This Week Has Been a Blur

Here’s what I’ve written, read, and done this week. Just another peek into my everyday life.

Advertisements

This Week in Writing

I haven’t written much since I last posted here. Whenever I am working on a major blog post it’s hard to get really serious about another one at the same time. I’m hoping to publish the big one tomorrow. It’s partly author interview and partly book reviews. I’ve been corresponding with local children’s author Beryl Reichenberg for a few weeks now, and  I’m now in the final stages of compiling all the material and getting it written. Here are the posts I have completed since I last posted here:

  • Special Education Teachers Are Special: A tribute to special education teachers I’ve known. I’ve included gift suggestions for great teachers.
  • A Discouraging Day Online : This one is a vent I wrote after trying to open an account to pay a credit card bill online and hitting lots of obstacles.
  • Abandoned Barn? This is a short photographic essay inspired by a barn I saw on our trip to Madera last week.

Reading this Week

As the title states, the week has been a blur. If I didn’t write it down, I don’t remember it. I did some laundry, worked out at Kennedy Club three nights, and read one book. I started reading Flowers  in the Snow by Danielle Stewart Friday night, but haven’t been in the right mood to finish it yet. It appears to be a worthy read, but it’s dark. It’s based on history, but it’s a period of American history I’d rather forget since it shows how inhumane people can be.

“Betty” tells her story of growing up in a KKK family, completely unaware of what it meant during her early years. Her rude awakening came when she saw a beaten black man in town and tried to help him, believing she was practicing what she’d learned in Sunday school in the story of the Good Samaritan.  She learned fast enough her family did not consider the man human, got the spanking of her life, and was ostracized by not only her schoolmates but her family. I won’t say any more now except that I can’t face reading about the violence I know is coming until I can prepare myself emotionally for it.

This Week Has Been a Blur
Jacob had to dress like an Amish boy.

I  did enjoy A Lancaster Amish Home for Jacob by Rachel Stolzfus. Jacob is a homeless boy who lives in a group home and gets into trouble all the time. One night he and a friend led the police on an especially wild chase after they had spraypainted some cars. He got caught. His social worker decided drastic measures were called for, and he had the choice of living in an Amish foster home or going into juvenile detention. He chose the Amish home. I won’t tell you any more, but I would like to get the sequel.

My Packages Have Almost All Arrived

I had to make some returns at Costco and Sears yesterday. I hadn’t realized you could return items purchased at Land’s End to Sears. My purchases for myself there were too big, so I had to return two pair of pants. I also had to return a shirt my husband had purchased at Costco  that was too small, and a pair of PJ’s I’d bought that were too big. This trip half an hour out of town, with shopping on the way home, kept me on the road for four hours. I spent most of the time at Costco.

I just received my new WaterPik and steam mop so I will have to start learning to use them during the next few days. Now I must go finish my blog post for tomorrow.

Cooking, Writing, Shopping, Exercising, and Reading

Back to the Kitchen

It seems I spent most of Saturday in the kitchen. I had picked some of my chard and kale from the front yard, and I needed to use them.  The kale had sprung up by itself next to the garage. Here’s what I did with a previous batch of home-grown kale.

Cooking, Writing, Shopping, Exercising, and Reading
Volunteer Kale Plant, © B. Radisavljevic

 

I tried a new recipe this time, one with chicken, kale, and onions. We both loved it. I will be posting it soon on Niume, another site where I  often make short posts on my daily adventures. I also made a batch of black bean soup so now there is something hot to eat at night. It’s been so long since I cooked anything from scratch I’d almost forgotten how.

Writing Kept Me Very Busy

It seems I spent a lot of the weekend listing and updating deals between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. I deleted the post today since the sales are over. I don’t think I will handle those deals the same way next year. Here are some of the posts I wrote over the weekend that are still up.

I was also editing the deals that were coming and going on a couple of older posts on another blog. Now you know why I didn’t post here over the weekend.

Shopping the Cyber Weekend Deals

After listing all those good deals, I decided I might as well take advantage of them to get some things we needed while the prices were low. We’ve already gotten some of our orders, and I expect more tomorrow. I also have some things to return to Land’s End that didn’t fit. They were too BIG. Kosta loved his new wool sweater from them, though. Shopping is a lot of work, even when you do it online. Still beats fighting the crowds in the stores.

