Reading Isn’t Fun When You Don’t Know the Sounds

Co-authored by Dr. Melissa Swisher, Lecturer, Purdue University

Learners who are deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) present a unique challenge for reading instruction; they must rely on only the letters and not the letter-sounds to access print. Most DHH students are reading below the fourth grade level when they graduate from high school (Hrastinski & Wilbur, 2016). See the Sound/Visual Phonics was created in 1982 for the explicit purpose of bringing sound to sight for DHH students so that more DHH students could learn to read more successfully.

See the Sound/Visual Phonics is a system of hand cues and written symbols that represent the 46 unique sounds of the English language. The system has two critical features that differentiate it from other systems. First, with See the Sound/Visual Phonics, the hand signs mimic the mouth and tongue movements as well as the air flow necessary to produce the spoken sound (a critical feature that differentiates See the Sound/Visual Phonics from cued speech where hand signs are more arbitrary; see Montgomery, 2008). Second, the written code is designed to look like the hand sign, prompting again the mouth and tongue movements to facilitate sound production.

One unique feature of See the Sound/Visual Phonics is that the emphasis is placed on the sounds or phonemes in the target language rather than the letters. This is especially important for those struggling to learn how to read a non-transparent language like English when it’s never entirely clear to would-be readers when a letter (or letter combination) will make a particular sound. See the Sound/Visual Phonics makes the same sound one hand sign/written code (e.g., the code for the long ā sound in reign and rain would be the same despite different spellings). That is, English phonemes become predictable and consistent like Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian (e.g., Cataño, Barlow, & Moyna, 2009; Schepens, Dijkstra, Grootjen, & van Heuven, 2013; Stamer & Vitevitch, 2012). To be clear, we aren’t talking about learning styles but additional cues (visual and auditory stimuli) for letter sounds. At one point, my Spanish instructor was frustrated with our American accent for the /de/ sound and drew a diagram of the mouth on the board. He pointed to the tongue in the middle of the roof of the mouth and said, “Not there.” He then pointed to the tongue touching the back of the teeth and said, “There.” We all had our “Aha!” moment and softened our /de/ sound. See the Sound/Visual Phonics works in much the same way.

Three characteristics of the English language illustrate the problems with emphasizing letters rather than sound when teaching reading. First, the same sound is represented by different spellings like the long ā sound. For instance, reign and rain sound similar, but reign does not sound like sleight even though they contain the same –eig code (e.g., sleight sounds like bite, fright, pie, sky with a long ī sound). Second, the same spelling represents different sounds. Read looks the same in the present/future tense [They will read (long ē sound) every issue of The Analysis of Verbal Behavior] as the past tense [Yesterday, they read (short ĕ sound) Tenenbaum & Wolking, 1989], and yet they’re spoken differently. Third, the same word has different meanings, spellings, and/or pronunciations. Résumé (job background) and resume (start a task again) are spelled the same but spoken differently and aren’t related. Other homophones are to, too, two with a long [oo] sound; flower and flour; through and threw; and their, they’re, there which pose many problems for readers of all ages.

Another unique feature of See the Sound/Visual Phonics is its flexibility. It can be incorporated into any reading curriculum and can be used one-on-one, in small groups, and in large groups (see Cihon, Morford, Stephens, Morrison, Shrontz, & Kelly, 2013). Teachers can also use See the Sound/Visual Phonics in its entirety or only with difficult sounds. Although See the Sound/Visual Phonics has mostly been used to teach reading, its utility has also been demonstrated with articulation/sound production (Smith & Wang, 2010; Zaccagnini & Antia, 1993) and spelling and writing (Abdulghafoor, Ahmad, & Huang, 2015).

Woolsey, Satterfield, and Roberson (2006) describe the potential for See the Sound/Visual Phonics with DHH students (see Bower, 2017; Dewes, 2017; Kart, 2017 for reviews). In 2006 there wasn’t much research on See the Sound/Visual Phonics, but we’ve recently seen an increase in research regarding its utility across populations, age groups, and target skills. For example, Cihon, Gardner, Morrison, and Paul (2008) and Gardner, Cihon, Morrison, and Paul (2013) evaluated the effectiveness of See the Sound/Visual Phonics for kindergarteners who were at-risk for reading failure and showed increases in their acquisition of target letter-sound relations. Trezek and colleagues have published several studies that confirm the utility of See the Sound/Visual Phonics with DHH students (with preschool and primary students Trezek & Wang, 2006; Trezek, Wang, Woods, Gampp, & Paul, 2007; and middle school students Trezek & Malmgren, 2005).

English is quite the melting pot of languages (e.g., Greek, French, German, Spanish, Nahuatl), which is partly why there are so many letter sounds and spellings. It’s no wonder that nearly half of primary school students in the United States struggle with reading (see the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Assessment of Educational Progress) and teachers struggle to help them (i.e., tell them to guess). Just as the teachers in Bethlehem have started to think about sound, not letters, and its importance for reading, perhaps our students and children could benefit from See the Sound/Visual Phonics instruction (Narr & Cawthon, 2011). Then we can finally change the statistic to all students learn to read proficiently!