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Mastery Learning in RtI

Foundation of Mastery Learning

Fix the Foundation with Mastery Learning

I just finished watching a TED TALK by Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. Sal was talking about mastery learning and the importance of building strong learning foundations before layering on additional information.

As I watched the video, I was thinking about why a stubborn 25% of most students in the upper elementary, middle, and high schools are reading two or more years below grade level.

Sal cites the example of a child who scores an average grade of 75% on a unit test. Most educators would accept 75% as an average score, and in fact most diagnostic assessments would accept 75—80% as mastery level; however, Sal points out the not knowing 25% of the test components is problematic. From the student’s perspective: “I didn’t know 25% of the foundational thing, and now I’m being pushed to the more advanced thing.”

When students try to learn something new that builds upon these shaky foundations, “they hit a wall… and “become disengaged.”

Sal likens the lack of mastery learning to shoddy home construction. What potential homeowner would be happy to buy a new home that has only 75% of its foundation completed (a C), or even 95% (an A)?

Of course, Sal is a math guy and math lends itself to sequential mastery learning more so than does my field of English-language arts and reading intervention. My content area tends to have a mix of sequential and cyclical teaching learning, as reflected in the structure of the Common Core State Standards. The author of the School Improvement Network site puts it nicely:

Many teachers view their work from a lens that acknowledges the cyclical nature of teaching and learning.  This teaching and learning cycle guides the definition of learning targets, the design of instructional delivery, the creation and administration of assessments and the selection of targeted interventions in response to individual student needs.

At this point, our article begins to beg the question: What if a shaky foundation is what we’re dealing with now? We can’t do anything about the past. Teachers can start playing the blame game and complain that we’re stuck teaching reading to students who missed key foundational components, such as phonics. All-too-often, response to intervention teachers are ignoring shaky foundations and are trying to layer on survival skills without fixing the real problems.

Instead, teachers should re-build the foundation. Teachers can figure out what is missing in the individual student skill-sets and fill the gaps… this time with mastery learning.

I’m Mark Pennington, author of the reading intervention program: Teaching Reading Strategies with the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. A key component of the program is our 13 diagnostic reading assessments. These comprehensive and prescriptive assessments will help response to intervention reading teachers find out specifically which reading and spelling deficits have created a shaky foundation for each of your students. I gladly share these FREE Reading Assessments with teachers and welcome your comments and questions.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

“This is just what I need! I have been searching for a resource to help my middle school SPED kiddos catch up to their peers and I can’t wait to implement this incredible product in my classroom!!!” Rating: 4.0

Elizabeth Lewis

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Fluency Assessment Problems

The Problem with Reading Fluency Assessments

The Problems with Fluency Assessments

The heart of effective reading intervention, whether in a comprehensive Response to Intervention (RtI) program, individual remedial reading classes, reading tutoring, or in-class literacy centers, guided reading, readers workshop, etc. is assessment-based instruction. The devil is in the details, especially with respect to the diagnostic (and placement) reading assessments. This article focuses on reading fluency assessments.

Background

As a reading specialist, I’ve worn three different hats in four different grade-level settings. My first hat has been worn as a district trainer of trainers and professional development instructor for elementary, middle, and high school teachers. My second hat has been worn as a site-level reading program diagnostician and supervisor at the eight elementary schools and one high school. My third hat has been worn as a reading intervention teacher in grades 4–6 elementary, grade 7 middle school, grade 9 high school, and the reading lab at a community college.

What I Learned

After earning my M.A. as a reading specialist, I began my three-hat, four grade-level setting career. I quickly learned that my grad school experience provided the theoretical framework, but not the tools (specifically the assessment tools) to ply my trade. As I learned and developed those assessment tools in the real world of teachers and their classrooms, I found that teachers were more than willing to try some new tools, but the tools had to be on their terms and conditions

Teacher Terms and Conditions

1. Minimal expenditure of assessment time including testing, correction, data recording, data analysis, progress monitoring, and grade-level or school-wide meetings.

2. Minimal expense for testing tools. Teachers prefer spending school and personal money on teaching, not testing, resources. After all, teachers got into the business to teach, not to test.

3. Teachable assessment tools. Teachers love meaningful and simple test data, but only quantitative data. Teachers don’t like the random sample tests that university professors produce. Teachers prefer comprehensive test data which identify learning gaps that teachers can tackle in their instruction. 

4. No evaluations based upon progress monitoring. Teachers are at different places on their learning curves and are teaching uncontrolled variables, that is their students, with behavioral issues, language challenges, soci0-economic issues, and school structures, such as time allotments for reading instruction, training, supplies, and administrative support.

