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/ 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".

Friday, October 14, 2011

Reinforcing the Alphabet

It was only when Ryan started voicing the letter names that we found out that he knew them. Before that, we never tested him - for example, we never asked him to point to the letter "A" or anything like that. When we knew that he knew the letter names, we then gave him materials to reinforce his letter recognition. I'll share these materials in this post.

These are the items that we used. I am by no means suggesting that everyone must use these items and I am not suggesting that you should not use other items. Neither am I suggesting that you must do things the way we did. There is no magic formula. How you teach your child and what you use is entirely up to you and your child, your preferences and your circumstances.

Ok, again, I stress that Ryan had already learned all the letter names by this time, ie. we did not use these as our first tools to teach letter names. Having said that, we didn't draw a line between these "stages", we still continued to use the items in yesterday's post and we still have most of them out on the shelves for Ryan to play with even now.

First up, the iPhone app. We only had one app when it came to letter names, which was "Fish School" by Duck Duck Moose. This is a fantastic award-winning app which introduces letters, numbers, colours and shapes. I'm sure most parents on the iPhone will have this. Ryan played the alphabet song over and over and over and over again on this app. We installed it when Ryan was about 16 or 18 months, can't recall exactly. Ryan didn't really get into the app until a few months later actually, because we did not give him much time with the iPhone until he was about two years old.

We don't have any apps on the iPad for letter names (we do have some for letter sounds, but that's for a separate post).

We have many many many alphabet stickers - flat ones, foam ones, puffy ones, glittery ones, even those used for scrapbooking. Ryan uses them freely in his artwork; he will select each one, call its name and place it wherever he chooses. Stickers can seem a little wasteful so I always try to stock up when I come across very cheap stickers.

Over at his nanny's place, Ryan's nanny gives him foam letters to play with. She says that he arranges them everyday in straight lines as he lovingly calls each of the letters by name and that he gets upset if anyone messes up his work!

When we are out and about, we look out for letters in our surroundings. Ryan will yell out the letters as and when he comes across them, on the street, in the car park, on the restaurant menus, on the buses passing by our car, etc. Usually he is the one who points them out to us.

Ryan also started showing us that he understood how to construct letters. One of our pre-dinner activities while waiting for our food to arrive at the restaurant, is for Ryan to construct letters using everyday items, like coins, chopsticks, straws, pins, toothpicks, eating utensils, anything really. He also likes to make letters using his arms. This is an "V" and below that, an "X"!

A few months after his first birthday, we started gradually introducing letter sounds, which he enjoyed. We still continued to give him the opportunity to reinforce his letter names and letter construction whenever he could, and we still do.

In June this year, I bought these plastic magnetic letters, upper and lower case. I got them dirt cheap at a Popular Bookstore sale. Ryan loved these and played with them a lot (especially matching up the upper and the lower case letters!). Interestingly, he preferred to play with these letters on the floor. He was not as interested when I stuck them on the magnetic board. He wanted to touch and feel and handle the letters.

I bought them thinking that Ryan could start building words with them. In fact, I bought two sets of the lower case letters so that he could build words like "Mummy" and "Daddy" and "zoo". I showed him "Ryan" and "Elmo" and a few other words using these plastic letters, and that helped him to see that letters make words and have meaning. The first few times I did try to talk about the letter sounds, but he was not interested so I stopped that and I just constructed different words to show him.

As for videos, after we put away the YBCR videos, we generally didn't watch videos until Ryan was about 18 months old, when he started watching Hi-5 and then a few months later, Sesame Street. When he was a little past two years old, I felt that we should emphasise lower case letters a little more so I shopped around and bought this DVD from Leapfrog called The Amazing Alphabet Amusement Park, which he enjoyed tremendously. The video teaches letter names and pairs up upper and lower case letters. It also teaches what rhyming words are. This was the thing that sparked his "hobby" of matching upper and lower case letters. Even now he still loves watching this and singing along with all the songs.

