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9/1/2020 9:52:46 PM
TEACHING READING THE RIGHT WAY
For years, I owned a tutoring
service for school-aged kids, primarily focused on reading. Initially, I
recruited my parents, who were retiring school teachers to do the tutoring
while I took the parent phone calls, administered assessment tests, wrote the
advertising and marketing materials and collected the tuition.
Soon, I was pitching in with
the tutoring and found out, to my surprise, that I had a knack for it. After
the first couple of years, my mother wanted to go back to teaching—she missed
the classroom dynamic. Meanwhile, my 3-year-old daughter was giving me a harder and harder
time about staying at the office with me. I decided not to renew my lease and
just finish tutoring the remaining students at my house. However, the moms had other
ideas. They kept referring new students, and I became a one-woman show.
Nearly every mother of a
struggling reader came to me with the same story. The teacher had told her that
her child had a reading comprehension problem.
I would then administer some
tests, including a 5-minute phonics test. At first, I did what some other tutoring centers do: I gave new students achievement
tests in several subjects, which was a long process, especially for the younger
students. (I soon realized most of the testing was unnecessary. Until a child’s
reading is up to par, she can’t possibly be a stellar all-around student.)
What I found out was that
kids where I lived generally did not have problems with comprehension...if they
could read the words. The big problem was that they were not being taught
phonics (the rules of sounding out) in any meaningful way.
After looking into
it further, I found out they were using the Whole Language philosophy put
forward by psychologist and educator Lev Vygotsky. If you want to know more
about it, a google search of “whole language approach” will get you the origin,
philosophy and controversy. Just know that, despite the lack of any scientific
data, Whole Language became the norm in a number of countries.
My neighbor, who was a young
teacher while I was tutoring, once told me, “They’re starting to say we
should go back to teaching phonics to students, but, when I went to college,
everything was about Whole Language. I don’t know how to teach phonics. I’m not
even totally sure what they are.”
Note: I have not been tutoring for
the last 10 years and I thought universities would have switched to teaching more
tried and true (phonics) approaches by now. However, I just read an article
from 2018 that claimed it’s still not happening, so I don’t know what teachers
are learning at this point.
Here are the problems our
school district was having around reading. Yours is likely to have at least one
of these problems, if not all three:
-Many teachers didn’t
understand the importance of phonics, through no fault of their own.
-Since teachers were trained
in Whole Language without phonics, they had no idea how to assess the specific problem within
reading their students were having.
-Teachers rarely have an
ample amount of one-on-one time with students. They have to spend a lot of
their time just keeping order. If they sit down and try to figure out why your
child is struggling, the rest of the class will dissolve into mayhem because “Woohoo,
the teacher is distracted!” When was the last time you tried to do anything in an organized way with 10-25 elementary school children? (For one birthday, all 14 of the girls my daughter invited to a sleepover actually showed up. Within 10 minutes, I was searching the house frantically for something that might act as a tranquilizer--for me, not the kids.)
I think many school districts
have tried to add phonics back into schools, but they may be doing it in a haphazard way that many children find murky and confusing.
Before we opened the learning
center, my mother (who taught kids of all ages in her 34-year career) ordered the top 3 rated phonics programs for us to try out.
One of them beat the others, hands down, for ease of use for teacher, ease of
use for student, and fast results.
This system is called Explode
the Code. (I have no financial interest in this company.) But, wait! Don’t go off and buy the workbooks
before reading the rest of this post!
After you use the phonics assessment,
you can order the appropriate Explode the Code books at a number of different sites
on the internet. However, you need to be careful because, sometimes, what’s
being sold is a teacher’s book, not the student workbooks. (I had a teacher’s version,
but never used it because the rules are clearly written at the tops of the
pages.) Also, do not buy Beyond the Code yet. Those are comprehension books. The
prices of Explode the Code books vary, so you may want to compare the price plus shipping before buying.
Some places to buy Explode
the Code workbooks:
I'm writing this during Covid-19 in the United States and situations vary from state to state. If stores are open where you live and you want to go in person, search: "teacher supply stores in my area," and "homeschool supply in my area" then call them and ask if they carry Explode the Code.
You can typically find them on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and ChristianBook.com (The workbooks are not religious
in any way. Because they work, homeschool parents recommend them to each other
and there are many Christian homeschoolers.) Sometimes they are bundled (Books 1-4, for instance). You can also find the workbooks on
Ebay at times, but, again, look very closely to make sure you’re getting
what you’re looking for and not a teacher’s book or Beyond the Code
(comprehension) workbook when you’re looking for phonics.
So, if your child doesn’t
know the consonant sounds yet (b says “buh,” c says “kuh”), start with Explode
the Code Books A, B, and C, then move on to Explode the Code Book 1.
(I started my daughter on Book A before she was 3, but I had also been doing a
lot of unofficial teaching since she was born. Some children might not be ready
until they are 4 or 5 and that's normal.)
