Should we do phoneme awareness activities without letters?

If you subscribe to Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy (DDOLL) emails, you’ll know there’s been a recent storm of professional discussion about whether it’s a waste of time doing phonemic awareness activities without letters.

The strong consensus is that it’s preferable to use letters/spellings when working on phonemic awareness (though it then also becomes a phonics activity). This has been clear for a long time. I recently reread Diane McGuinness’s classic 2004 book Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How To Teach Reading, which says:

One of the most consistent findings in the literature…and evident in the NRP’s meta-analysis, is that when phoneme-awareness training is meshed with teaching letter-sound correspondences, this has a much stronger impact on reading and spelling than training in the auditory mode alone.”

p 166. the NRP is the 2000 US National Reading Panel, which did a huge review of scientific evidence on how to teach reading).

My favourite activity for teaching phonemic awareness is building and changing words/creating word sequences using my moveable alphabet. Here’s how I use it:

However, Diane McGuinness doesn’t say phonemic awareness activities without letters are a complete waste of time, and nor did the NRP.

While waiting outside a hall, pool or at a bus stop, is it worth doing a few oral-only Equipped for Reading Success or Heggerty deletions/manipulations if you have a photocopy of relevant ones in your bag, or a screenshot on your phone? Could you play I Spy Blending, using phoneme strings as clues instead of first letter names, while going for a walk, like this?

I’d love adults and four-year-olds to play I Spy Blending while travelling, waiting, doing mundane housework or otherwise needing something to amuse themselves. The adult would ask all the questions and stick to words with just two or three sounds before introducing longer words. Once a child is proficient at answering (blending), they might like to try asking some questions (segmenting), perhaps on a team with an adult at first.

Imagine if most children arrived at school knowing how to play this game, and could take turns to both ask and answer. That would be a sign that they had already nailed the two most basic phonemic awareness skills: blending and segmenting. They’d be perfectly positioned to learn how sounds in spoken words are written using letters.

It’s important to remember that different approaches can work for different groups. While Diane McGuinness was adamant that there’s no benefit in adding oral phonemic awareness activities to a good linguistic phonics program for mainstream learners, she did see a role for these activities in intervention, using tokens/tiles:

There is, however, a good argument for special training in phoneme awareness in the clinic. Poor readers have extremely maladaptive decoding strategies, guessing whole words from first letters only, assembling little word parts into something like a word, or refusing to read altogether. An ineffective decoding strategy leads to habits that can be hard to break. It is almost a given that these children (or adults) have few or no phoneme-analysis skills. Because print can be aversive, causing anxiety and even panic, initial phoneme-awareness training is more effective in the auditory mode than using blank tiles. A three-step process is necessary: developing phoneme awareness with blank markers, learning phoneme-grapheme correspondences, and reading simple (easily decodable) text.

McGuinness, Diane (2004) Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How To Teach Reading, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, p 328.

More research on this would be very interesting and valuable.

What helps kids read and spell multisyllable words?

Virus rules permitting, the Spelfabet team will present a workshop at the Perth Language, Learning and Literacy conference on 31st March to 2nd April this year.

The title is “Mouthfuls of sounds: Syllables sense and nonsense”, so I’m now scouring the internet for research on how best to help kids read and spell multi-syllable words.

Teaching one-syllable words well seems to be going mainstream

Lots of people seem to have now really nailed synthetic phonics, and are using and promoting it in the early years and intervention (yay!). It’s become so mainstream that I just bought three pretty good synthetic phonics workbooks (Hinkler Junior Explorers Phonics 1, 2 and 3) for $4 each at K-Mart (in among quite a lot of dross, but it’s a start).

Many synthetic phonics programs and resources focus mainly on one-syllable words, most of which only contain one unit of meaning (morpheme), apart from plurals like ‘cats’ (cat + suffix s), past tense verbs like ‘camped’ (camp + suffix ed), and words with ancient, rusted-on suffixes like grow-grown and wide-width.

