Heather Kenny, an experienced teacher and teacher educator of literacy, shares purposes and strategies for building student skills in phonemic awareness. She examines the mental process that leads to storing words for immediate and effortless retrieval. Heather explores her experience with students who had word recognition problems that connected to deficits in phonemic awareness skills.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:31 Hello, and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding. And my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate coach and support their learners.
Steve: 01:02 Students phonemic proficiency. Today we have joining the podcast, Heather Kenny, president of Unleashed Innovation, Inc. She is the creator of Sounder & Friends, an educational adventure show created to develop learners’ phonemic awareness. Heather’s an experienced kindergarten teacher with a deep understanding of the power of literacy. Welcome Heather.
Heather: 01:28 Thank you, Steve. Nice to be here.
Steve: 01:31 Heather, I’m wondering for starters, if you’d share some of your early experiences that led you to your focus on phonemic awareness?
Heather: 01:40 I’d love to. So I began my career in education as a kindergarten teacher and in my very first year of teaching, I was fortunate enough to be partnered with an experienced teacher, Laura Robbins, who is completing her master’s degree. And Laura and I team taught in the same classroom. It was a very unusual experience, but we had the opportunity to work with the same students and we noticed a group of who were having difficulty with phonics, so making that connection between letters and sounds. And these students could say the names of the letters and the letter sounds, but they couldn’t use that information for reading and spelling. So Laura had been learning about this concept of phonemic awareness, that ability to play with sounds, blend them together, pull them apart. And we to teach our students to blend segment and manipulate those phonemes in spoken words, to see if it would impact on their reading and spelling ability. And sure enough, when we implemented that in our classroom, we saw a noticeable difference in student performance. The literacy development of all of our students appeared to be greatly accelerated and those who are pre unable to identify words in reading except by guessing, were actually using phonics as an effective strategy to sound out and to spell words. So it was very exciting to see our students experience such success. Laura and I like to call phonemic awareness the step that students need before they can access phonics.
Steve: 03:04 Would you stay on that line? Just another minute for me – the stuff before?
Heather: 03:11 Exactly. So phonics refers to the connection between letters and sounds or what we call phonemes and graphemes. And it’s the most powerful way, the best way that skilled readers use to identify words. So we wanna teach our beginning readers the habits that highly proficient readers use in order to recognize unknown words. However, students can see those individual letters and even if they know that the letter B spells the sound “b”, the letter spells the sound “a”, the letter T spells the sound, “t,” if they don’t have that ability to blend those sounds together to take b-a-t and blend them into the spoken word bat, then they are not able to use their knowledge of letters and sounds in order to be able to read and spell effectively. So that’s the goal of phonemic awareness, to build those skills that children are able to access phonics as an effective strategy early in their career and then later on, some of the more sophisticated phonemic awareness skills are associated with reading fluency.
Steve: 04:11 So Heather, how does phonemic awareness support student literacy progress from the earlier grades into the later elementary grades?
Heather: 04:20 So that’s a really great question, Steve. In those early years, the basic phonemic awareness skills of blending and segmenting phonemes enables students to decode or to encode words or what we mean reading and spelling by sounding out. So while it might seem laborious to parents or teachers, that sounding out process is actually an important step towards reading fluency. Children’s brains need that practice in order to be able to recognize those combinations of letter symbols over and over again in order to build mental representations and recognize them automatically. So eventually over time as students develop more phoneme proficiency, they’re able to delete and substitute phonemes. So for example, if you were to say the word whale, and then say it again without the “le” you would have “way.” Or if you say cat and then say it again, but change the “a” to “o,” then you have a coat. So these skills when developed to proficiency, appear to be what’s needed to support the robust, automatic word recognition that students require for reading fluency. So over the past two decades, I’ve worked with hundreds of students in grades three and above who’ve experienced difficulty with word recognition. And in truth, I cannot think of a single student who I worked with who had word recognition difficulties and didn’t also demonstrate deficits and phonemic awareness skills. So it’s critically important that we teach these skills early and we teach them to mastery.
Steve: 05:49 But if we didn’t, then we need to go back to it. Do I have that?
Heather: 05:52 Absolutely. They’re called foundational skills for a reason. And I often talk about, if we think about building a house,
that foundation needs to be strong. If it isn’t, if there are holes or cracks in the foundation, then it doesn’t matter how much time or money or effort you put into renovating the upper parts of the house, eventually it’s all going to fall apart. And the same is true with phonemic awareness. It’s a foundational skill that must be developed in order to support reading fluency in the long term. Students can develop a variety of coping mechanisms, especially in those early years, they can find ways to compensate for the fact that they’re not able to blend those sounds together and use it as an effective strategy for phonics and for decoding, but strategies in the long run, are going to come crumbling down. So we need to be sure that not only that students are saying the right words, but they’re coming to that word identification in the right way. That they’re using the right knowledge and skills, to be able to identify those words.
