Learn about the reading process and how things like dyslexia can make it harder to learn.

What is Structured Phonics versus Whole Language?

What is Structured Phonics vs. Whole Language?

There has been a long-lasting debate among academics regarding the most effective method in teaching students how to read. The dispute between believers in structured phonics verses those in support of the whole language approach began as early as the 1820’s and culminated in the United States in 1987 when the state of California, as part of the new language-arts curriculum, passed bills favoring the whole-language approach over basic decoding skills.

What are these two radically different approaches? Why did the two approaches create the “Reading War”? Read on for a deep dive into the conflict that helped define modern reading instruction.

Structured Phonics Instruction

Phonics instruction lays its foundation in teaching letter-sound relationships. In essence, phonetic-based reading attempts to break written language down into small and manageable components. Learners correlate certain letter symbols with their respective sounds allowing them to piece them together to create words, or in the case of reading, deconstruct a word into the various parts then weave the sounds together to form a pronounceable word (also known as decoding).

For example, a student will be taught that individual letters have a specific sound such as the letter ‘B’ saying ‘buh’ /b/ not its name “bee”. This will happen for the rest of the letters in the alphabet, so when a student is presented with the word “bat” – they will be able to break it down into its parts and sound it out correctly: “buh..aaa..tt – bat”

Later in the phonetic instruction process, students will learn that small groups of letters can be linked together in patterns which will always say the same sound such as “tch, dge, ng”.

Phonetic instruction is a methodical approach to analyze sounds, letters, and ultimately words.

Whole Language Instruction

Whole language instruction differs drastically by attempting to teach words and sentences as whole pieces of language – words are not systematically analyzed or pulled apart as they are in phonics instruction. Those that believe in whole language instruction argue that language should not be broken down into letters and decoded, but instead language is a complete system of meaning with words functioning in relation to each other in context. In other words, the most important focus should not be on sounds at all but primarily on the meaning and context.

The whole language approach was defended on rational grounds in the 1800’s in the Worcester primer: “It is not very important, perhaps, that a child should know the letters before it begins to read. It may learn first to read words by seeing them, hearing them pronounced, and having their meanings illustrated; and afterward it may learn to analyze them or name the letters of which they are composed.”

The three arguments used to promote whole language instruction are:

1)       Reading time does not depend on word length; therefore, word recognition must not rest on the systematic breakdown of words. This, however, has been proven incorrect as our brain processes all letters simultaneously, not one at a time.

2)       We are slightly faster at reading words in lowercase than in uppercase; thus, it is the contour of letters and the resulting contour-specific signature of each word which is most important in reading. The contour is lost in upper case letters, which are all the same size, so our reading speed is reduced.  But this is incorrect understanding because if we actually used contour to identify letters, we would be unable to read the upper-case letters at all, let alone at a slower pace.

3)       Typographical errors that respect the overall contour of a word is harder to detect than those that violate it. An example is in the word “test”, where an error of “tesf” is harder to identify than an error of “tesq” where the ascending letter “t” has been replaced by another ascending letter “f” and a descending letter “q” respectively. But this is merely due to the similarity between the “f” and the “t”, not a whole-word resemblance.

The Solution

The two approaches to teach reading skills differ dramatically in how learners are instructed to approach unfamiliar printed words. Phonics instructs a learner to try to analyze the word into parts and to sound it out. Whole-language encourages the learner to guess the word from the context of the story or accompanying pictures. Regarding the clues to understanding a word, phonics instruction believes they are found within the word itself, while whole language looks externally or outside the word.

At the end of the day, results matter above everything else. The National Reading Panel found that children who are taught phonics systematically and explicitly make greater progress in reading than those taught with any other type of instruction. This result is corroborated when California students’ test scores plummeted after instituting whole language instruction in 1987 and the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 3 out of every 4 students were below average for their age.

