Print this document
Estimated: 5 pages
Helping Children Learn "Phonemic" & "Graphemic" Awareness
by Myrna T. McCulloch
Tom is confused and feeling quite helpless. He is trying to write a report to tell
what happened, and what he learned during yesterday's science project. He is excited
that he could understand all about the way the engine worked; his teacher
really seemed to know all about cars and engines. The way he illustrated it on the
blackboard made everything quite clear.
Tom knows the words he would like to use, but somehow, the shape and form
of the letters in them do not come to his mind. What he learned had either come
straight from the teacher's mouth, or from the blackboard drawing. Nothing was on
paper; he never saw it described in words written on paper, so, he now thinks to
himself, "How can they expect me to write it down?"
Tom had learned spelling through a whole word, visual memorization process only.
He is not really aware how the separate sounds (phonemes) he and others use to speak
are associated with specific letters (graphemes) except in a superficial and general
way. He doesn't really have any experience processing the sounds or their spellings
when he wants to write something. Because he doesn't have this awareness,
he simply cannot write the words he knows and understands.
TOM IS NOT AWARE THAT HE NEEDS TO THINK
OF THE INDIVIDUAL SOUNDS IN EACH WORD!
Tom is not aware that he needs to think of the individual sounds
in each word? "What am I saying?" "What am I hearing?" "How many syllables are there?"
"What is a syllable anyway?" "Are there separate sounds in each syllable?"
Can he break each word into syllables, and then into individual speech sounds (phonemes),
and the letters which spell them on paper (graphemes)?" "No, Tom is thinking, even
if I do, so many sounds are spelled in so many different ways, I would never get
them right!" "How many different sounds are there anyway?" "And how many combinations
are there to put them on paper?" "Why does English have to be so confusing?" "There
must be an easier way!"
What Tom, his parents, and many teachers do not know is that there is a
fairly simple and logical system for correct English spelling, and that it can be
learned -- preferably at the primary level. This information has not been taught
in colleges of education in this country, generally speaking, for nearly 60 years.
I learned it, and an effective way to teach it, twenty-three years ago -- nearly
by accident. It has been of enormous help to me, and to thousands of teachers, parents,
and children who have discovered it through the literacy initiatives of The Riggs
Institute. Perhaps it is time to put this story into perspective with the current
national concern for phonemic awareness training.
The English alphabet is a sound/symbol system, not a pictographic one. The twenty-six
letters of our alphabet, singly and in some set combinations, are used
to write the elementary sounds of English speech -- the 42 pure sounds
needed to say the entire English lexicon.** These sound/symbol relationships,
and some 47 rules of orthography which ideally should be taught with them, are highly
relevant because those who do not know them, cannot learn to spell except by whole-word
memorization. Approximately 30% of us have no such "visual" capacity, and,
probably, another 50% of us cannot confront these memorization tasks well. It causes
no end of frustration, slows creative thought, and ensures lowered self-esteem and
failure for at least 60% of would-be writers. What, if any, are the answers?
"WE NEED TO EQUIP OUR STUDENTS TO THINK, WRITE, SPELL,
AND EXPRESS THEMSLEVES ORALLY AND ON PAPER...."
Well, we already know that a national cry has gone out; we must again teach phonics
(research says explicit * phonics has the edge over implicit phonics), and phonemic
awareness! To decode accurately, first one needs to be aware of
the individual "sound bites" in each word which will make up the words and sentences
we want to read. True literacy involves much more than merely reading; we need to
equip our students to think, write, spell, and to express themselves orally and
on paper which helps them to clarify their own thinking. For this, phonemic
awareness must be accompanied by graphemic awareness.
Otherwise we end up with invented spelling which makes an incorrect engram
on the young brain. In turn, invented spellings do not "map" to standard book print
for decoding (reading). We must remember that "practice tends to make permanent."
Here is how we teach students to listen, hear, and say the sounds accurately, to
learn, read, and write the corresponding letter/s, and to pursue this neurological/linguistic
learning process through four primary sensory avenues: sight, sound, voice, and
writing to address all learning styles by teaching to the stronger avenue/s,
while remedying any weaker avenue/s, simultaneously. . .
Early primary-level instruction begins by teaching the shapes [we dictate the written
form of each letter thus building acute listening skills] and the sound/s of the
first 26 letters of the alphabet "explicitly" (*first in isolation, without key
words or pictures). We teach two sounds (phonemes) for the consonants c, g,
and s, four sounds for each for the vowels a, o,
and u, and for the consonant/vowel y; two sounds
for vowel e, and three sounds for the vowel i.
This involves teaching 31, of the 118 phoneme/grapheme relationships of English,**
four per day, in about 7 days. This same instruction insures multi-sensorial "phonemic
awareness" of 31of the 42 pure sounds of English speech.
Students SEE each letter or grapheme in both book print and manuscript
printing on a flash card; they HEAR their teacher SAY
the sound or sounds (phoneme/s). They repeat (SAY) the sound(s) aloud and WRITE
the form of the corresponding letters on their dotted line paper. Eight
"checkpoints" are used to dictate the form and shape of each grapheme (letter/s)
as the sound/s) are said, written, and learned. This is accomplished fairly quickly
because this multi-sensory instruction accommodates each student's "learning style"
which is neurologically based. Mastery is achieved when all students can write the
graphemes successfully when only the sounds (or phonemes) for them are dictated.
