#028: Where to Start with Phonological Awareness

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I am so excited that Mikayla and Corey are back again for another episode of the SLP Now podcast!

Their names and voices are probably super familiar because they were also on last week’s episode, A Crash Course in Literacy for SLPs! Pop back and give it a listen if you haven’t already, because it will give you a really solid introduction to all things literacy and help lay the foundation for today’s conversation about phonological awareness.

We’re going to get really specific and tactical with you this week, and break down exactly what we can do to help our students with literacy deficits. 💪

So, grab your beverage of choice (I’ll have a chai latte!), put your feet up, and listen in.

Key Takeaways + Topics Covered

– Reviewing the literacy triangle
– What’s an SLP’s role in phonological awareness?
– Why is it important to spend time focusing on phonological awareness?
– The hierarchy of PA skills
– Key skill areas to focus on
– Sharing strategies with teachers and parents
– How long you typically need to work on these skills to see progress
– Helping students understand why phonological awareness is important
– Connecting phonology → letters → words → sentences, using manipulatives
– Moving between skills with the structured approach
– Staying in sync with the special education teacher
– Ways that SLPs can pull additional PA skills into our sessions
– The structure required for targeting PA vs. the whole literacy triangle

Links + Resources Mentioned in the Podcast

Orton Gillingham
Ascend Smarter Intervention
Click here to access the freebie links!

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Thanks so much!


Marisha: Hi there, and welcome to The SLP Now Podcast. I am so excited that Mikayla and Corey are back again for another episode, we really wanted to be able to dive into phonological awareness and get super specific and tactical with you guys and break down exactly what we can do to help our students with literacy deficits, and these ladies are going to break it down and help it make so much more sense. And if you think you've heard from Corey and Mikayla before, you have. They were here on the last episode, episode 27, so if you want to get the introduction to all things literacy, you might want to head to episode 27 to hear more about their story and how they got to this point, and then also all of the basics to get you a really nice foundation when it comes to literacy.

Marisha: And then just a quick recap in case you're wanting to dive into phonological awareness, Corey and Mikayla are from inaudible spark smarter intervention. And it's a Denver based educational consulting practice, and they are dedicated to getting SPLs the support they need to feel confident in structured literacy intervention. And if you want to hear more about their backgrounds, definitely check out the show notes or head to the last episode. But let's just dive right into all things phonological awareness.

Corey: Yay. That sounds super exciting. I'm so excited to get into this conversation. We love phonological awareness. So excited to get started.

Mikayla: Yes, this is one of my favorite topics, so I'm excited to jump right in.

Marisha: Yes. Okay. So before we dive into all of those practical tips, I'm curious, we talked about this a little bit last week. But maybe let's first just start with a quick recap of the triangle that you told us about, because I think that's a really helpful framework and a good reminder before we get super specific here.

Corey: Yeah, absolutely. So in terms of literacy development, so thinking about reading and writing skills development, we know that there are three core parts to the brain that really needs to come together to create efficiency and effective knowledge of reading and writing. And so those three core components in the brain start with the foundation, which is phonology or phonological awareness. So understanding that sound structure of the English language and how that comes together to create words. And then the second piece that next building block is orthography. So orthography is where we begin to tie visuals. So like the visual picture of a letter onto the sound that it makes. So actually recognizing an A as an A, and recognizing a B as a B would be that orthographic component. Also recognizing that that moves beyond just letters, but recognizing a word as a whole as a word, and just seeing a picture of those letters coming together is the next piece.

Corey: And then the third piece to that triangle, the top of the triangle is semantics. So semantics is really your comprehension of the word or the sentence or the passage that you're reading. And so when we think about those three neural processes coming together, we really like to look at that as a triangle. And we call it the literacy processing triangle. And we have to recognize that all three of those components have to come together at less than half of a second, to have fluency that we need in order to create comprehension. And so what we talked about last week was the critical role that speech language pathologist play in this, recognizing that you are so familiar with the phonology aspect or the sound structure of our language and you're also so knowledgeable in semantics.

Corey: And so really thinking about SLPs role here, it's so important and literacy, and so we're so excited to really dive in deep to that phonological awareness or that phonology section of the triangle because it's so critical in the whole of literacy development.

Marisha: Thank you so much for that breakdown Corey. And then now I'm curious, what is the SLPs role when it comes to phonological awareness?

Corey: Yeah. So I think this is really interesting because I think what we have to keep in mind in addition to the three part framework where we've got that literacy processing triangle, the other thing that we have to recognize in terms of research around reading development is that there's what's known as the big five in reading. And the big five is, phonological awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Corey: So when we start to think about reading skills development and we start to think about where speech language pathologists fit into that big five, those five core components, we recognize that speech language pathologists can really help support development in phonological awareness, in that vocabulary development, in that comprehension development. So definitely when we think about those big five, potentially leaving out the phonics and reading fluency piece because that's potentially someone else's space. That's special education, general education, classroom teacher that's going to be on them. And so again, when we're kind of thinking about that triangle and then those five pillars, we start to look at where can SLPs help to support those abilities that may be falling flat. And so one of the things that we'd like to think about here is, one, we all want to help these kids.