Multisyllable words contain extra complexity

Synthetic/linguistic phonics programs which target multisyllable words, including spelling-specific programs, vary widely in their instructional approach. Multisyllable words aren’t just longer (in sound terms, though words like ‘idea’ and ‘area’ are short in print), they contain extra complexity:

  • Most contain unstressed vowels. When reading by sounding out, we apply the most likely pronunciation(s) to their spellings, often ending up with a ‘spelling pronunciation’ that sounds a bit like a robot, with all syllables stressed. We then need to use Set for Variability skills (the ability to correctly identify a mispronounced word) to adjust the pronunciation and stress the correct syllable(s).

This can mean trying out different stress patterns, and sometimes also considering word type – think of “Allow me to present (verb) you with a present (noun)”. Homographs often have last-syllable stress if they’re verbs, but first syllable stress if they’re nouns.

  • Prefixes and suffixes change word meaning/type, they don’t just make words longer e.g. jump (simple verb), jumpy (adjective), jumped (past tense/participle), jumping (present participle), jumpier (comparative), jumpiest (superlative), jumpily (adverb), and the creature you get when you cross a sheep with a kangaroo, a wooly jumper (agent noun, ha ha). I write ‘wooly’ not ‘woolly’ (though both are correct), because it’s an adjective not an adverb: wool + adjectival ‘y’ suffix, as in ‘luck-lucky’ and ‘boss-bossy’, not wool + adverbial ‘ly’ suffix, as in ‘real-really’ and ‘foul-foully’.
  • Word endings often need adjusting before adding suffixes: doubling final consonants (run-runner), dropping final e (like-liking) and swapping y and i (dry-driest). Kids need to learn when to adjust, and when not to, so they don’t over-adjust and end up with ‘open-openning’, ‘trace-tracable’, and ‘baby-babiish’.
  • Co-articulation (how sounds shmoosh together in speech) often alters how morphemes are pronounced when they join – compare the pronunciation of ‘t’ in ‘act’ and ‘action’. Sometimes this also results in spelling changes e.g. the ‘in‘ prefix in ‘immature’, ‘imbalance’, ‘impossible’ (/p/, /b/ and /m/ are all lips-together sounds), ‘illegal’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘incompetent’ and ‘inglorious’. ‘In’ is pronounced ‘ing’ at the start of words beginning with back-of-the-mouth /k/ and /g/, like the ‘n’ in ‘pink’ and ‘bingo’.
  • Reading longer words requires a lot more trying-out different sounds, particularly flexing between checked and free (or ‘short/long’) vowels, as in cabin-cable, ever-even, child-children, poster-roster, unfit-unit. Vowel sounds in base words often change when suffixes are added, e.g. volcano-volcanic, please-pleasant, ride-ridden, sole-solitude, study-student, south-southern (word nerds, look up Trisyllabic Laxing for more on this).
  • Spellings that look like digraphs sometimes represent two different sounds in different syllables e.g. shepherd, pothole, area, stoic, away, koala (see this blog post), again requiring flexible thinking about how to break words up.

I use the Sounds-Write strategy to help kids read and spell multisyllable words, which doesn’t teach spelling rules, syllable types, or other unreliable, wordy things. The Phono-Graphix and Reading Simplified approaches are similar.

However, Sounds-Write doesn’t have an explicit focus on morphemes (well, maybe their new Yr3-6 course does, I haven’t done that yet), so I’ve also been using various morphology programs and resources: books by Marcia Henry, Morpheme Magic, games like Caesar Pleaser and Breakthrough To Success, Word Sums, the Base Bank, and the Spelfabet Workbook 2 v3 for very basic prefixes and suffixes. However, I need a better grip on the relevant research and its implications for practice.

Video discussion on syllable issues

There’s an interesting video of a discussion about research on syllable issues between Drs Mark Seidenberg, Molly Farry-Thorn and Devin Kearns (you might know his Phinder website) on Youtube, or click here for the podcast.

I always want to shout “Speak up, Molly!” when watching these discussions, because she doesn’t say much, but what she does say is usually great. Near the end of this video, she summarises the implications for teaching. Here’s my summary of her summary:

  • Explicit teaching about syllable types takes time, adds to cognitive load and takes kids out of the process of reading, so try to keep it to a minimum in general instruction.
  • Children who aren’t managing multisyllable words after general instruction may need to be explicitly taught vowel flexing, and/or about syllable types.
  • Group words in ways that make the patterns/regularities and clear, and help children practise vowel flexing.
  • It can be helpful for teachers to know a lot about syllables, rules etc, but that doesn’t mean it all needs to be taught.

