Word identification is a primary goal of early phases of reading instruction. Successful word identification is built upon several essential skills:
(a) knowledge of letter-sound correspondences
(b) skills for blending, chunking, and segmenting words into symbols and sounds
(c) automatic word recognition or sight reading
These skills lead students to effective decoding of words, or the ability to sound out unfamiliar written words and, beyond decoding, to the ability to store words as wholes. The goal of decoding is for children to develop a sight-word vocabulary that enables them to read familiar words efficiently while applying other skills, as needed, toward unfamiliar words.
Thus, it is not surprising children with a language-based learning disability (LLD) struggle to read. These students generally possess significant deficits in phonemic awareness – the very skill required to associate sounds with symbols and to blend and segment sounds in words. Additionally, they also display weaknesses for word retrieval that can often interfere with successful letter naming, automatic retrieval of sounds associated with symbols, and sight-word reading. Children with LLDs thus are marginalized by the word identification process early on, often with disastrous literacy consequences.
The four methods that follow are valuable procedures for teachers facilitating word identification for children with LLDs.
Method 1: Letter-Sound Decoding
Research has shown that letter-sound decoding is effective as an instructional tool. Its foundation rests in systematic phonics-based approaches to reading and approaches grounded in Orton-Gillingham techniques (e.g., Alphabetic Phonics, Slingerland Approach, Dyslexia Training Program, and Multi-sensory Teaching Approach) that have shown success with typically developing children and people with impairments. Children using this method sound out each letter or combination of letters and blend the sounds to decode words. Often, typically developing children learning to read will note the recurrence of the written “t” with the pronunciation of /t/, thus discovering alphabetic correspondences that enable rapid growth for independent reading. Children with LLD, however, have difficulty inferring these associations, consequently struggling to blend, chunk, or segment words. Our purpose as educators must be to allow children with LLDs to employ the letter-sound decoding strategy to better understand words.
Letter-sound decoding is built upon one’s knowledge of letter-sound correspondences. Children with LLDs need direct instruction that begins with regular letter-sound correspondences (e.g., t, p, n, k, b, f, h, m) and gradually introduces less regular symbols (e.g., c, ng, oo, ea) and irregular words (e.g., said, of, come, two). Children’s knowledge and retrieval of letter-sound correspondences benefit from mnemonic or association cues. Teachers of LLD students must instruct them on sound-symbol associations, starting with frequent, regular letter-sound correspondences and moving toward combinations that require increasing flexibility on the part of the reader. This combined approach of key words and daily drill is recommended to establish letter-sound correspondences and overcome word-retrieval deficits for LLD students.
Phonemic awareness is also integral to letter-sound decoding since, after achieving automatic retrieval for sounds associated with symbols, children must still blend the sounds to form words. Many frustrated children and educators have worked to attain skills for sounding out new words, only to be thwarted in their efforts to blend the individual sounds into whole words.
One limitation of the letter-sound decoding method is the amount of energy it requires for application. For the weak reader, letter-sound decoding can be a slow and laborious process. Yet, children with LLDs will never develop to their full potential if educators bypass this basic component of language instruction. Additionally, meta-analysis has revealed moderate-to-large effect sizes for phonics programs using letter-sound decoding methods, especially for children with reading impairments (National Reading Panel, 2000). In essence, letter-sound decoding leads to both a strong alphabetic knowledge of the language and confidence in identifying unfamiliar words on the part of the struggling reader.
Method 2: Syllable Neighborhoods
Letters automatically group together in predictable patterns, and these patterns directly affect decoding. The concept of letter-sound neighborhoods is built upon six syllable types typically taught in Orton-Gillingham methods (e.g., Alphabetic Phonics). (See article link for table on six syllable neighborhoods with example words and the corresponding instructional principles). Syllable neighborhoods move beyond simple letter-sound correspondences, an important step given that these associations vary by context. For example, the letter o in “pot” predictably says /a/; the o in “rope” says loi; two o’s as in “book” are /u/. For each of these, it is the neighborhood that cues the reader to the most likely letter sound.
