By Dr. Deborah Berrill, Professor Emeritus, School of Education & Professional Learning, Trent University and English LD Expert, LD@school
Many children who have learning disabilities (LDs) have difficulty in reading. There are multiple reasons for this, reminding us of the complexities of the neurobiological underpinnings of LDs and how brain differences affect learning.
One of the main reading difficulties people with LDs have is in decoding printed words. People without LDs often use a phonics approach to sound out unfamiliar words but that does not work as well for many people with LDs who have difficulty in phonological processing – that is, in hearing the different sounds in words. They may also have difficulty associating sounds with letters (Lyon, 1995). This, in turn, interferes not only with the ability to sound out unfamiliar words but it also strongly affects spelling – for how could someone spell a word accurately when they do not hear all of the sounds in the word?
Phonological awareness includes not only hearing different sounds but also being able to manipulate sounds in words. This is not something that comes naturally to people: rather, the processes of phonological awareness must be explicitly taught. This is particularly important because in the early stages of reading, phonological awareness is the strongest predictor of reading progress (Stanovich, 1986).
Adams et al (1998) indicate that a child’s level of phonological awareness at the end of kindergarten is one of the strongest predictors of future reading success. Yet they also note that “more than 20 percent of students struggle with some aspects of phonological awareness, while 8–10 percent exhibit significant delays. Early intervention is crucial and can make a real difference to students with limited levels of phonological awareness” (Comprehensive Literacy Resource for Kindergarten Teachers. Chapter 2: Phonological Awareness).
What is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonological awareness includes the ability to identify and manipulate sounds in oral language, from parts of words to syllables and phrases. Phonological awareness thus refers to a wide range of skills. Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness focusing just on the smallest units of sound in human speech. These units are called phonemes and phonemes form the sound system of a given language. The same phonemic principles apply whether the language is English or French, Greek or Chinese.
In English, although we have 26 letters in our alphabet, there are 44 phonemes (sounds) because some letters have more than one sound. For example, the letter ‘a’ represents one sound or phoneme in the word bat and a different phoneme in the word baby; similarly, the letter ‘c’ represents one sound in the word cup and a different sound in the word city. Additionally, some letters form a completely new sound when they are put together, such as ‘th’ in the word the or ‘ch’ in the word chat. For a complete list of phonemes in the English language, please click here to visit the Reading Well website.
Phonemic awareness relates to the ability to hear and identify individual phonemes. Citing multiple research studies, Bryant et al (2014: 211) note the strong “connection between young children’s awareness of phonological segments, particularly of phonemes, and their progress in learning to read (Badian, 1994; Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Cardoso-Martins & Pennington, 2004; de Jong & van der Leij, 1999; Ehri et al., 2001; Muter & Snowling, 1998; Parrila, Kirby, & McQuarrie, 2004).” Many other studies consistently confirm that phonemic awareness along with letter recognition are the two best early predictors of reading success, and more recent studies have demonstrated that phonemic awareness skills influence children’s broader academic success throughout most of their schooling (Blomert & Csépe, 2012; Bryant et al, 2014; Vaessen & Blomert, 2010).
Phonemic Awareness Skills
In reading, we are interested in a child’s ability to distinguish the sounds in three different locations: at the beginning of words; at the end of words; and in the middle of words. Each of these is a different skill. Once these three skills are mastered, the child needs to learn how to blend sounds together to make a full word. As words becomes more complex, more complex phonemic awareness skills are needed.
There are five different types of phonemic skills of importance. These are outlined on the Reading Rockets website and include the following:
- Phoneme matching - the ability to identify words that begin with the same sound.
- Phoneme isolation - the ability to isolate a single sound from within a word.
- Phoneme blending - the ability to blend individual sounds into a word.
- Phoneme segmentation - the ability to break a word into individual sounds.
- Phoneme manipulation - the ability to modify, change, or move the individual sounds in a word.
Unfortunately, many people with LDs have difficulty developing these skills. It is important to understand these skills and to recognize if a child is having difficulty with them. Teachers – and family, too – need to understand that if this is the case, it is not because the child is not trying. Rather, it is because the physiology of a child’s brain makes the task extremely difficult.
