Monday 20 October 2014

Phonological analysis with young children

Phonological analysis: a journey of accuracy! 

From my experience young children love to express their ideas and thoughts in the written form...
...just like this student: who loves to write; is confident using the writing process; rereads her written thoughts with clarity and understanding and is willing to share her thoughts in the written form...BUT


...when first analysing these pieces of writing, and other examples, you might ascertain that this child has some learning issues...However, I wonder if this student's misspellings and inaccurately formed letters could be a misunderstanding of how the English system works?  Is this student doing exactly what she has been taught to do?
It's our responsibility as educators to ensure we teach accurate information about how the English spelling system works so learners can make informed and meaningful spelling choices.
This child's spelling attempts led to an incredibly rich investigation of a variety of significant graphemes and phonemes used in English spelling. 
  • I want this student to begin to understand that English spelling is primarily concerned with meaning and structure.
  • I want her to know that spelling accuracy is not always the most important aspect in the learning process, but making meaningful and thoughtful spelling choices based on this understanding is what is important.
  • I want this child to know that only some of what we pronounce is important for the spelling of the word.
  • I want this child to know how to execute the starting point when scripting the lower case alphabet letters.
  • I want this child to learn how to track phonemes and represent graphemes accurately...
                                ...some, but not all of the goals to begin the journey.

As a whole class we embarked on a phonological journey;
a journey embedded in orthographic understanding.
Where did I source the words?
From the children's own writing! Each day as the children arrive they respond in the written form to a question such as this:

The children's written responses provide rich 'fuel' for assessment 
and ongoing investigation and inquiry.

To begin the journey...
As the starting point or 'meeting place' for this phonological journey I presented a significant selection of the misspellings to the children:
*kan    (can)                   *kort      (caught)                      *kold, *kood (could)
Why are they not correct?
Why can't we spell these words with an initial <k> to represent the first phoneme /k/?

We embarked on a phonological journey investigating how to accurately 
(L. 'to take care of') represent the phoneme /k/ to cure all previous misunderstandings!

We started with a basic phoneme chart showing how the phoneme /k/ can be represented by the single letter graphemes <c> or <k>.
Mostly, the children knew this information (but did not understand why) and were able  to provide lots of evidence  with known words. At this stage they couldn't justify why some words were spelled with the  single letter grapheme<c> or <k>. Currently, for many, it was a random choice, generally choosing <k> to represent the initial phoneme /k/.

...and so our journey begins.

I explicitly told the children that we will try to use the single letter grapheme <c>  to represent /k/ in the initial position, unless we have a good reason for using the single letter grapheme <k>. We would investigate 'why?' at a later time so as to not overload children with too much information at any given time.

Also, I began to explicitly embed  <grapheme> <phoneme> <digraph> <trigraph> <initial> <medial> <final> in my own language as I modelled and clarified the children's thinking. The slash brackets / / and angle brackets < > were also introduced and consistently reinforced throughout the learning process.

As I predicted, the children suggested that the digraph <ck> could also represent /k/, providing some examples for evidence. This phonological piece was then added to the chart.

As a learning reflection I added an additional arrow to the chart and asked the children to think about another grapheme that we can use to represent /k/. I now wanted the children to have independent time to conduct their own investigation and begin to collect words for evidence.

Continuing the journey...
I provided a large blank chart for the children to record their words as evidence of the different graphemes for the phoneme /k/.
In the subsequent days we did a variety of activities. The children were 'word detectives' hunting for words that contained a grapheme to represent the phoneme /k/. As the children identified the words, they recorded them on a post it note, which I transcribed onto the larger chart. I wanted all the words spelled accurately and it gave me the perfect opportunity to model accurate terminology; as well as to model how to track the phonemes and discuss the circumstances of the grapheme as each word was added.
Through this activity they eventually discovered the fourth digraph <ch> (a surprise to many, even though they knew the spelling of <school>!)

This provided an excellent study in terms of helping and guiding the children to understand:
  • the sequence of phonemes that matter in the word;
  • that graphemes can represent other phonemes;
  • the circumstances of the intended grapheme in the word.
The children discovered independently the circumstances in which the graphemes may be used in a word, drawing conclusions about the specific placement of the different graphemes:

From their discoveries the children hypothesised that:

  • <c> was the most common way to represent /k/ in the initial position;
  • <k> was used medial and often in the final position;
  • <ck> could be used in the final position;
  • not many words used the digraph <ch> to represent /k/.
I wondered with the children... why the digraph <ch> was not a common grapheme to represent the phoneme /k/. This led to an investigation about the origin of <school> using the Word Origin dictionary, (Greek origin). We also studied the words <magic>, <construct>, <koala> and I guided the children through an initial understanding of these words. Some of the words they collected were complex words (not bases) like <construct>; and others provided an etymological investigation like  <koala> which is an Australian word from an extinct Aboriginal language, hence the spelling of the initial <k>.
With all this information the children can now begin to make more informed decisions about grapheme choice.

