Our Readers' Opinions
May 19, 2006
Phonological awareness essential for beginners


Editor: In response to HJA’s letter on “Understanding English Language”, Searchlight Newspaper – May 5, 2006, about his/her concerns in teaching irregular words.

As the writer points out, English words are often spelt in an irregular and unpredictable way.

Spelling is an area of English that is difficult to master because it represents meaning more than pronunciation. This is due to the layers of sound, pattern and meaning that have resulted from the influence of mainly French, Greek and Latin.{{more}}

The article clearly indicated that phonological awareness was essential for beginner readers. Hence the title “Learning to Read”. Beginner readers would not necessarily encounter words such as cough, bough, rough, etc. in their reading books until possibly Grade 3-4 or later where, if they have occurred in speech, the teacher would point out differences in those words rather than teaching them. However, they would be required to learn sight words which are irregular and are the key words to literacy…. and, that, was, saw, one, said, etc.

The writer correctly pointed out that irregular words lack the direct sound-to-letter association in English. Homophony… i.e. words with the same pronunciation but are spelt differently, e.g. bare/bear, and homonymy… i.e., words spelt the same but have different pronunciation, bow (lower ones head) and bow (an instrument for shooting arrows, knots, etc.) are all areas that have to be explicitly explained to students who are not emergent readers. But as neurobiologist Paula Tallal (Holmes 1994) says, if the sound is not in your head to start with, it’s very difficult to learn to read, i.e. learning to read relies heavily on phonemic awareness.

What can teachers do?

Irregular and difficult spellings

• provide teaching and practice of irregular or difficult words;
• draw attention to the irregular spelling in the words;
• help students memorize the words using an effective strategy;
• use games and written exercises to aid retention.

Cough rhymes with off, tough rhymes with puff, bough rhymes with cow, stuff rhymes with enough, dough rhymes with toe, through rhymes with too, though rhymes with go, “gh” says “f” in tough, cough, laugh, etc. If there is a “t” after the “gh” the “gh” is silent as in “night”, ought, taught, naughty, daughter, thought – all odd words such as those mentioned and these: thorough, plough, draught, laughter, through, though, need to be taught using multisensory learning techniques. Teachers can use pictures where possible to help represent those words and can be used in games, on the blackboard, on cards and at any time as a fun reminder in class.

Another example:- a learner asks you, “How do you pronounce ‘-ough-‘ in English?” If you answer, “Lots of different ways!” your left-brain learners are anxious, wanting to know the number of ways, and to see and hear them. Your right-brain learners want to physically put the different ways into different places.

My answer is to make columns on paper/blackboard and invite learners to tell me rhyming words which they know well to put at the head of each column as I say each “-ough” word.

Then, each time we meet a new “-ough” word, I add it to the paper.

off stuff too go or (doct)or cow
cough enough through though ought (tho)rough plough
trough slough although thought (tho)roughfare slough
chough caught bough
rough nought

The visual learners see each word has its place. The auditory learners hear the different rhymes. The kinesthetic learners put each word in its place. Therefore, all the learners, left and right-brain, are satisfied.

Reading and spelling are closely interlinked and the development of one seems to enhance the development of the other in a fairly predictable way. Therefore the “normal” child will learn to read and spell fluently and accurately.

Lynden Punnett Dip.SpLD (Dyslexia)