My child is Guessing Words When Reading!

If you’re the parent of a young reader, you may have caught wind of terms like “The Reading Wars” and “The Science of Reading.” The issues always boil down to, “What is the best way to turn children into capable and eager readers?” Like everything, the questions and answers get oversimplified and misrepresented in media. But if you have a school-age child, varying approaches to reading instruction can make a huge difference. Especially if you’re wondering, “Why does my child guess words when reading?”

If a child guesses words while reading…

The (Vastly Oversimplified) Process of Reading

To read written English, we need to:

  • Connect the right sounds to the symbols (letters) printed on the page and blend them together to “hear” a word
  • Read quickly enough to not get exhausted and not run out of attention
  • Recognize a real word and understand what it means in this sentence
  • Read a whole story, remember it, and understand things about the story

One philosophy of teaching reading, called balanced literacy, advocates encouraging children to “use context clues,” including pictures, to figure out “what would make sense.” The problem with that approach is that, eventually, the books they read have fewer and fewer pictures to help them figure out hard words. Kids who rely on this coping strategy end up stranded because they don’t know how to say multisyllabic words. These kids have often been very successful in the classroom until third or fourth grade, but by fifth, they start to struggle. They can’t keep up with grade-level science texts, or lessons that require them to read for information. 

How to help children who guess words when reading
Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

The worst part is that this is not what mature readers (like adults) do. Efficient readers quickly recognize whole words or chunks of words and combine them to read words they might never have seen before. By encouraging children to check the pictures, or by letting them fall back on this strategy, you’re promoting a reading habit that will become less and less effective as they progress as readers and eventually, it will leave them stranded. 

This parent noticed the problem when she tested her daughter on a predictable book with pictures to provide support. With the pictures, it sounds like beautiful early grades reading. But when the pictures are removed, the child stumbles and gets stuck. Think about the last 10 books you read. How many had pictures to help you read the words? Relying on the text alone is what reading really is!

How to Help Your Child Avoid Guessing

If you’re trying to figure out how to stop your child from guessing, first you need to understand “why does my child guess words when reading.”

Use decodable text – “Decodable text” is the term for stories that follow a sequence of introduction for different phonetic spelling patterns. The exact sequence is different for every set of decodable books, but generally “easy” books include one or more short vowel sounds and short words in short sentences. Think “Val sat on the mat.”

Text becomes “decodable” when students have learned the spelling patterns included in it. This doesn’t always match grade level or any other commonly used book leveling system. To know what decodable books your child needs, you have to know what patterns she has been taught: short vowels, silent e, vowel teams, etc.

Give “hard” words to them for free – Readers guess when they don’t know a word and don’t have the tools to figure it out. Once you have picked appropriate books, it helps to anticipate the tricky words and warn your child when they come up. It can feel awkward to interrupt their reading, but remember that you’re trying to stop the guessing behavior before it starts.

Even if they can read almost every word in the book, they might need help with character names. I know I’m not the only one who read Harry Potter without knowing how to pronounce “Hermione” until the movies came out!

Instead of “What would make sense?” – In the guided reading philosophy, teachers cue children when they get stuck on a word by asking “What would make sense here?” It leads them to say horse when they can’t read pony or hat when they can’t read helmet. Sometimes those substitutions are OK in early stories, and so kids over rely on that strategy. Then they get to more challenging texts. What would make sense in this sentence from the Wikipedia entry on electricity?

“The ____ of this force is given by Coulomb’s law.”

You didn’t guess magnitude? Me neither. That’s why having a strategy for breaking down unfamiliar words is so important.

One way to make reading more fun is to use our Winter Reading Bingo Board. Download it here.


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Why is this still happening?

I heard the statistic that actual classroom instruction in public schools lags about 20 years behind educational research. It makes sense. If a teacher works in the schools for 30 years, it has probably been at least 20 years since she was a grad student. And administrators and curriculum coaches are likely at least a few years out of school. Not to mention, college teacher preparation programs are still teaching this approach to reading instruction and churning out new teachers who teach the same ineffective strategies. 

Is there hope?

Lots of people are asking their school districts hard questions, bringing effective, evidence-based, strategies into the classroom, and moving towards better curriculum. As a parent, finding these people (or becoming these people!) is one of the most powerful ways you can help your child and all the children in your district.

Look into local Decoding Dyslexia or Reading League chapters. 

For your own child, consider whether your current public school is the right place for them to learn to read. I taught my own son to decode because he attended kindergarten via distance learning, in a balanced literacy district, to boot. If your child is struggling with guessing and avoiding reading, it may be the best approach to choose a home instruction program or find a tutor who can teach your child using structured literacy so they have the skills and confidence required to sound out words without guessing. 