Steve: 06:53 In a earlier conversation that we had, Heather, you introduced me to the term orthographic mapping. I’m wondering if you could explore that a little bit for us.
Heather: 07:06 Absolutely. Orthographic mapping is an extremely important concept. And once it’s well understood, it really has profound implications for reading assessment and instruction. So David Killpatrick, who does a lot of research in this area, he defines orthographic mapping as, the mental process that we use to permanently store words for immediate effortless retrievable. So these are the words that we don’t have to sound out. So a minute or two ago, we were talking about our early learners who were saying each sound in a word and blending those sounds together to the word. But fluent reading means that we’re able to retrieve those words effortlessly. It’s on a subconscious level. So the words that we have orthographically mapped are the words that just pop into our head as soon as we see them. We can’t help but read them. There’s no effort or conscious attention involved. And that’s our goal for our students, for them to be able to recognize virtually every word they encounter immediately and effortlessly.
Heather: 08:06 And in that way, they’re able to devote their conscious attention to pulling meaning from what they’re reading. Because if students are still fussing with letters and words and spending that conscious attention related to trying to figure out the words, they’re not able to think on the bigger picture, they’re not able to create that mental model of the text as a whole. And that’s what promotes comprehension. So once you have that understanding what orthographic mapping looks and feels like, those words that just pop into your head, whether you want them to or not. It’s almost like when you put the subtitles on in your television set and you wanna just watch the movie. We were watching the movie the other day and for some reason we couldn’t figure out our smart TV, apparently it’s smarter than us, and we couldn’t get rid of the subtitles.
Heather: 08:50 And as much as I wanted to just relax and watch the actor’s faces and enjoy, my brain kept saying, you have to read these words, you have to read these words. They’re just popping into my head, unwillingly even. And that’s what orthographic mapping is. So once we recognize that, then it’s very easy to see those students in our classroom who don’t have a large number of words orthographically mapped. And these are those students who’s reading is disfluent. They often misread words, or hesitate before certain words. And even if a student identifies a word correctly, those hesitations are a clue that the students doesn’t recognize that word automatically, that it hasn’t been orthographically mapped yet. And so what’s important to realize about orthographic mapping is that it’s dependent on phonemic proficiency. Students need really robust phoneme-level skills in order to be able to understand, and to remember on that subconscious level, how and why a particular sequence of letters is used to represent the sounds in a given word.
Steve: 09:50 Wow. I’m just wowing because I’m currently reading the book, “A Thousand Brains,” describing brain function and I’m seeing the connections in what you’re describing there. That’s in effect happening in the brain of the reader.
Heather: 10:13 Exactly. And I think that’s a key point, Steve, is that it’s not something that we can teach. I can’t do a lesson on orthographic mapping because it’s something that is actually happening in the child’s brain. But what I can do as a teacher is to understand what kinds of experiences with reading, with spelling with language, are going to support orthographic mapping. And that’s what the information we have to communicate teachers.
Steve: 10:38 What are some of the conscious teaching practices that teachers would be engaged in to support phonemic skills for students?
Heather: 10:47 So Steve, in those early years, teachers can certainly follow a curriculum such as the Haggerty curriculum. David Kilpatrick has a curriculum as well that’s based on phoneme manipulation, and they can also lead children in playing a variety of oral language games to develop phonemic awareness skills. I think once you have a good understanding what it is, there are about a million ways to embed really fun and playful and engaging phonemic awareness games into your instruction. And we know from research that phonemic awareness instruction is best when it’s taught in these short frequent bursts. So I always encourage teachers, find four or five times during the day that are typically non instructional. Maybe you’re waiting for children to use the restroom or the gym teacher hasn’t quite finished with the class in front of you or you’re waiting for the last kid to get his boots off and tie his shoes and come and sit at the carpet.
Heather: 11:37 We have lots of those little moments, even if it’s just one to two minutes where we can play a few games and help children develop those important skills. Now, it’s also important that teachers explicitly teach how letters are used to represent the sounds in our language. That’s that phonics piece of it. And then we have to make sure that curriculum like Haggerty or these phonemic games that we’re playing, we’re not just doing that in isolation, we’re also drawing children’s attention to how those skills can support them when they’re reading and spelling words, whether they’re decoding and encoding. In terms of activities, word-building and word-chaining activities are very impactful. So say the word cat, now let’s change the “a” to an “o,” we have the word coat. We can do that just orally in order to develop phonemic awareness skills, but then we can also do that with letters and so forth. So help children make those connections between those phonemes and graphemes. For older students, we really need to be on the lookout for students who misread words or read haltingly. And a lot of teachers who work with students in the upper grade levels tend to think of phonemic awareness as something that should have been mastered in those early primary grades and certainly in a perfect world, that would be the case.
