Friday, October 28, 2011

The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss


The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss was first published in 1945 and has never gone out of print. It was illustrated by the author's husband, Crockett Johnson (creator of Harold and the Purple Crayon, another fabulous children's book). Unfamiliar with its celebrity status at the time, I picked this up at a bookstore in New York City, attracted by the simplicity of the cover and the colours plus the line, "When you are very young, there are some things that you just know".

Sometimes called "the little book with the big idea", this simple story about faith is about a little boy who plants a carrot seed. While everyone tells him "it won't come up", he continues to tend to it patiently and lovingly with steadfast conviction and unshakeable belief until, one day, a gigantic carrot pops up "just as he knew it would". Little ones will enjoy the lesson that they can be successful if they work hard and believe in something, and not give up even when people are discouraging or skeptical.

The entire book is a testament to minimalism - at 101 carefully chosen words, it was one of the shortest picture book texts when it was first published in 1945. The illustrations are just as sparse and minimal yet nothing is lost - the confidence, hope and grace of the little boy is masterfully depicted. The whole book is done in carrot-like tones and colours, with the brightest colour being the huge orange carrot which appears at the end.

When asked how long it took her to write The Carrot Seed, Krauss always said “her whole life.” She had to pare the story down, again and again, until she got its essence. Johnson, who was himself bald, always drew bald characters or, in the case of The Carrot Seed, a child with a single hair. He maintained that bald heads were easier to draw than ones with hair.

In his essay, "Ruth Krauss and Me", author Maurice Sendak described this book as "that perfect picture book, The Carrot Seed, the granddaddy of all picture books in America, a small revolution of a book that permanently transformed the face of children's book publishing. The Carrot Seed, with not a word or a picture out of place, is dramatic, vivid, precise, concise in every detail. It springs fresh from the real world of children."

Ryan loves this book and sits quietly while we read it. When we get to the end, he always has a smile on his face and he usually lets out a quiet and satisfied "Wow."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Learning to blend letter sounds

After Ryan learned the letter names and the letter sounds, he started blending the letter sounds to read simple words. To be honest, we did not expect him to start doing that until he was much older. He really surprised us when he showed us that he could.

Here, I'll share some of the items we have around the house that relate to blending. I would also say that, if your child is not familiar with the letter names and the letter sounds, please don't bother him with blending. He's not going to understand it, he's not going to enjoy it and he's just going to be stressed out and turned off.

I should also say that we don't sit down with Ryan and go through words with him. It happens spontaneously and naturally throughout the day while we are doing other activities. We don't have any structured lessons or anything like that.

Ok, the best thing to do is of course to talk, read and sing to your child as much as possible, to let him familiarise himself with the different sounds in words. I can't emphasise this enough - this is the best thing you can do and the thing that you should do.

Off and on we will sound out a word for him - for example, if we see a dog, we will talk about the dog, what it's doing, what sound it makes, whether it looks like our dog at home, etc. We will sound out the word "DOG" for him - /d/, /o/, /g/ and then we will blend the sounds for him. We do it both orally and also with written words when we see words in the carpark, at the supermarket, on the way to the playground, etc. We seldom do it while reading a story as it can be disruptive.

Sometimes Ryan will say a letter or a letter sound and I will build on that. So if he says "/b/!", I might say, "/b/ for ...?" He might say ball, then I might ask, "Yes, /b/ for ball! Any other /b/ words?" Then we'll go on and on for as long as he's interested.

We have "mobile" letters everywhere - alphabet biscuits, alphabet blocks, alphabet stickers, etc. All can be used to put words together. We also have a set of giant upper and lower case alphabet stamps.



We bought a DVD from Leapfrog called the Talking Words Factory. It's fun and it demonstrates simple blending in a way that is easy to understand. It is a sequel of sorts to the Letter Factory although you don't have to watch the first to watch this one. You just have to know the letter names and sounds. Ryan absolutely loves it. I should mention that it only teaches basic blending using word families so if you are looking for something comprehensive or if you prefer other methods of blending, this may not be up your alley.

Much much later, we bought another DVD called Letter Sounds by Rock 'N' Learn. I have to warn you that this DVD is quite "dry" compared to Leapfrog's entertaining material. It is actually for children 4-7 years old who are ready for phonics. If your child is not familiar with letter names and sounds, he's not going to last through the whole DVD. Ryan does enjoy it but he still much prefers the Leapfrog material.

