Part Two of our Four-Part Series: Helping Students Improve Their Reading at Any Age
*A Note on Numbers
- We say there are “44ish” phonemes. The number varies due to differences in dialect or the way we speak. Some people count the harder, whispered /th/ sound in “thorn” and “third” as a different sound than the voiced, vibrating /th/ in that.
In addition, some parts of the country may actually add syllables (and therefore phonemes) to certain words when they speak them. A great example of this is the word “crayon”. You may pronounce this word as “crane”, ‘cra-yin”, “cray-on”, “ or “cray-yon”, all depending on which region of the U.S. your address is located.
Because spoken language is living, it changes and adapts with the cultures that speak it.
- Some count “blends” like bl- and scr-, as graphemes. There are also many people who teach “word families” (words that end with the same sound, such as words ending in “-ill” or -ate) as graphemes, but they are not. A grapheme is the representation of a phoneme which is the smallest unit of sound.
Although many teachers teach blends and word families to increase fluency, these are not truly graphemes. If you see something saying 180 graphemes or more, they are including those elements. When we speak of graphemes in our articles, we are only including the 150.
Reviewing Why Reading Instruction Matters
So many educators think of reading instruction in vague, non-specific terms. Many teachers believe that there is a large part of reading instruction that “just happens”, sort of like magic. Researchers say that nothing could be further from the truth.
Reading skills are just “accidentally discovered”. In fact, they must be systematically, fundamentally, and purposefully taught.
Part of the issue that teachers, schools, and districts face is the lack of such a program to get everyone on the same page. This creates room for large gaps in phonics and phonemic awareness for students, which can delay or even halt reading progress completely.
It’s like trying to build a building with a foot or two of materials missing - it’s not going to work out correctly, no matter how hard the teacher and student work. You have to fill in the gaps before moving on.
Defining Phonics and Phonemic Awareness
To review, phonemes are the smallest individual sounds that work together to create a word.
Graphemes are the way we express those individual sounds through writing.
Phonics is the understanding of the relationship between phonemes and graphemes.
Phonemic awareness is focused more on the processes involved in listening and speaking the phonemes.
Many people think of phonics and phonemic awareness as “sounding out words”, and while that is an element, the processes involved are much larger than that.
People also associate phonics with one sound for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Each letter is usually linked with its most common sound - short vowels (/ă/ as in apple, /ĕ/ as in egg, etc… they don’t “say their name”), “hard” c (as in cat), hard g (as in goat), etc…
However, as mentioned in our first article, there are around 44 phonemes (sounds) in the English language, and they are spelled a total of at least 150 ways.**
What Is Not Working
Let’s say you were able to focus on correctly spelling one phoneme each week for 32 weeks during the school year (which many schools and teachers do). It would take 5 years for students to learn all 150. That’s not far from what we already do.
However, we know that is not enough time due to the data we are receiving about how our students are doing nationally.
We know that neurotypical students need to interact with information about 6 times to remember it fully. Students with learning differences may need to interact with that same information double, triple, or quadruple times that.
It may take hundreds of meaningful interactions.
Yet, phonics instruction is only taught until third grade in most places.
Studies have shown time and time again that if a student cannot read well by third or fourth grade, they are likely to NEVER catch up. The reason they will never catch up is not that they are unable to. Rather, it is because that’s when we stop teaching phonics - far sooner than we should.
Solving the Crisis
We must have a systematic approach to teaching, reviewing, spelling, and using these sounds and spellings in context over a longer period of time. That also means teachers need more professional development on scientific, research-based approaches to reading, especially in regards to phonics and phonemic awareness.
To clarify, the rate at which they are taught should not necessarily focus on one sound and spelling per week - they actually need to be taught a bit more rapidly, reviewed often in combination with other sounds to make sense.
Whatever method chosen, this will require district-wide adoptions and intentional approaches to phonics instruction that will be carried through middle school.
Some students won’t need phonics instruction that long. Some are excellent readers and spellers by the end of third grade. But we can see from national data averages that they are the exception, not the rule.
Instruction must be strong, systematic, and continue for years longer to assure all students are being served.
This practice not only gives the gift of time to neurotypical students, it also provides those who are experiencing “delays” with more time, more practice, and the structure they need to pick up the intricacies of the sounds and symbols of the English language.
We use “delays” loosely because the systems we use now are appropriate for only a small portion of our students. We now know that the children we’ve labeled with “disorders” or delays may also be considered “neurotypical”. Our instruction and timing are the true problems, not their brains.
If we adjust our methods and strategies of reading instruction to include all students, meet them where they are, and learn to teach in the way they learn, we will be much more successful in every aspect of their academics.
