HELPING A CHILD WITH LEARNING DIFFICULTIES.
Assessments and Strategies
If your child has learning difficulties, this will help you fix the common problems.
“Using Fantastic Phonics with a class of students suffering from Autism and a Moderate to Severe Intellectual Disability. Getting great engagement with 3 students now reading…one student has reached book 15 (Level 1) in only 4 weeks. Amazing to hear ’non-verbal’ (or so I was informed earlier) students read with improving speech and articulation.”
We receive many emails asking advice about teaching children with learning difficulties, and our advice is consistent – teach Phonemic Awareness first, Phonics second.
Learning disorders is not a simple category with simple solutions.
Some reading problems are autism related, some are related to brain injury, and others are related to behaviour, while others are related to Rett Syndrome, Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy.
Parents are often best placed to teach their children. They have a closer understanding of what motivates their child, their interests, and what creates their anxiety and struggles in other areas.
Fantastic Phonics listens to experts in learning difficulties. This is what they say.
Phonemic Awareness is the “secret” of all reading success.
Phonemic Awareness is “the knowledge of the sounds of language”. Children learn to SPEAK language from copying, but for them, a word is a single ‘sound’. The say the word “dog” and believe it to be a single sound.
The ‘secret’ of reading – whether your child is challenged or not – is the ability of the child to understand that “dog” has THREE sounds - /d/ + /o/ + /g/.
A few words have one sound (“a”, “eye”), a small number have two sounds (“at”, “on”, “to”, “of”, “up”) and a large number have three sounds (“dog”, “cat”, “top” … even “down”, “through”, “rough” have three sounds) and a large number have four sounds (“bright”, “straight”, “host”, “strap”).
The SKILL of reading … is where the child can ...
- Understand that words have multiple sounds (Phonemic Awareness)
- And can attach these sounds to the alphabet letters (Phonological Awareness)
- And can be taught the “sounding out” process – where the words are ‘sounded (according to the letters) to create a ‘word’
- That the child can then recognise in their ‘speech vocabulary’ that they have been developing since birth.
This process represents a FOUR PILLAR learning process. They can be taught “at the same time” – the child can be taught phonemic and phonological awareness, as well as the sounding out process – but if any of these key skills are neglected, then the child will struggle to read.
What is “Dyslexia”
Dyslexia is an outdated concept, used in the past to label any child with reading difficulties, regardless of the cause. Nowadays, Dyslexia simply means “a shortfall of Phonemic and Phonological Awareness”.
These days, children are assessed with specific ‘tests’ aimed at the four skill levels identified above.
- Phonemic Awareness – children are VERBALLY asked to specify the sounds in known words. A parent, for example, can ask a child “When I say the word ‘dog’, tell me the individual SOUNDS in the word.” If the child cannot separately identify /d/ + /o/ +/g/, then this indicates the most basic skill level in reading is “missing”.
The remedy is obvious; a concentrated focus on the sounds of language.
In Phonics, there are 44 sounds – most are single letters, some are vowel blends (“ou”) others are consonant blends (“th”, “sl’, ‘st’). The KEY point, is that there is a strictly limited number, and it is easy to teach (when you understand phonemic awareness yourself).
The “Fantastic Essentials” Pack teaches parents the skills so they can teach their children.
- Phonological Awareness – children are assessed in their “ability to link the sounds with letters”. This assessment reveals whether the child “knows the links between SOUNDS and the VISUAL images which represent the sounds” (the letters).
This assessment avoid “real words” (which the child might already know by sight) and uses random “non-words” – non-words like “ba”, “tu”, “mas”, “meb”, “sed”, “flet”, “shug” – children are asked to “sound out” the sounds associate with the letter combinations.
This assessment ranges from simple two letter non-words to 5 and 6 letter words – stronk, tatch, zulks – and assesses whether child can assign sounds to the letters and form a “word sound” (even if it’s not a real word).
- “Sounding Out” – this is the third assessment – it assesses whether a child can accurately ‘sound out’ a word and form a ‘word-sound’ and compare THAT word-sound … to their library of known word-sounds – and identify the word on paper to a word they KNOW.
