Research shows that a student who has reading problems has difficulty utilizing the decoding area of the brain. Because the student has problems manipulating the sounds of a word within the decoding area, the word is unable to be processed into the automatic recognition area of the brain. Thus, the student is unable to use the retrieval and comprehension features within that area. (Shaywitz, 2003).
Some languages show a transparency between the written spelling and the pronunciation of words; there is close match between symbol and expected sound. My experience teaching reading is that many words in the English language are more translucent in this area; at times the words become almost opaque! One example of lack of match between symbol and usual sound is the frequently-used word, “busy,” where the b is the only letter that matches the usual sound. The person who reads naturally is able to make sense of the confusion between symbol and sound for these words. But unfortunately for many students with reading disabilities, confusion reigns. The student who has difficulty decoding unknown words, also has problems with reading comprehension and reading rate. Reading problems also affect spelling and writing. The student has difficulty meeting age-level language arts expectations.
Dehn, 2008, notes that it is possible that poor readers have an impairment in phonological short-term memory that makes it difficult for them to retain the sequence of sounds. He also notes that poor readers may focus on visual encoding when it would be more productive to recode phonologically. Hanley, 2010, suggests that children who experience reading difficulties have more trouble creating mappings between language and orthography when the orthography is inconsistent and opaque.
In 1979, an adult learner helped me develop an explicit, concrete, multi-sensory strategy in order to help her solve her decoding problems. Ann, unable to graduate from high school because of serious reading problems, had appealed to her local literacy program for assistance. No one would have been surprised if I had been unable to help her. However, I was well aware of children I had been unsuccessful with in my first years as a regular education elementary teacher, and I was determined to teach Anne. I found a book at the public library, which acquainted me with dyslexia and the idea of multi-sensory teaching. So, I began by showing Ann the sounds of the words. Later, using pencil-and-paper, she learned how to discover for herself the “sound spelling” for the word she needed to know. As she “did the decoding” herself, she was able to pronounce the word and add it to her word recognition area. The word became part of her reading and writing vocabulary.
Since that time, I have been able to help many students of all ages improve their reading and writing skills. I have designed my strategy to work with any word, any text, any level. In addition, simple words can be used to teach alphabetic recognition. Efficiently and systematically, the student uses her/his stronger sense(s), while he/she is developing her/his weaker sense(s). I have used the method to teach a group of students, as well as individual students. For the past four years I have used the technique to help high school special education students to improve their language arts skills. Most of these students have been able to earn a high school diploma; some are presently pursuing education beyond high school.
I help my students decode words using the following process:
• As I sound aloud each letter of a word, the student repeats the sound and then writes the letter.
Vowels are sounded with first short, then long, sounds.
• While looking at the word that has been written, the student spells the word aloud.
• The student is helped to sound each letter of the word again.
• The student copies the word on the same line.
• The student locates, circles, marks, and sounds all easily obvious blends, digraphs, and endings
within the word.
• The student marks the word’s vowels and consonants to discover the word’s syllable and
• Using simple phonetic symbols, the student marks the sounds of the vowels and consonants,
developing the “sound spelling” for the word.
• The student copies the word’s “sound spelling” on the same line.
• While looking at the “sound spelling”, the student is helped to read the word aloud.
• The student relates the “sound spelling” to the written spelling of the word. At this point, any
instruction and activities with word derivation, definition, or other vocabulary information
may also be completed.
• The student locates the word in the text and reads it aloud.
• The student reads the word aloud as part of the sentence in the text.
Usually, at the completion of this process, the student is able to recognize the word at the next encounter. However, if he/she continues to have a problem with the word, the procedure continues:
• The student spells the word aloud and then attempts to read the word. 14) The student sounds each letter of the word and attempts to read the word.
After the student solves the word, she/he rereads the sentence in the text for improved fluency and comprehension.
In most instances, the completion of steps 1-13 is sufficient. If not, the student is usually able to read the word independently after completion of step 14. However, if the student continues to have difficulty with the word, a review card is made. A word is written on the front of an index card. Underneath it is a simple sentence that illustrates the word. The “sound spelling” is copied on the back of the card. The student uses the card for review and practice.
Initially, the process is very slow. However, usually after concretely decoding several words and reading them, the student’s efficiency with the process improves. The steps are modified and consolidated appropriately. Repeated readings of the text improve fluency and comprehension. The student begins to recognize other words. The student begins to show improvement in the ability to utilize the automatic recognition area for word retrieval and comprehension.
Using this decoding technique, the student usually demonstrates improvement in the following skills:
• The ability to recognize and form individual letters correctly.
• The ability to independently reproduce individual vowel and consonant sounds.
• The ability to use decoding information to pronounce a word.
• The ability to locate a word in text.
