Phonological Awareness and Dyslexia

Learning to read can be challenging for young readers. Decoding the simple phrase ‘he is a happy boy’ requires a child to know all the letters contained in each word, the sounds assigned to each letter and an understanding of the way sounds are put together to read the word. Children don’t always learn to read in the same way, but there are specific concepts that must be introduced and reinforced for them to become proficient readers. These steps include:

  1. Recognize letters

  2. Associate the sound to the letter

  3. Understand how the letter sounds work together to form words

  4. Blend the letter sounds together to create speech

Phonological awareness is the foundation for learning to read and is an awareness of the sound structure of words. It allows students to recognize and work with sounds of spoken language. Phonological skills are demonstrated when a child can acknowledge that words are made up of a variety of sound units and can manipulate letter sounds in specific ways. As kids develop phonological skills, they come to understand that words have beginning, middle and ending sounds, are made up of small sound units known as phonemes, and that some words have the same sounds and syllables.

Decoding and encoding are also an important part of the reading process. Decoding is the ability to pair sounds with letters while processing written words into spoken words. Encoding is the process of using letter sounds to build and write words. For children to effectively decode and encode they must understand the sounds each letter makes, how words are broken into sounds and that small sound differences in a word can change the meaning of that word.

Kids do develop phonological awareness at different rates, and some kids require more support than others. Significant difficulty with phonological skills can cause reading and spelling to be taxing and may occur due to dyslexia, a language-based learning disability. Reversing letters is not the core indicator of dyslexia; it is difficulty interpreting the phonological (sound) components of language.

Some examples of phonological tasks that are challenging for kids with dyslexia include:

  1. Learning to rhyme words like cat, bat, sat, mat, and rat. Often, children with dyslexia don’t want to play rhyming games and may not benefit from them.

  2. A struggle to separate the individual sounds or syllables in a word, for example, separating /b/ from /and/ in the word band.

  3. Recognizing sounds in words can also be challenging. How many sounds are in the word weigh? This word is tricky because there are 5 letters in the word but only 2 sounds. The letter w is easy to recognize but the letters e and i make the long a sound and the letters g and h are silent. Kids with dyslexia will find it troublesome to read and spell this word.

Most students with dyslexia have a hard time with rapid letter and word recall, also known as rapid automatic naming (RAN). Fluency while reading requires a child to quickly identify and recall words and when he or she struggles with fluency, comprehension is also compromised. When reading is laborious a child forgets what has been read and re-reading the text is necessary to comprehend information. Kids find this frustrating because it takes extra time and effort.

Dyslexia can also cause students to have problems with cognitive processing speed, writing, math, memory, organizational skills, and self-esteem. Understanding the challenges of dyslexia and finding ways to empower kids will help them move forward and be successful in school. Dyslexia is a learning deficit that will not change overtime and is not a “developmental lag” that a child will outgrow. Good intervention and classroom accommodations will help kids learn to manage this language-based disability. Many students with dyslexia will need a 504 Plan or IEP to succeed academically.

Here are some accommodations that may be beneficial:

  1. Implement multisensory learning

  2. Extra time to complete work

  3. Use of spellcheck

  4. Reduce weekly spelling words and written work

  5. Grade on content of written work not mechanics, no penalty for spelling errors

  6. Give spelling tests orally

  7. Not required to read aloud in the classroom environment

  8. Use of a tracker/planner for homework support.

Kids develop phonological skills at different rates; some pick it up naturally and others require more support. Readers who have strong phonological awareness will improve their reading fluency, accuracy, recall of whole words and comprehension. Parents and teachers can help children develop phonological awareness by recognizing specific difficulties that may need extra support, ensuring that classroom accommodations are in place and by focusing on effort not excellence.

About the author

Vikki Carrel

Vikki Carrel

Academic Language Therapist, Multi-book Author, National Speaker. Vikki empowers people! She is an Academic Language Therapist, multi-book author and a national speaker. Vikki grew up in Salt Lake City, met her husband at the University of Utah, and has owned several companies across the United States. In 2010, Vikki and her husband moved back to Utah from Doylestown, Pennsylvania and she founded Vikki Carrel & Company, a speaking and training organization. Read more about the Author

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