The blog post How to Beat Those Tricky Vowels generated some traffic among readers – and no wonder! When you think about it, vowels are simply everywhere. You can’t read well without having a firm grasp of those slippery symbols. Ironically, vowels are most frequently where the trouble lies when children struggle in learning to read. One of the reasons for this is that the sounds of the vowels are so similar that for children who are not predominantly auditory in their learning preference, distinguishing between them proves daunting. Check out the words on the right. Five vowel sounds; five words; five different meanings.
Yes, the topic deserves another look. Foundational to this and every topic that has to do with children is the belief that children can and will succeed if they have the tools to do so. Is it really an alternative to just let the problem be?
What Do the Experts Say?
Reading the experts yielded varying pieces of advice. One was “Don’t sweat it if your child is not reading. If he’s not reading by third grade, THEN you can worry.” Another piece of advice was to teach the whole word since visual learners are not known for their ability to distinguish between vowel sounds. Other authorities on reading would recommend re-teaching until the child is able to handle vowels with a level of prowess that will enable him to move on into reading text. (Which sounds a lot like doing something that didn’t work the first couple of times, many more times.)
Just wait until third grade
Really, I am not sure I agree with any of those viewpoints. If we lived in a country in which children were not taught to read until third grade, the first argument could hold water. Third grade is about the age at which rapid development of a child's left hemisphere begins. So frankly, starting to teach a child to read during this developmental stage would be smart. However, the critical point against this position is that in our system of education, by the time a child has reached third grade, if she’s not reading successfully, she will have already experienced a lot of false starts, failures, confusion, etc. At this point, you will have far bigger problems to unravel than the fact that the child is not reading. So just saying “don’t worry until third grade” is a horrible position to take. By the third grade, a child has accumulated three years of failure and by this time his negative emotional biases will prevent success.
Don’t worry about vowels, just teach the whole word
This argument, while avoiding the issue of the difficulty with vowels is also problematic. While I believe strongly in starting with whole words as you teach visual learners to read, just avoiding the vowels is not the answer. Visual learners are pattern-seekers, and while you can use whole words (and should) when teaching them to read, they will need to be able to read vowels as they break down words into patterns and apply those patterns to unknown, bigger words. What about the words that would be identical without their vowels to distinguish them?
Just keep on drilling
This particular piece of advice makes me blanch and break out into a sweat. I get an instant visual of exhausted kids doing the same thing over and over again becoming more convinced by the moment that they are stupid. To just keep on trying what didn’t work at first is never the solution.
Why Are Vowels So Important?
Vowels are found in every syllable of every word. Vowels also enable us to distinguish between words such as pant, pint, pent, punt or slip, slap, slop. Imagine not knowing the difference between pin or pen, or far worse between hill or hell. Yes, vowels must be taught and kids must achieve mastery. But how?
Rely on the Visual and a Body Motion
I wrote in detail about this in a previous blog post, How to Beat Those Tricky Vowels. No sense in repeating all that here. I only want to reiterate that a child who is primarily a visual learner will not be able to rely on his ability to hear the difference between E and I, or O and U. He needs something else in the learning stage. This is where a visual with a related hand motion is critical. If you follow the suggestions in the previous blog, your child will see the symbol and his brain will draw on the image and motion stored in the NON-auditory regions of the brain. I’ve seen this one aspect of reading completely transform visual readers from struggling to stellar.
Color-code the vowels. I’ve used this practice with my students with a lot of success. All you need is a highlighter and a mini-lesson (I really mean mini…I’m talking five minutes maximum) in the vowel spelling you are dealing with, and then a paper with some text on it that is full of that vowel spelling. The child is going to highlight all the vowel spellings she can find in the text. See an example here taken from Book 3 in the Easy-for-Me™ B Book Set. I have highlighted the target sound (long A).
Amy bakes a cake. Amy’s mom says, “You may take the cake to the beach today.”
Amy yells, “Yay!”
Amy calls Jaylen. He likes to play and do funny flips in the sand. “Can you play today?” Amy says.
“Yes!” says Jaylen. So Amy puts the cake into a pail, and away they go!
Amy and Jaylen get to the beach. They see a little wave. They see tracks going from the wave.
Mini-lesson (found on the inside Book 3).
Sound spellings for long A: a, ay, ai, ey and a-e.
Target sight words practiced are: may, from, they, away, funny, that, of, them, say, put.
Color-coding the long A sounds in this book before reading will help a visual learner see in a flash where all he or she will be saying the long A sound. The visual learner will benefit from this exercise because he will understand the goal of the lesson before starting: He will be practicing long A words and will be practicing ten new sight words, which you might have him find and underline before reading the book.
Follow-up to reading this book. Write these long A words (and others similar to them) on index cards, mix them up, and have your child sort them into piles depending on their sound spelling. Let her think of other words that go with the ones you wrote and let her add those cards to the pile.
I would go further with color-coding. Ask your child which color he would assign to a particular vowel. Some kids think in color, and if they learn a vowel sound with a particular color associated with it, it will help down the road. Start when your child is learning the short sounds of the vowels. Starting with the short sound of A, ask him what color he thinks that sound should be and stick with it. When practicing short-sound-of-A words, give him two colors of marker – one black and the other the color he chose. Use a whiteboard and call out short words: cat, rat, map, nap, etc. Let him take the time to sound with you and as he sounds, write the letters in the appropriate color. Taking this exercise further, have him search other text for the target vowel and highlight them in the color he assigned to that sound. Old newspapers work well for this activity.
Just Because I'm Not Auditory Doesn't Mean I Can't Read
Finally, let’s conclude that the edict handed down to us from the powers that be, that says if a child can’t master and manipulate phonemes, she will struggle in reading might not be completely true. Working with phonemes (sounds) orally might not work and yes the child might struggle to learn to read. So instead of persisting with this approach to teaching reading, don’t go the opposite extreme and say you can just leave that part out, but DO stay somewhere in the middle by attaching elements to learning that your visual learner thrives on. Visual learners LOVE patterns. When they have the chance to find all the AYs in words in a book and color them, that is a pattern they have identified. It is a design that will show up a multitude of times in any array of words. What will happen is, rather than approaching a collection of words in a sequential way (one at a time) the visual learner will see the whole array of words and will see that array in terms of the patterns she’s had the luxury of identifying previously. Once the visual learner knows that A, AY, AI, EY, A-E all sound like A, she will apply that pattern to words that are much more complicated like Display, Amiable, Assuage, Failure, etc.