Assessment FOR Learning in Phonemic Awareness
Teachers and parents can do some informal exploration of a child’s phonemic awareness, starting with an exploration of their ability to segment – or isolate – sounds in short words. Let the child know that you are going to play a word game. Then tell them that you are going to say a word and they have to tell you the first sound in that word (Weiner, 1994). E.g., “What sound do you hear at the beginning of the word pat?” (/p/). This would be followed by asking, “What sound do you hear at the end of the word pat?” (/t/).
We start with the initial sound in a word first – that is the easiest. Then we ask for the last sound. If the child can do both of those, then ask, “What sound do you hear in the middle of the word pat?” (/a/). More complex versions of these skills would involve identifying consonant blends such as bl, tr, sp, at the beginning, at the end and in the middle of words.
Other tasks that help us understand a child’s phonemic awareness abilities include the following:
- Phoneme deletion: "What word would be left if the /k/ sound were taken away from cat?" Or, at a more difficult level, “Say the word ‘play.’ Now say it again but don’t say /p/.”
- Word to word matching: "Do pen and pipe begin with the same sound?"
- Blending of sounds: "What word would we have if we blended these sounds together: /m/ /o/ /p/?")
- Phoneme segmentation: "What sounds do you hear in the word ‘hot’?"
- Phoneme counting: "How many sounds do you hear in the word ‘cake’?" (Three: /k/ /ā/ /k/)
- Rhyming: "Tell me all of the words that you know that rhyme with the word ‘cat’.”
A child may be able to do phoneme deletion relatively easily with short words but they may have more difficulty with longer words or deletions that are not at the beginning or end of the word. (E.g., “Say the word ‘stale.’ Now say it again, but don’t say /l/.”) Phonemic awareness skills are on a continuum from less complex skills, like rhyming, to more complex skills such as deletion of medial sound (sounds in the middle of words) or blends. The latter might include a task such as “Say the word ‘stale.’ Now say it again but don’t say /t/.”
The Rosner Test of Auditory Analysis Skills can be a helpful starting point. Children should be able to respond correctly to the following by the end of Grade 3.
Phonemic Awareness of Phoneme Deletion: The Rosner Test of Auditory Analysis Skills (1993) (Click here to view the Test of Auditory Analysis Skills.)
|Now say it again, but don’t say boy||cow|
|Now say it again, but don’t say steam||
|Now say it again, but don’t say shine||
|Now say it again, but don’t say pic||
|Now say it again, but don’t say “q”||
|Now say it again, but don’t say /k/ (the k sound)||
|Now say it again, but don’t say /m/ (the m sound)||
|Now say it again, but don’t say /t/||
|Now say it again, but don’t say /m/||
|Now say it again, but don’t say /t/||
|Now say it again, but don’t say /z/||
|Now say it again, but don’t say /k/||
|Now say it again, but don’t say /p/||
|Now say it again, but don’t say /t/||
|Say smack||Now say it again, but don’t say /m/||
There are multiple phonemic awareness assessment tools supported by research that can be used beginning in Kindergarten and going through higher grades, including the Rosner Test of Auditory Analysis Skills (Rosner, 1993), the Test of Phonological Awareness-Kindergarten (TOPA-K; Torgesen & Bryant, 1993), the Yopp-Singer Test of Phoneme Segmentation (Yopp, 1995) and the Phoneme Segmentation Fluency, DIBELS (Kaminski & Good, 1996). Click here to access a full list of research-supported phonemic awareness measures on the LD Online website. Having evidence to know whether or not a child has difficulty with phonological processing is essential in knowing how to best meet their needs.
If a child has difficulty with phonemic awareness, it is important to talk with the Special Education Resource Teacher at your school. They can do additional assessment and together you can plan what type of explicit instruction in auditory analysis the child will receive.
Once a child is able to isolate sounds, they need to learn to blend those sounds together. The child would be asked, “What word do we have if we blend together the following sounds: /p/ /a/ /t/ ?” Like other phonemic awareness skills, this often needs to be taught through modelling and blending the word orally with the child. The initial slow blending needs to be done increasingly quickly so the child can hear the full word properly. What is particularly heartening is that we know that phonemic awareness training, where children are taught how to blend sounds and how to delete sounds, can be extremely effective and subsequently makes a significant difference in reading ability (e.g., Rosner, 1974; Weiner, 1994). With children who have learning disabilities, this training needs to be explicit and intensive in order to be effective.
