In this post, I am going to tell you several new things to try with children that just can’t seem to sound out words, even after MANY different interventions have been tried! So for those little sweeties that are “just plain stuck” on the road to learning to read, here are a few more things to try or to think about. The inspiration for this post came from the question from a reader below. Hope it is helpful!
I really enjoy using your songs and activity ideas in my kindergarten classroom each day. I wanted to seek your advice for a couple of my readers. They have phonemic awareness skills in place and can segment a CVC word independently, but they are unable to blend it into the word independently. If I segment the word for them, they can blend it just fine. I use the Elkonin boxes, manipulatives, etc. to help, but still they are not really making progress and they are the only ones who are unable to demonstrate this skill in my class. I would love to hear any suggestions you have. Thanks!
The first thing I would say is that you should read last week’s blog post on helping kids learn to sound out three letter words. If those things are not helping, then think about the things below:
Short Term Memory Issues?
I have found, in years past, that a few kids that couldn’t seem to hold the sounds in short term memory long enough to blend them together. By the time they got to the third sound, they couldn’t remember the first one. That’s a learning disability in my humble opinion, but please keep in mind that I am not a school psychologist. However, in these cases, it was confirmed by our school psychologist at the time. Those children had short term memory deficits.
To give yourself a clue as to whether a child may have short term memory issues, try this little “test.” We used to have The Three Step Direction Test that we had to give at my school. Kids that couldn’t focus very well had trouble with it (like those with ADHD), but kids with memory issues NEVER got it, even in a quiet room with no distractions.
Here is the test: You just give a child three simple directions in a row, and see if they can do them. But first you’ll have to make sure that you have their attention before you start, and when you give the directions, ry to get the child looking you right in the eye. Tell the child that you are going to give him three directions in a row, and he (or she) will need to do them in the same exact order that they are given. You can even make up an example question and do it together first, just to clarify that the child understands first.
If I am recalling the test questions correctly, they went something like this:
1. Stand up, turn around, and pick up a red crayon. (You have to have several colors of crayons on a table close at hand. That’s one whole test question right there, because there are three steps to it.
2. Jump up and down, clap two times, and touch the floor. (That’s another whole test question, etc.)
3. Pick up a yellow crayon, touch your nose with it, and put in next to the box.
If the child cannot complete three steps, try the test doing just two steps, or even just one step. Some of the kids that later wound receiving special ed services at my school were able to do some of the two step directions if they really concentrated, (especially those questions that involved crayons!) but not necessarily the other ones. I think that this might be because they were used to being given directions such as, “Sit down and pick up a red crayon.”
They say that practice makes perfect, and I don’t know if it does, but it certainly leads to improvement! So think about practicing one or two step directions with children that have trouble with auditory processing. It might just help them learn to sound out words, eventually. Who knows?
Another great game for this is Simon Says- especially Simon Says with more than one step! Example: “Simon says touch your shoulders and then your nose.” Or, “Simon says touch your feet and then your knees.” “Simon says sit down and snap your fingers.” Get it?
And- remember that old toy Simon? That’s a great game for stretching the auditory memory. And it turns out that there’s an app for that (several, in fact!) and many of them are FREE! The one below is called “Simoo.”
There is one iPad app that I know of that works on stretching the short term visual memory, though not auditory memory. It is called Memory Train, and my kids really love it.
Addressing Letter Sound Fluency
The other thing that might be happening to your kids is that having to identify the letter sounds themselves is stressing them out and making everything harder. This really could be it, since you say that if you segment the word for them, they can blend it, right?
So how quickly can these children say the letter sounds when shown a letter? Does it take a while for the child to think of that letter sound, or is it quick and automatic? If the sound doesn’t pop out of the child’s mouth very quickly and fluently, that’s probably your problem right there, and you’ll need to work on that. So get those letter cards out and start drilling them on those letter sounds again, and try to get them to say all 26 of the letter sounds in 30 seconds or less. The goal should be 1 second per letter. If they cannot do that, then reading will be too slow, and fluency in sounding out the words will not come, in my experience. If anyone knows of an iPad app that develops letter sound fluency, please let me know! I know of lots of apps that work on letter sounds, but none that encourage the children to say them quickly.
