Early skills for writing

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August 7, 2017 by Sarah Gillie

Phonology

Phonological knowledge is only one of the skills required for writing and spelling in English, but it is the one that tends to be taught fist, and the one that many literacy support programmes will focus on, so we’ll begin our exploration of strategies and resources to support writing and spelling here. 

Listening

In the very earliest stages, listening games are key. Anything that encourages careful listening can help to develop skills that will later be honed to predict the spelling of an unfamiliar word. These can be played 1:1, in small groups or in whole class situations such as carpet time or circle time. If these activities feature regularly in the classroom routine, not only will phonological competence be promoted for all students, but the activities will be familiar if they are needed to boost particular pupils’ skills. These activities can be adapted according to the number and age of pupils throughout primary school.

There are many commercially available games, but here are a few examples of activities that need no significant expense:

  • Listening to a story (had to include it!)
  • copying games where pupils take turns to copy a sound or sequence of sounds e.g. using voice, clapping, beating a drum
  • children close eyes and/or adult turns away from the group and makes a sound using a classroom object, e.g. typing on a keyboard, rustling paper (the activity needs to be age appropriate, familiar and within normally audible ranges for the class). The children call out the sound when they identify it or are called on to do so once it stops.
  • as above but using a range of familiar musical instruments
  • A more active version might be to make or play the sounds and then have the children hunt the room for pictures of the object
  • copying and adding games where the first person makes a sound, the second copies and adds their own, and so on around the group (taking care with group size and order of students)
  • ‘Simon says’ type games including sound production as well as movement
  • True (thumbs up) or false (thumbs down) games with the ‘facts’ ranging from ‘the sun is square’ to revision activities for the latest class topic.
  • Singing, chanting, rhymes and alliterative ditties with or without a syllable clapping element are all useful.
  • Adult describes what to draw, one step at a time

kiddrawing

Phonemes

Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in a language. In English, we have 44, each made by a single letter, or group of letters such as the digraph ‘sh’, which makes the sound /ʃ/. It’s important to teach and use ‘pure’ phonemes, avoiding the ‘schwa’ (/ə/ sound), so you say and spell c-a-t, not cuh-ah-tuh. Here’s a link to examples for English.

Sound matching and sorting games are a great way of reinforcing phoneme isolation.

  • find objects/pictures that start with __
  • sort objects/pictures/words into groups with the same initial, middle or final sound
  • say a word with the same initial, middle or final sound
  • trace letters/graphemes in the air, onto the table, in corn flour, sand etc., paint letters with water onto any safe surface, make letters out of modelling materials, provide textured letters for building familiarity with shape and orientation, all the time reinforcing the sound
  • and so on …

Letters

Magnetic letters can be useful, and among the many possible uses for (lower case) wooden letters are:

  • developing familiarity with the physical shape and orientation of letters
  • matching to the home made letter or picture cards
  • sound matching to objects
  • sorting into vowels and consonants,
  • building into phonemes,
  • placing in alphabetical order
  • and (of course) word building.

Flashcards

Most early years classrooms will have displays and flashcards featuring images and/or characters to match each letter and/or sound. There are a number of commercially produced schemes, and their popularity stems at least in part from the fact that these images provide a memory boosting ‘hook’. Whilst this is a useful tool and has its place in the classroom, when the hook provided doesn’t work, it may be better to use plain letter cards rather than busily decorated cards with characters that might add to confusion or load on working memory. These can be bought or home made.

When a learner is ready, they can be supported to make their own flashcards, selecting their own image to go with the sound. This can foster confidence and gives the student ownership over their own learning. I have seen this done with students aged 6 to 16.

There are commercially available programmes to support the consolidation of phonological knowledge for spelling using phonics charts, e.g THRASS.

thrass

THRASS English phonics chart

Of course, with the deep orthography of the English language, grapheme-phoneme correspondence is not always regular, which makes spelling especially challenging for learners with specific learning difficulties. This is one reason why dyslexia is usually detected and supported earlier in English than in languages with more regular spelling. It is also why an understanding of orthography and morphology is especially helpful to support writing  and spelling in English. More on that soon.

This post is based on lectures presented online and to undergraduate students.

More blogs on reading and writing can be found here:
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