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Phonological awareness and literacy learning

Phonological awareness is supposed to be the best way to anticipate reading skills. This can be shown from over 30 years of worldwide research (Rvachew & Savage, 2006; Stahl & Murray, 1994). In an alphabetic orthography the written symbols, graphemes, represent the phonemes. Sometimes more than one grapheme represents a single phoneme (for example /!/ in shoe) and sometimes one grapheme can represent more than one phoneme (for example /ks/ in box) (Häggström, 2007). Therefore, to become literate in an alphabetic language, one needs to develop the ability to explicitly analyse and control the phonemic segments of spoken language and consciously control these units in different ways (Lundberg, 2006; Lundberg, 1988).
According to Ziegler and Goswami (2005) the process of learning to connect sounds to symbols is called phonological recoding and is the first step in becoming literate. This enables the child to receive literate access to all the words they already can achieve through their spoken lexicons. Once the child realises that phonemes are the units of spoken language that can be represented in graphemes, the alphabetic orthography becomes a logical way to symbolise the language (Ball & Blachman, 1991). Liberman et al. (1974) suggest that learning to connect letters to language sounds is dependent on the ability to reflect on sounds in spoken words. Children who find it difficult to reflect on sounds in words and segment spoken words into separate sounds might have difficulties in learning to read. Stahl and Murray (1994) and Goswami (2006) present research showing that there is a strong correlation between phonological awareness and reading and spelling ability.
According to Lundberg (2006) it is a common view among some researchers that the child needs reading instructions to develop phonemic skills. However, in a training study implemented by Lundberg et al. (1988), they showed that Danish preschool children could develop their phonemic awareness without regular reading instructions. Instead of regular reading instructions they designed a programme with daily exercises during one preschool year, including for example listening games, playing with sentences and words and finally learning to segment words into phonemes. The results showed that these children had made improvements in their phonemic skills and that phonemic skills therefore could be developed among preschool children when using other methods than regular reading instruction with letters. The participating children were followed up through four school years to evaluate their reading and spelling skills, and they showed better skills than children who did not participate in the preschool training programme. In other words, the participating children had a clear advantage in learning to read and spell in school (Lundberg 1988). The study suggested that phonological awareness could be developed before and irrespectively of acquired literacy ability.
Schneider et al. (1997) replicated the Lundberg study and also found positive short-term effects on German preschool children’s phonological awareness, and therefore came to the conclusion that early and intensive training of the phonological awareness had positive effects regardless of language. Their results supports the view that broader phonological skills, e.g. rhyming and syllable segmentation, develops before the child gets in contact with formal reading instructions in school. On the other hand, more narrow skills, e.g. phoneme manipulation, rarely develop spontaneously before entering school and are therefore significantly benefitted from intervention programmes and exercises. Schneider et al. (1997) also stressed the impact of quality and quantity of training. Ball and Blachman (1991) strengthen Lundberg et al.’s (1988) findings with their research indicating that children who receive phonemic awareness intervention show a superior ability in both reading and spelling and are more able to match graphemes and phonemes compared to children who do not get the same phonemic awareness training.
Despite the results above, some researchers consider the opposite, that phonological awareness skills do not precede reading and spelling skills. A study implemented by Morais et al. (1986) showed that illiterate adults performed significantly lower on phonemic segmentation tasks, which therefore was assumed to require experience of reading instructions. Morais et al. (1986) argued that the ability to reflect on spoken words develops after rather than before learning to read and is not a naturally developing ability. Their findings that illiterate adults do not develop this phonological skill assume that reading instructions are necessary for achieving phonological awareness.
Another view is that some parts of phonological awareness are learned before literacy and some more complex parts are learned after, and because of, literacy. Stahl and Murray (1994) assumed that some phonological skills predict the ability to develop a sight vocabulary, the ability to unconsciously identify words (Beck & Juel, 1992), and that children become increasingly sensitive to the structure of written words as they learn more and more words. This sensitivity also leads them to a more extensive phonological understanding about the structure of words that may enable them to develop higher decoding skills, e.g. ability to decode words not previously seen. Schneider et al. (1997) suggested that the relationship between phonological awareness and literacy learning is reciprocal. That is, basic phonological skills are essential for learning the alphabetic code, which thereafter improves the level of phonological awareness. Schneider et al. (1997) also found that phonological awareness seems to improve for children after only two months of reading instruction, supporting the view that the relationship between phonological awareness and early stages of literacy is reciprocal.
Despite the different views on this subject, one can establish that phonological awareness in some way is an important part of the early literacy learning. However, since there are different views on what impact literacy learning processes have on phonological awareness, it can be hard to recognise the effect of training phonological awareness when children have already initiated their literacy learning (Schneider et al., 1997).