He does have a Sesame Street video called "What's the name of that song?" which was (and still is) one of his favourite videos when he was about 2 years old and a couple of clips on that video are about letters. One is an alphabet song sung by the divine Patti Labelle. It is AMAZING. This is not the well-known Twinkle Twinkle Little Star alphabet song - it's a bluesy, soulful tune with the muppets chiming in gospel-style. Ryan loves it! Sometimes he screams and shouts the letters out, as if he were watching the diva live in concert. I love it too and I scream right along!  Please check it out on Youtube!

We also have the LEGO DUPLO Play with Letters set which has the letters of the alphabet printed on the blocks. We got it at a promotional price at Toys "R" Us. We have a few other LEGO DUPLO sets, but this is the only one we have that is alphabet-themed. You can see them in action in this post. We started playing with these just a few months ago, after we got back from our trip to USA.

Recently also, we got him this book called "How to Build an A" by Sara Midda, which comes with 11 foam pieces which can be used to construct letters, and he enjoys that too.

I mentioned in yesterday's post on learning the alphabet that Ryan enjoys the book, "Colors, Numbers, Letters" by Leo Lionni. We bought it when he already knew his colours, numbers and letters so the first time he saw it, he "read" the whole book aloud. He still enjoys it. Here's a recent video of him "reading" it, which I posted yesterday as my book review.

Ok, I think I have covered everything. Next time (probably next week) I will cover the items that we used to introduce letter sounds.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Colors, Numbers, Letters by Leo Lionni

We picked up this book at the bookstore because it passed the Ryan test on the first reading - he read the whole book on his own, while we were still at the bookstore! How could we not buy it?

That is really the best review I can give you, so here's a video of Ryan reading the book (at h8ome).

Today I want to record the items that we used at home to show Ryan the alphabet. I can't recall exactly when but most of these were introduced when he was just under one year old.

These items were only for introducing the letters and their names. I have not included the items we have which show words and letter sounds - like A is for Apple and B is for Boat. The items in this post merely show him what is an A, what is a B, etc.

The first "item" we used was probably the alphabet song. You know how it goes, to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I do have one issue with it and that was the part that went "LMNOP". All the sounds are crushed together. So I usually sing it a little differently when it got to that part. Actually, there are lots of other alphabet songs that you can use, just pick up a CD at the children's section. I should add that, in Shichida class, for the children who are 1-2 years old, we sometimes sing an alphabet song (very much like the famous alphabet song, just slightly different at certain parts). We sing it while pointing to each of the 26 letters printed on a sheet of paper.

This was probably the first "toy" we used - an alphabet/abacus frame. Richard would have Ryan on his lap every night and he would tap each letter in turn as he sang the alphabet song to Ryan. He would do one or two rounds each time, and then they would move on to play with something else. There are images on the reverse side of each tile so Richard also goes through those with Ryan, to keep things interesting. After a while, and when Ryan started talking, Ryan started pointing to some of the tiles on his own and saying the letter's name. Now of course he can name all the letters on his own and this item has been packed away, waiting for the next little cutie to come along.

I came across the frame by accident. I was actually looking for something like an abacus (you can see three rows of balls on the other side (blue, green and red) if you peek between the rows on the lower left of the frame). To be honest, I was more persuaded by the price than anything else - it was only a few dollars. It's made of plastic, probably made in China - yes I know about all the dangerous toys that come from China, but I knew that Ryan would not be having much skin contact with this sort of toy and he certainly wasn't going to put it in his mouth, so I felt it was not an issue.

Ok, next item. This is a wooden alphabet board. There are wooden letters which fit on the board which I didn't bother to fit for the photo. At present, we've put the board away and we keep the letters in a small container which we sometimes bring along when we go out for meals. When Ryan was still learning the alphabet, the letters were always in their places on the board and all the little images are covered, so you just see the letters and it's not as distracting as it is in the first photo. In fact, we never bothered with the little images.

What Ryan did with this was the obvious - he fit all the letters onto the board. That was it. I guess it gave him a sensorial experience and familiarity with the shapes. As he fit each letter, we would sometimes say the letter's name out aloud but not always. 

