Saturday, November 21, 2009

Readings: 20 Sounds, 5 Letters

From the fascinating (really)History of English by Jonathan Culpeper, an explanation of why English speakers have a particularly difficult phonemic system to wrestle with:

Why has the spelling system become less phonemic? Why is it now so complicated? History, as we shall see, can provide an explanation. Initially, English was written in a germanic alphabet - the Runic alphabet. Only a few Runic English texts survive, such as the inscriptions on the Ruthwell Cross, thought to date back to AD 700. Christian missionaries, arriving in Britain in 597 and spreading literacy, used forms of the 23-letter Roman alphabet: A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z. And this is the first problem for English spelling: it adopted the Roman alphabet, in other words, the alphabet of another language -- Latin. Today, we have over 40 phonemes in English, but only 26 letters by which to represent those phonemes. In particular, note that we have about 20 vowel sounds in English, but only 5 vowel letters...

I have addressed the importance of conquering this phonemic dragon quite a few times, including games and activities to strengthen phonemic awareness.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Readings: A Dialect With an Army and a Navy

I finally purchased Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. Pinker is by no means light reading; a professor at Harvard, he has the ability to write about almost any subject with a sophistication that puts me in way over my head. But in over my head is a place I love to be, and I've always enjoyed digging through Pinker's books.

At the beginning of The Language Instinct, Pinker is making his case that humans' ability to use language arises not out of experience but from the complex and intricate machinery of our brains. I was reminded of my urban public school students when he began to discuss the perception by some that the language of others is cruder or less complex:

"Actually, the people whose linguistic abilities are most badly underestimated are right here in our society. Linguists repeatedly run up against the myth that working-class people and the less educated members of the middle class speak a simpler or coarser language. This is a pernicious illusion arising from the effortlessness of conversation. Ordinary speech, like color vision or walking, is a paradigm of engineering excellence -- a technology that works so well that the user takes its outcome for granted, unaware of the complicated machinery hidden behind the panels. Behind such "simple" sentences as Where did he go? and or [sic] The guy I met just killed himself, used automatically by any English speaker, are dozens of subroutines that arrange the words to express the meaning. Despite decades of effort, no artificially engineered language system comes close to duplicating the person in the street, HAL and C3PO notwithstanding.

"But though the language engine is invisible to the human user, the trim packages and color schemes are attended to obsessively. Trifling differences between the dialect of the mainstream and the dialect of other groups, like isn't any versus ain't no, those books versus them books, and dragged him away versus drug him away, are dignified as badges of "proper grammar." but they have no more to do with grammatical sophistication than the fact that people in some regions of the United States refer to a certain insect as a dragonfly and people in other regions refer to it as a darning needle, or that English speakers call canines dogs whereas French speakers call them chiens. It is even a bit misleading to call standard English a "language" and these variations "dialects," as if there were some meaningful difference between them. The best definition comes from the linguist Max Weinreich: a language is a dialect with an army and a navy." (emphasis added)

Those of us who were privileged enough to acquire the style of speaking that happens to have the most value in our society often fall into the trap of interpreting differences in language as differences in intelligence. As anyone who has truly listened to a non-"standard" English speaker knows, nothing could be farther from the truth. Pinker continues with a discussion of the Black English Vernacular, or BEV. I won't quote the entire chapter for you, but if this is a subject that gets your motor running, you will definitely want to read The Language Instinct.

Bonus: You know I love Here's a link to Pinkers's TED talk dispelling the myth of the "blank slate."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Game: Construct - A - Word

All Ages
5-15 minutes
Best for individual students or small groups.

Construct-a-Word is meant to bolster phonemic awareness by way of Analogy Phonics, which the National Reading Panel defines as "teaching students unfamiliar words by analogy to known words." It also strengthens PA by giving students repeated opportunities to manipulate onset and rime.

Post-It Notes, marker or pen, notebook

I stole this idea from the online game that I featured here last spring. I was working with a 5th Grader who needed some help with her basics, but we did not have Internet access, so I converted the game to Post-its. It turned out quite well; the Post-its are colorful, inexpensive, portable, and good for use on almost any surface, be it a table top or a whiteboard. If you do not have Post-its at hand, you could substitute index cards.

