Learning to write well is an extremely complicated process because it requires high level cognitive processing and highly developed metacognitive skills. Unfortunately, the students who find writing the most difficult are often those with intellectual disabilities or learning disabilities (LD). Research has shown that struggling writers benefit from explicit strategy instruction, especially when instruction focuses on direct strategies that guide the writers through the composition of a text.
The evidence for developing Phonological Awareness skills in children is widespread. This month the Gameplan team set out to investigate the benefits of such skills for improving literacy in school age children.
What is Phonological Awareness?
Phonological Awareness (PA) refers to the ability to identify, segment, blend and manipulate sounds in words, as well as identifying the number of syllables. This is an essential skill for learning to read and has been shown to precede and predict successful transition from language to literacy. Many children with reading problems have difficulties with PA such as generating rhyming words, identifying the first sound in a word, identifying the number of sounds or syllables in a word, or adding or deleting sounds within words. Difficulties with PA skills can affect a student's ability to read words.
PA tasks follow a hierarchy, which may need to be explicitly taught in sequence:
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Inside the brain
In a study by Kovelman et al (2011) four participant groups were studied using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to identify areas of the brain that are recruited during Phonological Awareness tasks. Typically developing children recruit the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which may play a critical role in PA, whereas this study indicates that children with dyslexia have under-recruitment of left DLPFC and do not engage this region for phonological processing. Furthermore, activations in the left posterior temporal and parietal regions increase with age and reading proficiency, whereas these activations are often reduced in children with dyslexia.
This lack of significant activation suggests that children with dyslexia may develop a range of strategies associated with a variety of neural systems to support phonological awareness when the left DLPFC is not engaged. There are no common brain regions that are recruited consistently by the children with dyslexia. The study highlighted that there is likely a network of brain regions in charge of PA for speech processing.
Phonological Deficit hypothesis
Dehaene (in the seminal text Reading in the Brain) proposes that people with dyslexia have a basic deficit in processing the constituents of spoken words. A phonological deficit refers to the difficulty in perception, retention, manipulation or production of speech sounds. This includes the difficulty in holding speech sounds in the memory store while completing tasks such as nonsense word repetition (e.g. fleptish), long and short word repetition and digit span. This deficit in speed of access reveals difficulties in rapidly naming pictures, colours and digits.
Castles and Friedmann (2014) argue that the majority of individuals with Dyslexia do display deficits of one of the range of tasks broadly considered to be measures of phonological skill. But to suggest that all Dyslexia is caused by a phonological deficit is incorrect. The researchers argue that phonological deficits alone are unlikely to account for all types of Developmental Dyslexia and other subtypes such as surface, attentional, letter position or hyperlexia must be considered in the diagnosis.
Improving verbal memory
A study by Park et al (2013) investigated the benefit of PA intervention on the improvement of working memory. Grade 2/3 children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) participated in the study. Past studies have found a strong relationship between language learning difficulties and verbal working memory in children with SLI. Children with these difficulties find it challenging to hold sounds in their short-term memory, hence resulting in difficulties decoding words.
Students who received an extra 20 minutes of phonological awareness training during each language intervention session significantly improved their verbal memory (both short term and working memory). The study highlights that teaching PA skills past Grade 1 can still be very beneficial for improving decoding and verbal memory skills.
Activities for home reading
There are multitude benefits stemming from PA training in primary school children.
Research has shown that even 10 minutes of PA activities during reading time with your child can improve their awareness of sounds in words. While reading, select some words your child may have difficulty reading, then prompt them to:
- Generating rhyming words, e.g. “what times with ‘mouse?’”
- Identify the syllables by clapping, e.g. “carefully” – care-fu-lly (3 syllables).
- Identify the first, middle, last sound in words, e.g. “What’s the first sound in ‘road’?” (“r”)
- Choose a couple of words and separate them into sounds, i.e. ask your child to say all the sounds in a word, e.g. “button” – b-u-tt-o-n.
