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Phonological Instruction for Older Students

By: Louisa Moats, Carol Tolman
Additional and explicit instruction in phonological awareness is a critical component in helping fourth grade readers who struggle with phonological deficits. The exercises can be used as a warm-up prior to reading, spelling, or vocabulary instruction.

Instruction that enhances awareness of speech sounds is relevant for older students who are inattentive to the internal details of spoken words. These students may show all the symptoms listed for younger students, including poor spelling, inaccurate decoding of new words, mispronunciation of words, and difficulty remembering or recalling new words. Direct teaching with a vowel chart and a consonant chart is quite possible with students at fourth grade and up, and many can improve substantially in PA with structured practice.

The phonological awareness strand of a well-designed reading or language lesson for older students includes brief, direct practice of specific skills such as syllabication or phoneme segmentation, often as a warm-up exercise before reading, spelling, or vocabulary instruction begins. In addition, these teaching activities and adjustments can be helpful:

  • Ask students to recognize whether words have been pronounced correctly.
  • Ask students to watch you as you pronounce new words or new names.
  • Ask students to say vocabulary words aloud and to pronounce them correctly.
  • Highlight, describe, segment, and pronounce individual speech sounds if similar sounding words are confused

    (e.g., flush/flesh/fresh; entomologist/etymologist; gorilla/guerilla).
  • Use a guide word or gesture to remind students of a sound's identity, especially short vowels.
  • Segment syllables and/or speech sounds before spelling words or to correct misspellings.
  • Orally rehearse the repetition of phrases and sentences that are being written, to reduce the load on working memory.
  • Write and talk when explanations are given; reduce the load on working memory.
  • Provide written, pictorial, or graphic support when spoken language must be processed.

Phonological processing is an umbrella term that encompasses many abilities having to do with speech perception and production; phoneme awareness; and memory, retrieval, and naming functions. In part, it accounts for how well an individual learns new words, pronounces words, learns a foreign language, recalls names and facts, and spells. Phonological awareness is a metalinguistic proficiency that includes the ability to divide a word into spoken syllables, onset-rime segments, and individual phonemes. Phoneme awareness is the component skill of phonological processing that is most closely related to reading and spelling. Learning to decode an alphabetic writing system with phonics requires phoneme awareness.

Speech sounds are divided into consonants and vowels. Each speech sound is distinguished by a set of features, such as oral or nasal, stopped or continuous, voiced or unvoiced, and aspirated or unaspirated production. Speech sounds that are similar in place and manner of articulation are the most easily confused. If young students are left on their own to figure out the identity of speech sounds in words, they may not be able to detect all the features that distinguish those sounds. Speech sounds are not articulated separately; they are coarticulated when we speak, and thus, many people have some difficulty segmenting the sounds. Direct teaching is important because it enables students to form accurate concepts of speech sounds that will anchor their learning of vocabulary words and the writing system.

Moats, L, & Tolman, C (2009). Excerpted from Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS): The Speech Sounds of English: Phonetics, Phonology, and Phoneme Awareness (Module 2). Boston: Sopris West.

For more information on Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) visit the Sopris West LETRS website.

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