Teaching Gayle to Read
by Grace Vyduna-Haskins
This month's column describes the beginning of an adventure between a retired teacher and a struggling first-grader. Gayle Alberton (not her real name) came to my attention via a telephone conversation with her mother's employer. Gayle's mother is one of our working poor living in a semi-rural area in northern Illinois. As a single mother with two children, Gayle and a four-year-old brother, she struggles to make ends meet in the ongoing effort to keep a roof over her and her children's heads, put food on the table, and pay for day care on her wages as a materials handler in a small factory. Adding to these stresses, the school has informed the mother that her daughter is floundering. The telephone conversation continued, "Would you consider volunteering to tutor this little girl?"
I pondered the issue for half a day. My schedule looks fairly clear until late January. If the school would allow me to work with her during school hours, this would provide an opportunity to test some of my own hypothesis.
The purpose of my journaling Gayle's progress in the Gazette is to share the steps of my journey and document whatever progress is made. I'm sure there will be many teachers who identify with various aspects of what happens as I spend my daily half-hour with Gayle. I expect progress to be slow but hope that building her skills in a systematic manner will eventually help her become a successful reader. A personal hope is to instigate discussions on the Reading and Writing Chatboard, http://teachers.net/mentors/reading that will help to enrich all of us. I invite questions and comments about her progress.
I am passionate about the relationship between spelling and reading. My dissertation considered the historical aspects of this relationship. Until just over a hundred years ago, children were taught to spell before they met any connected text. For the last dozen years of my teaching career my students thrived on writing patterned words I dictated to them day after day. I'd had a number of slow students in my classroom and by March or April the last stragglers would start to experience reading success. Here was a chance to test this system one-on-one. Could I accelerate the same kind of progress I'd seen with reluctant readers in my classroom?
I met with the mother, the principal, the classroom teacher, and the speech therapist on Monday, October 29. The mother informed me that Gayle had already been in three schools, each in a different village/city. She attended two schools in kindergarten and started first grade in her current setting. Gayle has an early April birthday so she should have an age advantage but she's by far the tiniest child in her room. Testing done at her second school indicated weaknesses in some areas but, with gains toward the end of the year, it was felt she could succeed in first grade. The speech therapist indicated that she had an airflow problem for \m\, \n\ , and \ng\. In addition she had problems with s- and r-blends and multiple other mispronunciations of sounds represented by d, f, s, t, ch, and th and that she had some problems with b/p reversals. The classroom teacher verified that Gayle was far behind the rest of the class and that she had problems with her pencil grip. It was noted that she had just learned two sight words, the and like. She explained that the reading/language arts program in the classroom consists of handwriting, journal writing, reading leveled books, intensive phonics instruction, spelling and grammar. The principal reported that Gayle had not yet received any extra help with reading. There is a Reading Recovery program in place but she had not yet been included in that. The school has given me a free rein to use whatever materials I choose for my daily sessions.
I can't cover all the bases of Gayle's reading deficit in a half hour per day. I decided my preliminary focus would be on sound/symbol recognition, spelling, reading, and high-frequency word recognition. I will need to deal with other individual issues as they come to my attention and trust that her teacher will provide time to read to her class.
Our tutoring sessions began at 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning, October 30. I chose this time because I felt she would be at her best early in the day and this is the time her classmates are doing handwriting activities and journaling. Because she will be doing writing with me, she will not miss any important aspects of her school day. I asked her to write some words she knows. She wrote Mom, DaD, and her five-letter first name. Her handwriting is very neat although not all letters are formed according to the D'Nealian system used in the school. She holds her pencil with her thumb, forefinger, and ring finger.
A quick check of letter-name knowledge indicated that she knows all upper-case letters and all of the lower-case letters except q. However, rechecking b, d, p, q caused her to become really confused on these. I administered the Morris-Perney 18-word spelling test which gives a good indication of where a child falls on a continuum of phonemic awareness development. She scored 32 of a possible 90, placing her at the pre-phonetic stage, far below the August/September average of my own first graders over a period of several years, but not as low as a few others who succeeded in the past.
I have assembled a list of 140 high-frequency words culled from several popular lists including Dolch words and Sitton's first 100 words. A close analysis of these words places 40 of them in common single-syllable short vowel patterns, 30 in common single-syllable long vowel patterns, 18 in more complex single-syllable patterns, 4 two-syllable words using the above patterns, and 48 one- and two-syllable words which must, at this stage, be considered sight words. My first concentration in this area is to help her identify the 40 short vowel words. The first day allowed time to look at 15 of these. She could recognize only three, dad, in, red. The word on elicited a quick response of no. The other word responses ranged from none to a wild guess based on the beginning or ending letter.