- Choose a word for the child to separate into sounds, then you blend the word back together.
Phonological Awareness is an important and necessary skill that can be developed at any age. For more information and suggested activities, please follow the links below.
Resources and websites:
http://www.readingrockets.org/audience/parents - information for parents on working with your child when learning to read.
http://www.loveandreilly.com.au/images/pdf/phonologicalawareness.pdf - more about phonological awareness and some activities to do at home.
http://www.medfield.net/mem/attachments/article/50/phonological_awareness.pdf - phonological awareness activity ideas: rhyme and sound segmenting and blending.
Speech-Language Pathologist, Gameplan
Castles, A., & Friedmann, N., (2014). Developmental Dyslexia and the Phonological Deficit Hypothesis. Mind and Language. 29 (3), pp. 270-285.
Kovelman, I., Norton, E.S., Christodoulou J.A., Gaab, N., Lieberman, D.A., Triantafyllou, C., Wolf, M., Whit?eld-Gabrieli, S. & Gabrieli, J.D.E. (2012). Brain Basis of Phonological Awareness for Spoken Language in Children and Its Disruption in Dyslexia. Cerebral Cortex. 22:754-764
Park, J., Ritter, M., Lombardino, L., et al. (2013). Phonological awareness intervention for verbal working memory skills in school-age children with SLI and concomitant word reading difficulties. International Journal of Research Studies in Language Learning. 2 (4), pp 3-22.
I’ve just arrived at the airport. I’m bound for Sydney where I’ll be providing feedback on literacy and numeracy testing to professional cricketers at the SCG. I’m really proud of the work Gameplan does with Australian Cricketers’ Association (ACA) and AFL Players’ Association (AFLPA) and I’m thrilled to be part of organisations that take an active involvement in improving the literacy and numeracy outcomes of their members. There are very few organisations in Australia who truly understand that the literacy and numeracy skills of their employees underpin the success of their business.
It has long been known that language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) standards are declining in Australia. Organisations such as the ACA and the AFLPA recognise this and have made it part of their mission to provide support for their players, both past and present, who wish to improve their LLN skills. Players access the program for many different reasons and it’s a complete fallacy that elite athletes aren’t academically minded. Most are highly motivated individuals who realise that they must maximise their short tenure in professional sport. As you would imagine, some players access our services because they have come from substandard education backgrounds and wish to learn how to read and write well. However, many who access our services are juggling the demands of a university degree whilst playing elite sport. These players come to see us for help with the complex task of writing reports at the highest level. Completing a university degree does not preclude someone from accessing us for LLN support. And nor should it; LLN acquisition should be seen as a continuum over a lifetime, not a static skill that’s over and done with by Year 12.
When I come in contact with an adult who has very low levels of LLN, I am reminded over and over, of how important it is to seek help early. Early and intensive intervention can and does make the difference. I know this because I see how difficult it is for adults who have avoided getting help or been unable to access help. The earlier support can be provided, the better. It can be very difficult to help an adult with very low levels of LLN. Often deep seeded avoidance techniques, embarrassment and long term motivation (or rather, lack thereof) are persistent barriers to adults receiving the help they need.
If a child receives support early, with the support and love of parents, teachers and practitioners, then a wide world opportunity opens. Yes, the path can be tough and no, there are no quick fixes. However, these problems do not abate; they tend to increase with age. I sound like a broken record, but peer-reviewed, research-supported and evidence based programs provided by expert practitioners are the only pathways to success. Like it or not, LLN are the foundations upon which academic success is predicated. They are the most important skills that your child will learn at school.
Whilst organisations such as the ACA and AFLPA are trailblazing the way by providing opportunities for players to improve their LLN, early intervention is the real key so that as adults they do not have to suffer the embarrassment of being unable to appropriately analyse a graph or read aloud to colleagues. If you have any concerns, talk to a teacher or a specialist. You know your child best, follow your intuition. If you have concerns, don’t wait. Early intervention is the key to positive outcomes for our children.