Monday, November 12, 2007

Hooked on Phonics

Like many (if not most) early readers, AJ learned to read by devouring words whole. Phonics meant nothing to him. He was, for a long time, stymied by sounding out words, even though he could read them just fine. This seems to be a common trait among the early readers we know, although so far I have been unable to find any studies that have been done that suggest those who read early learn how to read in that particular way.

In any case, for the last couple of years, we've been working with AJ so that he could be more comfortable deciphering and pronouncing words not previously enncountered. Initially, we were working on phonics. More recently, we've been spending time talking about root words. For the last several weeks, we've been working with AJ's teacher to create challenge word lists for him. After he takes the class' standard issue spelling test (mostly three letter words), AJ gets a test of his own. AJ has been struggling a little with this. He's a good memorizer, so he gets it, but he was getting frustrated with thinking of things this way. So we started making up chants of the letters that rhythmically broke the words into smaller groups. For example, for the word "chocolate":


This worked well, because he remembered the ATE because CHOCOLATE was something you ATE.

This week, all of a sudden, something clicked.

As usual, AJ and I practiced his words on the walk to school. We make up his list on Sundays, so Mondays we do it cold. Usually I make up chants for him, but he did it himself today.

"Spell 'invisible.'"


"Perfect! Did you remember or it or did you figure it out?"

"I remembered it was 'visible' with "in" in front. Then I just figured it out."

"Good thinking. Try 'forecast.'"


"Almost, but it's not quite right. You forgot..."

"Oh, wait. It needs to be "f-o-r-E-c-a-s-t."

"Very good! How'd you figure that out?"

"Well, there are two kinds of "for." This is not for something. It's before something, because, like, you're telling the weather before it happens."

He figured that out all by himself. This may not seem like a big deal for anyone who's taken an SAT prep course, but given the way we've seen AJ struggle with separating words into components, this strikes me as a huge leap in his intellectual development. But more importantly for AJ, it's a huge boost to his confidence. Spelling has, I think, been somewhat mysterious (another word on his list this week) to him, something that he's mastered by force of will and power of memory. Now he actually understands it. It's exciting to watch that happen.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Cold spell

As AJ's first trimester of first grade at the local public school draws to a close, it seems like a good time for an assessment at how the school and I are doing at getting AJ work at his level.

I've had the chance to be in AJ's classrooms several times in the last few weeks for various things which has allowed me to see how things operate. AJ is in a class of 26 kindergartners -- huge by district standards, but the first grade is an anomaly this year. Every other grade has three classes. AJ's grade has four. And the classes, on average, have 4 more students than classes the rest of the grades. AJ's class is lucky in that there is a state-funded assistant because one of the students has a visual disability. But she helps all the students and they all benefit from the increased attention.

One of the things I've been curious about is how AJ's separate lessons are integrated into the class work. So far, it appears extremely smooth. Their reading assignments are all different anyway, so that is not a problem. AJ's teacher and I have been working together to provide the books he needs. They all do the same spelling words in class, but AJ has a separate list that AJ, his teacher and I put together from his reading assignments. When he's done with the regular list, he works on his own list. On spelling test day, AJ takes two tests, one with the rest of the class, and one on his own words. He is pulled aside in the classroom for this, but since each student has some one-on-one time with the teacher each week for reading and other things, this does not single him out. AJ seems to be enjoying the challenge -- we make silly games to practice spelling at home -- and he feels like a normal kid.

The one thing that isn't working out as well as I would like is math. AJ is just not getting enough challenge. Math is more difficult because unlike reading, the whole class works together. AJ is bored out of his wits. A little boredom never hurt anyone, but AJ is, as a result of the boredom, getting sloppy with his work. He doesn't always read the instructions carefully. He is supposed to be getting challenge assignments, but it has only happened once. Math is harder for me to supplement because the material AJ should be working on has little to do with the assignments the rest of the class is doing and because I don't have access to a standard curriculum. I need the teacher's and school's help, but I haven't quite figured out how to get it. I don't want to push AJ's teacher too hard. She does so much on her own initiative, much more than we expected and I don't want to take advantage of her. She's got a huge class, a huge job. I also don't want to overstep my bounds too far by telling her too much of what I want for AJ at once. We have parent-teacher conferences coming up in a few weeks and I'm hoping by then I'll have figured out a way to talk about all this without causing trouble.

AJ is also loving his extra-curricular Spanish class. It's given him a whole new lease on life. It helps that it's a smaller group this year and mostly of first and second graders -- last year included K-4 and was a little diffuse. Overall, AJ is still enjoying school, loving his teacher and fitting in well.

It's all feeling like I'm trying to walk a tightrope blindfolded.