#WordPowerLeague – Spotlight on… PHONOLOGY

Summer 2019, I will be launching my first book, WORD POWER: Amplifying vocabulary instruction, a dual-function vocabulary teaching and planning resource for FS-Y6. The Word Power League demystifies explicit instruction through exploration of core word learning strategies and offers practical guidance on how to embed vocabulary learning through repeated exposure in a language-rich environment, across the curriculum.


For more information and an overview of the core word learning strategies or ‘Word Attack,’ follow this link: How can I develop pupils’ Word Power?

The eight ‘Power-Up’ strategies have been divided into 3 sub-groups – ‘lenses’ through which pupils can view words to investigate meaning and make connections to build word knowledge.

Lens 1: Build on phonic foundations – Phonology, Orthography, Graphology

Lens 2: Connect the new with the known – Personal links, Connections

Lens 3: Explore word meaning – Meaning in context, Morphology, Etymology

For more information about ‘lenses’ to develop word knowledge, read my article for the Chartered College of Teaching’s Journal, Impact, summer 2018 – Word Power: Creating a language-rich environment


Why… Phonology?

PHONOLOGY is one of three ‘Power-Up’ strategies (also including Graphology and Orthography) that pupils can use to view words through the ‘lens’ of phonic foundations.

spotlight on phonic foundations

Phonology is one of eight ‘Power-Up’ strategies that pupils can use to harness and refine their word-building toolkit. When considering the strategy of phonology, ask:

  • Do pupils have a firm foundation in phonological awareness?
  • As a teacher, am I clear of the importance of a strong foundation in phonological awareness as a core skill for building word knowledge?
  • Can pupils hear, count, isolate and manipulate individual sounds and clusters of sounds in words (phonemes and syllables)?
  • Can pupils make connections between words, using their phonemic knowledge?
  • Can pupils repeat and correctly articulate new sounds and words in order to strengthen word memory?
  • As a teacher, do I place enough emphasis on articulating and repeating new words that are encountered to support auditory memory?

‘Phonology’ is the systematic study of how sounds are organised within a language. ‘Phonics’ is the system or approach used to link sounds in words (phonemes) to the graphic representation of those sounds (graphemes) in order to develop reading and writing fluency. High-quality phonics programmes are built on firm phonological foundations.

Consider the following passage, in French:

Rame, rame, rame ton bateau
Doucement en bas du courant…

Unless we understand the ‘phonology’ of the French language (which letters represent which sounds and how these sounds are typically organised in words), we are unable to read this aloud with phonological accuracy. We can, however, use our existing word knowledge, in English, to tune into particular words. For example, the word ‘bateau’ – does this word remind you of a word in English? The first 3 phonemes are similar to English /b/ /a/ /t/, however the ‘eau’ is pronounced like the /o/ sound in cold, boat, cone and blow. What about ‘rame, rame, rame’ – why is this word repeated? When we articulate ‘/r/’ in English, the sound is articulated at the front of the mouth. In French, the ‘/r/’ phoneme is a rolling, throaty sound which emanates from the back. Also, the ‘a’ in ‘rame’ is pronounced /eh/ as in leg, pet, and head – a different pronunciation than the ‘a‘ in bateau! In case you’ve not deciphered the mystery, this is the first two lines of Row, row, row your boat.

Now that we’ve deciphered or ‘decoded’ the words on the page, the questions are:

  1.  How likely are you to remember that the word ‘bateau’ in French means boat, after this limited exposure?
  2. Will you remember any of these new words in a few hours? In a few days?
  3. Could you effectively use the word ‘bateau’ in another context?

Teaching children the ‘Power-Up’ strategy of phonology can help them to tune into and manipulate sounds, articulate, emphasise and repeat sounds in words. Tuning into sounds and activating the auditory part of the brain alongside multiple exposures to new words will help to secure word learning. Phonology helps words to ‘stick’ in auditory memory.

