Teaching phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle
As explained in Section 1, speech is a series of units which partially overlap each other (co-articulation) and which are highly variable by nature (allophony).
A famous linguist took the analogy of an omelette: a spoken word is like scrambled eggs. The eggs that make up the omelette are being unconsciously reconstituted within the brain of the listener. Even though this is not what we feel, it is a fact that ‘sounds’ or phonemes do not physically exist in speech. They exist in the head of the listener.
This is the reason why children, and especially children with dyslexia who often display a core phonological deficit, need to be taught and trained explicitly to develop representations of ‘sounds’.
At the same time, children need to be taught about the alphabetic principle through the systematic learning of the links or correspondences between the ‘letters’ and their corresponding ‘sounds’.
Actually, scientific research has demonstrated that phonemic awareness and the correspondences between ‘letters’ and ‘sounds’ should be taught at the same time because they reinforce each other. This is quite logical: the teaching of ‘sounds’ favours memorizing the corresponding written symbols, just as the teaching of these symbols (‘letters’) favours the development of phonemic representations.
In conclusion, for children with dyslexia it is of paramount importance to teach ‘sounds’, as well as the alphabetic principle through the correspondences between ‘letters’ and ‘sounds’, explicitly, systematically and deliberately.
Many scientific studies have shown that you can increase phonemic awareness with a short 10 – 15 minute explicit training session per day for even a few weeks.
The tests which you used in Section 2 for assessing phonological awareness, i.e. the awareness of syllables, onset/rime units and phonemes, can provide the basis for teaching exercises.
Suppose you are faced by first year primary school pupils. With your course partner think up games to develop phonological awareness based on the assessments in Section 2: generation, detection, blending, segmentation, deletion, substitution, and fusion.
Use a doll, teddy-bear or other toy.
Compare your ideas with our suggestions below.
You could for example show them the doll, puppet, teddy-bear or other animal, saying that it comes from a far-away place or another planet and that it cannot speak English. So now the whole class is invited to help teach it the sounds and words of English.
First give the doll an imaginary name. Choose a pseudo-word, based on a phonological unit on which you want to work, for example the rime [ ing ]. The name therefore could be [ Ming ]. Now say that as Ming has come a long way and can’t understand English, the class is going to give a string of words which end in the same way as its name to show Ming that you are its friends:
[ ring ], [ bring ], [ king ] [ wing ], [ making ], [ pushing ], …
To make this easier and to get around the difficulty of having to find words in English, you can also ask the class to invent nonsense words to give the doll.
Now you explain that the doll is more at ease and still wants to learn our language but, because the sounds of our language are so different from its own, it will need to hear more sounds to help it identify the English sounds and eventually learn them. So everyone is going to give three ‘words’ in which one word, real or invented, is completely different from the other two:
[ pet ], [ set ], [ mop ]
[ bang ], [ stuff ], [ hang ]
[ stand ], [ grin ], [ spin ]
This time you say that the doll is beginning to understand some words, but it still finds it hard to pronounce the whole word and so it pronounces the sounds separately. So you present, say, the syllables or ‘sounds’ separately, exactly as you did in Section 2 in your assessment of phonological awareness, and ask the pupils to say which whole word the doll is trying to say.
For example, if you are working with syllables, Ming may have said:
[ sis ] and [ ter ] ( [ sister ] )
[ con ] and [ tact ] ( [ contact ] )
[ pi ] and [ lot ] ( [ pilot ] )
if you are working with ‘sounds’ or phonemes, Ming may have said:
[ m ], [ a ], and [ t ] ( [ mat ] )
[ m ], [ oo ] and [ n ] ( [ moon ] )
[ s ], [ t ], [ e ] and [ p ] ( [ step ] )
Ideally, you would pre-record someone else pretending to be the doll. You would then pretend that you cannot quite hear the words yourself and that you need the class to help you out.
You can also pronounce or record sequences of both words and pseudo-words, saying that the doll has begun to learn the sounds but sometimes confuses real words with words that do not exist. Now they have to concatenate or blend the sequences of sounds and tell the doll whether it is a real word in English or it is not a real word. For example, Ming may have said:
[ b ], [ i ], [ n ] ( [ bin ] )
[ s ], [ i ], [ n ], [ g ] ( [ sing ] )
[ t ], [ r ], [ a ], [ n ], [ g ] ( [ trang ] )
This time you say that our language, like the doll’s own language, has some words which are very difficult to say. So you are going to say them, and the children have to repeat them little bit by little bit, so that the doll can hear and learn them. For example, if you are working with syllables, you may want to teach Ming the words:
[ story ] [ sto ] [ ry ]
[ dragonfly ] [ dra ] [ gon ] [ fly ]
[ alligator ] [ a ] [ li ] [ ga ] [ tor ]
Working with phonemes, you may want to teach the names of some animals, for example:
[ bird ] [ b ] [ ir ] [ d ]
[ fish ] [ f ] [ i ] [ sh ]
[ dog ] [ d ] [ o ] [ g ]
Now Ming is making good progress but forgets the beginning or endings of words. Give some examples, preferably pre-recorded, and invite the pupils to give similar words which Ming could be expected to make:
[ unhappy ] when it says [ happy ]
[ quickly ] when it says [ quick ]
[ pilot ] when it says [ lot ]
[ meat ] when it says [ eat ]
[ plan ] when it says [ pan ]
[ boat ] when it says [ oat ]
Say that Ming sometimes mixes up words, and that the class is going to help you find the word it should have said.
‘Ming intended to say [ bat ] but replaced [ b ] with [ p ], so what did Ming actually say?’ ( [ pat ] )
Again, you can mix words and pseudo-words:
‘Ming said [ dack ] but should have said [ b ] instead of [ d ]. What word did Ming intend to say?’ ( [ back ] )
Now say that Ming is finding it very hard to say two words and can only say the first sounds of each word. Can the class tell you the one sound Ming will make by joining the first bits of the two words?
[ bigger ] [animal] → [ ba ]
[ nice ] [ orange ] → [ no ]
[ small ] [ island ] → [ sai ]
Alternatively, you can do all these activities using only pseudo-words.
As you can see, the possibilities are endless.
Whatever means you use to introduce phonological activities, bear in mind that especially for children with dyslexia it is better to start with short words before going on to longer words and pseudo-words in order not to overtax memory. Also, the smaller the phonological unit to be worked on, from syllable to rime to onset to phoneme, the more difficult the task.