/twərk/ is an r-controlled syllable

IMG_0752Learning to read is hard work and for many kids, slow going. Knowing this, I always ask new students, “Why do you want to learn to read?”   The answers are often poignant (“I want to read the birthday cards from my grandma”), sometimes practical (“I want to be able to tell the difference between the shampoo bottle and the conditioner”) or surprising (“I want to read the subtitles of a foreign movie”).  For teens, the answers  almost always do NOT match their parents’ ideas of why reading is important. Some of my favorites: “I want to write a love letter,” “I want to tweet,” or “I want to Goggle (something not entirely appropriate).”  I always write these wishes down, so when the time comes to finally begin blending phonemes into words, we can apply that skill to something meaningful and motivating for the student.   This week, I received the following email from a parent, which nicely illustrates this concept:

James just sounded out “girls twerking booty” as he typed it into YouTube.  YouTube auto-corrected it to “girls talking booty.”  This required Tom to explain to James that he had spelled everything correctly, but since the computer was misinterpreting what he entered, he should try something else.  We are now all sitting around the living room thinking of  alternative search terms for “Girls twerking booty.”   This is not what I pictured literacy would be like.

James’ mother sent the email to me and James’ teacher. His teacher’s response?

Initial blend!  r-controlled vowel! -ing ending! Yay!

My thoughts exactly.

Is my child reading on grade level?

readingWe often discuss reading achievement in terms of grade level, but we rarely acknowledge how imprecise the term “grade level” is.  What exactly does it mean?  How are “grade level” skills determined?  In fact, there are no universally accepted criteria for establishing grade level reading skills and there are at least two good reasons to avoid using grade level to measure reading achievement.

First, schools differ in their approach to reading instruction as well as the timetable by which children are expected to master certain skills.  A kindergarten-level skill in one state might be considered a first grade skill in another state. The adoption of the national Common Core Standards will provide some uniformity in grade level expectations, but I don’t think it will ever be possible to provide a definitive answer to the question, “what grade level is my child’s reading?”

Second, there are many facets of literacy and these skills often develop unevenly for students with disabilities. For example, a child may have mastered the expected phonics skills for his grade level, but be far behind in fluency. To complicate matters further, reading assessments and curricula are not uniform in determining reading grade level, which is evident when you see how many Reading Correlational Charts are out there.

Instead of focusing on grade level, it may be more helpful to look at the specific skills a child has mastered and compare that information to the curriculum expectations or standards in the child’s district.  Then, the team can design interventions that meet the child’s individual literacy needs.  Here are some tips to start this process:

  1. Find out what curriculum standards your school district uses to guide reading instruction. Information on standards is usually available on the website of your State Department of Education.  For example, here are the grade level standards from the Connecticut State Department of Education website. Connecticut is one of the states adopting the Common Core Standards. You can find out if your state has adopted the Common Core Standards by clicking here. Many states have developed “crosswalk” documents that show how the Common Core Standards intersect with existing state standards.  Here is a link to Connecticut’s “crosswalk” document for kindergarten English Language Arts (ELA).
  2. Check your school or district website for information on the reading curriculum used. If your child’s teacher has a web page, there may be information on the scope and sequence of reading instruction (for example, “this week, we will learn about magic-e”). Many district websites also include links to standards as well as information about resources for parents to reinforce literacy skills at home.
  3. If you are unsure of what reading skills your child has mastered, you may want to request a literacy assessment.  Here is a great article on early reading assessment from the Reading Rockets website.
  4. Review your child’s IEP. Are the reading goals consistent with the district’s literacy standards? Do you understand the goals and objectives? The language of literacy is full of jargon that is not in most parents’ everyday vocabulary. Don’t be hesitant to ask for clarification to be sure you have a full understanding of your child’s reading instruction and development.

After you collect this information, it may be helpful to create a chart like the one below to see where your child’s skills are in relation to grade level standards. This will help to pinpoint areas in need of intervention or support.

