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Monster Mapping - An Early Intervention for Dyslexia

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Onset and Rime. 

Onset and Rime are technical terms used to describe phonological units of a spoken syllable. A syllable can normally be divided into two parts: the onset, which consists of the initial consonant or consonant blend, and the rime which consists of the vowel and any final consonants. But why does this matter, if the focus is on reading and spelling? Our work has demonstrated that mapping anything but phonemes and graphemes, other than to explore meaning (and therefore looking at morphemes) can confuse students, and waste the precious time we have with them.

Phonemic awareness is the element of phonological awareness that is universally recognised as the only element actually needed to read and spell efficiently. Phonemic awareness is the only aspect of reading that is essential for children to develop before they can begin learning to read. Based in oral language, phonemic awareness serves as not only the foundation for reading it is also the strongest indicator of a child’s potential for learning to read. 'Faced with an alphabetic script, the child’s level of phonemic awareness on entering school may be the single most powerful determinant of the success she or he will experience in learning to read and of the likelihood that she or he will fail.' (Adams, 1990, p. 304) Unfortunately there is an idea, spread far and wide, that 'phonological awareness skills can be conceptualised within a sequence of increasing complexity'. Many think students can only reach 'phonemic awareness' by going through these stages, starting with splitting words into syllables.

'Balanced decoding strategies instruction follows what many early years academics and teachers believe is a biologically dictated developmental progression; that as they move up through the early primary years, children 'naturally' become able to perceive smaller and smaller units of sound (whole words (logographs)->syllables->onset and rimes->individual phonemes), so teaching needs to follow this order too. Despite a lack of empirical evidence, many early years educationalists strongly suggest that deviating from this supposed developmental pathway, or anything but child-initiated, intrinsic learning, will damage children's 'naturally' emerging phonemic awareness and spoil their love of reading'

Our written code is based entirely on phonemes. Words can be 'Code Mapped' meaning that the phonemes in words (smallest unit) can be mapped with the graphemes (letter or strings of letters)  There is nothing 'silent'.  
Educational psychologist Dave Philpot described the concept of silent letters as ''nonsensical for a language that contains no silences, e.g in the word know, the k is silent but the w isn't. Logically, either kn and ow are both digraphs, or else both k AND w are silent!''

Why ask students to map in any other way, other than when considering the whole word eg with regards to etymology, or it's 'meaningful' parts ie the morphemes in words.. When spelling words if we 'chunk' them into onset and rime or syllables we render the meanings of words invisible and potentially harder to learn. Think of the word 'magician'. There are 7 phonemes, the graphemes are m/a/g/i/ci/a/n. When students investigate the word they can see 'magic' and 'ian'. The students will know what 'magic' is and recognise that the suffix 'ain' changed the meaning from a 'thing' to a person! But if the word is split into onset and rime or syllables what do these parts tell the student about the word? What is the purpose? In fact ma / gi / cian leaves us with something very unhelpful.   

There have been major inquiries into the teaching of reading, and various types of phonics have been analysed and discussed. For example onset and rime phonics is one, and often a part of 'balanced literacy' (this is where you will see 'word families' etc) whereas synthetic and linguistic phonics programs stick to phoneme to grapheme correspondences. 


'The requirement of a large bank of memorised words is also a prerequisite for phonics programmes and systems that compel the reader to decode unknown words by the use of associative letter patterns in known words.  When an unknown word is encountered, the reader is required to reference known words with similar letter patterns and utilise and apply these patterns to the unknown word. The concept of onset and rime phonics is predicated upon the reader ignoring the opening grapheme’s phoneme, the identification of the subsequent letter pattern through association with a known word, the replacement of the opening phoneme of the known word with the actual phoneme and the blending of the replaced phoneme with the identified letter pattern’s sound.  If that seems complicated for a single syllable word, then imagine the cognitive gymnastics required for a polysyllabic word.  For a struggling reader with a poor word memory bank the demands may be debilitating and possibly catastrophic.'

The Reading Ape 2019

Goswami and her research on onset-rime has been the subject of considerable scrutiny.  

