What is a Mnemonic Integrated Alphabet and What Does Sound/Symbol Mean? What Makes This Alphabet Special?


November 4, 2011 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Articles


MNEMONIC

Mnemonics (m is silent) is something that helps you remember something. For instance, the name ROY G. BIV has often been taught to help people remember the sequence of colors in the rainbow, starting with R for red. Mnemonics are often a special word or short poem, but they can also be visual, like my alphabet. My alphabet letter pictures are designed to help children remember letter names and sounds. The pictures are very carefully chosen for words with easily separated first sounds. The vowel pictures teach accurate short vowel sounds. Many children’s alphabets are cute, but have pictures that do not teach the desired letter sound.

INTEGRATED

Integrated means that the letter is actually part of a picture. There are many alphabets out there with a letter next to a picture. Researchers haven’t found this type of alphabet to be very good for helping learners remember letter sounds. There are even alphabets with letters on top of pictures. For instance, the letter s might be written over a sock that has been folded over a couple times to form an s shape. But if you erase the s, the picture still looks like a sock. An integrated alphabet is different. An integrated letter picture will not make sense if you erase the letter because the letter is part of the picture. This has been found to be a very effective means of helping children learn letter sounds. The child can remember a picture that includes the letter, which then leads to the correct letter sound.

The alphabet you see on this website is both mnemonic and integrated. The letters are available on a two-sided place mat, or on flashcards. The place mat has the mnemonic, integrated alphabet, plus handwriting, colors, numbers, counting, and more. The flash cards are useful for playing games and practicing a small number of letters at a time. They are colorful, and attractive even to toddlers. Both have been used in kindergarten, and make wonderful gifts for preschoolers.

SOUND SYMBOL

What do educators mean when they refer to sound/symbol? The letters of our alphabet are symbols — 26 of them in English. Some of them are frustratingly similar, and it seems like those who design type continue to drop distinguishing characteristics, adding to the confusion. For  instance, letter q is now often made without a curl, so that it looks like a reversed p. It’s bad enough that p, b, and d are all the same shape, now q has been added to the confusion. Then there’s the lower case l, which looks just like an upper case I in sans serif type (type without the little extra decorative lines, which seems to be used more and more often), and the two very different forms for letters a and g, which drives some kids crazy while others just naturally start recognizing either one. Most of you probably never noticed that g and e are quite similar (flip the e over), that n is the vertical reverse of u, or that t and f are extremely similar to each other in the same way if the type has a curl at the bottom of the t. And why do we call it a double u when it is really a double v? I think it used to look like a doubled u. Tiny children learn that objects are the same even when rotated or flipped. A spoon is a spoon, whether you hold it by the stem or the bowl. Not so with letters, and it can be very hard to learn which symbol is which. If you thought it was easy, I hope this has helped you understand some of the difficulty.

In order to learn to read, children have to learn to recognize all the letters instantly. But that’s not enough. They also have to learn what sound each of those shapes makes, and eventually that some of them make more than one sound. The vowels have a long and short sound, or, as I explain it, they like to say their name, but if there is a mean consonant after them then they say their sound (“long” and “short” don’t make any sense to children). It sounds like the consonant just bumped into the vowel and hurt it–AHH! EHH! IHH, OHH, UHH! cry the vowels. Short sounds are notoriously more difficult to learn.

Letter names often provide a clue to the sound they make, but they can also cause a lot of confusion. When I talk about  a letter’s sound I write it this way: /b/. Letter b’s name does start with the sound it makes. Letter b’s name is /b/ /e/. That’s helpful. But consider letter s. We say the name like this, “ess.” But letter s does not say /e/. When testing small children for knowledge of letter sounds, some will provide the sort /e/ sound for many letters, especially f, l, m, n, s, and x for that reason. Then there’s letter w, which doesn’t start with /d/, letter c which only says /s/ sometimes (in front of e, i and y) and isn’t the first sound you want children to learn, likewise for letter g that can say /j/. Letter y doesn’t say the sound of w even though it’s name suggests such. Letter h does not say /a/, and u doesn’t say /y/.

Maybe you never noticed a lot of these potential confusions. Learning letter names and sounds isn’t easy! This is the process we call sound/symbol or learning the sounds attached to each symbol.

The materials I market have all been designed by me, after years in teaching as a special education teacher. I created them because I was either unable to find appropriate materials or found what was available to be lacking. My materials are always based on research findings indicating what should work best. They have been successful with those children who struggle to learn, and are therefore also successful for more typical learners. Special education students require the best teaching, and if it works for them, it should work for just about anyone. It has been exciting to see my materials used now in the regular classroom as well as in the special education setting.

MY ALPHABET’S HISTORY

This alphabet was begun for a third grade boy during my practicum experience for my master’s program. He was small, and so dejected he stood with his eyes cast down toward his shoes. He couldn’t read. In fact, he hadn’t learned the names or sounds for most of the letters. He struggled with many of the confusions I’ve described above. His teacher said he wasn’t very intelligent, but also noted that he could “read” a Reading Recovery book after a person read it to him once. I was pretty sure a child who could  accurately “read” a book after hearing it once had a lot more intelligence than people were giving him credit for, even if the book did have a lot of pictures to trigger memory of the story (picture supported text). In fact, to feel such a deep sense of failure as was written all over him, he had to be as intelligent as the spark in his eyes indicated. I wrote “read” in quotes because when I pointed to a specific word on the page and asked him to tell me what that word was, he had no idea.

Picture supported text only helps kids memorize, and only some kids. It doesn’t really teach reading or spelling. Once a different third grade teacher in a different school sent one of my special education students to me to read a third grade book that had a picture on each page. She didn’t think he needed my help to read and this was her evidence to support her opinion. When he finished I wrote the word “voice” on the board. It was in the text he’d just read flawlessly. I asked him to read it to me. He slowly sounded it out, saying “v-o-c.”

