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.

Assessing and Supporting Word-level Reading

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In this post, I’ll continue pulling together my notes on what I’m learning about reading. Thank you in advance for reading, sharing your thinking, and helping me to connect with a broader community committed to improving literacy instruction.

I want to first draw everything back to the Simple View of Reading as a friendly reminder that reading is big.

Word-level Recognition X Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension

I’ve only been focused on the word-level piece, because that’s the part that was so new to my own understanding. But the language piece is HUGE!

Anyway, in this post, I’ll keep with the word-level recognition side of things and focus on what assessments and programs we might be able to use to tackle just that one side of things.

It’s one thing to have a clear theory and a model; it’s another thing to act upon it. This is where the real debates begin, because at some point, the rubber needs to hit the road:

  1. What will we use to screen and diagnose code-based and meaning-based literacy skills?
  2. What will we do in our core instruction to prevent reading difficulties?
  3. What will we do to intervene when core instruction is insufficient?

This means a school needs to have an RTI model of some kind, which is a level of sophistication, unfortunately, many schools struggle with. There’s a lot more that Seidenberg, Kilpatrick, and I have to say on this topic, but in this post, I’ll maintain a narrower focus. I’d like to dig further into the RTI piece of it in a future post (I have some criticism of the model, though I’m rethinking it in light of some of my new understandings).

Every School Needs a Universal Screener

One of my favorite things about the Advanced Literacy framework that both NY state and NYC have adopted is that it promotes the need to go far beyond the data provided by a state assessment. We need universal literacy screeners–a short test that can help immediately identify kids who are behind in either code or meaning-based ability, from which we can then drill into further with diagnostics.

Because the available tests are not always ideally suited for assessing the various components of reading, the best reading assessment tool is the evaluator’s knowledge of research on reading acquisition and reading difficulties.

David Kilpatrick in Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties

The problem is that there are no perfect assessments. As Kilpatrick notes, “Because the available tests are not always ideally suited for assessing the various components of reading, the best reading assessment tool is the evaluator’s knowledge of research on reading acquisition and reading difficulties.

And there are so many levels to reading assessment that it’s almost fractal in nature. You’d need a significant battery of subskill assessments to get a full and accurate picture of any individual child’s reading ability.

Another problem is that time is limited, and there are already a substantial number of tests that students are forced to take. Some are in-house, some are district mandated, some are used to evaluate teachers.

Ultimately, a school must make sense of them as best they can. This is where The Simple View of Reading really comes in handy. Different assessments provide you with different kinds of information.

There’s thankfully a lot of great resources in determining what screeners your will use. The Gaab Lab at Boston’s Children Hospital has an extensive compilation of screeners here.

Assessments of Phonological Awareness

Kilpatrick recommends using both the PAST and the C-TOPP2 as a further diagnostic after a universal screener. But I recommend using only the PAST because it’s free vs. $347 for the C-TOPP2 kit. Why is the PAST test free? Because Kilpatrick developed it and publishes it for free here: https://www.thepasttest.com/ He provides instructions on the site as well. Pretty darn cool.

I’ve begun piloting the use of the PAST at a few schools I support, and it’s been pretty eye-opening to see just how much need there is with phonological awareness in the students I’ve tested. I’ve administered it to an 8th grade self-contained class, and all of the students had phonological deficits — some at the most basic of levels. One student struggled to say the word “fantastic.” He couldn’t get that last syllable, even when I slowed it down and repeated it. 8th grade.

This has only gave me a greater sense of urgency in figuring this out.

The other thing I noticed is that the person administering the PAST really has to know their phonemes. It’s surprisingly hard to do well. In order to get an accurate gauge of student ability, you have to deliver the instructions swiftly and precisely. If you slow down or stumble when saying, “Say guide. Now say guide . . . but instead of . . . /g/ say /r/,” you can easily tax the student’s working memory, and they forget which word they are supposed to use while paying attention to the phonemes you’re saying.

When training teachers to administer the PAST, I first have to ensure they can pronounce the phonemes accurately, and then deliver the tasks with swift pacing. This takes practice!

So my advice is to practice delivering the PAST with someone else, multiple times, before you administer to a student.

Check out my new Resources page for a couple of trackers you can use once you’ve administered the PAST.

Assessments of Phonics Skills

Kilpatrick recommends using the TOWRE-2 Phonemic Decoding Efficiency subtest and KTEA-3 Nonsense Word Decoding subtests. The problem is that these are subkits of a larger kit, and the kits for each are expensive. If you’ve got a school psychologist in your building who uses these and can lend you a hand, that’s great.

Protip: “Nonsense word tasks appear to be the best way to evaluate a student’s phonics skills. In essence, all unfamiliar words a student encounters are functionally ‘nonsense’ words until they are correctly identified. . . . Timed nonsense word reading, such as in the TOWRE-2 and the KTEA-3, is arguably a better assessment of a student’s cipher skills than the traditional, untimed nonsense word reading tasks.  . . . It is recommended that any timed nonsense word reading task be administered after an untimed task, and not before.”

Though Kilpatrick recommends these normed assessments, he does acknowledge that they “do not provide much information about the specifics of what elements of phonics skills are weak or missing. By contrast, there are many criterion-based assessments of very specific elements of phonic knowledge. Some are commercially available assessments and others are free online. These criterion-referenced assessments will index the particular letter-sound combinations that the student knows, such as the various letters, blends, digraphs, and diphthongs, which can aid instructional planning.”

So my (admittedly amateur) advice? Normed assessments are great if you can afford them. But you can use something like the CORE Phonics Survey, the DIBELS Nonsense Word Fluency tasks, or Ruth Miskin Nonsense Word Test (all available for free). I also just got an OG (Orton-Gillingham) phonic screen from a colleague, and it was really short. Please let me know what else you might recommend.

I’ll stop here.

There’s much more to talk about with assessments for word-level reading, but I’ll stop here. Even out of these two, phonemic awareness and phonics, I’ve elected to only focus on one — phonemic awareness. Why? Because if Kilpatrick and Seidenberg are right, this is the core area of deficit that causes word-level reading gaps. And because I’m just trying this out and seeing what kind of practices and systems I can support a school in developing that are sustainable and scalable, and you have to start somewhere.

Even just administering the PAST is a much bigger endeavor than it seems at first glance. You need to train and practice with it. Then you need to test each student individually, in a space where you have enough quiet to be heard.

And then you need to figure out how to provide effective intervention in a consistent and effective way. From the first set of data I just collected last week, I can see this will be more complicated than I thought. Each student is at different levels of phonemic awareness, so how can we group them strategically while still addressing each student’s need?

Help! If you’ve used Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success program, especially with older students, any advice is much appreciated.