Corey: We know that we went into this field because we want to make a massive difference. And so we need to start thinking about, whose role is it? Is it a speech language pathologist role or is it a special educator or a teacher's role? And one of the things that we have to recognize is that an SLP's role could simply be in training or providing support to the special education team or to the classroom teacher. When we think about phonology as a whole, we know that phonological awareness is a piece of that. The other thing that we would think about is articulation. There's a lot of pieces that fall into this. But when we develop phonological awareness, we are thinking about words without letters, right? We're just thinking about the sounds and how our language breaks down. And so oftentimes SLPs have the best training in phonological awareness, in understanding how language breaks down and how to correct those breakdowns.

Corey: A lot of times phonological awareness has gotten a lot of good press recently. And so there's a lot of teachers who are trying to incorporate this into the classroom. But what we see is we see that they're trying to train some basic skills like how to rhyme and how to break words into syllables, and how to do all of these different things, but they don't necessarily know how it pulls in. And when they start to recognize, uh-oh, Billy can't rhyme or uh-oh Billy can't tell the difference between the B and the V sound. A B and a V for example, or a TH and an F for example, we start to run into problems because teachers and special educators can recognize this breakdown, but we don't necessarily have the training, necessarily to understand how to correct some of those breakdowns. I think big picture and SLPs role could be one, training on the importance of phonological awareness, and then two, helping support when we start to see actual breakdowns.

Mikayla: Yeah. And that's so critical because we know that this phonological awareness skill set is a foundational building block in order for a student to be able to read and to be able to spell. So it's definitely a critical place that we need these students to be honing in on these skills and developing these skills. So SLPs offer a really unique skill set in order to support that.

Marisha: Yeah, that makes so much sense. And thank you for breaking that down for us. We've touched on this a little bit, but we're spread super thin, we talked about this last week and there are so many different skills that we want to target. So why is it particularly important to spend time focusing on phonological awareness? You mentioned that it's like a huge part of literacy and it's part of that triangle under the phonology element, but any other important elements that we would want to address or know about in terms of why it matters?

Corey: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's a great question because even like I mentioned earlier, because there's been a lot of talk, because phonological awareness and phonology are being recognized in all of the research as being critical components of that literacy processing triangle, and of the big five that the national reading panel put together I think the year of 2000 when they put this huge Meta analysis of research together, that was great. And so that started to get incorporated. But what happened was there wasn't necessarily a connection of why it mattered or what it was helping to support. And so we know that it's a foundational building block because if students cannot begin to isolate the individual sounds that you're getting in your words, and start to be able to blend those sounds together or pull those sounds apart, we can't sound out words.

Corey: So for so long we've been telling students, we'll sound it out, sound it out. That's all well and good, but they didn't have the skills necessary to be able to sound it out for reading or spelling, because we weren't necessarily connecting. Why are we teaching how many syllables are in this word? Why are we teaching how many sounds are in this word? And so it's important that we're spending time focusing on that because we're asking students again and again and again sound it out, sound it out, sound it out.

Corey: Well, we have to help them understand if you understand the sounds of our language and you understand how they blend together to create words, and you understand how they pull apart to spell words, then we can start to ask them to sound things out without getting blank stares. Because so often we're I'm getting people, parents, and sometimes even educators asking students to sound out words like night, well you're trying to sound out words like night, and you've got a problem because what you have to recognize is that we only have three sounds, N, ight and that I sound is actually comprised of the orthographic pattern. I-G-H. So I-G-H saying I in that.

Corey: And so we have to start teaching students the background and the basis before we can start pairing those letter groups and pairing those orthographic patterns on. And ultimately that's going to impact comprehension as well, because sometimes we're getting breakdowns in different words in the way that we say it. So we talked about a potential phonology breakdown of not understanding the difference between TH and F. Well, if we don't hear or we don't perceive the difference or we can't produce the difference between TH and F, all of a sudden we can't pair an orthographic pattern appropriately. And the difference between the word thin with a TH and fin with an F, has a different semantic category, has a different meaning.

Corey: And so all of a sudden what we recognize is if we don't have that kind of core foundation, we are breaking down in that orthographic side, which is also that phonics kind of pairing as well as that semantics piece or that comprehension piece. So I think that's why it's so important to spend time there because it's really the bottom layer of this Jenga tower that we're thinking about, it has to be in place for these students.

Marisha: Yeah, I love that breakdown. And this reminds me a little bit of the conversation that we had last time. Like the example that you gave with night, like all SLPs know that that is three sounds, and we know a lot of these things that we take for granted, we think, oh, if I know that everyone must know that, especially the special education teacher. But sometimes it's not common knowledge, especially in the general education classroom. So we do bring that really unique skill set, and I think these types of conversations are particularly helpful in helping us identify our own superpowers in the areas that we are very knowledgeable about. So thank you for that breakdown and thank you for that reminder too, because I think that's so incredibly important.

Marisha: Just kind of a side note, we were talking about this before we went live. But we don't always feel like we have the knowledge or anything to contribute when it comes to literacy, but I hope that after Mikayla and Corey have broken this down for us, that you realize that you have so many skills as an SLP that make you an integral part of this team when it comes to helping students with literacy deficits. So if you don't have any other takeaways, I hope you walk away with that one, because that's such an important component. And I don't know if either of you have anything that you wanted to add to that?

Corey: I think that's so true. I just agree with that so much because I think the other thing that you may not recognize at this point is that you are a missing link to a lot of this. And I think not recognizing that the background and the training of other people is just so very different. And I think a lot of times we think that other people have more in depth knowledge of some of these things than they actually do. And so again, coming from this background and this training, we were sort of told, you need to hit on all of these things, but we weren't necessarily told why or how that contributed to the bigger whole. And so I think it's so important that as an SLP also just being able to make that connection for students like, hey, the work that we're doing in here, this is why we're doing it and this is how it impacts.