If a child can’t say anything fast-even things he or she knows very well, such as the names of common objects or colors, etc.- then I think that this is a matter of visual processing. It is also sometimes referred to as “Rapid Naming Deficits.” Children should be able to tell you the names of things that they use daily very quickly, like in about one second. So if you have flashcards or real objects that you know the child knows that names of, like toys, clothing, furniture, etc., then ask the child to name them for you and see how quickly the child can name them. The child should be able to say them all fairly quickly. If there is a lot of hesitation you may want to seek professional advice. Children that cannot do this, often wind up having trouble naming the letters, sounds, and sight words quickly as well, no matter how well they know them. That makes sense, doesn’t it? This impedes their ability to read fluently, so the child my need some extra help getting past that issue.
Here are some other things to try!
1. Daily Whole Group Practice, Using Movements
I have been having my entire class practice sounding out words from a pocket chart, using Zoo-Phonics motions for the letter sounds, or the RISE motions that I made up for the blog lesson that I posted on in November. (There is a video on my Facebook page of the movements; click here to see it.) Nobody gets away with not doing the motions, because I start by saying, “Everybody, hands UP!” If I notice anyone ignoring that command, I make an issue of it. Now I know that some of the children can easily sound out the words without using their hands, but lots of them cannot. So I insist that ALL of them do the motions. This forces all of the ones that might prefer to “opt out” of this activity and just sort of daydream while we do it to focus and think. No hands in the pockets, no hands in the laps. No picking at the fingers, clothing, shoes, or jewelry. Eyes up, hands up, here we go. Got it?
In addition to the daily practice, which has obvious benefits, my thought is that the children that know how to do it are modeling this process for the ones that don’t understand. And often times, a child modeling a skill for another child is better than an adult modeling a skill for a child. I have heard this lots of times from teachers in the past. If a teacher cannot explain a skill to a child, then sometimes another child might be able to do it and get the point across.
* I have decided that when we do this that some of my higher kids are giving away too many answers too fast. In fact, the other children are basically letting them do practically all of the work, and the children that need more processing time to come up with the answers really aren’t getting enough time to even think. So I have sent them to go read books while we do this for five minutes. I explained to them, and to the rest of the class, that they already know it, and I want the rest of the class to have a chance to think. Guess what? Suddenly the rest of the kids are all enthusiastically shouting out the answers! I think that some of the other kids want to be included in that “elite” group. Hmmm…..
* My class is getting really, REALLY good at sounding out words when we do them in word families, going DOWN the chart, like this: pot, dot, hot, got. Then pot, pop, fox, dot, hop, box, etc. So we are reading down the chart first, and then going across the chart, to mix up the word families. It is SO much harder when you mix up with word endings (and vowels)!
2. Dumb Things That (Sometimes) Work
My kids love to pop bubble wrap bubbles, so when I get something in the mail that is wrapped in bubble wrap, I save it. Then, in small groups, each time one of them sounds out a word, I let them pop one of the bubbles. The added bonus is that it develops fine motor skills by working those finger muscles as well.
3. Tell Them Your Fingers SING!
Try running your fingers under the words while they sound out the words. This is the routine that we were given from the SIPPS program, and it is a good one: the teacher says, “Sound,” and starts running the finger under each letter. The child says each letter sound as you run your finger under it. Then you do it again, but a little faster. Hopefully, the child will start to blend them together. If not, I tell them, “My fingers make the letters sing. Help me make the letters sing.” Then do it again, and see if the children start singing the letter sounds. This often makes them blend the letter sounds together as they are singing the sounds.
The other thing that helps is that when we practice the alphabet sounds, we do the same thing: Just say, “Sound,” and run your finger under the letter from left to right while the kids say it. The only difference is that there is only one letter on the card. If you want them to give the letter name instead, say, “Letter.”
