The Wisdom of a Movable Walkway: why individualized instruction is so important

Imagine yourself rushing to catch a plane in the airport. Say for instance you’re at DIA, and you step onto the movable walkway to speed up your trip to the gate. You’re moving at a brisk pace now. There’s no carry on, all your bags are checked, and you’re holding a book you’ve been waiting to read on your flight. Out of the corner of your vision, you see people heading your direction, but you’re speeding past them. There’s a woman carrying a child and a diaper bag walking with a man pulling two giant rolling suitcases trying to balance both and walk at the same time. They take a few steps and stop to readjust things and move forward. Their progress to the gate is painstakingly slow. There’s also a group of school age students with instruments all casually walking together about the same rate as the walkway is moving.


You decide to pick up the pace and begin walking on the movable walkway. There’s a sense that you are rocketing through the airport now. You’re passing people standing on the walkway along for the ride. You make it to the gate in record time, and are one of the first to board the plane. You leisurely open your book and don’t give the walk to the gate a second thought. You watch the school band group get on and take their seats. The doors are almost closed when the couple carrying the baby and suitcases boards the plane breathlessly.

Let’s change this situation and make an analogy to learning to read. A lot of readers are able to pick up the skill with little help needed. They may move at a casual rate like a band group walking to catch a flight. Others go to it like a fish to water. They move briskly and seem to speed past others, like the person with no bags trotting on the movable walkway. For many, however, they move slowly and struggle the whole way. They are like the couple pulling bags behind them. They need to stop every so often and readjust. They can sometimes get help from people to carry their bags with them.


Developing the skill of reading requires a number of other skills working together. If an emerging reader is dealing with a weakness in any of the underlying skills (say for instance phonological processing, memory issues, dyslexia, and many others), then this reader has extra bags to carry on their way to the “departure gate for reading.” For many students, standard reading instruction works well. Students who have a few extra bags to carry along may need some extra help.
Focusing on the exact underlying skill that needs to be developed is central to instruction. This is what is meant by individualized instruction. The reader discovers what needs to be worked on, and they work with a specialist to develop their skills. Like a physical fitness trainer for the mind, reading specialist work out the muscles needed for reading. Every reader learns at their own pace, just like travelers moving through an airport. As the foundational skills are made stronger, readers begin to grow stronger generally, and are able to reach their potential. 


The Sound Symbol Association: what’s a sound, what’s a symbol, and how are they associated?

Of the multitudinous sounds human beings are capable of articulating, we have managed to set aside 44 of these to form the English language. 44 sounds may not seem like much, but the number of combinations possible with these sounds is potentially endless. So emerging readers need to be able to hear and make these individual sounds in words. They also need to blend these sounds together to form words. Humans are born with this ability, and spend their early childhood developing it.

So emerging readers now have the ability to articulate and identify the 44 sounds (phonemes) of English. They are now prepared to further develop this ability (their phonemic awareness) by identifying these sounds with a letter name. Many readers begin to associate a name to a sound. For instance, they may say something like “the letter ‘a’ says /a/, like in apple.” What they are doing at this point is adding a new conceptual element to what was previously only a single sound. Sounds can now be identified with a name or label.

Next there comes the added difficulty of ascribing to these sounds a symbol. Emerging readers begin to see and distinguish a symbol (for example: a), recognize is as unique, and ascribe to it the correct label and sound. At this point, readers have connected to the three parts of the sound symbol association: the phoneme (sound), the grapheme (symbol), and the letter label or name. These three associations work in tandem for readers to absorb written language.

OK…here’s where things get a bit tricky. It would be nice if we lived in a world where each sound had a letter that matched up with it perfectly. Unfortunately, our world (and our languages) are a bit messier than that. English has an alphabet of 26 characters or symbols (a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z) This means we need to use these 26 symbols to show 44 sounds. Talk about making things difficult for the emerging readers out there.

We are going to eliminate 4 of these symbols right off the bat. C, Q, X, and Y are letter symbols with no sound identity (we’ll come back to these at a later point). This leaves us with 22 symbols  to work with.