Phonics instruction is the better instruction method by a long shot. At the Colorado Reading Center, phonics is our focus to implement deep understanding of word decoding in our students. At the same time as phonics instruction, we apply some sight word reading with the most common words found in a particular reading level – this is important so that we get our students, who are generally behind their grade, quickly up to the level they should be to perform well in school.

Help and Resources

Developing the skill of reading is incredibly important for successful progress in school for all new learners. If you feel that a loved one or family friend could use a guide to become more proficient in understanding phonics, send them over to the professionals at the Colorado Reading Center for testing and learning resources. Our clinicians help students of any age and welcome all inquiries – take a look at our website or give us a call for more information!

What is Phonemic Awareness?

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Beginning the learning process of reading can be quite a difficult undertaking. When we think of new readers and how they learn, we usually picture children’s stories and the alphabet, but whether the beginner is a child or an adult that never acquired the necessary skills, the first step towards success is phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds (Yopp, 1992).


Phonemic versus Phonological Awareness

Many people have the incorrect understanding that phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are the same thing, or synonyms of one another. It is important to be clear that although they are similar, they are indeed unique, and this differentiation is key to understanding the development process.

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness is more specific and deals with the ability to identify individual sounds within words, called phonemes (“cat…/c/ /a/ /t/”), as well as manipulate them within a given word (“Change the /c/ to a /b/… now the word is bat”). Phonetic awareness is a broader term referring to the more developed ability of being able to hear, identify, and manipulate larger units of sounds such as onsets and syllables and recognition of rhyming words.

For beginning learners, and for the purpose of this blog, we will be focusing on phonemic awareness (the more specific term), as it will be the first skill that needs to be developed.

Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?

Phonemic awareness is critical for identifying reading development in new learners, and it is the most important pre-reading skill that can be developed being central to the role in learning to read and to spell. According to the National Reading Panel, “Teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks any attention to phonemic awareness.”

It is well accepted that phonemic awareness is the best predictor of reading and writing success in young children. It helps learners to master sound-spelling relationships, thus improving this skill through structured education is critical for a higher chance of being able to read and write when literacy instruction begins.

Without phonemic awareness, learners will be unable to group words with similar and dissimilar sounds, blend and split syllables, blend sounds into words, break a word down into its sequence of sounds, nor detect and manipulate sounds within words. It is the foundation, so to speak, of a future reader and writer and without it fluency can never be achieved.

How Learners Develop Phonemic Awareness

The development of phonemic awareness is unique for every learner. Some are able to begin growing phonemic awareness naturally through rhyming stories (like Dr. Seuss), through singing and learning nursery rhymes, or even by listening and reading along with a parent or teacher. This can be a very fortunate start to the learning process for some students, but others may need systematic and specific phonemic awareness teaching to grow in their abilities in preparation for writing and reading. There are many online resources as well as professional institutions available for this type of instruction.

Levels of Phonemic Awareness

Marilyn Jager Adams, a specialist in cognition and education at Brown University, created a widely used definition of phonemic awareness in 1990, and developed a basic understanding of the skills leading to phonemic awareness in five distinct levels.

1)       Ability to hear rhymes (“dog, fog”) and alliteration (repeated initial sounds in words, i.e “purple poster”).

2)       Ability to identify similarities and differences in rhyme and alliteration across and between words.

3)       Ability to blend and segment syllables (“rain-bow…rainbow”).

4)       Ability to split a spoken word into phonemes (“bag…b-a-g”).

5)       Ability to identify and manipulate the sounds in words (“Say ‘dog’. Now change the last sound to a /t/. What word do you have now?”)

Help Developing Phonemic Awareness

Developing the skill of phonemic awareness is incredibly important for the successful progress in reading and writing for all new learners. If you feel that a loved one or family friend could use a guide to become more proficient in phonemic awareness, send them over to the professionals at the Colorado Reading Center. Our clinicians help students of any age and welcome all inquiries – take a look at our website or give us a call for more information!

