Sunday, February 28, 2010

The War Between the Vowels and the Consonants!

What? You didn't know they were at war? Where have you been? This terrific little book helps kids to visualize the differences between vowels and consonants. It even talks about how the letter Y is a spy, sometimes acting as a vowel, as in "style", and other times as a consonant, as in "yellow". Purchase a copy from the STEPS Catalog.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Check out the digital timer in the right hand column!

A timer is a great little tool to have on hand. We've been talking about fluency lately and its foundation is speed. We start worrying when a child reads a paragraph slowly. But we really start building speed with sounds. So get your students accustomed to being timed. They'll need to be able to say the Blue Set of phonogram cards in less than 30 seconds and eventually all the cards in 2 minutes. So even as you begin introducing them, make a game of timing them to get faster and faster! This online timer is easy to use and always at the ready!

National Reading Panel recommends the systematic teaching of explicit phonics.

In spring of 2000, the National Reading Panel released the results of their congressionally mandated review of 100,000 research studies on reading. Their goal was to help parents, teachers, and policymakers identify key skills and methods that consistently produced reading success. In the preface of the report, Susan Neuman states,

"In addition to identifying effective practices, the work of the National Reading Panel challenges educators to consider the evidence of effectiveness whenever they make decisions about the content and structure of reading instruction programs. By operating on a "what works" basis, scientific evidence can help build a foundation for instructional practice. Teachers can learn about and emphasize methods and approaches that have worked well and caused reading improvement for large numbers of children."

Susan B. Neuman
Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, U.S. Department of Education
Former Director, the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement

“Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read” by the NICHD.
Order from www.

At STEPS Reading Center, we are vitally interested in the findings of these studies. Of these 5 key components of reading instruction, STEPS provides for the systematic teaching of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and vocabulary. According to the report, "Systematic and explicit phonics instruction significantly improves children's reading comprehension." It is imperative that explicit phonics instruction be done early in a child's school career. Again, the article reiterates, "Systematic phonics instruction produces the greatest impact on children's reading achievement when it begins in kindergarten or first grade." But what about the older struggling student who did not have the benefit of an explicit phonics program like STEPS?

We, at the STEPS Reading Center, have used the same principles of systematic and explicit phonics instruction to retrain older students and adults. A learner can be taught the basic phoneme sounds through handwriting and be taught to use the blending and decoding skills necessary to read and write. We have also used STEPS very successfully to teach both children and adults for whom English is a new language. As the report suggests, the most effective time to teach students these skills is K.-2nd grade. However, STEPS can provide you with the tools to meet the needs of a diverse population of any age.

Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. STEPS provides teachers with the tools necessary to better understand the alphabetic system and rule based nature of the English language. With these tools and the multi-sensory process involved in STEPS, the teacher will be prepared to follow the research based scientific guidelines delineated in this groundbreaking national report. Read more on how STEPS meets these guidelines with the Bridge to Research.

* Please refer to:

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2001). Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read (NIH Publication No.R305R70004). Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing

For additional copies: "Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read," please contact:
National Institute for Literacy at ED Pubs
PO Box 1398
Jessup, MD 20794-1398
Phone 1-800-228-8813 Fax 301-430-1244
To download the document, go to the National Institute for Literacy website at

Friday, February 26, 2010

Red STEPS Pencils

When students highlight spelling words in their STEPS Log, they use red pencils. You can order these from our catalog. Seeing the multi-letter phonograms and long vowels at the end of syllables underlined helps students learn to spell new words.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

We've added a handy search tool to the blog!

In the right hand column, you'll notice a Scholastic Search Box called the Teacher Book Wizard. Use this to help you determine the reading level of books. If you're testing for fluency levels, you need a book that is on your child's grade level. This tool helps you find those resources. And since it's from the Scholastic folks, you can even order them. It offers several other search features that you might find useful.

Remember, when you're testing for fluency, you'll want the child reading for one minute from a book on the grade level he's currently in. Get his Correct Words per Minute and compare that to the national norms to determine if he's performing appropriately for his grade level.

For more information on reading fluency, join the online STEPS Reading Fluency class.

What about older students or adults with reading problems?

This article by Louisa Moats addresses reading problems with the older student. It's really exciting to see older students and adults who've struggled for years with reading problems FINALLY get it! Not being able to read well is for some reason seen as a personality flaw. Why isn't it  the same way if you can't fix cars or  program computers? Reading is a skill that has to be learned and taught.
Learn the sounds, learn to blend, and practice until fluent.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

What about a child who speaks slowly? Would his fluency rate be different?

