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Three keys to success in ensuring students become global readers are phonemic awareness, concept imagery, and symbol imagery.

While most educators have been teaching phonemic awareness for quite some time, concept imagery and symbolic imagery are relatively new concepts in decoding words. In this effective word decoding and phonics how-to guide, we’ll look at decoding strategies that are beneficial to young students and for struggling readers in particular, involving the teaching of the following:

  • Phonemic awareness: the ability to perceive the number of sounds and sequences in words, as well as the identity of words.
  • Concept imagery: the ability to create a picture of a word in the mind’s eye.
  • Symbol imagery: creating mental representations of letters and sounds. This helps when it comes to decoding words.

Students who develop each of these core decoding skills will go on to become successful readers. These skills can be taught from a young age and benefit those with learning disabilities or cognitive impairments.

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What is decoding in reading?

Regarding decoding in reading, an approach known as the Lindamood-Bell method was designed as a therapeutic strategy for children with language processing disabilities, including dysgraphia, dyslexia, and cognitive deficits. Since its inception in 1969, the Lindamood-Bell method has been consistently updated to reflect changing social factors and streamlined to continually meet modern academic standards.

The team behind the method quickly noticed that while students could easily make strong headway in word attack skills after working on phonemic awareness, the same students weren’t necessarily making headway in contextual reading and word recognition. Many students were great at sounding out isolated words but could not read text fluently from the page.

The Lindamood-Bell team subsequently noticed that the phonological process was an important part of reading education, but it wasn’t enough to completely develop global readers. The team then decided to explore and develop a list of reading strategies that could improve students’ symbolic and concept imagery skills. Below is a brief overview of some of these strategies.

1. Air writing

Teachers should ask students to write letters and words they are learning, with their fingers, in the air. This is important as it helps students learn to “see” letter shapes in their mind’s eye. Ultimately, this cements the letter shape in the child’s imagination. Teachers should encourage air writing in lowercase letters when overseeing this method – this is what students often see. While capital letters and cursive will be taught later in the student’s education, air writing in lowercase seems the most natural for young minds to store in their imagination.

An example of this technique involves asking children to write their words just as Goldilocks liked her bed and porridge – just right! Remind them that letters and words should neither be too big nor too small (it can be interesting to note how young children have a habit of writing either hugely or minutely, with little in between). Reminding your students not to rush their writing or to write too fast can also be beneficial. Instead, a steady and neat pace should be encouraged.

While air writing doesn’t necessarily have to be performed “in the air” (it can instead be performed on a table), experience dictates that having students write “up” (in other words, in the air) is initially a lot more productive.

2. Use images to match letters/sounds

In this exercise, teachers should begin with the smallest unit of language: letters. This simple technique is useful for students of all ages as it creates the foundations for imagining sounds/letters within syllables. To develop sound and letter imagery, children must see and hear letters being sounded out. To practice this, it can be useful to walk students through creating images to go with letters and their sounds. When performing this task with children, the teacher should state: “I will show you a letter, and when I take it away, I want you to write it in the air with your finger and then tell me the name of the letter its sound.” This initial step helps children to visualize letters.

The teacher should then begin with a letter, for example: “this is the letter K, and it says “kay.” While speaking, the teacher should also trace the letter with their finger while repeating the letter name and sound while encouraging students to “take a picture” of the letter in their mind. This process can be worked through for all the alphabet letters and is important in getting students to visualize letters. Once each letter of the alphabet has been worked through and memorized (remember that some letters may take more concentration than others), it’s time for students to move on to the next step, which reiterates and reinforces some of the initial processes we’ve already considered.

3. Practising decoding

This technique will likely require students to have some old-fashioned practice. This might not always be fun, but practicing decoding skills helps to improve word recognition and word attack skills immeasurably. When students have solid symbolic imagery in place, they will be ready to move on to practicing with word lists. Here are six steps to try out when working with students on a one-on-one basis:

  • Identify the vowel: ask your student to identify the vowel in a word before they read the word aloud. This is useful for young readers and those with particularly weak decoding skills.
  • Track your students’ responses: score their decoding level to monitor their progress in each lesson.
  • Make intentional errors: children love it when their teachers make mistakes – even when they have been made on purpose. This involves incorrectly reading a word and then allowing students to correct their mistakes.
  • Practice: use symbol imagery practice on some of the more difficult or problematic words.
  • Diagnostics: observe students as they read. Keep an eye on speed/accuracy and note any errors made.
  • Error handling: teach students how to self-correct in the event of an error. When you make intentional errors (see above), you can demonstrate how to correct your errors.

4. Attachment of images to sight words

The next step involves “sight words.” Recognizing sight words is important when developing as a proficient reader. As with letters and syllables, students must create images for entire words when developing their vocabulary. Teachers should create a sight-word list that orders words by syllable complexity and frequency.

Students can attach images to sight words from the teacher’s list using the following three-step process:

  • Capture: ask students to collect or “capture” any words from the list they cannot instantly read. These words should then be written on cards to create an individual deck of practice cards for the student.
  • Categorization: work with your students to sort words into piles based on how quickly they can recognize and read them. It’s a good idea to have three piles: slow, medium, and fast.
  • Memorization: symbol imagery exercises can be used to help students to remember each word and to increase their word recognition prowess. Words should be moved from slow to fast piles until each word has been memorized and instantly recognized by the child.

5. Spelling practice

Spelling goes hand-in-hand with reading and is a significant bedfellow to more complex and expressive written language. Like reading, spelling involves the integration of sensory-cognitive functions. As students develop symbol imagery and phonemic awareness, they also develop the skills to learn to spell.

With a visual spelling chart, teachers can help their students to work through words using a four-step process:

  • Analysis: encourage students to study words to identify syllables and other features.
  • Visualization: get students to practice speaking and air-writing each word.
  • Writing: ask students to write words on paper while saying them aloud.
  • Tracking: check to see if students can correctly use each word five times in a row.