READING STANDARD                 CHILD’S SKILL LEVEL      INSTRUCTIONAL NEED
Follow words from left to right, top to bottom, and page by page. mastered N/A
Recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet. mastered N/A
Isolate and pronounce the initial, medial vowel, and final sounds in consonant-vowel-consonant (C-V-C) words Can match words with the same initial consonant Isolating middle vowel and final consonant in C-V-C words
Demonstrate basic knowledge of letter-sound correspondences by producing the primary or most frequent sound for each consonant. Knows the sounds for most consonants except g, s, v, w, and z. Often confuses /b/ and /d/ Letter sound correspondence for sounds not mastered. Reinforce /b/ and /d/
Associate the long and short sounds with letters for the five major vowels. Knows short vowels only Long vowel sounds
Read common high-frequency words by sight Knows 8/10 words on list Mastering all words on list

Learning the Aleph-bet

This past Saturday, I attended my first B’nai Mitzvah ceremony. I was not very knowledgeable about this Jewish tradition, so I checked with a friend beforehand for advice to be sure I wouldn’t commit a terrible faux pas at this important event. She kindly sent me a task analysis on How to Behave at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ceremony, and I was very grateful for that because there was a lot to know. I learned that when a boy reaches the age of thirteen, he becomes a Bar Mitzvah—and accepts responsibility for himself, before friends, family and his congregation,  as a member of the Jewish community. For girls, the term for this transition to adulthood is Bat Mitzvah. The ceremony I attended on Saturday posed a unique challenge as far as terminology goes because it was for triplets—two boys and a girl. Apparently, there is no term to describe that.

The service itself was beautiful—rich with tradition, serious but celebratory, shared with friends, family and community. It takes months—even years—for a child to prepare for this day. In order to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a child must demonstrate sufficient competency to participate in the ceremony. This means that, among other things, the child must learn to read Hebrew.  Since this blog is about reading, I must point out several things about Hebrew. First, the Hebrew alphabet (called Aleph-bet) looks nothing like the English alphabet. Second, the text reads from right to left. Third, the books open from the “bottom” or right-most page, and flip to the “top” or left-most page, bringing “Concepts of Print” to a new level for those of us who only read English.

During the ceremony, each child was called upon, one by one, to read from the Torah. From my second row seat (with my reading teacher hat on) I watched in awe as each child scanned from right to left (not left to right!) and carefully pronounced the Hebrew words.  I saw, from the corner of my eye, the children’s grandparents leaning slightly forward, flush with pride. Each child gave a short speech—called D’var Torah—about the personal meaning of the occasion and the parents, too, spoke to each child about the individual gifts he or she brings to their family and congregation. I was glad I followed my friend’s advice to “bring tissues, in case you cry at this very happy occasion” because I did, in fact, cry. It was joyful and moving and—I hesitate to use this word, but it fits—it was special. Because one of the triplets—Louisa—has Down syndrome. Her preparation, as you might imagine, was more complex than her brothers’. For her passage, the Hebrew characters were enlarged. The passage was not as long as her brothers’ passages. A few times in the ceremony, when the Cantor sang (and I am pretty sure that the Cantor was intended to sing alone) Louisa burst into song, notably accurate in her pronunciation. When, toward the end of the ceremony, the children were to stand to the far left and Louisa stayed firmly planted to the far right, the Rabbi and Cantor and her brothers gracefully sidestepped to the right and the ceremony continued. It was not what was planned but it was perfect. It was beautiful.

I have known Louisa since she was in kindergarten. She is a proficient reader, thanks to her parents’ unrelenting advocacy. I can only imagine the effort and persistence it took for Louisa to learn to read that Hebrew passage. But she did learn it, as well as the words to all the songs and prayers in the ceremony. There, among her family and her community, she participated fully in what I now know is one of the most important moments in a Jewish child’s life.  She participated because her parents never considered that she would not become a Bat Mitzvah. She participated because the Rabbi and the Cantor and her tutor and the entire congregation provided her with the support she needed to be successful. That, to me, is the definition of community. Mazel tov, Louisa, on this important milestone in your life. And thank you for inviting me to share in your journey.

