Pedagogical manual for Madam Word, by Brigitte Stanké, Ph.D.

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Introduction

Madam Word is based on the most recent research on learning how to read and spell, and on the difficulties it can bring. It is designed so that children can evolve at their own pace and learn the needed skills to read and spell words. This application considers the required abilities and the cognitive skills children need to progress, as well as provides verbal feedback to support learning. In addition, the various offered activities enable children to learn through action. It is important to note that the use of this application can in no way replace the explicit teaching of reading and spelling. 

Madam Word mostly targets children aged 6 to 10 years old; certain games can be appropriate for children aged 5 years old. 

Madam Word offers seven activities to develop the necessary abilities to learn to read and spell, namely phonological awareness and orthographic memory. In terms of phonological awareness, special attention was placed on phonemic awareness acquisition; this ability necessary to learn to spell is problematic for children at risk of presenting learning problems. Each phonological processing activity offers increasing levels of complexity.

Madam Word can also serve as a rehabilitation tool for children presenting with learning difficulties with reading and spelling. Rehabilitation will consist of developing lacking processes, while strengthening those already functional. 

The words chosen in different activities are based on characteristics of the English writing and phonological system, their frequency of use, as well as the possibility to illustrate them. Every person who intervenes with children (speech-language pathologist, special education teacher, teacher, parent) can greatly benefit from this application. 

Some definitions

Phonological awareness

All activities relating to thinking about and processing sounds as opposed to their spontaneous use in communication activities. Phonologically, this reflection relates to the fact that the language contains a series of meaningless, manipulable, and combinable sound elements. Certain phonological awareness skills only develop by the formal learning of writing or from explicit instruction. Their mastery is revealed essential for a competent reader and speller.

Phoneme-grapheme correspondence

Relationship between the sounds and their written form, the letters.

Fricative

Consonant sound produced by partially obstructing the airflow from the larynx (l, r, f, v, s, z, sh, g [soft], h, x) 

Phoneme Blending

Assembly of phonemes. For example, the word as is formed by blending the two phonemes a and s.

Syllable Blending

Assembly of syllables. For example, the word shovel is formed by merging the syllables sho and vel.

Grapheme

The smallest written unit in a word. In our alphabetical system, the grapheme is the letter or group of letters that is used to represent each phoneme in a word. For example, the word spoon is made of four graphemes (s, p, oo, n). The number of graphemes always corresponds to the number of phonemes in a word.

Spelling Lexicon

Set of orthographic knowledge on graphemes, written syllables, and words.

Exception Words

Word containing a phoneme that can be represented by two different graphemes. For example, in French, the o sound can be represented 46 different ways (o, au, eau, eaux, eault, ho, etc.)! Comparatively, in English, the long o sound can be represented six different ways (o; oa; oe; ough; ow; o - e, i.e., o in the middle of the word and e at the end of the word).

Irregular Words

Word that does not meet the phoneme to grapheme rules, for example the word woman.

Plosive

Consonant sound produced by a full obstruction of the airflow from the larynx (p, b, m, n, ing, t, d, k, g [hard], ch, j).

Phoneme

Smallest word unit. For example, the word school has four phonemes, s, ch, oo, l. In our alphabetical system, the phoneme represents a grapheme’s sound. 

Pseudoword

Nonword that respects the rules of language, for example, mable.

Rhyme

Ending of a syllable or word. The rhyme consists of the vowel - and sometimes of the consonant - of the word’s last syllable. For example, the rhyme of the word ball is all. 

Syllable Segmentation

Cutting a word into syllable units. For example, the word tomato can be divided into three syllables, to, ma, to

Syllable

Group of phonemes that a word naturally breaks into when we pronounce it. For example, the word lemon breaks down into two syllables, le, mon.

Important Notions

Learning to read and spell is a long, complex process that necessitates many skills (memory, attention, and language). This learning is essential because it determines all other learning. For about 25% of children, this can represent a true challenge. To help children, whether or not they experience challenges, it is important to fully understand the processes involved in this learning.

Theoretical models allow systematizing the reading and spelling learning process. They mainly argue that two processes are essential to becoming a competent reader-speller, mainly phonological and orthographic processing.

Phonological Processing

Phonological processing (also called the nonlexical or sublexical route), the ability to learn the correspondences between letters and sounds, is what makes a child able to decode and write words that are unknown to him. For example, at the beginning of the first year of schooling, a child does not yet know how to read. To read the word cat, the child will first proceed by segmenting each of the word’s letters (c→/c/, a→/a/, t→/t/) to then blend the phonemes (sounds) that they make. The learner is continuously exposed to written unknown words, and will therefore mostly use this process during the first two years in school. 

This process requires good phonological awareness skills (see the “Phonological Awareness” rubric).

Orthographic Processing

Orthographic processing (also called the lexical route) allows reading words by the global recognition of the sequence of their letters and to write all graphemes, the written syllables and words, whether they are regular, exceptions, or irregular. However, to spell words in-line with the established rule (lexical form), a child must have precisely memorized the letter sequence of those words, their “visual form”, and access it within their spelling lexicon. This requires a good lexical memory.

Cognitive Abilities of Written Language Learning

Many cognitive abilities are essential to learning the written language (phonological awareness, visual attention, lexical memory, etc.). Their role varies according to the size of the writing system’s units and the degree of consistency of the grapheme-phoneme correspondences. 