If it’s time to get some highly trained, 1-on-1 help to teach your child to read, contact us for a free consultation and demo lesson.

How to help a child read better at home

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Happy New Year! Among the many resolutions we all make to eat better and get organized, many parents are wondering how to help their children have a great year. As a parent, you may be looking for ideas about how to help a child read better or how to get your child to read on grade level. Read on for some ideas about how to help a child read better and read more.

Identify the Problem

Sounding out words

Sometimes, children are reluctant to read because reading feels very hard! Especially for younger readers, books “at their level” can be filled with tricky irregular words that don’t follow the rules they know. For example, a sentence like “Bill made a card to give his mother” would look right at home in a first grader’s book, but there’s a lot to take in here: 

  • silent e changes the vowel sound in made, but not in give!
  • in mother, the o makes the /ŭ/ sound instead of the /ŏ/ sound!
  • card has an r-controlled vowel sound, which many reading programs don’t introduce until later on!

If your child is still learning about phonics and how to sound out words (usually up through second grade, possibly later), look for decodable books that match what they have learned. For kindergarten, Bob books are a great option. These Simple Words books are a terrific choice for older kids who want to read “real” books but are still learning to decode. Check out all my recommendations for decodable books here.

Reading Fluently

Even if a child can accurately sound out words, they may do it in a slow, laborious way that makes it hard for them to follow a story. If you’re wondering how to help a child read better and more fluently, one of the best ways is to provide a good model. This can mean taking turns reading pages, or having an older sibling read with them. Reading along with audiobooks is another option for letting children hear a fluent reader.

Beyond modeling, fluent reading comes from tons of practice. Suggest that your child read to pets, or dolls, or grandparents, or the neighborhood squirrels, whatever captures their attention. It’s important that children read frequently and read lots of different types of stories to become more fluent. It’s like learning a musical instrument – it can be boring, and it can be painful for the people listening, but slow and steady practice is an essential part of becoming a great reader!

Need ideas to jazz up your home reading routine? Sign up here to grab my free Winter Reading Bingo board and get email updates with more ideas to help your readers at home!


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Sticking with a Book

Maybe your children read beautifully but they still don’t like it. Reading time is “boring” or “too long.” In our modern world, it can be so hard to block out distractions and sit down with a book. I read a lot of eBooks and often have to dodge email notifications, game requests, ads and weather reports to even get my book open! Those things are designed to get us to look at them. Think about how you can design reading time to make it appealing.

You can help a child read better and help them build reading stamina by:

  • Creating cozy reading spaces – cushions, blankets, good lighting
  • Keeping book collections fresh – hit the library regularly or trade with other families for new-to-you titles
  • Keep old favorites handy – there’s nothing wrong with rereading well-loved books!
  • Set an example – I know you don’t have time, no one does! But if you want your child to read, let them see you read. Keep a book in the kitchen and steal a few minutes while you wait for the water to boil, or create a bedtime reading ritual for everyone.

Finding books they can stick with is another challenge for growing readers. If your child has a limited reading diet, you may be wondering how to get your child to read on grade level. I often search websites like whatshouldireadnext and Good Reads for books like a current favorite. School and public librarians, as well as reading lists published by schools, can be great resources for book ideas. The Holy Grail of reading is finding a series your child loves, written by a prolific author. 

You can help your child expand their repertoire by:

  • Introducing new series – bring home one or two books from a new series and be willing to go back for more.
  • Learning about popular authors on YouTube or on their websites
  • Trying graphic novel versions of popular books – These can be quick reads that give them a taste of a more complex story.
  • Finding a common thread – If they like non-fiction about animals, try a novel that features animals.
  • Adding audiobooks – While we don’t want to give up on “eye-reading,” adding audiobooks can expose children to new kinds of stories in a more fun, lower effort way that might motivate them to read similar books themselves

Kids Who Read More, Read Better

Skipping reading when everyone is tired at bedtime or on a busy night of soccer and scouts doesn’t feel like a big deal. But daily reading has huge cumulative impacts on learning and development. Kids who read for 20 minutes a day can read six times as many words each year, compared to kids who read just five minutes a day. That can make an enormous difference in vocabulary, knowledge, and ability to understand stories.

Kids who read for 20 minutes a day can read six times as many words each year, compared to kids who read just five minutes a day. Click To Tweet

So let’s get started! Make it your New Year’s Resolution to increase your children’s reading time by 5 minutes a day, to start. Once you take the first step of making sure they sit down with a book daily, it’s much easier to grow the habit from there!

