Fully Baking the Cake

Let’s talk about fully baking the cake

There’s a time for audio prep/scaffold development, a time for phoneme mapping, a time for signature mapping and a time for chunking and processing.  Everything in its own time.

In kindergarten, many children are neither chronologically, nor developmentally ready to begin a meta analysis of language; some can barely talk, let alone speak clearly without minor pathologies.

So why are we all too often attempting to ice a cake that isn’t fully baked?

Reading is like a three-legged stool.  We all begin our early childhood with natural linguistic development.  The human brain is designed to understand language, and once it hears language it can reproduce language.  So your child is growing up in the household hearing and reproducing sounds; and at a certain point, those sounds lock in, and the area of the brain that’s responsible for phonemic awareness myelinates around the sounds that your child has heard up to that certain point.

As we mentioned before, that period at which children myelinate the phonemic awareness neural networks occurs very early on, between 8 and 18 months; so if a child doesn’t hear a sound in the household or in the community, she is not going to learn that sound, and when her brain myelinates, that sound won’t be in her “decoding toolbox” 

So the concept of fully baking the cake is actually a speech pathology concept where the teacher must become cognizant of the aural and oral development of each child.  We ALL become speech pathologists and begin to recognize what sounds our students can make and what sounds they can hear.

When we begin to teach symbols and reading, all we’re really doing is showing the child that there’s a third leg of the stool, which is the written codification (or mapping) of the spoken language. For sounds like /b/ that’s represented by the letter “B” or sounds like /s/ which is represented by the letter “S,” this mapping process is relatively straightforward.  But for vowel sounds in English, the process becomes exponentially more complex in a very short period of time.

There are no regular English vowels, not one!  All vowels have multiple sounds that they can make alone or in combination with other vowels and consonants. 

This creates a tremendous obstacle to teaching the English code.  Essentially, it prevents us from teaching two sound words as the foundation to all other words.  As an example: I might want to teach the word “go” to my students followed by the words “toe,” “no,” “row,” “show,” and “bow.”  But unless I’m ready to dive deep into phonics, I can’t introduce the oe phonogram or the ow phonogram to a novice reader.  So instead, our typical curriculum directs me to teach consonant vowel consonant (cvc) words like "cat" and "hat" with "short" vowel sounds.  This is counterintuitive, but has been necessary, because, up until now, we have been limited by our antiquated and imperfect English orthography (see "A Simple History of the English Writing System") and hopelessly encumbered reading curricula.

Again, teaching consonants is relatively easy and most teachers perform well at this.  For example, by creating a feedback loop between the “S” symbol and the /sss/ sound, we are reinforcing the underlying neural network for that sound, helping to further myelinate it and essentially walling it off from other, similar neural networks in the brain, which might include, for example, the /z/ sound or the /th/ sound.  You could also say we are helping our students create unique and distinctive "phonemic buckets.”

But if a child comes, for example, from a Spanish speaking home, she may not have yet encountered the /th/ sound or the two variations (fricative (buzzy, as in “this” and “that”) vs. non-fricative (as in “think” and “math.”))  It is then incumbent upon us to address this as a “language specific speech pathology” issue first.  We must give that student more practice with the missing phonemes because they don’t have the full toolbox or tool kit of American English phonemes at their disposal which they need to move forward to decoding simple words like “the,” “they,” “there” or “them.”   It becomes our responsibility to work through each phonemic substructure and to help our students parse every sound both orally and aurally, before we move too far down the road towards the mapping of written symbols or the blending of sound symbol combinations to form words.

But how do we fully bake the cake?  How do we teach and reinforce the sounds of our language, the phonemes, when there are no individual symbols for many of our sounds?

The challenge, again, with English, is that we can associate consonants fairly easily with regular sounds e.g. “s” with /s/, “b” with /b/, etc., but we can’t do this for the vowels.  “A” does not always go with /ay/; “e” does not always go with /ee/, etc.

The answer lies in something new, something unique, something incredibly simple, but something that hasn't been done before.  We must adopt a new, rapid, sound symbol mapping convention entirely!  A convection oven, as it were.

In order to fully bake the cake, we, at the American Youth Literacy Foundation, have developed a patented, comprehensive reading curriculum; and the core of that curriculum is a tool for rapid, permanent mapping of each of the 44 sounds of the English language to a target symbol.  The list of these sound symbols is called the Phonibet; and it includes every vowel sound and every consonant sound in the English language.

Whereas teachers have always been able to point to a letter such as "B" or "S" in order to teach consonant sounds, they have never had a single letter or symbol to point to in order to teach sounds like /ow/, /oi/, /sh/, /ch/ etc.  Letter combinations are inherently more complex than single letters and are illogical.  Why does the "h" make one sound but when combined with "s," makes another, and when combined with "c," makes another and when combined with "p," makes another and when combined with "t," makes two different sounds; and in the word "school," it has a new sound altogether?  

Teaching sounds using letter combinations is essentially akin to icing the cake before baking it fully.  We are teaching the reading of letter combinations before we are teaching phonemic awareness, and we are opening a Pandora's Box of exceptions and questions and confusion. 

Meanwhile, the alternative to showing letter combinations to teach sounds like /ch/, is not showing any symbols at all.  This approach is equally ineffective.  Having a sound with no symbol is like having a class full of children without names.  Can you even imagine the emotional burden that would be placed on a teacher if she had to progress through the school year trying to get each child's attention using whatever descriptive terms were available to her on a given day? "You, in the green shirt . . . No, not you.  The other green shirt."

The power of the audio / visual feedback loop of the Phonibet is that it conveys many times the efficacy in forming memory as does the audio channel alone by using a single symbol to represent a single sound.  In other words, showing a "th" representative symbol, while saying the /th/ sound is twice as effective as saying the /th/ sound alone, both in terms of building a new neural network for the "th"  phoneme  AND for remediating any language specific speech pathology that a given ESL / ELL student might have if that sound is not in their toolkit. 

In addition, the Phonibet (see "The Phonibet") emulates the original Phoenician invention of our now "Roman" alphabet, by utilizing mnemonics and embedding the target sound within the pictogram that represents each of the 25 English sounds not contemplated in the alphabet.  The Phonibet allows the cake to bake much more rapidly, thereby intercepting and preventing one of the greatest threats to children's literacy, namely, boredom, before it can grab hold of a child's mind.

"Let us not allow our classrooms and our curricula to become excruciatingly boring," a someday famous person might possibly, potentially have once said.  "Students' minds are like sponges."  Many people have certainly said that; "and a sponge left unsaturated shall, certainly, become dessicated." 

In other words, students who feel that they’re just learning sounds and trying to distinguish sounds, will lose interest quickly in the reading learning process.   It is exceedingly important for us to show them why all of this matters.  We want to show them the third leg of the stool and how it complements the other two.  We want to show them that we are codifying our spoken language so that we can pass messages and ideas and thoughts to each other silently, effortlessly, and across great expanses of space . . . and time.  So, we very quickly want to start blending simple sounds together to form words.  

The Phonibet allows us to fully bake the cake, which, in turn, facilitates a complete and comprehensive phonemic awareness of ALL 44 sounds of the American English language, with a commensurate audio / visual stimulus / feedback loop and mnemonic memory aid for each sound. 

Awareness of the sounds, mastery of the sounds, ability to hear and reproduce the sounds and the beginnings of understanding how sounds can be blended together to form words then creates a complete foundational scaffolding for mapping the entire English phonetic code, the entire written orthography, onto the existing aural / oral, English neurolinguistic infrastructure within the child’s mind.

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