3 Reasons why segmenting is the mother of all skills in learning to read and spell

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At Sounds-Write, we always begin each section of our teaching programme with word building? There are three main reasons:

First, we are teaching children that spellings stand for sounds in the language – our threshold concept. All children learn the sounds of their language without having to be taught explicitly. All they need is exposure.

Second, unlike learning how to speak and listen, written language needs to be taught explicitly. As Peter T. Daniels, an expert on writing systems, explains:

‘Writing differs from language, though, in a very fundamental way. Language is a natural product of the human mind – the properties of people that make it possible for everyone to learn any language, provided they start at a young enough age – while writing is a deliberate product of human intellect: no human illiterate absorbs its script along with its language (my emphasis) – writing must be studied.’

Daniels, P.T., ‘Grammatology’ in Daniels, P. T. and Bright, W. (1996) The World’s Writing Systems, OUP.

By privileging segmenting, we are teaching children in the early years specifically that: letters (I prefer ‘spelling’ because a spelling can contain one, two, three or four letters) are symbols for the sounds in our speech and which particular spellings stand for the sounds in the words we are going to be using.

Thirdly, we are teaching a skill that correlates very highly to becoming a proficient reader and speller. When teaching young children to read and write, we are teaching them how the English alphabetic writing system works in relation to the sounds in their everyday speech. And word building (segmenting) systematically establishes the link between sounds and spellings in simple CVC (consonant vowel consonant) words from the start and does it in the context of real words that are familiar to young children.

Before children begin to learn to read, they already have a huge store of words in their vocabularies: children readily understand what a ‘mat’ is and they know what ‘sit’ means, and it is words such as these give us an ideal starting point.

Introducing children to the way we spell sounds in simple words enables them to understand that spellings are symbols for sounds in the context of simple three-sound (CVC) words. In addition, the approach establishes the link between the specific sound and the specific spelling of the sound. In this way, we also keep cognitive load to a minimum.

Even, as is the case with many children just arriving in school for the first time, if a young child has no knowledge at all of the symbols we use to spell sounds in our language, they can easily learn this relationship through the medium of building simple CVC words, precisely because CVC words don’t present an insuperable challenge to working memory.

Starting with word building is so valuable because it teaches a skill vital to becoming a proficient reader: the skill of segmenting. As a literate adult, you may not realise that when you are reading, you are segmenting words into their constituent sounds and then blending them to form words.

As Jane Ashby and Keith Rayner put it:

‘Just as most adults move from place to place without thinking about the muscle movements involved in walking, skilled readers are rarely conscious of coordinating the cognitive processes involved in reading.’

Ashby, J. and Rayner, K., ‘Literacy Development: Insights from Research on Skilled Reading’ in Dickinson, D. K. and Neuman, S. B. (2006) Handbook of Early Literacy Research (Vol 2), The Guilford Press.

The reason why so many literate people are unaware that this is the case is because the process has already become so automatic they are no longer aware of what is going on at the level of decoding: it is all taking place under the level of conscious attention.

Notwithstanding, when presented with a long, complex word they have never seen or read before, the process slows down and they become much more conscious of what they are doing.

Here’s a word you may never have seen before: paucibacillary. When you read it, unless you’re a doctor familiar with treating patients with leprosy, you have to segment the sounds and then put them together to form syllables. After you’ve worked all the way through, you put the syllables together to produce the word.

You may have done something like this:

/p/ /or/ | /s/ /i/ | /b/ /a/ | /s/ /i// | /l/ /a/ | /r/ /ee/, which gives ‘pau’ ‘ci’ ‘ba’ ‘ci’ ‘lla’ ‘ry’. As you can see, the sound /or/ is represented by the spelling < au > and the sound /s/ is represented by the spelling < c >. You might have split it slightly differently than I have but, however you split it, you should have six separate syllables.

Trying to read a long and complex word gives a unique insight into what it’s like for a child to read a word. They need to have, at least a burgeoning sense that spellings are symbols for sounds, and they need to be able to connect print to sound by first segmenting and then blending sounds together to give the word.

Segmenting is a simple but highly effective way of achieving all of these objectives.