Dyslexia: Evidence and Action
I have been presenting seminars on dyslexia for more than two years now, but the question “What is dyslexia?” still worries my mind. I want to make sure I'm getting it right! Some researchers, like Julian Elliot and Athansios Protopapas, say this: dyslexia is simply the far end of the reading achievement bell curve. They believe this lack of reading achievement is not neurobiological in nature (because evidence doesn’t support this conclusion), and labeling students as dyslexic is generally unhelpful, if not downright harmful. Meanwhile, professors like Andrew Johnson claim dyslexia is best understood as an ineffective use of meaning-making strategies (an idea also put forth by Constance Weaver) and disparage programs like Orton-Gillingham, saying they are unproven, overpriced, and ineffective. Statements such as these, however, are in the minority.
Many more experts say this: dyslexia is a collection of traits, neurobiological in origin and arising from genetics, that lead to differences in the performance of reading-brain circuitry. In turn, these differences make it especially difficult for some people to learn how to read and spell and result in life-long challenges (of varying degree) in reading and spelling. Here is something else many experts say: direct, explicit, and systematic instruction - grounded in phonics, phonology, and fluency and focused on mastery learning - is effective in both preventing and overcoming many types of reading difficulties.
For me, this stance sits on solid ground and reflects what I see and hear in the world of teaching.. Based on theories of reading built upon large bodies of evidence, the stance is anchored in the research of Bruce McCandliss, David Kilpatrick, Stanislas Dehaene, Gene Oulette, David Share, Mark Seidenberg, Mary Ann Wolf, and Linnea Ehri, to mention just a few. Importantly, this body of evidence points to these facts: 1) reading arises from the interaction of key brain processing areas (semantic, phonological, and orthographic), 2) the visual perception of correct letter sequences is the first thing to occur in the reading process, and 3) processing, strategy use, and opportunities to practice reading and writing collectively work to build increasingly skillful reading.
Not only is this theory of reading (and the related theory of what dyslexia is and why it persists over time) backed up by evidence, it leads to many practical and effective classroom actions that can be used to teach the students who struggle the most, regardless of whether or not they are identified as having dyslexia or a specific learning disability. When these classroom actions are put in place, they prevent many reading difficulties from occurring. Not only that, if difficulties do occur, these actions help students to overcome their difficulties. Finally, when I travel around the country and ask teachers if programs like Heggerty Phonemic Awareness, Read Naturally, and Lindamood-Bell’s LiPPS are helping to move struggling readers and spellers forward, their answer is resounding YES! This is why I present dyslexia as being a learning difference that is neurobiological in nature and responsive to Tier I, II, and III instructional practices that stresses phonology, orthography, and fluency.
What are some of these specific instructional practices? In the rest of this post, as well as a following one, I will give a variety, starting with PreK to First Grade. Here we go…
PreK to First Grade
For young students, one of the most important things you can do is teach phonological awareness to an advanced level. Aggressively teaching phonological awareness to an advanced level can help prevent reading difficulties from occurring, as well as help students overcome challenges if they do manifest.
A sequence of necessary phonological skills includes the following:
Phonological skills, from identifying and manipulating syllables and rimes to phoneme segmentation and manipulation, can be taught through a variety of activities and materials, including:
Assessments that give information on whether or not students have or are developing advanced phonology skills include:
In next week’s post, I’ll continue the above list of classroom actions, giving you activities for orthography (phonics-spelling) and fluency, kindergarten through 3rd grade. In the meantime, thank you, teachers, for the work that you do!
Reading fluency enables readers to gain a large amount of meaning from a large amount of text in a short amount of time. How can we help developing readers build their fluency? To answer this question, let’s begin with a definition.
What is Fluency?
Fluency is made up of rate, accuracy, and prosody. When students exhibit appropriate amounts of all three, we can say they are fluently reading. Here’s another way to say it: Fluency is reading the words of any text accurately, at a reasonable pace, and with expression and phrasing that sounds like talking.
Accuracy is easy to define and quantify - a student reads each word correctly or not. Likewise for rate - it is words read correctly per minute. But in any given text, how many words per minute should a student read? And is there a degree of accuracy all students must achieve? As we’ll see, these questions are trickier to answer.
Last but not least is prosody, sometimes defined as “reading with feeling.” When I listen to students read, I’m listening for appropriate intonation, stress, and phrasing. Prosody is intimately tied to rate and accuracy; it begins when students reach a decent rate of word reading and a high degree of accuracy. But prosody has an even greater chance of blossoming when students also have background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, and a familiarity with genre and text structure. Thus, knowledge built from reading volume and breadth can in turn build prosody.
How Can We Think About Rate Scores?
There’s no doubt reading rate is important. Like airplanes rolling down runways, readers must hit some minimum speed to take flight. And once airborne, they must achieve a decent average speed to cross the landscape. In other words, readers must read a certain amount of text in a suitable amount of time. But are there exact numbers that all students must definitely achieve? Not really.