A question from a STEPS teacher: If a child has a slow speech pattern, should this really affect their fluency score? What if a 2nd grade child reads slowly, 45wpm, but can answer comprehension questions almost verbatim from the story. Can we say that fluency plays a role in his comprehension?

This is a child that I'd keep an eye on. We measure oral reading to help us build reading fluency, but really the ultimate goal is for a child's "internal" reading or silent reading to be fluent, fast, and efficient. Very rarely, a child's speech patterns can interfere with our ability to really measure fluency. If he's in second grade and reading 45 CWPM, he's reading at well below the first grade goal. Does he speak this slowly in normal speech? For now he may be able to comprehend the simple questions for second grade stories, but if his reading rate doesn't increase, I'd expect he will have problems in the future. So you're right, for now,  his poor fluency rate isn't impacting comprehension. But my bet is that it will in the days and months ahead.

Friday, February 19, 2010

How do I find a child's reading fluency rate?

Run a timer for 1 minute. Have the child read from a book on his grade level. It's important that the book you're having them read from is one appropriate for their grade level. We all read slower on more complicated texts. Usually, the child's reading book from school is a good choice.  Count the total number of words read and subtract the number of words misread. That gives you his CWPM, Correct Words Per Minute. National norms say that at the end of the year a first grader should read about 60 CWPM, a second grader 95 CWPM, 3rd grade at least 115 CWPM, and anyone over 4th should read 135 CWPM or more. Stay tuned for ways to improve a slow fluency rate!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What's fluency and why is it a big deal?

Fluency is what makes reading comprehension possible! Ever listen to someone play the piano note by painful note? You listen to the whole thing and can't even recognize the tune! The same thing happens to a kid who reads slowly, word by painful word. He can't get a clue as to what the sentence is about, much less what the whole story could possibly mean. Officially, reading fluency is reading accuracy, speed, and prosody. Accuracy's pretty simple. He reads the words written on the paper correctly. No "he" for "she", no "she" for "he", no "truck" for "Jeep".
Speed is measured in how many words a child reads per minute. It's usually reported in CWPM, Correct Words Per Minute, so you get accuracy and speed in one measure. Prosody is a more subjective measure. Prosody is the ability to read with expression and timing so that the reading sounds like natural speech. Prosody makes a reader sound like he understands what he's reading. He stops at periods, takes a breath at commas. Most of the time, prosody's a terrific indicator of whether a kid is really comprehending what he's reading. If he sounds like it's making sense to him, it probably does!
Studies support the link between good reading fluency and good reading comprehension. But more importantly, to me anyway, common sense does, too! Lots of factors can influence whether a child can understand a story he reads. He may not have a basic understanding of the subject, it may cover a complex topic, or just be an entirely new idea for him. But if he can't read the words quickly and accurately, following punctuation clues to slow up or pause at certain words, he can't possible get the gist of what he's reading!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Check out this terrific article by Louisa Moats on the relationship between spelling and reading.

 This article by the highly respected reading researcher, Louisa Moats, explains how spelling instruction supports learning to read. It's a long article, but worth the read if you have students or children learning to read, write, and spell.
How Spelling Supports Reading and Why It Is More Regular And Predictable Than You Might Think.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Phonogram Packet

Perfect for parents that want to learn the phonogram sounds to help their children. FREE with purchase – One Month Trial subscription to "How to Use the Phonogram Packet" including the Phonogram Sound Lab! Packet includes directions for accessing this multi-media study tool, a CD of phonogram sounds (spaced for writing practice), sample Phonogram Test and spelling dictation, a set of Teacher Phonogram Cards, and directions for using the packet to practice and learn the basic phonograms of English.

Friday, February 12, 2010

My child guesses at words when he's reading. How can I help him get over this habit?

Practice makes perfect! But what if your child guesses every time he comes to a word he doesn't know? He just looks at the picture and says the first thing that comes to his mind! To fix this, first be sure that your child really knows the letter sounds. He needs the tools to be able to decode words in order to give up guessing and to begin to read words quickly and on sight. Once he knows the sounds, you've got to get him to use them as his first line of offense, rather than guessing as a first choice.
One way to help overcome the guessing habit is to help bring it to his attention in a fun way. Put up a finger every time the child guesses at a word. If he can read a whole page without having one whole hand up, he wins or gets a point or an M&M! Place 5 chips or markers near the page the child is reading. Move them or take one each time the child guesses. The goal is to read the whole page without taking a single guess. Sounding words out one at a time will slow down the reading, but reading speed will improve as the child practices the quick decoding of words. Just remember that learning to read takes lots and lots of practice!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

STEPS to Reading and Spelling

Want to learn more about how spelling and reading work together?
Click here to watch the STEPS to Reading and Spelling.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What if my child has trouble saying the sounds?

