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Phonemic Awareness
Necessary for Solving Reading and Spelling Problems, Including Dyslexia

by Billie Calvery, M.S. Ed.

For some, learning to read and spell is a relatively simple process. They easily grasp and apply the idea that letters are simply the symbols we use to represent the sounds of the words we speak. Therefore, reading energy can be spent on gaining meaning from the printed word rather than on "figuring out" the printed word. However, a significant portion of the population experiences some degree of difficulty with reading and spelling accuracy. These persons struggle with how to "figure out" the words on a page or how to spell the words needed to write a sentence. Their inaccurate reading and spelling interferes when they must learn from and communicate through print. These individuals may think that they cannot "sound out" words because they are visual learners. They may have tried to memorize words or "guess" at words from context cues or the first letter of the word. They are often referred to as delayed readers, learning disabled, or dyslexic. Though most of these persons are average to above average and even gifted in intelligence, they experience a frustrating inability to match that potential in the area of written language.

Effects of Underdeveloped Phonemic Awareness

Why do people who seem equal in basic intelligence, motivation, and educational opportunities have such different experiences with learning to read and spell? Recent research identifies a mental process crucial to the development of word recognition and spelling. This process has interchangeably been referred to as phonemic awareness, phonological processing, phoneme segmentation, and auditory conceptualization.

These terms are used to describe one's ability to perceive the identity and order of sounds within words. For example, most persons can learn sound/symbol associations in isolation: d=/d/ as in dog, f=/f/ as in fan and i=/i/ as in it. However, many persons cannot perceive those same sounds when they occur in a word or syllable. Therefore, though they are taught phonics, they may look at the word 'fat' and say 'fan' or look at the word 'stream' and say 'steam'. They cannot auditorily perceive their errors. Though they can point to each letter in 'stream' and verbalize its name and sound, they are unable to notice that when they read it as 'steam', a sound was omitted. These persons may also spell 'girl' as 'gril' or 'equipment' as 'eqetment' or make speech errors such as saying 'estatic' for 'ecstatic' or 'irrevelant' for 'irrelevant. In the absence of adequate phonemic awareness, the reader must rely heavily on context cues (guessing at words) and on visual memory for the correct letters in the correct sequence in order to recognize words and interact with print.

The sole use of these strategies generally results in independent reading levels significantly below intellectual potential.

Estimates of the number of individuals who have difficulty perceiving the sounds in words (phonemic awareness) range from 15-33 percent of the population. Underdeveloped phonemic awareness occurs randomly in the population without apparent linkage to race, sex, education or intelligence. Measures of phonemic awareness are predictive of reading and spelling success for early school age readers and are highly correlated with reading ability in adults.

Phonemic awareness can be developed, resulting in significant improvement for dyslexics and for those with less severe reading and spelling problems.

Development of Phonemic Awareness

Effective Methods

Research about best practices for developing phonemic awareness with application to reading and spelling improvement tells us that effective methods are

  • multisensory
  • systematic
  • intensive

The International Dyslexia Association provides helpful information about these methods (www.interdys.org). One of the methods included is a method authored by Charles, Patricia, and Phyllis Lindamood that trains the learner to consciously apply information from a sensory modality which focuses on the source of speech sounds—the mouth. The learner is taught to notice the action of the tongue, lips and mouth when it produces a word (motor-kinesthetic information). This motor information provides the reader with a means of verifying the sounds and their order in a syllable or word. The integration of auditory (sounds), visual (letters), and motor information makes it possible for children or adults to independently "figure out" words and correct themselves when reading and spelling. Persons from developmentally delayed to gifted have been able to dramatically improve their abilities to read and spell independently after trained professionals led them to notice and apply the motor-kinesthetic information available to them.

Results of Stimulating Phonemic Awareness

Stimulation of phonemic awareness is not a reading/spelling curriculum or program. It is a sensory cognitive process that underlies individual success with any method of teaching reading. When phonemic awareness stimulation is made a part of introducing primary students to the reading/spelling process, it accelerates decoding and spelling performance and often prevents associated learning disabilities. Children with adequately developed phonemic awareness are able to respond more readily to the reading and writing philosophies in use, so that the ability to think with the written form of the language can emerge as surely as spoken language emerged.

Intensive phonemic awareness stimulation for older children and for adults with reading and writing difficulties is also consistently effective. These individuals can become independent in reading and writing at age-appropriate levels within a few weeks or months, depending on the degree of deficiency in phonemic awareness and the amount of daily instruction received.

Stimulating phonemic awareness resolves an underlying cause of a wide range of difficulties with reading and spelling. It is not a compensatory or coping skill. It is the development of a mental process which changes the way the brain "thinks" about sounds and results in an answer for problems with reading and spelling accuracy.

Billie Calvery, M.S. Ed., is the Founder & Director, Applied Learning Processes in Kansas City, MO. See her web site at: appliedlearningprocesses.com. Applied Learning Processes has been successfully implementing multi-sensory, systematic concepts since 1989. You can reach Ms. Calvery at:816-942-6808



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