First, benchmark scores vary by assessment. For example, Acadience Learning (formally DIBELS) wants springtime 2ndgraders to read 87 correct words per minute. Meanwhile, AIMSweb wants them to read 92 and Scholastic 94. As for fluency norms, when Hasbrouk and Tindal updated their oral reading fluency norms in 2017, they found that springtime 2nd graders falling in the center percentiles (25th to 75th) read between 72 and 124 words per minute. That’s a pretty wide range.
Of course, we don’t want students to read too slowly. But we also know some children are “slow and steady” readers with good to great comprehension. Finally, and I think interestingly, Hasbrouk and Tindal found that with one small exception all of the 2017 oral reading fluency norms were higher than the 2006 ones. What does this say about our reading instruction? And what does it say about the nature of fluency itself?
How Can We Think About Accuracy Scores?
Regarding accuracy, it’s important that we give it great attention in our teaching, especially when working with struggling readers. We want to teach developing readers to read through every word, master phonic patterns, and apply decoding strategies and rules as a first line of attack. I’ve learned from researchers like Sally Shaywitz, Louisa Moats, and Timothy Shanahan, and from organizations like the Iowa Reading Research Center, that it is important to build accuracy first, as well as not lose sight of expression and phrasing. As the IRCC puts it, “Reading quality rather than reading speed.”
Even as we pay great attention to accuracy, we don’t want to let “the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I recently talked to a reading interventionist who was teaching a 4th grader with dyslexia. After direct and explicit strategy instruction and lots of decoding practice, the student had greatly increased his reading accuracy and self-correction of larger words, in turn deepening his text comprehension and coming to enjoy the act of reading more. But with small words (was, use, then), he was still inaccurate. This didn’t greatly interfere with his ability to make meaning (his teacher deemed it satisfactory to excellent) but it did chronically keep his accuracy score at 97%, just below the 98% needed to move to the upper reading levels.
Because the very act of “moving up” is motivating, the teacher said she wanted to bump her student to the next level, even though he consistently failed to make the cut score. I agreed with the teachers thought. And when I did some research, I found the creator of the leveled reading program was right there with us. Here’s a quote from Gay Su Pinnell: “Rather than setting a rigid criterion for moving a student ‘up’ a level, use informed teacher decision making.” When I touched base with the teacher two months later, she reported her student was doing “just great” in the upper level.
In summary, pay close attention to accuracy and rate numbers but temper their power with your intimate knowledge of the reader who sits before you. Yes, teaching reading is a science but it is also an art!
How Can We Help Students Strengthen All Components of Fluency?
If you’re looking for effective and practical practices to increase all components of fluency, a great starting point is repeated reading. It comes in many forms, all initially guided by the teacher. All of the following activities are described in my previous blog posts and some are described in my recent Corwin Connect posting.
Using Poetry to Build Fluency
… whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you…
- W. S. Merwin
I’m a regular reader of poetry. Sometimes I’ll read online at the Poetry Foundation site or my friend Gloria will email me a poem. But most often I read from one of my collections. I enjoy holding a book in my hand, reading and re-reading a poem while curled in a comfy chair next to the pellet stove (winter) or in the shade of a big oak (spring, summer, and fall). Some of my favorites are found in collections written by Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Gary Snyder, and Maya Angelou or collected in anthologies, where I contemplate the words of Rilke and Rumi. The poet I’m loving right now is W.S. Merwin, whose unpunctuated, uncapitalized lines can be read in any number of ways. Amazingly, each version is a surprise and revelation. If you’re interested, I’d suggest Thanks, a beautiful entry point to his poetry.
Poems can play an important part of early reading instruction because they lend themselves to practicing a wide variety of literacy elements, including vocabulary, speaking and listening, genre and author study, phonic-spelling patterns, and comprehension through close reading. Additionally, they can be used for shared reading, small group reading, and independent reading. Finally, most children find poems engaging and enjoy reading them. I attribute this to their brevity, rhythm and rhyme, and ability to evoke a wide variety of feelings and wonderment.
One of the great things about poems is that you can easily use them to help students build fluency, especially the components of accuracy and expression. It’s all done through repeated reading. Here’s on possibility for instruction that combines language comprehension and word recognition. First, find three poems of varying levels. Then consider this three-day routine, which you can unfold over two weeks. It contains a good deal of repeated reading, as well as teaches vocabulary, comprehension, and speaking and listening.
First Day (15 -20 minutes)
Personal Poetry Anthologies
Personal poetry anthologies grow and expand as the months goes by, reflecting a child’s reading preferences. Each poem in the anthology provides an opportunity for students to engage in re-reading, build their fluency, and share their reading with others.
