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Learning to Read and Spell

By Barbara Phillips

This column will focus on a little recognized, but absolutely necessary skill for both reading and writing: the ability to retain letters and numbers in your mind. This skill is called image symbols, or "symbol imagery."

There are several symptoms that may be caused by a person being unable to remember symbols. First, they have great difficulty copying text or numbers from the blackboard, because they look at the letters, but forget them before they get them written down. The second symptom is difficulty in reading. Many of the most common words that we read every day are not completely phonetic. Matching up what you say with the letters on the page is difficult if you cannot remember these odd pronunciations. The third symptom is difficulty spelling. The task of spelling requires not only phonetic analysis, but the ability to remember words that are not phonetic.

The child who has difficulty remembering symbols can be helped by the exercises below, but practicing this skill is also beneficial to any child who is learning to read and spell. Here is how to practice:

  1. Make a symbol imagery board. I use a piece of cardboard approximately 7" high and 24" long covered with white paper. Draw seven black lines about 2-1/2" wide, about 2" up from the bottom.
  2. On 3" x 5" cards, write some words. You can either let the child view the whole word, hide it, and then have them write it on their board, or you can say the letters slowly, and have them write it.
  3. In the beginning, I use nonsense words that follow the typical English pattern: cv, vc, (consonant vowel, vowel consonant, such as "bi", "im"). Progress through these patterns:
    1. cv - vc
    2. cvc (bim; mib; fos; etc.)
    3. ccvc - cvcc (plut; moeks)
    4. ccvcc (stots; stoist; flump; pliks)

    You can mix up real and nonsense words. Just be sure that the nonsense words follow real English patterns. For example, there are letters which form blends, such as fl, st, sl, mp. The Reading Yellow Pages which can be purchased at teacher supply stores has a good list. Do not give your child blends which do not exist, such as fx.

  4. After they write the word, have them read it back to you. Begin at a level that they can remember (it may be as low as cvc). Then slowly progress as their memory improves.

    Just as important in giving this skill to your child is how to correct them. The following method corrects without telling them they are wrong.
    1. Example: Child looks at the letters on the card (mib) and writes them incorrectly (mik). First, tell them what they did right. "Yes, there is an m, at the beginning." Then you show the child the word again. Have her match her letters to the ones on the card, and re-do her word.
    2. B. Example: Child looks at the letters, writes them correctly (mib) but reads them incorrectly (mik). Again, tell them what they did right. "You're right, there is an m, at the beginning." You write down what the child said, and then say, "Here is how the word would look if it said 'mik'. Let's look at the card again and see if it matches."

If you would like to read more about symbol imagery here are two excellent sources:

Seeing Stars, Symbol Imagery for Phonemic Awareness, Sight Words and Spelling, by Nanci Bell; 800-554-1819.

You Don't Have To Be Dyslexic, by Dr. Joan M. Smith; chapter on auditory memory development. Learning Time Products, Inc. Sacramento, CA.

Barbara Phillips is a reading specialist who has home-schooled her daughter for 8 years. Barb may be emailed at barcp@best.com.