Don’t forget to download the Winter Reading Bingo board!


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Is the secret to teaching handwriting on your playground?

Maybe you’ve started wondering, “How do I get my child to write her name?” or “Why does my child hate writing?” Maybe your friend’s preschooler or your nephew or your babysitter’s kid was drawing people and trees by this age and your child couldn’t care less about coloring. First of all, your child may be at a totally normal spot, developmentally, for her age. This chart from Understood.org shows that it is normal for preschoolers to be scribbling, beginning to copy letters, and maybe learning their names during the preschool years. They say children don’t necessarily learn to hold a pencil correctly until they are school age, between 5 and 7.

This list from Zero to Three is another great resource for the stages of handwriting. Up until 2 1/2, random scribbles are the name of the game. My son was mostly still biting crayons at two. Between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2, kids get more control of their scribbles and patterns – like zigzags and repeated lines – emerge. It’s normal for kids to start drawing recognizable objects and figures between the ages of 3 and 5. (That means some kids will start when they are five and that’s still fine!)

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what can you do for your kids to help them get ready for writing, especially as you start to get ready for kindergarten? The answer may surprise you!

Think big

Before your kids can master the small muscle movements of writing, they need strength and coordination in their big muscles. This includes core strength and strong muscles in their shoulders and arms. So one of the best things you can do to help your kids learn to write the alphabet or learn to write their names is take them outside to run, jump, climb and swing!

This blog post from Miss Jaime, O.T., explains it nicely. Kids who have weak cores prop themselves up with an arm, lean on furniture, fidget in their chairs and won’t stay in their seats. She recommends a whole list of fun strengthening activities that you can work into your family routine. Some of the ones that I hadn’t thought of before were pumping on a swing, crawling through tunnels, and heavy work like carrying laundry and pushing a broom or shoveling.

Remember tummy time?

My son tolerated tummy time, as long as there was a mirror (he was a vain little creature) or something that made noise. My daughter just got MAD. And the more we tried, the madder she got. She didn’t start to crawl (just scooted around on her bum) until her favorite baby at daycare, who is 6 months younger, started getting mobile. Unfortunately for her, tummy time is the foundation for a lot of the core strength and shoulder strength she will need for good handwriting. The nurse practitioner in our doctor’s office explained that pushing up on their hands helps babies develop the muscles in their hands they need to crawl, but also to grasp objects, including pencils.

So if your child was a tummy time dropout, like my Ladybug, or if they don’t quite have the strength they need yet, think about some of the ways you got them on the floor when they were babies. Break out the floor puzzles. Put large paper and crayons on the floor and draw a huge map. Put blocks or Legos on the floor. Help them build a huge race track for their cars so they have to crawl around the floor to drive. Set up a crawling obstacle course or scavenger hunt that has them crawling on their bellies under chairs, stretching out one arm to grab a clue under the couch, or balancing (with a spotter!) on a yoga ball in the Superman position.

But shouldn’t they sit and practice, too?

OK, yes, preschoolers won’t get good at writing without writing and drawing. But if they hate it, there are lots of ways they can practice those movements without you breaking out the penmanship paper just yet!

Some great ways to get kids using their hands and arms in a way that will help them write are:

  • Playdough – squeezing, rolling, pinching, stamping. All those movements are great for little fingers!
  • Slime or putty – as much as it grosses me out, kids seem to love it!
  • Painting – with fingers, brushes or sponges. On the table, on the floor, on an easel, or with bathtub paints on the shower wall. Painting on a vertical surface like an easel or wall has the benefit of using their shoulder muscles and can help kids work on their grip, too.
  • Stringing beads – Check out the craft store to find the right size beads for your kid’s skill level. Make patterns, make bracelets for everyone they know, or just string and dump.
  • Sidewalk chalk – this has the bonus of getting them on their hands and knees, working their core and shoulders while practicing the BIG drawing movements they can use for handwriting later.
  • Legos – snap them together and pull them apart. Pick out tiny pieces from the pile.
  • Smaller pencils – When they do write, snap crayons in half or use golf pencils to encourage them to grip down near the tip of the tool for better control. Crayola makes little markers called PipSqueaks that are also great for little hands.

Understood.org has another great list of tips for getting kids to practice writing. Read it here.

So if your preschooler hates writing, or if you can’t begin to guess what they drew you, don’t panic! Give them lots of outside play to strengthen their cores, lots of play on the floor when they are stuck inside, and get creative with seated activities that use their finger and wrist muscles. When they have the strength to sit still and hold that pencil, you might be amazed with that they can draw and write!

