sounds of speech into symbols…the letters of the alphabet. But for years, that information was lost on many a teacher. When I realized how the code system works, it rocked my linguistic world!

The title I used for this entry, Owning the Alphabet, came to mind because of the strategy I began using the next year after receiving the training. Instead of plastering the standard alphabet cards above my chalkboard like in previous years, I told my students that the alphabet was missing for a reason. I told them that they were going to earn and to own each letter by learning the sound or sounds each letter represents. These sounds would be the foundation they needed to read. These sounds and symbols would be their prized possession that we would display proudly above the board if they would be willing to take the linguistic journey with me.

So, starting as early as the first day, I showed my first and second graders a flash card with the letter A printed on it. I held it up and told the students the following words, “I say it, then you say it…” Then, I pronounced three different sounds: ă, ā, ä. I told them that the letter’s name is “A”, but it represents three sounds. Then, I repeated the sounds and asked them to echo it back. They did. Next, I modeled on the board how to write an A and to recite all three of its sounds. They filled up a whole line of A’s across the line on their paper. The classroom was abuzz with the choral sound of kids speaking, seeing, hearing, and writing their sounds…and every time they mastered the sounds, the letters that represented those sounds went up proudly on the wall above my chalkboard. Yes, by the year’s end, my above chalkboard “decoration” looked pretty much like it always had in the past, but it was now full of so much meaning.

Owning the alphabet was just the beginning. We went on to learn all of the multi-letter phonemes, too. This foundation was strong, and my entire reading approach was built upon it.  

So, how about you? Are you interested in embarking on your own linguistic journey with a systematic process for teaching phonemic awareness and phonics? If so, stay tuned!

Curriculum Resources: For more information on a systematic approach to teaching phonemic awareness and phonics, check out the first and second grade levels of Shurley English.


Micro-comprehension: Gap-filling Inference

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Last time, I introduced the concept of building micro-comprehension skills in young readers, starting with words. Often, students need direct instruction in the various areas of micro-comprehension to become efficient readers. I started with words because they are the foundation upon which to build the other skills.

With a strong word base, students can begin the arduous task of comprehending the meaning of strings of words and phrases. In order for that to happen, students must be able to infer meaning. Inferring (or inference) just means that the student’s brain will have to do some gap-filling to understand basic information as it is shared through the words, whether reading the words themselves or hearing them read.

When I first began my career, teaching inference was a big deal. At that time, I was simply following the standards in the state where I was teaching. But, the most effective way to teach inference was a mystery. Once I grappled with helping students get a strong vocabulary base, teaching inference became a lot easier. It was clear that students who had a good bank of words made inferences more readily. Those students who had poor vocabulary exposure didn’t fare as well. 

As I improved my teaching skills, I learned that inference skills in reading were basically just the activation of the gap-filling ability in their brains. Brains are absolutely amazing! Brains are always seeking information, and for the missing pieces, they call upon special neurons that “fill-in” the missing information to make the existing information make sense. Now, sometimes, the brain can get it all confused—it’s normal. But, wise reading teachers will help kids recognize the comprehension errors by using a strategy called “Unpack Your Thinking.” To unpack one’s thinking just means to say out loud what thoughts you have as you read. Teachers can model this by slowing down their own reading process and then saying aloud what it is that makes them able to comprehend what they read. When they share that thinking out loud with the kids, it serves as a powerful model! Look at the following example:

After watching the sad movie, Sarah grabbed a tissue. 

Now, read the “unpacked, out loud thinking”:

“I know that Sarah is probably sad because she just watched a sad movie. I also know that when people are sad, they often cry. I can infer that Sarah must have cried because of the sad movie and needed to dry her eyes with a tissue.”

In this example of “unpacking your thinking,” it helps to state aloud the parts of the information that are included in a passage because it accentuates what IS NOT included. I like for kids to say, “I know that…” to begin each out loud idea. Then, it is a small leap for the teacher to ask: “How do you know Sarah was probably crying?” 

This kind of question is actually a macro-comprehension question. Students who have a clear mental model will deduce that people often show emotion when watching a sad movie. Notice, the example passage about Sarah did not explain that she was actually shedding tears, but the micro-comprehension work the brain does makes it obvious that she was crying and needed a tissue.

I am sure you have discovered in your students the gap-filling ability or the lack of it. As you read aloud to your students or as you listen to them read aloud, try to be more aware of opportunities for them to practice accurate gap-filling inferences. I think you will be surprised how adept they can become.

In my next post, we’ll move into sentence structure processing and the role it plays in micro-comprehension. Please join me!

(This post is part of a series on Micro-Comprehension. To start at the beginning, click here.)

Micro-comprehension: A Foundation of Words

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In an earlier blog post, I pointed out that early reading might best focus on micro-comprehension strategies before exploring the macro-comprehension kinds of questions that are found in most reading programs. But why? To start with, a reader won’t have clear macro-comprehension without clear micro-comprehension. A deep and wide vocabulary makes the micro-comprehension much more accurate!

Make Words Concrete: I like to think of words as “containers.” Some have a lot of sound-symbols (letters)—quite roomy! Others don’t, but kids can see words as concrete rather than abstract with this kind of metaphor. These sound containers (words) have limited meaning outside of context. To build deep and wide vocabularies, keep context front and center. Help kids expand their word banks, using these strategies:

1.  Label everything in the learning space. If you are a home educator or classroom teacher, label the items in the students’ learning space. In lowercase letters (except for proper nouns), write the name of the item on index cards or self-stick name tags.

2.  Use synonyms. On the same index cards or other signage, also write under the most common word for the item any synonyms associated with the original word. For instance, a box of crayons may have the original word crayons on its label, and beneath it, you might also write the word colors.

3. Focus on Early Reading books. Many early reading books contain illustrations with similar labels, like I described in item number 2 above. Keep these kinds of books handy for young learners and call attention to the items and their labels.

4. Include poetry. Be sure to read a new poem every day! Start with short rhyming poems. Branch into longer poetry with repetitive sections and cadences that children like to repeat aloud.

To launch into the next several blogs about early reading, establishing a baseline around micro-comprehension makes sense. You can take the lead and help students build a strong vocabulary. Students have to be able to hear words, interpret their meanings, choose the correct meaning, and apply that within the context of the story they are hearing or reading—no small task—but doable!

On your next visit, stay tuned for gap-filling inference, an important step in building micro-comprehension skills…until then!