Corey: And also recognizing that sometimes you're having to fight for services a little bit for a student. You may have a student on caseload that this school is saying, well we're going to have to discharge them from services because there's no educational impact. Well hopefully this conversation can help you to see when we do have these breakdowns, there is an educational impact for sure.

Mikayla: Yeah, I think you absolutely hit the nail on the head because so often when we're working with SLPs we'll hear, well literacy's not my space. And it absolutely is and it absolutely can be. And like Corey mentioned in the last episode, when a student has inaudible students that have language disorders, there is a high risk of them having a literacy based disorder as well. So being able to take your amazing superpowers as you put it, and generalize those into the literacy space is going to do an amazing service for these students.

Corey: And it's not meant to step on special educators toes. It's not meant to do that. It's meant to supplement to augment, to really help support what it is that they're doing. And sometimes I think it's just about the communication of, hey, here's what I had and here's what I can offer, and tell me a little bit more about what it looks like in your session. And I think just opening that up so that they don't feel like, oh, this is my space for it, it's this tug of war of like whose space is at. Well really it's all of our space, let's just sit down and have a conversation about what I'm doing in my sessions and what you're doing in yours so that we can see where there's some give and take, because I get it as an SLP, you have a crazy caseload and you may have a number of different things that you're working on. So if there's anything you can hand off, great, let's just do some trainings so we can hand some of these things off, but make sure that they understand the why behind all of it.

Mikayla: That team based approach is definitely going to serve the students worlds better than having different segmented pieces. So the communication piece there is going to be huge.

Marisha: Yes. Yeah. Having that team approach is definitely huge. And I love all of the tips and strategies that you're sharing to totally make that possible. Because Mikayla said that some SLPs are saying that literacy isn't their space, and hopefully you've gotten enough information from here to realize that it is your space, you are helping with those building blocks. And then there's also information from ASHA saying that literacy is also in our space. So it's definitely in our scope of practice. It's not just some random new thing that's coming up, it's something that we definitely have the foundational skills for and ASHA supports that as part of our scope of practice as well. So we got a little bit of a different discussion. And so we'll bring it back to phonological awareness. But I do think that was super important just to bring home again. But can you help us break down the hierarchy of phonological awareness skills, what are we looking at here?

Corey: Yeah, absolutely. So I'm going to let Mikayla speak a little bit to this, but I think it is important to recognize that there is a very clear hierarchy of the way that these skills can come together, but also keeping in mind that you may have, this is kind of like a Jenga tower too. We like to use our analogies in things, and so phonological awareness skills even on their own can be a little bit of a Jenga Tower. And so really it is kind of figuring out where you may have holes and gaps, but I'll let Mikayla speak a little bit to that hierarchy of skills.

Mikayla: Absolutely. There is an absolute hierarchy to these. But I do want to note as well that sometimes students will have gaps that we'll talk about a little bit later, where even though we are teaching in a hierarchy and we're looking at it, sometimes a student will have a gap that falls further down on the hierarchy, but they're able to do more advanced skills. But we'll get into that later. I'm getting ahead of myself there. But in terms of the hierarchy, when we're looking at segmenting, for example, we will have a student first learn how to segment sentences before they move into syllables and sounds. So if the sentence is, the cat sat under the window, they're going to know that there's six words in that sentence before they're able to say, okay, the word under is two syllables, window is two syllables. And then even further that window has the sounds, w, i, n, d, ow there's five sounds.

Mikayla: And the same goes for blending. So being able to put words into a sentence, put syllables together. For example, if I gave the students the syllable can, did, what word is that? The word is candid. That's going to be an easier scope for them to accomplish before we then give them sounds and have them put together these sounds in a word, for example, s, l, i, p, er is the word slipper, that's going to be more advanced than putting together the syllables. So there absolutely is a hierarchy that we'll work through and we're teaching phonological awareness skills. And we'll look at all of that when we're testing phonological awareness skills as well.

Corey: And we have a resource that we use in terms of when we are getting a baseline assessment or when we are progress monitoring in really the way in which we're pulling those skills together. So one of the first things, and these are things that you guys are looking at too oftentimes in your assessments and in things like that, but for example, one of the first things we would want to look at is sentence repetition. Can they just a sentence back to you. That's going to be the first level of blending. And then after that we would look at sentence segmenting. So if you give them a sentence, can they tell you each of those words? So that's kind of like step one. And then the next step would be looking at rhyming skills. So the first one that we would want to look at would be can a student identify when two words rhyme.

Corey: So if you give them two words, can they say yes, those two words rhyme or no, those two words do not rhyme. Again, this is when we're starting to very basically play with sounds of words and recognizing those sounds of words. Can we hear it? After that rhyme discrimination, we want to look at Ryan production. Can they produce a rhyme for me. So if I give them a word can they produce a word that rhymes with that? So moving from that sentence level on to that rhyming or whole word level, then we would start to look at sound isolation. So can they isolate the first sound in a word? Can they tell you what's the first sound in bat? What's the first sound in thin? We can start to do that. And then we would look at final sound. So can we start to isolate the final sound in a word?