'Bonnie Macmillan carried out a meticulous examination of the research evidence behind the influential claims that rhyme awareness promotes reading ability. Much of the article is very technical, but the first three and last three pages are quite accessible even to non-academics. A major point made by Macmillan is that many of the research studies, while claiming to have found a clear causal link between rhyming ability and reading ability, are equally open to the interpretation that the really crucial factor is alphabet knowledge – the researchers have often simply overlooked this possibility. Another important point is that ‘The [rime analogy] strategy cannot, in fact, be considered a beginning reading strategy because some letter-sound decoding skill and a considerable sight vocabulary are needed first, in order to use it’. In the closing section of the article, Macmillan gives a very clear and simple account of what is necessary in order to read a cvc word: `letter-shape recognition, the left-to-right, letter-to-sound translation of each letter in turn, and the blending together of the three letter-sounds to pronounce the word’. This study raises some very serious questions about the thinking behind much of the National Literacy Strategy.'

'Scores of developmental studies show that phonemic processing is one of the most “buffered” language skills humans possess, and is least susceptible to disruption and malfunction. Chaney showed that by age three, children are highly sensitive to the phoneme level of speech. Nearly all of the 87 three-year-olds in her study could listen to isolated phonemes (/b/ -- /a/ -- /t/), blend them into a word, and point to a picture representing that word – with nearly 90% scoring well above chance. Of the 22 tasks that she administered, this was the second easiest task. And contrary to Goswami’s assertion, the ability to reproduce rhyming endings or alliteration were the most difficult, with the vast majority of the children failing these tasks.
Despite results like these, Goswami persists in holding to her theory that “rhyme” is as important as phonemes in learning to master an alphabetic writing system. She even claims that rhyme is relevant to our spelling system: “spelling-sound consistencies occur at two levels, rhyme and phoneme.” The notion that the rhyme (word endings that sound alike) is relevant to learning an alphabetic writing system (which is entirely based on phonemes) has been largely discredited. When the National Reading Panel in the US published their landmark survey of reading research in 2000, results showed that rhyme-based teaching methods were singularly ineffective either alone or combined with something else. By contrast, the programmes which were highly successful all shared these features:
Teach the 40+ phonemes in English as the basis for the code (and NO OTHER UNITS), teach children to decode and encode in sequence from left to right (segmenting and blending), introduce letters as soon as possible (don’t teach phoneme awareness independently of print), include lots of copying and writing to link visual, auditory, and motor systems, avoid letter names, and never allow or encourage children to “guess” words on the basis of partial cues or pictures on the page.
Dr Macmillan explains that, ''teaching children about onset and rime as a route to discovering individual phonemes is similar logic to thinking that a person can be taught to read music by memorising chords on, say a guitar or piano. Although it may be relatively easy for a person to learn the names of some musical chords and how to play them, there is little possibility that this knowledge will lead to the ability to read musical notation, to the ability to play individual notes on these instruments in response to the corresponding written symbols'' (Macmillan p82).

Recent studies, ''have shown conclusively that children do not use rhyming endings to decode words; hardly ever decode by analogy to other words; and that ability to dissect words into onsets and rimes has no impact whatsoever on learning to read and spell'' 
(D.McGuinness WCCR p148)

Studies, ''have shown conclusively that children do not use rhyming endings to decode words; hardly ever decode by analogy to other words; and that ability to dissect words into onsets and rimes has no impact whatsoever on learning to read and spell'' (D.McGuinness WCCR p148)


Analytic Phonics requires that the child first build up a large cache of sight words. These words can then be analyzed, allowing the child to "discover" the letter/sound relationships in our alphabetic code. Here are two examples. Once BOAT, BOY, and BED are sight words, the child can be led to discover that B symbolizes the sound /b/. Once BOAT, LOAF, and SOAP are memorized, the child can be led to discover that OA symbolizes /O/ (long O). To systematically cover the alphabetic code in this manner takes 5 - 6 years, due to the required sight word memorization and to the "discovery" mode of teaching. (See, for instance, the popular Balanced Literacy book, Words Their Way, by Donald Bear.)


Analogy Phonics also requires a large cache of sight words to get started. My favorite example of this type of phonics, because it seems so implausible to me, is taken from a book by Balanced Literacy author Jennifer Serravallo. In the Reading Strategies Book (p 82), she suggests this strategy: Suppose a child had GREEN and SLOW memorized as sight words. Suppose, too, that the child knows (via analytic phonics) that N symbolizes the sound /n/.

 Now the child is faced with reading the unknown (for her) word GROWN. So, she "word-solves" by analogy. She takes the GR sound from her sight word GREEN, the OW sound from her sight word SLOW, plus the sound of N, and blends these 3 sounds together: /gr/+/ow/+/n/ = GROWN. Having thus pieced together a pronunciation, she checks if the word makes sense in the context of the sentence.

