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Developing phonological and orthographic awareness

Developing phonological and orthographic awareness
In this talk, I’ll concentrate on sample principles and techniques which can be used for developing the knowledge of word sound structure and sound-letter relations in order to help dyslexic learners read and spell skillfully in English. One of the most frequently recommended teaching methods for dyslexic learners is the so-called multisensory structured learning approach. Multisensory teaching is highly structured. And it proceeds in small and cumulative steps. It provides dyslexic learners with sufficient practise and revision opportunities. Unlike communicative language pedagogies, it involves direct teaching and clear demonstration of the rules. And it uses drills. It also activates different sensory channels such as auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic at the same time.
This means that dyslexic students learn how to read and spell words by hearing, seeing, saying, and writing them. So multisensory teaching brings together at the same time the following– what a letter or a word looks like, how it sounds, how the speech organs are used to pronounce it, and what hand moves are needed to write it. Students can memorise words better by forming them from wooden, sponge, or plastic letters. Tracing words on different surfaces such as sand, paper or wood and making models from clay is also effective. Mnemonics, movement, and drawing help to remember the words as well. Finger tapping or clapping can aid learners to count number of syllables or sounds in words.
Cards and tokens are used in both sound awareness and spelling activities to represent sound units or spelling choices and to help learners manipulate them. These cards are also color-coded to highlight difficult sounds or spelling choices. Dyslexic students benefit from multisensory activities that raise their phonological awareness. For example, differentiating between sounds, dividing words into syllables and sounds, adding or removing sounds to form new words. Multisensory approach also directly, fully, and clearly teaches how these sounds correspond to letters. Multisensory approach is especially important if the orthographic systems of the native language and foreign language differ and if the relation between sounds and letters in the foreign language is complicated. First, let me explain what phonological awareness is.
It’s the knowledge that spoken words are made of tiny segments which are sounds. It is an ability to identify, to distinguish between, and manipulate the sound structure of words. It means that students should be able to identify phonological units of different sizes such as words, syllables, onsets, rimes, and, finally, individual sounds. Then they learn how to break apart and put these units together. In other words, students need to be able to isolate, segment, blend, add, delete, and substitute bigger and smaller units of sound to form words. This facility, in turn, aids later successful mapping of the sounds on appropriate letters or letter combinations. There’s a set sequence of activities for developing phonological awareness.
Since bigger chunks are more salient and more directly perceivable, we move from larger to smaller sound units. So the awareness of syllables, onsets, and rimes should be developed before the awareness of individual sounds. Then students learn how all these elements can be separated, blended together, or otherwise manipulated. Tasks aimed at production are more difficult than recognition exercises. Blending activities tend to be less challenging than segmenting tasks. Using visual and auditory cues such as tokens, boxes, markers, counters, pictures, gestures, clapping, and tapping to represent words, syllables, onsets and rimes, or individual sounds makes the word sound structure easier to understand. These multisensory techniques make oral activities more concrete, so to say, which in turn facilitates sound perception.
Moving on to sound-letter relations– English orthography is widely perceived as non-transparent and difficult. Still, it seems that the teaching of spelling is a rather neglected aspect of foreign language pedagogy. What’s difficult about learning to spell and read in English? Firstly, a single sound can be represented by more than one letter– for example, the word “flight.” Secondly, a single sound may be represented by different letters or letter combinations in different words– for example, the words “flight,” “cry,” and “life.” Thirdly, a given letter or a combination of letters may represent more than one sound– for example, the words “bread” or “mean.” Finally, there are exceptions and irregular words that need to be rote-learned. No wonder many learners find English spelling challenging.
However, English spelling is in fact more regular than one would think. There are several productive spelling patterns and a number of spelling rules, which can be helpful in learning how to spell correctly. For example, the position of a sound in a word– initial or final– and the surrounding sounds have an effect on the spelling of this sound. Syllable analysis into onsets and rimes also supports spelling. Rimes prove to play a crucial role here. Presenting words in sets classified according to the rimes they share is very useful. As already mentioned, for segmenting and blending tasks, students can use cards and tokens to represent the actions of breaking apart and putting together.
They listen to the teachers saying a sentence or a word and place a token from the left to the right for each word or syllable heard. Or they listen to constituent parts and put them together to form a word. To make the boundaries between words, syllables, or sounds clear, teachers can use a teaching aid made of tokens fastened to the elastic band. They simply need to stretch the band. When segmenting and blending onsets and rimes, we use sets of words that share rime. Colour coding is used to help students distinguish between onsets and rime.
It also helps to understand that changing only the beginning sound, which is represented by a given letter or a combination of letters, results in forming a new word. Students manipulate tokens or word slides to form words. They also read and spell these words. The next stage is identifying the position of sounds in words followed by manipulation tasks in which students leave off, add, or substitute the beginning, final, or medial sound in a given word to form a new word. For example, what word will be left if you take “puh” off “pat”? What is missing in “eat” that you can hear in “meat”? Take “kuh” out of “cat” and it says “at.” Say “cat” with “huh” instead of “kuh.”
Combining multisensory techniques and explicit teaching of spelling rules can be of great help for dyslexic students, especially with regard to sounds that have several possible spelling choices. For instance, English long vowels or the “ch” sound, which can be spelled with the letters C-H or T-C-H in different words. Analysing the words with regard to position of the target sound and the surrounding sounds and letters representing these sounds as well as providing simple spelling rules aids dyslexic learners in managing spelling. Colour coding, flashcards, games, word slides, and flip cards are used for drilling the spelling. Word slides have a set part containing the letter which represents a given rime or individual sound shared by all the words being practised.
Word slides also contain one or more movable parts with different letters. When students manipulate these movable parts, they form new words. Flip cards comprise several piles of cards joined at the top with a spring so that they can be flipped over to show combinations of letters which are used to form words. Cards for reading and tracing drill, spelling choice stickers, dominoes, bingo, graphic models of words, and odd one out tasks can be used for consolidating spelling. Summing up– dyslexic learners need clear explanation and direct presentation of the rules as well as ample repetition and practise opportunities so that manipulating word sound structure and spelling can become automatic.
Still, learning is not monotonous or boring due to the application of multisensory structure techniques.

In this video Professor Joanna Nijakowska discusses how to develop the phonological and orthographic awareness of students with dyslexia.

As you watch, try to find the answer to the following questions. You can download the questions below if you want to print them out and take notes while watching the video.

  • How can multisensory teaching help dyslexic students in learning how to read and spell?

  • What is phonological awareness?

  • What kind of phonological units do students need to work with when they read?

  • What is the recommended sequence of activities for developing students’ phonological awareness?

  • What is tricky about learning to read in English?

  • How can knowledge of syllable structure help students learn how to spell?

  • Which activities are helpful in developing phonological awareness?

Video transcript is available in Spanish and Chinese.

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Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching

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