Regardless of whether or not you use the 3-day routine, put a previously read poem into a binder or folder with the students name on it. I give students the option to take a second or even third poem, each typically at a different level of difficulty. Thus, after two months, some children will have a dozen poems in their anthology while others may have only four or five. If your budget and/or storage space is limited, store poems in a two-pocket folder with or without fasteners. If you don’t use fasteners, I suggest gradually stapling the poems into packets of six to eight (so papers don’t go flying if the poems fall out).
Photos: Two examples of poetry anthologies
Here’s a list for students giving options for poetry anthologies:
During independent reading time, you can read…
Fluent reading unfolds smoothly, with expression and in broad brushstrokes of phrasing. To drive the point home, put out a container filled with small paintbrushes. Then allow your students to take a paintbrush and re-read a poem or passage by pulling the brush smoothly below the sentences It’s a kinesthetic trick that keeps kids engaged as they re-read. Encourage the reading of phrases, smoothly, in broad strokes. Read like a painter, not…like…a…pointer!
Repeated Reading, pioneered by Dr. Jay Samuels, is a specific and thus capitalized routine for building fluency. But when it comes to uncapitalized types of repeated reading, there are many engaging ways to go. This post looks specifically at choral and echo reading. Both provide support for reluctant or struggling readers, allow the teacher to monitor word pronunciations and note errors, and provide valuable feedback, important because feedback helps readers form the exact pronunciation and spelling of every word. With repeated reading, words can be more fully processed by the brain’s reading circuitry and thus there is a better chance that each word will be stored completely (with all aspects of meaning, sound, and spelling) in the “brain dictionary.”
Choral and Echo Reading
During choral reading, students read a short piece of text in unison with the teacher. After the teacher first models fluent reading, students read along and try to match the pace and prosody. The text can range from lines of decodable text or sentences from a leveled reader to a paragraph from an article, a story excerpt, or a book. Another option is a piece of poetry. Depending on the poem and the students, either the entire poem or a specific stanza is repeatedly read.
Echo reading is when the teacher models and then the student or students read the same text back. Kindergarten kids typically echo one sentence. To determine the number of sentences for other grades, consider the demands of the text and the abilities of the students. If students need support and the sentences are relatively difficult (longer and/or with higher decoding demands), one sentence will do. But if sentences are shorter and easier to decode, pick two or three for echoing. Otherwise, students with good short term memory will simply “parrot back” a sentence without ever reading it.
Groupings for Choral and Echo Reading
Echo and choral reading can be used with groups of all sizes, from small to whole. When working with students who need a lot of support, use both types of repeated reading every day. Here’s one possibility for what a repeated reading routine might look like:
A Classroom Example
As an example of repeated reading, let's imagine a small reading group of five 3rd grade students who have just finished whisper reading the text at the bottom of this post. Your teacher talk might sound like this:
In my final blog on repeated reading (coming up in two weeks), we’ll dive into why and how to use poetry for repeated reading.
Throughout my educational career - from special education teacher to reading interventionist to classroom co-teacher – I loved the point in the year when young readers “took off.” Seemingly out of the blue, they suddenly became much more fluent readers. When students entered this stage of their reading development, their rate and accuracy increased dramatically and they were able to confidently and quickly traverse whole paragraphs, even when the written terrain became difficult.
For decades reading research has shown us that reading fluency - the ability to read accurately, at an appropriate rate, and with proper expression and phrasing - is essential to reading comprehension (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974; Stevens, Walker, & Vaughn, 2017). One especially effective and efficient practice that builds students’ reading fluency is guided repeated reading. The activity provides less skilled readers with the opportunity to hear a model of fluent reading and then practice the same passage in a way that minimizes errors. Additionally, reading aloud with others (often with the teacher) builds confidence, lessens the stress of reading independently and supports any student who feels shy or nervous about reading out loud.
Capitalized Repeated Reading
Repeated Reading is the specific (and thus capitalized) routine pioneered by researcher Jay Samuels. It has been shown to be effective at improving the oral reading fluency of elementary students, including those with learning disabilities (Kim, Bryant, Bryant, & Park, 2017; Stevens et al., 2017; Lee & Yoon, 2017).
The routine shares these key ingredients with other varieties of repeated reading (such as echo reading, choral reading and Radio Reading):
Through its very nature, Samuel’s routine gives students lots of reading practice. It goes, however, above and beyond garden varieties of repeated reading. According to Timothy Shanahan, “Repeated Reading is a particular method … to develop decoding automaticity with struggling readers. In this approach, students are asked to read aloud short text passages (50-200 words) until they reach a criterion level of success - particular speed and accuracy goals” (Shanahan, 2020). Said another way, the routine uses goal setting, instant error correction, and peer mediation to boost all components of reading fluency.
