by Paula Tallal PhD
Dr. Paula Tallal, an advisor for Cherab, is the Board of Governor’s Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the CMBN at Rutgers University, and Co-Founder of Scientific Learning Corp (SCIL), Director, Scientific Learning Corp. She shared the following with our group and answered some of our members’ questions.
Phonics approaches focus on helping a person understand that words can be broken down into smaller units, or sounds, and it is these sounds that need to be attached to letters and then combined again to pronounce a word. The best approach to helping a person understand this (called phonological awareness) can be done by simply playing a few simple word games.
For example, practice recognizing the sound (not the letter name) at the beginning of a word, and then think of other words that begin with that same sound. (The problem with teaching the letter names rather than the sounds in words is that the letter NAME may not actually occur in a word that includes that letter. For example, the letter name for B does occur in the word “before,” but not in the word “balloon,” even though both begin with the same letter. However, both begin with the letter sound “bah” as do all other words that include this letter. So it is much better to teach a person the letter sounds first rather than the letter name and then to play word games that help them find a particular sound in spoken words.)
After working on initial letter sounds, see if the person can say whether that sound is inside or at the end of spoken words. Do not introduce the actual written letter until this skill is well mastered.
Once the letter sounds can be recognized within words, it is usually easy to learn which letter(s) goes with each sound. Start with consonants and do vowels after consonants are mastered.
Another game is to say what a word would sound like without the first sound. For example, ask “How would you say the word STOP without the first SOUND (S)?” Play this game orally; do not use letters or writing. The answer is that the word STOP without the first sound (s) is the word TOP.
You can also move on to final sounds once the person can master the initial sound deletion task. For example : “How do you say the word PLATE without the last sound (T)?” Answer: PLAY.
If someone has trouble doing these games you can start with compound words to give them the idea. Example: “How would you say the word COWBOY without the COW?” Answer: BOY.
Another good word game is rhyming. Begin by pronouncing a word like HAT and ask the person to say a word that rhymes with HAT, such as CAT, MAT, SAT, etc. Think of words that have lots of rhymes. Play this game orally at first. Next you can show the person how rhymes work by making up a card that just has the rhyme part on it, like AT and then thinking up new first SOUNDS that, when attached to AT, will make up a word. Then, using a series of cards with single letters on them, find the letter that goes with that first sound and put it in front of the AT, showing how sounds/letters can be combined to make new words.
All of these games are designed to get the idea across that words can be broken up into sounds, and that it is these sounds that must be attached to letters in order to learn how to read.
Whole language does not teach these phonological awareness skills. Although many people will just intuit them without explicit instruction, many do not and will then struggle to learn to read and will alway just rely on memorized letter patterns and the words they represent, but will not be able to figure out new words.
To learn more about how the brain learns language and reading skills, see the Brain Connection website. Also check out the Fast ForWord training programs that train phonological and other language skills necessary for learning to read and become a good reader. Read more about Fast ForWord.
Scientific Learning Corporation has developed a computerized assessment of basic reading skills. It is called Reading Edge and can be administered at home by a parent or at school by a teacher. Find out more about Reading Edge as well as Scientific Learning’s family of very successful language and reading training programs that have been based on over 30 years of neuroscience research