[Whether such a strategy is realistic for beginners - and whether analogy phonics could, even in a dozen years, systematically cover the alphabetic code - the reader can judge.]


Onset-Rime Phonics is really a subset of analogy phonics. Here’s how it works. Suppose TEACH is a sight word for Johnny. EACH is called the rime, T the onset. Now Johnny runs into the unknown (for him) word BEACH. To identify it, he needs to recall TEACH, not by sound (he doesn’t know that yet), but by the fact that visually, both TEACH and BEACH have the same 4 letters (E, A, C, and H) in the same configuration. Now he simply(?) subtracts the T sound from TEACH and, in its place, substitutes a B sound (buh?) and he’s got it: BEACH. The hope is that he'll “read” PEACH, BREACH, LEACH, BLEACH, PREACH, and REACH in the same manner.

Okay, so that's the EACH rime family. But what about the ACK, OOP, and UNK families? You might find yourself wondering at this point, just how many rime families are out there? Most teachers who use onset-rime don’t realize there are over 300 rime families in English. One sight word, acting as the pronunciation key, must be memorized for each rime family. It gets worse. This covers only single-syllable words. Many more rimes exist only in multi-syllable words (e.g. ULT in ADULT, RESULT, and CONSULT; ECT in DEFECT, RESPECT, and SELECT). Rote-memorization of rimes and onsets, including the sounds of all the beginning blends (BL, SP, TR, and so on), quickly tops 400 items.

McGuiness was a pioneer for 'Linguistic Phonics' (not 'synthetic' phonics, or the three types mentioned above) and the effectiveness of her 'prototype' (that demanded that words be segmented into NO OTHER UNITS other than phonemes) was demonstrated a decade ago. It is not new. 
'Case, Philpot and Walker (2009), followed 1607 pupils across 50 schools over 6 years.  The programme aligned directly with McGuinness’s (2004) ‘Prototype’ and revealed that children taught by the model achieved decoding levels substantially above the national data (Case, Philot, Walker, 2009), with 91% attaining the national expected level at KS1 statutory assessments.  This longitudinal study, carried out by the programme designers using data from the schools using the package, found little or no variations across gender, socio economic or geographical groupings.  The Queen’s University Belfast study (Gray et. Al, 2007), derived data from 916 pupils over 22 schools utilising linguistic phonic approaches, concluded that children exposed to this teaching approach gained substantial advantage in both reading and writing and that this advantage was sustained throughout the primary phase.'
As suggested by 'Reading Ape' All Phonics Instruction is not the same ' would seem apposite for extensive and explicit research to be carried out to establish the most effective programmes being utilised to deliver phonic mastery.

In addition to evaluating the effectiveness of 'whole language v phonics' as a result of the supposed 'Reading Wars' (see the Rose Report, NRP, Australian Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy) and also 'synthetic phonics v analytic' phonics we should be reviewing the differences between ALL types of phonics instruction. Jolly Phonics and Read Write Inc both claim to be 'synthetic phonics programs' and yet are strikingly different in many respects. Many program developers (myself included)  refer to 'Linguistic Phonics' and 'Visual Phonics' (where appropriate) The McGuinness' Linguistic Phonics' has already been highlighted as incredibly powerful! One might argue that, despite the similarities, linguistic phonics programs could be more effective than synthetic phonics program. A 'linguistic phonics' program may fulfil the criteria to be included as a synthetic phonics program. but is the opposite true? 

'Sounds-Write is, first and foremost, a linguistic phonics programme in the sense pioneered by Diane McGuinness, which is to say that we teach from sound to print: we start from the sounds in our speech and teach that English spellings represent those sounds; spellings were invented to represent the sounds in the language.

Sounds-Write is also a synthetic phonics programme in the sense that we teach what the government recommends should be taught in a synthetic phonics programme.'

The Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach is also first and foremost a linguistic phonics program for this reason, but also a Visual Phonics program as students are given activities and resources with visual clues as to the pronunciation of each grapheme. we consider this to EXTEND the Linguistic Phonics approach. So SSP teaches what the UK government recommends, and so much more ; words can be Code Mapped to show the phoneme to grapheme mapping (segmentation) and ALSO show the substitute IPA symbol (the monster..


This ‘bridge’ is uncommon and worthy of investigation. We can find little research relating to phonemic awareness tasks that use unique representations for every grapheme. This is the only study we have found, and the findings are encouraging.

