Poor phonological awareness

The evidence that training in phonological skills facilitates literacy development is extremely strong (see Bryant and Bradley, 1985; Goswami and Bryant, 1990; and Rack, 1994). However, auditory discrimination may also require training, so firstly the teacher should check the child’s auditory discrimination abilities (using Wock) and take appropriate action. Lundberg, Frost and Peterson (1988) showed that relatively short daily sessions of phonological activities (15–20 minutes) carried out with kindergarten children resulted in improved phonological skills and significant gains in reading and spelling (compared with a control group) through at least to their second year of schooling. In this particular study, activities progressed from simple listening and rhyming games, to segmentation of sentences into words, words into syllables and, finally, syllables into phonemes. In the Cumbria study, Hatcher, Hulme, and Ellis (1994) found that integrated sound-categorisation and letter-knowledge training produced the largest improvements in reading and spelling of a group of seven-year-olds who were failing in reading.

Phonological awareness can be developed by a variety of methods. For example:

  • Rhyming and alliteration – suitable techniques range from simple rhyming songs and games to more structured activities involving making books with rhyming or alliterative themes, playing rhyming snap or ‘odd-one-out’ games with pictures and objects; using plastic letters to discover and create rhyming word families
  • Deletion of the first sound (e.g. near–ear) or of the last sound (e.g. party–part), or of whole syllables (e.g. saying alligator without the all)
  • Elision of the middle sound (e.g. snail–sail) or syllable (alligator without the ga).
  • Correspondence – e.g. tapping out the number of syllables in a word.

Many of these activities are very suitable for playing at home, so parental involvement is strongly encouraged. Many phonological discrimination activities are also useful for phonological training. For ideas on phonological awareness activities see Goswami and Bryant (1990); Layton and Upton (1992); Layton, Deeney, Tall and Upton (1996); James, Kerr and Tyler (1994); Yopp (1992). Sound Linkage (Hatcher, Duff and Hulme, 2014) is based on the Cumbria project on phonological awareness (Hatcher, Hulme and Ellis, 1994) and includes materials for testing and training. Snowling and Stackhouse (2006) provide a useful compendium of recommendations on teaching dyslexic students with speech and language difficulties.

Recommended computer-based activities for practising phonological skills include Tizzy’s Toybox and Talking Animated Alphabet (Sherston); Letterland; and Sounds and Rhymes (Xavier).

In general, younger students respond well to phonological training activities and skills swiftly improve. However, some dyslexic students may have more persistent difficulties that will require particularly careful literacy teaching. In such cases, a well-structured multisensory approach incorporating plenty of practice in phonic skills (over-learning) is recommended. Examples of suitable schemes are given later. Without phonological awareness training, many students with such weaknesses are liable to develop an over-reliance on visual (whole word) and contextual strategies in reading (especially if they are bright). They can easily slip through the net, only to re-appear as a student who is failing in reading and spelling later in their schooling.