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Archive for the ‘Dyslexia’ Category

A few weeks ago, one of my wonderful clients asked me for some help in moving her practice from OG to SWI — especially with the more severely struggling kids. She’s been moved by some of my recent posts here and on Facebook about, well, what’s wrong with OG and why we need to change its false practices and false assertions. So see, this is why I shout it from the rooftops. Because when people are ready to move away from language lies like syllable types, they move in the right direction.

So this client emailed me and said she was struggling with SWI, but instead of just whining at me, she actually sent me some examples of her work, of her efforts to really study words with her students. This allowed me to give her specific feedback. For one thing, she was neglecting etymological relatives, and we discovered that’s a space where she can refine her understanding and help her students better. I’m pretty good at helping when people are willing to share their work, be wrong, and not be panty-twisted when I tell them they’re wrong.

Since then, I have seen a huge shift in the depth of her understanding, her engagement with the writing system, and her willingness to bring this understanding and engagement into her sessions with students. She’s shared with me and others some of her study and discoveries, and it’s so clear how much she’s enjoying herself as well as how much she’s learning. Her frame of mind is totally different than it was just a few weeks ago, when she was scared and uncertain and kind of weary. I am so glad she reached out — many people are benefitting from the dialogues about real language that she is now initiating.

Today, she revisited a question she had asked me about fluency, right before the Etymology conference, when I had said “Let’s talk later.” Well, now is now later, so I responded to her this time, and thought I’d share it here, because it will help other people too.

Her original question was, “Do you recommend doing anything in addition to SWI for fluency or comprehension? I don’t know if that’s outside of the scope of what you’re currently doing but I thought you’d be a good person to ask.” Today, she reached out again: “I wanted to follow up on the topics of fluency and blending,” she said, “but mainly how to teach kids with dyslexia how to read.
 
“I’m not a die hard OG person,” she continued; “it’s just the only training I have for teaching kids how to read so I am totally open to new ideas.” I think a lot of people are in that same boat. Not that they’re married to OG; they just don’t know what else to do.

“I didn’t used to focus on fluency,” she wrote, “but a lot of experts say it’s important to become fluent in cvc words before moving on in an OG program so I’ve been working on it with my students but I would love to hear your opinion on the topic. As I think of doing SWI with my students, how would I work on reading with them? Especially the ones who struggle a lot.”

Again, these are all fair questions, and so articulate in the asking. Notice that she didn’t come to me to defend OG. She didn’t make any defensive claims about how helpful it is. She very honestly said, This is really all I know. She didn’t insist that syllable division or timed drills or nonsense words are really very valuable, or try to explain to my why that was so. She nailed it, you guys. She thought about it, pinpointed her needs, and opened herself up to being wrong, and to learning new things.

Learning is just so beautiful when we let it be.

Here’s my response:

The whole “become fluent with CVC words” is very phonicky. It’s artificial. Reading doesn’t really develop that way, and in my experience, the most severe strugglers, when met with that kind of thing, the nonsense words and the blending and the lists of monosyllables, they get stuck there. They often become just unable to move past CVC into larger words, let alone into real reading.

If you’re working with a new, young, or severe kiddo where you’d do a lot of CVC work for a long time in OG, then my suggestion is to go ahead and use whatever OG CVC words you’re use to using, but study them with SWI. Build out their families. For example:

fat: fats, fatter, fattest, fatted (like the fatted calf, a fatted lamb…), nonfat, fatty

cat: cats, catty, catted, catting, cattish, cattail, catwalk

mat: mats, matted, matting, bathmat

sat: outsat, babysat (it’s already past tense, so it doesn’t do much else morphologically)

at(well, this compounds in atone, but as a function word, it doesn’t do much else) 

This gives you a chance to get the kiddo reading and recognizing patterns besides just CVC. It is rich for being able to discover that a real word family doesn’t mean words that rhyme; it means words that share a base element. This is huge, and so productive, and kids see the difference right away. They really do.

As he encounters these words in the families you build, you can provide whatever reading support he needs. Step away from requiring him to perform. If he can’t read a word, have him spell it out first. If he still doesn’t know, then tell him, and ask him to use it in a sentence. Maybe try to revisit it again later. You’re not asking him to spell words with a doubled consonant yet, but you can notice that with him. Just notice it and say, “Huh! There’s that doubled consonant again!” You and he will also be able to notice affixes — especially the <ed, ing, s> that are so common, and also compounding. For writing / spelling, you can have him ‘tap’ mat or cats and write it from memory if you want, like SOS in OG, but you can also give him a synthetic word sum like < cat + walk > ➙ and have him solve it. You can tell him what the <walk> spells, and then ask him what the whole word is. 

