Teaching Him to Read Pt. 4: Function Words

Previous entry: https://thepoliticsofreading.wordpress.com/2017/03/20/teaching-him-to-read-pt-3-singing-to-read/

At the end of my last entry, I touched on my brother’s difficulty with function words, which he reflects both in speech and reading.  A content word conveys the word’s meaning, while function words serve to help structure a sentence.  For instance, in the following sentence, the content words are in red.

I want to go the park because it’s a nice day.

The content words are nouns, verbs, and and an adjective–which are typically the first 3 word categories students learn.  I vividly remember my 2nd grade teacher introducing us to these 3 categories.  I don’t recall learning about pronouns, prepositions, and articles, though, until at least the 5th grade.   These categories are more complex because they are abstract.  We don’t learn function words so much as we pick up on them. We gain an understanding through listening, a process that is relatively intuitive.  If someone struggles with language acquisition, function words could definitely be a hurdle.  Visual aids, like flashcards, can help make up for loss of content words. It’s easy to represent the word cat with a picture, but how would you make a flashcard for the word thatForBecause? 

My brother generally omits function words in his speech unless we prompt him otherwise.  I think it’s harder for him to learn them because he cannot “store” them without a picture.  When he reads a content word, he can access a representation of it in his mind and connect it to the letters on the page.  However, I believe Josh sees function words as more of just an arbitrary cluster of letters.  In that case, it would be difficult to distinguish words like the and that, which look so similar.  Cat and cake may appear similar (based on letters) too, but Josh has the ability to envision what those words look like in the real world.  I see his mental lexicon as a picture book.  When he hears or sees a word, his mind flips through the pages to find the right match.  The pages for function words aren’t nearly as vivid as the content words’. Accordingly, the function words seem to blend together, just like it’s easy to mistake one person for another when they look a lot alike.

How can we teach words that inherently have little meaning?

Hayden B. Jolly, Jr. suggests a “sheet of simple maze sentences…[that require] students to underline the correct word.”  Examples of maze sentences:

  1. Is this/every/was your book?
  2. It this/every/was cold in my room.

I plan to try these exercises with Josh next time I visit home.  Instead of him trying these by reading, though, I think it would be best for me to read them to him.  He will need to have an understanding of how this, every, and was differ in “real life” before he can distinguish them on paper.  Although Josh has trouble with productive language, his receptive language is largely intact.  He has heard people speaking around him all of his life, so perhaps he can comprehend the rhythmic differences between Is this your book? and Is every your book? 

I will update next week.

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