Typically, the students I worked
with already knew their consonant sounds, so I mostly used Explode the Code Books
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. The half books: 1 ½, 2 ½, etc., are for extra
practice if the student hasn’t mastered the concept of the previous book yet. Most
students didn’t need the half books, but if there’s a learning disability or
your child’s brain is strongly focused in some other direction, he may need the
After we started using Explode
the Code, I was amazed at how quickly students’ reading and overall grades
improved. I said to my dad, “I can’t believe how easy it is with these books!
Why aren’t they being used in all the schools?”
His reply, “Schools would
never pay this much for single-use workbooks.” This is one of those penny-wise, pound
foolish moments. I was paying $7-$8 for each book at the time. School districts
surely could have gotten better deals. Even if they’d just used Books 1-4 on
every reading student in the district, school performance would have increased
Note: I do not recommend
most of the phonics assessment tests I found online because they use real words,
like “dog” and “cat.” Most kids who’ve been in school but haven’t been taught
phonics have memorized a lot of words. You need the assessment to find out
whether your child reads phonetically, not whether he has memorized words. This
is why it’s better to use lists of mostly fake
words that mimic the sounds found in real words.
Another note: I specifically
recommend Explode the Code because it teaches each new phonics rule in
isolation. The child can understand what’s happening and master each rule
quickly, then move on to the next. Not all phonics programs are as methodical as
Explode the Code and, while some children can get by with tons of memorization
or can figure out the patterns on their own, many need the methodical approach.
This has nothing to do with how intelligent the student is. It’s just a matter
of how her particular brain works.
If you’re still in doubt
where to start after administering the phonics assessment, it’s better to err
on the side of caution and start with a lower book. (Use the speech below to make
sure your child doesn’t get insulted by a book that seems too easy.)
So, let’s say you have the
appropriate Explode the Code book and are ready to start. Unless the child is
too young to have learned 3- and 4-letter words already, here’s a speech you
“This workbook will probably
have lots of words in it you’ve already memorized. But we’re using it for
something else. Now, we're learning the rules and paying attention to the
sounds the letters make.”
Then when you start, read
the first rule to your child and ask the child to say each word aloud,
emphasizing the sounds of each letter. Example: Child reads “dog.” You say, “But
think about the letter sounds: Duh-ah-guh. See how the letters work as a team
to make the word ‘dog’?”
This program is so user
friendly, I could tutor 3 students at a time. However, when a new student
started, I always sat with him and had him sound each word out to me at first (Example:
“Duh-ah-guh: dog”). When he seemed to get the idea of what we were doing, I
would say, “Okay, do the next page and then tell me you’re finished so we can
check it.” Since phonetic reading is about sounds, I always encouraged students
to murmur the sounds to themselves as they were sounding out to reinforce what
they were learning. I recommend that you follow this process as much as you
Once the student gets more
confident and is marking most words and pictures correctly, you may be able to
let them do more pages between checks. The workbooks are not made to be challenging.
They are made to teach letter sounds.
This was especially helpful with
downtrodden older kids who’d been struggling in school for several years. They came
in clearly dreading even more “school” on top of the miserable school day they’d
already had. But most of them started feeling better about themselves and the
tutoring quickly because they were set up for success instead of failure.
Important Note: I never
graded pages with a red pen because I didn’t want to trigger kids who were
getting bad grades and red ink all over their homework. I used a pencil. The
two grade options on any page in the phonics workbooks were a “100!” or a smiley
face for trying.
When I went over incorrect answers, I never made a big deal
out of being wrong. (In fact, I never used the word “wrong.”) I would say, “Oh,
we need to fix this one.” Then I’d say something to keep them from feeling bad,
like, “Oh, I see what happened here: ‘snack’ and ‘snake’ look almost the same,
but not quite. Which one is which? Try sounding them out again.” Then, the student
would sound out the words (or I’d help a little by reminding her of the rule),
and we’d laugh about how tricky the words were trying to be. (Don’t worry if
you don’t know phonics rules. You can learn them as you read the rules aloud.)
Another Note: Please do not
ever, ever, ever, under any circumstances draw a sad face on your child’s paper!
Parents sometimes brought me their child’s graded homework to illustrate the
problem at school. The first time I saw a frowny face on one of the papers, I almost cried. Nearly all children want to please and impress their teacher and parents, even
if they act like they don’t. It can be discouraging and
even heartbreaking to receive a frowny face from an adult they look up to.
Yet Another Note: My
mother strongly believed learning should be as fun and engaging as she could
make it. She thought kids learned better if they weren’t bored and miserable. I
found this to be true with my reading students, my daughter and my adult English as a Second Language students. The more
lighthearted and fun you make learning, the easier life will be for you and
Why can’t my kid just keep
reading by memorization?
When children read by memorization
(which is what happens with the Whole Language approach), some start struggling
immediately and there’s already a clear issue in 1st grade. Many can
pull it off for a while successfully, but as they are bombarded with more (and bigger)
words, a problem can start to emerge, often around 3rd grade. As
they read, they will see a new word, but since they don’t really know how each
letter affects the sound of the word, they take a quick mental snapshot of the
word and match it with the closest word they know.
