Thursday, 28 November 2013

A Phonology Lesson: Analysing the Phoneme /f/

 Morphology, Etymology, Phonology
Although this lesson is focused on developing phonological understanding; 
as with all word building, morphology must provide the structural framework for any phonological learning.

The focal point of the phonological learning continues to be based on meaning: the structure of words; how words are related in meaning and then finally the sounds that make sense to the spelling.

Understanding how English phonemes can be 
represented by different graphemes.

This phonological learning journey started with the phoneme /f/
Our inquiry initially focused on investigating the three different graphemes 
that represent /f/ in spelling.
  • the single letter grapheme <f>
  • the digraph <ph>
  • the trigraph <ugh>
Setting the Scene: Where are we Headed?
This lesson began with a review of the meaning of the slash brackets / / and the angle < > brackets. 
(I have regularly introduced these brackets to young children to indicate whether we are starting our inquiry with a grapheme < > or a phoneme / /.)
Indicating that our word building inquiry was
focused on the phoneme /fthe students were 
given additional information that this phoneme 
can be represented in writing in 3 different 
forms;hence the three arrows.

After demonstrating the written form of the phoneme /f/ on the chart, we reviewed the pronunciation of /f/ by focusing on the 'taste and feel' of this phoneme. We discussed what part of the mouth/throat we were using. The students described the feeling in different ways.
"It's like blowing out your breath."
"It's like a small wind."
Added note: Changing to 'feeling and tasting' phonemes, rather than asking my young students to listen to sounds in a word, had a profound effect on my own teaching and learning. I have found it to be one of the most powerful and successful ways to help young children, and older, to experience and fully understand the sequence of phonemes in a word. To learn further about this please refer to the Real Spelling Manual or Toolkit

 Our word building inquiry:
What graphemes can we use to represent the phoneme/f/ in spelling?
How do we decide which grapheme to use when spelling?

A Learning 'Hook': A Bag of Words!
We began the learning journey by revealing a bank of bases, handwritten on cards. These bases were chosen specifically for this particular group of children...some familiar; some unfamiliarAs with all activities, the bases or words you choose need to be applicable to the age group and needs of your learners.

Our first task was to focus on meaning and build an understanding of the vocabulary before investigating the phoneme. Although this may take additional time with younger children it is considered a critical part of the initial learning process. 
The base cards were covered so that each base could be revealed and discussed one at a time. Each student reveals a base card to read, spell aloud and orally discuss the meaning; with teacher guidance and support when necessary. I frequently model the correct spelling, by verbally emphasising the correct graphemes: <f-r-igh-t>. 
This discussion also provides insightful opportunities for the students to reflect on how they would clearly express the meaning of the base, to their ESL classmates. 
How you determine the length and timing of this initial lesson will greatly depend on the age and needs of the children you are working with.

Here the term <phoneme> has been introduced and added to the phoneme chart.

This term was used and reviewed consistently throughout the inquiry;at different times during the learning process.Gradually introduce precise linguistic terminology,so young learners can value the importance, develop understanding and express themselves with greater accuracy.
A note about linguistic vocabularyCurrently in my teaching I am very careful not to refer to <sound> as this seems to give an indication to the children that they must 'listen' rather than more accurately 'feel and taste' the phonemes. As an educator on this learning journey, I require myself to use linguistically correct vocabulary, just as we do in all other areas of learning, so we are all very clear about our actions/goals. This is evident with the vocabulary used for PYP Units of Inquiry. Consistently the linguistic terminology <grapheme> <digraph> <trigraph> <phoneme> <matrix> <base> <suffix> etc are consistently modelled verbally and in the written form. Every time the students hear or see this new vocabulary, their understanding deepens. I often discuss with the children that graphemes are like 'teams of letters' that we write to spell a base and phonemes are what we pronounce and identify by 'tasting/feeling'.  

Deepening Understanding: What is the Meaning?
During the same learning session or a subsequent lesson the students illustrate the base cards to identify the meaning. This is an additional opportunity to reinforce new vocabulary and assess understanding. Additionally, students can write sentences to demonstrate the meaning. With younger students we primarily use the words in oral sentences for discussion and elaboration.  
During this early collaborative, oral discussion time, the children usually begin to provide some initial theories about the graphemes representing /fin their particular base.


Reviewing Learning: The Trading Game
To revisit and review the vocabulary and meaning the students play the Trading Game. The students move around freely trading their base card with a partner, after explaining the meaning. The very nature of this game provides the opportunity for the students to be exposed to all the base cards; not just their own. I often play this game to review learning from previous experiences; one, because it engages purposeful thinking through movement; two, it ensures all children are actively participating; three, it gives quick, valuable feedback to the teacher about the children's understandings or misunderstandings.

Throughout the learning journey the children are reminded to say the base or word naturally, without stretching or distorting the pronunciation.

Identifying and Sharing Grapheme Theories: How can you give proof?