Photo from IRRC's website article on Repeated Reading (courtesy Merrimack College School of Education/Flickr)
Putting Repeated Reading to Use
Repeated reading of all types typically leads to improved reading performance, especially for low performing readers (Zawoyski, et. al., 2014), with the biggest payoffs being more accurate word reading, improved oral reading fluency, and more reading comprehension (Shanahan, 2020). Still, some schools and teachers don’t make use of this powerful practice. Here’s what dyslexia researcher Sally Shaywitz has to say: “…the proven effectiveness of guided repeated oral reading to increase fluency is too often ignored. That is unacceptable. In fact, the evidence is so strong that I urge adoption of these programs as an integral part of every school reading curriculum throughout primary school” (Shaywitz, p. 233).
Fortunately, it doesn’t take much time and effort to understand and then adopt the practice in your reading block. If you would like to understand Samuel’s Repeated Reading routine well enough to use it with your readers who struggle, here are three resources to explore - just follow the links:
The work of S. Jay Samuels has had a profound impact on the field of reading instruction. Dr. Samuels passed away last year in December. Whether they know it or not, teachers who engage in quality reading instruction have been influenced by Dr. Samuels and countless children have become better readers because of his insights. If you’d like to read about S. Jay Samuel’s life and reflect on his accomplishments, follow this link and read the “in memorium.”
Citations and Sources
The interaction of meaning, sound, and spelling is what gives rise to foundational to reading. From researchers and writers such as Linnea Ehri, Mark Seidenberg, David Share, Gene Ouellette, and Louisa Moats, we know that becoming aware of the individual sounds in words (phonemes) is critical to the development of orthographic mapping –the brain process of associating letters with sounds that ultimately leads to the automatic recognition of a word’s spelling, meaning, and pronunciation. Without well-developed orthographic mapping, children (and adults) will struggle to develop fluent reading and writing.
So, how do we best set our young students on the path of phonemic awareness ? In his excellent 2015 Reading Teacher article on early literacy research, D. Ray Reutzel identified phonemic segmentation as an activity that gives a lot of bang for buck. To be clear, he still encouraged the teaching of onset-rime, rhyming, and alliteration. But he did emphasize segmenting, a somewhat advanced phonemic skill. So, let’s look at ways to teach the discrimination, segmentation, and blending of phonemes, thus moving students towards the ultimate goal of advanced phonemic awareness.
Stretch the Word
When we speak, their individual sounds of words are blended together (co-articulated), making it difficult to hear where one sound begins and the other ends. Plus, oral language goes by very quickly. To help students hear sounds within words, teach them to slow down the speaking of word so they can hear the phonemes within each one. Later they can segment those phonemes more discretely through activities like Tapping and Zapping (more on this in a minute).
To stretch a word, tell your students to pretend the word is a big rubber band. If you live in western Pennsylvania, ask them to imagine a “gum band.” They’ll know what you mean. Grab hold of either end of the word (make two fists and hold them close to each other in front of you). Then slowly pull your hands away from each other, stretching the word out, holding out the vocalization of each phoneme as you stretch.
After the rubber band is stretched as far as it can go and all of the phonemes have been drawn out, snap the band back together with a handclap. When students clap, they say the word. In this way, phonemes are blended back together to make a word. Words with continuant sounds in the beginning are best for beginners so choose your words carefully. For example, flip is a good word to start with. It’s stretching and blending would sound like this: ffff-llll-iiii-p, (clap) flip!
To build vocabulary, go beyond common words. For example, when having students phonemically segment closed syllable words, use vast as well as big and dash as well as run. Quickly and effectively define these words for children through direct and explicit instruction.
Tapping and Zapping: Using fingers to segment sounds
Stretching a word helps students hear the individual sounds within words. Tapping and Zapping take the ability to the next level – isolating or segmenting those sounds.
Tapping involves extending your non-dominant arm and then using three fingers on your dominant hand to tap out the individual sounds of a word along your arm, starting up near your shoulder and working towards your wrist. Fish would get three taps (/f/, /i/, /sh/) and flip would get four (/f/, /l/, /i/, /p/). Once the tapping is done, go back to the shoulder and slide your hand down your arm, shoulder to wrist, blending the sounds back together as you say the word.
To model zapping, say the target word as you make a fist. Next, segment the word into the sounds you hear, pumping your hand and throwing out a finger for each sound you say. For example, the word it gets two pumps. The index finger comes out when you say /i/. The middle finger comes out when you say /t/. Finally, draw your fingers back into a fist, blending the sounds together, and saying the word.
When giving words, it is important for you to say the word and have your students repeat it with you (I Say, We Say) before the zapping begins. I Say, We Say gives a model of the correct pronunciation of the word prior to sound segmentation and an opportunity to repeat that correct pronunciation. After all, one cannot segment phonemes correctly if the word isn’t pronounced correctly.
Hear It, Say It, Zap It, Blend It
Here’s a teaching routine I still run in classrooms. If I use six or seven words, it takes about five minutes. In this routine, keep your instruction direct and explicit, use modeling, and proceed at a brisk pace. The point is to work in lots of practice so the kids can master the technique. Once mastered, children can use zapping as an independent strategy for spelling and reading many unknown monosyllabic words. In this lesson, we’ll imagine the teacher is working with a group of second graders on the r-controlled syllable.
