To understand a spoken language, a child must be able to hear and distinguish the sounds that make up the language. Virtually every child raised in a normal linguistic environment can distinguish between different speech sounds in his or her native language. Almost all native English speakers can therefore hear the difference between similar English words like grow and glow. When some children produce words that sound similar, they may not be able to articulate distinctly enough for others to hear the distinction. Difficulty with articulation does not imply difficulty with perception.
Hearing the difference between similar sounding words such as grow and glow is easy for most children, but not for all children. Some children are raised in homes where English is not spoken, or where non-standard dialects of English are spoken. Likewise, some children suffer auditory trauma or ear infections that affect their ability to hear speech. Any child who is not consistently exposed to English phonology may have difficulty perceiving the subtle differences between English phonemes. Obviously, children who are not able to hear the difference between similar-sounding words like grow and glow will be confused when these words appear in context, and their comprehension skills will suffer dramatically.
Instruction tip: Young children sometimes have problems articulating certain sounds, but they can usually distinguish between the sounds within a word when somebody else speaks. In other words, they do not have a problem with phonology; they have a problem with articulation. To test whether or not a child has simply made a speech error, try parroting the word back to the child in the form of a question. If the child says, "I want to go pray outside," ask the child, "You want to go pray outside?" The child with normal phonologic skills will repeat herself, emphasizing the indistinct word, in an attempt to make you understand what she is trying to say.
Assessment tip: Play the "same or different" game. Generate pairs of words that are either identical or that differ in a subtle way. Say them out loud and ask the child if they are the same or different. Children should rarely miss the ones that are different. If the child misses more than just a few, please consult with the speech therapist at your school, or advise parents to take the child to a pediatrician or an audiologist.
Excerpted from: The Cognitive Elements of Reading, Southwest Educational Development Laboratory www.sedl.org
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