Category Archives: sounds

Phonemes are sounds AND articulatory gestures

Phonemes are perceptually distinct speech sounds that distinguish one word from another, e.g. the “p”, “b”, “t” and “d” in “pie”, “by”, “tie” and “die”. They’re also articulatory gestures.

A 2009 article co-authored by reading guru Linnea Ehri says “awareness of articulatory gestures facilitates the activation of graphophonemic connections that helps children identify written words and secure them in memory.” Melbourne Speech Pathologist Helen Botham (Hi, Helen!), lists a number of references on her Cued Articulation website indicating articulatory awareness facilitates phonemic awareness.

I sit right across the table from my clients, so we can see and hear each other’s articulation well. It must be a lot harder to teach a whole class about phonemes, in order to link them to graphemes. Videos on the internet (including my own) about phonemes seem to put them all in one video, making them hard to isolate and repeat on a classroom interactive whiteboard.

I’ve thus filmed my utterly adorable and orthodontically photogenic niece Vivien (thanks, Vivien!) saying each phoneme separately. The 44 videos are below, each with example words which link to the relevant spelling lists on my website.

I hope these are useful in developing kids’ phonemic and articulatory awareness, as well as in teaching adults to say consonant sounds crisply and correctly (without adding a schwa vowel or voicing voiceless consonants) when teaching blending, segmenting and more advanced phonemic awareness.

Stop/plosive consonants:

VOICELESS VOICED

p as in puppy, troupe, steppe, subpoena

b as in bubble, build, cupboard, Bhutan

t as in totter, jumped, serviette, Thomas, doubt

d as in doddle, hugged, aide, dhal

k as in cat, kit, quit, fox, school, mosque, soccer

g as in gaggle, guess, ghost, league, example

Nasal consonants (all voiced):

m as in mummy, thumb, Autumn, gendarme

n as in nanny, know, sign, caffeine, pneumonia

ng as in song, think, tongue

Fricative consonants:

VOICELESS

VOICED

th as in think

th as in them, breathe

f as in fluffy, phone, graph, giraffe, sapphire

v as in vet, solve, skivvy, of, Wagner, Stephen

s as in sassy, cent, house, niece, fox, scent

z as in zip, is, buzz, freeze, cruise, example

sh as in ship, action, musician, discussion

zh as in vision, treasure, beige

h as in house, who

Affricate consonants (stop followed by fricative):

ch as in chip, catch, future, cello, cappuccino

j as in jam, gem, bridge, large, region, budgie

Glides/liquids or semivowel consonants

w as in wet, when, quiz

y as in yes, onion, lasagne, hallelujah

l as in lolly, bottle, grille, imbroglio

r as in remarry, wrist, rhubarb, diarrhoea

Checked or “short” vowels (must be followed by a consonant)

a as in cat, plait, timbre, salmon, reveille

e as in red, head, said, any, friend, bury, leisure

i as in pin, gym, pretty, sieve, busy, women

o as in got, want, because, cough, entree

u as in up, front, young, flood, does

oo as in good, put, could, woman, tour

“Long” vowels (can be the last sound in a word/syllable)

ay as in make, rain, say, paper, eight, they, cafe

ee as in see, sea, we, these, field, silly, honey, taxi

I as in like, my, find, pie, night, bye, type, chai

oh as in home, boat, no, slow, toe, oh, though

ooh as in soon, chew, June, flu, soup, blue, fruit, to

you as in cute, few, human, cue, feud, beautiful

Other vowels (sometimes called “long” too, as they can be the last sound in a word or syllable)

ar as in car, grass, calm, heart, galah, baa

er as in her, dirt, turn, work, learn, journey, were

or as in or, saw, more, all, four, walk, door, haunt

ow as in out, how, drought, sauerkraut, Maori

oy as in boil, boy, Freud, lawyer

air as in care, hair, there, bear, parent, aeroplane

ear as in near, deer, here, pier, bacteria, weird

uh as in a, the, over, liar, actor, fire, metre, future

Finally, I should say (for the linguistic purists) that there is more than one way to slice and count sounds, and how you do this is also affected by your accent. However, slicing and counting them this way (24 consonants, 20 vowels) seems to me to make the most sense of our complicated spelling system for speakers of General Australian English.

The Speech Pathology purists will also notice that Vivien’s alveolar fricatives are slightly fronted (i.e. she has a very tiny lisp) but it’s not noticeable to most people, so I think the /s/ and /z/ recordings I’ve made still count as allophones of /s/ and /z/. People who don’t like them can get their own niece, or someone else, to face the camera.

In fact, teachers might find that kids enjoy making videos of each other pronouncing the phonemes, and find doing it and watching the results helps get everyone thinking and learning about speech sounds. Why use my videos when you can make your own?!

It’s not a spelling test, it’s a quiz

Spelling tests are boring, right? The teacher reads out a word, everyone writes it down, then it gets marked. Ho hum. Nobody really likes them except annoying pedants and teacher’s pets.

