Mom: Spell bed. Child: B-A-D. Mom: Not bad, bed. Child: B-A-D. Mom: Ok, we'll try again later.
October 26, 2011 8:18 PM   Subscribe

How do you teach a 6-year old to recognize vowels in the middle of a word? Ask him to spell 'bed' out loud and he will say 'b-a-d.' Ask him to write 'bed' and he will write 'b-a-d.' Yet if he reads 'bed' out loud, he will say it correctly and he knows what it is. Any tools or techniques that will help him learn?

He does this with other words, not just bed. His mom showed him the different shape your mouth makes when you pronounce a short 'a' vs. a short 'e' but it didn't make a difference.

The child is my friend's son. He is in first grade in the US and English is his first language. His hearing is fine and he has no known attention-deficit or learning issues. The parents are going to discuss this with the teacher but, for now, they are stumped on how to help him. And what do you even call what he's doing? I'm sure educators would not call it "mixing up vowels."
posted by Soda-Da to Education (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Let it go until he's evaluated. This sounds like my dad, actually, who has a learning disability. I want to say dyslexia but I'm not 100% sure. (He also got a 4.0 in undergrad and two professional degrees from good schools--it'll be okay).
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:25 PM on October 26, 2011

I'd wait to hear what the teacher says. This does not sound abnormal for that age, in my experience.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 8:30 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

What region is his accent? These vowels are extremely similar in some accents and some words. Is it only the a/e vowels that he has problems with?
posted by lollusc at 8:30 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would call it a difficulty with phonological (or phonemic) awareness. At 6, I don't think this is that concerning bit would definitely recommend talking to the teacher about it if the parent is concerned.
posted by Nickel at 8:31 PM on October 26, 2011

(Also, a (spelled) "a" in an unstressed position in a word is pronounced as a schwa, as is "e". This could well be confusing him, although not with the specific "bed/bad" pair.)
posted by lollusc at 8:32 PM on October 26, 2011

But I should also point out that a deficit in phonological awareness could be one symptom of a learning disability. The teacher will know what steps to take to get him evaluated.
posted by Nickel at 8:33 PM on October 26, 2011

Oh, one more thing and then I'll shut up. Imagine this dialogue:

"Say the word"
"Can you hear that vowel? 'e', 'e'? Now, how do we write that vowel?"

Child thinks of other words that sound like "bed". "Head". "Said." "Read".

Do you see a problem? (English spelling rules sucks.)
posted by lollusc at 8:36 PM on October 26, 2011

Letters are just a *clue* to how something is spelled, not anything certain, and it helps kids to think this way about it.

The best spellers stop sounding things out, and start to go by sight recognition ('How should the work look?').

I'd have him play Starfall and Reading Eggs (just set up 2 week trial account) as a treat each day, and see if his word familiarity starts to improve.
posted by Elysum at 8:47 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ha, I also keep thinking of new things and returning to this thread. In terms of your question about things to do to help him, googling "intervention for phonemic awareness" yields lots of activities that seem appropriate. Books about interventions for students with learning disabilities might also have some good ideas (not saying he has a learning disability, but that sometimes kids with learning disabilities have weaknesses in this area).
posted by Nickel at 8:50 PM on October 26, 2011

Instead of showing my daughter the way my mouth curved when I said vowels, I exaggerated the vowel sounds when I said words to her so she could hear the differences. Then I repeated the vowel sound after the word. Like this:

"baaaaaad" "a" "a"

"beeeeeed" "eh" "eh"

"toooooool" "oo" "oo"

It took her probably a year, but now when I say a word she does the exaggeration herself and figures out the vowel. She's almost 5 now.
posted by minx at 8:50 PM on October 26, 2011

My two middle children (both boys) did not learn to read until they were nine. The older, 22 yesterday, learned first reading the comics in the NYer (we lived in Oakland then) the next, The Hobbit. My youngest is a flawless speller, like his fairly ancient sister (25) and me. English phonetics/grammar/spelling have almost as many exceptions as rules. The coolest thing about vowels (for kids, anyway) is that consonants need them to become a word. The difference between e and a will make itself plain in good time. I grew up with both in my name; please , believe me.
posted by emhutchinson at 9:03 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Distinguishing vowels is actually not that easy. People who can't read often can't distinguish phonemes, even as adults. So unless the teacher says this is a problem, I really wouldn't worry about it.

That said, if your friend has an iPhone, iPad, iTouch, or probably an Android device, there are lots of games for little kids that help them develop phonemic awareness in the course of playing. I'm happy to send some more pointers; me-mail if you're interested.
posted by alms at 9:07 PM on October 26, 2011

Isn't that a completely normal thing to do? I long ago watched a 6 and a half year old (who knew how to read, slowly but accurately, for while) write the that she wanted a "naclis" (necklace) for her birthday. When you learn languages, its always easier to read accurately than to write accurately.
posted by Kololo at 9:19 PM on October 26, 2011

Get this book. Englemann is the guru of early childhood reading.