Literacy teaching

Synthetic Phonics and literacy teaching in United Kingdom

Rose (2006) published, on mission on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education for England, a review about teaching of early reading in British schools, presenting that the British National Curriculum between 1989 and 1998 had too little impact on raising the standard of reading among the pupils. Even though working with phonics in literacy teaching was a stated component, reports from Her Majesty’s Inspectors showed that it often had a weak part in literacy teaching. When redeveloping the National Literacy Strategy in 1998, schools were engaged in performing a structured teaching programme of literacy that did not only describe what should be taught about phonics, but also how to teach it. Rose (2006) recommended all early literacy teaching to include synthetic phonics. A description of synthetic phonics will be presented below.
Before the evaluation of the literacy-teaching curriculum used between 1989 and 1998, the common way of teaching literacy was by using the searchlights model of reading. This model contains four strategies, searchlights, referring to sources of knowledge when decoding a text: phonic (sounds and spelling) knowledge, grammatical knowledge, word recognition and graphic knowledge, and knowledge of context (Rose, 2006).

Synthetic Phonics

Torgerson et al. (2006) found that systematic literacy instructions based on phonics had a significant positive effect on reading accuracy. Phonics describes the relationships between letters and sounds (Torgerson et al., 2006). One approach using systematic phonic literacy instructions, where you learn letter-sound correspondence in an explicit and organised way, is called synthetic phonics. In this method the phonemes are matched with graphemes, pronounced in isolation and then synthesised/blended together. The pupils learn to segment spoken and written words into its elements, and when coping with unfamiliar words they are able to use their knowledge of phoneme-grapheme correspondence to code the word when both reading and writing. The focus is on connecting phonemes to graphemes and the pupil is not introduced to letter names at the beginning of learning (Torgerson et al 2006; Bowey 2006). According to Bowey (2006), systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective approach in literacy learning.
Contrary to Rose (2006) and Bowey (2006) there are researchers who cannot see the synthetic phonics as a superior approach when teaching early literacy. According to Wyse and Styles (2007) there is no evidence for synthetic phonics to be a preferred method. They consider research evidence showing that early literacy teaching should consist of a variety of instructions in phonics combined with print exercises, and their opinion is that synthetic phonics is not the best approach in literacy teaching. Goswami (2005) discussed that synthetic phonics, as a literacy teaching approach in English, is not working out well since English has an inconsistent letter-sound correspondence. Goswami (2005) considers that literacy teaching in English needs complementary approaches in addition to synthetic phonics.

Jolly Phonics

One common literacy teaching approach based on systematic synthetic phonics used in the United Kingdom is called Jolly Phonics. The pupils are taught all 42 phonics in the English language in intervals and in a certain order to blend sounds into words and eventually reading words. By identifying the sounds in words and connecting sounds to letters they understand the alphabetic code which helps them learn to read and write (Lloyd, 1998). The approach is based on the assumption that knowing letters is superior to a whole-word approach when learning to read and write, and that pupils become fluent readers faster when using the synthetic phonics approach. Pupils who use the synthetic phonics approach also start to write independently and spell accurately earlier than pupils taught with the whole word approach (Lloyd, 1998). Lloyd (1998) assumes that the amount of pupils with reading problems is almost non-existent when a synthetic phonic approach is being used in literacy teaching.
The Jolly Phonics has a multi-sensory approach, involving body movement, hearing, visual ability and speech, that makes it easier to learn the sounds and connect them to letters. One phonic is introduced a day and all 42 phonics are being taught in about 9 weeks. They concentrate on lower case letters and the letters are being introduced by sounds, not by names. The phonics are in groups of six and the order has been carefully selected to support learning. Letters which similarities might confuse the child are not put too close together, for example b and d. Each child has it own Sound Book that can be brought home for the parents to be able to take part in their child’s literacy learning (Lloyd, 1998).
These are the letter sound groups followed in the Jolly Phonics:
1. s, a, t, i, p, n
2. ck, e, h, r, m, d
3. g, o, u, l, f, b
4. ai, j, oa, ie, ee, or
5. z, w, ng, v, little oo, long oo
6. y, x, ch, sh, voiced th, unvoiced th
7. qu, ou, oi, ue, er, ar