• The ability to read a selected sentence fluently with increased comprehension.
• The development of automatic recognition and comprehension of words.
Educational researchers have noted that effective learning strategies contain a set of steps that lead to a specific and successful outcome. They are sequenced in a manner that leads to an efficient approach to a task. They cue students to use specific cognitive strategies and to use metacognition. The steps cue students to select and use appropriate procedures, skills, or rules. They cue students to take some type of overt action. Students can use all the steps of an effective strategy in a limited amount of time. The strategy does not contain unnecessary steps or explanations. The strategy steps are communicated using words that are uncomplicated and familiar to students. They address a common but important existing problem that students are encountering in their settings. They address demands that are encountered frequently over an extended time. They can be applied across a variety of settings, situations, and contexts. (Deshler, Ellis, and Lenz, 1996). My method is effective because it meets these recommendations.
I have helped many students with diverse types and degrees of reading problems by using this method. Some students have provided me quite a challenge, but I have persisted, as in the extreme case of Joe. While teaching elementary school special education class, I encountered Joe, a student in fifth grade who had never been able to learn to read. I was teaching all of my students from a primary spelling book, using my multi-sensory decoding method. Joe had informed me that he just could not “catch” the sounds of words. I told him that I expected him to continue to attempt my method, and he agreed to continue to try.
Meanwhile, I used echo and repeat reading with Joe. I would read a line of a simple poem; then Joe would read the line back to me. We would then repeat the procedure until he had memorized the words in that line. Line by line we worked through the poem, and eventually he memorized each of the words and was able to “read” the little poem. Next, we tackled other little poems, and eventually little stories. I told Joe that I thought that eventually he would memorize so many words that he would really begin reading. At that point I was not sure that he would ever “catch” phonics, but I reminded him of my expectation that he keep doing the method as I led the class through the spelling book.
As the other students became increasingly familiar with my method, they asked to teach spelling words to the class. So, I would write a word on the board, and a student would lead the group through the decoding process to find the “sound spelling.” Joe continued to patiently follow along, but never volunteered to try to teach the class. I continued to wonder if phonics would ever make sense to him.
One day in March of that year I wrote a new spelling word on the board, and, before I could ask for a volunteer, Joe began wildly waving his hand, saying, “Please let me do it!” Of course I immediately let him begin to lead us, and prepared to help him as needed. To my delighted surprise, without any assistance, he led us step-by-step through the word, helped us discover the “sound spelling,” and then pronounced the word correctly! He had finally “caught” phonics! After that, Joe frequently volunteered and successfully led the Sounds of Words decoding method. He also began to finally be able to read his stories using phonics instead of relying solely on memorization. Soon after that Joe asked why through, thought, and although had three different sounds for the “ough” phoneme, so we all studied word derivation. (I later realized rough, cough, and bough added three additional sounds to the list).
Joe’s eventual success confirmed that I really was able to teach ALL my students to read! In fact, I became known as the “go-to” sped teacher for reading instruction. Whenever there was a student having seemingly intractable problems learning to read, that student would find her/his way to me, and I would teach him/her to read! Now I always expect to be able to help any student who will try to learn, and I use the method to push reading level as far and as fast as possible. I love lilacs, and have a beautiful picture of a bush in full bloom. I would like to eventually have a name for each tiny bud of that bush—the name of someone who has achieved reading success because of my reading method. I implemented “Word of the Day” with my students, a procedure for the students to decode and pronounce a vocabulary word, read a context sentence, note the part of speech, and then define the word, in order to increase reading skills.
My students enjoy learning and using the strategy, and they especially enjoy knowing that they are able to decode any word they need to know in order to comprehend any text. I have written and published the book, HEARING, SAYING, WRITING, AND READING THE SOUNDS OF WORDS, which teaches the strategy. The book includes examples to illustrate the sounds of the most frequently used words in written and spoken English. In many cases the example word is one of the most frequently used. Information about the book is available at http://www.learntoreadnow.com.
• Shaywitz, Sally, M.D. (2003). OVERCOMING DYSLEXIA. New York: Knopf, 78-79.
• Dehn, Milton J., (2008). WORKING MEMORY AND ACADEMIC LEARNING: ASSESSMENT AND INTERVENTION.
Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 102-103.
• Donald D. Deshler, Edwin S. Ellis, B. Keith Lenz, (1996). TEACHING ADOLESCENTS WITH LEARNING DISABILITIES;
STRATEGIES AND METHODS. Denver, CO: Love Publishing Company, 26-32.
• Nicola Brunswick, Sine McDougall, Paul de Mornay Davies, READING AND DYSLEXIA IN DIFFERENT ORTHOGRAPHIES,
New York, NY: Psychology Press, 14.