Exercising and Reading – Finally

I love reading, but I haven’t had much time for it this weekend. After our trip to Madera before Thanksgiving, I had a lot of work to catch up on. That also kept me from exercising. I finally got back to the gym on Monday night and spent an hour on the stationary bike, reading.

Exercise is good for me, but I always get interested in the book I started reading on the bike and don’t want to stop reading it when I get home. And the book I read? Lake House Secret, by Debra Burroughs, a mystery / romance novel. I may review it one of these days. I enjoyed it.

I think it’s bedtime now. I will leave you with a photo of my chard, most of which is still growing in my front flowerbed.

Cooking, Writing, Shopping, Exercising, and Reading
Chard in Front Flowerbed, © B. Radisavljevic

***

Oral Comprehension Lays the Foundation for Reading Comprehension

If we are trying to improve a child’s reading comprehension, we need to start with oral comprehension, and we should begin this when the child is still just learning to use language. This means parents need to be involved. They are their children’s first teachers, and they lay the foundation for all future learning.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If a child can’t comprehend spoken language, he’s not likely to understand what he reads, either. We all learn to use spoken language before we learn to read. Almost any parent or teacher has those moments when they are quite sure a child has not understood a word they said, though they also might believe the children did not want to understand and didn’t really listen.

It still follows, though, that if we are trying to improve a child’s reading comprehension, we need to start with oral comprehension, and we should begin this when the child is still just learning to use language. This means parents need to be involved. They are their children’s first teachers, and they lay the foundation for all future learning. One of the first things they teach children is how to talk.

I know few parents who have taken an educational methods course in teaching children to talk. They are able, instead, to zero in on the child’s own desire to interact with them. If the parents talk, the child  will want to talk. If the child wants something, he has to learn the words that will communicate his needs. He also begins to learn what the parent expects of him, and even the meaning of the word “No!” The parents will teach the names of the objects and living beings in the children’s world and some basic concepts such as over, under, through, run, push, and all the rest. By the time the child reaches kindergarten, he’s supposed to have that basic grasp of language.  He will, if the parents have spent enough time interacting with him.

However, many parents are too busy and too tired at the end of a day to meet all the child’s interaction needs. Many children live with a single parent who also works outside the home. At the end of a day, the temptation is to put the child in front of the television or a video game rather than interacting with him. Thus the child has no need to to actively use his brain to understand, but can sit passively and absorb or, in the case of the video game, develop hand/eye coordination, but not improve communication skills.

What’s the solution? Reading enjoyable stories to the child for twenty minutes each night, maybe just before bed, can be a big help. The parent can go to the public library once every couple of weeks and check out books that look not only appropriate for the child’s age and interests, but that also look like they would be fun for the parent to read. Keep these books so the child has access to them at certain times of the day, and then let him pick one of them for you to read to him. There are some good suggestions in this previous post: Choosing the Best Children’s Books, Part 1. Another previous post, When You Read Aloud, Ham it Up, might also inspire you — especially if’s there’s a bit of the actor or actress in you.

We found that our own children looked forward to story time, and when we read stories to them during summer vacation, they would often round up their friends to join in. As we discussed the stories, it was easy to talk about the meanings of words they might not know, ask what they thought might happen next, ask why they thought a character behaved as he did, and so on.

Little Red Hen by Paul Galdone
Little Red Hen by Paul Galdone

Let’s  take some examples from a story you may remember from your own childhood : The Little Red Hen.

As you sit with the book in your lap and your child next to you, begin the story. The  process of making bread as it’s described here may be entirely new for your child, so you can talk about what the hen is doing and why. Here are some questions that would be perfectly natural:

  • What is the hen doing with the wheat? Why?
  • What other jobs does the hen need to do to make the bread?
  • What does the hen ask the other animals to do?
  • Do they want to help her do any of  the jobs?
  • Why do you think they don’t want to help her?
  • When the bread is ready to eat, do they want to help her eat it?
  • Does she let them? Should she have shared? Why or why not?

These questions will not only help you make sure the child is understanding the facts in the story — what’s happening, but also will let you know what the child is thinking about the story line itself. Does the child think the hen should have shared? Did the child think it wasn’t fair for the hen not to share? Does he see the point that the animals didn’t want to help with the work, but thought they were entitled to the result of the work whether they had helped or not? This involves higher thinking skills than just knowing what happened.

