* What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness 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.

See the post under Reading.

* 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.

* Helping Kids Understand Reading Difficulties

NeuronaHelping kids understand their reading difficulties is an important component of specialized reading instruction.  It can help children and their families cope successfully with a disability. Why and how?

Why talk about the reading disability? Doesn’t it just cause more anguish?  Isn’t that likely to make the child feel worse?  Most kids are already thinking a lot about their reading problems.  They are comparing themselves to others in their class.  They are probably worrying and imagining the worst.  They are also likely to come to the wrong conclusion: “I can’t read so I must be stupid.”   The greater a child’s self-awareness, the more they need to have the problem demystified.

How do you talk about this with a young child?  Won’t it be confusing?  Hopefully, the reading disability is recognized early on because that will certainly lessen the emotional impact of the problem.  Match your discussion to the child’s needs and developmental level.  I have found that even first graders are fascinated with colorful, magnified pictures of neuron growth, those little “trees” that keep growing as the child develops more skills.  I also use a ladder analogy.  Dyslexic kids may be on the fourth rung of the memory ladder for reading but on the first rung for the phonics and “word play” (phonological skills) ladder.  They may be much higher on math ladders.  The essential point is that there are ladders, a way up, and that they have already accomplished a lot in some/many areas of learning.

Aren’t you building false hope for these kids?  Won’t they always have difficulty?  Infusing hope is vital.  Who would start out on a mission that is doomed to failure?  Research demonstrates that physical changes occur in the brain as a result of effective reading instruction.  And while it does seem that the neurological differences will remain, research is “scant but suggestive” about the strengths of the dyslexic brain.  Certainly every child has unique strengths and the child will need to be reminded of that.  A lot.

What about the struggle in learning to read?  Should kids know how hard it will be?  The better the instruction, the less fatiguing the struggle will be.  Instruction should be paced in small, successful increments, with a way for kids to measure their growth.  But it is a marathon, not a sprint.  The typical learner is moving into chapter books while the challenged student is working on consonant digraphs.  Again, analogies are helpful.  There’s a steep climb ahead but also a point where the basics have been acquired and the struggle is lessened.  Some have called it “getting over the hump.”   With the right instruction and practice, it will happen.  Remember that it’s always easier to imagine the worst.  Help kids imagine the best.

How do you help these kids feel “normal?”  In the most important ways, they are just as normal as any of us.  You can normalize the reading disability just as you would the need to wear hearing aids or take insulin.  While teachers and parents should spend time talking with the child about dyslexia, that can’t be the child’s whole existence.  Explore activities or topics where the child can feel successful.  It may be math or science, or perhaps sports or scouting.  Remind your child that others are facing the same issues.  Follow this link for an excellent list of  books with characters who have reading difficulties, many of them authored by adults who themselves struggled to read.

If you have other questions I haven’t addressed, please let me know.

* Oppositional and defiant kids #1

Let me describe Tim.  When I first saw him, he was under a desk, trying to whack kids’ legs with a ruler.  He immediately noticed my arrival and scowled.  I remained impassive and waited until he looked away before I started recording the observation on my clipboard.  Within 10 minutes, I had several pages of notes on his behavior.  He interrupted the teacher, refused her directions to leave his spot under the desk, and made threatening faces and gestures towards his classmates.  He ended up locking himself in the bathroom.  I sighed and left the classroom.  Tim was on track for a special education label; the referral listed behavior problems as a primary factor, including aggression, hyperactivity, noncompliance, and bullying.  He was also a non-reader in first grade.

His background information was pretty dismal.  His father was in jail, his mother struggled with him and a “delinquent” older brother, and there was a family history of psychological and learning problems.  His mother said she had finally learned to read in high school.

After my observation, I was most struck by how quickly he spotted me when I came in the room.  There was something in his scowling expression that made me think of embarrassment.  I kept that in mind, remembering how many oppositional kids I’d taught who were non-readers. I started forming hypotheses about Tim’s problems in school.  No, I didn’t write them down and they were all tangled with one another, but here’s a more manageable version what I was thinking:

Hypothesis #1:  Tim was acting out because he couldn’t read.  He’d rather be a terror than stupid, but nevertheless believed he was stupid.  Fact:  When the psychologist completed a cognitive evaluation (IQ test), Tim had a profile that was all over the map, but did have some above average numbers in there.