Stretch It, Tap It, Zap It
With short bursts of repeated practice distributed over time, students can master the art of stretching, tapping, and zapping in just a few weeks. Combine all three – stretching, tapping, zapping - into short routine. Click this link to see me demonstrating Stretch It, Tap It, Zap It. And the pics below show a friend, who appears in my recent book, doing the same.
In an upcoming post, developing advanced phonemic awareness
While segmenting and blending are necessary skills, they are only somewhat advanced. To increase the chances students will develop strong orthographic mapping, we want to move students farther down the phonological bookshelf to truly advanced phonemic skills: subtracting adding, and moving phonemes to make new spoken words from old ones. In an upcoming blog, I’ll give activities that develop the most advanced phonemic skills.
Sources / Citations
By the Way
The activities described in this blog (as well as many others) can be found in my new book from Corwin!
Spoken language has sound, from the strings of utterances that we call sentences to the discrete, specific sounds (phonemes) that make up every word. It’s vital that young students become aware of the sounds of language and skillful in their analysis and manipulation, and so today’s post looks at phonology – the study (and teaching) of language sounds.
Phonology and phonological awareness
To begin, let’s be clear on terms. Phonological and phonemic are not synonymous. Rather, phonological is the more encompassing term. Think of it as a big bookshelf labeled “the general awareness of the sound structures of speech.” This bookshelf is divided into sections that include, moving from the largest sound units of speech to the smallest, whole words (sunset), syllables (sun and set), onsets and rimes (s-un and s-et), and phonemes (s-u-n-s-e-t). Students who are phonologically aware can hear and count the number of words in a spoken sentence, as well as the number of syllables in a word. They can also produce rhymes and alliterations, such as Henny Penny and Peter Piper, as well as segment words into their onsets and rimes, such as P-eter and P-iper.
Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness; it occupies a small but very important space on the big bookshelf. Students with advanced phonological awareness are phonemically aware. This means they not only understands that words are an amalgamation of discrete sounds, but they can also hear individual sounds within any given word, segment these sounds from a whole word, blend them together to create a spoken word, and even create a new word by manipulating, subtracting, or adding sounds.
Some languages are made up of over 100 discrete phonemes. Others, like Hawaiian, have fewer than 15. The English language has 44. To discriminate between these sounds, produce them, and manipulate them, a student doesn’t need to see anything at all and so phonological and phonemic activities can be done in in the dark. In a purely phonological activity, no text is involved. But skillful teaching is!
Activities that move students down the bookshelf
There are many activities for teaching phonology, from the word level to the discrete sound level (phonemes). To move students along the shelf, let’s start with two that draw attention to the macro levels of spoken language: understanding that sentences contain words and understanding words have syllables. In the next biweekly post, we’ll move to the micro level: words are made of discrete sounds called phonemes.
Word level: Hoppy Kangaroo
Hoppy Kangaroo helps students in preK and early kindergarten hear and count the number of words in a sentence. Hoppy jumps each time a word is said. If a sentence has four words – The cake is tasty – Hoppy jumps four times. Notice we are not talking about syllables (tasty has two). Rather, the emphasis is on recognizing words, the largest blobs of sounds in language.
If you happen to have a kangaroo hand puppet, great. But my Hoppy is a simple piece of clip-art, colored and attached to a ruler. Student kangaroos are the same art, scaled smaller and taped to popsicle sticks.
To teach, directly and explicitly tell students that sentences are made of words. Then introduce Hoppy however you like. Say Hoppy only jumps when whole words are spoken. Next, say a sentence, such as “I like grapes.” I think it’s best to start with sentences that have only single-syllable words. Have students say the sentence with you and maybe even on their own (I Say, We Say, You Say). As you hold Hoppy, repeat the sentence once more and this time make her hop each time a word is said: “I (hop) like (hop) grapes.” Finally, repeat the sentence once more and have your students count the number of time Hoppy hops. Click here to see a vid of Hoppy in action.
Take the activity to a more advanced level by saying sentences with more words, first four and then five. Bring in some two-syllable words but remember: Hoppy hops on words, not syllables. For preschool and early kindergarten children, six to seven words might be a lot to count but see how far you can go.
An even more advanced form of Hoppy Kangaroo is to put him out to pasture. Tell the kids that Hoppy is away, perhaps having breakfast at the IHOP (know you’re acronyms!). Then say a sentence at a slow to medium tempo and allow students to count the words without the kangaroo.
To connect this activity to text without having to use spelled out words, use the Magic Line. I'll give more on the Magic Line in an upcoming post.
Syllable level: Hands Together, Apart, and Away
Advanced phonemic skills include adding, subtracting, and substituting phonemes to make new words out of existing words. Set the stage for this skill by teaching children to add and subtract the larger sound chunks of syllables. Deleting one word of a compound word eases them into this concept; replacing the deleted word with a different word, thus forming a new compound word, takes the skill to the next level. To help children better understand how deletions and additions work, use the hands together, apart, and away activity.