Phonemic awareness skills of isolating and blending sounds in simple words are usually mastered by Grade 1. And the ability to manipulate phonemes is usually mastered by the end of Grade 1 or early Grade 2. For a full list of ages at which specific segmentation and manipulation skills are typically mastered, click here to visit the Reading Rockets website.
Where Does Phonics Fit In?
Phonics is an approach to reading that involves the association of sounds to written letters and includes “sounding out” unfamiliar words. A large body of research confirms that readers who can use a phonics approach by sounding out unfamiliar words are more successful readers. Yet many people with LDs have great difficulty in being able to use a phonics approach either because they cannot hear the different sounds (phonological awareness) or they may have difficulty in blending sounds together. Nagy, Berninger and Abbott (2006: 136) note that “an increasing body of research has documented how a variety of symptoms of reading disability can be traced to a basic phonological deficit (e.g., Adams, 1990; Morris et al., 1998; Olson, Wise, Conners, Rack, & Fulker, 1989; Shankweiler et al., 1995; Stanovich, 1986).” This challenge makes a phonics approach to reading almost useless to them.
The longstanding findings of the effectiveness of explicit teaching of phonics was again re-affirmed in a recent thee-year pilot project launched by New York City in 2008 with 700 children in ten low income schools. Results were matched with 350 children in ten demographically similar schools who did not receive the same instruction. Students who received explicit phonics teaching showed significantly greater gains than children who did not in word identification, word attack, comprehension and spelling as measured by the Woodcock-Johnson III assessment.
Metacognition Is Needed Along With Phonemic Awareness
For many aspiring readers, learning phonemic awareness skills is not enough in itself to improve reading (Weiner 1994). Instead, as both Cunningham (1986) and Wittrock (1986) emphasize, it is critical to teach children how to think about their reading – using metacognition or thinking about one’s thinking - and to train them regarding when and why to use various segmentation and blending strategies to decode new words.
A number of reading software programs and reading approaches incorporate metacognitive strategies. These include the EmpowerTM reading program (click here to learn more about EmpowerTM) and Lexia Core 5R software (click here to learn more about Lexia Core 5R), programs which are highly recommended by Ontario Provincial Demonstration Schools for students with LDs. For instance, EmpowerTM teaches five different decoding strategies and children explain which strategies they will use in decoding specific words. This metacognitive awareness of what strategies are being used is helpful because if those strategies don’t work with a particular word, the child can purposefully choose a different strategy. This teaches them that different strategies may be more helpful for decoding different words and helps them from getting stuck in their reading.
Summary: Phonological Approaches to Reading
Phonemic awareness, the ability to hear and distinguish different sounds in words, has been directly correlated with reading success and achievement.
Children with learning disabilities are often unable to distinguish sounds or to manipulate them, making a phonics approach to reading untenable for them.
Explicit and intensive teaching of phonemic skills along with metacognitive awareness of when to use the different skills has proven to be successful for children who were previously unable to master these skills.
Morphological Analysis: A Complementary Approach to Strengthening Reading
Whereas phonemes are the smallest units of sound in a language, morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language – either in whole words or in parts of words. Morphology, the study of morphemes, explains the basis for our spelling system. People may understand morphology best when thinking about affixes (prefixes and suffixes) and root words: these are the three types of morphemes.
For instance, the word unzipped has three morphemes: the prefix un- which means “not” or “opposite;” the root or base word zip; and the suffix –ed which indicates that this was an action done in the past. Understanding morphology helps a reader determine the meaning of an unfamiliar word by enabling the reader to segment, or break down, a word into its root word and its affixes. This also helps readers better understand meaning and also spelling.
Understanding that root words in English come from a variety of languages, including Greek, Latin, French, and Anglo-Saxon, helps explain the logic behind what may seem like random differences between the spelling of different words. Research has established that knowing root words, prefixes and suffixes helps readers gain control over decoding and improves reading success as well as broader success at school (Bryant et al, 2014; Nagy et al, 2006; Wolf & Kennedy, 2003). The work of Hurry et al (2006) also demonstrates that learning about morphemes results in improvements in students’ spelling.