I started making an impact on teachers and on my struggling readers when I accepted and applied these conditional terms for assessment-based instruction.

Brief Critique of Popular Fluency Assessments

To my mind, the most popular fluency assessment programs fail to meet some or all of these teacher terms and conditions: Dibels, aimsweb, and Read Naturally®. Their products are 1. Time-consuming 2. Expensive (Dibels being a partial exception) 3. Not simple, nor teachable (explanation follows) and 4. Too-amenable to evaluation of teachers, rather than their students.

The two aims of these diagnostic reading fluency assessments are to determine baseline data with regard to grade-level fluency scores and to establish a subsequent instructional fluency level to provide practice at the student’s proximal zone of development (Vygotsky). In other words, find out how the student compares to other grade-level reading fluency norms and figure out the reading levels that provide the optimal practice.

Sounds great in theory; however, I have doubts (as do most teachers) about the validity and practicality of these approaches to diagnostic fluency assessment. First, giving a grade-level fluency passage to a struggling reader introduces too many variables: vocabulary, multi-syllabic decoding, sentence length and construction to name a few. True that a sixth grader reading a sixth grade passage at 65 WCPM (words correct per minute) does have reading problems. However, to say that the data indicates a reading fluency deficiency is an over-reach and useless as a teachable tool for the teacher.

Jan Hasbrouk, co-author of the widely-used grades 1–8 fluency norms research labels diagnostic reading fluency assessments as a “canary in a coal mine.” She comments:

A score falling more than 10 words below the 50th percentile should raise a concern; the student may need additional assistance, and further assessments may be needed to diagnose the source of the below-average performance. Depending on the age of the student and any concerns about reading performance noted by the teacher or parents, such additional testing might include assessments of oral language development, phonemic awareness, phonics and decoding, and/or comprehension (Hasbrouk).

I would agree that a diagnostic reading fluency assessment can be an important “canary,” but not a grade-level fluency.

Secondly, the time-consuming (even with computer software) task of determining the right fluency practice levels rests on some unproven assumptions. Since when does practicing the same thing (grade-level passages) over and over again (even at so-called challenge levels) prepare the student for something more difficult (the next reading grade level)? For example, if I asked my math specialist friend about how she would remediate students’ multiplication deficits, I sincerely doubt if she would advise a third grade teacher to solely require students to practice the 1–5’s repeatedly (even with the challenging 4 x 5) until mastery before moving on to the 1–10’s. At some point the teacher needs to help students practice the next level before or they never are going to get to the rest of the table, nor make sense of the whole.

As an aside, the same criticism and caution can be applied to the use of leveled readers. Controlled vocabulary may provide a certain level of access to students, but it also limits progress. Plus, don’t even get me (and other teachers) started about the scientific differences (Lexiles) for short fluency practice passages. Lastly, my take is that expository diagnostic reading fluency assessments present a much better picture of the reading most grades 3–adult students are exposed to in the classroom.

An Alternative Diagnostic Fluency Assessment

The Pets Fluency Assessment: 1. Quick 2. FREE 3. Simple and Teachable 4. Non-Evaluative Expository Article

The “Pets” fluency passage is an expository article leveled in a unique pyramid design: the first paragraph is at the first grade (Fleish-Kincaid) reading level; the second paragraph is at the second-grade level; the third paragraph is at the third-grade level; the fourth paragraph is at the fourth grade level; the fifth paragraph is at the fifth grade level; the sixth paragraph is at the sixth grade level; and the seventh paragraph is at the seventh grade level. Thus, the reader begins practice at an easier level that builds confidence and then moves to more difficult academic language through successive approximation. As the student reads the fluency passage, the teacher will be able to note the reading levels at which the student has a high degree of accuracy and automaticity.

1. Quick: Although two-minutes, rather than the traditional one-minute, no follow-up instructional level assessments need to be administered, graded, and recorded. Experienced teachers recognize that two minutes provides a much better indicator than a one-minute timing. One itch or word stumble can ruin a one-minute score.

2. FREE: Click below and I will send you the directions, student copy, and teacher copy with word counts.

3. SIMPLE: When I look at the directions for the popular reading fluency assessments critiqued above, I am shocked at the grading complexity. I’ve used them and find them difficult to mark while concurrently paying attention to the students’ prosody (qualitative factors such as expression, intonation, attention to punctuation). The directions for the Pets Fluency Assessment are simple. Para-professionals and parents can certainly administer this assessment with fidelity.

TEACHABLE: The  two-minute timing allow teachers to see how students read increasingly difficult text and to gain a good gut level feel for the students’ independent reading levels, as well as other reading deficits, such as sight words and phonics. After all, there’s no better reading assessment than reading.

