Reading and phonological awareness

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A great many children who are referred to Learning Links are experiencing difficulties in the area of reading.

Some students experience problems in the mechanics of reading, for example phonological awareness, some experience problems comprehending what they read, whilst others experience problems in both of these areas.

Many students do not see themselves as readers, even though they have often had, previous or ongoing intervention in their schools.

Often students who are referred to Learning Links for reading problems display low self-esteem, and have experienced a lack of success in literacy. They are often described by their parents as not willing to “have a go” with reading and writing both at home and school. Many have also developed strategies to cope with their difficulties. These can affect their classroom behaviour with the student becoming less motivated and avoiding tasks that they believe are difficult.

The earlier a student’s difficulty in reading, is noted, and a systematic program is implemented, the greater the success for the student.

What is reading?

When we read we are trying to gain meaning from print. We first need to be able to decode the print before we understand the message contained within the text. For some students the process of learning to read is difficult.

Reading is a complex process, as students need to know that our language can be represented in written print. The printed symbols or the alphabet as we know it represent sounds and sound combinations, which can be manipulated to make new words.

With the knowledge of these sounds, a child needs to decode accurately and fluently whilst implementing strategies, which will allow him to understand what is being read. The reader also needs to know if what is being read does not make sense. If this occurs he needs to know what strategies can be used to regain meaning e.g. reread from the beginning of the sentence.

Many children who are referred to Learning Links moved through the early school grades learning to read apparently with little difficulty.

However, after entering primary grades, it becomes apparent they are experiencing difficulties reading. This then impacts on all areas of learning as the student encounters books with an increasing number of words.

It would appear that when the books in the early grades comprised of simple stories, the student was not experiencing any problems reading and understanding the text. Up until this stage such a student has been relying solely on their sight vocabulary.

A Year 3 student may only need to memorise approximately 400-500 words in the books he reads whilst the following year the word vocabulary in books rises sharply to about 4000 words making memorising very difficult.

Research has indicated the skills of phonological awareness are a key indicator of a student’s success in reading and spelling. When a student begins to experience difficulties in the mid to upper primary grades and is subsequently assessed in this area, there often appears to be significant gaps in their phonological awareness.

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate sounds that make up words. It is initially a listening and oral skill, with the child not needing to identify the written letters but must be able to hear and repeat sounds in the correct order.

How can we tell if a child is lacking in phonological skills?

A child who lacks these skills may not be able to supply a rhyming word. They may know the letter sounds but unable to blend them into a word. He may also be a poor speller. They often rely on how a word looks, rather than listening to the sounds in sequence. This places a great demand on the child’s memory especially once they enter middle and upper primary grades and the demands on reading and writing increase.

Can phonological awareness be assessed and the skills taught?

The skills of phonological awareness do not develop naturally in all students. The good news however is that they, can be taught phonological awareness skills in a systematic and explicit way after undergoing an assessment to determine the level of the ability in this area.

Phonological awareness skills are basically oral and listening skills. Instead of using letter cards to sequence sounds in words, the skills can be taught using counters or blocks. There are several phonological awareness screening tests available for use. These include Jenny Whipp Phonological Awareness Screening and the Sutherland Phonological Awareness Test.

What are the phonological awareness skills?

Rhyming – recognise and produce words that end with the same sound.e.g. Do cat and bat rhyme? Give a word, which rhymes with man?

Alliteration – recognise words, which begin with the same sound. e.g. Do Matt, Mary, Mandy start with the same letter? Man, fit, fat. Which is the odd one out?

Isolation – identify beginning, middle and ending sounds in a word. e.g. Select initial, middle, end sound for given word?

Segmentation – break words up into syllables, stretching words into separate sounds e.g. clap for each syllable/sound in word.

Blending – Put sounds together to make a word. e.g. r-ai-n = rain.

Exchange – change beginning, ending and middle sounds to make a new word. e.g. what word do we get if we change C in cat or r?

Deletion – remove a beginning, ending, medial sound to make a new word. e.g. what word do we get if we take p out of play?

It should be noted that while phonological awareness is crucial to early reading success, it is not sufficient on its own.

What other components should be included in a successful early reading program?

• Alphabetic principle –readers need to understand the relationship between visual representations and sounds

• Phonics – understanding letter/sound relationships. This builds on the alphabetic principle.

• Sight word vocabulary – automaticity of word recognition enables the reader to attend to the comprehension of the text rather than laboriously decoding each word.

• Concepts about print – ensures the reader understands the relationship between written and oral language.

• Reading texts at an appropriate instructional level – 90-95% accuracy.

• Spelling tasks, which combine phonemic awareness, phonics and the visual shape of the word.

What comprehension strategies can be implemented into a reading program?

Often students are referred to Learning Links who although they are able to read most of the material given to them, they are unable to understand the text. Other students will continue to read a passage unaware that a word they have incorrectly inserted changes the meaning of the passage.

The reader needs to develop strategies, which will enable him to gain meaning from the text. This can be done through the explicit teaching of comprehension.

When focusing on comprehension skills, strategies need to be taught throughout the reading process – before, during and after reading.

Before reading strategies

  • Discuss the story before reading – make predictions about what may happen in the story.
  • Ask the reader to think of questions that could be answered from reading the story.
  • Discuss relevant vocabulary which is contained within the story and relate it to previous experiences
  • Discuss what the reader can do when an unknown word is met in the story – ‘have a go’ at guessing the word using the look of the word and the meaning of the sentence.
  • Reread or read ahead to see if the guessed word makes sense. The reader can also use their knowledge of phonics to decode the word.

During reading strategies

  • Answer questions that the reader asked before reading as the information is located in the story.
  • Encourage the reader to ask and answer other questions as they arise in the story.
  • Ask the reader – “does that sound right?; “did that make sense?” at the end of a sentence in which a word is read incorrectly or doesn’t make sense.
  • Rereading and reading ahead if the sentence doesn’t make sense.
  • Encourage the reader to make a picture in their head (visualising) about a sentence, paragraph or story.

After reading strategies

  • Retelling the whole story to ensure the reader understood what was read.
  • Answer questions asked before and during reading.
  • Identify the main idea of the story.
  • Discuss how the story could be related to previous experiences of the reader.