How to make phonics successful for children with dyslexia

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What is phonics?

Synthetic phonics is now a key element in the new (statutory) primary national curriculum for state primary schools in England. Phonics is a way of teaching children to read and spell. Children are taught how to recognise sounds in words and blend them together to read. They are also taught how to segment (split) words into their sounds in order to spell them.

There are 44 sounds in the English language but only 26 letters to represent these sounds. This means that some sounds are represented by two or more letters e.g. /sh/ in ‘shop’.  As there are 176 spellings for the 44 sounds the English spelling system is complex and, therefore, a structured programme is necessary to develop reading and spelling accuracy (Sound Reading System).

Dyslexia and phonics

All children, dyslexic or not, need to understand the connection between the sounds in language and what letters are used to represent them. Children with dyslexia typically struggle with reading and spelling as they find it difficult to hear, recall and isolate sounds in words. This means they are likely to need additional support to master the skills of blending and segmenting.

As often the auditory (hearing) channel is weaker in dyslexics, it is important that they are taught phonics in a multi-sensory way. This means, using visual and tactile resources to support the auditory channel. It makes sense that the more senses which are engaged in learning, the more likely the material is to be retained. Children with dyslexia can have memory difficulties. When introducing a new sound, using visual images, a meaningful phrase which includes the focus sound and an action can help the sound to be retained in memory. I often get children to make their own sound cards with a picture that is meaningful for them. For instance, if they have a cat called ‘Theo’, their sound card for ‘th’ might have a picture of their cat to trigger their memory.

Making phonics meaningful

I regularly meet children who are very good at recognising their sounds when presented on flashcards, but struggle to recognise and remember these when attempting to read and spell. This is because the sounds are not yet meaningful to them so they cannot apply them in other contexts.

When children learn a new sound it is important that they hear it in real example words such as /f/ ‘flower’ and /f/ ‘fan’. Make familiar references as much as possible, e.g /f/ that’s like in your mum’s name. /f/ /Fiona/. They need to then experience reading and spelling words with that sound straight away so that it becomes meaningful.

A structured approach

As there is so many sound-spelling combinations to remember it is important that a structured approach is used to ensure coverage of all the main combinations. As children with dyslexia can have difficulty with retaining new knowledge, it is important that there are opportunities for regular ‘overlearning’, whereby students get to engage with words using previously learnt sounds.To summarise, it is not true that dyslexics can’t learn through a phonetic approach. All children need to learn the links between the sounds in words and how they are represented. However, for the sounds to be retained, a structured multisensory approach is necessary, with lots of opportunities for ‘overlearning’.

Why can’t my dyslexic child spell?

dyslexia spelling

Spelling difficulties

Many individuals with dyslexia learn to read fairly well, but difficulties with spelling  tend to persist throughout life. Despite this, there is much less research on spelling which makes it difficult for teachers and parents to know how best to support children who are experiencing difficulties.

One common but mistaken belief is that spelling problems come from a poor visual memory. However, spelling problems, like reading problems, originate with language learning weaknesses. Therefore, spelling reversals of easily confused letters such as b and d, or sequences of letters, are manifestations of underlying language learning weaknesses rather than of a visually based problem. Many dyslexics actually have a very good visual memory and this can be exploited to help them to overcome their weaknesses.

Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate sounds (phonemes) in words. Children with poor phonemic awareness are likely to have difficulty with spelling, as spelling requires the individual to firstly identify the sound in the word that they wish to spell and then to recall the written representation of that sound. As many children with dyslexia have working memory difficulties, it makes it even harder for them to hold the sound in their head whilst working out which letters to use.

Whole words versus phonics

There is great debate as to whether it is more effective for dyslexic children to learn spellings as ‘whole words’ or to learn how to spell using phonological strategies (phonics). In my experience the most effective way for dyslexic children is to follow a carefully structured spelling programme which teaches the children the link between sounds in words and the letters used to represent these sounds.It is important that common morphemes are taught  e.g. ‘-ed’ at the end of ‘walked’ as these change the meaning of words and an understanding of these can help children to have a better understanding of why words are written as they are and enable them to apply this knowledge to new words.

Some common words are helpful to learn as a ‘whole’ initially as their sound-spelling link is tricky, e.g. ‘one’. However, memorising long lists of words as a whole is not recommended as they end up being meaningless to the child and not retained.

The important thing to remember about dyslexic children is that they often have working memory difficulties. Therefore, any spellings learnt will need lots of reinforcement and opportunities to put these spellings into context, for example, in meaningful sentences.

Where to go for more information?

On the main website toolbar click ‘Dyslexia’ and ‘Supporting your child with spelling’ for further ideas.