These 26 graphemes (letters) are then permanently recorded and illustrated on a
wall chart for later reference. Remedial teachers usually start a beginning spelling/vocabulary
list at this 7-day point while continuing the teaching of the rest of the 71 sound/symbol
relationships. Together these constitute 118 phoneme/grapheme relationships -- quite
different from the 48 phoneme/graphemes reportedly needed and depicted in the "30
Years NICHD Research" article authored by written by Bonnie Grossen.
"....MULTISENSORY INSTRUCTION ACCOMMODATES
EACH STUDENT'S 'LEARNING STYLE'..."
Primary students continue to learn the eleven (11) additional phonemes which are
depicted in print with twenty nine (29) two-letter graphemes which involve some
additional commonly-used and primary-level spelling patterns of English (er,
ir, ur, wor, ear, sh, ee, th, ay/ai, ow/ou, aw/au, ew/eu, oy/oi, oo, ch, ng, ea,
ar, ck, ed, or, ui, wh, oa). Nineteen of these have but one sound each;
four have two sounds each; five have 3 sounds each, and one has four sounds Learning
them will take the first three weeks of instruction at a rate of four per day. Students
simply learn the sound/symbol (phoneme/grapheme) relationships so they can write
the letter(s) from the dictated sounds.
These phoneme/grapheme units which we call "phonograms" are also recorded on wall
charts which both teacher and students use. All of this "reading readiness" instruction
is for immediate use in dictated spelling which we begin in the fourth week.
The spelling list starts with 150 of the most commonly used English words, the first
of which is the word "me." The teacher pronounces the word, and uses it in a correct
sentence for context, vocabulary, oral comprehension, to "model" age-appropriate
sentences, and to teach or reinforce any desirable "across the curriculum" content.
Then the question: "What is the first sound you hear when I say
me?" Students should answer together with the sound, "m."
If they do so, they are instructed to write the grapheme which stands for that sound
on their practice paper (recall that they have already learned how to spell or write
the correct symbol for the phoneme or sound "m" during phonogram instruction). If
no one knows, the teacher simply tells them, "Here, we will use "m"; write that
on your paper." Then, "What is the next sound you hear in the
word me?" At first, teachers stress the sound they are looking for
to make the student more "aware" of it. In the first dictation, they may
have to repeat several times until the routine is established. Now, some children
will answer with the long e sound. And then the question, "Which 'e'
phonogram will you use?" [You've already taught 3 different ways to spell the /e/
phoneme: /e/ /ea/ and /ee/.] Several more visually-advanced students will know that
it is "eh - long e." because they have already memorized the spelling of me,
and because they know this.
NOTHING IS BEING COPIED; THERE IS NO 'VISUAL'
STUDENTS ARE WORKING WITH LISTENING AND AUDITORY PROCESSING.
sound and the grapheme which matches it. If some know and say it, the teacher has
the class repeat the sound/s which depict long e, and says, "Now, write that on
your paper next to your m." Nothing is being copied; there is no "visual."
Students are working with listening, segmenting the correct phoneme in the word,
and writing its grapheme. At this point, note that we are stressing letter sounds
only, not letter names though the sound of the vowel "e" in this particular
word also happens to be its name. It should be noted here that only the names of
the vowels are ever heard in English speech, therefore, we do not teach
the letter names until phonemic AND graphemic awareness is thoroughly established
through learning the sound/symbol relationships only.
Now, the students dictate back to the teacher (called recoding or reading sound
by sound from the graphemes on their paper) upon her/his request, "What was the
first sound you heard in "me?" What did you write? Children answer
"m" and the teacher writes it on her board where the children then see
the designated correct answer for the first time. They compare theirs to what the
teacher has on the board. What was the next sound? Which phonogram did
you use? And "e" goes next to the "m" on the board. Children now continue their
comparative analysis: Does my paper look the same as the board? Then, they
learn the orthography rule, "Vowels a, e, o, u, usually say their names at the end
of a syllable." by application in this word, not as a rote memorization
process. The teacher has been teaching his/her students the "process" of thinking,
spelling, and writing independently when not being directed by a teacher -- how
to direct themselves.
"THE CHILDREN HAVE NO ERASERS AT THIS POINT -- A QUALITY CONTROL FEATURE ...."
The teacher keeps close account of which of her students' papers need to be "fixed."
The children have no erasers at this point -- a quality control feature for their
teacher to know exactly which phonograms are not clear to them. Harder-to-teach
students are placed in front of the teacher's teaching station to get immediate
and ongoing notice and assistance. If children consistently miss sounds during this
"phonemic/graphemic awareness" exercise, it usually means they have not learned
the phonograms well enough. They should be taken back for more study and review.
The next word is "do." What is the first sound you hear? Students answer with the
sound 'd' and are instructed to write that on their paper. And the next sound?