Literacy teaching in Swedish schools

According to the Swedish national Curriculum for the Compulsory School System, the Pre-School Class and the Leisure-time Centre (Lpo94) (Skolverket, 2006), the school should enable the development of communication skills through reading, writing and communication. This in its turn will enhance the pupils’ belief in their language ability, which is important also for learning and identity development.
Language, learning, and the development of a personal identity are all closely related. By providing a wealth of opportunities for discussion, reading and writing, all pupils should be able to develop their ability to communicate and thus enhance confidence in their own language abilities (p. 5-6).
After nine years in the compulsory school, one aim is that the pupils should be able to master the Swedish language and have the capacity to listen and read and to express their thoughts and ideas in speech and writing (Skolverket, 2006).
The school is responsible for ensuring that all pupils completing compulsory school:
• have a mastery of Swedish and can actively listen and read as well as express ideas and thoughts in the spoken and written language (p. 10).
There are no rules in the curriculum for how to teach language and literacy, but there are guidelines for the teachers, which should be applied in all subjects. Some of the guidelines tell the teachers to give special support for pupils with difficulties, to have the pupils’ individual needs, prerequisites and experiences as starting point and to give the pupils support in their development of language and communication skills (Skolverket, 2006).
The Swedish pre-school class is not part of the compulsory school system, but is still included in the Lpo94 and is also included in the Swedish Education Act (Utbildningsdepartementet, 2009). There are no aims that the pupils should have fulfilled after finishing pre-school class, still the national syllabi for the compulsory school system express the purpose of the different subjects in the education and should be applied in the pre-school class as well. The syllabus for the subject Swedish expresses the aims that the school should create good possibilities for the language development and give opportunities for the pupils to use and develop their ability to for example talk, listen, read and write. The language ability is stated to be of great importance both in school and life in general as well as for the personal identity. It therefore has a central role in the education (Skolverket, 2000).
The syllabus for Swedish (Skolverket, 2000) also lists objectives to aim for in the teaching, which includes helping the pupils to acquire knowledge about the language structure and its history. It also states that language knowledge is built up by using the language, knowledge to use it and by acquiring new knowledge about the language.
According to both the national curriculum and the syllabus for Swedish, the goals to strive for are clear, but there is no established way how to teach language and literacy and it is up to every school to decide what methods to use (Skolverket, 2005).
The methods used for literacy teaching differ among schools, but in a study performed by Arnqvist (2003), all the participating pre-school classes stimulated the language awareness, the consciousness of forms and functions in language (Carter, 2003), although in different ways. Some classes used a systematic way to train the language awareness and some classes did not. The systematic way is explained by starting to train rhyme ability followed by syllables and then phonemes. However, in all the participating pre-school classes, playing with the language was part of the activities, which gave the pupils knowledge about word comprehension and both language structure and language contents. This in its turn prepared the pupils for the literacy teaching in the compulsory school, which they attend after finishing the pre-school class. However, the same study highlights the problems with unsatisfactory individualised education, where pupils who can read already when beginning pre-school class, as well as pupils with difficulties, do not receive the necessary stimulation and help required (Arnqvist, 2003).
Frykholm (2007) described two commonly used ways to teach literacy as the analytic and the synthetic method, where analytic is a top-down method, based on comprehension. This means that the language is being broken down from texts into smaller units as words and phonemes. In this method, the whole word reading, or sight word recognition, is an essential part (Beck & Juel, 1992; Frykholm, 2007). The synthetic method is bottom-up based which indicates that phonemes are being put together into words, sentences and texts, also known as the phonics approach, where phonemes are being related to the corresponding graphemes (Beck & Juel, 1992; Frykholm, 2007). One example of the synthetic method is Bornholmsmodellen (The Bornholm model). It is often mentioned in the literature in this field (see for example Stahl & Murray, 1994, Goswami, 2006) and is based on the study implemented by Lundberg et al. (1988). This method is according to Häggström (2007) a frequently used method in Swedish schools and it trains the phonological awareness by using different language games divided into five steps. Nowadays the method also includes letter knowledge, which was excluded in the initial Bornholm study, published in 1988. The aim with the method is to prepare the children for the latter compulsory literacy learning (Lundberg et al., 1988; Lundberg, 2007). The Swedish language consists of 17 vowels and 18 consonants, in total 35 phonemes (Engstrand, 2004). One example of the analytic method is LTG – Läsning på Talets Grund (Reading with the spoken language as the base). The LTG method was developed by Leimar in the 1970s and although it is an analytic method, it also contains parts of the bottom-up, synthetic method. The aim with this method is to make the pupil aware of the connection between phonemes and graphemes and also between written texts and spoken words (Leimar, 1974).
Although, in most cases, the teachers start with a synthetic method, it is often used in combination with an analytic method and whole word reading (Frykholm, 2007).