To model this multi-sensory activity, turn your back to your students and present the back of your hands to preserve “reading left to right.” With your hands together, thumb touching thumb, say, “Daylight.” Pull your hands apart and say the compound words as separate words: “Day, light.”
Next, put your hands back together and say, “Daylight.” Then, ask your students to say daylight without day. Model taking away your left hand and gently shaking your right. If they don’t know the remaining word, say, “Light.”
Next, as your students to say daylight without light, taking away your right hand and gently shaking your left. If they don’t know the word, say, “Day.” The pictures from my recently published book show a first grader doing the activity. Click this link to see a video of me demonstrating Hands Together, Apart and Away.
As with Hoppy Kangaroo, a more advanced form of Hands Together, Apart, and Away is to do the activity without using hands! Once kids can accomplish this with a 2-syllable compound word, go to three syllable words. At this point, unless you are an octopus, you simply cannot use your hands to segment syllables. Have students say a three-syllable word like December. Then ask them to say the word with a syllable deleted. For example, “Say December without the De.” (Cember) Or say, “Say December without the last syllable.” (Decem).” Or ask them, “What is the first syllable? What is the last syllable?”
In two weeks, phonemes!
In my next blog I’ll describe Stretch, Tap, and Zap, which move children farther down the bookshelf by teaching them to hear and then segment the phonemes that make up words.
The activities described in this blog (as well as many others) can be found in my new book, How To Prevent Reading Difficulties, PreK-3: Proactive Practices for Teaching Young Children to Read. Click these links to the preview the book at Corwin or Amazon.
Letter Confusion and Reversals: Why do they occur and how can we help students overcome them?
I had a big “ah hah!” moment when I recently reread Stanilas Dehaene’s book Reading and the Brain: The New Science of How We Read. In a chapter titled Reading and Symmetry, Dehaene, a French scientist who researches the neural basis of reading (among other things), explains why students often confuse letters such as b / d or d / p and sometimes read and spell words in reverse. It seems printing letters and words in reverse and reading certain words seemingly backwards typically has nothing to do with visual perception or visual memory. Rather, these things most often have everything to do with something called mirror generalization.
Like all animal brains, human brains have evolved in relationship to their environment and physiology. Because we live with gravity, our brains can quickly realize that up is very different from down. Also, because our eyes are fixed in the front of our head, our brains know that ahead is very different than behind. But what about left and right?
Consider these three objects, which are presented in Dahaene’s book. Do you recognize them instantly?
Did you initially notice they were spatially backwards? In real life they appear this way:
Mirror generalization (sometimes called mirror invariance) arises from our body’s symmetrical nature and can be defined as the brain’s ability to recognize objects regardless of their spatial orientation. Imagine you are walking through a tropical forest and you come upon a bunch of monkeys. Some of the monkeys face you, some face away, some are on your left, others are on your right, and a few hang upside down from tree branches. Regardless of their spatial orientation, you instantly recognize all of them as monkeys. Why? Mirror generalization!
Through this generalization, our brains automatically recognize an object regardless of how it is spatially presented. A natural function found in children as well as adults, mirror generalization saves us time and energy and helps us survive. In other words, your brain doesn’t care if a tiger, for example, is leaping at you from the left or the right. You brain’s only concern is to instantly recognize the thing as a tiger and then trigger a response in your body – RUN! The same effect holds true if the object is a city bus and you’re stepping out from the curb – STOP!
When it comes to letters and words, however, an object rotated in space is not always the same thing. For example, consider this object - b. In the reading world, this object is the letter b and it represent the /b/ sound. Flip it and it becomes something different. Now it’s the letter d, representing the /d/ sound. Rotate it and it becomes something different again, the letter p.
Mirror generalization is why many young children often confuse d / b and may read was as saw or spell stop as post. Simply put, they have not yet learned to suppress their brain’s tendency to register rotated letter forms and reversed letter sequences as the same object.
Here’s a Dahaene quote from a section of Reading and the Brain. Specifically it’s about dyslexia but it references all students. The underlining is mine:
“As a matter of fact, letter orientation does pose specific difficulties for large numbers of dyslexic children, who often confuse “b” with “d.” However, these are problems that are present in all children and not just dyslexics…Furthermore, mirror errors peak at between seven and ten years of age, when children learn to recognize letters, and then vanish.… Visual difficulties do not seem to play a dominant role in most of them.” (page 295).
Unlearning is the new learning
To learn that an object in one orientation is a b, another a d, and in a third a p, children must unlearn mirror generalization. But this process of suppression (or unlearning) does not happen naturally. How does it happen? Like the unnatural act of reading itself, most children unlearn their tendency to see a d as a b and was as saw through the efforts of teachers. Through teacher instruction, the brains of students are subtly rewired and mirror generalization, at least when it comes to letters and words, is suppressed or unlearned. In the end, emerging readers and spellers are able to at first intentionally discriminate and later automatically discriminate between mirror letters like p / d and words like stop/ post , was/saw, and net/ten.