Did your child hate tummy time? Who cried more, you or the baby? What is your preschooler’s favorite thing to do on the playground? Comment below to share your ideas!

Join my email list for more ideas, and updates on my upcoming book: 4 Big Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten.

Potty independence – Zippers and wiping and handwashing – Oh, my!

If you’re getting ready to send your child to kindergarten, potty training may already feel like a distant memory. As I start to think about training my daughter, I realize I don’t really remember how we got my son to use the potty. My daughter is three years younger and a lot has happened in those three years! But I am realizing that the bathroom journey isn’t done with my four-year-old as I start to think about getting him ready for school. There are some things that he doesn’t seem to understand or can’t handle independently yet and they may really get in the way of his school experience! Here are some of the things we are working on.

Privacy

My four-year-old can tell you that the bathroom is a private place and that you need a private place to take off your clothes. And then, we have company, and I see that he doesn’t quite get it. I end up running from the dining room table (which has a perfect view of the bathroom!) to save the guests from an unexpected view!

Depending on the school, your child’s kindergarten might have a private bathroom in or near the classroom, or your child may have to use a multi stall bathroom like the older children do. Even if the kindergarten has a private bathroom, learning how to manage a public bathroom will be important if your child is going to the bathroom during lunch or in the gym.

The core message for your child is that every individual has a right to privacy when they use the bathroom. That means one person in the bathroom or stall at a time, close the door, lock the door, and when you’re done, come out with your clothes on and fastened. This can be tricky because when children are little they live in a world of “privacy… but…,” like Mom and Dad will come in to check on you if you’ve been in the bathroom too long or I’ll come in and wipe when you’re done. As a parent, I definitely don’t get privacy in the bathroom every time and even though my son understands that I want privacy when I’m in the bathroom it doesn’t stop him from coming in when two of his Legos are stuck together. Now is the time to start making those blurry lines around privacy a little sharper and more black and white. It may be a shift for your family, but it’s a shift that will help your child with the transition from being home to being in the more public world of school.

The paperwork

When my brother was potty training many years ago, my father famously told him that “the job’s not over until the paperwork is done.” I know a lot of preschoolers, and if we’re being honest, I’ve known some school-age kids, who still needed feedback on their cleanup job after using the bathroom. Now is the time to step up that gradual release of responsibility. I know that in a perfect world I would rather have my kids walking around clean than have them be walking around independent, but if they’re going off to school, they need to be able to do enough wiping to manage. They likely won’t have access to wet wipes either, so be sure that they get some practice cleaning up after using the bathroom with toilet paper only.

Fears

That brings me to a – perhaps less common but definitely real – problem for many students preparing to enter kindergarten. That is fears about using the bathroom on their own. For my son, it has been the sound of the loud flush in a large public bathroom. He also may run back out into the restaurant if the hand dryer comes on. While he may not encounter automatic hand dryers when he gets to school, he definitely does need a strategy for flushing the toilet on his own instead of hiding outside the stall while I do it for him.

Other kids have different fears that may interfere with their bathroom Independence. For example, in one school where I worked, the older students had convinced some of the first- and second-graders that one of the bathrooms was haunted. At least one student took it to heart and was running off the school bus in the afternoon and barely making it into the bathroom before having an accident because she was so afraid to use the bathroom at school. Another student I know began to avoid going to preschool out of the fear that he would have to poop there and no one would be in the bathroom to reassure him that he wouldn’t fall in. Every kid has their own quirky needs and worries in this area. Before they start kindergarten is the time to take a step back and think about whether any of your child’s peculiar anxieties are getting in the way of their safety and Independence in the bathroom.

Clothes

When I was in Americorps we had a uniform with a belt. It was a canvas belt with a free end that threaded through a metal clasp and then, as far as I could tell, became stuck there forever. I remember an embarrassing and nerve-wracking moment when I couldn’t get out of my uniform belt and had to stand there in the hallway while one of my teammates tried to free me, and I concentrated on not wetting my pants. I was 20, not a child. But that’s the memory I think of when I think about kids wearing belts and buttons and tights to school that they have to get out of to use the bathroom.

There are so many adorable kids’ clothes and school shopping is so exciting. Grandparents get in on the act, too, and buy adorable little outfits for the little boys and girls going off to school. And they make for great pictures! But before you send your child to school in a new kind of clothes, make sure that they can independently unfasten and fasten them in a limited amount of time. My son’s favorite pants all winter were a pair of hand-me-down khakis, but he could not get the hook at the top of the zipper done independently. It resulted in him walking around with his pants half open more often than I would like to think about. When I pick out school clothes for him, I go with all elastic waist and drawstring options that he can get in and out of efficiently I get back to his classroom. As his motor skills get better, more options will open up. And on the weekend, when he’s with the family, he can wear whatever he wants!