So could this be an even more advanced version than all phonics types previously mentioned? Again, though, there is a mapping of phonemes and no other units.      

We do need a clearer definition of what specific programs will all include, under their phonics instruction 'labels'. For example, do they teach letter names before starting to teach phoneme to grapheme correspondences, during phonics instruction - if so, when? Parker goes against the fairly universally accepted practice among linguistic and synthetic phonics programs, that letter names NOT be introduced on day 1 (even though many will come to school already knowing them)  ' When letters are first introduced, they should be referred to by the sound they represent, not by the letter name. Teaching sounds along with the letters of the alphabet is important because it helps children to see how phonemic awareness relates to their reading and writing.' Deslea Konza Research into Practice 2011

But let's now move on from arguments amongst academics and focus, instead, on how to introduce phonemic awareness, as there can be no argument about how important this is. Most of the minor differences between approaches could be accredited to the teacher delivering the program in any case. Most teachers will also adapt programs according to what is unfolding in the 'real' learning environment. This is why we are pushing for far more release time, so that teachers can observe others, and discuss differences in real teaching settings.    

SSP 'Phase 1'.  is the initial 'assessment' stage when we ascertain which children are 'at risk' of struggling to learn to read and spell, and who may potentially have dyslexic. We need to find out if the children can isolate speech sounds, segment and blend them. 

Although this 3 year old is demonstrating phoneme manipulation, this is the highest level of phonemic awareness and not our focus in Phase 1. We do tend to rhyme a lot but this is because talking, singing, reading and reciting poems etc are all important activities within week 1 !  

Phase 1 - Introduction to skills and concepts. This stage lasts betwen 1 and 10 hours.

Why not start with 'phonics' and introduce graphemes from day 1? Most programs do not have any suitable 'visual' representations for the phonemes, even if they use the IPA within their phonics activities. If the children had to learn the phonetic symbols in order to do the week 1 tasks this would cause a range of issues, as you can imagine. It just wouldn't work. Children are fascinated by the monsters however,  and learn their movement and 'sounds' quickly. They can learn a wide range of skills without also need to learn the graphemes. These 'squiggles' (letters s,a,t,p,i,n) are relatively meaningless to a young child, other than having been taught by their name via television shows and well meaning parents or kindy teachers. This can be distracting. They see 's' and say 'es' - and need to put aside prior knowledge. 
So we start with phonemic awareness SO THAT they can learn phonics quickly.  


'Once children understand that words can be broken up into a series of sounds, they need to learn the relationship between those sounds and letters – the “alphabetic code” or the system that the English language uses to map sounds onto paper'

Understanding the Reading Process. Deslea Konza 2010

By NOT starting with 'phonics' In week 1 we are able to teach the concepts of spelling (hear the isolated phonemes, order them on paper - even before knowing which graphemes to them map with the phonemes) and decoding - as they 'follow the monster sounds to say the word'. It would be virtually impossible for this much learning to occur without the monsters, and to include non verbal students. They can SHOW us which speech sounds they can hear, by using the monsters. They can 'follow the monster sounds' and SHOW us which 'visual prompt' it links to on the chart. 


We are able to identify which students are at risk, while addressing phonemic awareness deficits, and teach them more concepts in a shorter period of time. Children who can do the 'Monster Routine' move naturally to the graphemes. Some achieve this in a day, some a week. By the end of week 1 we have introduced the concept of a 'picture' for the monster sound, using 's'. The same day, or the next, we being in 'a' and 't' - and the children realise they have spelt the word 'sat' and can also 'read' it. Towards the end of week 1 they are already learning to form the first 6 'sound pics' and so this all ties in nicely!  

So this pre-schooler has gone from Phase 1 - with the 6 monsters (building words, working them out by 'following the monster sounds) to seeing the graphemes with the monsters (to more easily learn how they map) to working with graphemes (phonics) . 

Students are reading, writing and spelling these words in weeks 1 and 2 of Prep.

The aim is to them move the class to the Phase 2 routine by
week 3.

This 3 year old is blending 13 speech sound monster sounds (no letters) in order to find out where he is going with Mummy. 
He was reading chapter books before he started school. The 2 year old (Maya) is exploring words by 'following the monter sounds' using the cards. She builds words that are meaningful to her, eg Mum, Dad, Peppa Pig...

The Monsters enable children to not only know how each word is segmented but WHICH phoneme each graphem represents (read)

The best way to learn about this approach is by talking to real teachers and parents !