“Perhaps the most important goal, in the interest of giving students a productive knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences, is to convey to them the basic alphabetic principle. Very early in the course of instruction, one wants the students to understand that all twenty-six of those strange little symbols that comprise the alphabet are worth learning and discriminating one from the other because each stands for one of the sounds that occur in spoken words. Written language is a “cipher” as Gough and Hillinger (1980) put it, and the alphabetic principle is its key.”
Marilyn Jager Adams, “ Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print” 1995
Children need to gain the insight that print is very different from other visual patterns in their environment. In print-rich environments, children appear to visibly gain such insights. However, some children arrive at school having learned very little. Letters and words are meaningless concepts, they don’t know that print reads from left to right, or that the words and sentences in a book having meaning. Children’s performance on tests designed to measure such print awareness were found to predict future reading success, and strongly correlated with measures of reading readiness and achievement. For more information about print awareness I have recommended further reading below. This blog today is looking at the stage beyond print awareness, and the topic of phonics.
In order to read words we require two kinds of knowledge:
Cipher knowledge, which is our ability to use the code of written English to decode and pronounce words, and Word specific knowledge, which is our familiarity with certain words, or word parts, and which is based on our past experience with them.
To develop cipher knowledge we have to recognize that letters in words represent sounds (phonemes) and that certain letters stand for specific phonemes, and certain phonemes in our spoken language are represented by specific letters. Word specific knowledge is based on cipher knowledge because without letter-sound knowledge you cannot develop word-specific knowledge. Words are built from individual letters, or combinations of letters, which represent specific phonemes in spoken words.
Cipher knowledge requires far more than just letter-sound knowledge, but that will be the focus of this blog. David Kilpatrick in his book, “Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties,” lists the factors, including phonological awareness, which are essential for the development of this kind of knowledge. If you want to understand the details, I can highly recommend reading it.
To read an alphabet-based language, it is clearly essential that students learn the sounds associated with the letters. Without letter-sound knowledge it is impossible to decode words. Less obviously, but true nonetheless, it is also impossible to store them as “sight” words, that is words which are recalled instantly.
In English, as most of you know, the correspondence between sounds and letters is not always 1:1. It is more accurate to say that students need to know the correspondences between graphemes (letters or groups of letters) and their phonemes (sounds.) A grapheme can be one or more letters that represent a single sound. A phoneme is the smallest sound part that into which a word can be broken. For example “hat” has three phonemes, /h/ /a/ /t/, whereas “she” has two, /sh/ /ē/.
Phonological awareness skills and letter-name knowledge all help a student successfully develop letter-sound relationships. Visual memory is not how we establish memories of printed words, but it is involved in learning letter names and sounds. Studies that David Kilpatrick refers to in his aforementioned book, demonstrate that not all letter-sound relationships are equally difficult to learn. For example some letters have their sound at the beginning of the letter name, such as /b/ in the letter ‘b’ (bee), or the letter sound is within the letter name such as /f/ as in the letter ‘f’ (ef). Letters with their sound in the initial position of their name are easier to learn than those where it can be found at the end of the name, or not in the name at all. This further indicates that there is a very strong phonological component to learning letter sounds. In fact, David Kilpatrick refers to studies that involved the training of explicit phonological awareness skills, where it also improved the speed with which students learned their letter-sound relationships.
There has long been debate about what to teach first to young children, sounds or letter names. Studies quoted in the aforementioned books by David Kilpatrick and Marilyn Jager Adams, show that it is more effective to teach the letter names. In fact, Marilyn Jager Adams highly recommends the “Alphabet Song” being taught long before children are even exposed to the shapes of the letters. This creates mental pegs on to which physical letters and sounds can be hung. The names of the letters are likely to be recalled by the song, so children know them long before the sounds are introduced. The studies show this avoids confusion when the sounds are taught, since they will know that the letter names are, in fact, names.
The next debate relates to whether upper or lowercase letters should be taught first. However, if you include cursive alongside manuscript in both upper and lowercase letters, there are four sets of twenty-six letters to learn! Letters are graphically abstract, they are often very confusable when compared to an object such as a mug, which is a mug however you turn it around, but ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’, and ‘q’ are distinctly different letters. Learning the visual identities of letters is not easy, even for children who are interested in learning them. To avoid this kind of confusion and because uppercase letters are more discriminable, they should be taught first along with the letter names. However for reading text, Adams tells us that the ability to recognize lowercase letters and their related sounds is more important. She also recommends that when presenting confusable letters such as ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’, and ‘q’ as well as confusable sounds it is best to separate their introduction in time, so what is taught first is thoroughly familiar before the next is presented. Marilyn Jager Adams also cautions against teaching both upper and lowercase versions of all twenty six letters at the same time, when working with children with little or no letter recognition facility.
“Poor readers are often reported to have special difficulties with letter orientation and reversals. Such errors were once widely interpreted as signs of neurological dysfunction, perhaps an immature or otherwise inappropriate balance in cerebral dominance. Yet careful analysis of the frequency and distribution of such errors suggests instead, that they reflect nothing more than insufficient knowledge of letter shapes….On a positive note, training children to attend to relational contrasts between letters has shown to hasten their ability to recognize and distinguish between them. “
Marilyn Jager Adams, “ Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print” 1995
It is incredibly important to teach the features of letters to children and this should not be left to chance, but instead taught in a systematic and explicit way. In our practice, we use the Handwriting Without TearsⓇ program. The letters with certain visual features are grouped together, for example the Frog Jump Capitals, as well as the Corner Starting and Center Starting capitals. I refer to these as capital letters and use the names of the letters, and encourage my students to do the same. The lowercase letters in this program, which are introduced after the capitals, are grouped into the Same as the Capitals, Magic C Letters, Diver Letters, and so on. I refer to these as lowercase letters and again use the letter names with my students. These are all introduced using several hands-on activities such as building letters from wooden pieces, so the students get to see the individual features and parts of the letters. This is part of my programs for older students, as much as for my younger students, for the reason that as Marilyn Jager Adams puts it, “training children to attend to relational contrasts between letters has been shown to hasten their ability to recognize and distinguish between them.”
For students arriving at my door with their parents, the road has not been an easy one, and they come with a mixed bag of knowledge about the alphabet letters, their names, and associated sounds. There is often confusion between uppercase and lowercase letters both in terms of their names, sounds and in their written work. Marilyn Jager Adams cautions against teaching the letter-sound relationships or word recognition to children entering school who do not have a proficient knowledge of letter names or shapes, but my students are usually older, and without this letter-sound knowledge they cannot hope to start the reading process. I have to walk a careful path with each individual student, attempting to build letter name and shape knowledge where it is incomplete or confused, and at the same time building letter-sound knowledge where there are gaps there. I’m plugging gaps in their foundation knowledge along with developing their phonological and phonemic awareness skills to allow them to move to the next level of reading development, which is phonic decoding. How I do this, I will describe in more detail in my next blog.
For training in reading development and letter-sound development that will bring about successful outcomes in all readers, but especially those that are struggling, I highly recommend checking out the Orton-Gillingham Online Academy training.
For more information about the topic of print awareness, I recommend reading:
1. The Stages of Reading Development by Jeanne Chall
2. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, by Marilyn Jager Adams
Lorna Wooldridge is a dyslexia specialist tutor with over twenty-five years of experience and qualifications in the field of learning differences, from both the UK and USA. Lorna has a unique perspective on this condition as she has dyslexia, and her passion is to serve this community in any way she can.