We also have an iPhone app called Word Wagon by Duck Duck Moose. The blending at the phonic blending level is not as clear as it could be, but I think Ryan just enjoys fitting the letters into the slots. I would not recommend this for learning blending, but if your child already knows some blending, it's not a bad app. It also teaches letters and spelling.

In this photo, Ryan is playing with Leapfrog's Fridge Words Magnetic Word Builder. It was a birthday gift from a dear friend. We put it up as soon as we got it, when Ryan was still learning his letter names and sounds. It didn't get much love and attention until fairly recently. Anyway, as you can see from the photo, Ryan can use it to create CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant).


We have some simple books to help with blending. I won't mention them just yet, because we are not using them much. We are still doing our usual reading routine - reading aloud to Ryan and just enjoying the story and the pictures, and we'll probably continue with that for a long time.

That's about it, really. Although Ryan can read simple words (simple blends and some sight words), we are not really focusing on blending right now. We are still concentrating on early literacy and pre-reading skills, to give Ryan a solid and strong foundation for reading, plus we still believe that we don't have to rush into learning to read at his age.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Learning Letter Sounds

While Ryan was learning the letter names, we would mention the letter sounds here and there, but he ignored us; he loved his letters so much. We let him take things at his own pace and, after a while, he started showing some interest when we mentioned the letter sounds. He then got into letter sounds very quickly and smoothly. Here, I’ll share some of the materials we have at home on letter sounds.

I should first say that I was able to teach Ryan letter sounds because I know them. I read both phonetically and by sight when I was a child, and in fact, mostly phonetically as I was phonetically taught more than one alphabetic language. If you want to teach letter sounds but are not familiar with them, do find out from a reliable source what the letter sounds are beforehand and make sure you have the correct sound for each letter, it may not be what you think it is. For instance, I hear many people say that the letter sound “M” is “muh”, which is wrong. The correct letter sound for “M” is “mmm” as in “This is delicious, mmm…!” The sound for “F” is not “fuh”, the sound for “V” is not “vuh” and the sound for “L” may surprise you!

At the moment, Ryan knows 26 letter sounds, one for each letter of the alphabet. However, some letters have more than one sound. For example, “C” has a hard sound, as in “cat” and a soft sound, as in “city”. You can teach more than one sound for each letter at one go of course, but we chose to do only one for now. We also did not teach sounds like “wh” and “ck”. We'll get around to all that in good time, no hurry. In the English language, there are approximately 36-46 sounds altogether (depending on which source you refer to). I would add that some sounds can have more than one representation, for example, the sound /k/ can be represented by c, k, ck, ch, or q.  

Learning the letter sounds is not learning phonics. Instead, it is part of phonemic awareness, which is pre-phonics, it is the basis for moving on to learn phonics. I've put up a post to explain phonemic awareness. Put simply, all the letter sounds and sounds like "wh" and "ck" are known as phonemes and phonemic awareness is the ability to discern these sounds in words and to manipulate them. (Note that a phoneme is not the same thing as a syllable.)

Ok, let's get into the materials that we used with Ryan. I didn't take any photos, but have provided the links where I can find them. 

Let me start with what we do in Shichida class. When Ryan was in the class for 1-year olds, we would sing a song called "The Phonics Song" (we still do it from time to time now in the class for 2 year olds). The lyrics go like this, "A says /æ/, /æ/, Apple; B says /b/, /b/, Bear; C says /k/, /k/, Cow; D says /d/, /d/, Dog" and so on. As the song plays, the sensei shows a picture of each letter and a picture of each object. The cards are not flashed; they are shown in tandem with the lyrics of the song (much slower than flashing speed). Ryan enjoyed this although we noted that there were some errors - for example, the sound for "M" is "muh" (which is wrong). I should add that the children are never tested on their knowledge of letter sounds in Shichida class. They just listen to and enjoy the song (of course they can sing along if they know it).

At home, I would definitely say that the best things we did were to read (a lot) to Ryan and to play a lot of games with letters and words. You've seen one of our games in this post. We use a few different sets of these alphabet/word/picture cards, which helps to keep things fresh and interesting.

I've also shown you the items we bought for letter names (see this post and this post). We use these items to play games with letter sounds, they work just as well.

The very first item we bought that was dedicated to phonics was actually this Phonics Desk from ELC. Actually we bought this much too early, even before Ryan learned the alphabet. We grabbed it because we needed to make up 7 items to qualify for a discount. Ryan was less than a year old then and he didn't appreciate it at all. We have not re-introduced it though, we've put it aside in favour of other games.