Dr Kearns then goes further, saying he suggests NOT teaching syllable types and verbal rules, apart from basic things like ‘every syllable has a vowel’. Instead, he recommends demonstration of patterns and then lots of practice. Many children with literacy difficulties have language difficulties, so verbal rules can overwhelm/confuse them, and aren’t necessary when skills can be learnt via demonstration and practice.

I’m now trying to get my head around his research paper How Elementary-Age Children Read Polysyllabic Polymorphemic Words (PSPM words) without getting too overwhelmed/confused by terms like ‘Orthographic Levenshtein Distance Frequency’, ‘Laplace approximation implemented in the 1mer function’ and BOBYQA optimization’, and having to go and lie down.

The 202 children studied were in third and fourth grade, attending six demographically mixed schools in the US. This was quite a complex study with multiple factors and measures, so I won’t try to summarise the methods and results, but instead skip to what I think are the main things it suggests for teaching/intervention (but please read it yourself to be sure):

  • Strong phonological awareness helps kids read long words, though it may make high-frequency words a little harder, and low-frequency words a little easier. It may help kids link similar sounds in bases and affixed forms, e.g. grade-gradual.
  • Strong morphological awareness also helps kids read long words. It’s more helpful than syllable awareness. Processing a whole morpheme is more efficient than processing its component parts, and since morphemes carry meaning, they may help with vocabulary access.
  • It helps to know sound-spelling relationships and how to try different pronunciations of spellings in unfamiliar words, especially vowels.
  • Having a large vocabulary helps too, as children are more likely to find a word in their oral language system which matches (more or less, via Set for Variability) their spelling pronunciation. Children with large vocabularies might also persist longer in the search for a relevant word.
  • High-frequency long words, and words with very common letter pairs (bigrams), are easier to read than low-frequency words and ones with less common letter pairs.
  • Most kids learn to process morphemes implicitly in the process of learning to read long words, but struggling readers have more difficulty extracting information implicitly, so many need to be explicitly taught to do this. Strategic exposure and practice is more likely to produce implicit statistical learning than teaching rules, meanings etc.
  • It’s easier to process base words that don’t change in affixed forms (e.g. appear-appearance) than ones that change a bit (e.g. chivalry-chivalrous). Kids with weak morphological awareness may need to be taught awareness of both.
  • Knowing many derived words’ roots (e.g. the ‘dict’ in ‘contradict’, ‘predict’, ‘dictionary’, ‘dictate’, ‘addict’, ‘valedictory’, and ‘verdict’) makes it more likely the reader will be able to use root word information to read long words.
  • Knowledge of orthographic rimes doesn’t seem to help kids read long words. Kearns calls these ‘phonograms’: the vowel letter and any consonant letters following it in a syllable e.g. the ‘e’ and ‘ict’ in ‘predict’, or the ‘uc’ and ‘ess’ in ‘success’.
  • This study focussed on reading accuracy but not fluency, and didn’t measure prosodic sensitivity or Set for Variability skills. Further research is needed on these.

If you have insights on any of the above, please write them in the comments below.

Affordable basic phonics kit

Thanks to the pandemic, many children seem to have done year or more of disrupted schooling without having learnt to read or spell much. A new batch of Australian five-year-olds start school soon, where many will (happily) be taught the systematic, explicit phonics that’s helpful for all, harmful for none and crucial for some*, but many won’t.

The download-and-print Spelfabet Level 1 kit aims to equip you to help beginners and strugglers of any age learn to read and spell one-syllable words with up to seven sounds. The kit follows this teaching sequence (the same as the Sounds-Write program):

The kit contents are a workbook, quizzes, moveable alphabet, word-building sequences, playing cards, reading journal and phonics picture book. The only difference between the parent/aide kit and the teacher/clinician kit is how many copies of the workbook you may print (5 or 30 copies).

All the items in this kit are available separately from the Spelfabet website, except the simplified Moveable Alphabet, which contains only the spellings needed for Level 1. However, it’s cheaper to get the kit than each item separately ($55 including GST for the parent/aide version and $65 for the teacher/clinician one).

