Suzanne Murray is a Specialist Dyslexia tutor and assessor, qualified to AMBDA standard. She began working in Primary schools around 5 years ago. After working with a range of children with SEND, she started to specialise in teaching reading. This led to an interest in dyslexia and she is now in the third year of an MA in SpLD (Specific Learning Difficulties), whilst also working as a Reading Teaching Assistant in an urban school. In addition to dyslexia, she has an interest in attachment issues, Sensory Processing and Speech and Language.
Michael Jackson sang that it was easy but for some of us, learning our ‘a,b,c’s’ feels impossible. Moreover, as everyone else is ‘getting it’; how does that feel for a young learner?
One of the key components of any SpLD intervention is the ‘alphabet arc’. Why?
Something that dyslexics typically do not grasp, without instruction, is that letters have a name and sound – of course they do!
In order to acquire this understanding, dyslexic children need to experience the alphabet, so that it becomes less abstract. This is essentially how dyslexics can thrive in all areas of learning. Their minds are apt to rotate abstract concepts, to take 360 views and see all possibilities. Simply saying this is ‘a’ because this is ‘a’ does not cut it!! They have to experience something; using their senses, which is where the multi-sensory learning comes in.
Cognitive Load Theory and Working Memory limitations are big topics in education. By taking in information via Primary biological information i.e. our senses; this decreases the load on Working Memory. It is more of an evolutionary approach to learning, information that just couldn’t be processed before, gets transferred to Long Term Memory!
A few months ago, my eight year old was sitting on the bed (between there and the bath we have our BEST chats).
He: ‘How do you spell ‘p’?’.
Me: ‘What do you mean?’, …unsure whether he needed the loo. (I always answer a question with a question, as it’s usually just ‘wondering out loud’ and he has the answer).
‘He: The letter: ‘p’, how do you spell it?’
Aaaaah, he didn’t understand the ‘Alphabetic Principle’, the fact that letters have names and sounds.
I told him that when you write ‘p’, it is a picture of the sound /p/! OoooooH!
So, what is the Alphabet Arc anyway?
Using wooden, or plastic letters, the pupil is asked to arrange the alphabet in an arc on the desk or table in front of them, with ‘m,n’ in the middle.
There are many versions of letters available: magnetic, coloured, tactile, plain. It might be easier to start with coloured letters and progress to plain wood. With the plain ones, pupils find it harder to remember letter orientation, therefore there is greater challenge.
How can you help your students acquire this knowledge?
Get some solid alphabet letters.
Pupil to practice setting them out in an arc, with adult support, or with a classmate (who is very secure with the alphabet).
Start with markers: a, ‘m,n’ in the middle and z at the end, in an approximation of where the full arc will go. The idea is that the full alphabet will be within the student’s gaze.
Pupil to practice laying them out in sequence, first of all forwards and… when this is easily accomplished…backwards!
The children can make games up: close eyes and point to where a letter should be, mix sections up and re-arrange, close eyes and take one away… they will think of their own challenges!
The alphabet song is useful to help children remember.
Touch each letter and give its name and sound! This will take time and will not happen straight away as the brain is creating new pathways.
In this way, pupils are using their sense of touch, they are saying the names and sounds and hearing them. Have a mirror handy so that they can see the sounds being made from the lips and teeth and encourage them to feel them too: air, vibrations, movements of the tongue.
Things to look out for and address:
Confusion over letter names and sounds e.g. g/j, letter orientation e.g. backwards ‘j’, confusion over letter order.
The dreaded SCHWA dun, dun, duuuun. This is when students add vowel sounds onto the end e.g. puh, fuh, luh. Encourage ‘pure’ sounds, tell them to snip the additional sounds off the end! Get some imaginary scissors!! The schwa will affect their ability to blend sounds in decoding (reading) and to separate sounds in words when encoding(spelling).
Understanding the power of the dyslexic mind and the alphabet.
In a brilliant exhibition at the Smithsonian, dyslexic graphic designer, Madalyn Hymas, showed how 6 letters can make 48 words. You start to appreciate how confusing the alphabet is for a mind that sees endless possibilities!