These are the letters. The thing that persuaded me to buy this board (apart from its low price) was that it had both the upper and the lower case letters, remembering that it is very important to introduce the lower case letters, in addition to the upper case letters as the lower case letters are encountered more frequently in everyday life. I did not like the font used though - the lower case "a", "g" and "a" are not my desired shape (see the bottom row of letters in the photo). Ryan didn't have any problem with them however. As he grew more familiar with the letters, he would use them without the board, and his favourite thing to do was to match up the upper case letters with their lower case partners. 

Next is this wooden train, made up of letters. All 26 letters are represented, plus an engine and a caboose, and you can hook each one on and off in any order. Ryan loved this and we still keep it out for him to play with, even now. The advantage (although I did not realise it at the time I bought it) was that Ryan could see both sides of each letter.  As the hook on each letter is only on one end (the other end being the eye for the hook), he learned that there was a correct side and a wrong side (for letters like B, D, E, etc). Again, I didn't spend much on this, it was quite cheap.

The last item I will show was a Christmas gift (in 2009) from a friend. This comprised a set of wooden letters and a corresponding set of 26 cards, made by Plan Toys. Each card has, on one side, a picture of an animal which name starts with that letter. There is an empty space on the animal which the wooden piece can sit on. The other side of the card shows the plain letter (which is also the same size as the wooden letter) and there is a dotted arrow line showing how the letter is written - you are supposed to trace the letter with your finger following the arrow. 

Ryan didn't love this immediately, he took a long time to get into it. I guess it was like a duplicate of some of the items above, which he was already playing with. Plus the pictures on the cards were not that appealing, I think. In fact, when he did play with this, he preferred to play on the plain side of the cards, although we never bothered to do the tracing, just the matching up of the wooden letter with the card. Anyway, this toy slowly gained acceptance and now Ryan pulls it out quite regularly to play with, sometimes he plays with the cards (both sides); other times he doesn't bother with the cards, he just holds the letters in his hand or lines them up on the floor and says their names. 

Around the same time that we introduced the Plan Toys set, I also introduced cards with textured lower case letters. You can see what this looks like at this link (I did not buy it through this link though. I bought it off the shelf from a local store). The intention was to get him to trace the letters with his finger, in the order and direction that he would eventually write them. This is what is done in Montessori when they work with sandpaper letters. Ryan did not like these - I think this activity was too restrictive and too advanced for his age so I packed it up after two or three tries. I re-introduced these cards later, and he was much more receptive. I would think that you can try when your child is, at the youngest, 18 months, and even then, when you start, don't ask the child to do the tracing, just show him/her how to do it and leave it at that, until his/her interest is sufficiently piqued and he/she starts to reach for the cards on his/her own.

As for books, we felt that there was not much point buying a book with pages that simply had A, B, C, D, E... etc. So, we didn't use any. After Ryan was already familiar with the alphabet, we did pick up two alphabet books, because by that time, Ryan absolutely loved the alphabet so we wanted to get some books that he would enjoy. One is the famous "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" (by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault with illustrations by Lois Ehlert). We bought this fairly recently and have only gone through once or twice with Ryan. The other one is Leo Lionni's board book, "Colors, Numbers, Letters". Ryan read the whole book on his own the very first time he saw it - there are no words, he just named all the colours, numbers and letters. Great book, I will post a review soon.

I should add that we do not have an alphabet chart on the wall at home. 

Before I pen off, I want to mention that, in the beginning, I had the intention of teaching letter sounds first, before teaching the alphabet. I was concerned that Ryan wouldn't want to learn the letter sounds if he had already learned to refer to the letters by their names. My fears were unfounded - Ryan learned the letter names first and had no problem with the letter sounds subsequently. Now, in addition to reciting the alphabet by letter name, he can even do it by letter sound! In fact, when reading up on this, I came across an ex-Montessori teacher who said that she had one student who learned the letter sounds without learning the alphabet and he was so demoralised in pre-school when he discovered that his peers all knew the letter names. He felt out of place and all this negativity affected his ability to learn the letter names, which frustrated him even more. Thinking about it, even if you don't teach letter sounds at home, it's all right because children will get that done in school, but you have to teach the letter names at home, because that's not done in school (the students usually already know the letter names).

