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Evaluation article: Developing phonological awareness skills for struggling readers

Rosie Eachus explores using phonological awareness activities with young children to ensure that any learning gaps are noticed and given extra support.

 Summary

  • There is a well-established evidence base that targeting phonological skills systematically is effective in teaching reading.
  • If a child misses out on the earliest stages of acquiring knowledge about how words are built up of sounds, then they are at risk of developing literacy difficulties in the future.
  • Four basic levels of phonological awareness appear to underpin future phonic development.
  • Children who struggle to ‘crack the literacy code’ benefit from paying a lot more attention to building these pre-phonics skills before moving on to graphemes and phonemes.
  • There are many games and activities that can be carried out with such individuals on a daily basis to help them build these skills.

Since the DfES launched its Letters and Sounds programme in schools in 2007, the central role of phonics in teaching literacy has been assured.

However, there are some children who struggle to acquire the sound to letter code in order to begin reading. In fact, the British Dyslexia Association suggests that between 4 and 10 per cent of children are affected to some degree by dyslexia.

According to the 2009 Rose Review ‘there is a well-established evidence base that targeting phonological skills systematically is effective in teaching reading’. Teachers, teaching assistants and pupils work through Letters and Sounds and other phonic-based programmes but some children still struggle. Speech and language therapists are used to working with children for whom the whole speech sound system is a mystery, let alone when graphemes are added to the complexity.

Cracking the literacy code

Of course, there can be many reasons why a child may be struggling to ‘crack the literacy code’, for example some researchers suggest a genetic basis to the difficulty, and others claim early hearing difficulties affect the acquisition of knowledge about sounds. It is now generally accepted that dyslexia is a ‘multi-deficit’ disorder, not just related to one particular difficulty but to an interaction of several difficulties, for example difficulty in understanding how words are made up of sounds in addition to difficulties in understanding the meaning of words.

If a child misses out, for whatever reason, on the earliest stages of acquiring knowledge about how words are built up of sounds, then they are at risk of developing literacy difficulties in the future.

“ Early sound knowledge comes from playing with sounds at a very early age.”

In typically developing children, the early sound knowledge comes from playing with sounds at a very early age. Usually, as a child’s vocabulary increases, their awareness of how words can be segmented into constituent syllables and sounds develops. By the age of three children should be able to detect and generate rhymes, for example. They enjoy nursery rhymes and rhyming songs, can guess the final rhyming word of a line if it is missed out, and can make up their own ‘silly billy’ type rhymes. From this level of awareness it is usually relatively easy to move on towards phonics teaching.

Some children, however, have not reached this early stage and they are likely to benefit from paying a lot more attention to building these pre-phonics skills before moving on to graphemes and phonemes. For whatever reason, they need more intensive focus on this phonological awareness stage of development, and this is where teaching assistants often come in.

The rest of this article includes a selection of games and activities that can be carried out with individuals, small groups or even whole classes on a daily basis. Five activities for each phonological awareness skill have been included so that a different one can be used each day of the week.

The basic levels of phonological awareness

The basic levels of phonological awareness are as follows:

  1. Awareness that a spoken sentence consists of separate words.
  2. Awareness that separate words consist of syllables.
  3. Awareness that syllables consist of separate sounds.
  4. Awareness that sounds can be manipulated within words.

These are the very basic sound awareness skills that appear to underpin future phonic development. Levels 3 and 4 develop further as literacy skills start to develop. The ideas suggested here are additional to those in Letters and Sounds for children who need more practice at this level. The display panels provided here include just a few ideas to keep you going: no doubt there are many others out there!

Awareness that a spoken sentence consists of separate words

This very early stage in sound awareness usually occurs during the first couple of years of life. A continuous stream of speech can be broken into separate words. The following activities to support this level of awareness can fit into any time of the school day, including play time and PE.

  1. Action songs and nursery rhymes: Children perform an action for a specific word, e.g. ‘The Wheels on the Bus’.
  2. Listen for your animal name in a story:  Each child is given the name of an animal,or a character to listen out for. They stand up, or make the animal noise when they hear their word.
  3. Fruit salad: Each child is given the name of a different fruit. The adult says ‘I put X into my salad’ and the child with that fruit name jumps up and stands in the middle of a circle of children. An individual child can put an object (or the real fruit) in a bowl. The adult varies where she puts the fruit word in the sentence to encourage careful listening, e.g. ‘Into my bowl I put X.’
  4. Traffic jam: Same as ‘Fruit salad’ but with vehicle names. Adult says, ‘I was in a traffic jam this morning. An X (e.g. ‘bus’) was in front of me.’
  5. Count on your fingers: The adult says a sentence and the child counts how many words they can hear using their fingers.   They can make the sentence longer by adding another word.