Students should answer 'oo' (long). Then,: "And which 'oo' will we
use here?" (three different 'oo' spellings have been taught). A mnemonic
marking system is used to help children recall the correct choice and any differences
between normal pronunciations and correct spellings.
"THIS ....PROCESS TEACHES THE STUDENTS HOW TO DICTATE TO THEMSELVES
WHEN THEY ARE THINKING, SPELLING AND WRITING ON THEIR OWN ...."
Just a bit later, two-syllable words are begun. Now, the first question is, "How
many syllables do you hear?" A Socratic question and answer methodology
is used. "What is the first syllable?" "What is the first sound of the first syllable,
etc.?" Children are learning to ask themselves: What is the word? How does it sound?
What am I saying? What am I hearing? How many syllables are there? What is the first
syllable? What is the first sound of the first syllable? And the next sound? Which
grapheme (letter(s) will I use? What rule applies? How will I recall the spelling?
This process will be slow at first, but becomes quite rapid and automatic as students
learn to anticipate the next question.
After dictating 30 spelling words a week for 5 weeks, the remaining 16 graphemes
are taught (ey/ei, eigh, igh, ie, kn, gn, wr, ph, dge, oe, tch, ti, si, ci,
ough), but these have no additional or separate phonemes or sounds.
They are, instead, additional and quite commonly-used spelling patterns which use
some of the same phonemes previously taught. You will note that all of the 2, 3,
and 4 letter phonograms fall into two categories:
- They change sounds completely by having been combined (e + y = long e or a)
- The sound they depict is normally spelled with only one letter (igh/i, gn/n, wr/r)
There are a total of 71 phonograms (graphemes) with 118 phoneme/grapheme combinations.
This "working set" will encode most of the speech of the average fourth grade native
Consonant clusters or "blends" are taught during spelling dictation by calling attention
to each of the individual sounds, but they are not taught as phonograms
(str, ld, bl) in isolation. We believe this too-common practice can actually destroy
initial phonemic awareness. Here is an example. If one teaches "s-t-r" as one collapsed
sound (str) - when it is really 3 of the 42 sounds of speech - it is our experience
that children lose their sense of each of the separate sounds, "s" - "t" - "r" which,
in turns, inhibits the phonemic awareness necessary for accurate spelling.
"ANY ATTEMPT TO SUBSTITUTE IMPLICIT PHONICS, PRESENTED 'VISUALLY'
ON WORK SHEETS, WILL NOT DO AN EFFECTIVE JOB OF TEACHING...."
We cannot overly emphasize that phonemic awareness is the first
critical element of correct encoding (spelling), but knowing the correlating correct
grapheme is even more important. Both are also necessary for the decoding of words
because the phoneme for reading equates to correct pronunciation while the grapheme
tells the reader what the word is. Neither will result in high literacy skills without
an effective teaching strategy. Any attempt to substitute implicit phonics, presented
"visually" on work sheets, will not do an effective job of teaching "phonemic/graphemic
awareness" or "explicit" phonics. These neurological-patterning processes are best
taught orally through direct, Socratic instruction. Phonics, by definition, is first
sound, then symbol.
Now Tom is calm and clear minded as he sits at his desk. He's feeling quite confident
and competent. When his teacher tells the class to begin their reports, Tom recalls
his excitement in learning how an engine really works, and he thinks to himself,
"Let's see, how can I start to tell Dad all about it?" "What happened first?" "What
is my opening sentence?" "Oh yes, I know; I want to start my report with, 'Engines
are wonderful machines'." "How many syllables in engines? "What's the first syllable?
And, Tom begins to write. He knows the words, he knows the syllables, he knows the
sounds, and how to put these sounds on paper; and, now, they come to his mind, one
after the other. He knows sentences begin with upper case letters. He knows where
to start capital letters on his paper. Tom smiles happily, and begins to write his
report. Dad will be surprised at how much he learned about engines, and how well
he can now write his knowledge of engines on paper. He now has both the sound and
symbol tools he needed; and he has the necessary mechanics of spelling
and writing. His knowledge, his imagination and his memory can now serve him much
better because he has been given the tools of written communication. Note: For more
information on the phonograms and the way they are taught, see
71 Revised Orton phonograms.
Our catalog is accessible from the table on our home page.
**Linguists vary in what they have determined to be the number of phonemes in English
speech (from 40 to 48). The Orton/Riggs system uses 42. In reality, there are over
250 sounds and as many dictionary key symbols that can be used to designate all
the nuances in all the dialects of English throughout the world. However, the use
of 42 "pure" sounds (phonemes) and 71 "common" graphemes is a
sufficient "working set" to enable K-4 primary children to successfully
encode the vast majority of all English words which are in their spoken or comprehensible
vocabularies. This number builds the necessary "awareness" for early primary instruction.
Students also learn to distinguish between what we "think to spell " rather than
what, sometimes, may be said or heard in the rhythm of English
speech, regional (dawg/dog; ider/idea) and "schwa" (butn/button; ugenst/against)
pronunciations considered. The Riggs Institute revised the "Orton" phonograms in
1999 to bring them into somewhat closer compliance to our authoritative dictionary,
Merriam-Webster's 10th Collegiate Electronic Edition.