How can we helps students?
When it comes to helping students turn off their mirror generalization for letters and words, there are a number of things we can do, especially for students who have brain wiring that is resistant to suppressing or unlearning the tendency. Here are some suggestions, many of which are described and explained in my new Corwin book, How to Prevent Reading Difficulties, PreK-3: Proactive Practices for Teaching Young Children to Read. You can also find video examples of many of them on my YouTube Channel: https://bit.ly/MWLit_YT_Channel
A Final Thought
Here’s why I used the words typically and most often in my opening paragraph. Earlier I gave this Dahaene quote, “…Visual difficulties do not seem to play a dominant role in most of them.” But Dahaene goes on to say this about some students identified as having dyslexia: “In a few rare cases, however, left-right confusion does seem to be the true cause of dyslexia.” (page 295).
It seems one can’t completely rule out left-right confusion and mirror generalization as the root cause of dyslexic behavior in a very low number of students. If you are teacher who works with a student who is not responding to intense, frequent, and long-term reading interventions (such as Orton-Gillingham, LiPPS, or Barton), a team meeting and possibly more assessment are in order.
An editor friend recently alerted me to an Instagram posted by a teacher excited to unlearn an old habit. Previously the teacher had only presented letters to her young students and then asked, “What sound does the letter ___ make” and “What sound does this letter say?” Now her instruction often includes presenting a sound and then asking, “How do we spell the ____sound?”
“Unlearning is the new learning” is a catchy phrase that reminds us it’s a good idea to replace old ways of thinking with new ones linked to more effective reading and spelling instruction. It’s great to hear of a teacher’s willingness to rub out old routines and replace them with new ones, and I include myself here. I’m glad my stubborn brain is still capable of leaving a rut and heading off in a different direction.
In terms of brain circuitry, the processing areas that lead to reading are these: meaning, sound, and spelling. The language pathway (connecting meaning and sound) is one that wires itself and wires itself early. Sure, adults help strengthen this pathway as they interact with infants and young children, but no adult has to directly and explicitly teach a child to hear spoken words and associate them with meaning. On the other hand, the reading pathway must be wired and it is typically wired by teachers. Enter effective instruction.
Any teacher exited to ask her students the question “How do we spell the ___ sound” is absolutely on the right track because letters were created to represent discrete sounds of language, not the reverse. Knowing that speech knowledge comes before print knowledge, it makes sense to teach sound-letter associations just as often as letter-sound associations. Also and importantly, when working with some reading disabled students, we may need to teach sound-letter associations very frequently and over a long stretch of time.
A quick story: while proof-reading my new Corwin book, How to Prevent Reading Difficulties, PreK-3, I had an extended conversation with my copy editor about whether to use the term sound-letter association or letter-sound association. In my chapter on activities for teaching orthography, I had toggled back and forth between the phrases but to avoid confusing readers, we felt it best choose only one. I dearly wanted to use sound-letter because the term reflects the sequence of skill acquisition, #speechtoprint. But after scanning a slew of articles and websites, I clearly saw the most commonly used term was letter-sound association. As far as I could tell, Louisa Moats was the only researcher to semi-regularly use “sound-letter association” when talking about teaching young children the alphabetic principal. And so I decided to go with letter-sound. So much for unlearning!
Looking back on it, I should have chosen sound-letter association. I could have been a trend setter! And I should have included more information on how to use sound walls to teach spelling-phonics. Hence this post.
I first learned of sound walls (as opposed to word walls) about 15 years ago during a LETRS training (Louisa Moats and Voyager-Sopris). Sound walls are bridges, helping students cross from speech to visual representation, a.k.a. the letters and letter combinations that represent the 42 to 44 sounds of the English language and come together in specific sequences that make specific written words like shipwreck and kangaroo.
Here are what sound cards and sound walls look like:
By the way, the phonics program Jolly Phonics (developed in the UK) takes a sound-letter approach by using an expanded phonic sequence that includes all the sounds of the English language: s, a, t, i, p, n, c, k, e, h, r, m, d, g, o, u, l, f, b, ai, j, oa, ie, ee, or, z, w, ng, v, oo, y, x, sh, ch, th, qu, ou, oi, ue, er, ar.
Interesting, right? And useful for teaching four to six year-old students many of the basic spellings of English language sounds.
If you’re a teacher looking to transition from a word wall to a vowel and/or consonant sound wall, at the end of this post I've posted links to an informative article, a step-by-step sound wall construction guide, and three places to purchase sound cards. But first, a final thought.
