A sound foundation for reading

Phonetics: The ability to break words into smaller components is critical for early reading and spelling success.

October 28, 2001|By Susan Ferrechio | Susan Ferrechio,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

First-grade teacher Karleen Tyksinski knows how to spot children who could develop problems reading and writing. But she doesn't need to see a pupil pick up a book or a pencil. Tyksinski just listens.

Her ears are tuned to a child's phonological or phonemic awareness: the ability to understand that words are composed of smaller units of sound and to distinguish among those sounds.

Tyksinski, a teacher at Park School in the Baltimore County community of Brooklandville, says by the time children reach kindergarten, they should have grasped phonological skills, or phonetics. These skills involve the ability to break words into parts.

"Phonological awareness has a positive impact on early reading and spelling," Tyksinski told a group of preschool, kindergarten and first-grade teachers during a conference on early childhood education at the school this month. "Children who are poor readers have fewer phonological skills than more developed readers."

Phonetics shouldn't be confused with phonics, which is the method for teaching pupils to associate sounds with letters and groups of letters.

For example, Tyksinski said, children with strong phonetic awareness should know that the word cat is comprised of two sounds: kuh and at. And that cat rhymes with bat and sat. Pupils who don't understand, the veteran teacher warns, typically struggle when it's time to read and write those words.

Although educators have long recognized the importance of phonetics, Tyksinski and others worry that such skills are being put on the back burner in schools throughout Maryland as teachers rush to introduce reading and writing skills under the pressure of high-stakes tests such as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams.

"A lot of teachers are feeling the pressure to teach kids to read. What they should be doing is teaching them phonological skills," she said during an interview. Without those skills, Tyksinski said, "children are missing a lot. Perhaps they are not as ready to read in a more complete way - and it could be stressful to them."

Teachers who attended the conference agreed, but some said they simply don't have time to steer their curricula toward phonetics, even for pupils sorely lacking those skills.

Peg Costello, a kindergarten teacher at Worthington Elementary in Ellicott City, said Howard County school officials want children to learn reading and writing. "They are pressuring the kids to move faster," she said.

During the past several years, research has emerged that says a child's ability to master phonetics is more strongly correlated to his or her ability to learn to read and write than previously realized.

"If children cannot perceive the sounds in spoken words ... they will have difficulty decoding or `sounding out' words in a rapid and accurate fashion," Dr. G. Reid Lyon, chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institutes of Health, told a U.S. Senate committee in 1998.

Educators have devised various techniques to teach phonetic skills. For example, children too young to use worksheets instead might use their fingers or small objects, such as beans, to count out word parts. Teachers might use songs and egg-shakers to teach children to recognize multisyllabic words, a skill that can be important in learning to spell and sound out words.

Teachers also might engage the children in rhyming games - such as seeing how many times a child can substitute the first letter of mouse to form other words. When a child later starts to learn letters, these rhyming skills can be used to help in spelling and to distinguish one word from another.

But even at Park School, a private, kindergarten-through-12th- grade institution where teachers endorse the importance of phonetics, kindergarten teachers say they spend a limited amount of time on phonetics. They choose instead to blend these learning techniques with others, such as learning the alphabet.

Phonetics, said kindergarten teacher Posey Valis, is "part of the day." She blends phonetics activities into other classroom exercises.

Tyksinski said that, in her first-grade classroom, she sees the effects of insufficient phonetics training. She often takes aside small groups of pupils to give them remedial help.

On a recent day, four of Tyksinski's pupils sat with wooden blocks at a table, trying to break the word tip into smaller sounds. Three of the pupils understood, and each selected three blocks.

One child did not. He hesitated, then put out two blocks. Tyksinski made a mental note to work with the 6-year-old later. The teacher firmly believes his future as a reader depends on whether he catches up on phonetics.

"That exercise," Tyksinski said, "was a great assessment for me. These are the children who need special help."

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