I use his program with high schoolers (Corrective Reading) and it kicks ass.
posted by guster4lovers at 9:53 PM on October 26, 2011

English has some of the worst spelling in the whole world of languages. As others have pointed out, the same "e" sound in bed is spelled with an ai or an ea in other words, which makes no logical sense and is very confusing to early readers. There is likely nothing at all wrong with this kid. It is totally normal for kids to struggle with spelling basic English words at the age of 6.

I say this as the parent of a kid with writing issues due to a motor skills problem, and as a volunteer librarian at a school for kids with special needs. I know the value of early intervention. So seriously, I would tell you if I thought this was abnormal. But difficulty spelling vowel sounds, by itself, at age six, is not a serious red flag. If he has other issues with reading and writing on top of this it might be worth getting him evaluated for reading issues, but this alone is totally within the realm of normality.

It's great if the parents want to help the kid learn to spell faster. Read to him daily. Get him to play spelling games on the computer. Play Scrabble (without keeping score). Those are all cool, fun, helpful things to do. But I hope the parents aren't putting too much pressure on this kid to ace spelling (or on themselves to help him ace it) when he likely only really just learned how to read and write at all a year or two ago. Right now they should be happy if he's forming nicely legible letters.
posted by BlueJae at 9:56 PM on October 26, 2011

It doesn't sound like the kid has a problem, not any more so than most six-year-olds learning how to read and spell English. It's tricky. The "short" pronunciations of the vowels have nothing to with the "long" ones or the names of the letters, let alone diphthongs and words with irregular spellings.

His mom showed him the different shape your mouth makes when you pronounce a short 'a' vs. a short 'e' but it didn't make a difference.

Of course not. He can hear the difference and pronounce the difference. The problem is the same letters can be used to spell different sounds. It sounds like he gets what vowels and consonants do just fine, but doesn't quite get the difference between long and short vowels yet. I'm sure his teachers are working on explaining that, after all, they have experience teaching kids to spell.

From your description, it sounds like he gets that sometimes vowel letters "say their names", and the "eh" in bed sounds a lot more like "ay" than it does like "ee". There is no reason to think your friends' son has a learning disability, he just sounds like a normal kid learning to read.
posted by nangar at 10:29 PM on October 26, 2011

Our six year old has trouble with this too. She's getting better with practice. Lots of practice.

The thing is, most English words don't actually sound the way we've been trained to think of them as sounding, and in English as actually spoken there isn't anywhere near as much difference between a spoken e and a spoken a as somebody who can already spell thinks there is. Kids can only learn from what they're exposed to, and most of what they're exposed to is other people mumbling; precise elocution is generally pretty thin on the ground in a kid's world.
posted by flabdablet at 11:02 PM on October 26, 2011

Aparently 'getting it' doesn't do the trick here. A lot of similar sounds are spelled in different ways; maybe it's better to learn the spelling and forget about the principle.

»"Bed" is spelled with an "e" no matter how much it sounds like "a" to you.«

Sometimes (only sometimes!) stuff doesn't need to be explained, taken apart and look-at-this-detail-it's-important-ed for being absorbable by a 6-yr-old mind.

(Remember also that kids at that age - especially, it seems, when they are at the verge of understanding an item - are often having a stubborn episode, almost as if they didn't want to allow themselves to give in to reason).
posted by Namlit at 11:40 PM on October 26, 2011

For my daughter, we used starting letter/rime combinations. We had a piece of paper with
'ed' on it and a window. Then there was a strip with starting letters on it that slid behind the window. So you cover bed, Fred, Ted, fed, led, Ned, wed at the same time. The focus is on the ed until you slide in the starting letter(s).

Another way is to cut up the letters to an 'ed' word and let him assemble them.

The point of these exercises is that they are kind of fun and the child can't really get them wrong in the way that he had been, so he gets trained with a habit of success.
posted by plinth at 3:11 AM on October 27, 2011

Hooked on Phonics has been around for awhile, and has generally positive reviews. Might be worth a try.
posted by samsara at 5:29 AM on October 27, 2011

Here's some links to increase phonological awareness. But seconding the, don't worry about it too much. When I taught 3rd grade, I still was working on this with some students.
posted by quodlibet at 7:29 AM on October 27, 2011

Also, don't be discouraged if some techniques just don't seems to be working at all. Seeing and trying to memorize words in lists/on flashcards/etc. did absolutely nothing to help me learn to spell. Having the misspelled words underlined and then having to go fix them when I wrote was the thing that finally got me spelling in the end. Luckily, once you use a computer this is automatic (well, I had to make the effort to fix the word myself rather than use auto-correct).
posted by lab.beetle at 7:41 AM on October 27, 2011

The parents spoke with the teacher and she said their son is doing fine despite the little vowel mix-ups. He is the type of kid that likes to hurry through things because he wants to be the first one finished so that might be affecting his progress.
posted by Soda-Da at 1:52 PM on January 22, 2012

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