Sounds and Symbols

Start with sounds; then create symbols

A child's knowledge of letter names has often been considered a clue to early reading success. However, simply teaching a child the names of the letters of the alphabet does not guarantee that s/he will learn to read. What she does need are letter-sound knowledge and the ability to separate words into parts.

Educators use the term "phoneme segmentation." This simply means that one separates the oral pronunciation of a word into its basic sounds. This is done through pronouncing the word slowly, as mm-aa-nn without stopping between sounds. Many reading educators now feel that this ability to slowly pronnounce words is the most important skill in learning to read and spell.

Many children seem to gain these concepts easily through interaction with print. Others (at least one-third of youngsters) need to be taught through direct instruction.

Once oral speech is separated into individual sounds, children need to know which letters and combinations of letters are needed to construct those sounds in written form. It appears that knowing letter sounds is even more important than knowing their names.

Children need to be provided with a good sound-symbol chart. It's helpful to include both upper and lower case letters. Using two words such as "Adam's apple" and "Betty's ball" allows children to see both letter forms along with a picture to illustrate the sound

If we're going to teach short vowel sounds first, the chart should use short vowel pictures for those letters (i.e., apple, egg, igloo, octopus, umbrella). The sound of the vowel should be clear. For example, short e is often represented by an elephant. This may lead the child to think that e represents the /l/ sound. There are very few words in which beginning e is portrayed clearly. Even egg presents some problems as many children say aig. Tying it to Edna can help.

Another letter often misrepresented in sound-symbol charts is x, whose most frequent sound is found only at the ends of words (ax, box).

Children with letter-name knowledge may already understand that they hear the sound at the beginning of the letter's name, followed by ee (bee, dee, pee,tee, vee, zee) or ay (jay, kay). Other sounds come at the ends of letter names (ef, el, em, en, es, ar). C, q and x have no unique sounds. C borrows from /k / and /s/; q borrows from /kw/ and must always be followed by u; and x borrows from /ks/ (box), from /gz/ (exit) and /z/ (xylophone).

G, like c, has its borrowed sound (j) in its name. It's fun to tell children that the letter namers made a mistake and one should really say "ay, bee, cee, dee, ee, eff, gee,'" using the hard sound of g.

H, w, and y then become the only consonant letters whose sounds do not relate to their names and need to be learned by rote memory.

Once children know how to take oral language apart, they need to learn how to put it back together in printed form. In short, if they learn how our spelling system works, they will become better readers.

Good sound-symbol representations, along with helps on creating the sounds, can be found in The Spel-Lang Tree: Seeds, and large sound-symbol cards can be downloaded from pages at the end of that book.