“Hmm…” I said, “What about the i?”

“Oh,” he said, and sounded out the word again. This time he read, “v-o-ic.” Then he became angry, saying it wasn’t a real word and I shouldn’t ask him to read words that weren’t real. Picture supported reading wasn’t teaching him to read!

Well, at the same time that I met this sad little boy, I was reading about teaching strategies in two different required texts, and had come across discussions of research about using an integrated alphabet in each of them. The researchers found that it was a helpful approach for attaching letter name and sound. Given that most alphabets aren’t integrated, and haven’t been found to be very effective, that was very interesting. I decided this little boy needed the best, and that that appeared to be an integrated alphabet.

A search for such an alphabet was fruitless. I had only a few examples from the texts, and I really didn’t like some of them. There was a g next to a reversed g, the combination made into glasses, and a y made into a yak. This child had looked at a bunch of grapes next to letter g on the alphabet chart his teachers were using, and said “berries,” before continuing on down the poster searching for a picture that started with the /g/ sound. I wanted clear, attractive pictures of common things, that never suggested a reversed letter image. So, I began designing an integrated alphabet for him, one letter and one lesson at a time. We worked from late September until mid December with lessons only three days a week. When I left he had learned most of the letter names and sounds. He had started reading simple books controlled for one syllable words with only short vowels. He produced his first independent writing at Thanksgiving.

He was probably the most dyslexic child I’ve ever met. I remember visualizing teaching him as somewhat like slaying a many headed dragon that kept growing new heads. We would conquer one confusion, only to uncover more. But, when I left, everyone was talking about the change in him. He held his head up, and looked at you, now. Children have self-esteem when they learn. To help children feel good about themselves, help them learn.

OTHER PICTURE ALPHABETS

There are a lot of alphabets out there. You will have a hard time finding another integrated alphabet. This alphabet is carefully designed for learning letter names and sounds in the best way researchers have found.

Not only will you have a hard time finding another integrated alphabet, you’ll have a hard time finding a good picture alphabet with pictures starting with the correct letter sounds. If this sounds surprising to you, let me list some of the inappropriate pictures I’ve seen and why I consider them inappropriate:

1) First, obviously, the pictures should be correct for the letter sound. I’ve seen a sheep for s. This word does not start with the s sound. For the same reason, w should not have a “wreath,” nor should k have the word “knit.” Yes, I’ve seen these pictures used! The alphabets are cute, but not what you want for your child to learn letter names and sounds.

2)  Pictures should start with a sound that is easy to separate from the rest of the word. Better pictures do not start with what we call blends or consonant clusters such as sl, sn, br, or tr. Alphabet pictures I’ve seen include: broccoli, flower, frog, grapes, tree, train and snail.

3) The initial consonant (any letter except a, e, i, o and u) should especially not be followed by l, n, or m as the child often holds onto this second letter sound and completely fails to hear the first sound. Inappropriate pictures include: alligator, elephant, indian, inchworm, umbrella, and underpants.

4) The second consonant should also not be a g. This letter, because of where it is pronounced in the mouth, tends to alter the letter sound before it. Inappropriate pictures include: egg, igloo, and iguana.

5) Vowel pictures should lead to a short vowel sounds. Pictures should not lead to a sound that the vowel only says when part of a vowel team. For instance: a-automobile, o-owl. The picture should not lead to a sound the vowel only says when followed by r. For instance: a-aardvark, o-ornament, orange. It would be better to teach short vowel sounds, not the easier long ones. Not so good: a-acorn, e-ear,  i-ice, o-oatmeal, u-unicorn.

6) It is much more difficult for children to learn the “hard” sound for c and g. It should be taught first. For this reason a giraffe is not appropriate for letter g, but it is quite commonly used. (Likewise, you wouldn’t use city or cent for c.)

7) Letter x causes tremendous difficulties. You see, if x starts a word, it doesn’t say its sound. It says /z/ like in zebra. Alphabets often picture a xylophone. This won’t teach letter x’s sound. Neither will some of the other creative words (there aren’t many, especially ones that we know what they mean, like “xanthan”). Even another commonly used picture, X-ray, isn’t appropriate. If you say letter x’s name carefully, which is what you say when you pronounce this word, you’ll discover that its name sounds like “eks.” The first sound here is the short sound of letter e. Letter x, however, does have its own sound, but you don’t hear it at the beginning of any word. That is why I’ve opted to use a fox in a box. I have to teach the children that letter x say its sound at the end of the word because it doesn’t start words with its sound.

Note that under each letter I’ve printed the key word that names each picture. The printing isn’t meant for the child to read, it’s to help you be sure of the correct word (sometimes I can’t tell what a picture is supposed to be on other alphabets). The point here is learning letter names and sounds, not reading. Very young children learn letter names when you say, for example, “a-apple” as they point to the pictures. For 3-4 year olds you can teach name and sound by saying “a-apple-/a/.”

The pictures are fun, colorful, and attractive to children.  When possible, alliteration is used to help emphasize the letter’s sound. For instance, the gray ghost is holding a gob of gooey green gum, and the lamp has a lavender lampshade with a lion on it. You could even add an L name, such as Leo the lion on a lavender lampshade. I give you all the alliterations in a letter with the placemat. Even my 20 month-old granddaughter loves her wall alphabet and points to the letters so that her mother will tell her their names. She has already learned quite a few of them. Whoever the special children are in your life, I’m sure they’ll also find the letters attractive.

I hope you now understand what makes this alphabet special, and look at other alphabets more carefully before you choose one for the children in your life.