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  • Teresa Newmark, MA, CCC-SLP

From Spoken Language to Literacy (Part I of II)

In my previous post on Parentese, I talked about providing an accurate model of language without the pitfalls of using telegraphic speech or baby talk. This may lead you to wonder if every single word you say to your child has to be correct and complete. Are you never, ever allowed to play with sounds and sentences? Bo-ring! An accurate model is essential for learning the rules of language and greatly increases understanding and, eventually, the ability to speak in fabulous long, coherent, intentional sentences. However, there is certainly a place for speech play. In fact, everyone should do it! When done correctly, speech play is actually essential for increasing language ability and enjoyment and, most especially, for learning how to read!

In a nutshell, speech play increases the ability to identify and manipulate sounds, syllables, and words. The technical term for this ability is phonological awareness. Good phonological awareness is one of the best predictors of long-term spelling and reading success.

There is a general order of phonological awareness skill acquisition, although some skills do overlap. In this post, we will talk about some of the skills that typically emerge before the age of five, as well as how to encourage your child to master them.

Step 1: Word Awareness, Rhyme, and Alliteration

Before babies can use words themselves, you can lay the groundwork for phonological awareness by exposing them to songs, nursery rhymes, tongue twisters, and books. Especially important are songs and books that incorporate rhyme, as rhyme awareness is one of the first phonological awareness skills that children master (usually between three and four years of age). Other early developing phonological awareness skills are word awareness and responsiveness to alliteration (repetition of an initial consonant sound).

Encouraging word awareness

  • When reading stories, point to each word individually as you say it

  • When singing songs or reciting nursery rhymes, emphasize individual words by providing a physical cue, such as tapping or clapping. This can also be done using syllables.

Encouraging awareness of rhyme and alliteration

  • Many, many songs, nursery rhymes, tongue twisters, and books for young children incorporate rhyme. Here is a small sampling:

    • Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

    • ABCs

    • Hush Little Baby

    • Humpty Dumpty

    • Jack Sprat Could Eat No Fat

    • How Much Wood Would a Wood Chuck Chuck

    • Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin Jr.

    • Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

    • Almost anything by the fabulous Sandra Boynton

    • Almost anything by the venerable Dr. Seuss

  • …and here are some that incorporate alliteration:

    • Betty Botter

    • Peter Piper

    • ABC: Amazing Alphabet Book! by Dr. Seuss

Step 2: Syllable Awareness

Now that your child is aware of words as a unit of language, it is time to learn about syllables. You will notice that throughout this entire process, larger units of language are mastered first, followed by smaller and smaller units of language. Syllable awareness typically emerges between the ages of four and five.

Encouraging Syllable Awareness

  • Start with compound words (e.g. cowboy can be broken into two syllables: cow-boy) and then move on to other multi-syllable words (e.g. raining, rain-ing)

  • Emphasize each syllable by tapping or clapping (e.g. cow (clap) boy (clap) )

  • Have your child jump once for every syllable (e.g. cow (jump) boy (jump) )

  • Count syllables and encourage your child to do the same (e.g. cowboy (2), raining (2), doll (1) )

  • Use a physical marker (manipulatives) for each syllable. (e.g. Use one block for doll and two blocks for raining. These can also be used once it is time to manipulate syllables)

  • Once syllable awareness begins to emerge, try syllable deletion (e.g.”Say candy. Say it again, but don’t say can”). This skill is typically mastered by age 6.

Most children have mastered word and syllable awareness by age five. As they head off to kindergarten, they are ready to embark on an exploration of individual sound awareness and manipulation. In my next blog post, I will discuss the next skills in the sequence: awareness of onset and rimes, sound isolation, phoneme blending, phoneme segmentation, and phoneme manipulation.


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