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Communication aids

Devices used for communication

There are many different devices, developed as aids for literacy learning and speech production. Most of the devices demand visual ability to make them work, such as DynaVox Vmax, which is a communication aid that enables both daily communication and literacy development but demands visual ability to handle the use of the dynamic page content (V/Vmax Product Information, DynaVox).
George and Gnanayutham (2009) developed a multimedia interface consisting of both visual and auditory output meant to be used in speech therapy with children having problems with pronunciation. The interface contained sound recordings of both male and female voices, 2D animations to show how each language sound was being used in context and 3D animations that together with the relevant sound showed how each language sound was being pronounced by speech organs in the mouth. The order of sounds and the actions used for 2D animations chosen for the interface were the ones from the Jolly Phonics programme. This interface demanded the user to be able to handle the visual ability required for using it.
When designing devices for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) the designers need to consider the physical and cognitive demands and abilities of the AAC users and their communication partners. It is of great importance that the users can control their own communication and take part in for example meaningful societal activities (Blackstone et al., 2007). According to Gonzales et al. (2009), many AAC strategies are paper based and consist of for example symbols, which can limit the spontaneity of the conversation. They suggest that electronic AAC devices can improve the quality of communication using for example speech generation devices (SGD) with synthetic speech output produced from combining text, pictures or symbols. According to Blackstone et al. (2007), electronic devices are often programmed with pre-recorded messages. Pre-recorded messages can sometimes limit the variety of communication and dialogues.
AAC users with physical or visual impairments with gaze shifting and joint attention shifting difficulties might find it hard to coordinate their attention between self, the communication partner and their AAC device. A great challenge for these AAC users could be using AAC devices that demand an ability to navigate through systems consisting of multiple pages and screens (Light & Drager, 2007).

The PhonicStick

The PhonicStick is a joystick, developed at the School of Computing, University of Dundee, which can be used for literacy learning and speech production without any demands on visual ability (Black et al., 2008a). This device makes it possible to produce language sounds and blend them together into words without any connections to pictures or letters (Black et al., 2008b), which is mostly the case for other devices, as can be seen above. Another advantage of the PhonicStick is that the users can explore the phonics on their own and that they get immediate auditory feedback, which could have positive effects on the learning process.
The PhonicStick is made as a joystick to make it useable for people with physical disabilities. Many children with physical disabilities can manoeuvre their wheelchair with a joystick, but they show difficulties in using a similar joystick to handle the computer. This might be because a computer demands more cognitive functions and often has a delay in feedback due to second interfaces. The PhonicStick gives direct feedback; a phonic is spoken just by moving the joystick in that direction (Black et al., 2008a).
The prototype of the PhonicStick contains the first six phonics taught in the Jolly Phonics programme. These phonics can be blended together into existing and non-existing words with two or three phonics. To access a phonic, the joystick is being moved in one of six directions (see Figure 1). The users are given auditory feedback as they move the joystick, and when the joystick is moved back to the centre position the phonic is chosen (Black et al., 2008a). The goal is to get all 42 phonics used in the English language into the PhonicStick (Black et al., 2008b). When developing the PhonicStick, the phonics were grouped by their phonemic characteristics (for example fricatives or plosives) and thereafter placed on the 8 main compass rose directions (see Figure 2). The mapping of the phonics is meant to be done in stages where the 6 beginning phonics in the Jolly Phonics programme are the first ones. The phonic positions are not changing when adding further stages (R. Black, personal communication, 2009).
A study has been done within the developing of the PhonicStick, where seven children were testing the PhonicStick. Five of the children had physical and/or learning disabilities and two of them had no disabilities. The results from this study showed that all participating children could use the PhonicStick to blend phonics together into words consisting of three phonics, although two of the children had difficulties in using the joystick because of their severe physical disabilities. An ongoing research is focusing on making the PhonicStick usable for children with Complex Communication Needs (CCN) and physical disabilities (Black et al., 2008a).

Table of contents :

3.1.1. Synthetic Phonics
3.1.2. Jolly Phonics
5. AIM
6.2.1. Questionnaire
6.2.2. Test of phonological awareness
6.2.3. Literacy tasks
6.2.4. The PhonicStick
6.2.5. Observations
6.3.1. Session 1 with the PhonicStick
6.3.2. Session 2 with the PhonicStick
6.3.3. Session 3 with the PhonicStick


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