Students who have or may have dyslexia, often have difficulties processing the individual sounds of language (phonemes). This makes it difficult for their brains' to orthographically map letters onto sounds, as well as store word chunks and whole words in the spelling section of their brain dictionary (Wolf, 2008; Kilpatrick, 2015; Seidenberg, 2017). One way to support all students in spelling-phonics, but especially those who have or may have dyslexia, is to give them lots and lots of practice in analyzing phonemes and then associating those phonemes with letters and letter combinations through reading (decoding) and spelling (encoding). This may be one reason David Kilpatrick gives a shout-out to the LiPPS program (Lindamood-Bell) in his 2015 book. So, if you are a reading interventionist or Title I teacher working with students who have difficulties with automatic word recognition due to deficits in the phonological and orthographic processing areas, give some serious consideration to systematically teaching sound-letter associations with a sound wall!
Here's a practical and helpful article about sound walls from one of my go-to websites, Reading Rockets:: www.readingrockets.org/article/transitioning-word-walls-sound-walls.
Click this link for a step-by-step guide from Voyager-Sopris.
Looking to purchase some sound-spelling cards to create a vowel and/or consonant sound wall? Here are some sources:
Language comprehension is fundamental to reading comprehension. Thus, it makes sense to help students build and strengthen it. The stronger a student’s language comprehension, the more deeply he or she will be able to understand written text.
Here’s a classroom practices that builds and strengthens the components of language comprehension, specifically background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, and topical knowledge. Use it prior to a introducing a theme, jumping into a unit of study, or tackling a story or chapter book.
The Slide Show
We all know the power of YouTube videos. In a matter of minutes, one clip can convey a lot of information. But my favorite activity for quickly communicating background and topical knowledge is a modern-day slide show. It imparts much more information than a video and is equally engaging.
In the ancient days of my youth, slide shows were all about hardware. There were real slides (translucent film fitted inside a frame), a hard plastic carousel that stored them, and a slide projector that beamed light through the slides and onto a screen. Today’s slide shows, however, are software-based, made from digital images culled from the internet and pasted into a slideshow app. Unlike video clips, slide shows have no animation or narration, meaning you can create space for contemplation, letting students ponder a particular slide, asking questions about it, and soliciting comments.
Set Up. To create a slide show, you need an app with a slide show function like PowerPoint or Keynote. You also need a way to get the images into the eyeballs of kids. This could be a projector and screen, a Smart Board, or even a laptop computer that, in non-COVID times, kids can huddle around. Finally, you need a strong sense of what you want to teach. Examples include a science unit on erosion, a reading genre like fairy-tales, or the setting for a story like One Crazy Summer (summer of 1968 in the city of Oakland, CA) or Owl Moon (the woods on a cold, winter night under a full moon).
Once you have decided on your instructional focus, do a Google Image query and start sifting through pictures. Choose engaging pics that also tie into the words and concepts you want to touch upon in your upcoming story, theme, or unit. The trick is to pick information-rich photographs that both pique the interest of students and provide vocabulary and background knowledge. Next, import the pictures into your slide show app and make some brief notes (mental or written) about the information you want to impart as you show each picture. Now you’re ready to go.
Modeling. It’s always a good idea to model the behaviors you want your students to exhibit. So, first model how to observe and notice. Using direct and explicit language, explain to students how to scan a picture. Then show them a photo and describe your observations, as well as defining select terms. vocabulary words. For example, this comment goes with the first slide in the figure below: “This boy is wearing a kimono. A Japanese kimono is a traditional kind of clothing. In Japan, people wear kimonos for special occasions.”
Build in appropriately sophisticated language whenever possible and intersperse the noticing with questions. “What do you notice in this picture?” and “What do you think this picture is showing us?”
The slide show below could be used to build knowledge prior to reading books that reference Japan, such as Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein or Grandfather’s Journey and Kamishibai Man by Japanese-American author and illustrator Allen Say. Under each photo, I’ve included examples of what I might say to students as I show each slide. These comments are not part of the slides; during a slide show, I don’t show text to students. No matter the content, the big picture goal is to orally building language comprehension through showing pictures and verbally giving information.
Slide shows can be as long or as short as you want them to be. However, if you make them too short, they won’t give enough information, and if you make them too long, you’ll eat up too much time and your students may lose interest. Keep in mind the age and attention span of the children you teach. A show of twelve to twenty photos is a length to aim for, and total time for the activity is less than 15 minutes.
When to use. I recommend showing a slide show prior to reading a historical novel or any book with a setting unfamiliar to many students. The ultimate goal is to add words and associated meaning to a child’s mental lexicon. Then, when it comes time to read, this knowledge is available to the reader. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a slide show with a dozen or more pictures really adds up!
Final tips. Some photos generate more discussion and/or questions than others. If you notice that one of your slides is not engaging students or fostering discussion, take note of it so you can replace it with another picture at a later time. Also, team up with two or three other teachers, map out and list slide shows that would be useful in your grade level, and then divvy up the job of finding pictures and creating shows. If everyone swaps slide shows, you can create and store 10 or 12 of them without too much effort.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.