The Speech-to-Print Revolution
Constructing Words Develops Essential Phoneme Awareness Skills
“The process of learning to read must be understood as a reorganization of the management of oral speech, its transformation from an automatic process (dealing with whole words) to a voluntary, consciously regulated process (segmenting words into individual sounds), which then becomes automatic with practice.” D. B. Elkonin
The invention of the phonetic alphabet must have happened like that. Somewhere, long ago, a few people began to notice that their mouths were making different sounds when they said a word. Excited by the idea of making spoken words visible, they began to consciously analyze the sounds in words and experiment with drawing shapes to represent those sounds. Over time, with lots of practice and experimentation, they developed the skill of breaking words into their individual sounds, and created a code of drawn shapes that could be used for communicating words in a tangible, permanent, visible record. They learned to encode (write) spoken words that other people could decode (read).
Consciously noticing that your mouth makes different sounds when you say a word is what Elkonin describes as a “reorganization of the management of oral speech.” You must add a new group of pathways and connections in your brain’s speech center. What you have always thought of as whole words must now be also thought of as a string of articulated sounds. It is not an easy task, and one that seems to get more difficult as you get older (like learning a new language). It is the skill that is most frequently missing in children who struggle to read.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a four or five-year-old child. Grown-ups are trying to get you to learn the names of 26 strange shapes. Why do they want you to do this? What are these shapes for? These grown-ups are giving you a meaningless task because they have been told that there are specific skills necessary for reading—letter names, letter sounds, beginning sounds of words, etc.
And so they start by trying to teach you the shapes and names and even the sounds of all 26 letters. Wow! That’s hard! That’s more than 75 things to memorize without understanding why.
The Swiss educator Piaget said that children want to know why; they want to construct, to discover, to be active. They want to create. So why do we start by teaching children to decode what someone else has written rather than helping them to use the alphabet to write words they use every day?
Why not start instruction about the alphabet with a word you know how to say (“CAT”), figure out what sounds your mouth is making, and learn how to draw three letters to make that word visible? Eureka! Suddenly it makes sense what these shapes are for! And your brain starts to build the pathways Elkonin is talking about. If you are using tiles to construct the word, you can take the first one away and learn a few new letters for other words you know (PAT, SAT, HAT, etc.). How did your mouth feel when you said the word ”PAT?”
That was a sound you made by pressing your lips together and blowing the air out. And you can represent that sound with a shape that looks like this: P.
A revolution means to turn things around. In this case, print-to-speech (decoding) becomes speech-to-print (encoding). And speech-to-print builds more efficient pathways in the brain. What neuroscientists have discovered is that children who struggle to read have developed inefficient neural pathways. But a hopeful sign is that these pathways can sometimes be changed with intensive speech-to-print or “phonologically-based” interventions.
This is what neuroscience is discovering about how the brain learns to read. It is taking a long while for these new discoveries to become a natural part of reading instruction. But the speech-to-print revolution is here. And just in time too, because 2/3 of America’s children are not reading proficiently, only 8% read at an advanced level, and America is 17th in literacy among the nations of the world.
As the gap between science and education diminishes, these numbers will finally change. With lots of encoding—linking phoneme awareness and phonics in a process that involves sounding out and spelling meaningful words—our children’s brains will understand why they are learning these skills and will store them efficiently to maximize fluent and joyful reading.
Elkonin, D. B. (1999). How to Teach children to Read, Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol 37, no 6, Nov-Dec 1999 (pp.93-177) p99.
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