In part 1 of The Struggling Learner Scenario: Sounds Out Every Word one mom, who was dedicated to helping her son read, ran into the same brick wall over and over again. If you missed it, and can relate with her frustration, start there.
Now let’s continue with 3 more potential reasons that children might have trouble moving passed this stage of reading.
Trouble With Visual Memory
Does your son also have trouble reading sight words? Sight words are those common words that don’t really play fair when we’re trying to sound them out. We have to memorize what they look like, and instantly recognize them when we read.
With non-sight words, after we’ve sounded out an unfamiliar word a few times, eventually we build a memory for it. It becomes easier to recognize and read each time we see it. That is, if our visual memory skills are strong enough.
If your child has trouble with sight words, and still sounds out every word while reading, then he may have trouble with visual memory.
Since you mentioned that your son can sound out the same word 5 times and still not remember what the word is, I think it’s safe to say that you’ll want to strengthen visual memory as well. Yes, in addition to strengthening phonemic awareness.
I’ve talked A LOT about visual memory here on the blog, so I’ll simply refer you to these articles.
Trouble With Working Memory
In order to blend the sounds in a word that is new to us, we need to be able to hold all of those sounds in our mind for a little while before we can do something with them.
Let’s take the word “blend.” We need to remember the first sound, and that it came first, not second. Then we have to remember the second sound, and that it came second, not first. If by the time we hear the /n/ sound we have forgotten the /b/ already, or we’ve scrambled up the order, we’ll do a poor job of blending.
Interestingly, even if we see the word in print and can clearly see all of the letters laid out, if we haven’t seen the word before, we’re going to work hard to first identify each sound, hold onto each sound that we’ve identified, and then say the sounds either out loud or using our inner voice. If we get lucky and they all fall into place correctly, we might just recognize all of those mushed up sounds as a word that we know. Phew! That’s a lot of work!
Trouble With Sequencing
You might recall from part 1 that many students with learning differences have difficulty with sequencing. In other words, they don’t always grasp the concepts of first, next, last, between, before, etc.
Being first in line may be easy to understand. First in line means you get to be in the front, to be the leader. Beyond that, putting things in sequential order might prove challenging.
Having dyslexia in particular may mean that you are more of a global thinker than a linear one. You are at a distinct advantage when you can look at the big picture. Dyslexic learners are often quite gifted in their ability to see patterns that we mere mortals don’t see. They can effortlessly pull information from here and there and everywhere to see how it all connects.
Linear thinking, on the other hand, allows us to understand that there’s a beginning, middle and end to every story, and to every word. If we have trouble putting letters in their proper order, in their proper sequence, reading will be quite challenging indeed.
To find out if sequencing is tricky for your son, simply ask.
“I’m going to read you 3 words. Can you tell me which word I said first?”
Be careful to choose words that are easy to visualize so they are easier to remember. Pumpkin, Batman, puppy, for example.
“What was the last word? How about the one in the middle? Which word came after pumpkin? Before puppy?”
You may have noticed, keen observer that you are, that with this exercise we’re also strengthening auditory memory. So, be careful not to give him more words than he can handle.
Of course, you don’t need to turn this into an official exercise. Simply use those words in conversation more. Then really pay attention. Does he look at you funny when you say them, or simply tune you out perhaps?
If sequencing is a challenge, you can reinforce these concepts in your day to day interactions. When you read stories together you can talk about what the character did first, next, last.
When you practice blending sounds into words together, go back to the phonemic awareness exercises in part 1. Remember to ask him about the first sound, the last sound, the sound in between two specific sounds. Play with words such as after and before.
When you’re standing in line and killing time you can ask, “Do you see that person after the guy in the red shirt? What do you think she’s carrying in her bag?” Have some fun with it.
Sometimes we assume that our students have a clear understanding of these terms when really they need some extra reinforcement from us. Can you imagine how confusing it must be to walk through life not knowing what words like before and after truly mean? That extra reinforcement you provide can do a lot to bring clarity.
If your young reader still sounds out every word while reading, consider that he might struggle with phonemic awareness, visual memory, working memory, sequencing, or all of the above. Have patience with yourself and your child. I believe that you CAN uncover what’s at the root of the challenge, and strengthen the underlying skills that help him become a strong, confident learner.
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