4. Non-Evaluative: The Pets Fluency Assessment is diagnostic and teachable. It’s design is one and done. Teachers rightly complain that other fluency programs using increasingly difficult benchmark reading fluencies (typically monthly or quarterly), compare apples to oranges. If the teacher (administrator or parent or reading coach) is curious about reading progress, the reading sub-skills to fluency (such as decoding) are much better indicators.

Check out the author’s reading intervention program resources, including the Reading Fluency and Comprehension Toolkit

The Reading Fluency and Comprehension Toolkit

Reading Fluency and Comprehension Toolkit

Of course the toolkit provides the Pets Fluency Assessment… plus 43 expository animal fluency articles, each marked with words per line to help students monitor their own fluency progress. At last! Quality fluency practice in the expository (not narrative) genre. Reading experts agree that students need extensive reading practice in the expository domain to internalize the text structure and multi-syllabic vocabulary of social studies and science textbooks. Not to mention the expository articles found on standardized tests. Yes, fluency timing charts are provided. Plus, each of the 43 fluency articles has been recorded at three different reading speeds to provide the appropriate challenge level for each of your students. This toolkit provides the YouTube links to these 129 modeled readings.

This toolkit also provides 43 corresponding animal comprehension worksheets with content-specific comprehension questions listed in the margins next to the relevant text. These low-higher order thinking questions ask readers to summarize, connect, re-think, interpret, and predict (the SCRIP comprehension strategy) to promote reader dialog with the text. Students practice self-monitoring their own reading comprehension as they read.

Get the Pets Fluency Assessment FREE Resource:

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Reading Fluency Norms

New Reading Fluency Norms

Reading Fluency Norms

As we all know, reading fluency is highly correlated with reading comprehension. Of course it makes so much sense that if readers can read quickly with expression, accuracy, and attention to punctuation, they will more likely understand what they read than if they don’t have these skill sets. Now it is certainly true that veteran teachers and reading specialists will no doubt have run across an exception or two in their careers. I have tested children and adults with brilliant reading fluency, but poor comprehension. Conversely, I have run across slow, stumbling, readers with monotone expression who seem to understand and remember every single detail.

This being said, reading fluency assessments are universally recognized as important initial looks into how a reader processes text. Unlike other measures, such as comprehension and vocabulary assessments, reading fluency assessments give the classroom teacher and diagnostician not only qualitative, but also quantitative data. We love numbers!

As an elementary reading specialist in a large school district in Northern California, I learned (with my colleagues) the value of comparing student fluency scores in grade-level text to grade-level norms. We had two research studies on group norms for Words Read per Minute (WRPM) to rely upon: those by University of Oregon researchers, Hasbrouck and Tindal (1992, 2006). However, these studies provided data for students from grades 2–5.

When I moved into the middle school setting as an ELA and reading intervention teacher, I (and others) was tough out of luck. No group norms for grades 6–8. Of course, I still designed reading fluency assessments and helped students practice reading fluency, but I was flying blind. Until 2006 when the same two researchers added on grades 6–8 reading fluency norms. Woo hoo!

The same two researchers, Hasbrouck and Tindal, have now (2017) have replicated their initial study for grades 1–6. Following is the latest data, i.e. 2017 for grades 1–6 and 2006 for 6–8. Afterwards, read the concise explanation of the tables by Jan Hasbrouck. Note the “middle school slump” in the second chart.

Grades 1-6 Reading Fluency Norms

Reading Fluency Norms Grades 1-6

Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies Comprehensive Reading Intervention Program

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grades 7-8 Reading Fluency Norms

Reading Fluency Norms Grades 7-8

 

 

 

 

 

“Oral reading fluency norms identify performance benchmarks at the beginning (fall), middle (winter), and end (spring) of the year. An individual student’s WCPM score can be compared to these benchmarks and determined to be either significantly above benchmark, above benchmark, at the expected benchmark, below benchmark, or significantly below benchmark. Those students below or significantly below benchmark are at possible risk of reading difficulties. They are good candidates for further diagnostic assessments to help teachers determine their skill strengths or weaknesses, and plan appropriately targeted instruction and intervention” (Hasbrouck, 2010). http://www.brtprojects.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/TechRpt_1702ORFNorms_Fini.pdf

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Books for Struggling Readers

Phonics Books for Struggling Readers

Books for Struggling Readers

As a reading specialist, I’ve had the opportunity to work with students at the full spectrum of age groups from preK to adult ed. My passion has always been to help struggling readers, especially older readers. You find these students in reading intervention classes, ESL/ELD/ELL programs, special education classes, and learning centers.