A morphological approach thus not only complements a phonemic approach to decoding but it is of tremendous help for people who have difficulty with the phonics approach as it does not rely on the ability to hear the sounds in words. Rather, a morphological approach relies on recognizing and understanding the meanings of root words and affixes.
Unfortunately, research in North America and in England shows that some teachers do not know what morphemes are and that many who do know about them do not understand their importance for reading and spelling (Hurry et al, 2006; Wolf & Kennedy, 2003). As a result, teaching students about morphemes often does not occur or occurs only incidentally rather than explicitly (Snow, Griffin & Burns, 2005). The ramifications of this have particularly negative impact for students with LDs, many of whom have phonological challenges.
Supporting Morphemic Awareness at School
Morphemic awareness is something that should be part of regular teaching practice. Explicit teaching of common prefixes, suffixes and root words should be part of the introduction of new words and new topics.
These words should then be posted, either on chart paper with the name of the unit/topic at the top of the paper, or on a word wall. Prefixes will all be written in one colour, the suffixes in a different colour and the root words in a third colour. For example:
- prefixes in green (like the “go” colour on a traffic light, signaling the beginning of the word)
- suffixes in red (“stop” on a traffic light, signaling the end of the word)
- root words in black.
Gr. 1: Life Systems: Sustainability and Stewardship
Keep reviewing learned affixes and slowly add new ones. According to Honig et al (2000), the four most common prefixes in English (dis-, in/im-, re- and un-) account for 97% of prefixed words printed in school English, and the same is true for the four most common suffixes (-ed, -ing, -ly, -s/es).
Students will enjoy a game that reinforces prefixes and suffixes and root words that can be played at least once a week.
Morphology is powerful, for those who know morphemes understand that the meanings of words are predictable from the meanings of their parts (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). Bear et al (2004) have shown that knowledge of morphemes is essential for accuracy in spelling and Nagy et al (2006) have shown that since almost all longer words are made up of numerous morphemes, understanding of morphemes contributes to fluency in the recognition of more complex words. Kirby and Bowers (2012) emphasize that “morphology works” as it helps increase vocabulary knowledge and understanding and it predicts reading development and achievement.
The earliest approaches to reading are sound/letter correspondences and phonological awareness training. Morphological approaches, however, can begin quite early as well.
Morphological approaches to reading make a distinct contribution to reading success by grade 4 and the impact increases as students get older and words get longer and more complex (Nagy et al, 2006).
Challenges Become Greater with Each Passing Year
More than 30 years ago, Stanovich (1986:379) noted that the “growing body of data indicates that variation in vocabulary knowledge is a causal determinant of differences in reading comprehension ability (Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982; McKeown, Beck, Omanson & Perfetti, 1983; Stahl, 1983).” By grade 4, children whose vocabulary knowledge is below grade level are likely to have difficulties in reading comprehension (Biemiller & Boote, 2006).
The challenges only become greater and more profound with each passing year. Since reading is difficult for most children with LDs, they read significantly less than children reading at grade level expectations. This difference in the amount of reading that occurs has ramifications on vocabulary development, access to new information, and learning in all academic areas. We have known this for more than 30 years. In 1984, Nagy and Anderson wrote that the children who are least motivated to read “in the middle grades might read 100,000 words a year while the average children at this level might read 1,000,000. The figure for the voracious middle-grade reader might be 10,000,000 or even as high as 50,000,000. If these guesses are anywhere near the mark, there are staggering individual differences in the volume of language experience, and therefore, an opportunity to learn new words (p. 328).” This has been reinforced by Juel & Minden-Cupp (2000) and affects learning new ideas across all subject areas.
Stanovich (1986) referred to the cumulative effect of reading challenges as “the Matthew effect,” which comes from the notion that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. With this analogy, Stanovich emphasizes that the learning and knowledge gap between poor readers and good readers continues to grow and grow over time, further disenfranchising poorer readers with every passing year.
Research confirms what Stanovich (1986) indicated: the learning and knowledge gap between poor readers and good readers grows and grows over time because poor readers read less – and learn less – and good readers read more – and more complex text – with each passing year.
However, this does not need to happen. A large body of research demonstrates the powerfulness of explicit training in phonological awareness – even at grades 9 and 10. This combined with the complementary approach of morphological awareness makes a significant and life-changing impact on students who have been struggling in reading (Nagy et al, 2006).
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