Where Do I Start? (and a few other questions)
Perhaps you have looked at the materials on this website and are feeling encouraged that this might be something that will help your student. However, you might be feeling uncertain about where to start. Do I need to buy everything? If I were to buy the pieces over a period of time, which one should I buy first? Second? Or is there a better way to think about this? Let me try to answer these questions for you.
A wide variety of people have made good use of these materials. Some had a beginning kindergartner or first-grader, while others had students moving into the middle school or high school years. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that the needs of students can differ simply on the basis of their age/grade. Beyond that, every child is unique. They come from different sized families with their own peculiar schooling goals and practices. Some students struggle with learning challenges. Some parents have found direction from professionals, while others are just beginning to suspect there might be something amiss. Where to start?
If you were to bring your child to me for testing I would ask you a host of questions about your child’s reading. You would explain what you are seeing in your child’s attempts to read, what you have tried, what seems to have helped and what didn’t. Once all of that information was gathered I would administer all of the tests I have at my disposal. I would do that if your child was 5 years old, 9, 13 or 17. At the end of the day I would want the most complete picture possible. Based on what you’ve told me I might guess that it is a phonics issue, or a fluency flaw, or a phonemic awareness weakness. But I wouldn’t be able to say with any confidence unless I actually administered the tests. And it wouldn’t matter how old they are, the peculiar characteristics of their struggle, or any of the many variables that might affect their efforts. I would still want to use all of the tests to get the most complete picture I can.
I have tested teenagers and found phonemic awareness deficiencies, even though those are skills that are taught (if at all) in the first and second grade. I have also found phonics deficiencies in teens, in spite of the fact that we think of these skills as something taught in those early grades. I have learned to make no assumptions, and so I administer all of the tests. This often comes as a surprise to parents who are convinced that their 12 year old cannot possibly have a phonics problem or a phonemic awareness issue. Again, I have learned to assume nothing. Once all of the tests have been given, I can then lay the results out in front of me, see the big picture, and develop my strategy for targeting the weak areas revealed by the tests.
That is my approach to older kids. But what about the young ones? Do I really expect comprehension abilities, or fluency skills from a beginning reader? The answer is yes. Of course we must have age-appropriate expectations. A first-grade child will not read as fluently as a student in fifth-grade, and that fifth-grader will not read as fluently as the junior in high school. Nevertheless, there are reasonable expectations at every level. The same is true of comprehension, phonics, and all the rest. And so, even for the younger students I administer all of the tests.
The testing is a means for assessing where a student is performing, relative to a reasonable, research-based expectation for where he should be. With this in mind, the place to start is to administer all of the tests. This gives you the most complete picture of your child’s struggles. Having said that, I would acknowledge that there is a natural progression to reading instruction, with certain things emphasized at different stages along the way.
We learn the alphabet. Then we learn the sounds those letters represent. We put two or three of those letters together, with the sounds they represent, to form very basic words. Those early experiences rely heavily on phonemic awareness skills, and then move to the world of phonics. For children in the early grades, a lot of instructional time is spent on these things. And so some have approached these materials on the basis of the age of their child. They see the emphasis on phonemic awareness, phonics, and sight words and start there. There is some measure of logic to this approach, in spite of what was pointed out above about having age-appropriate expectations in all reading components for even young students.
We get another common question related to the one about where to start. If you administer all of the tests, and find deficiencies in all areas, where do you start? Do you concentrate on phonemic awareness and fix that before you move to, say, phonics? In other words, do you finish one area before you should move to another? The simple answer to that is no. While I would probably focus first on phonemic awareness because it is so foundational, that does not mean that I can’t also be working on phonics, or comprehension-building activities, or any other area at the same time. This is how reading instruction has occurred for decades. Even as a young student is struggling to decode sentences like, “Bob had a dog,” we are likely asking our reader comprehension questions like, “What did Bob have?” While we discuss and test these reading components as if they are separate, independent areas, in reality they are all inter-related. Thus, when you strengthen phonics & decoding abilities, that normally results in a more fluid reader. Fluent readers have a better shot at comprehension. It is worth noting that when you remediate one area, other areas of reading may improve. I personally begin with phonemic awareness and phonics because that is where reading instruction typically begins with young children, but I do not treat them as rigid categories that must be mastered before I attend to anything else.
A final question we get is, “How long should I spend on the lessons or activities?” There is no special answer to that question. Much will depend on the age of the child, their ability to stay focused, and a host of other factors. Activities can take 5 or 10 minutes, or can be stretched out for as long as you like. They are designed to be multi-sensory and kid-friendly, and so you may find your child actually wanting to continue a particular activity. You might do a phonemic awareness activity for 10 minutes and then add a comprehension activity for another 10 minutes. They do not necessarily have to be back-to-back. You can make them fit your school day in any way that works for you.
If you have further questions about the materials you see, please do not hesitate to contact us.