Corey: After that final sound isolation, then we might start looking at medial sound in a word, before we start breaking down to more of that isolation. But just being able to tell like what's the first sound, what's the last sound, what are the sounds that you're hearing? And then from there we'll kind of jump into what Mikayla was talking about even more, we want to start looking at blending and segmenting at both the syllable and the sound level. So again, we do have like kind of a step by step hierarchy based on norms of like when students should be developing each of these skills. But we can definitely attach a little chart for you guys for that hierarchy because there definitely, definitely is one.

Marisha: That's super helpful. And then do you have any norms in terms of what we should expect based on a certain age? Do we expect the students to have these skills a certain level in kindergarten, first grade, or do you have any broad expectations just to put a typical developing age on it?

Corey: Absolutely. So big picture, if you're working with students fourth grade and up, they should be able to do all of these skills. They should able to manipulate, they should be able to substitute sounds in words. They should be able to really understand the sound structure and be pretty fluent with that. Sometimes it still takes a little bit of work. I know when I was working at children's hospital, I worked under a neuro psychologist who would always like to give me a little quizzes. I felt like he was constantly assessing my IQ for me. But he would always give us like little like, say you know this word backward or what's sail backward? And so I'm kind of having to think like, s, a, il, il, a, s place.

Corey: But you would expect by fourth grade that students generally can have all of those skills. It might take a little bit of time. What I'm saying here is you might not have a huge automaticity, but definitely you should have those skills in place. And when we start working backward, if you're working with students who are in kinder through third or even kind of that pre-K through third, yes, there's definitely developmental norms that we would expect for each of those areas. So, typically when we're looking at pre-K, kindergarten, we want students to have at least about 80 to 90% accuracy in their ability to recall sentences for you.

Corey: So I know with a lot of our speech language students, they really struggle with repeating back sentences, but they should be able to repeat back four to five word sentences to you with accuracy. They should also have accuracy with rhyming. So being able to detect, rhyme, being able to produce rhyme, and they may start to be able to move into that phoneme isolation space. So that's kind of that beginning spot there. Once you get into first and second grade, you would expect that those skills that they should have already had mastered are clearly fully mastered, and at that point we start to expect that they can manipulate well, at the syllable level. So if we're asking them to blend syllables together, if we're asking them to segment syllables into each of their individuals, they should be able to do that with at least 90% accuracy at that age.

Corey: By the time, and I again, I kind of grouped first and second grade together, but also looking at second grade into third, fourth grade, that's when we should start to be able to also isolate and blend segment individual phoniums, individual sounds into their own pieces. So we're starting to get more and more granular as we're going and we expect them to have really that 90%. Sometimes I say 80, but really 90% is going to be showing mastery on something, I know as somebody who loves data, sometimes I only have time for five trials. So that's why I'll say 80% accuracy sometimes, but I just want to throw that out there. But that they should be showing you mastery of all the way into those sound level skills. And then by the time we're in fourth grade and above, again, we should be able to manipulate and we should be in all those higher level skills.

Corey: So in this chart that we're going to give you, it breaks that down for you and kind of what your expectation of what your norm is for each of those, so that you just have that and you can use it and you're not trying to like piece this together as I'm like talking about it.

Marisha: That is so helpful. I am really excited that we have like some more specific guidelines to go with, because we often don't get that. So I so appreciate that. That was amazing and I cannot wait to get that chart into people's hands. That is amazing. So anything else that you wanted to touch on when it comes to the hierarchy of these skills?

Corey: I don't think so. And I think part of the reason is because we know that these skills really do come in a hierarchy. And so obviously if we're working with kindergarten students, we don't want to be doing complex phonological manipulation skills expecting that they have these skills in place. But like Mikayla mentioned, I think a lot of times it's going to be important that we take a really holistic view of the fact that all of these skills are necessary to be able to read rights, and just manipulate, just spoken language as a whole we're going to need all of them. And so sometimes in terms of how we're working through these things, it doesn't necessarily look like that, it doesn't look like, okay, first we're going to hit this and then we're going to hit this. So we'll talk about that. That's why I say like, no, in terms of the hierarchy, yes, there definitely is one, but we don't have to hold ourselves with the, like, it must be this way. I must teach it this way.

Marisha: Okay. Awesome. That helps. So now let's get into some therapy. So what would this look like in terms of our sessions and what we're working on with students?

Corey: Yeah, I'll let Mikayla throw some ideas out for you.

Mikayla: Yeah. So I think at the easiest level it would definitely just be when you're with a student and you have a word that you're working on, pulling in some of those questions and those tasks like, hey, how many syllables are in this word or how many sounds are in this word? To start getting them segmenting that and being able to break them down. Or you can also flip that and say, I'm going to give you sounds. I know in the last episode Corey had said, you can give the student inaudible what word is that, if they're working on that c, sound? So definitely being able to do that. A fun way you can do it. This is getting a little bit more into executive functioning and working memory. I like to play a game sometimes with my students where I see how many words, I'm sorry, how many sounds they can hold on to and repeat back to me, and it doesn't have to make a word you can just give them inaudible Can you repeat them back? Kind of like the sentences that Corey mentioned early and repeating them back. It would be done the same way, but with sounds.

Mikayla: So those are great ways to pull them into your sessions. Another big thing that we want to make sure we're doing however, is helping them understand why we're doing this. Because if you're just asking them to break words into syllables, and you're not explaining why or you're not explaining why it's important to know how to rhyme, and why it's important to know that an F and a TH make different sounds. It's not going to land for your students and it's going to be really difficult for them to take these skills, buy into, wanting to improve these skills and then apply and generalize them as well.

