A speech pathologist's view on oral language, phonological awareness and phonics - Part 2

The conversation continues on from the discussion on oral language in part 1, and moves into phonological awareness and phonics. Speech pathologist Jane Beale discusses how these components work together for effective early reading and writing instruction [Duration: 28:17].

Transcript

Shannan Salvestro

Hi, I'm Shannan Salvestro and this is the second part of my discussion with speech pathologist, Jane Beale. If you didn't hear the first part, I suggest you stop listening now and go back to Part 1. As we started our conversation discussing oral language. It was really insightful, listening to Jane's explanation of the importance of oral language, for children's reading and writing development, we continue the chat now where we left off.

Can we move on to talking about phonemic awareness, phonological awareness and phonics?

Jane Beale

I just, I love this topic.

Shannan Salvestro

It's one of those things I hear people say some of the, you know the terminology and I think sometimes the terms are used to particularly phonemic awareness and phonological awareness interchangeably and phonics to some extent. But they're actually quite different things that that all link and relate I guess. But what can we start perhaps with a bit of a, you know, an understanding of what the difference between each of those terms here is.

Jane Beale

And that's a really good thing to, to start with because like I said, I was doing this 25 years ago and what was really interesting back then is it started being talked about as phonological awareness. That was the way it was described. And every now and then someone would say, oh you mean phonemic awareness? So phonological awareness and phonemic awareness definitely were used interchangeably in the 90s and people would go is that the same? And people would generally go, Oh yeah, it's the same thing. But there was definitely where I was in South Australia working in schools, there was definitely a leaning towards phonological awareness being the term. But this is how I understand the difference. So it'd be interesting to see if, if it's where you've come from as well. So phono we know means sound, phonological awareness. We're looking at awareness of sound rules or sound properties.

Phonemic. If we break it down, we've got phoneme and a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound, so /c/ is one phoneme a /c/ sound. Whereas car is two phonemes a /c/ and an /ar/, cart is three phonemes: /c/ /ar/ /t/. So when we talk about phonemic awareness, if we really want to be strict on using that term phoneme, the way I see it is phonemic awareness should be at the sound level. So if we take the word white, the people listening, can think about it. Don't think about letters, how many phonemes in white we've got /wh/ /i/ /te/ three phonemes in white. So phonemic awareness is being able to hear that word white and count the smallest units of sound, which are the phonemes. Phonemic awareness means you can think about the word white and not try to say it has five sounds because if you said five sounds, you're thinking of five letters.

W. H I. T E. Before we go on to look at the difference between sound and letters, let's go back to phonological awareness. When we want children or adults to think about sounds in words and awareness, it's not only phonemes. In fact, before we look at phonemes, there are a number of things we should get children to look at. And a really key one is syllables. So in the word caterpillar, if we were talking about phonemic awareness, we would be going /c/ /a/ /t/ /er/, /p/ /i/ /ll/ /ar/, but actually it, there are rules or sounds to be aware of in caterpillar and that is the phonological basis of it. We can hear the four beats or the four syllables cat er pil lar. So I would say phonological awareness is looking at all the different things and all the different ways you can manipulate and break up our spoken language. Like the sentence, let's go to the shop or I will go to the shop. Phonological awareness would say how many words in that sentence, whereas you wouldn't use phonemic awareness to say how many words in that sentence. So is that where you would've come from or is that a new way of having it described?

Shannan Salvestro

That was a great explanation. Actually, and it made me think, you know, in that progression of development, is it important do you think, to be hearing for before you start to start to really be sensitised to that smaller unit of sound the phoneme to, to be, be hearing, you know, how many words in a sentence or all the parts of a word Also include things like being, you know, listening to words that rhyme or onset and rhyme.