All right, that's it. Maybe next time when I write on this subject, I will write about the items we used to introduce letter sounds.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Customised ABC book by Richard

Last year in Shichida (Oct to Dec 2010), we were given this A4 book. The cover says, "MY FIRST DICTIONARY". The pages inside were blank except for a small square at the upper right corner where the letters of the alphabet appear, one letter per page (upper and lower together).

For each week, we were to find and paste pictures on each page showing words starting with the relevant letter. For Week 1, we had to do this for letters A and B; for Week 2, it would be letters C and D, and so on. In class, the books will be passed around and the parents would input all the words to their child. 

That term, Richard accompanied Ryan to class so Richard was in charge of this. He was quite hardworking at it - he always made sure that the homework for each week was done in time for class. He reported that he always got compliments on "his" book from sensei (which I think motivated him to keep up with the good work). He also said that, some weeks, the other parents didn't do their homework with the result that everyone had to share our book!

Anyway, this is how it looks inside. Richard chose caterpillar and clown for Cc, and donkey and drums for Dd.


I left the task completely to Richard - he didn't consult me or ask me my opinion at all. I usually flipped through the book only when we were on the way to class, and sometimes it was quite amusing to see what his choices were. Here are some of the more interesting ones. 

Gg for Gruffalo.

Mm for McDonald's (we usually hang out at McDonald's after Shichida class).

Rr for Ryan (what else?)

Ss for Spongebob.

Xx for an x-ray of Homer Simpson's head.

Yy for Yoda!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Oh wow, my baby can read!

Ryan has started to read.

Given a word, he first sounds out the letter sounds and then blends the sounds to form the word. So for example, when he sees the word CAT, he will say "/k/, /æ/, /t/ ... CAT!"

It was such an amazing and thrilling feeling for Richard and me when we first saw him decoding words. Just like when he took his first steps, it was a hugely significant moment. Our son had become, irrevocably, a reader! We were so very happy for him!

Richard and I also felt a huge sense of accomplishment. Unlike learning to walk, which required very little from us, Richard and I have been very involved in Ryan's early literacy journey, from the day he was born. We have been reading lots and lots of books together, doing pretend play, learning the alphabet, learning the letter sounds, having conversations, singing songs, re-telling stories, learning how a book works (including letting Ryan chew on it and turn the pages). We also play a lot of games with words and letters - remember this post? And yes, we did use some iPhone and iPad apps and some DVDs and, I hate to say it, these gave Ryan an extra boost.

As a result, Ryan knows his alphabet, both upper and lower case and he knows the regular letter sounds for each letter. He knows how to isolate the letter sounds to identify the first letter of a word - for instance he knows BOY starts with B, because he can isolate the /b/ sound at the beginning. He knows how to spell the words: LOVE, FOX, BOX, RYAN, ELMO, NODDY, ZOO, MOON, CAT, DUCK and a few more, which showed that he appreciated that a group of letters formed a word (to me, that did not mean that he could read, only that he could recite the letters in the correct order - yes, I'm hard to please). He also knows how to form letters using things like sticks, straws, coins and by manipulating his fingers and arms.

For the past few months, Ryan has been OBSESSED with letters and numbers. Out of the blue, he will yell out some letters and numbers, or letter sounds and words, because he just likes hearing them. Two nights ago, he was saying letter sounds - IN HIS SLEEP. I heard him say "/k/, /æ/, /t/"! Hahaha!

I know he was saying letter sounds because, earlier that same evening (Tuesday evening), I wrote the word "cat" on our little chalk board and he said, "/k/, /æ/, /t/ ... CAT!" I didn't think that was unusual, because he knows the word "cat" and he knows all the letter sounds in the word. So I wrote another word using the same word family ("hat"), and he did the same thing, breaking up the sounds and reading the word correctly. I wrote another word and another and another and he decoded them all without any difficulty - cat, mat, sat, fat, rat, pat, hat, bat. I wrote out words made with other word families - fun, sun, gun; big, pig, fig; and he sounded all of them out confidently! I was so excited - I told Ryan that we had to fetch daddy and show him! When Richard came, Richard wrote the words and Ryan read them all out again! We were all so excited!

