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In the research on beginning reading, we generally target five different pieces:
phonological awareness, vocabulary, phonics, fluency and comprehension.
Phonological awareness basically deals with the sound system independent of any
text. The idea is that the sound system is predictive of how we read in text.
So, I mean, that's a peculiar thing in itself.
The real key to learning to read is becoming
what is known in the field as phonologically aware. Phonological
awareness means knowledge - the awareness that words can actually be broken down
into smaller parts and those parts are called phonemes or speech sounds. And
the phonemes build words both for oral language and for written language.
And it turns out that children who have difficulty with written language
as a group, not all of them but the large majority of them, have difficulty in
becoming phonologically aware and playing little word games. Being able to know
that the word plate without the /p/ is late. Now, people who have coded the
whole word who can say the word plate perfectly well - unless theyíre
phonologically aware that they can get inside the word, they have very great
difficulty in knowing that plate without the /p/ would make the word late. Or
plate without the /t/ would make the word plae.
Reid Lyon: Well,
when we say question number one, what does it take to be able to learn to
read? We know that it initially takes a clear understanding that the
language we hear is composed of smaller sounds. These are called phonemes, the
smallest units of sound. And people say sure, you know, cat has three sounds
/c/ /a/ /t/. And I can ask people all the time how many sounds they hear in big
or cat and they say three. But they donít. You donít hear three sounds in
cat, I donít hear three sounds in cat, and our kids never get any practice
with the sounds in cat because nature
has given us an oral language that allows us to communicate rapidly so that when
I say cat I donít say /c/ /a/ /t/. What the hell is a /c/ /a/ /t/?What
I say is cat and the minute I start to say cat that /a/ and the /t/ sound
co-articulate or bundle together and come by the ear as one pulse of sound.
Phoneme awareness is much more difficult because you donít hear the sounds. The
brain has to pull from that one burble or acoustic bundle the three sounds
because the ear wonít. The ear never hears the individual sounds unless we
spell them out.
without the letters is the most frequent description I hear from teachers,
which is not right at all. At the basic level, a better summary of phonemic
awareness is can you pay attention to the sounds of words as distinct from
their meanings? Given that, the next level is whether you understand that every
spoken word can be conceived as a sequence of these little elements or speech
gestures called phonemes, and that the letters represent those left to right?
Boulton: Is phonemic awareness something that is required in our daily oral
interchange or is it unique to writing?
Anne Cunningham: Well thatís a great question because phonemic awareness is
something that young children, prior to having to learn in an alphabetic
script such as ours, they donít focus on the structure of language.
They donít play with it to the degree that they need to to learn in an
alphabetic language. Weíre more focused on meaning, as we should be, but in
order to become a successful reader at some point we have to shift our attention
away from the meaning to the structure and be able to perceive these sounds that
are contained within words, and be able to rhyme and segment /c/ from at to make
cat. And thatís the precursor to being able to break the code. And without
that facility and awareness children just suffer too long in learning to read.
in that sense, the whole phonemic
awareness piece of this is an artifact of learning to read, not something we
would naturally have to develop to process the distinctions in oral language.
Reid Lyon: You do not need phonemic
awareness to listen and speak and hang out and talk. Why? Because Iím not
spelling the words out to you, I donít say /c/ /a/ /t/.
Boulton: Yet much of our research seems to
suggest that the lack of this is some deficit in children.
Reid Lyon: Well, itís not a deficit in
children. Itís only a deficit if they donít get it to learn how to read. A
deficit is only a deficit if it impacts negatively on something critical that
has to be developed.
Boulton: Itís a deficit with respect to
the conditioning necessary to take in this artificial process.
Reid Lyon: Yeah, it is an artificial
process, and itís a random process.
the concern that I have is that many people who are using the term do not really
understand the factor itself, and how much you have to do to bring that in. Just
for example, kindergarten teachers now are told to start the development of
phoneme awareness by working on rhyming with children. And rhyming requires some
awareness of phonemes.
Marilyn Jager Adams: So, it was
Liberman and his group who gave us the enormously important insight that
phonemes are not audible signals. Using their equipment they showed how
phonemes are blended together and co-articulated in spoken language. Alongside,
there was this burst of activity in the early 1960ís that showed, for example,
if other stimuli came at you with the speed of individual phonemes that they
would exceed the resolving power of the ear and come out as one big buzz
- the idea that phonemes could not be heard, that they were not perceptually...
David Boulton: Distinct?
Marilyn Jager Adams: Entities, right. Basically, the individual phonemes - those
little sounds that go with the letters of the alphabet - are not real. Or not in
an acoustic sense, that is.
Well, if Smith
is wrong, if context isn't driving this whole thing, what is?" People were
starting to question that in the late 1970ís and starting to ask the Well,
what is? question. Then the field was more ripe than it was back in 1963
for the phonological awareness work.
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