Hypothesis #2:  His brother was probably struggling with the same reading and behavior issues and therefore tormented Tim.  Tim’s response was to torment smaller kids.  Fact:  His mom confirmed some horror stories regarding his brother’s bullying.  Tim was larger than his classmates, having already been retained in kindergarten.

Hypothesis #3:  Tim did not feel safe or loved.  Fact: see #2 above.

Hypothesis #4: Tim had a serious reading disability.  Fact:  He could not identify all the letters of the alphabet, for starters.  He could not read or write his name.  (And in real life, “Tim’s” name was relatively long.)

Even during the special education labeling process, I pulled Tim into my room for further assessment and to start some relationship building.  He was anxious and oppositional, even on the way to my room.  I used my typical reward system with him, five happy faces on a chart equaled “free time,” an opportunity to use the computer, play with Legos, etc. for a prescribed period of time at the end of a session.   I also used my “three strikes and you’re out” system (no happy face if he had 3 reminders from me to follow directions).  However, as with all newbies, I kept the “reminders” in a prompt category so he could experience initial success.  (To clarify, I would redirect him, praise him even for looking at me, and continue the activity without counting my redirection as a “reminder.”  I tightened up that approach  slowly and carefully.)  Combined with simple but engaging activities, he was immediately successful.   I also kept my ratio of praise to correction really high, at least 6:1, even in the hallway (especially in the hallway!).  I had talked to his mom and him about his interests and incorporated those into our lessons.

Tim was finally placed and eligible for services with me.  Apart from keeping him out of the classroom (where he was miserable and made everyone else miserable),  my primary focus was getting him under voice control.   I steered clear of  obvious reading tasks.  Instead, I had him creatively decorate his name, using every kind of material I could find (pasta, beads, clay, Legos, cereal, etc.).  I displayed these all over the room and could see that Tim cared a lot about success at school (despite his nonchalance as I drew attention to these name cards).  I stifled other kids’ potential remarks about his “baby work” by regularly reminding kids that everyone was responsible for their OWN work.

Tim disliked all the other kids in his group.  After a couple of sessions, the feeling was mutual.  I kept praising the kids for saying kind things to one another and set up a bonus system for positive comments.  Tim actually became a top earner for positive comments, but I kept a close watch on his hands and feet at all times.  I added Tim to a social skills group, where his flair for drama was useful.  We role-played how to make friends, what to say when frustrated, and watched puppets who described their own struggles in school.  Tim was fascinated with puppets.  At first, Tim’s puppets were quite aggressive, but my reminder system held him in check.  My room was a very safe place for Tim, with consistency and (teacher) acceptance.

Some other strategies that worked well:

  • Role-playing and videotaping.   Tim loved watching his role plays on videotape.  He learned to sit in a chair and pretend to work.  Not long after starting his sessions with me, he began to sit quietly in his classroom, also pretending to work.
  • Extreme modifications to his classroom work.  I created basic, sort-of-reading assignments for him and fastened them into a serious-looking, third grade workbook cover.  Tim then appeared to be working above grade level.  He would not let anyone get close without slamming his workbook shut and glaring.  Most kids didn’t want to get too close, anyway.
  • Gradual introduction to specialized reading instruction.  I mean, this was gradual.  Like watching-a-plant-grow gradual.  His inability to read was near the core of his anger about himself and school.  Even though I knew that he must learn to read, I had to approach it with kid gloves or risk losing his willingness to try.

Wow, this post is getting long.  I will fast forward a bit.

It took me a year to truly love Tim.  I was inwardly upset that he hurt other kids, although my behavior towards him was always positive and calm.  I discovered that his memory was something akin to a blank hard drive.  It took him over a year to memorize his name.  I can only imagine how he felt about school, but he tried hard and actually started learning to read.  His behavior was no longer a routine problem in the classroom, but he continued to be an aggressor at recess if not monitored.  Tim made his way through elementary school with pull-out support and I lost track of him in middle school.