Jane Beale

Exactly. So I'm glad you brought that up, because when we come at it from a speech pathology perspective, and I think it would overlap with teachers, we definitely start at syllable segmentation and blending. And that is the easiest thing. And that would go back to three-and four-year-olds. So preschools, getting people in preschools to get children to break up into a syllable level. With rhyme, rhyme is a phonological awareness, not a phoneme because, you're right, it's an onset and a rhyme and a rhyme is more than one phoneme, isn't it? So if we're looking at words that rhyme, say we'd own bone, phone, then it's the own. And children don't need to be able to hear the individual phonemes. They just need to hear that group. with rhyme, when I'm working with people to understand the role of rhyme. If you say to a child, 'do these end the same or sound the same?', it becomes quite a high level language task because you need to understand the concept of end. So think of rhyme as a sensitivity. And the first thing that a child should do is not be able to tell you if a word rhymes or not or produce a rhyme like tell me a word that rhymes with bone. They should just react with a sensitivity. So that if I say 'bone' 'phone' 'hone' 'tone', there's just some enjoyment of it. And then when you read a book and you hear the rhymes, the cat went up the tree and then he saw a bee like at any age that resonates with us. And so the earliest phonological awareness that we would like children to have the earliest skill is a sensitivity to rhyme. And we find that sometimes it pops out. Jack and Jill went up the hill and it kind of pops out because of that sensitivity. From there with rhyme, then we just want children to be able to say like if they, if they both the same or not.

And so they're not having to think of it. They're not having to break it down. They're just almost like matching. So if I said 'cup', 'pup', 'car', which are the two that are the same, so that matching and those skills come before we say to them, cow, horse, do they rhyme? Notice how I used to animals because linguistically they might go cow, horse, there's something together. They're both animals. The answer's yes and I want them to be able to go, no, I'm talking about the ending. Horse, course. Do they rhyme? And then the hardest of those skills is if I say, watch, tell me a word that rhymes with watch. They've now got to think of one. But sometimes people will go, let's work on rhyme. And they straight away say, car, tell me a word that rhymes with car. And they've come in at the highest level.

Yeah. So phonological awareness, early things would be breaking words into syllables, hearing syllables and being able to blend them. So if I said, cat/er/pill/ar, can you go? That's caterpillar and kids can't do it. It's really weird when you do that, but/ter/fly, what does that make ... bag? Because they can't hear the parts and squish them. So it sounds obvious, but always start with your syllables. Can you segment and blend? And then also, you know, with the sentences, say a little sentence, let's go to the shop. And can they like jump and animal for each word? And it shows that they're just starting to get a phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness is actually probably not really till school entry for some kids. You could work on it a bit before. The earliest phonemic awareness skill that children have is isolating off the first sound cause it's so sonorant or in your face you, can hear it.

Shannan Salvestro

It's the easiest.

Jane Beale

It's the easiest. Yeah. So what does shoe start with? And being able to hear that first sound but stop at /sh/ and not going shoe. So I would probably say children coming to school, we'd want them to have awareness at a syllable level, being able to blend and segment syllables and sensitivity to rhyme and enjoyment of rhyme and then being able to identify initial sounds. If they could come with those skills, great. But you know, phonemic awareness, often people will jump straight into segmenting and blending. So for cat they want to be able to go c/a/t, or if I said to you, what does wh/i/te make? When you blend it. white. That's really quite a few steps up. With phonemic awareness, we were talking about what's the difference. We know that children need phonemic awareness before they can go onto their reading and spelling. So yes, it's got to come in early, but when we are talking about getting ready for school, I think it's good for people to think about phonological awareness and that those other steps, but if someone just calls the whole thing phonemic awareness, which is probably what the layperson's term is these days, as long as they're doing all those different skills, it's probably okay. But that's how I define the difference and it's really important to be talking about all of those skills are happening orally.

Shannan Salvestro

So it's all oral...

Jane Beale

...we haven't written, anything down. We haven't shown any print. In fact it's better to not all..

Shannan Salvestro

..not cause it's all getting them to be sensitising to what they're hearing, whether it be breaking into syllables or rhyming or once we're talking about those individual phonemes?

