The Magic of the Rime: Mapping Sounds to Letters

Since my last posts (Learning How Kids Learn to Read, Applying What I’m Learning About How Kids Learn to Read, and Assessing and Supporting Word-level Reading) about reading, I’ve been grappling with how to bring this knowledge into practice in classrooms in a concrete and manageable way for teachers who do not yet have this background.

I’ll write more about how and where that’s going in another post when I have time, but I wanted to first share a new understanding I developed while re-reading a chapter in David Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success program.

One of the threshold concepts I’ve been unpacking through these posts is how important phonological awareness is to fluent word-level reading (read more on this in Tiffany Peltier’s post), and of how phonemic awareness is a layering of abstraction away from the spoken word. On the progression towards that abstraction is the ability to discern onset-rime sounds. Onset refers to the first consonant sound in a syllable (if there is one), while rime refers to the ending vowel and consonant in a syllable. For example C – AT, where C is the onset and AT is the rime.

While I got that onset-rime awareness was a progression on the road to phonemic awareness, I didn’t fully grasp why instruction on onset-rime could be important until I reviewed (for the umpteenth time) Kilpatrick’s descriptions of word study techniques that develop orthographic mapping.

But first, let’s review some of the revelations I’ve had thus far about the importance of phonemic awareness:

  • Phonemes are an abstraction (a single unit of sound in a word vs. a fluid stream of a spoken word)
  • There is a progression towards that abstraction in our ability to fluently hear and speak phonemes, moving from syllable, to onset-rime, to individual phoneme level
  • This fluency determines how well we acquire a sight word lexicon as we are exposed to new written words, in a process called orthographic mapping
  • Orthographic mapping is when we map the sequence of the letters of a written word to our phonological memory for future effortless retrieval
  • The reason we are able to store such a vast quantity of words in our memory is due to this phonological—rather than visual—basis of word retrieval

Here’s Kilpatrick’s description (for the Backward Decoding technique) that made me sit up and tweet in excitement while on the bus reading it:

The traditional left-to-right phonic decoding is inconsistent with how our memory system is organized. This left-to-right approach seems perfectly logical, because we read from left to right. However, despite the intuitive logic, it may not be the most efficient way. Consider when a first grader sees the word tap for the first time. Left-to-right phonic decoding would suggest starting at the beginning with the /t/ sound. So far, so good. We learned from the demonstration described above that the first sound is a critical cue in our memory system for oral words. In the phonics approach, the next step is to sound out and blend the first and second letters: ta—. Do you notice what is happening here? The left-to-right decoding splits the rhyming portion of the word. This nullifies the other important cue for verbal memory activation. By splitting the rime unit ap, the student loses the benefit of a powerful verbal organizational principle already built into our memory system. As logical as left-to-right decoding may seem, it is not as efficient as preserving the rhyming part of the word (i.e., the oral rime).

Here we get to the root of the meaning of the academic use of the word rime. It ain’t referring to hoarfrost, but rather to an archaic form of rhyme. We can see in this description how it’s related to our more general use of the word, and as we all know, rhyming is one of the most basic aspects of phonological awareness, cultivated for centuries by nursery rhymes and in music. Rhyming helps us to remember spoken language — and if phonological awareness is a fundamental aspect of learning the written language as well, then it’s something we can tap into through the explicit teaching of rimes, both in their oral and written form.

Once I got this, many of Kilpatrick’s other activities started to make more sense, such as building a rime “word wall,” mapping rime units, backward decoding, highlighting the rimes in words, word structure analysis, and others. By building student awareness and knowledge of common rime units, they can more fluently recognize many other words that are made up of those rime units.

In other words, Kilpatrick is advising that we teach rimes just like we do words. “Students should learn these word parts as familiar letter sequences, storing them like they store a word (Appendix F).”

This is something I don’t think is a common practice in most reading instruction. In fact, when I just posted that little excited tweet the other day, I got this response from a reading intervention specialist in Toronto:

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She seems to be saying that rime units are not as fundamental as Kilpatrick is presenting it. I’m not a reading specialist and I’m relying heavily on Kilpatrick as my guide at this point, so I’d like to learn more about how rime units are more widely viewed and taught. To my developing understanding, they seem like a potentially underutilized resource for equipping students with stronger orthographic mapping ability and thus, a broader orthographic lexicon. An area for further research?

What do you think? What do you know? Please share! This is proving to be an incredible learning journey and I’ve been benefiting from the generous sharing, thoughtful critique, and positive support from all of you reading geeks out there. Thank you in advance!

UPDATE: I’ve since received some more critiques and information on onset-rime. Please see my next post, To Rime, or Not to Rime? for more.