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Synthetic Phonics and the Child with Special Needs: A Study in Brain Activity. John Bald 01223 891069 Weblog: Presentation Copyright © John Bald 2007. Brain cells and connections (from The Learning Brain , Blakemore and Frith, 2005).

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Synthetic phonics and the child with special needs a study in brain activity l.jpg

Synthetic Phonics and the Child with Special Needs: A Study in Brain Activity

John Bald

01223 891069


Presentation Copyright © John Bald 2007

Brain cells and connections from the learning brain blakemore and frith 2005 l.jpg
Brain cells and connections in Brain Activity(from The Learning Brain, Blakemore and Frith, 2005)

As we learn, brain cells form connections with each other that build into chunks and networks. These connections are strengthened with practice. They are the foundation of language, both written and spoken.

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How the Brain Adapts: in Brain ActivityReading in English and Italian

  • Left: reading system of both languages combined

  • Centre: sound processing more active in Italian (regular)

  • Right: word form area more active in English, to deal with irregularity – eg should and shoulder.

    (from The Learning Brain, Blakemore and Frith, 2005)

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What are synthetic phonics? in Brain Activity

  • Synthetic phonics is word building.

  • We build words from the sounds indicated by letters when we read.

  • We build words by using letters to represent sounds when we write.

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Synthetic and Analytic Phonics in Brain Activity

  • Analytic phonics was a new variety of phonics developed in the 1990s.

  • Analytic phonics is word breaking.

  • Some advocates of analytic phonics do not approve of word building, because English is not always regular.

  • Analytic phonics can help with irregular patterns.

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How synthetic phonics helps in Brain Activity

  • English is regular roughly three quarters of the time.

  • Where phonics don’t tell us all we need to know, they usually tell us some of what we need to know.

  • Many long words are regular, and can be built up using phonics.

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In English, letters… in Brain Activity

  • indicate sounds - cat catastrophe

  • give us informationthat changes the sound of other letters

    plate template contemplate

    cell city cycle

  • sometimes work in groups

    station healthy

  • reflect history, particularly 1066

    table manger

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Letters don’t in Brain Activity

  • tell us how to pronounce longer words




  • help us to deal with irregularity



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What else do we need to know? in Brain Activity

  • Children need to understand that phonics won’t always work, and why.

  • We need to understand, explain and practise patterns in irregularity.

  • We need to know and use additional teaching techniques for slow learners

  • We must understand the problems caused by sensitivity to light, and by problems in discriminating between sounds.

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Teaching synthetic phonics -two maxims for children. in Brain Activity

We use what the letters tell us, but we don’t believe the letters tell us everything.

The language is a thousand years old. If we were a thousand years old, we’d have some wrinkles too.

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Key patterns and stumbling blocks. in Brain Activity

  • Accurate reading of regular, short words

  • Understanding that letters work in groups, and using the most common combinations, including

    Final e – made, here, bite, note, cute

    Vowel groups, especially when these can indicate more than one sound

    Softening effect of e, i and y on c and g

  • Learning patterns that are not obvious from the normal sounds of letters they contain.



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One key technique for teachers in Brain Activity

  • If a child misreads a word, it’s best not teach that word straightaway. Instead, teach another that has the same pattern at the end, using plastic letters – eg if a child can’t read run, you might begin with sun.

  • Once they understand the new word, change the first letter, (e.g gun). Work on this as long as it takes for child to read gun and sun confidently, then add more words, eg fun, bun. Mix up the letters and have them make the new words until they can make and read them without hesitation.

  • Then put in the word that caused the problem –the child often reads it without hesitation. If not, work on it, relating it to the pattern. Once the child can read all of the words without hesitation, go back to the text at the beginning of the sentence, so that the child meets the new word again.

  • Keep a note of the words you’ve worked on, and use this for practice, so that the child learns to read the words quickly and accurately.

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Some key stages in learning a word in Brain Activity

  • Full teaching

  • Prompt

  • Self-correct

  • Hesitation

  • Fluent reading, taken in stride, no hesitation

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Detecting Literacy Problems in Brain Activity

  • Child can’t read at all.Salford Sentence Reading Test, Read Write Inc Ditties.

  • Child can read simple words, but has problems with longer words and letter combinations such as cycle, city, centre, or final e in words such as made. Salford Sentence Reading Test, or informal assessment. Make own resources based on Alpha to Omega, (Hornsby) and teach through the materials the child uses in class.

  • Child has problems with reading the more complex vocabulary used in .secondary school – typical reading age around 9. Unpack and explain this vocabulary in advance, using full range of resources they meet in class and Alpha to Omega

  • Child’s reading is affected by other factors, eg sensitivity to light, difficulty with discriminating between sounds, limited language use outside school. Assess using Institute of Optometry screening kit. Understand and explain shortcuts in spoken language

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Introducing Slimmed Down Spelling in Brain Activity

Key principles:

  • Most letters represent sounds. Sometimes letters work in groups, some words have an extra letter, and occasionally letters are awkward.

  • If we hear a sound when we say a word carefully, we need at least one letter for it.

  • Sometimes letters work in groups – we use a group when we’ve learned we need it, eg, station

  • Some words have an extra letter, eg made, chaos. We use an extra letter when we’ve learned we need it.

  • Sometimes, because of shortcuts in speech, or changes in the way people speak, the letter we need is not the one we think we need. These letters are awkward, and we only use them when we’ve learned we need them. Examples include the final a in animal, and the a after with in was, water, warm etc.

  • Using Phonics to Teach Reading and Spelling, Sage, ISBN 978 1 4129 3111 3

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Selecting words in Brain Activity

  • Write words to be learned on cards or scraps of paper. Minimum of four words. Ask the child to pick out a word you call out. This gives two sources of information about the word, its sound and its spelling, and makes it easy for children to make the link. Once selection is secure, ask the child to pick any word they can read and hand it to you. Then reteach the words they can’t read.

    (Adapted from the Portsmouth Down’s Syndrome Project, Professor Sue Buckley)

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Sensitivity to Light in Brain Activity

  • Fluorescent light flashes 100 times per second (alternating current)

  • Some children are sensitive to some wavelengths in light.

  • Effects range from mild discomfort to serious reading and behavioural difficulties.

  • Tinted lenses and overlays often help.

  • Wilkins, A, Reading through Colour, Wiley, ISBN 0 470 85116 3

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Discriminating between sounds: causes in Brain Activity

  • limited language development in early childhood

  • shortcuts in everyday speech

  • language disorder

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Teaching discrimination between sounds in Brain Activity

  • The idea of shortcuts is socially neutral - we take some in speaking

  • Children can learn not to take shortcuts – this needs to be built up gradually

  • Language Master ( can help children to model sentences.

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Reading and the Curriculum in Brain Activity

  • Using texts the children need to read in their lessons ensures relevance and provides practice

  • Preparing these texts in advance builds success, and is better than than chasing failure

  • Simplify the texts where necessary. Laminating copies where possible, and store the.

  • The SENCO needs an advance copy of all materials to be used in class.