Quizzes, on the other hand, are fun. They have quizzes on TV and in pubs, board games and apps. Quizzes are about thinking laterally, friendly competition, and having a bit of a laugh. They can even be done in teams, if collaborative learning is the main aim. You can ham it up with a top hat and some pictures of typical quiz prizes (you win the steak knives!).

Here’s an example beginner’s quiz for a six-year-old. She is working on three-sound words with “short” vowels, and starting to learn about consonant digraphs like sh, ch and th. She was keen to write on a whiteboard rather than use pencil and paper, but whiteboards aren’t necessary. My questions were something like:

  1. I’m like a really big car that lots of people can fit in, and I drive on the road, and stop to pick people up, and I start with the sound “b” and I rhyme with “fuss”.
  2. The opposite of the bottom is the “t…”
  3. I am an animal that says “woof, woof” and I like to go for walks, and when I was a baby I was called a puppy.
  4. When I need to buy something, I go to a “sh…”
  5. I am a thing you can wear on your head to keep the sun off or keep your head warm, and I start with “h” and I rhyme with “cat”.

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Free spelling lists for teachers

One of my fun summer activities has been refreshing and editing the free spelling lists on my website (yeah, weird, I know).

I hope teachers find them useful when teaching spelling, I know some already do. Other free spelling lists on the internet tend to focus on what words look like, but not what they sound like, or how they’re constructed, or they tend to reflect UK or US accents, not Australian English.

My lists menu allows words to be looked up in three different ways:

  1. Starting from sounds (phonemes) and looking up their spellings (graphemes). This is the direction we need to work in for spelling, i.e. turning speech into print.
  2. Starting from spellings and looking up the sounds they represent, which is the reading direction i.e. turning print into speech (whether reading aloud or silently).
  3. Starting with short, simple words and working towards longer, more complex ones, the direction needed for teaching. This sequence is the one used in my workbooks, but it’s not better than any other sequence. The important thing is to have a sequence. If wanting to use this one, but not sure where to start, my free low-frequency word spelling test might help.

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Write this word backwards

Looking for a fresh early-level spelling activity? Inspired by the old board game “Backwords”, lately we’ve been having competitions to write words backwards.

For example, I say “write nip backwards” and learners have to write “pin”. This requires and builds awareness of the sounds in words (phonemic awareness) which is crucial for spelling.

Sometimes we use paper and pencil, and sometimes mini whiteboards, which are often somehow more exciting (novelty, I guess). For the hardline “I’m not picking up a pencil” brigade I also have an embarrassment of colourful and novelty pens and pencils, and coloured paper.

If working on four sound words, words like “spin” (nips) and “nuts” (stun) can be reversed. Continue reading

What kind of knowledge is needed for good spelling?

A lot has been written by philosophers and in Dilbert cartoons about different types of knowledge.

Often these are described using terms like “explicit” versus “tacit” or “declarative” versus “procedural” knowledge. What matters most for spelling?

Declarative versus procedural knowledge

Explicit, declarative knowledge is theoretical information about a subject e.g. that we use a base 10 number system, and that our Solar System has 8 planets (sorry, Pluto). Libraries, databases and the internet are full of it.

Procedural knowledge is often harder to describe (more tacit) and more practical. It’s knowing how to do something, like tie up a shoelace, play the guitar or ride a bike.

I have quite a bit of explicit, declarative knowledge about how to play brilliant tennis (yes, the Australian Open men’s final is on, but we love both Roger and Raffa, so who to barrack for?!) but despite years of trying (our tiny country town didn’t have enough kids to field a team without unco asthmatic me), I never managed to convert this into much procedural knowledge.

I’ve been nerdily immersed in spelling books lately, and have realised that most books about spelling are full of explicit, declarative knowledge, but aren’t necessarily much help with the “how”, or what we should be doing to build tacit, procedural knowledge of spelling. Continue reading

Ruth Miskin’s top tips for parents

OMG it’s the end of the term 3 holidays and I had planned to write a blog for parents of children starting school in 2017, as a kind of antidote to any well-meaning but incorrect advice to encourage children to guess written words from pictures, first letters and context rather than sounding them out.

The internet to the rescue! I found some nice, short videos by the UK’s Ruth Miskin called “top tips for parents” about the following topics:

  1. Saying sounds correctly
  2. Linking sounds to letters
  3. Two letters, one sound
  4. Practise, practise, practise
  5. Putting sounds together to make simple words
  6. Tricky words
  7. Reading books
  8. Using pictures
  9. Writing letters
  10. Read to your child as much as you can

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Upcoming training in synthetic phonics

I’m on the Professional Development committee for Learning Difficulties Australia, so have been madly researching quality training in synthetic phonics currently on offer in Australia.

My theory is that the more we can publicise other people’s good training, the less we’ll need to run ourselves as volunteers, in our copious (not) spare time.

I’ve discovered there’s quite a bit of training about sounds and their spellings available, if you know where to look. Some is very focussed on phonemic awareness and phonics, the biggest gaps in teacher training. Some also covers vocabulary, comprehension and fluency, the three other Five Big ideas in beginning reading instruction. Continue reading

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