* Early concerns, part 3

How do we know if a child would benefit from early intervention?   I’ve already described my concerns about this kindergartner’s possible delays in reading, language, and social development (see parts one and two).  Not only does she have a strong family history of those issues, but has also experienced significant emotional trauma, which can lead to delays and regressions, as well.  I have not yet completed a systematic informal evaluation, but I keep gathering clues.  I was thrilled when Stacey grabbed a marker and wanted to write.

Stacey writing

We were doing some roleplaying, with Stacey creating signs that identified her as a doctor and dentist.  The paper above, if rotated, says, “I am a dentist.”  She wrote “I am a” without any assistance and left decent spacing, too.  Without lines.  Stacey got bored with that activity and turned most of the letters into happy faces.  While she was in a writing mode, I decided to check out rhyming again.  Without any graphemes, Stacy had typically become anxious about rhyming, even in a game format.  But when I asked her to use letters for rhyming, she was intrigued.  We started with cat and bat, both of which I modeled for her.  Stacey smiled and wrote my prompt, then created her own rhyme!  She was able to segment phonemes and identified three out of five short vowel sounds.  I did tell her to add a k after the c in ‘back’ and ‘black.’  Eventually, Stacey ran out of interest and said, “Period!” as she added punctuation after the word ‘hit.’  I asked, “What does that mean?” and she answered, “You are done… the….”  I suggested, “Sentence?” and she nodded.

Other observations: Stacey recognized individual one-syllable words in a sentence, blended phonemes without distortions (“k-æ-t” instead of “cuh-ah-tuh”), and demonstrated confidence and pleasure at her ability to write!  Woohoo!

Does this mean I can pack up my reading concerns?  Not until I’ve done more systematic work with her.   However, I am very encouraged with these skills!

* Why teach phonological awareness?

question-mark-460864_640I’ve been asked why we should teach phonological awareness.  Instruction in these skills is considered one of the five key components of effective reading instruction for all kids.  In my experience, children will learn many of these skills before they come to school if reading aloud and “playing” with words are a routine part of their interactions with adults.  What does playing with words and sounds look like?  Kids listen to and create rhymes, make new words by changing sounds, and watch someone pointing to each word as they read are a story.   Many children’s books use alliteration, which also helps kids isolate beginning sounds if this literary feature is emphasized during reading.  By the time many middle- and upper-class kids enter kindergarten, they have made important strides in both phonological and phonemic awareness.  Poor kids typically don’t have those advantages.  More formal instruction is usually provided in kindergarten, primarily in blending beginning sounds with rimes (or “word families”) and rhyming.  Systematic instruction in this skill will benefit all kids and level the playing field for kids who haven’t had this early exposure. For kids who are at risk for developing reading disabilities, earlier instruction in this area is also vitally important.

* Phonological awareness: when to stop

I’ve been asked if and when it’s appropriate to stop teaching phonological awareness.  These skills are typically acquired by kids ages 7 to 8, but I’ve systematically taught phonological awareness for students in third and fourth grade based on assessment indicating strong weaknesses in this area.  For older students, I am inclined to pair instruction in this area with graphemes (in other words, students manipulate words and sounds using letters as well).  My reasoning is that time is of the essence for 5th grade (and older) kids who lack both phonological and phonemic awareness skills.  For any age, there is research suggesting that instruction in phonological awareness is not as effective after 20 weeks.  On the other hand, it is still possible and helpful to embed phonological instruction at the word, syllable, and phoneme levels through systematic phonics instruction.

* What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is a broad category that includes identifying and manipulating spoken language, from words to syllables to phonemes (individual sounds).  At the sentence level, students distinguish between words in a phrase or sentence.  “She borrows my pencil” has four words (not six, when a student may be confusing syllables with discreet words).  At the word level, students identify whether words are the same or different and recognize and produce rhyme.  At the syllable level, students blend syllables (starting with compound words and progressing to multi-syllabic words), segment syllables (the same progression of complexity as blending), and delete syllables (same progression of complexity).

See the complete post under Reading.

* Blocks used in phonological awareness

I’ve had a question about what I use to assist students in visualizing the manipulation of sounds.  When I do my initial assessment, I use small wooden blocks.  Nothing fancy, just blocks like these which probably came from my son’s toy collection.

blocks

During actual instruction, I teach kids to use their fingers for blending and segmenting.  They touch their thumb to each successive finger (starting with the index finger) for each sound.  (You model it on YOUR left hand so the sounds are presented in a left-to-right sequence).  If kids want to use this strategy unobtrusively in their regular classroom, I teach them to tap single fingers in order on their lap (or on the edge of their desk).

* Phonological and phonemic awareness, part 1

Phonological awareness sounds like knowing where you put your cell phone.  In fact, it’s a foundational skill in reading, albeit more easily acquired by typical learners.  For the child with reading disabilities, phonological skills must be taught systematically because dyslexia is a language-based disorder (see the International Dyslexia Association website for more information).