Methods for Instruction
Phonics should be paired with writing in the beginning whenever possible before expecting children to read.
Whenever any instruction is given, it’s best to employ as many areas of input/output as possible. Students need to hear, see, say, think, and do.
This is exceptionally true when teaching phonics and phonemic awareness. Writing or otherwise forming letters and words is part of an entire system that works together to trigger memory formation and internalize understanding. Reading takes all these systems working together to form comprehension.
However, there are times when one part of the system needs to be taught separately to build the student’s specific skills in that area. This is especially true when teaching phonemic awareness.
There are several areas that contribute to phonemic awareness. Some of these are mastered fairly early on for most students, but others struggle and need the instruction to continue.
Here are those areas.
Syllables are an incredibly useful tool in any area of academics because syllables can give you almost all the clues you need to spell words well and figure out what text is specifically talking about.
Syllables are the individual units of sound within the word. Every syllable has to have a vowel sound. Some syllables have no consonant sounds, but each one must have a vowel sound. You can count syllables in a word by counting the vowel sounds.
Because vowel sounds can be spelled in many different ways, this is an area where all teachers need to brush up on their understanding.
There are even vowels that make the sound of other vowels in certain words! Familiarize yourself with the “schwa”, which is symbolized this way in the dictionary: /ə/. Any vowel can make either of the schwa sounds, which are /ŭ/ as in the word under, and /ĭ/ as in igloo.
The schwa sound occurs in unaccented syllables or words.
A few example words are the first “a” in “above” and “about”, and the second “e” in “seven”.
Words that rhyme end in the same or very similar final syllables. Words like hat, cat, and rat rhyme.
Rhyming is usually intentionally taught in pre-k, kinder, and first grade. Some language disorders, though, limit the processing skills of students, causing them to be unable to hear or produce rhymes in this way.
It’s an important tool because it can help in reading and writing poetry. In a broader sense that applies across content areas, if you know which spelling patterns can be used to create those rhyming words, it can open a gateway for all the other words that rhyme with them.
Alliteration is sort of the opposite of rhyming. It’s the repeating of the same first (or “onset”) sound. Although it’s not used often in upper grades, the same is true for alliteration as for rhyming - students with learning differences may not hear or produce alliteration. They can be taught to use it, though, by memorizing the idea and lists of words that have the same beginning sounds.
Alliteration is one of the memory techniques used across curricular areas, so be aware that if you’re using this technique, some of your students may need something else to aid their memory since they can’t hear or produce it.
- Word Discrimination
Many English-speaking Kindergarteners come to school for the first time thinking that there’s a letter called “elemenopee” because they don’t know that the letters l, m, n, o, and p are five separate letters. It takes a while to convince some of them that elemenopee isn’t a letter.
The same happens with certain phrases and common terms with many students. They may have a difficult time discriminating individual words in phrases and sentences. If students are taking notes, you may want to emphasize how many words are in a sentence that you really need them to pay attention to, memorize, or make note of.
**There are some really good resources available that list all 44ish phonemes and the 150 spelling patterns that are used. We like these:
Creative Classroom’s “44 Phonemes Cheat Sheet” is leveled and lists all the graphemes (spelling patterns) and example words for each phoneme: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/44-Phonemes-sounds-Cheat-Sheet-2-Levels-with-Graphemes-and-Examples-3804722
Debbie Hepplewhite’s Phonics International - We mentioned this in our last reading article, but it’s an excellent resource. Remember to look for the American version of charts and freebies.
We mentioned this text in our last post, but used it again here: Teaching Word Recognition, Second Edition: Effective Strategies for Students with Learning Difficulties (What Works for Special-Needs Learners) by Rollanda E. O’Connor
We also recommend this book. It’s very scientific and dense reading, but it has some very valuable information and is a treasure trove of other valuable resources for a variety of topics. It’s on the expensive side, but could be a great tool to ask for in your school library.
Effective Practice for Adolescents with Reading and Literacy Challenges, Editors Lou Denti and Gilbert Guerin is helpful specifically for teachers who work with older students and haven’t had as much training as they’d like in reading instruction. It’s another one on the expensive side, but is a great addition to a library as it has a lot of good lists and helpful information.
Finally, we’ll be mentioning this text in our following two posts as well. It’s incredibly practical and has lots of reproducibles that can be used in any content area to support students who struggle with reading. Again, it’s a pricey one, but it’s been useful to our teachers: Effective Instruction for Middle School Students with Reading Difficulties by Carolyn A. Denton, Sharon Vaughn, Jade Wexler, Deanna Bryan, and Deborah Reed.
Join us for part three of our four-part series which will cover building skills in vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.