Q&A: How does your system of reading work?

Q: How does your system of reading work?

A: Sounds First Reading System, which I call a linguistic approach to teaching reading, provides an alternative code that allows a reliable pronunciation of English words. This code serves as an aid to learn how to read words.

Once the word is known, the aid is no longer needed.

The code is a phonemic respelling, similar to those that are in the dictionary that are designed to explain pronunciation. Those codes, or the international phonemic alphabet codes, represent speech sounds. SFRS also represents speech sounds. However, with SFRS, the speech sounds use a spelling of the speech sound from our alphabetic code. The code is written in color, primarily green, and appears over words that do not follow it. Words that do not have a code above them can be reliably decoded using the same code.

English is difficult to read because our alphabetic code does not easily translate into speech sounds. In fact, according to an article in Nature Neuroscience, the 41 speech sounds have over 1,100 different spellings, making English one of the most difficult languages to read. Instruction in phonics can further inform spellings, to do so requires many rules, all of which are heavily language based.

The difficulty of decoding English led to a parallel with languages that are characters. Mandarin Chinese is taught using a phonemic code called Pinyan. Children first learn this code, which provides a roman characters to represent each speech sound. Once they have the code, the children learn to pronounce the characters. Once they know the characters, they no longer need to use the Pinyan code. This is the underlying theory behind SFRS.

SFRS assigns one spelling to each of the speech sounds. The spellings were chosen as the most common self-contained sounds. Therefore the first 23 sounds are one letter. This works well because most of them are taught in kindergarten and 1st grade. They are as follows: a as in apple, b as in bat, d as in dog, e as in egg, f as in foot, g as in goat, h as in hat, i as in itch, j as in jump, k as in kite, l as in leg, m as in mop, n as in net, o as in October, p as in pig, r as in rock, s as in sock, t as in top, u as in up, v as in vest, w as in wig, y as in yell, z as in zip.

You may notice there are three letters in the alphabet not represented here. The x and q are not represented because they do not spell unique speech sounds but sound blends. The letter x most commonly spells a blend of k and s. The letter q, which is accompanied by a u, most commonly spells a blend of k and w. These two letters are not represented in the code.

The letter c is represented but only in the ch sound. As a single letter it most commonly represents the k sound as in cat or s sound as in cyst. These sounds are better represented by the other letters because they are both more consistent in simple words.

At this point most of the sounds addressed in basic phonics have been covered. In kindergarten, at least here in Indiana, a child is taught these pronunciations. They will also be taught the c, q and x with little explanation of the overlap. The difficulty of course is that this represents just over half of the speech sounds and if a child tries to use these spellings to decode words, they will find it inadequate.

To rectify this children are given some more phonics instruction. Children are taught the difference between consonant sounds and vowel sounds. Then they are taught short vowel sounds versus long vowel sounds. Children are then taught terms like digraphs and diphthongs. In fact, defining these words is part of the I Read test in Indiana that children are required to pass in order to be promoted to 4th grade. However, these are inadequate to lead to reading for a large percent of children. Along with these, children are taught what are thought of as common rules, most of which have numerous exceptions. This additional phonics instruction generally only adds 8 more sounds (ch, sh, th, ai, ee, igh, oa, ng). Most of the rules are to inform multiple spellings of these same sounds.

SFRS avoids complex labels and any rules. In addition to the 23 one letter sounds, listed above, there are 17 two letter sounds: ai as in aid, ee as in see, oa as in oat, ch as in chimp, sh as in shell, th as in thin, ng as in hang, ar as in car, er as in her, or as in or, au as in haul, oo as in oops, ou as in out, oi as in oil, oo as in look, th as in that, and si as in vision. The last three are written in red, rather than green. They are red to indicate that they are second spellings.

One speech sound is spelled with three letters; igh as in high. This was chosen because it is the most common, self-contained spelling of that sound. It was a difficult choice but in the end, I believe it was a good choice. The other spellings of the sound like ie as in tied, are more commonly pronounced differently, such as in priest, field, brief. One of the primary points in creating this code was so that children did not have to relearn but any other learning would build on what is in the code. By using actual spellings of the sounds, they are recognizing them in real words.

From this, I conceive a spelling program can continue to teach other spelling patterns for the sounds. A curriculum for this instruction is being developed. But children will already be reading.

Above is the theoretical basis for SFRS. In addition, the system includes a practical sequence with tools for introducing the sounds and building skills for blending the sounds. The materials can be used for first time readers as well as children (or adults) who have failed to acquire reading in general education.

In both cases, it begins with what a child knows. The first lesson includes a visual drill, first of the one letter sounds (and multi-letter sounds for older children). Those that the child knows the sounds for become the beginning deck. From that point new sounds are introduced in subsequent lessons.

Non-readers must then be taught to blend sounds. This is the most difficult teaching task. There are videos demonstrating these strategies in the teaching materials. Children are taught to say the sounds. Then, after learning a few they are taught to put them together; initially two, and then three, and recognize a word. Then they can move to word segments. While this must be done initially in individual words, it is ongoing in reading materials as students encounter unknown words. Once a child decodes a word, it becomes easier when it is encountered in subsequent text until they recognize it and no longer have to decode it.

While a student is learning sounds it is important that they are only decoding words that include sounds they know. A strategy I often implore when a word includes sounds the child does not know is to give the unknown sound and allow the child to blend it. All of the instruction is out loud and therefore the unknown sound can be inserted at the correct moment for the student. Otherwise, it would be appropriate to give the child the entire word.

The reading material in the beginning kit is sequenced to first include words that are predominantly made up of one letter sounds and have three and four sounds. As the books progress the words get larger and include more two letter sounds. All of the reading includes some sounds the child does not know. However, often a child can read a word with some unknown words. This is based on some level of incidental learning and word recognition. Pictures are used to reinforce the reader. Content is also used to reinforce reading. The primary instruction is based on the actual act of reading with accuracy and understanding. The pace is determined by the student’s progress.

Most students I have worked with only use this method for reading instruction but universally, my students report finding other reading improved. All of the testing is done with regular text and it demonstrates improvement. This methodology is in its infancy, but it is based on sound theory and research.

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