The Key to Skilled Reading

At the SSSR meeting in Boston, I was fascinated to learn about a new study by Linnea Ehri and Nancy Boyer who taught pre-schoolers to look at themselves in a mirror while pronouncing a word, and then play with mouth pictures that represent the articulation of the same sounds.  When children associated those mouth pictures with letters and manipulated the letters to represent the sounds in words, they performed better than children who just manipulated the letters without the articulatory component.  So instruction that includes teaching children to become aware of how their mouths move to make the sounds of words would help children make the connections between speech and the alphabet code.

This makes sense because when reading is first introduced, the brain has to decide how to store this new information.  To establish efficient pathways, reading should be well connected to what the brain already knows about words.  And that information is typically in the left hemisphere. When speech is engaged, left hemisphere pathways are activated.  Looking in the mirror and playing with these mouth pictures that stand for sounds (like letters stand for sounds) is going to maximize the participation of existing speech pathways and help children connect a visible word with its pronunciation and meaning.

Children with reading difficulties tend to activate inefficient areas of the right hemisphere, perhaps because they are relying more on visual pattern recognition (typically a process carried out in the right hemisphere). If they are given an intense intervention based on learning to segment words into their sounds and to associate those sounds with letters, reading improves for many of them.  And when reading improves, the activation moves from the right side of their brain to the left!

We should be able to accomplish this from the beginning, before children start to fail!

Here’s the reference to this study if you’re interested in more information about it.

Nancy Boyer (Graduate Center of the City University of New York) Dr. Linnea Ehri,; Graduate Center of the City University of New York  Phonemic awareness instruction: effects of letter manipulation and articulation training on learning to read and spell.

Purpose: An experiment was conducted to investigate whether providing beginning readers with phonemic segmentation instruction involving letter manipulation only (LM) is as effective as instruction in letter manipulation plus articulation (LAM) training in helping children learn to read and spell words. Method: Participants were preschoolers who possessed limited phonemic awareness and were in Ehri’s (1995) partial alphabetic phase of word reading. Children were matched to form triplets, based on similar segmentation, reading and vocabulary pretest scores. Triplet members were randomly assigned to three conditions: the LM condition, the LAM condition, and the no treatment condition. The LM condition consisted of instruction in letter-sound correspondences and phonemic segmentation with letters. The LAM condition consisted of the same LM instruction enriched with phonemic segmentation training involving articulatory gestures represented by mouth pictures. Students in the control condition remained in the classroom. Following training, the groups were compared in their ability to segment words into phonemes, to learn to read words, to decode pseudowords, and to invent spellings. Results: Both forms of phonemic awareness instruction facilitated the acquisition of phonemic segmentation and its transfer to reading and spelling. However, LAM instruction helped children remember how to read words better than LM instruction. Conclusion: Results are interpreted to suggest that articulatory instruction enhances the quality of the grapho-phonemic connections enabling beginners to read words from memory, as portrayed by Ehri’s (1995) theory of sight word learning. Findings suggest the value of including both ingredients in phonics instruction provided to beginning readers.

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