Decodable books for reading practice which follow the same teaching sequence include the Units 1-10 Sounds Write books including free e-books, the Units 1-10 Dandelion and Moon Dogs books from Phonic Books, and the printable Drop In Series Levels 1 and 2.

If this kit is too basic for your learner(s), more difficult kits will be available soon.

* See article by Catherine Snow and Connie Juel (2005) at https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2005-06969-026

New Phonics With Feeling books and author interview

Set Three of the download-and-print Phonics With Feeling Extended Code readers are now available from the Spelfabet shop.

These books provide lots of reading practice of words with single-letter ‘long’ vowel sounds, as in ‘apron’, ‘being’, ‘final’, ‘open’ and ‘using’.

Many of these are suffixed forms of the ‘split vowel’/’silent final e’ spellings in Set Two e.g. make-making, Swede-Swedish, iceicy, hope-hoped, cute-cutest. Word lists at the start of each book make this explicit.

The ‘c’ as in ‘ice’ and ‘g’ as in ‘age’ spellings, which often occur with these spellings, are practised in the Extended Code Set One books.

The Set Three books also include the ‘short’ vowel sounds, as in ‘at’, ‘red’, ‘in’, ‘on’ and ‘up’. When tackling new words, children should be encouraged to try both sounds for a vowel letter, if the first sound they try doesn’t produce a word that makes sense. This requires phoneme manipulation skills, and the knowledge that a spelling can represent more than one sound.

Like the other Phonics With Feeling books, the Set Three books have a print-5-copies version (parent/aide) for 40c per print, and a bulk print-30-copies version (teacher/clinician) for 20c per print. Our free quizzes (downloadable or on Wordwall) have been updated to include Set Three.

Teresa Dovey (pen name Gaia Dovey, as that’s what her grandkids call her) is the author of the Phonics With Feeling decodable readers. Here’s a 15-minute interview in which she discusses why she started writing the books, why they’re called Phonics With Feeling, her academic background in English Literature, what the books are like, who they’re for, how they can be used, and some of the feedback she’s received on them.

We hope these books make decodable text interesting and enjoyable for children, and affordable for adults, and that they help kids learn to decode as well as Teresa’s grandkids, so they can go on to enjoy reading whatever they choose.

If you’ve tried the books, please share any comments or feedback you have below.

1000 decodable quiz questions

At last, our 100 download-and-print phonics quizzes for beginning readers are available here. Each has ten questions, and fits on an A4 page. Most questions have pictures. You can download a free sample of ten of them here. Here’s a 2 minute video about them.

Kids aren’t usually keen on tests, but enjoy quizzes, just as adults enjoy trivia nights. Reading and understanding a sentence at a time can be less daunting than reading, remembering and understanding a book, even a short one.

These quizzes follow the same teaching sequence as Sounds-Write Units 1-10, and the early Phonic Books and Forward With Phonics resources, since our client base is mostly struggling older learners. If you’re using a slightly different phonics teaching sequence, just check that you’ve taught all the sound-spelling relationships in each quiz before using it, perhaps as a review activity.

Writing decodable text is hard work. The literate adult brain constantly wants to focus on meaning not structure. It takes lots of discipline to think of good questions that don’t contain words that are too hard, especially at the early levels. The whole Spelfabet team has been involved in writing these quizzes, and have been extremely tolerant of my initially vague ideas and constant revisions. It’s taken much longer than expected.

We haven’t included an answer key because we hope the quizzes motivate children to ask questions and propose alternative answers/interpretations, argue for a ‘maybe/it depends’ option and otherwise think and talk. You can act as judge, assign a judging panel, or go with the majority view. Right and wrong answers are not as important as prompting children to read accurately and successfully.

We hope beginning and struggling readers enjoy and request these quizzes, and that they help build children’s reading ‘muscle’.

Where is your evidence?

Lately I’ve been having lots of discussions about reading/spelling interventions that lack robust scientific evidence e.g. modelling words in clay. Sigh.

As Hallowe’en loomed, I needed a laugh, so I commissioned this brief video from a talented young claymation artist called Matty Mrksa:

Hope you like it! Feel free to use it as a social media comment.