Ask any reading teacher, who’s been there and done that, what is the key correlate to reading improvement for older struggling readers and you’ll hear the word, motivation, more often than not.

Long ago I learned the power of motivation upon student achievement. It took me awhile. In my sixth year of teaching I made a study of two teachers teaching my same subject, who were getting better results than I. I sat in their classes during my prep. Initially, I was confused.

“I’m at least as good as Mr. S,” I thought, “and I’m much better than Mr. B.”

I’ve never been diagnosed as “self-esteem deficient.”

However, I cornered some of Mr. S’s and Mr. B’s kids during passing periods and asked them, “What makes you succeed in his class?”

It was motivation. Mr. S loved kids and they knew it. He had the relationships in and out of class that made his students want to learn. Mr. B had a different approach: the behavioral approach of carrot and stick. Rewards and fear made his students have to learn.

I couldn’t be either teacher; Lame as it sounds: I had to be me. It took me years of experimenting and quite a few humbling make-overs to begin motivating some of my students.

My secret? What works for me is a constant self-reminder that I am teaching students, not reading. To really teach struggling readers how to improve their reading, teachers need to know what makes them tick and adapt instruction and teaching resources accordingly. For your struggling readers, you need the books that will motivate these older kids to read.

Even though I mentioned that I am not “self-esteem deficient,” my struggling readers certainly are. Despite the apathetic “I don’t care” self-defense mechanisms of most struggling readers, they really do care that they aren’t like the rest of their peers. No one want to stand out as a poor reader. I’ve never heard the most unreachable fourth grader, middle schooler, high schooler, or community college adult (and I’ve taught them all) say, “I’m a poor reader and proud of it.”

My main point in this article is to get reading teachers to be hypersensitive to the effects of motivation on learning to read. Specifically, we have got to stop unintentionally tearing away at the self-esteem of our struggling readers.

Take a moment to look at your teaching resources. Do they match the age of your students?

I just finished a comment on a teacher’s post asking for feedback on her self-authored ESL teaching resources and chapter books. I was struck by the beautiful cover illustrations. I previewed the book internal pages and the graphics and pictures were so professional. However, the images were perfectly appropriate for beginning readers, not her target grades 4‒8 age group. Struggling readers certainly do judge a book by its cover. Hopefully, my comments maintained a complimentary/constructive balance. Her self-esteem matters, as well!

ESL/ELD/ELL, special education, reading intervention, and adult ed learners need reading resources and books that motivate them to learn, not humiliate them into shutting down or acting out in the classroom.

Yes, these materials are hard to find.

I sell two products, Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books and the Teaching Reading Strategies comprehensive reading intervention program that have been designed to motivate struggling readers.

The former product (54 eight-page booklets) uses teenage (non big-head) cartoons and plots. The illustrator, David Rickert, is a high school ELA teacher and we were both sensitive to ensuring that our visuals matched the maturity of our focus age group.

The latter product includes sound-spelling cards like most other reading programs. However, I selected animals as an ageless theme and photographs, not illustrations, to appeal to older kids.

Teaching Reading Strategies Reading Intervention Program

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

 

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Reading Intervention Program Politics 101

All Politics Is Local in Education

All Politics Is Local: Especially in Schools

Let’s face it. Education is politics. More specifically, “All politics is [sic] local,” said Tip O’Neill, the longtime Speaker of the House of Representatives. The sooner we understand that, the sooner we can realize our collective calling as teachers: to make a difference in the lives of our students. 

We teachers love to whine. It’s a staff room staple and a good coping mechanism. However, when we turn simple whining into a political action plan it becomes productive whining. 

I’m a secondary ELA and reading intervention teacher turned publisher. I have also served as a district reading specialist in Elk Grove Unified School District in the Central Valley of California. Over the years I was assigned to quite a few elementary schools and learned a fair amount about leadership skills. Through plenty of failures and a few successes, I learned that to have an impact in and beyond the classroom, I had to learn a political skill-set.

My passion has been to serve the needs of struggling readers: in particular, those grades 4 through community college. I’ve been fortunate to be able to implement that passion in elementary, middle, high school, and freshman college settings. I’ve had a hand in creating plenty of reading intervention programs. None has been perfect, but I’ve learned to get more of what my students and/or teachers need by learning Reading Intervention Program Politics 101.

The End Results

I’ve learned to take a friendly, but assertive stance with administrators regarding reading intervention: No collaboration or prep time? Can’t teach it. Not enough consistent instructional time? Won’t teach it. No money for resources, printing materials? Nothing to teach. No training in teaching resources/programs? Don’t know how to teach it. Excessive paperwork, documentation, meetings, completing assessments that won’t inform instruction? Not going to happen. Assigning reading intervention to new, inexperienced teachers because they can’t say, “No?” Not if I can’t help it.