Almost any folk tale lends itself to a good discussion as you read it aloud. If you have a discussion like this several times a week when you read a story together, your child will naturally learn the comprehension skills they will later try to teach in school : main idea, figurative language, context clues, reading for detail, inference, cause and effect, drawing conclusions, fact or opinion, logic and reasoning, and predicting outcomes. If he can figure out the main idea orally, it will be easier to find it in a passage he reads in school, because he will know what a main idea is. He has learned that the main idea in The Little Red Hen is that those who do not want to help with the work should not expect to share in the results of the work. To see if they can apply this to other situations, you might ask them for examples of this same main idea in what they observe from life. (If a child won’t share his toys with others, should  he expect the others to share their toys with him?) You get the idea. Now, if you apply it, your child will be well on his way to improving reading comprehension later on.

Sight Words or Phonics?

What’s the best approach to teaching children to read — sight words or phonics? Let’s take a look at Dr. Fry’s approach.

I just read a blog that discussed some of the virtues of rote memorization and it reminded me of the old question about whether children should learn to read by learning sight words or by learning phonics. Sight words are memorized and often learned by drilling on them. The late Dr. Edward Fry produced a lot of materials that help children learn sight words, but he also wrote materials on teaching phonics and spelling.

He recognized that some of our most often used words in English don’t follow the rules of phonics. He is widely recognized for his list of 1000 Instant Words which are intended for children to recognize by sight after a series of exercises, drills, games, flashcards, and other memorization aids. Some of these words, such as in, on, he, be and fish, also obey phonics rules and can be sounded out, but when a child is first learning to read, it’s discouraging to have to stop and sound out every word and lose track of the meaning. It’s very satisfying to be able to read a complete sentence or story without having to stop often and sound out words. Think what it would do to our adult reading speed and comprehension to have to sound out every word we read? By learning the most common words by sight, a child or illiterate adult can have the satisfaction of really reading, not just decoding words. She will understand “A doll is a toy.” if she reads it at a normal speed instead of struggling over every word.

On the other hand, as a child continues on the path of learning to read, it would be burdensome to have to memorize every single word he will ever need to read. Dr. Fry recognizes that understanding the sounds attached to letters is also necessary for a child to become an and independent and proficient reader. He brings these two approaches together seamlessly in his Spelling Book Grades 1-6: Words Most Needed Plus Phonics.

Let’s look at the first lesson for first grade. Only ten sight (or instant) words are introduced: the, of, and, a, to, boy, girl, man, woman, baby. Though the teacher is given teaching suggestions, this is not a workbook. The student pages may be reproduced for student use, but the teacher decides how to best teach the words.

Under the list of words is a list of phrases using the words so that the students can practice seeing and reading the words in context. Samples of the phrases are man and woman and to the boy and girl. Students could practice reading these aloud and the phrases could also be used for dictation exercises, since this book also teaches spelling.

The last parts of the lessons involve age-appropriate word study. In the first grade lesson we used as an example above, students learn about how the phonogram an is used in man, rancan, and pan. Then they learn in the phonics section below about the short vowel a. The included notes to the teacher in these sections spell out the rules and explanations, but I seriously doubt that the first graders will have to memorize, “The Closed Syllable Rule states that when the syllable ends in a consonant, the single letter vowel is short.” (Examples are taken from Lesson 1 of the book linked to above. ) At this stage of the game, the student may not know or care about syllables, open or closed.

That's me, with my book at the age of three.
That's me, with my book at the age of three.

When I learned to read I taught myself in much this fashion. First I memorized a very simple picture book my mother read to me over and over and then I read it back to her. She knew I’d memorized it, but I knew which word was which, so I had learned some sight words that I could recognize in other contexts. My mother would tell me about the sounds that the letters made until I was asking her for the ones I didn’t know yet. I started asking my dad about the letters I saw in the headlines of his newspaper. I was only three, but I could read. By the time I hit first grade, I was sitting in the class library section reading whatever I wanted while the teacher taught reading to all the rest of the class except another student who shared my first and middle name, who could also read.

My mother was a wise woman who realized that although I was reading above grade level, I had holes in my phonics understanding, so she sent me to a private school for a semester to learn phonics in a systematic way. (This was in the late 1940’s, when the “look, say” teaching method was in vogue.) After my phonics instruction, I flew in my reading skills. I think I would have thrived with Dr. Fy’s approach, since I would have learned the sight words in and out of context, as well as the relationships of the sounds to the words I learned every week. Seeing those relationships brings this method of teaching beyond rote memorization to understanding. I think Justin Snider, the author of the blog that inspired this one, could live with this approach. Maybe he will stop by and let us know.

