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Writing Made Easier: Helping Students Develop Automatic Sound/Symbol Correspondence

Regina G. Richards
This article discusses one component of writing mechanics — finesse with sound/symbol correspondence. It describes a method, called Memory Foundations for Reading, that can be used by a parent with a single child or a teacher with a group and which helps children use many senses to recall letter sounds.

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The process of written expression places the most demands on a student’s ability to perform multiple subtests simultaneously. Generally, the writing process can be divided into two very global areas of mechanics and content. The more efficiently and automatically the student uses basic writing mechanics (capitalization, punctuation, spelling, letter form, sentence structure), the easier it will be to focus on the content (the expression and organization of ideas). This article is designed to discuss only one small component of writing mechanics — finesse with sound/symbol correspondence. It describes a method which can be used by a parent with a single child or a teacher with a group.

The more automatically a person is able to put words on paper, the easier it is to focus on ideas. The spelling does not need to be perfectly accurate, but it does need to be close enough to correct for the student to read what he or she has written. The three main aspects needed to spell accurately are:

  • Sounds
    • phonological awareness
    • sound/symbol correspondence
    • phonetic analysis skills
  • Visual recall
    • visual eidetics (automatic visual recognition of word parts and whole words)
    • recall of tricky parts
    • knowledge of unusual patterns
  • Rules
    • knowledge of spelling rules, including syllabification, accenting, flexing, and the variety of vowel sounds

These three categories are listed developmentally. Hence, the first area of focus begins with an ability to understand sounds and moves into sound/symbol correspondence. Good sound/symbol correspondence also depends upon an ability to create and form letters automatically and efficiently without having to think about each movement as a separate unit. This article focuses on the development of sound/symbol correspondence, a critical and essential prerequisite within the process of writing.

Efficient and automatic sound/symbol correspondence leads to accurate phonetic analysis and is a vital aspect of the process of learning to read. It depends upon appropriate phonological awareness development and is a critical part of an appropriately balanced approach, supported in many state frameworks. While phonics should not be the sole focus of teaching or result in an overemphasis on the development of skills in isolation, the critical value of phonics cannot be overlooked or left to implicit learning. This is true for all students, most especially the dyslexic and/or dysgraphic learner.

To become skillful readers or writers, children need to learn how to decode words instantly and effortlessly. Automaticity is a major goal. Initially, students must examine the letters and letter patterns of every new word while reading, but as they progress, the process needs to become more automatic.

The most effective phonics instruction is explicit and systematic (California State Board of Education, 1996, p. 6). In explicit phonics the key points and principles are clarified precisely for students. Another important aspect of effective phonics instruction is that it is systematic phonics: it gradually builds from basic elements to more subtle and complex patterns. The purpose is to convey the logic of the system and to invite its extension to new words that children will encounter on their own. The end goal is independence in reading and writing new and unusual words.

These needs were first substantiated by Samuel T. Orton, M.D., and Anna Gillingham, a psychologist, in their initial work on dyslexia in the early 1920’s, and subsequently in Gillingham’s reading program (Gillingham, 1968). Teaching phonics opportunistically by pointing out sound/symbol connections only as they arise does not have the same impact on learning. While there are some students who will learn to read no matter what is done in the classroom, the dyslexic student or the student with other reading-based learning differences will not learn to read by teaching phonics opportunistically. This concept is critical for teachers to understand, as it can make the difference between a dyslexic student learning or struggling to read.

Orton & Gillingham: initial pioneers in teaching reading to dyslexics

  • Samuel Torrey Orton, the physician who was responsible for the recognition of dyslexia as a specific learning disability in the U.S., was first to consider that the disorder might have a neural substrate. Dr. Orton stressed prognostic optimism as early as 1925.
  • In the 1930s, Dr. Orton worked with Anna Gillingham, a psychologist, and Bessie Stillman, a master teacher, to develop the Orton/Gillingham Approach.
  • The Gillingham Manuals made available a systematic presentation of the structure of the English language. It described methodical procedures for teaching by the simultaneous use of the sense of sight, hearing, and muscular awareness. It was also adaptable in pace and detail to the individual needs and interests of the child, and to the ingenuity of the teacher who could use it as a base of operations to which other material could be added. It was an approach, not a method or a system (Rawson 1995, 63).