Now that’s some tough talk, and many teachers would say, “I couldn’t say that to my principal or district curriculum specialist.” Or “You clearly do not know my supervising admin!” Or “The my way or the highway approach won’t work in my district. I’d be out on the highway.”

Fair enough. But I do believe we teachers need to be more assertive on behalf of our neediest kids. We have to learn to work smarter, not harder. Following are three (of many) ideas as to how to take a friendly, but tough stance with administrators to meet the needs of struggling readers. Would love to hear more ideas!

The Political Process

1. Let the data argue your case. Distance yourself from your demands. Teachers learn early on in their careers to answer this parent question: “Why did YOU give my son a D grade?” with “Your SON earned the D grade” or “The ASSIGNMENTS AND TESTS gave him that grade.” We need to do the same when advocating for our struggling readers. It’s hard for some administrators and teachers to put the horse (the students) before the cart (the program); they always want to put the cart before the horse. However, starting with program design, funding, resource and personnel allocations will always produce untenable and frustrating results.

My political advice? Start with the needs of the students and design instructional structures to address some of those needs.

A caveat is in order… Successful reading intervention depends upon the specificity of diagnostic assessments. You can certainly pre-screen with the BIG tests and teacher recommendations, but these can’t be used for reading intervention design. Ideally, you want to use diagnostic assessments that will design the program, place students, and provide teachable data. As a publisher, I can’t resist failing to mention the 13 whole-class reading assessments that will do these jobs. Download them for FREE after the article.

2. Be a political animal. Your administrators and district personnel certainly are, and you need to grow into one for the sake of your students. Of course, this comes much more naturally to some teachers, than to others.

Learn the pressure points and how to apply them without damaging relationships. You can learn to be assertive and nice at the same time. For example, when data has been secured which indicate unmastered reading skills for students, the students and their parents have a right to know what those deficits are and what it will take to meet those needs. Students and their parents can be your squeaky wheels to advocate for the resources and program structures that will make sense.

And to expand just a bit… Politicians and administrators learn how to isolate special interests and divide in order to conquer. Teachers need to employ political countermeasures to these political techniques. To our point: The test data and identified learning needs are perfect commonalities to bind together a student and parent advocacy (let’s call it support) group. Why share the test data individually with students or with parents via email or phone, when a group meeting would be more efficient and supportive. Both struggling readers and parents prefer to know that they are not in this alone. Confidentialilty and privacy concerns can often lead to isolation and the divide and conquer results and prevent concerted action. Clever teachers can share data communally while protecting individuals.

Teachers who want to improve their effectiveness in “education politics” should study those parents, teachers, and administrators who influence decision-making. You don’t have to be just like so-and-so, but you can certainly learn secrets to their successes and apply them to your own comfort level. Don’t forget the power of the group. Find allies for the sake of your students.

3. Choose your battles. Although my opening The End Results seem rigid, they really aren’t. The criteria still allow the creation of imperfect structures for teaching reading intervention along with maintaining student access to the core curriculum. Be assured that teachers who hold out for the optimal instructional situation will never have an opportunity to impact the lives of kids who desperately need their help. After all, some is better than none; but only if the some is really, really good and has the prioritized support of the whole school and/or district. Politics is the art of compromise.

For example, let’s say that your diagnostic assessments given to a screened set of sixth-graders indicate that 28 of these students have not mastered the alphabetic code (phonics). Additionally, their teachers report that these same students have comprehension deficits (no wonder), low and inaccurate reading fluency, poor vocabulary, and they don’t know their multiplication tables!x%#0@. You, your principal, students, parents, and teacher allies agree that something must be done.

The principal only has funding for one teacher to teach a three-week summer session. The principal and parents want the teacher to fix all of these problems. The

Phonics Review Unite

Phonics Boot Camp

political teacher’s answer is “No, but.” Let’s see what is possible with measurable results. Hmmm… Multiplication is out, because this is reading-only funding. Comprehension is out because we don’t have the testing tools to measure results. Reading fluency can be measured, but three weeks is not enough time to impact fluency deficits. How about phonics? We do have a three-week phonics review unit which can produce measurable results. Bingo. The point is to cater your available resources and your instructional constraints to the student testing data. Things have to match. You can’t fit square pegs into round holes.

