Saturday, October 22, 2011

Five Essential Reading Skills for Early Elementary Students

The article "What K-3 Teachers Need to Know About Assessing Children's Reading" by Scott G. Paris, Ph.D., outlines five skills which should be taught and assessed in the primary grades. The following post is my summary of these reading skills, as well as ideas for teaching and assessing students' abilities with them.

Alphabetic Principle
Alphabetic principle is identification of written upper and lowercase letters and the knowledge of the sounds associated with each letter. This is important because it is the most basic building block to reading and writing. Children must have an automatic connection between letter recognition and letter sounds in order to learn to read. Teachers assess the alphabetic principle by watching children name letters and listening to them say letter sounds. Children should be able to name written letters shown to them and choose a letter said to them from a written list.

Alphabetic principle can be taught through flashcards, alphabet songs and books, and letter manipulatives. A lesson plan entirely centered on the alphabet could include forming letters out of different materials such as string, beans, or grass, or writing letters in different substances, such as sand or shaving cream. In my Head Start field experience, the children write their names every day; however, I think there needs to be more of a focus on naming the letters and knowing their sounds. One four-year-old boy, who I have worked with for a literacy project, knows how to write his name, but he only knows the name of the letter "P." He named the rest of the letters in his name by describing their shapes: "a straight-down line with a dot" for the letter "i." This is a concern for me because it is very important for him to learn the names of letters as preparation for kindergarten and learning to read.

Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic awareness is the knowledge of letter sounds. It encompasses the ability to distinguish sounds within words as well as to blend sounds to create words. Phonemic awareness is important because it allows children to move toward independent reading. Once children know and understand the way letter sounds work, they will be able to sound out words in their own reading. Teachers assess phonemic awareness by listening to children say, blend, and differentiate letters sounds. This can be done through formal assessments or simply by listening to children speak or say rhymes throughout the day - for example, during a class singing time or recitation of a short, rhyming poem.

Phonemic awareness can be taught by using letter sounds in speech, song, and reading. A teacher could focus on a specific letter sound each day or week. The students could be challenged to use the letter sound of the day as much as possible, and many activities might go along with this, such as saying words containing the letter sound, finding objects whose names contain the letter sound, preparing and eating food starting with the letter, and singing songs or reading poems containing the letter sound. During my senior year of high school, I was a cadet teacher in a kindergarten classroom, where the teacher taught and reinforced letter sounds using hand signs. She used these signs while reading short poems out loud to the class and in work with individual students to remind them of letter sounds. I think this is a great idea because it attaches a physical motion with each sound, helping children remember them more easily.

Oral Reading Fluency
Fluency is reading correctly, quickly, and smoothly; it also means a child uses intonation while reading out loud. Fluency is important because when children are fluent readers, they can decode words automatically, which allows them to focus more on comprehension, another important reading skill. Teachers assess reading fluency by listening to children read out loud; they listen for correct pronunciation and intonation in addition to rapid pace. Reading rate is another type of fluency assessment, in which teachers count the number of words a child reads in a certain amount of time. This is useful for assessing decoding skills, but in a full assessment of a child's reading ability, the teacher should also focus on comprehension and vocabulary.

One instructional strategy for oral reading fluency is choral reading. The teacher could read a book out loud to the class and then have the children read along. This would give children a model of how fluent reading sounds. Another idea for teaching fluency would be to have children write their own stories and read them out loud for the whole class or small groups. This would hopefully encourage them to think about how sentences sound while writing, as well as while reading out loud.

Comprehension is a child's understanding of what he or she has read. This is an important skill to develop, because we use it every time we read anything. Children must develop the ability to decode words fluently while taking in the meaning of the words and sentences they read. Teachers assess comprehension informally by asking students questions about what they have read, or asking students to retell stories. They can assess more formally by giving tests after reading chapters or whole books. Comprehension is also assessed in standardized tests, by having children read short selections and answer questions.

Teachers can use specific comprehension instructional strategies, such as stopping children to summarize parts of reading in their own words, or having them reread parts to make sure they understood. In preparation for standardized tests, comprehension can be taught and practiced by giving students sample questions after reading. A basic lesson plan that could be used to work on comprehension would be writing a book report. In the kindergarten class where I was a cadet teacher, even the kindergartners wrote short book reports, in which they wrote the title, author, basic plot, and something they liked, along with an illustration.

Vocabulary is the knowledge and understanding of definitions and meanings of words that children read. They need to be able to use words in sentences and their own speech in order for those words to truly be a part of their vocabulary. Vocabulary is important for comprehension; children need to understand individual words in order for those words to truly be part of their vocabulary. Vocabulary is important for comprehension; children need to understand individual words in order to comprehend entire sections of reading. Teachers assess vocabulary by asking children to use vocabulary words in their own writing. They could also assess by giving vocabulary quizzes, or playing games in which children identify definitions of new words.

Teachers can teach vocabulary by providing age-appropriate definitions, using a word wall, or talking about synonyms with their students. A lesson plan about vocabulary might focus on a specific topic which can be described with many different words. For example, a lesson about the ocean might include many words that mean large, since the ocean is large: vast, enormous, immense, huge, mammoth, etc.

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