Corey: Yeah, and I think that's so critical. And I think that's the missing component that I think can be really critical, as an SLP working with these students. Because again, like I mentioned before phonological awareness has gotten some good press recently in terms of how important it is. And so when I went to observe my own kiddos in their classes, what I saw was that teachers were doing a nice job of like, what's the word that rhymes with this? Or doing a nice job of how many syllables in this word? But I think what's going to be critical is starting to pair that to, if I'm asking you to count how many words are in a syllable, the reason that I'm doing that is because that's how we spell words. So for example, if we were targeting that c, sound in therapy again, and we wanted to do the word cupcake, okay, let's take that word cupcake.

Corey: How many syllables in cupcake? Two. All right, let's go ahead and just take a little whiteboard or take a piece of paper and let's make two scoops. So we call this our scoop spelling. So I'm going to make two scoops for cup, cake. And then what we can do is, okay, let's take the first syllable cup. How many sounds do you hear in cup? And have them just draw a little line, I hear, c, u, p in cup. What you can do then at that point is what's the sound we were working on today? Can they find it? Can they isolate? Where was that initial c sound? And they can be like, oh it's that first sound. You're right. That first sound in the word cupcake that we were just talking about is at the beginning of the word. Great.

Corey: Now let's move on to the second syllable. What's the second syllable? Cake. Okay, great. Let's go ahead and how many sounds do we hear in cake? C, a, ke. Okay, perfect. We're going to go ahead and make three lines for cake. Where do you hear the sounds? Oh, that first sound and that last sound were also that sound that we were targeting. And so what that can start to do is again, then we have to start to get into like, okay, well why do we spell it with an E at the end? Which is really not necessarily, unless you're diving into literacy as a whole thing, you don't necessarily have to worry about why, you can just say, oh, and there's an E at the end that doesn't say anything, how crazy is that? And that's plenty. But the good thing is, is that it's continuing to solidify what were you working on? What were you working on? What sounds were you targeting while also pulling out phonological awareness right into it so that they start to see, this is how we spell? That's why we care about it because this is how we spell. Or when Mikayla gave the example of like, why does it matter how many sounds I can hold on to?

Corey: Well, because when trying to sound out a word, we have to hold on to each one of those individual sounds, each one of those individual phonemes long enough to blend the whole segment together. And so oftentimes what we do and the reason that we need to teach students to blend sounds together and then to blend syllables together, is because when we've got multisyllabic words that we're trying to help support them with, we have to take the first syllable and we have to look at each individual letter or think about each individual sound. For example, if they were trying to read the word cupcake, they would have to hold onto c, u, p. What word did you just say? Or what syllable did you just say? Cup.

Corey: Okay, let's move on to the second one. C, a, ke. Okay. You just blended that together. What syllable did you just make? Cake. Okay, you told me cup, cake. What's the entire word? Cupcake. And so what we have to do is we have to make it clear when we are focusing on these phonological awareness skills, we are not doing it because it's just fun. We are not just doing it because we should do it, and somebody told us that it was one of the five core components of reading. We are doing it because it explicitly and directly correlates to reading and spelling. So I think in terms of what that looks like, it doesn't have to be hard. It doesn't have to be something that you have task cards for.

Corey: I love some task cards. I absolutely love it. And I think also if ever you have mixed groups and you realize you've got a student who has phonological awareness struggles, you can definitely use those task cards that have the word that then breaks it down to like how many syllables are in this word. But I think you don't even have to do that, you can just use whatever it is that you're targeting, whatever words, whatever patterns you're doing, and just tie it in just like that. Like I'm going to pull one word out of this and let's do this fun little activity with it.

Marisha: Yeah. And I love that scoop spelling example. Because I have read some studies where they just use like blocks and other manipulatives instead of actually going into the orthography components. Is that something that you ever do or have you read anything about that?

Corey: For sure. We do that a lot. And a lot of times if you're not trying to target orthography at all, you don't need to. And in fact most of the time, we use, hold on Mikayla she's got all kinds of fun things. But yeah, we definitely used manipulatives instead. The one thing that we do want to do is, at the very least have the instructor then go then pair that orthography to it at the end. Like, great, we're just focusing on sounds but I just want to show you that connection because that's what's missing, is that connection between, okay, great, but why? And that's even something that perhaps you just shoot over to your special education team, or the classroom teacher is, here's this great strategy, this is how we focus on the sound level, the phonology level. Now they need to go tie the orthography in. But somebody has to connect to that because what happens is nobody else is and they expect students to pick up on that implicitly.

Corey: And our struggling students really struggle with implicit learning. So we can't just expect like, we taught phonological awareness, we taught all the letters. So now it all make sense. It doesn't make sense unless we show them. But yeah, Mikayla you can kind of jump into manipulatives.

Mikayla: Yeah. So I can explain a little bit about how we go from our phonological awareness task using those manipulatives to connecting it to written letters to words, to sentences. So whenever we get to the part of our lesson where we are going to do phonological awareness, we will use manipulatives. And I have like Corey said used a number of different things from Unifix Cubes to just these little tiny counter chips. If you're going to get those I recommend getting the magnetic ones because when a student knocks a hundred counter chips over onto the floor, they're a nightmare to pick up. But I've used all of those, and I just used different colored items so that students have something to move around and have a visual to tie those sounds too. So if they are trying to use counter chips to spell out or to represent the sounds in the word milk, again they'd have a different chip for m, i, l, k.