Yes. All about hearing first. That's right. And, and if we wanted to sort of give a definition of phonemic awareness, it's a child being able to say this word is made up of parts and not just hearing it as a whole. And at first children hear words as a whole so that if they, if we say the word plate, they just hear 'blah'. Like if I said to you, break up 'blah' into parts, you're like, well what is that? That's just a sound or [clap] break up that sound into parts. You can't, it's just a sound. And at first children just hear a sound because to understand the word, they don't have to analyse them, but we need them to be able to hear plate. And then realise, plate, and we might say it slowly pl/a/te Oh, now I can hear those little bits. pl/a/te, it's just being able to hear that. And once you're taught that explicitly, most kids would just go, got it. So then you could say pitch and they can just go p/I/tch. p/i/tch, got it. Three sounds. But you have to be taught that doesn't happen developmentally.

Shannan Salvestro

So we sort of have to have that awareness, I guess, be sensitised to the sounds before. Then we start introducing, you know, that relationship between letters and sounds.

Jane Beale

Yes, that's right. So the other word that people hear bandied around is phonics, but really phonics. It was in the curriculum in the past. It's in the curriculum now. Phonics basically means knowing that words are made up of sounds and that there's rules and patterns and we have to look at that correspondence between, I've said the word plate, I've gone the sounds, I've worked them out p/l/a/te I want to write that down. How do I write a /p/, how do I write an /l/? And phonics is hearing the sounds, knowing what you want to write, knowing there are letters that letters make sounds and then even that step further and I like this idea of phonological awareness and then phonological rules. The idea of phonological rules is we've identified the sounds, we know our alphabet, we know the sounds, the letters make, we know there's combinations, what are the rules so I can map down or encode the sounds I can hear and really I think phonics, learning the code and I really like the words decode and encode.

So when we're reading and we're using our phonemic awareness and our phonological awareness and our phonological rules, we're decoding those words. And you know what? A lot of phonemic awareness programs and a lot of phonics programs, there's all this focus on decoding and the missing step is the encoding because decoding is always the easier one. Decoding is the matching. Decoding is like putting different colours on the table and saying, find me the blue one with the answers there I can see all the colours. There's the blue one. Encoding is the expressive or the coming up with it yourself. The encoding is what colour is that? There's no answer in what I'm saying is there, when you go to spell, you're now not matching or decoding it. Now you've got to come up with all the ideas, the sounds, what's needed yourself? Encoding is much harder.

Shannan Salvestro

I'm actually just finding a bit of a connection to something you said earlier when we're talking about rhyming and about the difference, you know, the stage where he would say, tell me a word that rhymes with car was actually the last stage because you have to come up...

Jane Beale

...come up with yourself.

Shannan Salvestro

Encoding I guess is a bit like that.

Jane Beale

Exactly the same.

Shannan Salvestro

To use your skills and your knowledge, but you then need to come up with...

Jane Beale

It's got to all be in yourself rather than just identifying it. So you've gone from identifying to actually producing and I think, programs that go great, we're going to be phonics-based, we're going to look at phonemic awareness. We're going to tell them that a 't' makes a /t/ and that an 's' and an 'h' together makes a /sh/ fantastic. So they can read shoe because they've seen the 's' and the 'h' and they've got, oh yeah, it goes /sh/ and they've seen the o and the e and one possibility is it's an /oe/, let's check it. Shoe. Yep shoe. We've read it. Great. If I now, yeah, that's decoding. If I now say nothing on the table, no prompts, nothing, write shoe. Now the child's got to go, oh, okay. I've got to say it. I've got to identify in my mouth or on my lips. /sh/ Now I've got to go, how am I going to write /sh/? And I've got to go backwards and think 'what are the letter combinations?' And you know that's often the missing step. And if you want to get children really doing well so that they can spell and even better, they can write sentences. You need to help them right to the point of, okay, I want to write a sentence 'I went on the bus', now I want to write the first word I. Okay, I know that one 'went', 'went'. All right. I'm saying it. What are the sounds, w/e/n/t what are the letters that will make each sound and then you've even got handwriting. Now you've got actually physically forming it. When you were reading, there wasn't even the physical handwriting part, so we know that the spelling part, it's still working on phonemic awareness and phonological rules and what we might call spelling rules, so that's where it's really complex.