Hand washing

Kids are gross. Listen, I taught my son to wash his hands before I even taught him to use the bathroom. There’s a little song I made up and everything. And yet, I still catch him dipping his hands in the water, squirting a handful of soap, and rinsing it immediately into the sink and then drying his hands on my nice clean towel and trying to walk out of the bathroom. Yuck.

To an extent, kids are going to do a bad job with things like washing their hands and faces. Even if they know they’re getting rid of germs, they don’t really get it and they don’t really believe you that washing their hands will keep them healthy. So continue to reinforce this skill with your child and know that the teacher will, too. But you do have to accept that no one is going to supervise them scrubbing their hands every time. Yikes. So you may want to find out whether hand sanitizer is an option. In some schools it is, and others avoid it.

As much as it grosses me out (OK, I have a thing about germs) to think of a bunch of five-year-olds using the same bathroom all day with little adult intervention, I do realize that kids become independent eventually! This last window before your child starts school is your chance to give them the skills to be independent and confident so they can take care of business and get back to their classroom day!

Does your child have total bathroom independence? What if you weren't around to coach them?

Photo by Curology on Unsplash

I wrote a book about getting your preschooler ready for kindergarten. Join my mailing list for updates about the book and tips for preschool parents!



Sorry, I don’t tutor kindergartners – Here’s why

When I used to do test prep tutoring for high school students through some of the big tutoring companies, I pretty much only talked to parents who were looking for that specific product. I’ve been tutoring privately for two and a half years and now that I talk to a wider cross-section of parents, I am surprised by how often parents are looking for tutoring for their kindergartners! Sometimes, they feel their four- and five-year-olds have fallen behind kids their age and want them tutored in basic academic skills like letter names, shapes, and counting. Other times, they want their preschooler to “get ahead” so they can do well in kindergarten.

I’m sympathetic to these requests because I know starting school can be incredibly stressful for parents. I have a four-year-old myself and I find myself wondering all the time if he’ll do well when he starts school or if we have some hard work ahead of us.

As a reading and writing tutor, I don’t take on students that young. Especially working online, I don’t think I can meet the needs of the youngest learners. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I don’t think “tutoring,” in the traditional definition, is appropriate for students before around first grade.

I think that four- and five-year-old preschoolers and kindergartners, frankly, have way more important things to do than to sit with a tutor. I would rather see them on their feet, playing, creating, following directions, problem-solving, and learning about the world around them. Children this age have a short attention span for things that aren’t their own ideas and that’s not a problem! That’s the way they are supposed to learn.

That’s not to say they don’t have a lot to learn before they start school. There is a huge range of starting points for kids entering kindergarten. But kindergarten teachers expect that wide range to enter their classrooms at the end of every summer.

In any public school classroom in the U.S., kids are likely to have birthdays at least a year apart. That’s just the nature of the public school system, due to enrollment cutoffs. Teachers expect that and use a variety of techniques to meet kids where they are and bring them through the year. By high school, you wouldn’t be able to guess the age of many of the students.

In kindergarten, though, the differences can be dramatic. But in my experience as a public school teacher, some gaps are much more concerning than others. I would much rather see a student come in to the classroom who can converse with peers and adults, manage her behavior, navigate the classroom space, and solve problems. If she doesn’t know all the letters in the alphabet when she starts school, I can work with that!

Parents are constantly getting the message that they need to get their kids “ready” for kindergarten. There are workbooks and intensive preschool programs. There are family members pressuring parents to do more, comparing these preschoolers to other people’s children who were reading earlier or doing remarkable things before kindergarten! And because parents want the best for their children, they’re not sure where to turn.

Stay tuned for the next few weeks where I will be sharing some ideas for how to know whether your child is ready for kindergarten success and what kind of activities and lessons you can teach to help them be ready or when school starts this fall!

As a special education teacher, I have worked with students coming in for kindergarten screening for years. I will share some of the things that make us wonder or worry about an incoming student as well as some of the best ideas I’ve learned for promoting of the things that really matter for your child going into kindergarten.

Sorry, I don't tutor kindergartners - Here's Why

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
Kindergartners need lots of play and real-life experiences, not a tutor.

Coming soon: 4 Big Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten. Join the mailing list for updates about the book and tips and tools to get your child ready for school!