When a struggling reader hasn’t mastered short a, his reading foundation is weak. Nonetheless, he might be pushed forward in his school’s reading curriculum. He might be exposed to other sound units, but since he doesn’t know short a well, he’ll experience reading failure.
SHORT A WORDS ARE A COMMON READING WEAKNESS
Unfortunately, I meet many second graders that can’t read short a words. How did they fall so far behind? Short a words are the very first words kids need to master. If a child hasn’t learned to read short a words, he can’t progress in reading.
HOW TO MAKE SHORT A LESSONS EFFECTIVE:
1. INTRODUCE A SHORT A POEM
I’m a proponent of explicit phonics instruction. Explicit phonics means explaining new sound units thoroughly. I do not expect kids to “just get it.” Instead, I say, “We’re learning a new sound unit today. Let’s read a poem to find out what it is.”
You can introduce short a with a poem, song or sentence. Here’s a sample short a poem you can use:
Adam the ant ran to the jam.
Ally the rat ran to the ham.
Jan the cat was hungry too.
Jan said, “I’ll nab the jam and ham from you.”
You can also provide a short sentence:
Alex the alligator had an apple.
Since you’re working with short a, read one of the above excerpts to the child 2xs. On the first reading, read at a natural pace.
BEFORE the second reading say, “Now let’s figure out what the new sound is. What sound is repeated?” When you read the short a poem the second time, slow down whenever you read a short a word. Here’s a sample reading:
Aaaadam the aaaant raaaan to the jaaaam.
In short a lessons, you want to give the student as much independence as you can. So let your struggling reader figure out the new sound on his own. He’ll be excited when he discovers the new sound.
2. USE A HAND MOTION FOR SHORT A
You can have fun making up a hand motion that will help your student remember short a. Whatever you pick, stick with ONE short a hand motion. Here are some ideas:
a_ as in apple. Hold your hand up to your mouth like you’re eating an apple.
a_ as in ant. Walk your fingers on the table like a trail of ants.
a_ as in alligator. Open and close your hands like the long mouth of an alligator.
HAND MOTIONS SHOULD ONLY BE USED FOR SHORT VOWELS.
Don’t create hand motions for every letter—this will overwhelm your student!
3. PRACTICE READING SHORT A WORDS
When teaching short a, it’s crucial to vary the beginning and end sound. For example, don’t teach words that all end in “at” as in “cat” “bat” sat”—these are guessable! Here are some sample words to incorporate into the lesson:
hat, van, rag, Pam, tab, Matt, tag, fan, sap, ram, ban
Have your student read the above words sound-by-sound.
Notice that the beginning and ending sounds are varied. Sometimes parents are surprised that I don’t teach –at, -am, -ap, -an, -ag, -ad, -ap as units. In fact, teaching -at, -am, -ap, -an, -ag, -ad, -ap as units places a huge burden on your student’s memory. Teach your child to read sound-by-sound.
If you teach short vowel units like “-at,” you’ve suddenly created 35 more units for your student to memorize. (7 units per vowel times 5 vowels equals 35). What a waste of instructional time! Teaching units like –at also gets kids in the habit of guessing.
Therefore, varying the first and last consonant is crucial.
4. SHORT A GAME USING FLASHCARDS
In my San Diego Reading Intervention, I often meet kids with poor reading habits. One second grader experiencing serious reading failure would call out five different words before giving up. If the word was “gave,” he’d call out “got,” “great,” “gain,” “gate,” “good.” One time, he even said, “I don’t know. I can’t think of any more words that start with the letter g.”
To break kids out of the habit of guessing based on one letter, teach your student to analyze each sound in words. Here’s a game that can help kids that have formed poor reading habits:
Write letters on flashcards. Write a list of short a words to use in the activity. Here’s a sample list:
hat, had, tad, tag, tab
Create short a words with your flashcards. Have students read each word sound-by-sound. Carefully switch out the last letter to make a short a word. Then switch out the first letter. Repeat.
This activity teaches kids that words are composed of sounds: if you switch out one letter, you get a completely different word! In short a lessons, it’s crucial to begin teaching struggling readers that words are not “guessable.” This short a game teaches kids not to guess. Kids see that one letter changes the whole word. This short a activity is incredibly effective at getting kids out of the habit of guessing.
5. IDENTIFY SOUNDS IN SHORT A WORDS
The ability to recognize sounds in words is a skill called phonemic awareness. When you start teaching a child to read, you can also start teaching them how to identify sounds in short a words. Phonemic awareness activities are done without print.
Here’s a sample short a lesson involving sounds:
TEACHER: c-aaa-nnn What is it?
TEACHER: zzzz-aaaa-p What is it?
The above activity teaches kids to blend words. When kindergartners read, they read slowly, pronounce each sound, and blend all the sounds together. The last step can be challenging for many students. Phonemic awareness activities help students learn to blend words accurately.
6. SPELL COMMON SHORT A WORDS
If your student is reading short a words, they are ready to spell! Pick common short a words to ease them into spelling. Then, transition into uncommon short a words.
Guide the student as they spell the word. Say the word sound-by-sound. Hold continuous sounds like “mmmmmmm.” Clip stop sounds like “d. ” Say phrases like, “We’re going to spell together.” and “This is not a test.” Kids are so used to spelling tests that they begin to think every spelling activity is a test!
Here’s a sample list of short a spelling words for a beginning reader:
cat, man, bag
That’s right, just THREE words. With a beginning reader, I recommend starting with a handful of short a words (three) and slowly progressing to more.
KEEP THE STUDENT ENGAGED
On short a lessons, make sure the student is successful. Design short a lessons carefully. If your student struggles a lot, weave common words like “cat” into the lesson.
Build your student’s confidence in his first short a lessons. Once he can read short a words, he can start reading phonics books.