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Learning to read and spell with phonics
Classrooms around the world take all kinds of different approaches to learning to read, write, and spell. In New Zealand, research studies (McNeill & Kirk, 2014) found that most teachers did not teach their students phonemes, how to spell phonologically, sound-letter relationships, or spelling patterns. Understanding how to decode language is especially important for children with special learning needs, such as dyslexia and auditory processing disorder, as they require an explicit understanding of these topics (exposure to print media and general literacy is not enough to create an implicit understanding or ‘osmosis’ effect).
It is important to teach a phonological awareness of each alphabet sound (what ‘sound’ does the letter make). A good place to start can be putting a light coating of shaving foam in a flat tray and tracing the upper case letter with your finger while making the accompanying sound. After modelling, encourage the student to make 3-5 attempts. Speculate together what words might start with that sound. Tip: If dyslexia is indicated or they are struggling to distinguish letters, focus on capital letters as these are easier to differentiate visually.
When moving onto words, a good place to start is with short vowel ‘a’ as several phonics words families can be taught together. It’s common to start with CVC words [consonant-vowel-consonant].
When teaching an explicit awareness of phonemic awareness, ‘SAT’ is composed of: 3 letters, 1 syllable, and 3 phonemes. Within the -at phonically decodable word family are multiple words that have the same onset-rime.
Syllable: A unit of sequential speech sounds containing a vowel and any consonants preceding or following that vowel. (Henry, 2010. p.314)
Phoneme: The smallest unit of sound that conveys a distinction in meaning. (Henry, 2010, p.312).
Onset-rime: The onset is the initial consonant or consonants within a syllable. The rime is the vowel and any consonant that follows, within the syllable. (Nicholson & Dymock, 2015.p.87)
High frequency words
Activities to try
Make or buy laminated upper case letter mats. Ask the student to help you make each of the letters needed to make one of the CVC words above. While making the letter, explain that there is a sound that matches the letter and model making it,
When the word is complete, show how to sound out the letters to make the word.
Using toys, containers, or pictures drawn on paper, create a ‘treasure chest’ for real words and a ‘rubbish bin’ for fake words.
Use 3D letters to make one of the words above; let’s use CAT as an example. Demonstrate how to sound out the letters. Ask the student if they think it is a real word or fake word. Write CAT on a strip of paper and place it in the treasure chest.
Ask the student to remove the first sound [C] and swap it for a different one. Let’s say they add ‘L’. Ask the student if they think LAT is a real word or fake word. Write LAT on a strip of paper and place it in the rubbish bin.
Explicitly discuss how the end sound (-at) is staying the same and ask if they can think of any words that rhyme with CAT. Demonstrate with another word such as HAT.
For some learners, it can be difficult to focus on ‘flat’ worksheets and working with kinaesthetic 3D letters can be more helpful. If the entire alphabet is placed in front of them and they are asked to spell RAT this may be visually overwhelming. Try scaffolding the activity:
Level 1: Have the word (and a picture) on a card in front of you. Model spelling the word with the 3D letters and sounding out each letter. Point out that you are matching the letters with the order on the card.
Level 2: Place on the letters that are needed in front of you. Explain to the student that you were trying to write [MAT] but the letters got muddled. Sound out the letters in the word and ask the student if they can put the letters in the right order to match the sounds.
Level 3: Place five letters in front of you. Advise the student that you feel they know the word [MAT] so you have a game that is a little harder. Explain that three of the letters are needed to spell the word and two of the letters are tricks. Sound out the letters in the word and ask the student if they can put the letters in the right order to match the sounds.
You might find that they identify the correct letters but place them in the wrong order. Praise them for finding the right letters and help place them in the correct order. Teach them that there is a pattern that they can learn for this phonic word family. Show them how the -at words they have been learning all have -at at the end and only change the beginning letter.
Create your own sliding phonics strips. These are a great visual activity for showing how changing a phoneme can alter the word.
Show students how to chunk words into their individual phonemes by using phoneme boxes. Explicitly discuss the difference between the number of letters that a word has and the number of sounds that a word has.
Students are likely to begin with CVC words where there are three letters and three sounds. The English language is full of all kinds of oddities (with its blend of Anglo-Saxon, Romance languages, and Greek roots). They will go on to encounter words like M|OO|N which has 4 letters / 3 phonemes; or CL|O|CK which has 5 letters / 3 phonemes.
It can be helpful to pick up a visual phoneme chart that shows all 44 sounds of spoken English and gives examples of their use.