Mikayla: And then from there you can have them change different sound within a word by replacing the different chips and move through your phonological awareness activity. After we do that, we will move into our auditory drill, where we then give them a single sound and they need to come up with all of the different ways to produce that sound. So if it's, I, I know earlier Corey brought up the word night, I-G-H is going to make that I sound, but so will the letter I by itself. So knowing all of the different ways to produce that sound, or if it's the found A knowing A can say, A, AI, AY EA. There's a whole host of different things that will make that sound. And then we'll go into spelling and do the scoop spelling thing that Corey mentioned earlier, and we can say if we want to get even deeper into it, okay, if we're spelling cake with that A sound, that's where we'll get into more of those literacy-based rules to know which sounded to use.

Mikayla: I wouldn't go totally down that rabbit hole. We can save that for another podcast. But we do try to very explicitly connected for a student, how we're moving from using those little counter chips to putting that into word and then putting those words into sentences. Because oftentimes, like Courtney said, they don't just implicitly pick up on that. And as an instructor, that took me awhile to recognize, and students ask one day, they're like, I don't understand why we do this every week, and it was at that point I realized that I needed to actually very explicitly explain to them, we do the phonological awareness and our auditory drill activities because when you are spelling a word, that's the process your brain needs to go through to be able to register, okay what letters do I need to put into this word? inaudible they need to go in and how do they then put into correctly spelled word.

Mikayla: If you don't have manipulatives like that and you want to still do an activity where a student has that visual, there were days where I forgot my manipulatives or I didn't have them and I've used paperclips or I've used crayons or highlighters. Just something that the student can physically manipulate and have that colored visual, has been helpful enough for them to be able to do that task. You don't need to go and buy fancy things as much as we love the pretty Unifix Cubes and the little counter chips and kids like them. They're not necessary as long as you have something you can use.

Corey: And I think it's so important to just be thinking again about like, in your sessions. One, I think the most critical component is recognizing how this plays a bigger part. And then two, recognizing like with the orthography component or with understanding all the different ways we could get the I sound or all the different ways we could get the E sound, all of those pieces. Really what you can start to do is take a look at from your special education team or your classroom teacher, how are they teaching these things? Are there ways that you can just do that training of here's a great way to help your students with those literacy components specifically just in the general classroom? So this might be an opportunity where you start to teach the students a little bit how to do that just with words that you're using at the very least, breaking words into syllables and sounds and then blending syllables and sounds.

Corey: If I had to think about like the four key phonological awareness tasks, if I could not focus on any of the others, the four key ones that I would focus on would be syllable blending and segmenting, and phoneme blending and segmenting, because that's the literacy component. That's what we absolutely need. Now, clearly if you're working on articulation, if you're working on other things, there might be other times where you need to do more complex manipulation. But at the very least, trying to incorporate that into your session, and just using some of those strategies or those manipulatives or things to teach them how to do it. And then showing the classroom teacher, hey, if you're doing spelling word list, hey, if you're working on some of these things, here are some strategies that you can use as more of a push in model, or more of kind of that training support model to help make sure that some of these things are actually happening more in the classroom.

Corey: I would just say if you're working on some of these articulation pieces or things like that anyway, it's a great opportunity to bridge that gap and show them how it connects again to that literacy piece.

Marisha: I love the idea of sharing this strategy with teachers because I'm sure they'll be grateful for ideas to help support their students, but it also helps bridge that gap because sometimes the skills that we target in our speech, like they just stay in speech and the students don't know that they can use that to help them with their spelling. So I definitely think that talking to them about the why and discussing it there with the student is really helpful. But if you can share that with the teachers and have them use the same kind of language and examples around it, that's so incredibly powerful. I love that.

Corey: Yeah. We've even started using that as code practice for our parents. So trying to teach parents these things because a lot of times what happens is the things that you're teaching in therapy, it's hard because they don't generalize as quickly as they could because you don't have support in the classroom or you don't have support at home. And so we even started giving little spelling word list and things. So again, I know oftentimes in speech therapy you're giving a word list of different sound patterns that you potentially want targeted. For example, that might just be one type of home practice activity that you would give. What you could do is you could also just give a little phonological awareness task as part of that. So if we have a bunch of different words that are targeting that c sound, have the student go through and mark, we just make little grids, which again, happy to share with you. But little grids where they then need to mark each of the sounds that they hear in that word.

Corey: So again, they're just taking what they're doing and they're doing it at a deeper level. They're having more opportunities to look at that a little bit differently, and parents start to feel more empowered so that you don't get parents who are hoping to help, trying to help but are actually harming things. Like, for example, for us, when we have parents who are telling their kids sound out the word, sound out the word and we're like, ah, but actually don't because that's not a strategy that's working. This is just a way to help bridge the gap between classroom and home as well. So just keeping that in mind too.

Marisha: Yeah, so helpful. And I always curious too, because you mentioned like syncing up with what the special education teacher was doing. And I'm curious like let's say that the special education teacher is using a structured literacy approach and they're working through all of that orthography. What would be the best way if we're doing some of those phonological activities you mentioned, like the top four and you gave some ideas that we could embed that, but is there anything that we need to watch out for or anything that we could do to like have even more impact with what we're doing?