Dyslexia is not a visual problem, or a gift

Picture: https://www.pxfuel.com/en/search?q=zombie+costumes

Dyslexia means severe difficulty reading words, despite adequate intervention and effort. It can start in adulthood after a stroke or injury, but typically begins in childhood for no immediately obvious reason. A detailed definition can be found here.

Is dyslexia a visual problem?

Dyslexia is not a visual problem, it’s a language-based problem. Like many others, I’ve said this before (here, here, here, here, here, and here) but the zombie idea of ‘visual dyslexia’ still seems to be wasting children’s time, and parents’ and taxpayers’ money, so it bears repeating.

The American Academy of Paediatrics’ Opthamologists’ Joint Statement on Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia and Vision says:

“Vision problems can interfere with the process of learning; however, vision problems are not the cause of primary dyslexia or learning disabilities. Scientific evidence does not support the efficacy of eye exercises, behavioral vision therapy, or special tinted filters or lenses for improving the long-term educational performance in these complex pediatric neurocognitive conditions. Diagnostic and treatment approaches that lack scientific evidence of efficacy, including eye exercises, behavioral vision therapy, or special tinted filters or lenses, are not endorsed and should not be recommended”.

American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Ophthalmology Executive Committee, 2008-2009, reaffirmed 2014, https://www.aao.org/clinical-statement/joint-statement-learning-disabilities-dyslexia-vis

This statement has been endorsed by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Opthamologists. It has five pages of scientific references. Please share it with anyone who is considering vision-based dyslexia interventions like behavioural optometry, coloured overlays, Irlen lenses, the Lawson anti-suppression device, or special dyslexia fonts.

For more detail on controversial vision theories and therapies, visit the American Academy of Opthamology website, read this 2019 article in The Conversation, this 2018 article on the website Science Based Medicine and/or this article by Dr Kerry Hempenstall in the 2020 International Dyslexia Association journal. A 2019 systematic review re “Irlen Syndrome” (read it here), found lack of evidence that Irlen Syndrome exists, and lack of evidence that the treatments proposed for it work.

Children’s learning time is precious, and parents’ and taxpayers’ money needs to be spent wisely.

Do dyslexic people have special talents/gifts?

There are lots of smart, talented, capable people with dyslexia. Some have achieved great things in mathematics, science, art, architecture, entrepreneurship and other fields. They have shown that it’s possible to have dyslexia and still succeed in life.

It’s complete nonsense to flip this and suggest dyslexia gives you special talents and makes you more likely to succeed in life than average. The plural of anecdote is not data.

However, these claims persist, and interventions which lack scientific evidence are still being promoted and taken seriously. A Melbourne school this week helped market a Davis Dyslexia webinar, with an ad making extravagant claims about the special talents of people with dyslexia. Happily, readers of this blog alerted the school leadership to what turned out to be a mistake by the marketing team (thanks, Karen, Heidi and Nancy!), and the ad was removed, kudos to the school for acting so swiftly.

To establish a correlation between dyslexia and life achievement, scientific researchers would need to study a large, random sample of the population. They’d measure reading skills and levels of success/achievement (however that’s defined, I’m sure sociologists have ideas). They’d statistically analyse their data.

Three outcomes would be possible: 1) no correlation beyond what could be accounted for by random chance, 2) a correlation with above-average achievement, and 3) a correlation with below-average achievement. Even if a correlation were found between dyslexia and high achievement, correlation is not the same thing as causation. A third factor might be involved, or there might be multiple factors.

After this blog post was published, I heard from one of the co-authors of a 2021 systematic review of research into whether dyslexia conveys a creative benefit. Their results suggest that “individuals with dyslexia as a group are no more creative or show greater variability in creativity than peers without dyslexia”.

The whole ‘gift of dyslexia’ idea is also IMHO also rather cruel. It’s like telling a dyslexic child, ‘Not only are you expected to overcome your dyslexia, but I expect you to excel at something like art, architecture or entrepreneurship. No pressure.’

Children with word-level reading difficulties, whether they have dyslexia diagnoses or not, should have intensive, systematic, synthetic phonics teaching as part of a literacy curriculum based on scientific research (a useful, free evaluate-your-curriculum checklist is here). Like other children, they should be told they’re expected to play, have fun, rest and do their best at things that matter and things they love, however they decide to spend their one wild and precious life.