Steve: 12:54 Not many of us get to teach there, huh?
Heather: 12:58 Yeah, wouldn’t that be living the dream? So as you can imagine, unfortunately, a surprisingly high percentage of
older students have phonemic awareness deficits that in the end, result in reading comprehension problems, because they’re not able to devote conscious to making meaning from the text. So we really need to make sure that we’re addressing those problems. And another issue that happens when students reach third to fifth grade is oftentimes, classroom teachers might make the assumption that students have proficient reading ability. So we, at some point along the way, we tend to stop listening to kids read out loud on a regular basis or individually. And so it’s really important for teachers in those older grade levels to realize that these skills are not necessarily well established. We really need to look for students who are still reading haltingly, disfluently and address those skills.
Heather: 13:51 And there are a lot of games that are quite fun that can be played in the classroom with students at that age level, they’re more sophisticated games, but students really enjoy them. And for those students that need that additional support, it can certainly benefit them. So when we see those students with word recognition problems, we also wanna make sure that we’re administering a phonics assessment right away, because often these are students who have gaps in their knowledge about how the letters in our alphabet represent the code, we refer to it as the alphabetic code, and then we also wanna administer that phonemic awareness assessment. And David Kilpatrick has a great one. It’s called the pass test. It’s available freely online, and it can help teachers get to the root of those word identification problems. And then of course, once we’ve gotten to the root of the problem, we need to make sure that we’re addressing those problems and filling in those foundational skills to give students that strong foundation that they’re going to need for reading fluency.
Steve: 14:51 Thanks, Heather. Tell us a little bit about Sounder & Friends.
Heather: 14:56 Absolutely. So Sounder & Friends is an educational adventure series, and now it’s a free app that is available. And the express goal of the property is to help young children develop an awareness of sounds in our spoken language. So for example, in episode one, which is entitled, “The Birthday Ache,” the Sound Snatcher, who’s a mischievous, but lovable little raccoon, he snatches the “c” at the beginning of “cake.” So the birthday boy is at his birthday party and suddenly he’s left with a birthday “ache” instead of a “cake.” So Sounder the Dog and her friends have to search for the missing sounds to restore order and to save the day in a really fun and playful way. We’re trying to draw children’s attention to the power of a single phoneme. And what we’ve done is embed all those best teaching practices that I actually use in a clinical setting in order to make those sounds visual.
Heather: 15:52 So we actually use swirls of color in order to differentiate between those various sounds to help children who might have difficulties hearing the sound, understand that there are important differences in distinctions. So, as I mentioned, we have a new free app that launched just last week and Sounder and Friends, the game, encourages children to play with sounds in a slightly different way. They explore a variety of scenes and literally manipulate sounds as they put together sound puzzles. And it’s not only very educational, but it’s very entertaining. Children have lots of fun and get to earn prizes in the process. So we’re hoping it’s going to help young and develop all these skills and shore them up, even before that reading instruction begins in earnest.
Steve: 16:38 I know teachers can use all the help we can get and parents can use all the help that we can get with this. How do folks go about finding Sounder & Friends and more of the resources that that you have available to them?
Heather: 16:53 Well, thank you for asking. We are very excited to be featured on pbs.org and also on the National Center for Improving Literacy’s, Kid Zone. And to find us, you can go to either of the sites and just use Sounder & Friends as a search term. But I think the easiest way to find us is just to go straight to our YouTube channel and that’s where you can find our episodes. They are freely available. It is important to us, we have a strong commitment to educational equity. So it was important to us that all children and all teachers and parents who would like to gain access are able to do so. So all of the episodes are freely available. You can also visit Google play or the app store to download our app for free, and that is available on phones and on other mobile devices. And we also have more information and helpful resources, including activity plans and those can be found on our website at www.sounderandfriends.com and on our social media pages. So we encourage teachers and parents, anyone who’s interested in learning more to follow us on Facebook and on Instagram.
Steve: 17:56 Well Heather, thanks so much. I hope we’ve given an opportunity here for for more people to to find those resources. It’s terrific and I thank you for increasing my understanding.
Heather: 18:11 Thank you so much, Steve. It was great talking with you.
Steve [Outro]: 18:16 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.