On individual Post-its, write each letter of the alphabet and the phonemes "ch," "bl,""sl,""dr,""cl,"and "sh." Using a different color of Post-it, if possible, write the endings "ig,""ot,""ed,""et,""in,""un,""op,""an," and "at." You can add or substitute any other endings you like. When finished, the complete set should look something like this:

Your student should be intrigued about the colorful array of letters in front of her. Invite her to select an ending from on the yellow Post-its. Tell her that her challenge is to use the other Post-its to make as many real words as she can. When she finds one, invite her to set the onset letter aside and write the word in a notebook.

When there are real words left on the board that the student does not see, I suggest providing clues and, eventually, pointing out the new word and encouraging the student to practice and writing it down.


This game bolsters phonemic awareness by compelling a student to practice joining sounds together to make new words. It will also introduce or solidify the concept that words have a beginning and an end, which is a bedrock concept in PA.

This is also a good game for basic vocabulary.

There will inevitably be errors made and a few words that the student does not know. Both the errors and the new words have as much or more value than the correct answers. Even erroneous answers compel our student to practice joining an onset and a rime, strengthening phonemic awareness.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Strategy: Book Tour

A few months ago, I wrote about a presentation I gave to a class full of teachers in the Twin Cities area. They were mostly Math and Science teachers who were hoping to learn how to include literacy strategies in their classrooms. I invited them to share what they learned with Literacy Log, and got one great response. I highly recommend a look at Emily Kjesbo-Johnson's literacy strategies site for Math teachers. Today, I'll talk about just one of the strategies she includes.

Book Tour
10-30 minutes.
Any age level.

I have seen variations of this strategy before, but Emily describes it very well here. She includes a downloadable version of the handout she used.

The Book Tour is meant to introduce students to a textbook or any other new reading material. According to Emily, "it can be a worksheet that groups work on together, or a tour of the book's features led by the teacher."

Be sure to compel your students to find the most important sections of the book. For a textbook, this would include the Table of Contents, Chapter Review section, the Index, and nowadays a website.

Think of this as part of an extended version of the KWL strategy. The Book Tour will help your students assess what they know and what they want to know about the subject matter covered in the book. It will also make the book much less intimidating.

Just before the school year began, Emily wrote about why she would start the year off with a Book Tour. "Our math textbooks are loaded with many helpful resources," she wrote, "but students are often so intimidated by the book that they never look past the practice problems."

Recently, I asked Emily how it went, and she was pleased with the results. "I think that as students went through it, they saw how the book wasn't just an intimidating giant book, but could be a valuable resource for their work during the year," she said.

The Alphabet Words game I featured yesterday could be used as a component of a Book Tour. It might be especially useful for introducing students to the Index or Glossary.

Photo: "Middle School Textbooks" by Flickr user "herzogbr." Thanks!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Game: Alphabet Words

10-15 minutes

I found "Alphabet Words" in Peggy Kaye's fantastic Games For Reading: Playful Ways to Help Your Child Read. It is incredibly simple to implement and I have been pleasantly surprised by how much my students enjoy it.

Simply write each letter of the alphabet on the board and tell your student(s) that the goal of this game is to think of a word for every letter. When you have them all, invite the students to repeat the words after you to review. That's it. The final product will look something like this:

This was the result of our Dictionary Alphabet Words game. As you can see, students come up with some strange words. Since this was a group of first and second graders, we were not striving for comprehension of words such as "helenistic." Simply compelling the students to look through the dictionary and spell new words is enough for me.

This game can be done in small groups or with an individual student. With a group, I assign each student a letter, which maintains a bit of order and gives them time to think. With five students, for example, the first will have A and the last will have E. Once we've filled in those blanks, I assign F through J.

It is easy to think of variations for this game. The first time I used it, we just thought of any old word for each letter. A week later, I included it in my "Introduction to Dictionaries" lesson. With a dictionary in hand, students had to find an interesting word for each letter. I was delighted by the way this game motivated them to dig into their dictionaries and by how excited they were by the strange words they found.

Kaye recommends the use of categories for this game. For example, you might set out to find an animal name or a food that begins with each letter. This might also be useful as a review for a particular subject or book for older kids. For example, challenging your students to think of alphabet words related to Charlotte's Web or American History might help them review the material and provide cues for recall later on.

This is a great way to build vocabulary. It also can help with phonemic awareness and strengthen skill with specific letter sounds. As I mentioned, it could also be a way to review material and build comprehension. Additionally, as mentioned, I have used it to introduce students to their dictionaries.