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Teaching Students to Reading Through Sound Acquisition, Conversation & Exploration

written by: stadams • edited by: Trent Lorcher • updated: 1/5/2012

Literacy and learning to read is an intentional process. If students are attempting to read for the first time or if they are struggling we need to provide opportunities for them to improve at their own pace.

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    Why is Sound Acquisition and Exploration So Important?

    We must first realize that sound awareness is the simplest level of phonological awareness. Children must have practice determining, imitating and experimenting with sound in order to develop the skill set needed to understand and imitate sounds in language. Early and frequent exposure to sounds, especially the sounds of language is critical for the development of language and literacy skills.

    Also, the ability to distinguishing noises made by significant individuals; animals, and environmental sounds is vital to language and literacy development. We must allow children to associate sounds with things unseen and seen. The ability to make an abstract connection between sound and the thing producing the sound seems to be directly correlated with the ability to understand that letters and words also dictate the production of sound. Likewise, particular sounds of letters and words have definite meaning associated with them.

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    Activities for Sound and Reading

    • Provide sound-making materials – Traditionally teachers reserve sound making materials for music lessons or abstain from them altogether for fear of overdosing on ibuprofen. Teachers should provide environmental recordings and sound making materials during writing opportunities. Have early and emergent readers sketch and write about: What they hear? Why that sounds the way it does? Is there a difference in tone or volume?
    • Listen for sounds in the environment – Teachers, this will be your favorite lesson. Find a place near your school where students can lie down and look up at the clouds/sky. Everyone should be very quiet. Every few minutes discuss what they hear. How do you know that is a bird? Does the wind make sound or is it the leaves rubbing against each other?
    • Use nursery rhymes, fingerplays and songs that play with sounds – Where did all the nursery rhymes go? It turns out our moms, dads and teachers had it right. One of the major stepping stones on the way to reading and literacy is the ability to make rhyming words and understand the concept of rhyming.
    • Provide puppets and props to explore sounds in dramatic play – Children will often be much more verbal through imaginative and dramatic play. To encourage this have lots of puppets, both imaginary characters and representations of real people and animals. ($$$$ Money Saving Idea:Visit your local Good Will or second hand store. Stuffed animals make great puppets by cutting the seam open in the back or bottom and pulling out the stuffing. Caution: Some stuffed animals have sharp fasteners on the inside for buttons, eyes, etc…)
    • Read books and tell stories that include sounds (grr, whoosh, whaa, mmm) – When reading or telling stories stop and let the children try and make the sound.
    • Imaginative Listening – Find an instrumental recording that is entitled after an object, like “Flight of the Bumble Bee,” by Korsakov. Have the children listen to the recording and draw a picture or write about anything they want that falls into the same category (in this case “an insect / bug”). See how many of them get close to the title of the recording. This is a great conversation starter with children and adults too for that matter.
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    Conversations & Linguistic Development

    Conversation with adults and peers is vitally important to literacy development. According to Hart and Risley, children from middle to upper income households are far more successful than children of lower income households as it pertains to literacy development. They determined that one of the leading causes for this disparity was the fact that children in lower income homes hear an average of 2 million words a year, while their counterparts hear upwards of 11 million words a year.

    Notably, households who sat down at a table to eat together at least once a day far exceeded other households in the same income bracket who did not share meals together. It is through conversation that pre literate and struggling students obtain new vocabulary and literary skills. Children are able to scaffold off of pre-existing knowledge to determine the meaning of new words in conversation. Likewise children are also assimilating the syntax and structure of effective literary elements.

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    Yes! Let Them Talk in School!

    When providing opportunities for conversation we should be reminded again that literacy development should be intentional. Just allowing children free reign of the linguistic space will more than likely turn into mass and loud chaos, which is not very beneficial to literacy development. On the other hand, all too often in school settings we find that conversation is stifled to the point of detriment to the students’ development. There needs to be a happy and productive median between the two extremes. Vygotsky, the Russian educational theorist, says that children are able to do more and consequentially learn more when directed by a person of greater knowledge, (the teacher or adult).

    Teachers should provide instruction and look for these three conversational skills: first, children must learn to listen actively; second, children should be able to initiate talk with adults and peers; third, children should be able to respond appropriately to the talk of others.

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    Active Listening Helps Reading

    Model active listening as well as talking with children—don’t take over conversations.

    Conversation Modeling Skills:

    • Get down on their physical level
    • Make eye contact - Hint: If a child is not comfortable looking a person in the eyes then have them try looking at the person's ear.
    • Pause to listen
    • Repeat or clarify what they say
    • Summarize their thoughts
    • Accept (even if they are wrong) and expand on their ideas
    • Speak clearly and intelligibly
    • Use questions appropriately and not to excess
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    Activities to Encourage Classroom Conversation

    • Create natural conversations throughout the day—plan-do-review, meal time conversation (yes! I said meal time), greeting, departure
    • Encourage children to talk to one another
    • Support socio-dramatic play by providing props in centers
    • Play verbal direction games – “Can you go to the basket and find 1 red and 1 blue block and bring it back to me?” (example of 3 step direction)

    Avoid These Conversation Stoppers:

    • Lack of interest signaled by: shift in your attention, mechanical reply, no follow-up, masking misunderstanding
    • Correction of form – Be very careful not to correct form in a budding linguist. If a child says, “let me ax you a question,” chances are her parents say the same thing. So if you tell a child that’s wrong you are telling her that her parents are wrong also, and we all know that the wall will go up around when you start talking about my mama. (Lisa Delpit)
    • Taking over: with talking / with questions


  • Hart, B., and Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes
  • Delpit, Lisa. (1995). Other People’s Children: Culture Conflict in the Classroom. The New Press, New York.