4. Once a Child Sounds Out a Word, Have Them Do It AGAIN IMMEDIATELY
I started doing this last year with a child who was really struggling, poor thing! He finally got one word sounded out, and I thought to myself, “Maybe I’ll give him success by having him do the same word in a row.” Much to my surprise, he could not do it a second time in a row! I was stunned. He said, “No, I can’t,” and groaned and moaned, even though he had JUST told me the answer! So now, with the ones that are struggling so terribly, I will sometimes have them go back to the very same word that I just gave them, and do it again. (And again, and again, and again!) I tell them, “Show me how you do that one more time,” just to solidify it in their minds. “Or, let’s practice doing that again. Show me how you sound that word out.”
Another way to approach it is to put that very word into the “Sound It Out” song on Little Songs for Language Arts CD. Just change the words so that you have the child singing the word that you want him to sound out, rather than the words that are on my CD. That should really help a lot; even my students that are struggling the most can sound out the words that we sound out on that song!
5. Try a Different Movement
Have your kids touch their shoulder for the first sound, then their middle arm (or elbow) for the second sound, and their hand for the last sound. Then blend the sounds together by sliding their hand all the way from their shoulder to their hand. This variation of movements helps some kids get it.
Just the fact that they are MOVING will help many children get it also! I insist that my children all put their hands up and be ready to do this when we practice sounding out words. They must to move their hands along with me, otherwise, many of them often just sit there and daydream while the others practice. The movements keep them alert and focused.
6. Try a New Game
Sometimes adding in some novelty helps a child practice something that they have already practiced a hundred times before. My kids love velcro! I think that they love it because of that funny sound it makes when you pull it apart. We now have CVC Spelling Puzzles, and my kids really LOVE them! Yes, they are very similar to the the CVC Pockets, but in this case, there is the visual clue of the puzzle piece that helps the child know where to put the piece down, and that always helps. They are just a tad easier than the CVC Pockets. Click here to try a few!
7. Read My Lips
This activity is done to practice blending the sounds together without necessarily looking at the written letters.
Have kids watch your lips make all three sounds in succession while you say the sounds. Make sure you get their attention focused right on your mouth before you begin. I usually tap my mouth with my finger or the end of my pencil, and say, “Watch my mouth.” Then I look them straight in the eye and make the sounds. Then I tell the child, “Now say that back to me.” After they do, then ask them to speed it up and say it faster.
The idea here is that you have got the child to use a little bit of lip reading as a visual clue to help them identify the sounds that they are hearing. Once the child has identified the sounds that he has heard, (and you’ll know this because he or she has repeated them back to you,) then he can start to blend them together for you. Hopefully, then, you won’t get children telling you things like /sssssss/ /iiiiii/ /t/ is the word “pig.” When children are taught to focus on the speaker’s lips when that person is talking, then it teaches them a new way to pay attention and listen. And if a child has auditory processing problems, this can be a real life saver.
8. Try a New Teaching Routine
Here is another routine that I was taught to use as part of our SIPPS program. It is sometimes helpful to the low kids, especially- although the high kids do get impatient with it, I have found!
1. When teaching, first model the new skill twice.
Example: “My turn. /fffff/ /iiiii/ /sssshhhhh/.”
“My turn again. /fffff/ /iiiii/ /sssshhhhh/.”
2. Then have the kids do it with you twice.
Example: “Together: /fffff/ /iiiii/ /sssshhhhh/.”
“Together again: /fffff/ /iiiii/ /sssshhhhh/.”
3. Then have the kids try it alone- twice, of course!
Example: “Your turn. /fffff/ /iiiii/ /sssshhhhh/.”
“Your turn again. /fffff/ /iiiii/ /sssshhhhh/.”
If they don’t get it, you are supposed to start over with this routine. I don’t know if I buy into that whole “Start over and try it again from the beginning, no matter what, forever and ever” theory, though. For me, if something doesn’t work with a child fifteen times in a row, trying it a sixteenth time seems like the definition of insanity to me. But I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that one.
9. Give them TIME to GROW
I really feel that some kids just need time to grow up a little bit! Not every five year old is going to learn to read. Some children learn when they are four, some learn when they are five, and some learn when they are six. In some countries, they don’t even start to teach children to read until they are seven! So if you have a five year old child that is not responding to these techniques, please remember that childhood is a journey, and not a race! Help the child as much as you can, but lots of love and a little more time may be the best solution of all.
10. Don’t Forget to Try Those Sound Blending Songs!
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