Learning letter sounds is an auditory process so, in addition to playing games with Ryan and talking/reading to him, we do use things like CDs, DVDs and yes, the iPhone/iPad, to deliver the letter sounds. He usually  plays with these when we are unable to give him our full attention, like when I am driving or when I am busy with something. I am not fond of them. Nevertheless I have to give credit where credit is due.

One iPhone app which played a big part in introducing the letter sounds was the Starfall ABCs app. It wasn't available on the Ipad when we bought it but it is now. Ryan loved this app from the very first time he played it, and still does, and I do believe that he learned a lot from this app.

Another app which we bought for the iPhone was AlphaTots, which Ryan enjoys very much. We bought this many months after the Starfall ABCs app, by which time Ryan was very familiar with letter sounds and it was good reinforcement. The good thing is that it includes a lot of verbs. For example, for the letter "L", you get "launch" and for the letter "R" you get "recycle". There are also a lot of fun things for the child to do for each letter. For "K", he has to try to kick a goal! The app also has the famous alphabet song. It is now available on the iPad as well.

On the iPad, we actually didn't have anything until very recently when we bought Elmo loves ABCs, which has songs and videos for letters. Ryan loves this very much.

A very good DVD for introducing letter sounds is the Leapfrog Letter Factory DVD. After seeing the wonderful response to Leapfrog's Amazing Alphabet Amusement Park (which I mentioned last week), we snapped up all the Leapfrog DVDs we could find, including this one. Ryan watched this over and over again and still does.

For CDs, I played a Letterland CD in my car for a few weeks. Let me clarify that we do not depend on Letterland (or any other system of phonics) to teach Ryan. We do, nevertheless, have that CD and a few Letterland books (Ryan just picks out the letters, he doesn't bother about the characters). The CD was fun and Ryan even sang along to some of the songs, but on its own, it was not instructive in terms of relating to letter sounds. We were just listening "blindly" in the car. I mean, the "A" song goes "Annie Apple, she says /æ/, she says /æ/, she says /æ/, Annie Apple she says /æ/, she belongs to Mr A" (to the tune of London Bridge is falling down). Err, fun but, like I said, not very instructive without using the Letterland books. Ryan listened to that CD for weeks, but he still does not know who or what Annie Apple or Bouncy Ben is. If you use it with the books with the pictures of the characters, it will be much more meaningful.

Subsequently we got a Leapfrog CD as part of this set we bought online. The songs were familiar to Ryan because he had watched the DVDs from where the songs were taken. Ryan loves it! This CD includes songs about letters, numbers, and math concepts.

I did not bother buying an alphabet wall chart. In my view, many alphabet wall charts are not helpful for teaching letter sounds. They simply present words that begin with the particular letter, not necessarily the phoneme that the letter usually represents. For example, you usually see xylophone or x-ray for the letter "X" but I would prefer Ryan to learn the phoneme "ks" as in fox. Ryan does come across x-ray and xylophone when we read books but that's all right because the words appear in context. Please read this article which explains it further.

Last but not least, we read and read and read aloud to Ryan, plus we sing lots of songs!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Phonemic Awareness

I want to note down a few things about phonemic awareness, for my own record. Hope it is informative for you too, if you are teaching your child phonemic awareness at home.

[These notes are extracted from "Phonics from A to Z - A Practical Guide", by Wiley Blevins, 2nd Ed.]

Phonemic awareness is the understanding that a word is made up of a series of discrete sounds. Each of these sounds is called a phoneme. This awareness includes the ability to pick out and manipulate sounds in spoken words.

Phonemic awareness is not the same thing as phonics. Phonemic awareness deals with sounds in spoken words, whereas phonics involves the relationship between sounds and written symbols. Phonics deals with learning sound-spelling relationships and is associated with print. Most phonemic awareness tasks, on the other hand, are purely oral.

Phonemic awareness help children learn to distinguish individual sounds, or phonemes, within words. They need this skill in order to associate sounds with letters and manipulate sounds to blend words (during reading) or segment words (during spelling). Many children have difficulties with phonics instruction because they haven't developed the prerequisite phonemic awareness skills that other children gain through years of exposure to rhymes, and songs, and being read to.

