Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Decoding and Phonemic Skills

Identifying individual sounds in our spoken language is an essential first step in emergent literacy. From infancy, children are surrounded by the sounds of speech, and they begin vocalizing these sounds within their first year of life. Early linguistic activities such as songs, rhymes, and other wordplay help to build children's oral and aural repertoires. By the time they arrive in our primary school classrooms, children are speaking in full sentences and articulating most, if not all, sounds. Learning to recognize the symbols for those sounds is one of the next elements in their path toward literacy. Our primary school language arts program focuses on sounds, symbols, and the meaning and purpose of language, in both spoken and written form.

October 2: Don’t Miss The Morning Message

Have you ever attended a morning meeting? Your idea of such a gathering might be a bit different from our Kindergartners’ experience. The agenda includes reports on attendance, weather, and calendar, and a morning message. The meeting also features community-focused activities woven together with a great deal of math and literacy. Often, these lessons begin with a question of the day, from Ms. Chu and Ms. Isler.

A recent message focused on letter-sound correspondence. “Good Morning, Friends! Today we have music and math. How many M’s are in this message? Love, Ms. Isler and Ms. Morin,” the message said. The teachers guided the children through the message, emphasizing the mmmm sound. This type of repetition reinforces both oral and visual language skills. When they discovered an M, children came up to the white board to circle it and repeat the word.

Last week, the children and teachers made a bar graph to show the range of ages in the class. This week, they “clapped out” the syllables in their names and made new graphs of the data they collected about themselves. Syllabication is a component of phonemic awareness (identifying the individual sounds in a word), an important stepping stone on the road to reading. Most of the students’ names had between one and four syllables. As the children reviewed the graph, one person commented that no one had a name with zero syllables. “A person couldn’t have a name with no syllables!” exclaimed his classmate. To elaborate, she clamped her lips tightly shut and made raised her eyebrows, simulating a soundless word. “Their name would be like that!” she said. This type of joyful discovery is what we strive to achieve in our primary literacy classes. As you can see, there is quite a bit of business in morning meeting!

January 9: Close Encounters with Words

Are you aware of the graphomorphological features of the words you read?

Before we address that question, let’s step into the lower school reading room. On Tuesday, a group of first graders sat on Ms. Atwood’s rug while she shared a new big book called Hairy Bear. Before she began reading, Ms. Atwood encouraged the students to look carefully at the cover illustration. Even though the children could not read all of the words in the book, their observations became important predictors of the events in the story. Later, they added a new word, “if,” to a growing list of words that they could read independently.

Our balanced approach to reading combines rich stories with specific phonics instruction. The word “if” is one in a series of short-I words that the children have been learning. They are able to blend the sounds of letters to read this and many other short-vowel words, and they can locate those words within the texts of the books they are reading.

Most of the words that we encounter in our day-to-day experience are familiar enough that we don’t actually stop to look at each letter; we recognize and read them as whole units. Words that have reached this level of automaticity are referred to as “sight words.” The more competent our reading becomes, the more sight words we accumulate in our reading repertoire. Every now and then, however, we come to an unfamiliar word that requires a bit of concentration. You may have had such a moment when you came across the word graphomorphological.

There is a poster on the wall in Ms. Atwood’s reading room that provides a list of six strategies for figuring out a new word. The first one is “look for picture clues;” this skill certainly helped the first graders make sense of the story. Another strategy is “look for a pattern.” In Hairy Bear, a rhyming and repetitive pattern helped the children predict the last word in each line. The very last strategy on the list is “sound it out.” The strategies you used to decode graphomorphological probably involved a combination of approaches, including sounding it out and “looking for a word inside a word.” The roots “graph” (writing) and “morphology” (form and structure) helped you figure out this linguistics term, which refers to both the meaning and structure of words.

March 27: From Acquaintance to Friendship

An essential aim of our literacy program is to instill a love of reading in our students. We approach this goal in many ways—by sharing engaging stories, by modeling our own literary interests, by finding “just-right” books for our students, and by creating opportunities for focused independent reading. We also take our time to explain to the children how and why we teach reading, and we discuss the benefits of different reading strategies. When the students are able to value these strategies for themselves and when they approach reading as a satisfying, self-directed experience, we know that they are on the way to a lifelong relationship with literature.

The relationship begins early. In kindergarten this week, a small group of emergent readers made their way through a story about a puppy and a duckling. Each child took a turn, round-robin style, stopping to decode unfamiliar words and using the illustrations to help them interpret the events. There was a great sense of shared purpose in the process; when one child got “stuck” on a word, other group members eagerly offered suggestions, and the teacher provided guidance and instruction for everyone. As they read, the students gleefully hunted for “popcorn” words scattered through the text. “Popcorn words” is a whimsical term introduced by Ms. Chu and Ms. Isler earlier in the year. It refers to high-frequency words, sometimes known as sight words, such as “the,” “he,” “of,” “and,” “in,” and many others, which “pop up” all the time and which the students come to recognize instantly. Their knowledge of these words – and the reinforcement of seeing them and reading them multiple times – builds the students’ confidence in their literacy skills.

Reinforcement and repetition are critical components of good reading instruction, and we provide creative and varied opportunities for students to develop word recognition skills and build fluency. On this day, after the children had read the book as a group, they broke off into two’s so that they could read in turns with a partner. They talked about why we read a book many times in reading class and how repeated readings help us practice our skills and get to be better readers. There was a pause in the discussion, and one child piped up, “It helps us become friends with the words!” His excited comment illustrates exactly what we hope for our learners—the familiarity, comfort, and ease of a friendship is the way that we want our students to embrace knowledge.

April 17: Muesday

Tuesday’s morning message in Pre-K began, “Good Morning, Mogs! Moday is Muesday.” For Ms. Andrick’s group, fondly known as the “Dogs,” the colorfully written note was an exciting invitation to find the “letter-of-the-week” in the words that form the greetings, daily schedule, and questions of their first business of the day. “M” is the fifth letter to achieve letter–of-the -week status in Pre-K (following D, B, L, and T), and its presence is readily visible in the classroom. On Monday, as in previous weeks, the children and teachers generated a list of words beginning with the “M” sound. A large sheet of poster paper hangs above the morning meeting area displaying the dozens of words that the class recorded.

As Tuesday’s meeting progressed, the children located the M’s in the message, carefully considering the correct sounds, and the corresponding letters, that belonged at the beginning of the familiar words “dogs,” “today,” and “Tuesday.” These letters are building blocks in the children’s reading repertoire. Learning letter-sound correspondence is an essential first step in emergent literacy. In the primary grades, we emphasize the auditory nature of language while gradually introducing literacy skills. It is essential for children to recognize the individual sounds of words that they hear and say: initial sounds, ending sounds, and medial (in-the-middle) sounds. In pre-K, the teachers are emphasizing initial sounds with the letter-of–the-week and the reinforcement of frequently-used words in the morning message. Changing the initial letter in these words provides an opportunity for the children to observe which sounds stay the same and which sounds are different.

In addition to decoding skills, our literacy curriculum focuses on encoding and early writing. Our program offers an ideal balance between direct instruction in phonics and the “whole language” approach, which places great value on authentic language and the children’s own words. The pre-K children have been making “sound books,” devoting a page to each letter-of-the-week. Following Monday’s letter exploration and creation of the word lists, each child chooses four words (from the list or from their own ideas) to include in his or her book. They write the word, sometimes with help from a teacher, and draw a corresponding picture. The books have been a highlight of the class. Ms. Andrick says that the children “feel such a sense of accomplishment and ownership” of their new literacy skills, and they are eager to share their books with visitors and friends.

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