As Easy as 'ABC': Using Mnemonics to Assist Students in Acquiring a Solid Knowledge of Letter-Sound Relationships in Their First Year of Schooling

By Nicholas, Maria | Practical Literacy, June 2011 | Go to article overview

As Easy as 'ABC': Using Mnemonics to Assist Students in Acquiring a Solid Knowledge of Letter-Sound Relationships in Their First Year of Schooling


Nicholas, Maria, Practical Literacy


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At the commencement of another year, I find myself contemplating my new grade full of bright-eyed, eager little preppies*, with a tiny bit of apprehension and whole lot of excitement. Re-energised, I once again find myself determined to make a difference, to continue to build and improve on the practices that have worked for me in the past and to learn from those that haven't. Such is the beauty of teaching, for every year you are presented with a clean slate so that you can improve on what has gone before. When I set myself to sorting through the plethora of literature that is available to me on the topic of improving students' reading outcomes however, I find myself feeling overwhelmed by the extent of information that's available.

Then I happen across two lengthy reports, one of which has been produced by the National Reading Panel (NRP). The NRP was a group of professionals, enlisted by the Congress of the United States in 1997 to sift through the thousands of research articles that had been written on the topic of teaching children to read--much as I had wished I had the time (and stamina) to do. That information was then collated and became the report entitled: Teaching Children to Read (2000). As a busy teacher and mother, I was drawn to such a paper, as the NRP had already done much of my research for me.

Prep teachers know how important it is that students learn letter-sound relationships as soon as possible in their first year of schooling, so they can begin to make progress in both their independent reading and writing activities. After reading the above mentioned report and that of our own home grown National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (NITL) of 2005 entitled Teaching Reading, I could see how well this was backed by research, as both reports stressed the need to provide instruction in phonemic awareness and letter knowledge in the early years of schooling to set a sound foundation for reading instruction (NRP, 2000; NITL, 2005).

Though I was aware that the instruction of phonics was an important component of the first year of schooling, what I came across next gave me pause:

Phonics instruction taught early proved much more effective [emphasis added] than phonics instruction introduced after first grade ... phonics instruction produces the biggest impact on growth in reading when it begins in kindergarten or 1st grade before children have learned to read independently. (NRP, 2000, p. 93)

In other words, the window of opportunity when it comes to learning letter sounds and setting a solid foundation for future reading instruction, occurs in the first year of schooling.

When looked at in concert with research into how the brain functions, you begin to understand why this is so. Though we can remember more than one thing at a time, we can only absorb information into our long-term memory effectively one new item at a time because the quality of the other memories taper off if we try to absorb more (Rock, 2009). I understood from the research that once students begin to read independently, they begin to multitask. They attend to sight words, try to decipher unknown words using meaning cues, picture cues, grammatical cues, as well as their letter-sound knowledge. I further learnt that when this begins to happen, it becomes more difficult for them to focus on learning the letter sounds that they have as yet not mastered as so many tasks are vying for their attention. It then became clear to me why it was so critical that students learn letter names and sounds effectively as soon as was possible in their first year of schooling. …

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