Corey: Yeah, so honestly I think there's a lot of value in doing this in one of two ways. So keeping in mind that there's not a right or a wrong way, I think there's two ways that you can do this and have it be really effective. So one of the things is if you do have a special education team who is working through a structured systematic scope and sequence, at the very least just knowing it is just saying ahead of time, like, hey, do you have an order in which you're teaching these phonogram patterns or these orthographic patterns that they're going to need to be looking at? Hopefully they do. Hopefully they're using an approach like that, but if so just kind of being connected on what that is, so that if there's ever a time where you have overlap and you are focusing on a specific pattern or a specific target for the kiddo, and it aligns or sort of overlaps with something that the special education teacher might be doing, that could be really great, you could even just ask the student like, hey, what did you learn about with miss or Mr. So, and so like, what was that pattern? Tell me a little bit about it. And see if you can pull in some words that would also target what you're doing.

Corey: So if you're working on a language component and you have a vocabulary word that kind of aligns with that pattern, great. Or if you're working on articulation for example, and you have a word that might align with that pattern. Great. That's awesome. That's great. That's also a lot of work. I get that. That's like, yeah, I don't have time for that. No judgment here, I completely understand that. So if at all possible, that's awesome. Like if everybody can kind of get on the same page, that's great. If that's not possible, then I think the other opportunity that you have here that you have to recognize is that even if you're out of sync with the scope and sequence that the special education teacher is teaching, you are still helping to generalize these skills.

Corey: I think too often using kind of that Orton Gillingham approach, what happened is we got so stuck on kids can only read these words and they can only practice these words and they only focus on these words, that they didn't see how it applied to any other context. And so I think it's important to even recognize that even if you have no communication with the special education team at all, which I don't recommend, but I know it's a reality sometimes, is just continuing to do it with the words that you are using, recognizing that some of the things might be beyond the scope or the pattern that the child knows, but that they'll start to see, hey, you may not have learned this yet, but I'm just exposing you to it. I'm giving you exposure, so that at a time when that becomes more relevant, you're like, oh yeah, I know that. I remember that.

Corey: And that offers significant value too. So I don't ever want people to think like, Oh, if I'm not completely in sync with my special education teacher, I'm doing kids a ton of harm, no, that's not necessarily the case at all. Just use your words, use your targets and see when and if you can kind of pull some of these things in.

Marisha: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And thank you for breaking that down. And then I'm also curious in terms of like you gave us this hierarchy and for some of the examples, because it sounds like students first learn to identify, like it's easier to isolate the first sound in a word and then it's second easiest to do the final sound and the middle sound or the medial sound is the hardest. So if we're embedding this into our therapy, should we just focus on the first sound until they get that or is it okay to do like first and final or should we do all three altogether? Any tips and suggestions in terms of that implementation going down the hierarchy?

Corey: Yeah, I think it depends on the age of your students really and who you're working with. So if you're working with a kindergarten group, we wouldn't necessarily be expecting them to be able to isolate each of the different sounds in words and being able to recognize that. And so in that case, you do want to kind of use that hierarchy as a benchmark for what do I need to be teaching? Like, what are the skills that they should have? We don't want to work on things that are developmentally inappropriate clearly. But, if you have students who are in that even second grade and up, by the time they're in second grade and up, they really should be able to identify individual syllables, individual sounds and words. At that point, it's okay to start requiring more from them.

Corey: It's a little bit tricky because you don't want to overwhelm students and so it's a little bit student dependent on what that looks like. But for example, in our curriculum, one of the key pieces that we always work on is phoneme manipulation. So like changing sounds. So for example, Mikayla gave the example of milk, okay, what if we change the first sound in milk to s. Great, now we have silk. And we can kind of do some of those things. So we always work on phoneme manipulation, even though it's the most complicated task that a student will have.

Corey: What we can start to do though is then work backwards to fill in any of those other gaps. So I think what's important here is that yes, you could foreseeably work on all of those things at once. Or if you've got groups of students, you might have students working on different pieces, it's helpful for them to see how it all comes together. When we work too long on one isolated skill, they get kind of stuck. And again, not seeing how this fits into the big picture. And so it's good for them to have exposure to all of those different pieces to see this is just how we play with language, we're just going to play with words a little bit here. It's really important.

Marisha: Yeah, that makes so much sense. Thank you for that. And then, let's see. I know there's so many variables here, but in terms of working through the phonological awareness hierarchy, I know we have the development and we expect those skills to be in place around fourth grade. But I'm curious, how long do you end up working on that? What ages do you work through? And if you start working, hopefully we're working with these students before fourth grade. But I'm just curious in terms of the timing and how long we would expect to work on a skill if we're working on that rhyming, how long do you typically spend on that or if you have a range before a student masters that?

Corey: Yeah, and that's so depends. It really depends on the student. I think what I always keep in mind as a clinician and an educator is, what is the end goal? So I don't want to teach rhyming just for the sake of rhyming. We understand that this is kind of a foundational piece. But the reason that we teach rhyming is to help make spelling hopefully a little bit more fluent for students, or reading a little bit more fluent for students so that they can start to recognize some of those patterns. And so I think there's two parts to answer your question. I think one, we don't want to spend more time than we need to, if the outcome of phonological awareness is met. So the reason again that we're going to teach phonological awareness is because one, that's how we make sure that we're articulating properly, that we've got all of the individual sounds and the words have come out correctly.

Corey: So if you've got a student who is struggling with that articulation or production piece, you need to work on these things as long as you need until you've got adequate performance on the outcome measure. So phonological awareness in itself is not the outcome, the outcome is that we can produce sounds with intelligibility or the outcome is that we can blend sounds together when we're reading, to be able to read appropriately or we can segment sounds appropriately so that we can spell correctly. So I think the first piece of that is I would never work on a goal, if the end goal has already been attained. So if they're already articulating appropriately, and they can blend patterns together long enough to read or spell, that's going to be the key piece. If you have a student who doesn't have these individual phonological awareness pieces in place and they continue to struggle with articulation, reading or spelling, then it's one of those things that you sort of need to work on it as long as it takes, to get the desired outcome.