Is This What Might Replace Paper Picture Books?

What might be lost in the move from paper to digital picture books? Or will digital books improve the the experience of reading?

Cover, Paul Revere's Ride
Cover, Paul Revere's Ride

As you all know, I love picture books. So when I got this link for a digital picture book, I had to check it out. (The link is at the end, since I want you to finish this before you click. ) It heralds the possibilities of moving books from paper to digital form — possibilities for word play, matching, watching, and story telling. Young readers will be able to read not only left to right, but also see words moving right to left and up and down. Words can appear and disappear, or letters can glide into a word. Both pictures and words can move in any direction (often off the screen, so there’s a lot of scrolling to keep up with.) The producer of this book (Can I call him/her  an author?) points out that paper picture books are limited to only one dimension, and are unidirectional and static. The producer tells us that two things can remain in the move to digital books:  The reader reads and the reader controls the story. By controlling the story, I assume we’re talking about turning pages or clicking buttons.

So is the digital book better? I’m asking my self what the difference is between such a digital book and an animated story with subtitles. Picture book artists such as Thomas Locker, Ruth Heller, Patricia Polacco and too many more to mention offer not only a story, but a rich visual experience that would not seem to lend itself as easily to animation as maybe the work of someone who is simply bold and colorful. I would think it difficult for the subtle tones  of work done in oils to come through as intensely in digital form as on paper.  So I believe these digital picture books might rob young readers of a more desirable artistic experience.

As to the multi-directional feature,  it seems to me that this sort of reading is not good preparation for learning reading fluency and developing the necessary skill of reading from left to right. I think reading from left to right is a good thing — especially for the young picture book crowd. Some of the multi-dimensional effects gave me a headache as pictures zoomed in and out. I guess, though, that today’s children are used to that.

kingwhorainedOne virtue of these books is supposed to be that they offer opportunities for word play, matching, and watching. I think paper picture books can match that. Check out Marvin Terban’s books on word play. Or try The King Who Rained by Fred Gwynne (This link enlarges the image at left.) It’s full of illustrated homophones that will promote a chuckle. (It can be found with other concept books here.) As to matching, you don’t really need a story. There are already many games in boxed or digital form that offer that. As to watching, that’s also been done very well on paper. Go back to one of my older blogs and read the review of Over the Steamy Swamp. In that book, every one is watching and being watched.  Another book that involves watching is Rosy’s Walk by Pat Hutchins. It’s humor and irony will have young readers chuckling as they watch the fox watch the hen.

The last proposed advantage of the digital book is story telling. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. Any decent paper picture book tells a story, though some are definitely better than others. If the idea is that it encourages a child to tell a story, there are books that do that, as well. A good example is Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola. This wordless picture book follows a woman from the moment she gets out of bed, hungry for pancakes, until she finally eats them at a neighbor’s house. We watch her put on her apron, begin mixing ingredients, gather eggs, milk the cow, churn the butter, go out and buy syrup, walk home with dreams of mixing and cooking and  eating the pancakes, and arrive back to find her cat and dog have spilled the milk and broken the eggs. As she thinks of the pancakes she dreamed of, flying away from the platter, she smells her neighbor cooking some and decides to go and visit. Have your child “read” you this story if he’s not a reader yet, or write the story to go with the pictures if he’s learning to put his thoughts on paper. It requires imagination to “read” this book.

I suppose though, that the main reason I prefer paper is that paper encourages a child to linger over the pictures to appreciate the details, anticipate what comes next, and maybe even discuss the book with the person who might be reading it to him. Digital books, at least in this example, encourage speed and constant moving to keep up with the action. Although the producer says the child controls the story by clicking the “next” button, I imagine the child is in the habit of clicking next as soon as he finishes a screen, rather than lingering. So which is the most interactive experience? Clicking the button  or actually turning physical pages. Watching a screen and clicking, or talking to a real person who may be reading the book to you and discussing it as you go along. I’ll take the book, preferably on the mom’s lap with the child or children cuddling up to her as she leads them on an imaginative journey.

And now that link you’ve been waiting for to see the book.