Imagine you are a 2nd grader working on a
handout your teacher gave you. It’s about plants, but you don’t know that.
Since you were never taught phonics, the individual letters in a word don’t
mean that much to you. You start to read the paragraphs and every time you see
the word plant, you call it “play” because you’re a little kid, so of course
you memorized the word “play.”
All the way through the story,
you make that word substitution. At the end, there are questions you’re suppose
to answer. None of them make sense. In fact, the story didn’t make a lot of
Now imagine that you did that,
not with just one word, but a half dozen. How would you ever answer the comprehension
That’s why teachers end up
thinking the problem is comprehension when it is actually a phonics issue. They
are grading comprehension worksheets and the grades are bad. The natural assumption,
if the teacher doesn’t have a strong phonics background, is that the student
has a comprehension problem.
Note: After teaching the
first few kids to read, I decided not to have any students work on comprehension
with me until they had finished Books 1-3. Otherwise, you are setting the child up for failure because he doesn’t have the key to the code that enables
him to read the words correctly.
What about the words that
don’t follow any rules?
Ah, yes. If only we all spoke
Spanish, a language that knows how to make spelling rules and follow them.
English was once a Germanic language,
then the Normans came in with their fancy Latin-based words, etc. I’m not a
linguistics expert, but our language often feels like kind of a hodgepodge.
When the student starts
working on comprehension, he will run into words that he can’t sound out
according to the rules. I always
referred to them as “weird words” with my students.
Me: “This is a weird word. Weird
words don’t follow the rules, so we have to memorize them.”
Even though this doesn’t
sound ideal, it works. Kids can memorize a lot of words, but most can’t memorize
every word they need to use in the English language. And memorization doesn’t
help students figure out new words they encounter when reading the way phonics does.
Once the student is at least
halfway through Book 3, you can start adding in some comprehension. You can get
the Beyond the Code workbooks, by the same people as Explode the Code
or a myriad of other workbooks. Comprehension work generally involves one or
more paragraphs of reading. Afterward, the student answers questions about the
passage she just read.
When I was homeschooling my
daughter, I would go to the kind of places my mother dragged me to as a kid—the
teacher stores. They already have everything organized into subject matter and grade
level. I would then glance through the ones at the appropriate grade level to see
which might appeal most to my daughter. She was always super visual. (She didn’t
get it from me. I’m super auditory.) She’s a great appreciator of art, loves
color, and is a girly girl, so I kept that in mind when picking her workbooks.
However, as I write this, we
are in the middle of a pandemic, so you may prefer to do your shopping online.
You can totally get your child in on the process. In fact, the more your child
is included in the process, the more likely he or she is to cooperate.
Most kids don’t have any big
comprehension issues once they learn phonics. However,
the comprehension practice can help them pay more attention to what they’re reading,
which will help them in their other classes, too. It also lets you keep track
of where your child is grade level-wise because comprehension books are typically marked by grade level.
You can even get more
specific. For instance, if you notice your child seems to have trouble
following the directions at the top of workbook pages or elsewhere, you can type “3rd grade Following Directions workbook” or “Following
Instructions workbook grade 4” into your search bar and voila! You will see a
number of workbook options. Always double check the grade level so you don’t end
up with an 8th grade book for your 2nd grader.
When you are looking for
any type of workbooks for your child, you’ll find them at a wide variety of
prices. More expensive is not necessarily better. The price is probably more
affected by how many pages the book has and, even more importantly, whether it
is reproducible or not. (If it’s reproducible, a teacher is allowed to make
unlimited copies once she buys the workbook. Those workbooks often cost notably
more than a workbook meant to be used by one student and discarded.)
argue that the workbook your child finds most interesting is the one to get. I
would always start with comprehension materials that are below the expected grade level
of the child, then work up. To save money, if my 3rd grader was
finishing Explode the Code book 3 in phonics, I would get a cheaper 1st
grade comprehension workbook with less pages to make sure he can show mastery
(80%-100% at least 3 times in a row before you move up to another grade level. You do not need to choose the most expensive workbook. You should be able to get a comprehension workbook for the cost of 1-3 fancy coffees.
Fun videos to reinforce phonics
Silent e words (to go with Explode the Code Book 3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gp1UmVSlLJ4
Note: Although I normally
work as a fiction writer nowadays, I am writing these educational blog posts as quickly
as I can during August and early September 2020 to help parents during
the pandemic. If you are visiting this site during this time, check back in a
few days for more educational posts.
Other education blog posts published or currently in the works:
-READ THIS FIRST: Educating at Home: Deciding What to Do and How to Do It
-READ THIS SECOND: Getting the Most from Your Child
-Reading: Quick Phonics Assessment
-Reading: Teaching Reading the Right Way (This post)
-Where Can I Find Learning Materials for My Preschool or Elementary Student?
-Creating Real-life "Opportunity Learning" Moments
-Preparing Your Infant and Toddler for Success
Copyright 2020 Nina Cordoba