What is Visual Memory?

What is Visual Memory?

Memory is the general process by which knowledge is encoded, stored, and later retrieved within the brain. More specifically, visual memory involves the ability to store and retrieve previously experienced imagery obtained by the optical nerve (sensations/ perceptions) when the original input or stimulus of the imagery is no longer available or present.

In other words, visual memory allows a person to recreate imagery within their mind as a recollection of the stimulus – such as a letter, word, picture, or landscape – once the stimulus is no longer able to be seen.


Types of Visual Memory

Scientists have classified visual memory into three distinct categories: iconic memory, visual short-term memory, and visual long-term memory.

Iconic memory, also known as visual sensory memory, is a unique, an incredibly short-lasting memory type that can best be described through an example. If you have ever been into a haunted house during the Halloween season that has strobe lights, you may remember that when the light flashes in a dark room it provides a moment of perception of the room, and your mind will be able to retain that perception for about half a second. Another example is taking a picture in a dark room with the flash on, which will create the same effects.

Visual short-term memory (STM) retains visual information for only a few seconds so that it can be utilized in the function of ongoing cognitive tasks. Visual STM is longer-lasting and more durable than that of iconic imagery. It plays a big role, for example, in the task of driving a car by remembering road signs that you have passed and retaining an understanding of the location of other vehicles around you.

Visual long-term memory (LTM) is the ability to recall images or places that have been viewed in the distant past. Whether it is retaining the memory of the directions to get to a restaurant you visited last week or a fond recollection of the view of a gorgeous hike you took years ago, your visual LTM is driving this ability.

How Does Visual Memory Work?

Put into a very simple way, visual memory and visualization skills are our ability to interact with symbols, images, and words. The process includes our retina receiving visual input or stimuli which flows into the brain, and from the brain the shapes and colors are retained or recalled.

Visual memory is incredibly important to learning and education as at least 80 percent of what we learn is visual. It is a critical factor in reading, spelling, and writing allowing an individual to readily reproduce a sequence of visual inputs.

Skills in visual memory in school can help with:

–          Spelling and remembering sight words

–          Reading and reading comprehension

–          Recognition of letters and numbers

–          Quickly copying notes from a board

–          Forming a mental image of a word, like seeing a picture of a dog in their head when they see or read the word “dog”

Visual memory is also clearly important for situations outside of school including:

–          Remembering location of important items (shoes, phone)

–          Ability to give directions

–          Remembering phone numbers

–          Recalling memories


How to Detect Visual Memory Issues

Someone that may have problems with their visual memory may display the following signs:

–          Individual may have difficulty copying words and images

–          Difficulty copying and recognizing numbers, letters, or symbols

–          Slow at writing and reading

–          Bad reading comprehension or difficulty remembering details

–          Poor spelling

–          Sounding out every word when reading

–          Poor math skills

–          Mixing up common letters like ‘p,q’ and ‘d,b’

Just like all other learning disabilities, it is critical to have a professional test the individual experiencing difficulty. The sooner the issue is diagnosed, the sooner solutions can be implemented.

How Do You Improve Visual Memory?

If you or someone you know is having trouble with visual memory, there are a variety of exercises and games to help strengthen the skill.

Some ideas to get started include:

–          Memory games that include words

–          I-Spy game

–          Attempt to visualize something unusual – start with a word like “alien” then describe what you see

–          Recall what happened during the day

–          Look at pictures/ paintings, take them away, then try to describe what you saw

–          Rhyming games

–          Matching game (multiple card pairs face down, player turns over two at a time and attempts to find its match)

Help and Resources

Developing the skill of visual memory is incredibly important for the successful progress in reading and writing for all new learners. If you feel that a loved one or family friend could use a guide to become more proficient in visual memory, send them over to the professionals at the Colorado Reading Center for testing and learning resources. Our clinicians help students of any age and welcome all inquiries – take a look at our website or give us a call for more information!

