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Sound-Symbol Association & Literacy Development

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll find out why symbols and their sounds are important to new readers. You'll also put yourself in the shoes of a new reader and consider some of the challenges you faced when you first learned to read and write.

Sounds and Symbols

When you look at a letter, you are able to immediately identify that letter's name and the sounds it symbolizes. It can be hard to recall that there was a time when you didn't have this knowledge and had to be taught the sounds of each letter.

Now imagine you want to learn Japanese. You see Japanese characters but don't know what sounds to make when you read them. This is a bit like how a child feels at first when learning to read and write.

This lesson highlights this relationship between sound and symbol, including reading and constructing words. You'll also learn the challenges new readers face as they work to develop literacy skills.

Phonemes and Graphemes

The relationship between sounds and symbols is sometimes described by the term phonics. Sometimes the term is also used to describe a method of teaching this relationship to students.

The written symbols of a language, such as letters or characters, are called graphemes. You can remember this term by thinking of how you draw a graph on paper, just like you can put letters on paper.

Phonemes is the term to describe the smallest units of sound in a word. So if you break a word like cat down into its sounds, you have the /c/ sound, the /a/ sound, and the /t/ sound. You can remember the term phoneme by thinking of how phones produce sounds.

Phonics explores the relationship between graphemes (written symbols) and phonemes (each sound in a word). Note that phonics is not focused on the meanings of words, but on the connection between sound and symbol.

Reading and Constructing Words

Why is phonics so important? The process of connecting sounds to each symbol is a significant part of literacy development. Understanding phonics helps those learning to read with two major pieces of literacy: reading words and constructing words.

Reading words involves taking the symbols on the page, understanding the sounds that are related to those symbols, and then decoding the words they represent.

As a person learns to read, she is doing a bit of detective work, using clues to decipher what's in front of her. While it may seem obvious to you and me as experienced readers, to a new reader, the letters and words on the page are puzzles at first.

Deciphering the sounds in a word takes practice.
A set of letters

The ability to construct words is another benefit of learning phonics. When a new reader begins to understand the relationship between sounds and symbols, she can then create words herself, in addition to reading them.

A student learning to build words is a bit like an artist, using materials to create something. While you and I may put words on the page with ease as experienced writers, a new writer must carefully piece together symbols to represent the sounds she has in mind, until this becomes more second nature.

Challenges in Learning Phonics

It might sound like a natural process for a reader to pick up on the connection between letters and sounds. After all, don't reading skills always come in time?

Actually, many experts believe that a child who is not on target with her ability to recognize connections between sounds and symbols is in need of early intervention. Strategic interventions are intended to support a child to avoid falling behind in her literacy development.

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