There are many words such as <caught>, from this rich list that I could have chosen for us to study further but it is important to focus on what is relevant for the learners now. Other words can be extracted for deeper exploration in the future.

An important side trip!
As a result of the children's word detective investigations, we were led on another, but connected, phonological journey.

Some children had chosen these words  <city> <circus> and <cycle>  to place on the phoneme /k/ chart. An excellent misunderstanding to investigate.
I modelled tracking the initial phoneme in these words and they discovered that <c> can also represent /s/.
We constructed another basic chart; this time starting with a grapheme <c>.

Due to their findings we were able to hypothesise that <c> can represent two phonemes /k/ and /s/.
As I recorded these two phonemes with the children I continued to discuss the meaning of the slash and angle brackets; and the symbols enclosed. This concept needed revisiting in many ways as possible throughout the learning process.

We identified words, as evidence for each phoneme, adding these to the grapheme chart. We would continue to build on this initial list of words leading to a further understanding of the convention of when <c> represents the phoneme /s/. There is an engaging practical task in the Real Spelling Toolbox that helps children develop an understanding of this phonological convention. <c> followed by <e> <i> or <y> will represent the phoneme /s/.

Another side trip!
I love that the initial investigation naturally led to many others, often initiated by the children.

As a result of discovering that the digraph <ch> can represent the phoneme /k/ the children started to question and discuss their own understanding of this digraph. For many of the children <ch> only represented //, so it was time to lead them further into the 'woods'.

Once again a phonological chart was constructed and this provided a perfect opportunity to demonstrate some new IPA symbols. With a growing understanding of phonemes and graphemes, I ascertained the children were now prepared to be exposed to this new information. I  showed them the phonetic symbol for // and added another arrow (without the symbol) ready for when they discovered the third phoneme /ʃ/. This phoneme was added when the children discovered it independently with the word <chef>.
Word detectives in action again!
To embed this learning in a meaningful context I constructed a paragraph, through modelled writing, based on our current PYP unit of inquiry. I deliberately added words that contained the <ch> digraph.
The children's task was to identify the words with this particular grapheme.

We always read the words in context, discussed their meaning BEFORE identifying and circling the digraph <ch>.
The words were then added to a grapheme chart I had prepared (with the children), again modelling important terminology and orthographic concepts, including the morphemic structure of the words.
The children recorded the words in the appropriate phoneme column. We discussed the circumstances of the grapheme, hypothesising how the grapheme was used in terms of position,etymology and phonemic information. Our next step will be to investigate more deeply the etymology of these words to build an understanding of the importance of this information. For example; words where <ch> represents /ʃ/ generally means French origin.

Another important side journey during this learning process was to demosntrate how to script the letters more accurately. We used the graphemes, under investigation, to demonstrate how to execute the correct pathways for each letter. First we practised the pathways of the letter on the palm of our hands, taking special note of the entry and exit points and size.
The children  had many opportunities to practice how to accurately scribe the digraph and others.
We are currently working intensively with the children in order to improve their script.
This also involves developing a comfortable pen hold that allows for clear movement through the pathways.
If you have the opportunity in your school I highly recommend implementing Real Script (Real Spelling), using pens as the preferable writing tool. 

And our journey continues...
The children have now discovered that / / can be represented in spelling by either the digraph <ch> or the trigraph <tch> by identifying the word <watch>. We look forward to discovering 'why?' as we head further down the pathway of orthographic learning.

A reflection of our journey...
...starting with one very common phoneme /k/, the children have now discovered and investigated:
  • a wide range of graphemes and phonemes that are connected
  • graphemes can represent different phonemes
  • phonemes can be represented by different graphemes
  • digraphs are teams of two letters representing a phoneme
  • trigraphs are teams of three letters representing a phoneme
  • the IPA symbols
  • the circumstances of the chosen graphemes
...quite an impressive feat for a small group of 6 and 7 year olds!

As the children are writing, for different purposes, we are frequently referring to our new phonological learning in the hope that they begin to use this important knoweldge independently.

To deepen your understanding of Orthographic Phonology study the:

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