What is Phonics?
Phonics is the system of mapping letters onto sounds to read and vice versa to spell. Children learn “Letter-Sound Links” in early education – the relationships between letters and sounds, in order to be able to read and spell. Phonics shows learners what sounds individual letters make in different circumstances, when combined with other letters, for example.
Dyslexic children can find it difficult to identify and differentiate between sounds. They can confuse some of the sounds they hear. Mispronounce them. Jumble sounds in some words. This is clearly going to make it harder to acquire phonics.
Children can learn to read words by sight, recalling what each word looks like, in order to identify it. They can learn to remember the visual shape of words and to visually recognise patterns of letters when spelling. But it would be impossible to know all of the individual words you would need when you are reading and spelling at an advanced level. That would be too many words. That is where phonics comes in. Understanding the rules for how letters and combinations of letters translate into sounds, is what enables good readers to read fluently and to read words they have never seen before. Children with secure phonic skills can recognise patterns quickly and can automatically move from what they hear to what they see or write.
Why can dyslexic children struggle with phonics?
Dyslexia usually involves weaknesses in the type of processing required to manipulate sounds in words. That is an underlying weakness in exactly the skills being learned.
But dyslexia can also involve slow processing of sound information, which means that if teachers cover new concepts very quickly, they may miss bits. And when there are gaps in knowledge, that will clearly cause problems. And dyslexia can also involve difficulty remembering sound information, so if teachers move swiftly on from teaching one letter-sound link to another, a dyslexic student may not have practised it enough, to have secured that knowledge in their long term memory.
Can dyslexic children learn phonic skills?
Just because dyslexic children may find it more difficult than others to learn phonics, does not mean they cannot do it. They may need longer to learn. They may need to learn in a different way.
Multi-sensory teaching and learning, often offered by specialist dyslexia teachers, can include seeing, doing or touching at the same time as saying or hearing. Learning something in more than one way at the same time is the same as multiple repetitions. It is like doing it more than once. It can even be better than that, as using visual ways to learn, or incorporating touch or music even, is more interesting or fun, which makes information memorable and likely to stick (see page on Memory Strategies)
There are also several simple activities you can do at home to make it easier for young dyslexic children to be responsive to phonic learning at school, despite any underlying processing weaknesses which could otherwise mean that they could struggle more. These can be described as Pre-Literacy Skills.
1) RHYME Rhyme is one of the most basic pre-literacy skills. Recognising rhyming words makes reading much more efficient. So re-learning nursery rhymes and teaching them to your child will help them when they start to read. If they want to make up their own, however silly, and even with pretend words, that is also useful.
2) LETTER SOUND LINKS Another basic phonic skill is knowing what sound each letter of the alphabet makes. Parents can help teach this with wooden or plastic letters set out in an arc in the alphabet sequence, and talking to their child about the “names” of the letters and the basic “sounds” they make.
Knowing what sounds words begin with is also an essential skill. Therefore word games at home which focus on initial letters, such as “I Spy” set your child up better for learning literacy skills.
3) ALPHABET SONG Reciting the alphabet in order, as the well known “song” will also help your child. Sequencing can be difficult for those with dyslexia and knowing where letters come in the alphabet, will play a part in making literacy skills easier for them. So playing an alphabet game can be very useful at the same time as enjoyable: trying to think of animals or foods with each letter of the alphabet in turn for example.
4) MEMORY STRATEGIES Learning memory strategies, even when very young, will help your child retain phonics input they are taught at school. There are lots of memory games for small children, and they encourage children to work out their own ways to remember things. Kims game is always fun (putting six to a dozen different items on a tray, giving the children a minute to look at them and try it remember them, then putting a tea towel over the tray and seeing how many items there can recite. You can repeat to see how many more they remember the second time. They will eventually learn strategies, such as saying to themselves “You use this in the bathroom” or “small and blue” or “begins with “k”. “. Another game is: I went to the market and I bought …..”: children remember the list of items already bought by the players before them and add an item each time.
5) FAMILIARITY WITH BOOKS Reading time with parents, to allow children to develop favourite picture books, is an opportunity for children to deliver other pre-reading skills: Which way up do books go? Which direction do you read in? What is a title? They don’t have to be able to read any words to learn reading skills this way.
And when your child does start to read…….
When your child is ready to start learning to read, and is on a reading scheme at school, but you would like to help them at home, there are phonics based reading books designed for dyslexic children that you may find useful and fun to share with your child. This is one example of a website offering such books:
This is a website offering free phonics resources to print out for parents who would like to help their dyslexic children make progress with reading.