Now 5 of these symbols are going to represent vowels, so we can separate a, e, i, o, and u from the other symbols. Vowels are a special type of sound we make by opening our mouth and projecting a specific noise. Vowels use our voice to give body or force to words. The word vowel comes from the Latin word vocalis. This is where we get the English word vocal. A vowel gives voice to a words, and vocalizes it.

Once we take out the 5 vowel symbols, we’re left with 17 letters. (b d f g h j k l m n p r s t v w z) These letters are consonants. A consonant is made by articulating and stopping a sound. These sounds are made by specific mouth positions.

We take the 17 consonant sounds, and the 5 vowel sounds and we have 22 sounds. This means we’re halfway to 44. Now to get the remaining sounds in English we need to break the rules a bit and start combining letters together to make new sounds. When we do this we are making what is called a digraph. “Di” here means two, as in dihydrogen oxide (H2O), which is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. So digraph just means two letters acting as one unit.

There are 7 consonant digraphs. They are: th, sh, ch, wh, ng, th, zh. The last three can be a bit tricky. The sound for “ng” is similar to the end of the word “ring.” Also, “th” actually makes two sounds. It makes the soft /th/ sound as in the word “thin.” However, it will also make the hard sound /th/, as in the word “the” or “this.” We also have another problem. There is a sound that we make that is similar to the soft /sh/ sound. This is the hard /sh/ sound like in the word “Asia” or “casual.” There is no consistent letter combination for this sound, so we will represent it as “zh.” This is our first taste of multiple spellings of a sound. This can really trip up the emerging reader. We now we have the 7 consonant digraph sounds to add to our other 22 sounds, making a total of 29.

Whew, OK…

Up to this point we have only talked about the short vowel sounds (/a/, like in /a/pple, and so on). Next we need to talk about the long vowel sounds. The long vowel sound is when a vowel says its name. For example, the letter a can say /ae/ like in ate, aim, may, vein, weight, and so on. The letter e can say /ee/ like in eke, feet, sea, piece, and so on. The letter i can say /ie/ as in ides, light, pie, etc. The letter o can say /oe/ like in ode, oat, toe, and so on. The letter u can say /ue/ like in ute, glue, or Euro. As you can see, there are a lot of combinations of symbols to make the long vowel sound, but there are only five long vowel sounds. So we can add 5 long vowel sounds to go with the 5 short vowel sounds. With these 5 long vowel sounds, our total comes to 34.

We’re on the home stretch. Next we have the R controlled vowels. This includes 5 more sounds. There is /ar/, like car, /or/ like horn or door, /er/ like in hurt, bird, or term, /ār/ like in air or care, and /ēr/ like in ear or deer. Once again, like the long vowel sounds, there are multiple spellings for these sounds adding to the emerging reader’s trouble identifying these sounds. So with these 5 R controlled vowel sounds, our total is to 39.

Finally, we have 5 more sounds. We have /oo/, as in boot or moon. We have the “oo” sound /ʊʊ/, as in foot or book. These can be especially challenging as they are two separate sounds that are spelled the same exact way. There is /oi/ as in boil or toy, /ou/ as in pout or cow, and /au/ as in haul or paw. So adding in these 5 stragglers brings us to 44.

As you can see, sound symbol association is not a straightforward process. We have to allow for several sounds to be created, or associated with different combinations of letters. Also we occasionally have letter combinations stand for different sounds entirely. If the process itself wasn’t complex enough, you add into the mix the reality that every reader develops in their own way, and you can get a good deal of diversity in how people learn to read.

Many students we see struggle to some degree with sound symbol associations. This is the ability to identify a letter name and symbol(s) with a specific phoneme or sound. For some students, the struggle may be with auditory processing, where they are not able to correctly recognize and identify sounds they are receiving. Other students may have difficulty recalling specific information, such as a letter’s name, form, or sound. Regardless of the challenge, it is important that instructors are patient, playful, and are offering lots of positive praise.

SS Assoc

Colorado Reading Center has updated its website

Colorado Reading Center is proud to announce the release of our new updated website.  The website has a new look and improved navigation to help in finding information on our Academic Therapy Programs.

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