Pupils need multiple exposures to new words, in a range of contexts, to strengthen their word knowledge. ‘Fast mapping’ (Carey and Bartlett, 1978) – the mental process of being able to remember information after only a single exposure – is not as effective as repeated exposures to new words encountered. Susan Newman & Tanya Wright (American Educator, Summer 2014, The Magic of Words) offer that ‘children need many more encounters with new words than we may have previously suspected… research highlights that frequency of exposure in a variety of meaningful contexts over an extended period of time enhances word learning.’ (pg. 10)

Consider the following text, Kitchen Disco by Clare Foges and Al Murphy (chosen previously by Booktrust as part of their ‘Time to Read’ campaign who send home a free picture book to every Reception child in the county, each year – a personal favourite of my two children!)

At night when you are sleeping
There’s a party in your house.
It’s a pumping, jumping funky bash
When all the lights go out…
In the quiet of your kitchen
When the moon is shining white
The fruit jump from the fruit bowl
And they dance all through the night!

To develop pupils’ use of PHONOLOGY as a ‘Power-Up’ strategy:

  • Read the text out loud several times. Which words did you emphasise for fluency? How does this help with your understanding? Can you hear the pattern and flow of the language?
  • Which words can you hear that rhyme? (house/ out, white/ night) Can you think of other words that could fit within these rhyming pairs?  Which part of each word sounds the same?
  • Articulate the words pumping and jumping. Which sounds do they share? Break the word into phonemes to count. How many are shared?  How many are different?
  • How many syllables does the word ‘shining’ have? Clap the syllables. Repeat. Can you find other words with two syllables? Each syllable must have a vowel sound.
  • Say the word ‘funky.’ Say it quietly. Say it loudly. Say it in a gravelly voice. Say it quickly. Say it slowly. Emphasise the first syllable. Emphasise the second syllable. Repeat.

When considering the types of word learning activities that you may plan for explicit instruction around PHONOLOGY, it’s useful to draw on brain research exploring how we process sounds and visual images.

In ‘Teaching the Brain to Read’ (2005), Dr Duncan Milne draws on his expertise as a neuropsychologist to help us consider how sounds and words are processed in the brain. This information can be useful to identify gaps in pupils’ word knowledge and how a focus on PHONOLOGY and/or GRAPHOLOGY can help to improve word learning. For more information on GRAPHOLOGY, click here.

Milne (2005) explains what happens, in the different parts of the brain, when we learn to read. In the front of the brain, there is the auditory module that is responsible for phonemic awareness (sounds in words). This contains two areas: the pronunciation area (holding all of the words that we know how to speak) and a phoneme sound area (containing the units of sound that make up words). In the back of the brain is the visual module that is responsible for graphemic awareness (written representations of sounds). This also contains two areas: a word area (holding images of whole words) and a letter shape area (information about how letters look and are formed). (pg. 25) I’ve created the visual model below to help further clarify these key points.
The central importance of PHONOLOGY is highlighted in Dr Milne’s model. Explicit teaching of vocabulary should be provide opportunities for pupils to:

  • Pronounce, correctly articulate and repeat new words learned in order to map them to auditory memory;
  • Break words into phonemes (sounds) and make connections with other words that share similar phonemes in order to strengthen phonemic awareness; and
  • Develop connections between the individual sounds in words and how whole words are articulated and make connections to the written representation of these sounds (graphemic awareness).

Phonology is just one of the eight Power-Up strategies that will be explored in more detail, with explicit, curriculum links and practical, daily teaching ideas my new book, Word Power: Amplifying vocabulary instruction (out summer 2019). Stay tuned for information via Twitter @kashleyenglish and through the Word Power League website http://www.wordpowerleague.co.uk regarding release dates.

If you have any questions or comments about this post or if you would like to contact me to discuss vocabulary development or training needs in your school/ local area, please get in touch kellyashleyconsultancy@outlook.com

Copyright, Kelly Ashley Consultancy, 2018

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