Phonemic awareness training provides the foundation on which phonics instruction is built. Thus, children need solid phonemic awareness training for phonics instruction to be effective. For example, phonics instruction that begins by asking a child what sound the words sit, sand, and sock have in common won't make sense to a child who has difficulty discriminating sounds in words, cannot segment sounds within words, or does not understand what is meant by the term sound. Children must be able to segment and auditorily discriminate /s/ in the words sit, sand, and sock before it makes sense to them that the letter s stands for this sound in these wrtten words. In addition, children must be able to segment the sounds in a word such as sit (/s/ /i/ /t/) in order to spell the word. Once children gain a basic level of phonemic awareness, and formal reading instruction begins, this instruction increases children's awareness of language. "Thus, phonemic awareness is both a prerequisite for and a consequence of learning to read." (Yopp, 1992)

Research has shown that explicit phonemic awareness instruction increases reading and spelling achievement among preschoolers, primary grade children, and students with learning disabilities.

There are five basic types of phonemic awareness tasks or abilities, which are:

Rhyme and alliteration (and assonance) (done orally although you can use picture clues)

  • Rhyme. Example: I once saw a cat, sitting next to a dog. I once saw a bat, sitting next to a frog.
  • Alliteration. Example: Six snakes sells sodas and snacks.
  • Assonance. Example: The leaf, the bean, the peach - were all within reach.
Oddity tasks (phoneme categorisation) (done orally)
  • Rhyme. Example: Which word does not rhyme: cat, sat, pig?
  • Beginning consonants. Example: Which two words begin with the same sound: man, sat, sick?
  • Ending consonants. Example: Which two words end with the same sound: man, sat, ten?
  • Medial sounds (long vowels). Example: Which word does not have the same middle sound: take, late, feet?
  • Medial sounds (short vowels). Example: Which two words have the same middle sound: top, cat, pan?
  • Medial sounds (consonants). Example: Which two words have the same middle sound: kitten, missing, lesson?
Oral blending (done orally)
  • Syllables. Example: Listen to these word part: ta...ble. Say the word as a whole. What is the word?
  • Onset/rime. Example: listen to these word parts: /p/...an. Say the word as a whole. What is the word?
  • Phoneme by phoneme. Example: Listen to these word parts. /s/ /a/ /t/. Say the word as a whole/ What's the word?
Oral segmentation (including counting sounds) (done orally) (this is critical for spelling)
  • Syllables. Example: Listen to this word: table. Say it syllable by syllable. (ta...ble)
  • Onset/rime. Example: Listen to this word: pan. Say the first sound in the word and then the rest of the word. (/p/ ... an)
  • Phoneme by phoneme (counting sounds). Example: Listen to this word: sat. Say the word sound by sound. (/s/ /a/ /t/) How many sounds do you hear? (3)
Phoneme manipulation (best done using letter cards)
  • Initial sound substitution. Example: Replace the first sound in mat with /s/. (sat)
  • Final sound substitution. Example: Replace the last sound in mat with /p/. (map)
  • Vowel substitution. Example: Replace the middle sound in map with /o/. (mop)
  • Syllable deletion. Example: Say baker without the ba. (ker)
  • Initial sound deletion. Example: Say sun without the /s/. (un)
  • Final sound deletion. Example: Say hit without the /t/. (it)
  • Initial phoneme in a blend deletion. Example: Say step without the /s/. (tep)
  • Final phoneme in a blend deletion. Example: Say best without the /t/. (bes)
  • Second phoneme in a blend deletion. Example: Say frog without the /r/. (fog)
In addition to these five task types, phonemic awareness exercises include phoneme discrimination (speech perception) activities, which also help children to focus on specific sounds in words. For example, the child may be asked to listen for vowel sounds in words.

Some ideas to keep in mind:
  • Don't stress written words or letters unless your child can readily identify the letters.
  • Keep the tone fun and informal. Avoid using the activities as assessments. It is important that children be engage in playing with language, not concerned about being assessed. Respond favourably and enthusiastically to their attempts.
  • Model! Model! Model! Continually model for your child how to accomplish the various phonemic awareness tasks. And provide corrective feedback. Much of the learning occurs through this feedback.
  • Provide lots and lots of language experiences. Read, write, and listen to stories. Provide a print-rich environment with multiple experiences of language.
At present, Ryan knows one phoneme for each letter. In addition, Ryan can also listen out for the phonemes in words. For example, Ryan can tell me whether the word “boy” starts with /b/ or /g/ (he can also tell me whether it starts with the letter B or the letter G – hey, a little bit of phonics there!). He can identify the recurring phoneme in an alliterative sentence such as "bad boys break beds before bedtime". Plus, he can do simple blending of phonemes and he can substitute phonemes to morph a word into a different word, like "cat" into "hat".

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