Professor John Hattie is well known for his meta-meta-analysis of educational research, Visible Learning. In his section on reading comprehension, he writes: “the support from this form of [synthetic] systematic phonics appeared to be strong: that is, the synthesis of separate sounds associated with letters appears to be superior to many other methods.” Hattie concludes: “Overall, phonics instruction is powerful in the process of learning to read – both for reading skills and for reading comprehension” (Hattie, 2009).
Many students struggle when learning to read. One of my children had a very difficult time learning to read and after testing it was determined that he had a reading disability. About 10% to 17% of the U.S. population has a specific reading disability sometimes called dyslexia, which is the major cause of reading failure in school. It is important to note that reading difficulties exist on a continuum. Some children will do well with a quick intervention and other children, like my son, will need lots of support and explicit instruction in reading.
After researching different ways to help my child, I found that a systematic, multisensory approach to teaching phonics was needed. According to the prominent dyslexia researcher Dr. Sally Shaywitz the key ingredients of an effective early intervention are:
Systematic and direct instruction in:
- Phonemic Awareness
- Reading sight words
- Vocabulary and concepts
- Reading comprehension strategies
- Fluency Training-Fluency is the ability to read quickly, smoothly, accurately and with good comprehension.
- Enriched language experiences-Interactive dialogue involving listening, speaking and storytelling.
In this blog post, I want to focus on the first three on the list!
In order for children to learn to read print, they must be aware of how the sounds in words work. They must understand that words are made up of individual speech sounds, or phonemes. Phonemic awareness involves segmenting (dividing spoken words into individual sounds), blending (putting these sounds together), and manipulating (adding, deleting, or substituting sounds). Although people often use the terms interchangeably, phonemic awareness is actually a subcategory of phonological awareness, which refers to a more general understanding of the sound structure of language. Here is a guide by the University of Virginia on phonemic awareness instruction.
Phonemic Awareness is so important! Research indicates a strong relationship between early phoneme awareness and later reading success, and it links some reading failure to insufficiently developed phoneme awareness skills. Reading Rockets has more ideas for developing this important skill. The best news about learning phonemic awareness is that it is and should be fun!
Mrs. Judy Araujo has a wonderful website that is just full of great ideas! Don’t miss this one!
Phonics involves the relationship between sounds and their spellings. Phonics is the understanding that sounds and print letters are connected; this is the first step towards “reading.” The goal of phonics instruction is to teach students the most common sound-spelling relationships so that they can decode words. This comes naturally to the majority of students. For some students, like my son, this did not come naturally. I learned that students who fall into the moderate to severe spectrum of dyslexia need to learn language in a structured way from the simple to the complex. It needs to be multisensory (students are taught using all pathways to learning: auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic (movement). This instruction needs to be cumulative where new learning is connected with what is already learned. There are different ways of structuring phonics instruction. I teach phonics based on the six types of syllables (closed, open, silent e, vowel teams, r-control and consonant le). This is an approach to teaching phonics that does not rely on a program. The goal is not to just teach phonics/spelling rules. The goal is to teach the student to recognize the patterns of the syllables in words. I have taught many struggling readers over the last 25 years to decode this way. Remember, children with dyslexia are intelligent! They can pick up the patterns when taught in a systematic way.
A very helpful book that uses this structure of teaching phonics/spelling based on the six syllables is Angling for Words– Basic Angling Practice Book by Dorothy B. Montgomery – Linda M. Gipson. It allows the teacher to take students through phonics in a sequential order. It gives you a word list for all 6 syllable types and has sentences that match the word pattern you want to practice. Be sure to get the teacher’s manual that comes with the student book. Corresponding phono-cards are also very helpful. They can be found here. Here is an outline of the progression. In the teacher’s manual, there is a blank chart that can be filled in for each child as they move through the syllables. While it was published a long time ago, it is a great intervention tool for the general education classroom. It is simple and straightforward.
Helpful Ideas and Supports
- One helpful tidbit is to give each of the vowels a hand motion. This allows the teacher to remind the student what to say without actually saying it. Mine are: short a-an open palm, holding the largest apple that they have ever seen! Short e-rubbing a finger along the “edge” of the table (this positions the mouth and teeth correctly). Short i-itch by scratching my hand. Short o-opening my mouth, saying the short o sound and circling the opening in an o shape. Short u-pointing up. You may have different motions. Just make sure they are quick and subtle. My students will use these on their own to help them remember. It is a great kinesthetic connection to the short vowel sounds.
- Comprehension is not always an issue for a student with dyslexia. It wasn’t for my child. (But, I have seen many children that struggle with both decoding and comprehension.) To foster his comprehension skills, I read books aloud to him, watched movies (asking questions) with him, and bought many picture books and magazines for him to read. This helped him enjoy reading until his decoding skills improved. In the classroom, we foster this idea by approaching literacy in a balanced way. We use read alouds, shared reading, listening to reading, and many literacy activities that support struggling readers.We also explicitly teach comprehension strategies.
- Cursive Handwriting is important! Maria Montessori’s extensive observations of children revealed the importance of learning through movement and the senses. Research corroborates the vital hand/brain connection, proving that new pathways in the brain develop as children use their hands to explore and interact with the world. I love this quote: “Only three fingers write, but the whole body works.”-Medieval Scribe. Students with dyslexia need the motor memory and tactile experience that comes with handwriting. Cursive letters can all begin on the line (the way I teach) and letter reversals are almost impossible. Maria Montessori believed that writing of single letters could begin with three or four-year-olds. She noted that children try to write before they begin to read.I have seen this countless times with littles! I encourage you to take the time to research this vital link for struggling learners.You can find out more here and here.
Example of the lesson plan steps:
1. Visual drill- Students see the letters or groups of letters for the sound(s)/spelling pattern(s) you are working on. They can name the letter(s) and say the correct sound(s) for the letter.
2. Auditory drill- The sound the letters or groups of letters make. Teacher says sound(s)and student repeats. Then, the student writes all the ways that sound is spelled.
3. Read words- blend sounds they are learning in words and break the word into sound parts. Elkonin Boxes are great for this!
4. Dictated spelling words- teacher says a word(s), student repeats it and then writes the word down. This is where S.O.S. Spelling comes in handy.
5. Dictated sentences– student writes complete sentences with that contain the sound taught throughout the lesson.
6. Reading passages/books- The student will read a passage or book that has many words containing the sound presented in step 1. I have used phonetic readers (Primary Phonics) to match my phonics skills to a text. Reading A-Z has decodable readers as well.The goal is to move the child into a variety of books and genres, especially ones that interest them. Here is a resource for finding books matched to levels.
This lesson plan format can be used in small group or individual reading instruction. It is an excellent way to provide intervention for those students needing this level of support.
Additional multisensory tools can be used to introduce new letters, phonemes, or practice spelling. Here are a few that students and teachers like:
Plastic Canvas– This is easy to find in craft stores. It comes in different colors. You place the paper over it creating a bumpy writing surface.
Colored Sand, rice, or beads are great for tracing letters or words. This work better on a tray. The Montessori Sand Tray is very nice. But any tray will do!
Scrapbooking Paper comes in a variety of textures. Check out your local craft center and see what is available. The rougher the better.
I hope that this information has prompted you to discover different ways of supporting students with dyslexia and those who are struggling in other ways. We must be persistent in our efforts to help them be successful.