Get the Diagnostic ELA and Reading Assessments FREE Resource:

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Consonant Digraphs for Big Kids

Consonant Digraphs for RtI

Consonant Digraphs for Big Kids

Quite a few new teachers get confused about the difference between consonant digraphs and consonant blends. In a quick Google search, I found plenty of confusion among these “reading experts.” As an MA reading specialist, let me give you the definitions, a way to remember the difference, some examples, a few teaching tips, a FREE whole-class assessment with audio file, an instructional scope and sequence, and instructional management tips. Also, let’s throw in a FREE set of five consonant digraph lessons with a short formative assessment. Wahoo!

Consonant Digraphs

Definition: Consonant digraphs are two (or three) letters which form one sound. Consonant blends are two (or three) letters which make two (or three) sounds.

How to remember the difference: When we are dealing with phonics, we are creating sounds from letters. As you know, phon means sound; so does son (think sonar)You also know that di means two and graph means writing (letters for our purpose). Thus, a consonant digraph is one sound, two letters. Don’t forget we also have vowel digraphs: one vowel sound with two letters. And now for consonant blends… When you blend spices in your favorite chili recipe, you can still taste the chili powder, salt, cumin, and cayenne pepper. Each spice keeps its individual flavor. Thus, a consonant blend puts together two or three letters, each keeping its own sound. Note: Be careful not to think of a blender regarding consonant blends. My Vitamix® takes away every flavor from every ingredient in my daily protein drink. Quick Joke: What do you get with a can of peas and a blender? Whirled Peas (World Peace if you haven’t had your second cup of coffee today).

Consonant Digraph Examples: The “h” Brothers

Teaching Consonant Digraphs

Consonant Digraphs

Teaching Tips

Make sure to teach the /hw/ sound for the “wh” digraph. The /h/ gives the breathy sound need for accurate pronunciation. The Middle English pronunciation before the Great Vowel Shift (beginning in about 1350 A.D.) was actually two sounds before they evolved into one. Contrast the /hw/ “wh” as in whale with the /w/ “w” as in wolf and you’ll hear the difference. Note: The sound-spelling cards I use in my Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program are all animals. Thankfully, there is a critter known as an “x-ray” fish. 

Make sure to teach the two sounds of the “th” spellings and “sh” spellings at some point. The differences are difficult to hear for most students (and many teachers). I suggest sticking with the voiced /th/ as in python and then moving to the unvoiced (the same with the “sh” consonant digraph). See the instructional sequence below for the blending sample words I use. Check out my article on “How to Teach the Voiced and Unvoiced ‘th'” if this confuses you.

Do not elongate the endings of consonant digraphs. I just got finished watching a video of a proud principal teaching a group of students the /sh/ consonant digraph. The principal was putting her index finger in front of pursed lips while she said (and had students repeat) “shhhhhhhhhh.” When the principal asked her students to blend the /sh/ + /ĕ/ + /d/, the students dutifully responded with “”shhhhhhhhhhed.” The perplexed principal wisely called on the teacher for help.

While we’re mentioning proper blending technique, don’t make that consonant blend end in /uh/. It’s a clipped /sh/, not /shuh/, etc. Check out my “How to Do Sound-by-Sound Blending” article  if you want to review.

Lastly, I don’t teach the “ph” consonant blend until we get to silent letters. It’s a Greek sound-spelling, but then you knew that!

Assessment, Instructional Scope and Sequence, Forming Groups, Time, Instruction, and Practice

When to Introduce Consonant Digraphs

Consonant Digraphs Instructional Sequence

The first step is to determine what is missing from the your students’ knowledge of the consonant digraph phonics patterns. Teachers have used my FREE reading assessments for years to pinpoint phonemic awareness, phonics, and sight words deficits. For the purposes of this article, the Consonant Sounds Phonics Assessment pinpoints which consonant digraph sound-spellings students have not yet mastered.

The second step is to follow a research-tested instructional scope and sequence. Most all explicit, systematic phonics programs begin with short vowels and layer on consonant sounds and consonant blends. Next, phonics programs begin with the long vowel sound-spellings or teach the silent final e sound-spellings. Following are the instructional sequence from the author’s reading intervention program and the silent final e animal sound-spelling cards used to introduce the names, sounds, and spellings.

The third step is to group students who have demonstrated that they have not yet achieved mastery with the consonant digraph sound-spellings. Teachers use a variety of small group formats. Literacy centers have become a popular option to provide remedial instruction within some centers (stations), while offering grade-level and/or accelerated instruction in other centers.

The fourth step is to set aside the necessary time to teach the consonant digraph sound-spellings. Initial instruction takes longer; however, remedial instruction can be accomplished quite quickly, because gap-filling builds upon some degree of prior knowledge, albeit a shaky foundation. Typically, five 20-minute workshops will facilitate mastery as indicated by formative assessments.