Phonological awareness is a broad category that includes identifying and manipulating spoken language, from words to syllables to phonemes (individual sounds).  At the sentence level, students distinguish between words in a phrase or sentence.  “She borrows my pencil” has four words (not six, when a student may be confusing syllables with discreet words).  At the word level, students identify whether words are the same or different and recognize and produce rhyme.  At the syllable level, students blend syllables (starting with compound words and progressing to multi-syllabic words), segment syllables (the same progression of complexity as blending), and delete syllables (same progression of complexity).

That leads us to phonemic awareness, which refers to the manipulation of individual sounds, of which there are 44 in conventional English (and several more in the Southern US!).  A basic phonemic awareness skill is blending an onset and rime  (a rime is a vowel and any consonants that come after it, more popularly called a “word family”).  In my experience, this is a skill that most teachers emphasize and is often mastered by dyslexic students before they begin specialized instruction.  However, there are nine other skills relating to phonemic awareness;  depending upon the severity of their disorder, dyslexic students may need systematic instruction through all of these skills.  Phonemic awareness instruction is often improved by the use of visual cues (such as blocks or tapping the sounds using fingers).  Phonemic skills instruction is not phonics instruction.  Phonemic awareness is sound manipulation, whereas phonics includes the use of letter-sound associations and spelling patterns.

* Explode the Code

This is my personal review of an online reading program I’ve used successfully for several years: Explode the Code Online.  It’s a giant of a program, a digital version of a highly successful series of workbooks for teaching phonics published by EPS.  The online program mirrors the 8 workbooks.  Both workbooks and online program provide systematic and sequential instruction in phonics.  Here’s a screen shot of an online sample page.  ETC online

How it works:  The program will start with an automatic assessment of short vowel sounds, which also includes segmenting sounds, isolating beginning sounds, and spelling CVC words (Book 1).  However, teachers may choose whatever starting place is appropriate for the student.  Here is an overview of the content:

  • Book 1: short vowel sounds
  • Book 2: beginning and ending consonant blends
  • Book 3: long vowel sounds, consonant digraphs and trigraphs,
  • Book 4: compound words, word endings, syllable division, syllable types
  • Book 5: word families, 3-letter blends, qu, and sounds of -ed
  • Book 6: r-controlled vowels, diphthongs
  • Book 7: soft c and g, silent consonants
  • Book 8: suffixes and endings

What kids do: There are numerous responses required for each skill, including identifying correct letter-sound associations by dragging letters or typing; reading words; spelling;  matching; answering questions; practicing vocabulary; and reading sentences.  The activities themselves range from matching pictures and words to choosing one of two sentences to match a picture.  Student voices are used throughout, the graphics are animated (changing from black and white to color), and the all the individual sounds are carefully but naturally spoken, segmented, and then blended (see Cons below for one caveat on this).  After completing each lesson, students earn one of four icons for their scorecard: an airplane, a butterfly, a ladybug, or a bee.  Earning a certain number of icons (which can be adjusted by the teacher) rewards the student with the FUN button, a page of links to online games and websites.  Students may time themselves during each lesson and check their own student summaries when they log in (for the same information that teachers get below).

What teachers get:  Each student’s progress is  recorded in detail.  Serious detail.  You can generate reports that indicate how many minutes and seconds a student worked (and the actual time they were online), their accuracy rates, problem skills, comparison to California State standards, overall progress, number of lessons mastered, and number of assessments passed.  You name it, the program measures it.

Pros:

  1. The abundant repetition and built-in programing ensure that students get sufficient practice before moving to a new skill
  2. It can be used to support a special needs student in the regular classroom to reinforce special education services
  3. The continual visual and auditory representation of segmenting and blending support phonological awareness
  4. This program provides a worksheet-free way to practice phonics skills
  5. Student progress is recorded in minute detail, which is excellent for EC kids as well as those in Response to Intervention
  6. A great program for English Language Learners (ELL)
  7. It is reasonably priced; seats can be swapped out if a student leaves or masters the content and all data is preserved
  8. It is easy to use for both teachers and students
  9. Students are motivated to earn the better icons (‘airplanes’ trump ‘bees’)

Cons:

  1. Kids usually find the program boring, airplanes and bees aside.  The Fix: Plan on an external motivation system or get them to buy into the importance of this practice.
  2. If a kid “goofs” off and makes multiple errors, the program will continue to repeat the activities that were completed incorrectly.  The Fix: Explain what will happen if they goof off.
  3. The program does not correct for unaccented syllables.  The syllables “but” + “ton”  are pronounced correctly on their own, but the word doesn’t sound the same when combined into “button.”  The Fix:  Use this as a teaching opportunity for blending syllables.
  4. The program can be occasionally “glitchy” due to the enormous amounts of audio and graphic files.  The Fix: Buy a better computer.

My Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5