For fluency more generally, start with a study of function and content words. You will learn the basic framework I use for that study in the Function & Content LEXinar. You pay attention to stress, which is different in function and content words, and that practice can really help improve prosody. You practice having the kids read phrases:

Noun Phrasesa big test, lots of kids, the rest of the cake, ten pet cats, the red sunset…
Verb Phrasesmight have gone, had been running, didn’t see, could’ve been sleeping, were done…
Prepositional Phraseson the bus, up a hill, with a big dog, at six, at home, in the way…


Phrases can also be practiced for writing (dictation, if you do that). Their grammar can be studied. They can become the kernel for a sentence that the child completes (and writes, or dictates to you). For writing, don’t be afraid to have the child do more copy work — where you build a phrase together, and you write it, and then he writes it. Or you can give him 3 or 4 phrases already written (or typed), and then have him arrange them into a sentence, then write the whole sentence. So, for example, if he had the phrases above, he could build Lots of kids might have gone on the bus. You can build real sentences or silly ones, like Ten pet cats had been running in the way. I prefer stuff that makes sense, but the thing is, if you go Noun Phrase – Verb Phrase – Prepositional Phrase, in that order, you will make a grammatically correct sentence every time, even if it doesn’t totally make sense. You just might have to make the verb agree with the subject (was done instead of were done). 

If you have an oral reading component, like where the kid is reading aloud, you can do some shared reading, as that helps him read in a text that’s maybe a little out of reach for him independently. If you are used to ‘controlled’ texts, then don’t be afraid of reading Dr. Seuss, poetry of any kind, Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, folk tales, or other real texts that still have repeating patterns and perhaps a simplified language. I also really like reading things with kids where they can actually learn about their language, like Why is a Tiger a Tiger? That one’s great for sharing because some pages have hardly any text, and some have a lot, and you don’t have to read the whole thing. We might also read about the history of the alphabet, or the Vikings.  

You can also pull phrases from any oral reading text and use them in your phrase practice. Then, when he goes to read the paragraph or page or whatever, he’s already practiced several of the phrases in it. That’s good for what the ‘experts’ call fluency, which is really just a question of having enough comfort in a text to be able to concentrate one’s mental deskspace to understanding meaning. Because after all, that’s the whole point.  

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Phone Home

I get a ton of emails. I mean, a ton. I have several email accounts, and it’s a part-time job to keep up with them all. Of course, nowadays, I also access email on my phone. I know I am not alone in this. Needless to say, a lot of the emails I get are language questions. Here’s one I got this morning, and I decided to turn it into a LEX Q&A, so more people can benefit from the dialogue than just us two. (The email has been edited for formatting and asides).

[W]hat is the final phoneme in the word cat when it is at the end of a sentence?  “I saw a little cat.”  It’s not the same as at the beginning of tip, but is it just an allophone of /t/?   I was reading about the “flap” and it doesn’t seem like it would be a flap, because my tongue stops on the roof of the mouth rather than tapping there. But I’m not sure how the flap works either. I feel as though when I say little I go straight from /ɪ/ to /l/. But there’s a difference between the way I say little and Lil. If I try to say Lil as a two syllable word with just the /l/ in the second syllable that’s still not the same as little so something is happening with my tongue, but I can’t figure it out. It almost feels like I’m squishing air out of the sides of my mouth in between the /i/ and /l/ and pushing my tongue more forcefully up with the final /l/ in little.

Aaaaaaand, my response: What a great question! And an important one, too. One of the biggest problems with the decades-old emphasis on “phonemic awareness” is that most teachers don’t really understand what a phoneme is. They think it’s a “minimal unit of sound” or some such; it’s not. It is minimal, and it is a unit, and it does have to do with language as it is pronounced, but it’s not actually a sound. Moreover — and this is critical — it’s distinctive. What this means is that, while it carries no meaning itself (the /b/ in /bɪt/ doesn’t mean anything), it is distinctive for meaning — it differentiates meaning — from other phonemes (the /b/ in /bɪt/ and the /p/ in /pɪt/ distinguish the meanings of those two words. That all happens in your head.

Elsewhere, however, there are different physical realizations of pronounced words and utterances. Those physical realizations have structures that can be studied, like all physical things. The phoneme /t/ is conceptual, a psychological category, container, or class — choose your metaphor — with several different possible members. Those members — all the members of the phoneme /t/ — are its allophones. Some physical realizations of /t/are aspirated. That is, they have a little release of air when the tongue is released from the roof of the mouth. That’s like in the word top. Phonemically, we would represent this as /tɑp/, but phonetically, it’s [tʰɑp]. If we put a /s/ in front of the word, however, the aspiration isn’t there: [stɑp]. You can see and feel the difference if you pronounce those two words aloud while holding a kleenex in front of your face. But phones aren’t necessarily distinctive for meaning: if you were in my car and yelled [stʰɑp], I would totally slam on the brakes. The [] and the [t] are allophones of the same phoneme, /t/. Other allophones of /t/ in English include [t ̚ ], [ʔ], and [ɾ], also known as the “flap.”