Building on their foundation of phonological awareness, students must understand how the alphabetical principle works, and they need to understand the concept and use of a code system. After this understanding is entrenched, it is relatively easy for the students to add new sound/symbol pairs to their working knowledge set. This is especially true for dyslexics and is the rationale for the systematic approach as initially represented by Gillingham. Beginning phonics instruction is best conducted with a relatively small set of consonants and short vowels, developing sound/symbol relationships progressively. By using a limited set of letters to build as many familiar words as possible, students become more aware of the code system and learn to use phonics to read and spell logically, an important step towards automaticity.

It has been found very useful with both dyslexic and dysgraphic students to teach sound/symbol correspondence concretely and precisely. This method also works for other learners, but it is essential for learners with special needs.

The following system differs from other systems in that it utilizes a multisensory presentation combined with visual mnemonics. There is a match between auditory, visual, and kinesthetic processing when dealing with sounds and matching them to written letters. Visual pictures are also included, pulling in another whole system: visual imagery. This provides the students with hooks or links to remember a key word for each sound. In addition, the use of phrases, many of which are silly, brings in a contextual hook to help students hang the words together, thus providing another system to aid retrieval of the information.

This system is called Memory Foundations for Reading (MFR) because of its importance in the foundational system for reading and because of its assistance in retrieval memory. The sequence presented in MFR follows the sequence presented in the Gillingham program. There is no magical reason for this sequence, and the sequence may be varied to coordinate with any reading program. What is important is to separate presentation of letters that are similar in visual configurations (such as b and d) and sounds that are similar and difficult to discriminate (such as short e and short i). One sound in the pair should be taught and developed to a level of automaticity before the second sound is introduced. Once the second sound is introduced, substantial discrimination practice needs to be included.

Value of key words in developing automatic sound/symbol associations

Many students learn to form associations between sounds and symbols merely through exposure, drill and practice. Dyslexic students and others who struggle with the reading process benefit substantially by receiving direct instruction and substantial practice to help them form automatic associations between visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modes. This enables them to make specific links and connections between information that is auditory (what they hear), visual (what they see), and kinesthetic (what they say and write). The Gillingham program refers to these multisensory links as the language triangle (see figure 1).

The language triangle

Fig. 1 — The Language Triangle

The basic principle of the language triangle is to build letter sounds into words, like bricks built into a wall. The technique is based upon close association of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic elements(Gillingham, 1968, p. 40).

Presenting separate and isolated key words for each sound/symbol association is effective, but it can also be laborious and tedious. In contrast, presenting key words in an organized approach is effective and efficient and allows students to use a variety of modalities and connections in the learning process.

In MFR, the key word for each sound/symbol relationship is represented by a pictured object. Thus, when reading or spelling, the student can refer to the association to trigger the needed sound. When these associations are made consistently, retrieval is much more automatic. Presenting the key words within a mnemonic sentence provides the memory tool within a contextual hook or connection. The visual images linked to each phrase enhance retrieval and accelerate the learning. When the pictures are colored, additional visual input is provided. By coloring the pictures themselves, students reinforce the connections kinesthetically while learning the associated phrases. The program, Memory Foundations for Reading: Visual Mnemonics for Sound/Symbol Relationships, presents each of the pictures in 8½ x 11 line drawing format to encourage students to color the pictures (Richards, 1997).

Mnemonic strategies are critical for dyslexic learners. A mnemonic is a memory trick, a strategy or plan which provides a hook to hang on to and later retrieve a memory. Key words can be explained to the students as very important helper words: they are like keys to help us learn and remember what sound goes with each letter.

The MFR system of picture mnemonics provides an organizational system for children to remember letter sounds/symbols that is multidimensional: it is divided into three sets.

  • Set one involves the main sound for each alphabet letter
  • Set two provides letters with multiple sounds
  • Set three provides sounds with multiple spellings

There are interconnections between these three sets to help facilitate the memory links. For example, in set 1 goat is the key word for the g sound. In set 2, goat is used again for the two sounds of g: George goat. In set 3, the two spellings of the /j/ sound are represented by George jumps. Some less frequent sound/symbol associations (digraphs and blends) in the English language have been omitted from MFR, because it is felt that once a student reaches a certain level of proficiency, he can then easily learn the remaining sounds and generalizations. Figure 2 presents sample MFR pictures. These, and many more, can be found in my book Memory Foundations for Reading.