The next day (yesterday), I spoke to Ryan's nanny and I told her that he was saying letter sounds in his sleep. She chuckled and told me that he loves to say letter sounds all day. I mentioned that he could read a few words and you know what she said? She said, "Of course! He can read many words!" I was flabbergasted! She also said that she had taught him the days of the week and the months of the year and he could read all of them! Oh my! She was so proud of him - she said that she only needed to show him anything once, and he would remember it. Gosh.

Anyway, when we got home, we went through some words again. Here's a Youtube video of it (about 3.3 minutes long). You can hear Ryan sounding out each letter sound before he puts them together and declares what the word is. I love it when he says "What's next?" at 1:28 of the video!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How to Build an A by Sara Midda

Ryan is into letters and numbers right now - he talks about them all the time. I bought this for him recently and it was an instant favourite.

I saw this in a store in Singapore (Motherworks at Great World City) and recalled reading a positive review about it on the internet, so I snapped it up. I assume you can get it at the usual bookstores too and, interestingly, it is also available at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Store.

The book comes with 11 sturdy foam pieces and a mesh bag to store the pieces in. As the title states, it shows you how to build an A (using the foam pieces). And a B and a C too. Every letter from A to Z in fact.

Hmm, I suppose even if you don't buy the book, you could make the pieces yourself? But then, you wouldn't have Midda's book with all her quirky illustrations! Each page introduces a new letter and is illustrated with Midda's miniature people, who are shown comically hauling and heaving the pieces into place. 

The only drawback is that the pieces don't fit together nicely. For example, for the letter 'B', the vertical piece isn't long enough to accommodate both of the semicircles. These have to be overlapped.

Nevertheless, once Ryan understood that it was not like a jigsaw and you could put one piece on top of another, he had no problems at all. He even built the lower-case letters (the book only shows how to build upper case letters)!

I usually do book reviews after we have been reading the book for a long time. This book, we have been reading for less than a month and I don't know how long it will be before it stays on the shelf for good. Nevertheless, I thought that I'd write about it because Ryan loves it so much, even if it is turns out that it is for just a while. Just last night Ryan took Richard by the hand and ordered him to build the letters with him. He told Richard, "A-B-C, You, Me!" Richard said it was the first sentence that Ryan had ever spoken to him!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pin the shape on the board!

Here's a game which we made for Ryan, which you can make too!

We bought him a large piece of white styrofoam (1 inch thick) and cut out various shapes for him to lay out on the styrofoam. Then he sticks pins into the shapes! It's as simple as that!

This game is good for finger training (fine motor skills), shape and colour recognition, counting, sorting, and exploring texture. Ryan builds up and learns how to control the strength in his fingers - which he will need for writing. He also strengthens his powers of focus and concentration. Of course it promotes creativity too - Ryan can make different designs and patterns!

Richard and I cut the shapes from thin foam. You can cut any shape you like - no need to limit yourself to squares and triangles, although we had a lot of those as they are easy to cut. We cut our shapes free hand - no need to be precise about it!

We bought push pins/thumb tacks, in various colours and designs. Yes, they are sharp and no, Ryan did not prick himself. Not even once. He was able to aim for and pick up an individual pin, twirl it around with his fingers on one hand and hold it in the right position to drive it into the styrofoam. Don't worry - you child can do it too!

You can see from this photo that the white thumb tacks with the flat heads actually lie with their sharp ends pointing upwards. 

No problem!

Three pieces of foam in that photo there - Ryan learns to adjust his strength - more strength needed!

We let him place the pieces and stick the pins wherever he wanted and it was interesting to see where he placed them - sometimes he put the pins in little groups on a foam piece, sometimes just one pin on a foam piece; sometimes huddled together, sometimes spaced apart; in a line or in a curve, sometimes standing straight up, sometimes at an angle. You can see also that he sorts the pins too, sometimes by design and sometimes by colour. Sometimes he even matches the colour of the pin with the colour of the foam shape!

Here's a short Youtube video (just over 2 minutes) of Ryan pinning. This was filmed the first time we introduced this game. You can hear Richard and Ryan discussing the colours and the shapes on the board. At the end of the video, you can hear Ryan say "Amazing!". He also says "Rainbow" a few times - because the final product is so colourful!

