When you think about it, vowels are simply everywhere. You can’t read well without having a firm grasp of those slippery symbols. Ironically, vowels are most frequently where the trouble lies when children struggle in learning to read. One of the reasons for this is that the sounds of the vowels are so similar that for children who are not predominantly auditory in their learning preference, distinguishing between them proves daunting. The vowels that cause the most trouble seem to be short E and short I. They sound nearly the same!
What Do the Experts Say?
The topic deserves another look. Foundational to this and every discussion that is about children and learning is the belief that children can and will succeed if they have the tools to do so. If we take this attitude, when children are struggling, what we do will change dramatically.
The experts don't all agree.
- “Don’t worry if your child is not reading. If he’s not reading by third grade, THEN you can worry.”
- "Teach the whole word since visual learners tend to have trouble distinguishing between vowel sounds."
- "Re-teach until the child finally learns vowels."
"Just wait until third grade"
Third grade is about when rapid development of the left hemisphere in the brain begins. So frankly, starting to teach a child to read during this developmental stage would be smart. However, the critical point against this position is that in our system of education, by the time a child has reached third grade, if they're not reading successfully, they will have already experienced a lot of false starts, failures, confusion, etc. At this point, you will have far bigger problems to unravel than the fact that the child is not reading. So just saying “don’t worry until third grade” is an unacceptable position to take. By the third grade, a child has accumulated three years of failure and by this time his negative emotional biases could prevent success.
"Don’t worry about vowels, just teach the whole word"
This argument, while avoiding the difficulty with vowels, is also problematic. While I believe strongly in starting with whole words as you teach visual learners to read, just avoiding the vowels is not the answer. Visual learners are pattern-seekers, and while you can use whole words (and should) when teaching them to read, they will need to be able to read vowels as they break down words into patterns and apply those patterns to unknown, bigger words.
"Just keep on drilling"
This particular piece of advice makes me break out into a sweat. I get an instant visual of exhausted kids doing the same thing over and over again becoming more convinced by the moment that they are incapable of learning. To just keep on trying what didn’t work at first is not a solution.
Why Are Vowels So Important?
- Vowels are found in every syllable of every word.
- Vowels also enable us to distinguish between words such as pant, pint, pent, punt or slip, slap, slop. Imagine not knowing the difference between pin or pen, or far worse between hill and hell.
Yes, Vowels Must be Taught and Kids Must Achieve Mastery. But How?
Use the Visual and a Body Motion
I wrote in detail about this in a previous blog post, How to Teach Vowel Sounds so Kids Will Remember. A child who is primarily a visual learner needs something else in the learning stage. This is where a visual with a related hand motion is critical. If you follow the suggestions in the previous blog, your child will see the symbol and his brain will draw on the image and motion stored in the NON-auditory regions of the brain. I’ve seen this one aspect of reading completely transform visual readers from struggling to stellar.
Color-code the vowels
I’ve used this practice with my students with a lot of success. All you need is a highlighter and a mini-lesson (I really mean mini…I’m talking five minutes maximum) in the vowel spelling you are dealing with, and then a paper with some text on it that is full of that vowel spelling. The child is going to highlight all the vowel spellings they can find in the text. See an example here taken from Set B in the Easy-for-me™ Children's Readers, Set B. I have highlighted the target sound (long A).
Sound spellings for long A: a, ay, ai, ey, and a-e.
Target sight words practiced are: may, from, they, away, funny, that, of, them, say, put.
Color-coding the long A sounds in this book before reading will help a visual learner see in a flash where all they will be saying the long A sound. The visual learner will benefit from this exercise because they will understand the goal of the lesson before starting: They will be practicing long A words and will be practicing ten new sight words, which you might have them find and underline before reading the book.
Follow-up to reading the book
Write these long A words (and others similar to them) on index cards, mix them up, and have your child sort them into piles depending on their sound spelling. Let them think of other words that go with the ones you wrote and add those cards to the pile. For example, one pile is for -AY words and another for AI words.
Ask your child which color they would assign to a particular vowel. Some kids think in color, and if they learn a vowel sound with a particular color associated with it, it will help down the road.
Starting with the short sound of A, ask them what color they think that sound should be and stick with it. When practicing short-sound-of-A words, give them two colors of marker – one black and the color they chose.
Use a whiteboard and call out short words: cat, rat, map, nap, etc. Ask them to sound out the word with you, and as they sound, write the letters in the appropriate color.
Taking this exercise further, have them search other text for the target vowel and highlight them in the color they assigned to that sound. Old newspapers work well for this activity.
Just Because I'm Not Auditory Doesn't Mean I Can't Read
Finally, let’s consider the assumption that if children can't sound out words and can't read nonsense "words" they will be unable to read.
Sounding out words might not work for the child and yes they might struggle to learn to read. So begin to introduce strategies that your visual learner thrives on.
Visual learners LOVE patterns. When they have the chance to find all the AYs in words in a book and color them that is a pattern they have found.
What will happen is, rather than trying to sound out each word they come to, the visual learner will see the words and will see the sound spelling patterns they learned previously.
Once the visual learner knows that A, AY, AI, EY, A-E all sound like A, they will apply that pattern to words that are much more complicated like "display, amiable, assuage, failure, etc.