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Dyslexia and Phonics

4th December 2020

December is here! Is your tree up yet, opened your advent calendar? This is definitely going to be a strange Christmas but I challenge you to find a positive in the situation. It maybe a more relaxed Christmas as nowhere to go, you might save money on zoom parties rather than the usual lavish nights out? Or you may just celebrate that all your loved ones are well and what a party we will have next year? Whatever your positive is, keep it in mind and enjoy the rest of December.

Now on a more ‘serious’ note, let’s move on to Phonics! Phonics is very contrary in many ways. It is a topic which has been hotly debated over the years but the benefits are clear to see. As the programmes are developed mainly for the reception to year 2 age group there is often a ‘play’ element in the style of teaching. However, for many children the very words ‘phonics and reading’ creates a feeling of dread and anything other than ‘fun’. Do you know any children who may feel like that?

Definition taken from the Cambridge Dictionary:

phonics noun method of teaching people to readbased on learning the sounds that letters represent.

Ever heard of the book ‘Why Johnny can’t read’? It was published in 1955 by Rudolph Flesch. It has been controversial and can be seen as the start of ‘The reading wars’. Flesch realised, after tutoring a friends child, that the reason many children were not learning to read was the method of reading instruction they were exposed to in school. There came the debate of ‘whole language teaching’ versus ‘phonic teaching’. And the beginning of the end for reading books using the ‘whole word’ ethos:

Ever heard of these? blast from the past!

See my last post:

In America they seem to follow, on average, the ‘balanced’ style of learning but there is question on how much phonics is actually taught in some schools.

In the UK the government backs the use of ‘synthetic systematic phonics’. This is where the child learns the correspondence between sounds (phonemes) and letters (graphemes). The children are tested at the end of year 1 by the use of a phonic screening assessment. If they are unsuccessful they have another go at the end of year 2.

English is a very difficult language to learn due to it complexities. For example, it has 26 letters in the alphabet, there are say 44 phonemes and numerous way those phonemes (sounds) can be represented by a letter or group of letters (graphemes). See the link below which shows why ‘phonics’ is so confusing to learn……

There have been many different phonic based programmes used in schools to teach reading and writing over the years such as Alpha to Omega, Jolly Phonics, Floppy’s Phonics Sounds and Letters, Read Write Inc, Song for Sounds among many others.

The original publication of Letters and Sounds was made available free to schools in 2007 as part of the National Primary Strategy. Schools are free to follow any Phonic programme as long as it meets with the core criteria laid out by the Department of Education.

Have a look at the above which gives you an overview of a phonics programme. They consider themselves to be :

“A multi sensory phonics programme. It is hands on and interactive with music, movement and practical activities at its core, to ensure children enjoy the phonics process.”

Enjoying the process is the most important element! Children will learn more if they are engaged and interested. The danger of the existence of the ‘phonic screening’ is the tendancy to ‘teach to pass the test’, rote learning which can be where children ‘switch off’. We should always be focussed on encouraging children to love reading.

Within this programme, as do other programmes, they use ‘visual cards’ which has the grapheme and a picture cue. These are always useful for visual learners. At home, you could ask your child which grapheme/phoneme they are learning at school and work with them to make their own ‘home cards’. With the focus grapheme and a picture cue they have designed. Let them take ownership of the picture cue, to make it personal and therefore aid the transfer to long term storage. Then display them on the walls, something to be proud of!

I would just say here that although it is important to learn phonics and be aware of the sounds of the graphemes it is also important for children to know the ‘names’ of the letters of the alphabet. So often this gets forgotten about in the intensity of phonics. Knowing the alphabet names is helpful when trying to learn an irregular word (one that can not be phonetically sounded out). A quick example of a strategy to help with irregular words is the SOS method.

The SOS method – Simultaneous Oral Spelling. This is how I do this method, others may do it differently but what ever works I say:

  1. Get a big piece of paper and fold it into quarters. Or get 4 pieces of paper. On the first quarter/page you write the focus word saying the letter name of each letter whilst you write it in cursive. Then say word in full and discuss meaning as many different ways as possible ie look in dictionary, put it in sentences etc. Then the child traces over the word with their finger saying the letter names and then the word and meaning.
  2. Then child on next page/quarter get to copy your focus word (again saying letter names at same time as writing). Then ask child to draw a simple picture by the word about the ‘meaning’, one that is personal to them to help them to associate with the word and helps the memory process.
  3. Then cover the other 2 quarters/pages, so child can not see the word and ask them to write it again from memory, reciting the letter names simultaneously.
  4. Then gets the fun part where they get to close there eyes, and on next quarter/page (finger guided by you as where to start) write the word again saying ….. yes you guessed it the letter names at the same time.