The next day, Ryan asked to play the game again! We had to buy more pins! 

The cost involved was quite low - the styrofoam piece cost less than $3 and the foam sheets were also less than $3. You can get a box of pins/thumb tacks for about $1-$3.50 depending on quantity, design and where you buy it from. We used a LOT of pins because our styrofoam piece was so big, but you can go with a smaller piece. You can use cork board if you prefer a tougher surface - we're going to do that next and teach him to use a hammer!

Here I'll share with you some image play examples that we have done in class. Remember, the class examples are limited because there aren't many props in the small classroom and we need to keep the activity short. Take them as ideas for image play at home which you can improve on and expand at home. Remember also, and as I explained in Part 12, don't just hand your child some toys and ask him to play by himself. Get involved, guide him along and make it a multi-sensory experience.

When Ryan was less than one year old, we did very simple pretend play in class. For example, sensei would show him pictures of a panda and what the panda likes to eat. Then he was given a picture of a panda and told that the panda was hungry. He was then asked to pretend to feed the panda some leaves.

Another example for babies: the sensei showed him a series of pictures and told a story. Then she showed each picture again and Ryan acted out the story (with my help). For example, the sensei showed a picture of a calm sea and she said, "The sea is calm, it's a sunny day, we're sailing out to sea in a steady boat". So the babies pretended they are in a boat on a calm sea. They listened to the seagulls calling, the waves lapping, they smelled the sea, they felt the warm sun. Then another picture was shown - the sky is dark, there is lightning - the sensei said, "A storm is coming, the rain falls down, the boat starts to rock from side to side." The babies rocked from side to side, they hid from the rain, they heard the lightning clap. Then the story went on - the storm subsides, all is well, suddenly a shark appears in the water, everyone is scared, but the shark soons goes away and everyone is relieved" and so on. The little babies followed the story with the appropriate reactions. (Of course, at this stage, the parents play all the roles.)

When Ryan graduated to the class for 1 year old and above, the pretend play was more detailed. As the children are still at an early stage of training so, to help them along, we show them a lot of images and give them some props and materials to play with. Some of the scenarios may be unfamiliar to them - you may want them to pretend to go on a picnic but some of the children have never been on a picnic so they would not know what to visualise in their minds. The images and pictures will help.

When Ryan moved up to the class for 2 year olds, we added on the imaginary story.

For Ryan's current level (2 years old), these are some scenarios which we have done for pretend play and imaginary story.

Picnic and Campfire

Tell your child that his family and friends are going on a picnic and after that to a campfire. Show a series of pictures to explain the steps to take to prepare for a family picnic. Ask him to pretend to pack for a picnic. Give your baby some 'cakes', some cups and sheets of sponge in various colours to act as bread (white), lettuce (green), tomato (red), cheese (yellow) and ask him to make sandwiches. Once the sandwiches are done, pack them all into the container and go on a picnic! Use some cardboard to make a pretend campfire. Stand around the campfire and sing and dance around the campfire to the song, "If You're Happy".

Lucky Draw

Prepare a poster showing prizes for the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth winners, eg. a car for the first prize winner, a computer for the second prize winner, etc. Prepare individual pictures of each prize as well. Show your child the poster and say we are going to have a lucky draw. Give your child a ticket stub and ask him to put it into the lucky draw box. Draw the numbers, call them out and give out the prizes according to the prize poster. (Ryan got first prize for this one - hahaha!)

Visit to Jurong Bird Park

Give your child a cardboard camera and tell him that he and you are going to the Jurong Bird Park today. Show a series of pictures about his visit, it may be a picture of the birds, a picture of the ticket booth, a picture of the restaurant at the park, etc. At each picture, ask him to take a photograph of what he sees. Next, give him a blank photo album with captions for each photo. Give him the pictures and ask him to insert each picture next to the right caption.

Magic Laptop

Fold a card into two to make the laptop. On the bottom half, draw the keys A-Z, the space bar and the "Enter" key. On the top half, paste a transparency or a plastic sheet to make a pocket where you can slot in pictures. Show your child various pictures and make up a story with him. Tell him that he has to type the story into the computer and when he does so and presses enter, the picture (eg, banana, octopus, car) will appear on the screen. When he is done, ask him to type in his name.