Fig. 2 — MFR Mnemonic Pictures

Fig. 2.1

tiny monkeys kiss fat pigs

Fig. 2.2

saw rose

Fig. 2.3

money umbrella

Developing automatic associations

Some students may need very directed assistance to develop automatic sound/symbol correspondence. Focusing on the concept of the language triangle, three different associations should be used to provide this directed assistance. Each activity or association should focus on a different sensory system.

  • Association 1: Emphasis on visual association
  • Association 2: Emphasis on auditory association
  • Association 3: Emphasis on kinesthetic association

To facilitate this practice, the teacher should create letter cards, which may be small index cards, such as 3x5 cards, with one letter written per card. The letters should be written in large, clear manuscript. On the reverse side, the key word for each sound made by the letter should be written, as well as a reference to the appropriate MFR picture(s). For example, the s card would have the following listing on the reverse:

  • saw, 2.2
  • rose, 2.2

Each association is performed with the packet of target sounds or letters that have been introduced and taught. As more associations are added, the packet is extended.

These exercises should be practiced until students achieve a level of automaticity, especially since automaticity is a critical aspect for the dyslexic and dysgraphic learners (Richards, 1997; Hall & Moats, 1999; Shaywitz, 2003). Even when they reach a level of automaticity, the students need continued periodic practice to maintain the skills at an automatic level. However, once students begin to reach a minimal level of comfort and familiarity with a few sounds, they need to also practice using the sounds in decoding and encoding activities.

Association 1: The visual association

This is an important prerequisite skill for decoding words, which is key in reading. There are three components of the association: the name, the sound, and the integration with the key word. For each component, the child should go through the target pack of cards.

The Name

Child sees a letter card and says the name of the letter.

Example dialog:

Teacher: (showing m card) Tell me the name of this letter.

Student: m

Teacher: (showing t card) What is the name of this letter?

Student: t

The Sound

Child sees a letter card and says the sound of the letter.

Example dialog:

Teacher:(showing m card) Tell me the sound of this letter.

Student: /m/

Teacher:(showing t card) What is the sound of this letter?

Student: /t/

The Integration

Child sees a letter card and says the letter name, key word, and sound.

Example dialog:

Teacher:(showing m card) Tell me this key word and sound.

Student: m, monkeys, /m

Teacher:(showing j card)

Student: j, jump, /j/

Association 2: The auditory association

This is an important prerequisite skill to encoding, or spelling. The child hears the sound and gives the name of the letter, or he hears the name and then provides the sound. In this association, he does not look at the cards.

The Name

Child sees a letter card and says the name of the letter.

Example dialog:

Teacher: What letter has the /p/ sound?

Student: p

Teacher: What letter has the /t/ sound?

Student: t


Teacher: /m/

Student: m

Teacher: /h/

Student: h

The Sound

Child hears letter name and says its sound (no cards are used)

Example dialog:

Teacher: What’s the sound of p?

Student: /p/

Teacher: What’s the sound of k?

Student: /k/

Or, as an alternative when the student is accustomed to the drill technique:

Teacher: m

Student: /m/

Teacher: a

Student: ã

The Integration

Child hears a letter name and says the letter name, key word, and sound, using the key words to facilitate recall of the association.

Example dialog:

Teacher: m

Student: m, monkey, /m/

Teacher: a

Student: a, apple, ã

Association 3: The kinesthetic association

This association is an important prerequisite for written spelling. During this procedure, the student traces, copies, or writes the letter after hearing either the letter name or the letter sound.

The Name

Child sees a letter card or hears the letter name and traces or writes the letter, saying the letter name as she traces or writes the letter to help solidify the link.

Example dialog:

Teacher: Write m.

Student: (writes the letter m, saying) /m/

Teacher: (showing t card) Write t.

Student: (writes letter t, saying) /t/.

The Sound

Child hears the letter sound and traces or writes the letter, saying the letter name as he traces or writes the letter to help solidify the link.

Teacher: Write the letter that has the /m/ sound.