The fifth step is to provide effective instruction and practice for the consonant digraph sound-spellings and to use a formative assessment to determine mastery. Teachers need to have back-up lessons in case the student does not master the consonant digraphs on the formative assessment. A solid foundation will allow students to learn additional reading skills.

Get the Consonant Digraphs Phonics Lessons FREE Resource:

Teachers who would like to use my consonant digraphs phonics lessons and formative assessment are welcome to download this workshop from my Teaching Reading Strategies program:

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

“This is just what I need! I have been searching for a resource to help my middle school SPED kiddos catch up to their peers and I can’t wait to implement this incredible product in my classroom!!!” Rating: 4.0

Elizabeth Lewis

Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Silent Final e for Big Kids

Silent Final e for RtI

Silent Final e for Big Kids

Students find the silent final e to be a frustrating component of  our English sound-spelling system. In particular, second-language learners struggle with both pronunciations and spellings of silent final words. However, this tricky sound-spelling actually helps more than it confuses.

We have those late Middle English folks from Chaucer’s Day (before the Great Vowel Shift beginning about 1350 A.D.) to blame and thank for the silent final e. Some of you must have read the old version of his Canterbury’s Tales in high school or college. In the book, words such as care were pronounced as two syllables (kā/ruh), rather than one. The final was added on to signal an object, not a subject noun, and a plural, not a singular noun. The English kept the spelling, but dropped the suffix syllable sound.

Kids often ask, “Why do we have to learn it, when we don’t have to say it?” Following are eight decent responses:

  1. The silent final says so, and she’s the boss. After all, silence speaks louder than words. If a word pronunciation is confusing, the silent final steps up to be the “bossy final e” to make the other letters make sounds which make sense to us. 
  2. The silent final helps us divide words into syllables and makes pronunciation easier. Remember that every syllable must have a vowel. If we didn’t have the the silent final e, how could we pronounce a word such as stapl?  Sta/ple is much simpler.
  3. The silent final signals that a word ending in an is not a plural. For example, “I hope she has sense enough not to break her promise” lets us know that it’s just one sense and just one promise, not more than oneAfter all, “”I hope she has sens enough not to break her promis” might be confusing.
  4. The silent final e usually signals a preceding long vowel sound. For example, hide and note (long vowel sounds) keep readers from reading hid and not (short vowel sounds). Even most of the vowel digraphs (another result of the Great Vowel Shift) are long vowel sounds signaled by the silent final e, for example leave and owe. Yes, it’s true there are exceptions, which we have to memorize as “outlaw words.” Many of these sight words were common Middle English words that the Brits refused to change, such as love, give, and have.
  5. The silent final signals soft /c/ and /g/ sounds, such as prince and huge.
  6. The silent final is used to show the difference in homophones, such as in or and ore.
  7. The silent final e prevents i, u, and v from being the last letter in a word. For example, we would rather read about people who lie about their true love, rather than about people who li about their tru lov.
  8. The silent final makes the /th/ a voiced sound, such as with clothe, breathe, bathe, and teethe. Check out my article on “How to Teach the Voiced and Unvoiced ‘th'” if this confuses you.

Some students find the silent final to be hard to spell when adding on suffixes. This silent final song might help!

     Memory Rap (Play the audio file HERE.)

    Drop the final e when adding on an ending if it starts with a vowel up front.

            Keep the final e when adding on an ending if it starts with a consonant.

            Also keep the e when you hear soft “c” or “g”

            Before “able” or “o-u-s”

            Mostly keep the e when the ending is “v-e”,

            “e-e”, or even “o-e”.

The first step is to determine what is missing from the your students’ knowledge of the silent final e phonics patterns. Teachers have used my reading assessments for years to pinpoint phonemic awareness, phonics, and sight words deficits. For the purposes of this article, the Vowel Sounds Phonics Assessment pinpoints which silent final e sound-spellings students have not yet mastered.

Silent Final e Phonics

Silent Final e Instructional Sequence

The second step is to follow a research-tested instructional scope and sequence. Most all explicit, systematic phonics programs begin with short vowels and layer on consonant sounds and consonant blends. Next, phonics programs begin with the long vowel sound-spellings or teach the silent final e sound-spellings. Following are the instructional sequence from the author’s reading intervention program and the silent final e animal sound-spelling cards used to introduce the names, sounds, and spellings.

The third step is to group students who have demonstrated that they have not yet achieved mastery with the silent final sound-spellings. Teachers use a variety of small group formats. Literacy centers have become a popular option to provide remedial instruction within some centers (stations), while offering grade-level and/or accelerated instruction in other centers.

