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Alphabets, Phonemes, Linguistics, Oh My!: An Analysis of Learning Disabilities and Phonetic Awareness

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Ashley LeKach

Image: (c) Ashley LeKach

Learning how to read can be hard. That is the simple, clearly unbiased, opinion of my own. However, individuals with a learning disability may struggle with phonetic awareness more than their neurotypical peers. Phonological awareness is “the broad awareness of the sound system of speech, including awareness of syllables, phonemes and rhyme” (Chera and Wood 37). Phonological awareness is being aware of the sounds in words, and for alphabetical languages, such as English, depend on this for reading. To learn how to read one needs to be able to recognize words, which would be knowing how the words are pronounced. One also needs to be able to comprehend the alphabet, recognize letters, and be able to use convention between the letters and pronunciation (Duff 1). Without basic comprehension of the various aspects of language, such as the prosody, which is the intonation and timing of speech, it can be much harder to learn how to read. While learning these core speech principles may be easy to some, others, such as individuals with learning disabilities, may find it difficult. In this blog post I will explain why and how individuals with learning disabilities may struggle with aspects of reading.

So, how do you learn how to read anyways?

One of the methods to learn how to read at an early age is through the “alphabet or phonetic route” which is “decoding [and] using letters to [understand] sound conversion” (Chera and Wood 35) that shows the importance of learning phonetics from an early age. Proficient phonological awareness is also a determining factor for academic success (Shamir et al. 46). Matching the phonology to the written representation of the language, graphemes, is how one learns how to read. One requires knowledge of what the written symbols of a language mean as well as how it corresponds to the speech functions to learn how to read. Conventional Reading requires both visual and auditory processing. An individual who struggles with auditory processing, or memory retention, could struggle with processing the necessary information required by reading. One needs to understand the relationship between phonemes and graphemes to learn how to read.

How is learning different with a learning disability?

Individuals with learning disabilities may struggle with the essential skills, auditory processing and memory, to adequately understand phonological awareness. Shamir claims that “The term learning disabilities refers to a group of diverse disorders, presumably neurological in origin’’ (Shamir et al. 46). A developmental disorder is defined as when “the brain interferes with basic cognitive functioning, such as low response rates, disrupted phonological awareness, poor short- and working memory, delayed automatic professing, perceptual problems and self-regulation (visual, auditory, and sensory) or disturbances in spatial and temporal orientation” (46). The memory span required to maintain verbal information is essential to process aspects of language (Johnson et al. 223). In addition, there is a link between lower memory processing when the “stimulus is auditory rather than visual” (Oyler et al. 184).  Furthermore, because individuals with learning disabilities struggle with both memory and auditory processing, the feat of learning complex phonemes and syllables can be difficult. This is because the longer, more complex phonemes are not transferred to long-term memory which in turn makes it harder to remember the relationship between phonemes and graphemes. Both phonemes and graphemes are essential to the ability to learn how to read. Phonemes represent the sounds of language and the grapheme is the symbol that represents a phoneme. Without auditory processing the phonemes are harder to memorize and without long term memory the graphemes are in term harder. There is a delicate balance to learn how to read that requires a proper understanding of the relationship between graphemes and phonemes that individuals with learning disabilities may struggle with.

Where does the research take us?

A clear example of utilizing new technology to help people with learning disabilities can be seen in the study by Shamir et al. Their research focused on children learning Hebrew. Although Hebrew is not from the same language family as English, the study still has merit from an English language perspective. Learning how to read in either language requires use of long-term memory and processing of auditory language. Thus, the possible learning tools that can be implemented for better phonological awareness are the same as well. Their research team connects that “children at risk at reading disabilities, are more likely to improve their reading skills if they learn with a coordinated array of various types of media” such as digital and auditory (Shamir et al. 47). Furthermore, in their study, the use of an e-book allowed children to “click hotspots” that were associated with characters and objects to promote “phonological awareness of a word’s syllables and sub syllables” (53-54). This study shows that efficient phonological awareness for individuals who have learning disabilities can be achieved with the use of multiple media as a learning tool. The auditory and visual element can be beneficial towards learning phonetics. The auditory helps reinforce the meaning while the visual component helps with long-term memory. Putting both visual and auditory means of learning phonetics together helps the brain become engaged with learning.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Every individual with a learning disability will have a different experience with learning how to read. However, with a better understanding of how the brain works, with regards to learning disabilities, the better the support and teaching methods will become. Understanding that the brain may process information slower, or that there is a reason why strange symbols are harder to memorize (as they are not transferred to long-term memory), will create a better learning environment for all. More awareness about learning disabilities will help create a more inclusive learning environment for the future.

Works Cited

Chera Pav . Clare Wood. “Animated multimedia ‘talking books’ can promote phonological awareness in children beginning to read.” Learning and instruction: Volume 13, Issue 1. Available online August 2002.

Duff D, Tomblin BJ. Literacy as an Outcome of Language Development and its Impact on Children’s Psychosocial and Emotional Development. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Rvachew S, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Updated October 2018. Accessed February 6, 2020.

Johnson, Brian D., et al. “Attention Deficits and Reading Disabilities: Are Immediate Memory  Defects Additive?” Developmental Neuropsychology, vol. 15, no. 2, Mar. 1999, p. 213. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/87565649909540746.

Oyler, James D., et al. “Verbal Learning and Memory Functions in Adolescents With Reading Disabilities.” Learning Disability Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 3, 2012, pp. 184–195. JSTOR, Accessed 12 Jan. 2020.

Shamir, A., O, Korat. & R, Fellah. “Promoting vocabulary, phonological awareness and concept about print among children at risk for learning disability: Can e-books help?” Read Writ 25, 45–69 (2012).

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