Corey: For us, I know Mikayla you might be able to speak a little bit to this too, but in terms of how long it takes, it's so student dependent and some of our students continue to struggle with it longer than we would like to see. But I would say typically students once they've been exposed to it, can start to get the gist or the pattern of this within about three to six months of ongoing therapy and exposure to it more or faster if you can get the teacher on board, and even faster if you can get parents on board. But I would definitely not spend a ton, a ton of time focusing on each individual piece unless you can see how it's specifically impacting the outcome that it's hindering.

Mikayla: Yeah, I would agree with that three to six months typical range. Again, very student dependent, and Corey you can talk maybe more to this as well, but I'm typically seeing if it's taking a student a lot longer than that, it might be more of an issue or at least worth looking into the issue of a working memory or attention concern as well. Especially if they've had that explicit instruction from me, from their teacher, from any other supports and then parents, that's always a red flag for me that's inaudible going on as well. But yes, definitely around that three to six months. And then we're also really careful when Corey said that we will absolutely hit on this as long as it takes to get students that end goal.

Mikayla: If we have a student that's coming in, like you said before, hopefully we're seeing them before fourth grade, but if I have a seventh grader coming in, I'm going to be a little bit more careful about how I introduce some of these tasks, especially ones like rhyming because while they can still be important to get that desired outcome, we want to make sure that the students feel like they're being respected as well and that they're not doing baby work as often or not as often we are very careful, but as is often a concern.

Marisha: Yeah. So helpful. And I think that I really love how you focused in on the final outcome, because no one's going to get a job because they can rhyme. But being able to read and spell will definitely impact that. So I think that is such a great reminder, because we're wanting to embed that and share that with our students as we're going through these tasks, and that's what we're all ultimately working towards. So that is an amazing reminder. And then just one last question because you've been talking about this structured literacy program and I think you've kind of alluded to the answer through your different examples here. But does an SLP need to use a structured program or do they have to have a really expanded set of materials to teach phonological awareness correctly?

Corey: So yeah, I'll let Mikayla talk about this. But this is crazy because I've heard this come up a lot. So it's an interesting point.

Mikayla: Yeah. So I would say no. If you are looking again to pull in the full literacy, processing triangle and hit everything, that's where we much more require a structured and systematic approach. But if you are kind of hit on phonological awareness as its own literacy sprinkle, and pulling it into your sessions, it can be so much more off the cuff, it can be just a verbal response with the students. So asking them, okay, you're working on the word milk again, how many sounds are in there? Let's change m to s. And just going off of that without any of those fancy materials or a complete structure program.

Corey: I think what is important with considering a structured program, I think the benefit to that is that we're not leaving things out. Right? So I definitely agree with Mikayla, we do not need to use a structured program. We do not necessarily need to use structured materials. But what we do need to know is we do need to have some type of baseline or some type of assessment that helps us to recognize where those holes and those gaps are occurring. Because otherwise, what sometimes will happen is, as we mentioned earlier, you'll have a student who's struggling either with articulation, who's struggling with reading, who's struggling with spelling. And we know that we have a phonological awareness breakdown, but we're not entirely sure where it is. That's where having a hierarchy and recognizing that there are distinct categories of phonological awareness are so important.

Corey: And so when we're looking at assessment and we're thinking about, for example, all the comprehensive test of phonological processing is a really great measure. I absolutely love it. I think it gives a ton of very valuable data. But what it doesn't do is it does not break those phonological awareness skills down for you very far. And so you need to recognize that you may need to do some assessment and take some data to figure out from that hierarchy, and that sort of systematic building, where are the holes and the gaps. So if we look at that Jenga Tower of phonological awareness skills, where are those? And we can just fill them in, we don't need to build from the bottom up like we would need to do with a full structured literacy or Orton Gillingham approach to literacy, phonological awareness is a little bit different in that.

Marisha: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I think that's true for anything that we do. We want to have data to show why we're working on the skills that we're working on, and use that to support. And then we also need that to make sure the students are making adequate progress and that what we're doing is working. So that makes a ton of sense. And you're speaking to my database, clinician heart. I wanted to share that.

Corey: It's just so important again, to make sure that we keep in mind, like we've reiterated a few times here, phonological awareness is not your end goal. So we want to one, make sure that our phonological awareness scores are going up, that we're targeting the right places, but that ultimately that's moving the needle on whatever the end goal is. Because, we don't want to focus just on data for like this one point and be like, yoo-hoo we made 100%, but my articulation's still awful, or but my spelling is still awful, then it's like, well, great, we targeted the underlying concept and it didn't help support the end goal. So we've got to focus on both of those data points.

Marisha: Yes, I love it. Well. Thank you Corey and Mikayla so much for breaking this down for us. If you want to find any of the resources that we mentioned today, you can find them @slpnow.com/28. And thank you again. I so appreciate you sharing all of your time and expertise with us.

Corey: Of course. Thank you so much for having us.



Hi there! I'm Marisha. I am a school-based SLP who is all about working smarter, not harder. I created the SLP Now Membership and love sharing tips and tricks to help you save time so you can focus on what matters most--your students AND yourself.

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