Awareness that separate words consist of syllables

Difficulties at this stage should make a practitioner wary of future literacy difficulties. Activities to help develop this awareness include:

  1. Collect long words: Have a competition to see who can think of or find the longest word. Clap out the syllables to find a winner. Look around the classroom or think about class members’ names.
  2. Football teams: Clap out and say the syllables in football team names. ‘Manchester United’ and ‘Wolverhampton Wanderers’ have lots of syllables to clap out. A winner could be someone who can clap out the longest football team name. Assign children to different football teams. Clap out a team’s name and ask that person to jump up as if he has scored a goal. Use team names with a variety of syllables, e.g. Spurs (1), Arsenal (2), Liverpool (3), Wolverhampton (4) etc. Do the same with Disney Princess names if that is more popular!
  3. Trains in a carriage: Draw a train with several carriages, or use a toy one with open carriages. Put a counter into each carriage for each syllable you hear. Do this with topic words, e.g. ‘habitat’. Or use a stamper: stamp a star or flower as you say each syllable.
  4. Silly bulls: Think of a word, e.g. ‘bee’. Everyone takes one step towards the bull (adult in the centre). If someone can think of a word related in some way, they can take as many steps as there are syllables towards the bull. So if they say ‘insect’ they can take two steps. If they say ‘bumble bee’ they take three steps, and if they say ‘caterpillar’ they can take four steps. The winner gets to the bull first. You can also do this as a paper or board game, or as steps up a ladder.
  5. Animal safari: Use all the toy animals from the farm and zoo sets. The adult says, ‘Guess which animal I can see?’ then claps the syllables and the child has to find an animal that matches that number of syllables. Then swap roles.

Awareness that syllables consist of separate sounds

This is the point where children begin to develop rhyme awareness. There are several commercially available rhyme lotto type games, as well as games on the internet, and these also work well. The aim is to focus on the sounds not letters at this stage. With all these activities point out how only the beginning sound of the words are different. These activities are hierarchical, so if a child cannot join in game 5, go back to games 1 and 2.

  1. Odd-one-out: Say a stream of rhyming words, e.g. cat-hat-fat-dog-rat. Ask the child to press a buzzer when they hear an odd word in the list. Put three rhyming objects in a feelie bag (e.g. cat, hat, rat) and one that does not rhyme (e.g. pig).Can the children say which is the odd one out when the adult names them? Can the children say which is the odd one out when the adult doesn’t name them?
  2. Sounds like it: Can the child choose which animal sounds more like ‘rat’? Is it ‘cat’ or ‘mouse?’ Make a collection of word trios with pictures or objects, e.g. house/mouse/car, dog/log/horse, red/bed/blue etc. and get the children to find the rhyming pairs.
  3. Rhyme bingo: The child crosses off a picture which rhymes with the one called out. Vary the game and play rhyme lotto and rhyme pairs.
  4. Mind the gap: Leave off the rhyming word from familiar songs, rhymes or stories. (Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes are fun, e.g. ‘one eyelid flickers, she whipped a pistol from her … ’) Can the child suggest a real or made up word that could fill the gap?
  5. Making rhymes: Use the children’s names. Think of as many real or non-words as you can to rhyme with their own names, e.g. Jake: wake make take bake fake etc. Draw or use real ladders and go up a rung each time you think of a rhyme. Play any board game and think of as many rhyming words as there are dots on the dice thrown before you have your go. Roll a dice and have a competition to see who can get the most words, thinking of as many rhyming words as there are dots on the dice.

Phonological awareness skills underpin literacy strategies later on. Most children seem to acquire them effortlessly, but for those who are struggling to read, it is worth spending extra time focusing on the understanding of how words are made up of sounds.

Awareness and manipulation of sounds within words

Children can often pick out the first sound of a word, if they are aware of rhymes, and sometimes the last sound, but this is more difficult. They often really struggle when they have to swap sounds round, for example in spoonerisms.

  1. Collections: Collect words that begin with the same sound. All the children in the class whose names begin with ‘S’ go in one group. A child goes through magazines and catalogues and cuts out things that begin with the same sound (e.g. ‘car’ and ‘kitchen’ begin with the same sound) for your collection.
  2. Odd-one-out: Provide groups of objects that all begin with the same sound in a feelie bag. One object begins with a different sound. Can the children tell which one it is when you name the objects? Can they do it if the adult doesn’t name the objects for them?
  3. Alliterations: Children describe each other using an adjective which has the same initial sound as their name, e.g. ‘kind Kamal’, ‘beautiful Becca’. Make up names for monsters, e.g. Maggy Mawk, Taggy Tig.
  4. Dice games: Like ‘Making rhymes’, but think of words beginning with the same sound.
  5. Word match: For the final sounds of words. Use short consonant-vowel-consonant words. Say a word, e.g. ‘cup’, and see if the child can choose which word from two named by the adult has the same sound at the end, e.g. ‘rope’ and ‘pig’. Use pictures and objects here. It often helps to encourage the child to watch your mouth as well as listen for the sounds here.
  6. Nonsense: Can you and the child say a sentence but use ‘g’ for the beginning of every word, instead of the real first sound? E.g. ‘gan goo gear gee’ instead of ‘can you hear me?’ ‘got gis gor game?’ for ‘what is your name?’

Toolkit

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Further information

Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics: http://bit.ly/LettersandSounds
Letters and Sounds: Appendices: http://bit.ly/LandSappendices
Phonological Awareness Activities for the Classroom, Sue McCandlish: http://bit.ly/PhonolAwareness

About the author

Rosie Eachus has been a qualified speech and language therapist for 26 years. She has run storytelling groups in mainstream primary schools and is currently working at a senior school supporting pupils with dyslexia, dyspraxia and mild ASD.

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of SEN Leader magazine.

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