To date (November 21) we have had eleven sessions in just over a three-week period. She was ill and absent from school two days, school recesses used another two days, a field trip cut one day, and a previous appointment on my part took yet another day away from our tutoring sessions.
The first sessions included the introduction of a set of sound/symbol cards that include a picture, a proper name (possessive form), and the name of the item pictured. These thirty cards contain the 26 letters of the alphabet and the digraphs ch, sh, th, and wh. We continue to work with these cards daily and Gayle enjoys working through them but has difficulty pronouncing words of two or more syllables. Names and items that fit some of the consonants include such oddities as Quincy's quarter, Xavier's box, Yetta's yo-yo, Zelda's zipper, Chad's chair, Thelma's thumb, and Whitney's whistle. These will take a bit of time for her to master.
These first sessions also included working with b, d, p, q on texture. Gayle traced the letters on plastic needlepoint canvas, saying both the name of each letter and the sound it usually represents. Since b\p is one of her major reversals, we also discussed the \b\ sound as Baby Bass blowing bubbles and \p\ as the sound of popcorn popping. A breakthrough occurred one day after having her repeat, "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" and "Billy Bob bought a box of bubble gum." These activities, along with the sound/symbol card review is beginning to yield progress in these reversals as, when she is asked to write a word like big, she says "\b\, Betty's ball, B," and for pig, \p\, pizza, P," then writes the correct first letter for the word.
We've seen some progress in handwriting although the pencil grip provided for her is still taking a bit of getting used to it. Like many other early writers, she has a tendency to start forming a letter at the bottom and moving her pencil away from her. We talked about the need to make letters her friends--we pull them toward us instead of pushing them away. At this time she starts in the correct position about half of the time.
At this point her spelling progress is ahead of her reading ability. Other than some of the reversals noted above, she can successfully write virtually all three-letter short a and short i words. Using the mnemonic, "Sam likes fried zucchini," she has quickly picked up the generality of doubling f, l, s, and z after single vowels. She understands the qu combination and writes the words quack, quick, and quill with ease.
This week, as we moved from short a words to those including short i, I asked Gayle if she knew what vowels are. This term seemed foreign to her so I told her a story about a little boy who couldn't say the \l\ and \d\ sounds. If he wanted to say lady, it would come out A-E. One day his mother was baking a cake and she realized she didn't have any sugar so she asked the little boy to go next door to borrow a cup of sugar. Some time later, the boy realized his mother had not returned the sugar so when he saw his neighbor outdoors, he said to her, "A-E, I O U some sugar." This mnemonic has helped countless children remember the names of the vowels and should help Gayle also.
Writing words leads to discussions about word meanings. While every word is said in the context of a meaningful sentence, I sometimes ask her the meaning of a particular word. For example, she did not know the meaning of fin. I drew a sketch of a fish and its fins. On the day she wrote quill, I explained that a quill pen was made from a feather. When I asked if she know what a feather was, she answered negatively but when I handed a feather to her the next day and asked, "What is this?" she answered, "A feather." Her concept knowledge appears low but will be built through these conversations.
Gayle has been working with three short phonics based stories. Repeated readings of the first one have helped her fluency. This story, "A Cat on a Mat," builds from a single line and adds phrases on each page until the last page reads, "I see a hat on an ant on a bat on the back of a rat on the back of a cat on a mat." It was interesting to watch her daily progress from very halted reading to using minimum picture cues to self-correcting to near perfection. At this time she has the story memorized. The second story is at the halted reading stage and the third one is still at the introduction stage. Another problem has surfaced here. In spite of the fact that she now reads (recites) the first story fluently, she did not recognize the word back when it appeared in a new context even though it occurs multiple times in the first story.
To help with writing her last name we have started working with identifying syllables in words. In an independent attempt to write it, she was able to produce only five letters from her processing of the sounds. I taught her to hold a hand under her chin as she said "Alberton," and spoke of the necessity to include a vowel in each syllable as she writes longer words.
Work with the high-frequency words shows steady gains. Of the forty first-level words, she has quickly identified six on five separate occasions and seven others on four occasions. Another eighteen have been identified one or more times. Whereas in the beginning she would make a wild guess from any letter in the word, she is now beginning to work with the first two letters and may make a guess from these. While all of the current words involve only short vowels, many contain consonant blends and digraphs which will take more time to learn.
Eleven half-hour sessions have made a small difference with this child. A continuing review and expanding of concepts begun should help cement all of them in her consciousness. Please tune in next month for another episode in "Teaching Gayle to Read."