Student: (writes the letter m, saying) /m/

The exercises used here are the same as for Association 1, the visual association. The difference is that the student simultaneously writes and says her response. The student can vary the writing practice by:


Tracing letters written large on a chalkboard (using a vertical plane)


Writing the letters in the air relying more on his own bodily-kinesthetic modalities

Air writing


Writing the letter independently on paper

A variety of activities should be used at different points within the learning sequence. Writing while saying the name has multisensory impact: it connects a motor movement with vision (seeing the letter card) and with auditory (hearing yourself say the name).

Air writing is of critical importance for dyslexic and dysgraphic students and serves several purposes. Air writing also serves to strengthen the motor memory for the form of the letter, providing large muscle input. Students can be encouraged to imagine the letter as they air write it, thus strengthening their imaging skill, which will lead to greater automaticity. In addition, air writing is an efficient group teaching technique since it allows the teacher to monitor several students at once. When the students respond on paper, the teacher is only able to monitor the end product, not the process, for most of the students.

When introducing air writing to the students, tell them, “This time when you say the letter name, I want you to write the letter t in the air. Write it big. Use two fingers as your pointer and keep your wrist and elbow fairly straight. I want you to be able to really feel the movements you make while you are writing the t in the air. I will write it with you. (Teacher needs to stand facing the class and make her t backwards so that the students may follow the movements.) Now say the key word and sound for this letter as we write it in the air.” Student(s): (air writing t) “t, tiny, /t/.” Teacher: “Can you imagine the letter in the air where you wrote it? See it there.” If students cannot image the letter easily, use additional cues such as the following:


  • Pretend your fingers leave a shadow as you write your letter. See the shadow.
  • Pretend your fingers leave a bright red line as you write your letter. See the line.
  • Pretend bright green spaghetti comes out of your finger as you write the letter. See the spaghetti.
  • Pretend brightly colored Silly String is coming out of your finger as you write the letter. See the string. What color is yours?

Using the mnemonics

The following suggestions provide examples for using MFR mnemonics as the means for introducing key words. A letter is introduced, as in the following dialogue.

Teacher: Today we are going to learn about the letter m. It has the sound /m/. Tell me some words that start with the /m/ sound.

Students: (Students say a variety of words starting with /m/ sound while teacher writes suggestions on the board.)

Teacher: (Teacher guides students until one of them names monkey.) Yes, all of these words are good, and one of the words is monkey. We can also talk about two monkeys. Now, let’s look at this picture. This picture says ‘tiny monkeys kiss fat pig.’ Do you see the monkeys? What’s the sound at the beginning of monkeys?

Students: /m/

Teacher: We are going to use the word monkeys to help us remember that the letter m has the /m/ sound. Everybody repeat: m, monkeys, /m/.

Students: m, monkey, /m/

Teacher: Good. Now every time we think of the letter m, we can also remember monkeys and remember m has the /m/ sound.

For students who struggle substantially, it is best to initially teach the first five consonants (t, m, k, f, p) and one short vowel (as in a, apple, /a/). At that point, the teacher can use letter cards or magnetic letters to create a variety of letter combinations that the students can decode (read) or encode (spell). For encoding, the teacher can say a sound pattern or a syllable, and the students select the letters to spell the word, placing them in the correct order. For the decoding (reading) activity, the teacher creates the combination and the students read it, or one student can make a combination for the other students.

Many activities can be developed using this concept; however, that is the function of another article.

Creating your own mnemonics

The concept of using pictured mnemonics can be utilized with a wide variety of picture clues. It is actually quite fun to think of and create mnemonic sentences based on key words. The critical factor is to use consistent key words throughout the student’s reading and spelling learning.


In helping students have greater fun with written expression, they first need some automatic skills for the basic writing mechanics. This article was designed to deal with one small part of that process: the process of developing automatic sound/symbol correspondences. Since many students with learning differences have substantial strengths in visual imagination and visual imagery, the visual mnemonic system has been very useful. The author wishes you a great deal of fun in adapting the use of mnemonics to your own child or students.

Richards, R. (2008). Writing Made Easier: Helping Students Develop Automatic Sound/Symbol Correspondence. Exclusive to LD OnLine. Special thanks to Matthew Acosta for his drawing of air writing.

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