Shannan Salvestro

So we're back to where we've got all of those connections again.

Jane Beale

Yes.

Shannan Salvestro

I guess our job as teachers, and perhaps your job as a speech pathologist is helping kids to actually make all those connections. To have all the knowledge and the skills, but to actually be able to make the connections between what they know in oral language. What they know in reading and what they know in writing and being able to,

Jane Beale

So they can get it down on paper - And you're exactly right about connections because you know that's the teacher's job. Just like we said right at the start, if the child comes in and their oral language is delayed, the teacher's job is to speak slowly, repeat the instructions, give time for processing, teach that vocabulary. When it comes to writing, the teacher's job is to go look at all the things that child's having to do. If they want to write a sentence, they've got to have the oral language to say their sentence and think it and it's got to be within their capacity to know that sentence. Then when they go to write, they've got to have the ability to move their hand with the handwriting. They've got to use phonemic awareness to, identify the sounds in each word as they go. They've got to know the phonics or I like to call it sound letter correspondence and the spelling rules. They've got to know those spelling rules so that when that went, it's a /w/. What letter's going to make work? It's a w and then they've got to do that for each word and then they're going to come across words that are multisyllabic and there's going to be vowel sounds that, at workshops I talk about the neutral vowel, schwa,

Shannan Salvestro

I love a good schwa

Jane Beale

So they're going to hear a word like complain. I want to complain. We don't say complain. I want to complain. If it was complain and I could go, c/o/m oh yeah, I know I've got to write an 'o'. No, but what do we say? I want to complain. Listen to how quick that was. I want to complain - 'cum', 'cum'. You can't hear an /o/ in there. It's a schwa. Now the child's got to go, com. Okay. Now they've got to actually bring in memory of, 'I've seen that word before' or a strategy, 'Excuse me, Miss or Sir, what's the vowel in complain or a dictionary to look it up?' So I look at all the connections in order to get that one sentence down. So I see the teacher's job is when you're asking children to write sentences, think back to what's their oral language ability. What's their phonemic awareness ability? What's their sound letter correspondence and spelling knowledge? How many of the words they're going to write are automatic like I, and the, so I can just get them down. What's their ability to handwrite so that it's neat and they feel satisfied and engaged? Because of all of that, only ask them to write something that's easily within their capacity. Because if every part of it's hard, the handwriting's hard. The sentence is long. Being asked to learn a word I've only learnt two minutes ago. Four out of the five words I've never written before, it's no wonder they're not engaged. It's too overwhelming for them, isn't it? But what I've seen that what a teacher can do is, rather than ask them to write an eight word sentence, start with lots of three word sentences and maybe it's a carrier sentence I saw. So that bit's repetition.

Shannan Salvestro

It's a bit like giving, that permission to, I guess, break it down. Start with something simple so that you can build success.

Jane Beale

Yeah. Start with success and go up in little steps. Exactly right.

Shannan Salvestro

Let's start with where you want them to be. Build it up.

Jane Beale

Yes. Yeah, exactly. And you know, repetition is the way that we learn oral language. Think about nursery rhymes. Isn't it a shame that they've sort of been phased out? Think about the little rhymes and chants that used to be commonplace. That's how children learn. The predictable phrases, you know, we might call them a carrier phrase and when we're speaking they useful I saw a bird. I saw a car, I saw a tree. When you go to write, people might say, well that's boring, but if that child can write, 'I saw a bird', 'I saw a car'. There are only really having to have something new for that word. They're getting something down. They're feeling success. Then they might move to changing words, but give them that step by step approach.

Shannan Salvestro

We've covered a lot of ground.

Jane Beale

We have. It's exciting. We could just keep going.