In some respects, this is a more difficult test – a child needs to have developed a range of word in their speech vocabulary – it is estimated by the age of five, children have a vocabulary of 5000 words that they have heard (from the parents, TV, teachers, friends).
They may not necessarily know the exact MEANING of the word, but they can often use it in a sentence – because they copy the sentence from their parents and friends.
Children raised in a “English-as-Additional-Language” environment may have additional struggles with this, simply because they have not had the exposure.
How does that knowledge help a parent with a learning difficulties child?
- It provides you with the ability to self-assess your child. The Fantastic Essentials Pack has a variety of tests to help you self-assess your child.
- It provides you with a strategy for remedial activity. Once you know the cause of your child’s reading difficulty, you are in a position to focus your home-learning to correct that deficit.
- It provides you with the ability to monitor your child’s progress. You are able to re-test your child’s skills – some children have difficulty in certain sounds – the “ou” sound is the most common vowel blend and has FIVE different possible sounds.
As you progress through Fantastic Phonics we provide these words, grouped according to the sounds, so your child can understand what sound is used, when.
A child on the autism spectrum can present unique challenges to a parent and teacher – there are a range of behaviours which can influence a child’s receptiveness, concentration, anxiety level and willingness to verbalise.
But, if you re-read the opening quote from the teacher, the process of training PHONICS is a four step skill development which is methodical and structured – and works.
Each skill level provides a confidence in the child. Naturally, the pace of development will be often slower – concentration will affect memory of sounds – but the core feature of phonics is that the MEMORISATION is restricted to a maximum 44 sounds, and those 44 sounds are approached not as a “mountain” but as a series of small steps, where each sound is learnt as a specific skill.
A parent is ideally positioned to teach an autistic child – if they have the knowledge of Phonics to teach – and that is what Fantastic Essentials provides.
Schooling – Avoid Sight Reading
A parent with a child on the autism spectrum should be aware of what the school is teaching. The worst possible schooling is “sight reading” – where a child is expected to memorise the words “by sight”.
This thoroughly debunked technique succeeds in the early stages, where the words are small and visual images can provide ‘hints’ (like the word “cat” with the picture of a cat).
But research has demonstrated, over and over, that this ‘technique’ fails the child in number of ways.
- There is no way to decode ‘unknown’ new words. A child is forced to ask the parent or teacher “what word is that”. This process works when the child is young, but when the child ages, the opportunity to ask becomes more limited, and after a while, disappears.
- This results in a vastly reduced vocabulary. It is estimated that it takes 8-10 ‘occurrences’ (where the child meets the word) before the word enters longer-term memory. This means, the child has to ‘learn’ the word 8-10 times.
- These limitations result in a in a vocabulary of approximately 8000 words, compared to a phonics reader (between 25,000 and 32,000 words).
- More problematic, is that the combination of these affects, mean that vocabulary and reading skills literally STOP after age 8 (because the child cannot decode new words and cannot ask for help) – meaning, that is the reading skill they are stuck with throughout life.
So the lesson is clear – monitor what is being taught at your child’s school. If they are teaching sight reading – very common in schools outside UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and parts of America – then you must re-double your efforts to focus on the 4 skills of phonics – and move schools, if you can.
American Psychiatric Association (2017) What is autism spectrum disorder, as retrieved 12 October 2017 from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/autism/what-is-autism-spectrum-disorder
Lanter, E. & Watson, L. (2008). Promoting literacy in students with ASD: The basics for the SLP. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 39, 33-43.
AU: National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2005) Teaching reading: Report and recommendations. Commonwealth of Australia: Australian Capital Territory.
UK: Rose, J. (2006) Independent review of the teaching of early reading. London: Department for Education and Skills, as retrieved 12 October 2017 from http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/5551/2/report.pdf
US: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2000) Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769), U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C, as retrieved 12 October 2017 from www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/documents/report.pdf
Ganz J, Flores M. The effectiveness of direct instruction for teaching language to children with autism spectrum disorders: Identifying materials. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2009(39)75–83. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-008-0602-6
Mahdavi, J. N. & Tensfeldt, L. (2013). Untangling reading comprehension strategy instruction: Assisting struggling readers in the primary grades. Preventing School Failure, 57 (2), 77–92.