Make it fun, discussing the meaning and revealing the word that they wrote blindfolded however messy it is! Children will often recall a fun experience and therefore the word has more of a chance to reach the long term memory storage.

So, as you can see knowing the letter names of the alphabet is also helpful. Don’t just focus on their sounds.

HEARING the sounds!

I can not stress enough how important it is to first of all arrange for a vision (visual stress if needed) and hearing test for the individual. So that you, and the school, are aware of any issues there may be. Also to maybe discount the possiblity that these issues could be causing the difficulties.

When you look at the necessary considerations needed for hearing impaired children where teaching phonics is concerned it does have some similarities with teaching a dyslexic pupil:

  • Can we use a visual system?
  • Can phonological awareness be taught along with phonics?
  • May benefit from wider approaches other than just synthetic phonics!
  • Programmes need to be flexible
  • Has school received training?
  • Multi sensory approach

The communication Trust explains that the deaf/hearing impaired children may have letter recognition, but no grapheme/phonemes correspondence and an ability to blend because of auditory short term memory.

We also know that short term memory can be a difficulty for dyslexic children.

As far back as 1980, Reynolds & Boohers did research with 56 deaf students and highlighted the importance of accompanying drawing and pictures with text to improve memory recall.

For hearing impaired children, just like dyslexic children, it has been found that rehearsal, repetition and mnemonics helps memory. I will look at different mnemonics next week.

Using visible information describing mouth shape when forming sounds was developed as a way to increase communication between the deaf and others. Looking at the shape your mouth makes and ‘feeling’ whether the sound is voiced or not (touching your throat and feeling any vibration) is also useful for dyslexic children when faced with similar sounding phonemes like ‘th’ and ‘f’ and ‘v’.

Look in a mirror and see what you think. Also touch your throat, if it vibrates the sound is voiced. If not, it’s unvoiced.

Also similar to dyslexics, rhyme generation tasks have historically been used to determine deaf individuals sensitivity to phonological structures (Hanson & McGarr 1989).

Spelling in oral deaf and hearing dyslexic children: A comparison of phonologically plausible errors. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 2014.

“Deaf children and hearing children with severe phonological deficits rely more than their typically developing hearing peers on visual, orthographic skills, either as a compensatory strategy and/or to capitalise on their relative strengths.”

” Dyslexic children, like deaf children, have deficits in processing phonological information that compromises their decoding skills affecting their reading and spelling abilities.”

Studies have found that dyslexic children were using phonic strategies more than the hearing impaired in spelling. The hearing impaired had more of a reliance on visual strategies, remembering what a word looked like. This could be found by assessing the spelling errors. ‘Anagram’ style errors (letter in wrong place) rather that ‘phonetically plausible errors (using phonics but incorrectly). Later studies have indicated that good deaf readers could use a phonological code to spell.

As there is debate on ‘whole word’ or phonics teaching, there is also debate within the phonic programmes. Some argue the number of grapheme/phoneme correspondence that should be taught (only teaching the most common ones as apposed to all of them). Also differences in how high frequency words should be taught and the choice of books. Should schools use the decodable reading books or ‘real’ books to introduce the reader to more variety of words and be of more interest? The debate is bound to go on and I am sure you have your own personal opinion. What do you think?

I do know that phonic training is needed so that the children have skills to decode unfamiliar words. This gives them the skills to decode as they develop through school to more difficult reading. But the mechanics of phonic training needs to be flexible to suit the individual, it has to be fun and promote a love of books/comics or any reading material.

Remember the journey of language acquisition doesn’t have to start at school. Enjoy your ‘reading time’ with your preschoolers and show them you enjoy reading your books too!

The hard work will be worth it!

So back to Christmas, which books are on your wish list?

Stay safe and see you here next week.


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