The fourth step is to set aside the necessary time to teach the silent final sound-spellings. Initial instruction takes longer; however, remedial instruction can be accomplished quite quickly, because gap-filling builds upon some degree of prior knowledge, albeit a shaky foundation. Typically, five 20-minute workshops will facilitate mastery as indicated by formative assessments.

Silent Final e Phonics

Silent Final e Sound-Spellings

The fifth step is to provide effective instruction and practice for the silent final  sound-spellings and to use a formative assessment to determine mastery. Teachers need to have back-up lessons in case the student does not master the silent final e on the formative assessment. A solid foundation will allow students to learn additional reading skills.

Teachers who would like to use my silent final phonics lessons and formative assessment are welcome to download this workshop from my Teaching Reading Strategies program:

Get the Silent Final e Phonics Lessons FREE Resource:

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

“This is just what I need! I have been searching for a resource to help my middle school SPED kiddos catch up to their peers and I can’t wait to implement this incredible product in my classroom!!!” Rating: 4.0

Elizabeth Lewis

Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Short Vowels for Big Kids

Teachers who use my 13 FREE diagnostic reading assessments often ask me why a student does not master a reading skill on one assessment, but seems to on another assessment. Following is a typical question and my answer regarding our article topic, Short Vowels for Big Kids:

Short Vowels for RtI

Short Vowels for Big Kids

I’m a fifth grade teacher and I recently gave two of your reading assessments. I’m confused about some of the results. Why have seven of my students not mastered the short vowels section on your Vowel Sounds Phonics Assessment when they don’t seem to make mistakes on the short vowel words on your Pets Fluency Assessment?

An excellent question! And a seeming discrepancy which actually points to the validity of both assessments and also provides important diagnostic information on those seven students.

The Vowel Sounds Phonics Assessment is a nonsense word test. The nonsense words are used to isolate the testing variable of student sight word knowledge. For example, the test is designed to see if students can apply their knowledge of short vowel sound-spellings to unknown (usually academic, multi-syllabic) words, not words which struggling readers have unfortunately often memorized as sight words. The Pets Fluency Assessment uses real words and so does not specifically test for short vowels.

The diagnostic information the teacher gains from using both tests is important: the seeming discrepancy probably points to the fact that the seven students did not have a solid phonics background and have been developing compensatory survival skills such as sight words and context clues to read easy narratives. When they get to the more complex academic vocabulary of your fifth grade social studies and science textbooks, their survival strategies just don’t work. Make sense? Suggest you use the rest of the assessments to confirm this diagnosis and then purchase my Teaching Reading Strategies program for the resources to teach to these diagnostic deficits.

How to Teach Short Vowels to Big Kids

The first step is to determine what is missing from the foundation. Teachers have used my reading assessments for years to pinpoint phonemic awareness, phonics, and sight words deficits. For the purposes of this article, the Vowel Sounds Ph0nics Assessment pinpoints which short vowels students have not yet mastered.

The second step is to follow a research-tested instructional scope and sequence. Most all explicit, systematic phonics programs begin with short vowels. As compared to long vowels, the short vowels are much more consistent in their pronunciations and spellings. Of course, teachers also introduce consonants along with the short vowels. Following are the instructional sequence from the author’s reading intervention program and the short vowel animal sound-spelling cards used to introduce the names, sounds, and spellings. Note that only the short /e/ has more than one often-used spelling. Again, the short vowels are quite consistent.

Short Vowels Instructional Phonics Sequence

Short Vowels Animal Sound-Spelling Cards

Animal Sound-Spelling Cards (Short Vowels)

The third step is to group students who have demonstrated that they have not yet achieved mastery with the short vowels. Teachers use a variety of small group formats. Literacy centers have become a popular option to provide remedial instruction within some centers (stations), while offering grade-level and/or accelerated instruction in other centers.

The fourth step is to set aside the necessary time to teach the short vowels. Initial instruction takes longer; however, remedial instruction can be accomplished quite quickly, because gap-filling builds upon some degree of prior knowledge, albeit a shaky foundation. Typically, five 20-minute workshops will facilitate mastery as indicated by formative assessments.

The fifth step is to provide effective instruction and practice for the five short vowels and to use a formative assessment to determine mastery. Teachers need to have back-up lessons in case the student does not master the short vowels on the formative assessment. A solid foundation will allow students to learn additional reading skills.

Teachers who would like to use my short vowels lessons and formative assessment to remediate short vowels are welcome to download this workshop from my Teaching Reading Strategies program:

Get the Short Vowels Phonics Workshop FREE Resource:

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,