In alphabetical systems said to be transparent, such as Italian and Spanish, knowing the entirety of phoneme-grapheme correspondences alone enables the reading and spelling of almost all words using phonological processing. In these written systems, phonological awareness plays a major role. In contrast, in alphabetical systems said to be opaque, such as French and English, the knowledge of phoneme-grapheme correspondences is insufficient to the reading and spelling of words, as the knowledge of those words that cannot be sounded out is also necessary.

Both languages largely solicit lexical memory. In both written systems, we have to have memorized over 50% of words to spell them according to the norm. In the English written system, while we can spell accurately about 50% of words by phoneme-grapheme correspondence alone, if only one sound is considered (generally the vowel), another 36% of words can also be spelled accurately by phoneme-grapheme correspondence alone.

Whatever the writing system, learning to read requires good visual attention skills and lexical memory.

Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to analyze and manipulate units (sounds, syllables, oral rhymes) that words are made of. It plays an essential role in reading and spelling because it enables the development of the lexical process. Research has shown that children presenting phonological awareness difficulty in kindergarten are more likely to show difficulty learning to read. In addition, numerous studies have shown that a phonological awareness deficit was at the origin of the written language disorder in a group of children with dyslexia-dysgraphia (Stanké, B. et Lefebvre, P. (2016). La dyslexie-dysorthographie phonologique. Dans Stanké, Les dyslexies-dysorthographies. Presses de l’Université du Québec. Collection « Éducation Intervention »). 

To properly prepare children to learn to read and spell, it is therefore crucial to develop their phonological awareness before the formal learning of reading and spelling. Developing this ability while teaching the names of letters as well as the phoneme-grapheme correspondences gives better results than training based solely on the development of phonological awareness. 

Challenges with phonological awareness will lead to challenges using phonological processing to read and spell.

Lexical Memory

Lexical memory is the ability to encode, store, and recall orthographic knowledge (graphemes, written syllables, the specific spelling of words). This ability enables the development of the spelling process to read words as a whole and spell words in a conventional way, without using phonological processing. 

It is necessary to possess a good lexical memory to memorize the associations between simple (/a/→a, /b/→/b/, etc.) and complex (/u/→ou, /ɔ/→on, etc.) phonemes and graphemes, and mostly to remember the spelling of the 50% of words that cannot be sounded out, like the words right and enough.

A child absolutely needs a good lexical memory to become a competent reader and speller. A deficit with this memory leads to challenges learning to read irregular words as well as trouble learning lexical spelling.

Visual Attention Ability

Reading consists of the visual analysis of words, during which eyes move from left to right while staring at the written words for a few milliseconds to process information. Good perception and good visual attention are thus essential to enable, amongst other things, the recognition of words in one single fixation, and the discrimination of mirror letters (b/d, u/n, etc.) and of letters with a similar form (m/n, t/f, etc.).  

Moreover, several studies attest to the importance of visual attention abilities, and more specifically to the visual attention span, in learning written language (Stanké, B. et Lefebvre, P. (2016). La dyslexie-dysorthographie phonologique. Dans Stanké, Les dyslexies-dysorthographies. Presses de l’Université du Québec. Collection « Éducation Intervention »). The visual attention span corresponds to the number of letters that the reader can extract and process during a single visual fixation. Through exposure to the written word and the acquisition of orthographic knowledge, the number of letters that a child can aggregate in one fixation would increase, resulting in increased reading speed. A reduced span would interfere with the reading of words and nonwords. Learning lexical spelling would be affected, less strongly than learning to read.

Learning to Read and Spell in-line with Phonological Processing

At the beginning of the reading and spelling learning process, a child mainly uses phonological processing. The child solicits phonemic processing to read and spell words. For example, to read the word tomato, the child will begin by decoding it, which means to merge each sound of the letters which make it up, or t, o, m, a, t, o.

Gradually, the child will go to syllabic processing to decode or spell simple words. So, to read the word lavabo, the child will merge the syllables to, ma, to. However, for complex words, for example the word laugh, the young reader will use phoneme blending.

It is only by the end of Grade 1 that the child will systematically use syllabic processing to read and spell the words that are unknown to him, whatever the words’ structure. An orthographic lexicon then begins to be created. The spelling of complex graphemes is adequate.

In Grade 2, phonological processing remains the most requested approach in reading and spelling. However, the child begins to use orthographic processing to read functional words (and, with…), personal pronouns (I, you, he…), possessive adjectives (my, your, our…), demonstrative adjectives (this, that, those…), some verbs (was, are, be…) and some frequent nouns and adjectives (word, water, different…). Consonant blends remain problematic, for example, the br in broom

In Grade 3, the child recognizes 50% of irregular words. Only then, to spell the words, will the child use infrequent or nondominant graphemes, for example the ph in pharmacy. It’s only in Grade 4 that the child will respect contextual rules.

Madam Word's Contents

Presentation of Madam Word and Her Acolytes

Before the child starts using the application, it is important to introduce Madam Word and all the characters who surround her. It is with these characters that the child will acquire the different skills necessary for him to learn reading and spelling.

By its morphology, Madam Word allows the child to understand the distinction between the different notions relating to writing, namely the concepts of word, syllable, and sound. 

Continue by presenting the main characters of Madam Word's country: 

“Welcome to Madam Word’s city. It’s a very funny world where the inhabitants really have their heads in the clouds!  The mailman keeps mixing up his postcards. Jen laughs about it, but Jim gets grumpy. Mr. Mixup isn’t able to clean up his mess, and all his things end up on the sidewalk… The young Words are coming out of school, but will they be able to find their way home? Madam Word and her babies want to go home, but the babies don’t have a bus card! And other young Words are very nervous for the diving competition! Madam Word is working at the library and she’s overwhelmed.

Phew! Let’s go!”