To successfully use syllable neighborhoods, children need automatic recognition of letters that represent consonant sounds (e.g., t, th, y, and w in the initial position of words) versus vowel sounds (e.g., u, oo, ew, ay). Vowel and consonant identification, however, is a meta-linguistic skill often difficult for children with LLD. To effectively cue children, the teacher should begin by color-coding reading manipulatives, for example, consonants in black and vowels in red. In this fashion, the syllable pattern is easily recognized during practice activities, thus facilitating the learning process. Daily practice using carefully selected materials and decodable texts serves to reinforce students’ knowledge and application of tools for reliable reading.
Method 3: Decoding by Analogy
The analogy strategy for reading focuses on combining known onsets with known rimes to read new words. The onset is the consonant or consonants that come before the vowel in a syllable (e.g., caf, chair, cry), and the rime is the rest of the syllable, including the vowel (e.g., cat, c/iair. crj/). Most typically developing kindergartners can segment words into onsets (i.e., as in initial phoneme identification tasks) or rimes (for rhyming practice) without explicitly knowing about onsets or rimes. Yet, it is imperative to remember that early instruction in the analogy strategy, without additional attention to phonemic awareness and letter-sound correspondences, is not effective, even with typically developing preschoolers. Children need basic phonemic awareness skills to apply this strategy, along with a relatively large sight-word vocabulary from which to access the rimes and onsets for decoding by analogy.
Despite these limitations, the analogy method is effective for several reasons. First, studies have shown that children who had been taught analogy had better reading skills for new words, and an increased awareness of medial and final phonemes. Second, emphasis on onsets and rimes increases the size of the phonological chunks manipulated by a child, moving him or her away from a letter-by-letter decoding strategy to a focus on groups of letters and sounds (the goal you want all readers to master). Third, the analogy strategy can be used to help struggling readers when words do not conform to regular English patterns, as children who know “old,” for example, can read other words, such as told, bold, and fold, although the letter in these words does not conform to the short vowel rule for closed syllables.
Method 4: Multi-letter Chunking
Another method of word identification is the use of multi-letter chunking. Like the analogy method, this method effectively shifts the reader’s focus to even larger word segments. Chunks that can substantially improve decoding skills include compound words (e.g., popcorn, sidewalk, bluebird); prefixes, suffixes, and base words (e.g., unhappy, worthless, demobilize), and syllables within multi-syllabic words (e.g., expert, Atlantic, table). The first step in multi-letter chunking is to assist children in stripping common suffixes from base words when reading. Many struggling readers, even in the middle school grades, freeze when they come across derivations of familiar words. Children are taught to attack words by scanning for suffixes, removing the suffix (i.e., covering it with a finger or card, or drawing a box around it), and sounding out the base word. They then pronounce the whole word by blending the base word with the suffix. At beginning reading levels, the focus is on common verb and noun suffixes (-ing, -ed, -s or -es). Children in upper elementary grades and middle school can continue to use this procedure with an increasing knowledge of English prefixes and suffixes (e.g., dependable, mistaken).
Because multi-syllabic words are not infrequent in reading lists for early elementary grades (e.g., something, monkey, address, behind, flower), teachers need techniques to assist children with LLDs in attacking these words. (See table 2 for five rules for syllabicating English words). The vowel sound is the nucleus of the syllable, so the reader first locates the vowels. She then determines the number of consonants between the vowels. This dictates the syllabication rule. If there are two or more consonants between the vowels (e.g., monkey, address), the most likely segmentation is between the consonants. When there is only one consonant, the first best guess is to segment before the consonant. When this does not result in a recognizable word, the reader should re-chunk by segmenting after the consonant. Ideally, segmentation yields recognizable chunks (e.g., man + key, ad + dress, ta + ble). If, however, the student cannot automatically read the single syllable chunks, he or she can decode the word by using syllable neighborhoods
Multi-letter chunking is particularly useful for upper elementary school-age children who continue to demonstrate weaknesses in word identification and decoding. Rather than practicing reading CVC or CV syllables that perpetuate students’ feelings of incompetence, older children can tackle multi-syllabic words using decodable, multi-letter chunks. Megawords (Johnson & Bayrd, 2002) remains an excellent series of books based upon these syllabication rules and syllable neighborhoods. Furthermore, multi-letter chunking supports a curriculum-based reading practice, because many examples exist in students’ grade-level content.
Dee M Lance, Brenda L Beverly, Lea Helen Evans, Kim C McCullough. “Addressing Literacy: Effective Methods for Reading Instruction.” Communication Disorders Quarterly. Austin: Fall 2003. Vol. 25, Iss. 1; pg. 5.