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Phonological Ability

Phonological ability is a process that we can divide into a few categories. These include phonological awareness, decoding, letter recognition and rapid naming. Being able to understand, manipulate, and master the sounds of letters, letter sound correspondences, and syllable patterns.

Countries where Phonological Ability is assessed

Phonological awareness
Phonological awareness refers to one’s degree of sensitivity to the sound structure of the oral language (Anthony, J. L. and Francis, D. J.  2005 – https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.0963-7214.2005.00376.x). This ability is strongly related to literacy. 

It includes phoneme awareness – the ability to manipulate with the individual sounds or phonemes in words and some simpler phonological skills, such as syllable manipulation and recognizing rhyming words. Individuals who have difficulties in these abilities will struggle with learning to read.

Phonological awareness skills are distinguished by the task performed and size of the unit of sound that is the focus of the task (Anthony, J. L. and Francis, D. J.  2005 – https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.0963-7214.2005.00376.x). This includes blending sounds together, segmenting words into their constituent sounds, recombining sounds of words and determining if two words have some sounds in common. Phonemes or sounds are intrasyllabic units. Others can be bigger word units, such as syllables or other intrasyllabic units, like onsets and rimes. For example, in the word spin, sp is the onset and in s the rime.

In summary, phonological awareness is a single ability that manifests itself in different skills throughout a person’s development. Children gradually become more sensitive to smaller and smaller parts of the words. They can detect or manipulate syllables before they can detect and manipulate individual phonemes. Before detecting and manipulating syllables they can detect and produce rimes. This development isn’t strictly successive, children will improve their acquired skills while they are learning new phonological awareness skills. Development from detecting and manipulating large units of sound to smaller sound units is universal across languages but the rate that populations of speakers of different languages progress through the sequence and the proficiency they achieve at each level vary. For example, children in linguistic environments where spoken syllables are highly salient, such as Italian or Greek, develop syllable awareness sooner than children in linguistic environments where syllables are less salient, such as English or French.

Phonological awareness typically develops quickly once literacy instruction begins. Children learning to read an alphabetic language that has transparent orthography—consistent spelling-to-sound relations and consistent sound-to-spelling relations develop phonological awareness more quickly. For example, German students that are in their first year of schooling develop phoneme awareness more quickly than their English peers, in accord with the more transparent orthography of German. The relation between developing phonological awareness and learning to read is reciprocal. Phonological awareness helps children to read and in turn, reading and writing provide feedback which influences the development of phonological awareness. 

“The process of decoding words never read before involves transforming graphemes (a grapheme refers to a letter or letters used to represent a single phoneme or sound) into phonemes and then blending the phonemes to form words with recognizable meanings. The Phonological awareness skill centrally involved in (phonic) decoding is blending.” (NICHD, 2000, pp. 2-11.). 

Phonic decoding allows a student to identify unfamiliar words. During phonic decoding a student is identifying the individual letters and relating the correct phoneme to each letter. Successful blending of those phonemes or sounds allows the student to identify the word. Identification does not require a recall from memory (https://ortongillinghamonlinetutor.com/the-big-five-phonics-phonic-decoding/). Using phonological blending we can identify an unfamiliar word after hearing each part of the said word individually. Parts of the words can be phonemes or syllables. Once we identify all the sounds of the word we need to blend them together to identify the word. If a person can identify the sounds but can’t blend them together he or she has a phonological blending problem and thus a reading problem. 

Letter recognition
Letter recognition is a skill to call out a letter shown or pick out a letter from a group of letters. This is one of the basic skills in learning how to read. Letter recognition is one of the top predictors of reading success. To have mastered the letter recognition children need to find letters and say their name outside of context, eg. outside of naming letters of their name (https://www.theedadvocate.org/understanding-letter-recognition-and-its-role-in-preliteracy/). They need to do this accurately and fast to be truly fluent in letter recognition. 

Learning and playing with letters leads to an interest in their sounds. Learning letter-sound correspondence is a key aspect of learning to read. Because of this some researchers say that letter recognition, among other components of early literacy, can serve as a starting point for screening children who are at risk of developing reading and writing difficulties (Lenček and Užarević, 2016 – https://doi.org/10.31299/hrri.52.2.5).  

Rapid naming
Rapid automatized naming is, or RAN, is the ability to quickly name aloud a series of familiar items. These include letters, numbers, colors or objects. Performance on a RAN test is based on how fast a child can name in order all the items presented on the page, compared to other kids his or her age. Kids with reading issues are frequently slower on RAN tests. So the tests are often used as part of a comprehensive reading evaluation. They’re also used for the early identification of kids who are at risk for reading problems (https://www.understood.org/articles/en/rapid-automatized-naming-tests-what-you-need-to-know). The examiner that runs the test typically starts by going over the names of the set of items with the child. Then, for the test itself, the child has to name all of the items aloud as quickly as possible, from first to last, row by row. Both the time the child needs to name the items and her accuracy are recorded. But the time is what’s of interest. 
Scientists agree that these tests can tell us a lot about childrens’ reading ability but there are two viewpoints. First view focuses on how we recall and say the sounds for the names of test items. Scientists who agree on this view believe that RAN affects reading because it involves how well we can retrieve phonological information. Scientists who agree on the second viewpoint say that RAN doesn’t only affect phonological system but also verbal, visual and motor systems. They say RAN covers all of them, serving almost as a small-scale version of reading even before kids actually learn to read.  Children with problems in RAN and phonemic awareness have more severe reading problems and they may have a harder time improving their reading than kids who only struggle with phonemes.

How can we help?

Teaching phonological awareness is critical for the following reasons:

· Phonological awareness is the necessary foundation upon which phonics is built.

· Lack of success in phonological awareness affects future progress in the other components of reading.

· Lack of phonological awareness causes struggling readers in higher grades to lack accuracy and fluency in decoding and spelling words.

Early identification of children who struggle with phonological awareness and explicit teaching of these skills is crucial.

Symptoms of phonological dyslexia may include:

  1. Difficulty learning sounds made by letters/letter combinations.
  2. Difficulty sounding out unfamiliar words.
  3. Difficulty spelling.
  4. Spelling the same word different ways on the same page.
  5. Slow reading.
  6. Avoiding reading activities.
  7. Difficulty recognizing familiar words in new contexts.

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