Many young children struggle to say certain sounds. As you teach the phonograms, teach him/her how the sounds feels as you say it. The videos in the Phonogram Lab show a close up of the correct sound production. Many parents and teachers find that students' overall speech improves as they learn the phonograms!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In what order do kids learn the Blue Set of phonograms?

Once you've gotten your student familiar with the handwriting strokes, quickly move on to teaching the Circle Letters. The first 3 are a, c, and g. They all begin at 1 on the Circle Slide board and move counter clockwise to 2, 3, and on to close at 1.  It's important to encourage kids to follow this pattern. It lays the foundation for learning cursive later and helps them start focusing on reading left to right. Stick to lower case at first. Next teach f. It starts as a circle letter upstairs in the second floor. Move on to g and o. Teach the letters q and u together with your first spelling rule, "Q is always followed by U." The last Circle Letter is s. Then teach the letters that begin with a straight line: b, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, p, r, t, u, and y. Finally end with e, v, w, x, and z.  For worksheets with arrows to practice the correct formation, join STEPS Teacher Resources.

Monday, February 8, 2010

How do I start teaching the sounds?

Some children begin to learn letters and sounds at a very early age, even 2 or 3 years old. Other kids show no interest and have to be dragged into it! No matter at what age we start teaching them, we want to be sure that they learn the SOUNDS of the letters! Start with the Blue Set of phonograms. Teach them 4 at a time. The best way is to have them write the letters as they say the sounds. Start with the "circle letters." They're the ones that we make starting with a circle. Start with the lower case a, c, d, and g. Say the sounds and write the letter at the same time. Practice writing the letter when he hears the sounds and also saying the sounds when presented with the letter. Even if your child isn't ready for writing the letters yet, use the letter sounds whenever you can. Have him bring you the /a//A//ah/ magnetic letter from the fridge. Have him say the sounds of sponge tub letters in the bath!
As soon as the child knows those first 4 letters, have him begin to read nonsense words with them. You'll need to explain that letters say their most common sound first, so we use the short A sound in these words. Try: dad, gag, cag, dag, gad, cad. Work on reading them quickly. Add new letter cards as you teach them.
Flip through the cards helping your child to decode these nonsense words as you build them. Watch as this child discovers rhyming words with the cards he knows.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Teach handwriting strokes quickly before starting letters.

So you're ready to get started? No matter what age your learner is, he'll learn the phonograms easier if he writes them as he says them. That multi-sensory stuff stores the little bits of info in multiple parts of the brain at the same time. Research shows that we can recall things better if they trigger more senses at once. So before you get too deep in the sounds, do some quick instruction on the handwriting strokes. We need 6 separate strokes to write all the letters in manuscrip, or printing and 6 for cursive. You don't have to belabor this. Just get some language of instruction clear. This is especially true if your child or student you're working with is a lefty! They seem naturally want to write letters top to bottom and right to left! This is a battle worth fighting. With very young kids, you can set some foundations here that will help them with both writing and reading. Here, Janet works with students on the cursive strokes. She makes sure they see her forming the strokes top to bottom and left to right. For more information and resources for teaching handwriting strokes, both manuscript and cursive check out STEPS Teacher Resources, STEP 3. For the complete STEPS Teacher manual, click here.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

How soon is too soon?

Many kids are interested in reading at a very early age. As everyone knows, reading aloud to children is vital! Some studies even encourage you to read aloud to your child in the womb. With my oldest, I was in graduate school and read my textbooks aloud. I tried to make them sound exciting. Think... adolescent psychology to the tune of The Three Bears.
However, some kids are happy to be read to and never really express an interest. How to get them started reading is a post for another day!
How do you help a really young child, as young as 2 years old, who shows an interest in learning to read? The important idea is to encourage their interest in a way that focuses on the sounds of the letters, not necessarily just the letter names. This is especially true of those precocious little ones, because later they are the kids who learn to read by memorizing whole words and never really master the sound/symbol relationship required to be good spellers. So encourage them to learn the sounds of the letters. Use the Blue Set of phonogram cards to build words and help your child sound them out and build their own nonsense words. Encourage their writing by providing lined paper. Teach them the handwriting strokes. Let them trace your letters, then draw some dotted letters for tracing, and finally let them copy. Don't insist that they always write on lined paper, but many children really find that the lines help as they're first learning. For more help, download practice paper and other resources from STEPS Teacher Resources - it's not just for teachers! So the answer is it's never too soon to start learning to read! Just be sure to get started off on the right foot for that first STEP!