What is Encoding versus Decoding?

The Essentials of Encoding and Decoding

Communication is the essence of interaction for the majority of living things – animals, but especially humans, rely on the ability to communicate through various forms. The process of communication requires a sender and a receiver of a message or signal, and it cannot be better emulated than through the human invention of reading and writing.

Encoding and decoding, perhaps better represented as writing and reading respectively, are the fundamental abilities that together allow for the mastery of linguistic communication. Learning to spell, read, and write can be challenging for people, but is especially true for language learners with disabilities such as dyslexia and dysgraphia.

So, what are these skills that many people take for granted? How can we overcome difficulties in acquiring them? And what resources are available to start succeeding in linguistic communication?

What is Encoding?

Encoding is a process in which a message is created or formulated for communication purposes by a sender or an encoder. While encoding can be considered as verbal (through words, signs, photos) or non-verbal (body language, facial expressions), our focus is on encoding in reading/ writing. In the case of reading and writing, encoding is the translation of a spoken word or sound into a written symbol- essentially what we refer to as spelling.

When starting the learning process of encoding, students must first know the English alphabet and the corresponding sound that each of the distinct letters make. Students will then learn to write the alphabet which leads to spelling actual words. In order to spell (encode) a word that they can say, the student must be able to break down the word into the sounds they hear and ascribe a symbol to those respective sounds – this skill usually forms at the end of kindergarten or the beginning of first grade.

The message is created by the encoder, then passed on to the receiver, who then decodes it.

What is Decoding?

Keeping with the focus of reading and writing, the other side of the coin to the encoder is the receiver of the message or the decoder. Decoding is the translation of the symbolic representation of a written word or letter into an understood sound or sound pattern and thus the resulting interpretation of the message.

In order for someone to decode, they must have strong phonemic awareness, which is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds (Yopp, 1992). Identifying and in turn gaining a sense of meaning from these unique sounds by looking at, or rather, reading a written word is the key to decoding.

What Skills are Needed to Encode and Decode?

A basic set of skills are required for English language learners to begin encoding and decoding. On the surface level, a learner will need knowledge of the sound-symbol relationship (phonics), knowledge of the 44 phonemes (basic units of sound), knowledge of the English alphabet, and phonemic awareness.

The process of encoding and decoding requires both auditory and visual skills to connect between the two, and the fundamentals of the English language begin to be grasped as students gain the knowledge of phonology, orthography, and morphology. For example, knowing why the ‘-ed’ ending makes each of its three sounds, /d/, /t/, and /id/, is uncovered when a student can identify the final sound in the root word. Overtime as they become proficient in these concepts to identify and spell words, it will ultimately lead to automatic word recognition and achieving fluency.

What is Word Attack?

Word-attack and word-attack strategies help students decode, pronounce, and understand unfamiliar words they may come across when reading. By empowering students with a flexible set of tools to break down a word into smaller pieces they will be less likely to feel lost and give up while giving them confidence and a better chance of success when facing the unknown.

A useful word-attack strategy is to break a word down into more manageable parts and sound out each portion independently of the others. For example, if you have a long, one syllable word such as ‘stouts’, it may be helpful to break it up as ‘st/ou/ts’ – each portion is only two letters which is much easier for a beginning reader than trying to tackle it all at once. The same tool applies when faced with an unknown, multisyllable word such as ‘disregarded’. Try breaking it down into ‘dis/re/gard/ed’, which will be less overwhelming, easier to pronounce, and more likely to land understanding for the reader.

Help When Needed

Learning to read, write, and spell can be a challenging undertaking for a developing language student. There are many resources available including books and videos to help during the process; and if you feel that a loved one or family friend could use a guide to become more proficient in encoding and decoding, send them over to the professionals at the Colorado Reading Center. Our clinicians help students of any age and welcome all inquiries – take a look at our website or give us a call for more information!

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