Photos courtesy John Videler Photography

Guest post: Back to school tips from Sheryl Knapp!

child with Down syndrome reading with motherMany parents have written in to ask how they can support their child’s literacy development at home, particularly in the area of reading comprehension and vocabulary development. I turned to Connecticut reading expert, Sheryl Knapp, who graciously agreed to write a guest post on this topic. To read more about Sheryl’s work, check out her website at Literacy Best Practices.

5 Ways to Support Your Child’s Literacy Development at Home

by Sheryl Knapp, M.Ed., A/AOGPE 

It’s the end of summer recess and with the new school year comes new teachers, a new curriculum – and, for parents of students with significant disabilities, a new educational environment to navigate.  Here are ways you can support your child’s literacy development this year, regardless of your child’s age or reading level:

1.  Shake it up!  When reading with your child, utilize a variety of text. Nonfiction can be an excellent vehicle for teaching content area vocabulary. Since nonfiction tends to be more content-dense, you will need to approach it more slowly and deliberately; teach your child to re-read confusing or complex sections to facilitate understanding.  “Authentic” text—such as magazines, guidebooks, newspapers, journals and websites—can be particularly motivating for children, and exposes them to a variety of writing styles and formats.

Making it work:  

  • Read a reference guide on a topic of interest to your child – for instance, a guide to dog breeds – and practice using section headings and/or indexes to locate specific topics.
  • Discuss the use of various fonts (e.g., italics), callout boxes, and other print tools that highlight and/or summarize critical text.

2.  Maximize engagement.  Reading comprehension is an active process, requiring constant interaction with the text. Proficient readers maintain an ongoing internal dialogue as they read, continually checking that text makes sense and thinking about questions that arise as they read. For some children, this process must be taught directly and explicitly.

Making it work:

  • While reading, model self-questioning strategies, posing appropriate questions (“Why did he….?”) and statements (“I am surprised that he ….”), and making predictions (“I think he is going to…”).
  • Encourage your child to “make a movie in your head” while reading by helping him form visual images and referencing these images wherever possible.
  • Always watch for overt signs that your child has “tuned out” – in particular, if she looks away from the text – and immediately work to re-engage her.

3.  Focus on the “big picture.”  Many children with intellectual disabilities have difficulty sifting through details to derive the central interpretation of text.  When a reader focuses primarily on individual sentences or facts – particularly less relevant or more peripheral elements – she may miss the “big picture.”

Making it work:

  • A scaffolding approach is often helpful in shifting focus to more central ideas and themes within text.  Help your child to organize and categorize ideas presented in the text through ongoing discussion.
  • Use targeted follow-up questions to encourage your child to delve more deeply into the main ideas within the text.  If your child supplies a single-word answer to a question, try to get her to provide more details or otherwise elaborate on her response. Help her to draw conclusions or establish a broader understanding of the text based on these details.

4.  Model appropriate uses of prior knowledge.  Proficient readers make personal connections with text, drawing on prior knowledge and experiences while reading to make sense of text and to determine if this knowledge can help them better understand the content.  For many students with Down syndrome, this prior knowledge at times impedes (or overwhelms) the content contained within the text rather than enhancing it.

Making it work:

  • Ask leading questions pertaining to relevant experiences – for instance “Doesn’t this look like the fin we saw on the shark at the aquarium last week?” or “Do you remember how you felt when you…?”
  • Balance prior knowledge with text content.  Help your child to use his prior knowledge or experiences to enhance his understanding of text – without overwhelming it.  For instance, if reading a book about sharks, make references to observations from a previous trip to the aquarium while also emphasizing elements of the text that differ from what was observed.

