Dyslexia: The Alphabetic Stage Develops Layer by Layer in a Child

Is the ability to recognize the letters of the alphabet the essence of the alphabetic stage? Letters, sometimes called graphemes, are made-up of different parts or have features that are combined to form individual letters which are then translated into sounds or phonemes. This is the same as learning grapheme-phoneme correspondence. It is a must, and is a natural beginning for the alphabetic stage, but there are several layers of development within this stage.

Consider its two main components—phoneme identification and phoneme manipulation. A child may recognize that the letter m is the same as the sound mmm, or the letter k is the sound hah. But a further development must occur; the beginning reader has to realize that the mmm sound is the first sound in the word mice and the hah sound is the first one in hind. Some children may have to be taught this transition from identifying the sound as a single letter to identifying and locating it in a word.

Why is this so? Because, when the word mice or hind is spoken aloud, the sound for mork must be perceived in isolation from the whole word. The remedy is to emphasize the sound of the letter: mmice, hahkahkind. Some remedial reading programs use this technique (which clever teachers have used all along) to lengthen the sound of the phoneme for better identification.

A beginning reader may recognize the sound of the first letter but fail to recognize the letters in the middle or at the end of the word.

“Spell kind” I ask my 6-year-old granddaughter. She starts with “k-i-?” I prompt, “kah-i-nn-d.” She says “k-i-n. Is it d or t?” She is aware of the phonemes but she cannot recognize all of them in a word; she is progressing through the alphabetic stage. Has she learned to manipulate phonemes, the segmenting of a word into phonemes, and the blending of individual phonemes to form a word? I ask her to read the word bring. She cannot. I ask her to say the word bring. She repeats the word. “Now,” I say, “take away the first sound. How will you say the word now?” When she answers “Ring,” I know she is on the way to mastering phoneme manipulation.

Blending sounds in a word is a related skill. A child may not be able to utter the sound bri when asked to read bring, or may not be able to combine the n and g to form ng.

The implications of this discussion for teaching are clear. The teacher (or any person fulfilling the role, such as a family member or friend) must be aware of the distinctions, so that he/she is able to detect where the child may be having difficulty, and emphasize each component of a word when reading.

How the alphabetic stage progresses naturally to the orthographic stage—looking at the sequences of letters and learning how to spell and pronounce the word—is discussed in the next section. (One may ask if a bilingual education helps with the recognition of phonemes and phonemic manipulation. It does seem to do that, but only when the child does not have dyslexia or any other obvious reading difficulties.)

Is there a stage beyond the alphabetic stage, beyond the child’s ability to recognize the association between letters and words and their specific sounds? The answer seems to be yes, as far as the English language is concerned. This stage is called the orthographic stage. The progression from recognizing letters and simple words to their orthography occurs normally in most children. Orthography is concerned with how the word is spelled.

The words bead and dead have similar spellings but quite different sounds because of the way the letters e and a are combined and pronounced in the two words. Similarly, the words though and tough have the same spelling at the end but ough is pronounced differently in each of these words. Orthography, therefore, relates closely to the ability to spell. Sometimes, however, children may spell poorly but can read without any difficulty.

In summary, children pass through the following stages:

1. The symbolic stage where scribbles and lines are made ar-bitrarily, the child considering the scribbles as standing for words he/she already knows.

2. The pictorial stage where the word is recognized as a picture, a pattern of letters without being analyzed as a distinctive series of letters.

3. The alphabetic stage where the child realizes that the letters have specific sounds.

4. The orthographic stage where, as the child begins to read flu-ently, he/she is aware of the way letters could be combined and can produce distinct sounds like tough, though, and laugh.

These stages of reading are taken from a popular model suggested by Uta Frith (1986).

Note: Children develop reading in stages. First there, is the magical stage where any scribble is called a word by the child. In the second stage, the word is read as a picture, so the same word written in a slightly different font is not recognized as the same. The third and most important stage is alphabetic stage where the sequence of the letters is used as a clue to reading the word. Therefore the child can recognize and read the word in any written form. The last stage occurs in nonphonetic languages such as English, when the child becomes aware of possible letter combinations and sounds.

However, the story of progression from the symbolic to the orthographic stage is not universally accepted. Some research has shown that the beginning reader may use both the pictorial representation and the sound representation at the same time, that is, the reader does not have to first read the words as pictures and then move on to reading them as sounds.

The two processes may occur simultaneously when some words are recognized as pictures and others are analyzed and read by their sounds. It is also true that orthography may not play an important role in languages such as Spanish, Italian, Sanskrit, and Hindi, where there is a close correspondence between spelling and pronunciation. In these phonetically regular languages, words are most often read as they are spelled.

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