So, to answer your question directly, the phoneme at the end of cat is the same as the phoneme at the beginning of tip, but they are different phones. They are phonologically the same, but phonetically different. Yes, that makes them allophones of the same phoneme, different members of the same class.
Another allophone is the flap [ɾ] in your pronunciation of little. A Brit would be likely to say [lɪtʰəl], while an American more likely to say [lɪɾḷ]. The difference between Lil and little is that flap — your tongue briefly taps the alveolar ridge, before releasing the [l] laterally. There’s a co-articulation from the [ɾ] to the [l]: both of them have an alveolar place of articulation. You don’t have to move your tongue to get from one to the other. They are also both voiced. The difference between them is in their manner of articulation: [ɾ] is a flap, and [l] is a lateral approximant. That lateral refers to the release of the air out the sides of your tongue, just as you articulated in your question. The “more forceful” push of your tongue to the alveolar ridge in little? That’s the flap.

Phones and phonemes are not for sissies, but a clear understanding of the difference is absolutely critical for scholars and teachers of the written word. Writing systems’ representations of pronunciation may target syllables, or it may target phonemes, or both. But spelling never, ever targets phones; there’s no such thing as a non-phonetic word, or rather, all written words are non-phonetic. When a child writes <chree> instead of <tree>, she’s not mishearing the word; she’s ascribing the physical phone she is saying or hearing to the wrong phoneme in her head. *That’s* phonemic awareness, but teachers may be at a loss to remedy it unless they have clarity about what’s going on phonetically in that word.

No pithy ending in this post, no clever turn of phrase. No LEXlover’s delight. What do you want from me? It was an email. If you’re still reading this far, good for you, and you’re welcome.

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I just emailed Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley to congratulate her on her impressive TED-Ed video on dyslexia, which I will certainly be using in upcoming classes and seminars. Kelli quickly responded, and indicated that she was in the midst of “looking for reasoning behind why some words as spelled with w and some with wh…”

I appreciated Kelli’s phrasing: she was looking for reasoning, trusting that English spelling is orderly, driven by meaning, and reasonable. I started to respond in an email, then decided the fruits of my brief investigation would be better shared with a wider audience.

Most words spelled with a <wh> are from Old English, where they were spelled with an <hw> digraph. They were actually pronounced /hw/ rather than the more common /ʍ/ (a voiceless /w/) that some folks have now. Most of us in the U.S. just say /w/, but some southerners and some non-U.S. speakers also devoice and/or aspirate the beginnings of words with <wh>, like Hank Hill from “King of the Hill” or Stewie from “Family Guy.” 

Many <wh> words are, of course, “question” words: who, what, where, when, why, which, whether, whose, whom, or otherwise grammatical/function words: wherefore, while, whence. These words often have Latinate cognates with <qu> (who/qui/quien, when/quando, what/quoi/que, which/quel/qual) — that’s because the <h> in <wh> and the <q> in <qu> both represent sounds made in the back of the mouth, and the  <u> and <w> both represent lip-rounding sounds. Similarly, whale is related to squalus and squalene, rorqual, and narwhal.

Several others have to do with a blow or blowing or brisk movement: whack, wham, whistle, whisper, whap, whop, wheal (also weal), wheedle (etymologically, to fan someone), whiff, whim, whimper, whine, whip, whippet, whirl, whorl, whisk, whiz, whump, whoosh, and even wharf (home to brisk activity).

Some are convenient spellings to have for homophones, like whet/wet and whit/wit and whole/hole. And we need that <wh> because it can also spell /h/ before the letter <o>, as in who or whole. Some <wh> words are related to other words that begin with <c>, because a <c> in Latin or Greek words and <h> in English words can be related — there’s that velar connection again — hearty/cordial/cardiac, horn/unicorn. Here are some more surprising relatives: whore/charity (both denote ‘loving’); wheel/cycle (both are round); whir/whirl/circle (all again denote roundness). A few others are simply marking relationships to other words — like the cognates white and wheat, or whine and whinge.

As Kelli knows, graphemes are driven by their etymology, not just by their phonology. So why are some words spelled with <wh>? Well, not only do <wh> words represent all possible pronunciations by English speakers, be they Canadians or Texans, New Englanders or old Englanders, they also whisper to us of ways our long-ago forebears perceived and spoke about their world.

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