Choosing the Best Children’s Books, Part 1

A child may judge a book by its cover, but when adults choose a story to read aloud, I think they should choose the story that most effectively uses new words to build vocabulary while entertaining the ear, the eye, and the imagination.

overthesteamyswampYesterday while at the library searching the shelves for  a list of picture books, I was talking to the children’s librarian about a picture book I loved — Over the Steamy Swamp by Paul Geraghty.  I told her how I laughed over the pictures and found it such a wonderful book for illustrating the food chain.  She wasn’t familiar with it, but she then pulled out another book which she thought would be similar — Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story, by Tom Willans. So I brought it home to read.

wait-iwant2tellI was quite disappointed.  First, the illustrations weren’t as funny as in Over the Steamy Swamp. But that would have been okay if the language was as vivid. In Over the Steamy Swamp, one mosquito is flying over the swamp, unaware that she is being watched by a greedy dragonfly, who is too interested to notice that he, in turn, is being watched by a famished frog, and so on up the food chain to the peckish fish, the heron, the starving snake, the craving crocodile, the hostile hunter, and the ravenous lion. Paul Geraghty’s text is simple and reminiscent of  The House that Jack Built in its repetitive style. But it’s his pictures that make the book so funny. These animals have facial expressions you won’t ever forget — especially when the book reaches its climax. After the lion’s great, big, ravenous nose is bitten by the mosquito, to say he is surprised and upset is an understatement. Suddenly, everyone in the food chain hears the lion’s yowl and looks backwards and sees what’s been about to eat him.  Not only is the art work bold and expressive, but the text will teach some great adjectives, adverbs, and verbs.

In comparison, Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story, though entertaining, has less educational value.  Although a child may learn the names of some animals — muskrat, tiger, frog, shark, lizard, snake, fly, spider, and crocodile — the interesting adjectives are missing. Although both books have repetition, the repeated phrases in Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story consist mainly of the title itself followed by “Okay, said the (name of animal), “but make it quick!” This book begins with a muskrat sitting quietly in a tree, when a tiger comes upon him and informs him, “I’m going to eat you, little muskrat.”

The clever muskrat exclaims, “Wait! I want to tell you a story.” The story consists of other animals about to be eaten by something bigger, and each begs, “Wait! I want to tell you a story.”

Each predator replies, “Okay, but make it quick.” This works until the spider says, “I’m going to eat you little fly.” But the spider does not want to hear the fly’s story, and eats the fly. (This is all part of the muskrat’s story.)

As the tiger is about to eat the muskrat, just as the spider ate the fly, the muskrat shouts, “Wait! There’s more… and he tells how the lizard ate the spider, the snake the lizard, the frog the snake, and the shark the frog. The tiger gets curious and asks what happened next, and the muskrat said “The crocodile ate the tiger.” About that time the tiger discovers the very real crocodile, who then snaps up the tiger as the muskrat escapes. (The picture shows the tigers tail dangling from the crocodile’s mouth.)

Whereas both books do illustrate the food chain, in Over the Steamy Swamp the most violent moment is when the mosquito stings the lion’s very sensitive nose.  Everyone gets scared, but no one gets eaten. I think this story is also easier to follow, since there is no story within a story to be confusing.

In Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story it is sometimes hard to tell the story from the real events. There are no interesting words describing the animals, and the repetition, instead of being an exact recitation all the exciting phrases in a chain, one word — the name of the animal talking — is always different.  That makes it harder for children to chant along with you as you read to them.

I hope our library actually does have Over the Steamy Swamp in her library to recommend to children, and so she will have an alternative to recommending  something which I believe is a bit inferior in its use of language, repetition, and illustrations.  There are so many books in the library to choose from, but some of the best choices aren’t there. A child may judge a book by its cover, but when adults choose a story to read aloud, I think they should choose the story that most effectively uses new words to build vocabulary while entertaining the ear,  the eye, and the imagination. Wait!…. will add few exiting new words to a young reader’s vocabulary, and although it might have some striking illustrations, there is not much to feed the imagination. What happens just happens. In Over the Steamy Swamp, the illustrations have the reader anticipating what he expects to happen and then just as he expects all the animals to start eating each other, the plot twists and every one except the lion is left unharmed. The lion is left with just  a sore nose. It’s less violent and more fun. It’s a shame it’s out of print. Maybe your library will be lucky enough to  have a copy.

Second thought: After writing this, I showed Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story to my husband, and he thought it was very clever. The “telling a story to keep from being killed” technique has a long history, after all.  This story does have entertainment value and would still be fun to read aloud, since it does lend itself to dramatic interpretation. It would be easy to ham it up.

Follow me on Twitter.