Shannan Salvestro

I actually really liked the, talking about those different terms and you know really talking about what they mean,

Jane Beale

But I think with the preconceived idea was that phonics equals rote learning. Phonics equals boring. Phonics equals children won't be engaged. But what I'd want to challenge listeners to think about if they ever either heard someone say that or thought that themselves. Is phonics is a basic foundation on how to crack the code. Our reading, writing and spelling system is based on an alphabetic code. There's no way around that. It is a code and when you look at a word like bed and then look at a word like bug, the code tells you that your mouth is going to do the same thing at the start of both words, bed and bug, because you see the B, you have the phonics knowledge that a B goes, /b/ and already your brain is going 'those words start the same'. 'There's something similar about them'. I'm processing them as though they go together. If you don't have a phonics approach and you put the word big bed and the word bug in front of a child and bring no attention to the fact that they start the same, then you are denying that child a vital piece of information about the system that they're trying to learn. Rather than think of phonics as boring and rote, think of it as step one. I want you to solve these squiggles and dots. Here's the cheat sheet, here's the code. Off you go.

Shannan Salvestro

It's like once you know that code, then it opens up this whole new world that you then have access to.

Jane Beale

Exactly. And that's why we call it decoding and encoding and it's not that simple because you need oral language to understand what you're reading and what you're writing, so it's not just phonics and we also need people to be able to have handwriting.

We need it to be interesting. If all we ever did at school was rote learning, boring, then people wouldn't be engaged but don't take away something that under the sort of idea that it's boring to not teach them. It's very quick really if you think about it to go, here's the basics. The complex thing is, this is probably a good point to finish on. The complex thing is in our sounds in and phonemic awareness, when we look at the vowel sounds, we have 20 vowel sounds in spoken English, but the sound letter correspondence, we only have five vowel letters to write those vowels. We have y which we can also bring in, but actually we have all these combinations don't we? And all these rules and exceptions, so when children are learning to decode and encode, really the tricky bit is the spelling rules and that takes.

That is a bit boring and that takes some rote learning and memory. And I think that's where teachers really support students with persisting. But the basics of just coming in with phonemic awareness and sound letter correspondence in those simple words like can and plate and dad and just simple. Yes, that's right. And that's why, yeah, single start. Exactly. And now we know if we get decodable readers that follow that pattern so they can practice, they practice, they get some success. It's not boring, it's not cheating, it's just getting success early on, laying your foundations so that when you do have to come to the somewhat tedious bit of why is that o w and not, o u, and why is there this exception? You sort of, you're already on your way. So yeah, I think phonological rules and spelling rules, they're the real tricky bit, but there's no way around that because we are learning English and someone's created this crazy language and spelling for us. But phonics, phonemic awareness, sound letter, correspondence, giving kids the code, that's just straightforward. Every teacher needs it. I think every teacher who I've ever seen who's been shown it and had the time to see it goes, wow, what a great tool for children

Shannan Salvestro

Fantastic Jane. Thank you so much for your insights, your level of expertise, sharing with us your years of knowledge.

Jane Beale

Yeah, you can say I'm pretty passionate about it. Yeah.

Shannan Salvestro

Oh absolutely. And I'm thinking back to something you said at the start about could we see some overlaps to what we do as teachers and to what you do as a speech pathologist and I'm seeing it. I'm sure people listening can see the synergies as well. Fantastic. Thanks so much. Thank you. Yeah, thank you for having me. And what a great topic to be able to talk about. We could talk about it all day. I have to come back and grab another instalment. Okay, thank you.

Shannan Salvestro

Well I hope you got something to take away with you from my chat with Jane. On our podcast notes, you will find some links on where you can go for some further readings on this topic and for some information on how to access our online learning modules for the effective reading in the early years of school professional learning. Also, if you have any feedback or any interesting ideas, just something that you would like to hear about from our literacy and numeracy team in the way of podcast, please send us an email. Just send it to literacy.numeracy@det.nsw.edu.au and pop in 'podcast idea' in the subject line. Thanks again to Jane Beale from All Areas, Speech Pathology and bye for now.

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