Show your child a series of pictures about a skiing trip for the family. Make two skis with two sticks for him to ski and let him pretend to ski all over the room.


Show pictures of a butterfly flying around, show the grass, the flowers and the sky. Ask your child to pretend to be a butterfly. You can dress him up in a butterfly suit or wings. Or you can give him a big plastic bag and ask him to fly it around. Put pictures of the grass, the flowers and the sky on the wall and ask him to fly towards them. Or let him hold a picture of the butterfly and fly the picture instead.

Folding napkins

Use pictures to show how to fold napkins for the restaurant. Show him step-by-step. Let him practice and do it himself.

Taking Pictures At The Zoo

Show your child some pictures and tell him that he and you are going to the zoo today. Explain that, at the zoo, he will see animals like monkey, rabbit, lion, etc. Put up pictures of the animals and give your child a cardboard camera and ask him to take pictures of the animals. After that, give him small pictures of the animals and tell him that his pictures have been printed. Look through the pictures with him and get him to name the animals again.

Four Seasons

Show your child flashcards of the four seasons and describe what the four seasons are and what happens in that season, eg, flowers bloom in spring, etc. Now give your child individual pictures of the four seasons and give him an activity for each season. For example, flowers bloom in spring, so for spring give him some flowers to pick and arrange in a vase. Summer is when the sun is very hot, so give him an empty bottle to pretend to put on sun block. Autumn is where the trees shed their leaves, so ask him to rake the fallen leaves. Winter is when snow falls, so he can play with some cotton balls and pretend he is playing in the snow.

Let's Be Superman

Show pictures and explain - Why must we be Superman? (to save people, to become strong, to fly...). Make a cape (you can use a red plastic bag). Then use cardboard to make the front of Superman's costume - make sure you include Superman's S sign and his shorts! Tie a string on it and hang on your child. Tell the child he is Superman. Carry him and fly him around the room!

Making Japanese Rice Balls

Prepare three white triangle shapes for the rice ball and three black strips of paper for the seaweed. Show a series of pictures to show how to make the rice ball in a few simple steps: First, scoop the rice, then gather the rice into a ball, add in a plum, make it into a triangle and add in the seaweed. Now ask your child to make three rice balls following the steps. When he is done, he can pretend to eat it.

Feed the fishes

Make a pond using an old shoe box - put in a picture of a pond and some fishes into the box. Crush some coloured paper into small balls and ask your child to feed the fishes.

Buying and Eating Ice Cream

Take out a box and say you are an ice-cream seller. Ring the bell. Take out a cone, a cup and a piece of bread and ask your child how he would like his ice-cream to be served (eg. in a cone, in a cup, on a slice of bread). Then scoop the ice cream (coloured furry balls or shaving cream) and name the flavours as you scoop. Then ask your child to pay you for the ice-cream and after he pretends to pay, pass him the ice cream and he can pretend to eat.

Exploring Under The Sea

Show your child pictures of sea animals and paste pictures of the same sea animals all over the room. Make diving goggles with cardboard and blue plastic over the eye area and ask your child to put them on and explore under the sea. Point out the various sea creatures to them as he explores.

Various scenarios

Ask your child to roll a dice. On the dice, there are a few activities like visit the notice board, go for a shower, visit the shopping mall, raise the flag, tie the ribbons, pluck the apples. Put up pictures of the relevant activities. Once your child rolls the dice to do that activity, carry out that activity with him.

Detective Dog

Introduce a character called "Detective Dog" - show a picture of a dog (eg. a cartoonish dog with a magnifying glass!). Explain that he is pursuing a suspect called "Slippery Fox" - show a picture of the suspect (a cartoonish fox that looks very suspicious!). Show a picture of the neighbourhood and explain that Detective Dog has been searching all over the neighbourhood for the suspect. Where is he? Put up pictures of various spots in the neighbourhood - the playground, the library, the train station, etc. Each picture has a slot in which Slippery Fox is hiding. Ask your child to help Detective Dog to go around the neighbourhood and look for Slippery Fox!

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