From Letters to Sounds

By: G. Reid Lyon

Sam's parents became worried about his behavior and academic performance in school when he was eight years old and midway through his second-grade year. It was then Sam's teacher called to discuss some disturbing changes in his behavior. Sam was becoming increasingly inattentive during the classroom reading period, and had recently been involved in a scuffle at recess because another student had called him stupid.

Sam's teacher reported that his emerging behavioral difficulties may be related to his persistent difficulties developing reading and spelling skills. According to her, he had made little progress since the beginning of his second grade year. When reading aloud he would guess incorrectly at words that he had seen many times. Frequently he would make errors that were not real words, and his hesitations, repetitions and omissions of words when reading made comprehending what he was attempting to read impossible. Equally worrisome was how embarrassed and frustrated he would become when asked to read in front of the class.

His mother recalled that at the beginning of the year Sam was not as enthusiastic about starting school as he had been in previous years, and he even asked her if he could "go to school at home." While Sam's parents thought this was nothing more than the usual first-day jitters, the teacher's comments led them to decide to consult a psychologist specializing in behaviorial and learning differences in children.

During the initial conference, Sam's parents reported that there were no concerns about his early motor and language development. He had adapted easily to nursery school and kindergarten, but his kindergarten teacher reported that Sam was having some difficulty learning the names of the letters in the alphabet and frequently mislabeled numbers. She also indicated that he had some difficulties playing rhyming games.

At a midyear conference during his first-grade year, Sam's teacher noted that his understanding of basic math concepts was excellent, but that he was having some difficulty mastering basic reading and spelling skills. Sam's mother had told her that while Sam still loved to listen to her read to him, and could discuss those stories in detail, he couldn't read along with her as her two older children always had. When Sam did try to read out loud, he frequently guessed at words and was inconsistent in their pronunciation.

A thorough evaluation by the psychologist showed Sam was above average in general intelligence and had superior spatial and drawing skills. His vocabulary was well-developed for his age and his ability to listen to reading and answer questions about it was good, even when the material was drawn from third and fourth grade-level books.

But Sam had significant difficulties when asked to listen to, isolate and combine specific sounds. For example, he could not identify the first sound in fish, was unable to combine the sounds /s/ /a/ /t/ into the word 'sat', and could not say the word that would be left if the /k/ sound was taken away from cat. While he knew that the letter s makes the /Ssss/ sound, he did understand that the words sit, sun and small all begin with this sound.

In addition, Sam read words that he had seen many times inaccurately and slowly. When asked to read words that he had never seen before, but that he should be able to decode like NIZ or TUD, he guessed incorrectly on the basis of the first sound, rather than attempting to "sound out" the words. His spelling reflected similar sound errors. He spelled cat as kud, and as ad, and wet as yeld. He was unable to comprehend the meanings of the majority of sentences that he read although he could easily understand their meanings if they were read to him.

The psychologist had very clear indications that Sam's reading difficulties were serious and most likely caused by problems with "phonological processing." This somewhat intimidating jargonistic term simply refers to the knowledge that words are composed of sounds (or phonemes).

Why is phonological processing so important in Sam's reading development? To read the word "sat" correctly, he must (a) translate the word into the individual phonemes (/s/, /a/, /t/), (b) remember the correct sequence of these sounds,(c) blend these sounds together quickly, and (d) search his memory for a real word that matches this string of sounds.

Sam must eventually be able to accomplish all of these steps in an automatic and fluid manner in order to understand the meaning of what he has read. Unfortunately, and despite his intellectual and academic strengths, the first translation step is dependent upon Sam being aware that the word sat is actually composed of three sounds rather than one, and that is enormously difficult for him. But without that awareness, rendering steps b, c, and d, as well as comprehending what he is reading was almost impossible to carry out.

Can Sam become a good reader? Yes, but not on his own. To wait for Sam to "catch up" is to court disaster. He must be helped to develop an explicit awareness of the connection between sounds and letters and sounds and words, fold that knowledge into the task of blending the sounds and reading the words. And he must feel, all the while, that he is absorbing a meaningful and interesting text. Pay now or pay later.

By G. Reid Lyon The Washington Post Sunday, October 27 1996