5.  Don’t forget prosody and phrasing!  Proficient readers “group words in ways that help them gain meaning from what they read… read[ing] effortlessly and with expression.  Their reading sounds natural, as if they are speaking” (Put Reading First, 2006).  Proper phrasing and inflection are critical to maximizing text comprehension, yet struggling readers frequently sound laborious or “flat” when reading.

Making it work:

  • Choose text that your child can read comfortably.  Otherwise, so much of her attention will be required for the word identification process that little or no capacity will be available to devote to determining the meaning of the text she is reading – which is critical to applying appropriate inflection.
  • Model appropriate intonation, inflection and pacing, as demonstrated by the teacher in this video.
  • Employ both choral (simultaneous) and echo (alternating) reading, enabling your child to practice the inflection and pacing modeled.
  • Try a theatrical approach to the dialogue within text, perhaps serving as the “narrator” and having your child read each character’s dialogue – with varying (and exaggerated) inflection employed, based on the character type (e.g., a gruff voice for an annoyed neighbor).  Text dialogue often provides an ideal vehicle for teaching and practicing natural inflection.

The support that parents provide at home helps students with Down syndrome to generalize concepts outside of the academic environment – and utilize all those great literacy strategies they are learning at school to the text they encounter in the “real world.”

Long shots

Last weekend, I was tutoring a 21-year-old young woman with Down syndrome (I’ll call her Hannah) who had gone through her entire public school career without learning to read. Hannah is an engaging, bright and social person who is living a full life. She likes to dance (Hip Hop), she’s active in sports, and she definitely knows how to rock a party dress. How, I wondered, is it possible that this capable young woman received 18 years of “special education and related services” and never learned to read? When I met Hannah about a month ago, she did not know a single letter name or sound. She knew a few sight words, but because of lack of use, even that was not consistent. In just three weeks of tutoring, Hannah has started to blend sounds to read short CVC words (cat, hat, etc.). It’s always exciting to see this—when reading “clicks” for someone. I have no doubt that Hannah will, in fact, learn to read and that this skill will greatly enhance her life and for that, I am happy. But I couldn’t help but feel a momentary sadness when her mother wondered aloud what life would have been like for Hannah if she had acquired this skill when she was younger.

I had been pondering all of this when the next morning, I tuned in to “This American Life” on National Public Radio. The theme of the show was “long shots” and below is a snippet from the show’s transcript:

Ira Glass: Remember last year’s Kentucky Derby? The horse that won was such a long shot that the Sports Illustrated writer assigned to the race never even bothered to find out about him before the race. He’d lost 31 of his previous 32 races. At 50 to 1 odds, he was the longest long shot ever to win the Derby in over a century. Newsday published a preview of the race where it told this horse to just stay in the barn.

Announcer: As the field turns for home, top of the stretch, it’s still Join In The Dance with a tenuous lead–

Ira Glass: If you watch this race on YouTube — and you should, it’s incredible– the horse that’s going to win is called Mine That Bird. And he is so far behind that halfway through the race, you see all the other horses– they’re in a pack– and then this huge empty space, and then way behind that space is Mine That Bird. Then he picks up speed, he catches up to the pack, and it’s not until the final stretch that he passes every other horse and gets out in front. It all happens so fast that the announcer doesn’t even have time to say his name until it’s nearly over.”

Announcer: Mine That Bird now comes out to take the lead as they come down to the finish. And it’s spectacular! Spectacular upset! MineThat Bird has won the Kentucky Derby, that impossible result here!

Ira Glass: That’s how he did it. The jockey, Calvin Borel, said, “I road him like a good horse.”

Here we are again, I thought—back at expectations. That jockey believed in Mine That Bird, and Mine That Bird knew it. Hannah’ mother knew her daughter could read, and she refused to give up on that dream. Now, at 21 years old, Hannah is picking up speed and I can just see her crossing that finish line.