At this stage on the learning journey the students circle the team/s of letter/s they think is/are representing the phoneme /f/. 

This is conducted as a collaborative activity, where the children are supporting and helping each other to identify the grapheme. The age group of the learners, will determine how much teacher guidance and intervention is required. With very young children I usually guide the children, together as a group, by modelling the process for identification. All theories are accepted, investigated, reviewed and changed throughout the learning process. 

Often, an interesting assumption is that <gh> is the grapheme, not <ugh>. This can be added to the Wonder Wall for further investigation. I was thrilled when working with this particular group, that one child had identified <ugh> as the grapheme, not <gh>. She had previously discussed this with me when we were having a reading conference and had encountered the word <laugh> in the text.
An ESL student is recording her initial
theory about the three graphemes.
You will notice she has written
<gh> as one of the graphemes.
Although this grapheme is not fully accurate,
 it is still accepted as a hypothsis for investigation.
Along her learning journey she was able to identify that
the trigraph <ugh> was the more accurate grapheme.

Making Connections: through Concept Attainment.
After completing the Trading Game and identifying grapheme hypotheses; the base cards are returned, shuffled ready for the concept attainment activity.

As stated in previous posts, the concept attainment
strategy guides children through an inquiry process, to their own understanding of a learning concept. This strategy ensures all the students are critically thinking and actively involved by taking ownership of their proposals and hypotheses; it allows all learners a critical thinking 'voice' and a deeper understanding of the concept introduced or revisited. 
You will notice at this stage in
the learning journey that we
haven't recorded the
three graphemes; only added
the words for consideration.

The students place their base cards on the chart as directed by the teacher, developing a understanding about the three graphemes.

The phoneme/grapheme chart is displayed for the next few days. The students are required to reflect on their learning and to do some word detective work. Their task is to search for words that contained the phoneme /f/ or find words that contained the graphemes they have considered so far. 

All morphology and phonology charts created are considered 'works in progress' to be added to, changed, and questioned.

The students are spending time looking through different types of text to identify words containing the graphemes they had identified. The students recorded the words and added them to the chart. 

The Final Stage: Are We Nearly There Yet?

The students have added other words to the phoneme/grapheme chart and we have now identified the three graphemes. It was at this stage of the learning journey that I introduced the term <grapheme>. We discussed the meaning of the base <graph>, which had been previously discussed as one of the base words used for the chart. The students discussed the  similarities and differences between the two terms phoneme and grapheme and ways to differentiate between them. In regards to the double <ff>, I informed the students that sometimes the single letter grapheme <f> is doubled and would be an investigation for the future.

 As the students shared the additional words, I asked them to explain where in the word the grapheme was located. We discovered that <ugh>, so far, could only be used in the final position and that it seemed the single letter grapheme <f> was the most common in the initial position.
The students then reviewed the whole process by sharing their understanding and new knowledge with their classmates.

Collaboratively, we investigated the etymology of the words and identified the digraph <ph> was of Greek origin and <ugh> was generally of Old English origin. The students used etymonline as their main resource, with John Ayto's Word Origins as an endorsement. Both valuable and useful resource tools.

Our Phoneme/Grapheme Chart: A working documentation of our learning journey demonstrating new knowledge and understanding. 

As with all learning journeys, they continue, so new learning can be reviewed, revived and utilised, providing many opportunities to explore new pathways and learning. 

Continuing the learning journey:
  • fully investigate the circumstances of the three graphemes.
  • build word webs and matrices with the words from the chart.
  • identify the pattern for doubling the single letter grapheme <f> in the final position.
For the full story of the orthographic principles of the the phoneme /f/ please refer to the Real Spelling Toolkit Kit 2 Theme E: The trigraph <ugh> and other graphemes for the phoneme /f/; Kit 3 Theme H: The orthographic Phonology of /f/.

As Pete Bowers often states: “What is the most generative principle about the spelling system available in this word to teach this audience at this time?” 

For young students, I believe the focus should be on developing the essential understanding that phonemes can be represented in writing in different ways and graphemes can represent different phonemes. If this is the essential understanding then we don’t need to necessarily overload young children with lots of linear lists of different phonemes and graphemes, just ones (or parts) that are relevant to their at the time and which addresses the essential understanding. 

Explore this article, Starting the Learning Journey, to understand how phonology fits within the bigger picture of orthography.

NB Please note, I have  used the incorrect IPA symbol for the phoneme /f/ in the phoneme/grapheme chart created with the children. It should be /f/ not /f/. 


  1. Hey Lyn!

    I was so pleased to see this lesson addressed in your blog. I had to share this link to the YouTube video that I posted from when you taught us this lesson at my summer course.
    It's amazing to see all the details to this lesson you have developed over time and to see it come alive in the classroom with young children. So great!

  2. Lyn, It's exciting to see the work that you do with young children. I appreciate the specific details and pictures of the lessons.

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