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Ever ask yourself why your older speech & language students struggle so greatly with fluent reading? I’ll admit that this was pretty unfamiliar territory for me when I first started as a speech-language pathologist; literacy skills were not in our graduate school curriculum.  But fortunately, I have found a lot of great books and online resources since then to guide me through working with children with dyslexia/reading impairments.  One major fact I discovered is that advanced phonological awareness skills are the key to a student becoming a proficient, fluent reader.  Young children are most often taught skills like blending and segmenting phonemes, or sounds, in kindergarten and first grade; however, it is still incredibly rare for students to be taught the advanced skills of phoneme manipulation such as phoneme deletion, phoneme substitution, and phoneme reversal.  Below are the examples of each skill:

Phoneme deletion:

Say “snake” without the /n/.  (Answer: “sake”)

Phoneme substitution:

Change the /l/ in “lake” to /m/.  What’s the new word? (Answer: “make”).

Phoneme reversal:

Say “lip”.  Now say it backwards (answer: “pill”).

Now I know a lot has been written on the subject of this critical skill by authors like David Kilpatrick, so I would like to explore a different angle of this.  Mainly, that I have encountered a large amount of intellectually average or slightly below average middle and high school students reading at the kindergarten or first grade level.  When I probe these students for these very skills, they struggle immensely with the advanced phonological awareness tasks.  It appears, based on their reactions and their own recollection of literacy interventions, that they simply have never done these activities.  What phonological awareness activities they have done involved visuals, but Kilpatrick and other dyslexia researchers say they need to be done without visuals.  The students are supposed to be manipulating the sounds they hear….. not the letters they see.  The point of these tasks is for the student to be able to rapidly and mentally manipulate sounds so that when they are reading new words, they will be able to blend rapidly and read fluently.

Phonological Awareness: Do Not Use Visuals!

The internet is full of cute, visual-heavy phonological awareness activities on blending and segmenting.  There is less out there on advanced phonological awareness and even less specifically for older middle and high school students (who will definitely turn away in disgust if you give them a worksheet full of kindergarten clip art!).  So, I decided to make my own straightforward list of words for phonological deletion, substitution, and reversal***.  This document is only for the speech-language therapist; the student should not be looking at it, though he/she can keep a grid of right and wrong answers and calculate their success if they need something motivating or to simply keep their hands busy (I would also suggest a fidget for students who needs to fiddle with items to focus, such as this cube). I have broken down tasks in various areas I’ve found students struggle in including: multi-syllabic words (which tend to be harder than one syllable words), digraph consonants (tricky for those used to thinking in terms of letters and not sounds), consonant blends and clusters (it typically trips up students to separate out all those initial phonemes and then manipulate only one in the blend/cluster), and the location of the manipulation task (my clinical experience says a deletion or substitution is more challenging to complete in a medial position than initial or final).  I also did not choose tasks that would produce real words all the time; that is because the point of the task is to manipulate sounds and not to “guess” an option that would make sense because the student knows it has to be a real word.  While we often want to make a task easier so the student will have success, this is a prerequisite skill and we don’t want students finding tricks to get around to the correct response.

So I hope this is helpful.  I will note that despite the challenge of not having any visuals, my students were really committed to this kind of mental work.  They saw it as a cognitive puzzle, I think.  In a way this activity has the same draw as the CELF-5 (Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals 5th Edition) sentence assembly….. students are drawn to the challenge of manipulating all the pieces and making them “fit” in the right way.  So don’t underestimate your students….. they actually love this activity!

Advanced Phonological Awareness Task List

***Since I want this list to be comprehensive, it is taking me quite some time to cover all the material desired.  Therefore, I am sharing what I have so far and will update this blog when it is complete.  In the meantime, feel free to use the word list activities in this work-in-progress!

And here is a sample phonological awareness goal you can incorporate in the student’s IEP:

  • Given an orally-presented word, X will complete the syllable, rime-onset, & phone manipulation tasks (deletion and substitution) with 80% accuracy over 3 out of 4 sequential data probes.
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