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Perhaps your child has a speech problem; not one of those cute “developmental” speech errors that will go away on its own, but errors that persist and make him hard to understand.  If so, you have probably considered speech therapy.  Teaching him to pronounce his sounds correctly will fix everything…or will it?

Would you be surprised to know that children with speech disorders are at risk for difficulty in learning to read?  The following will help preschool children with speech disorders learn to read.

Phonological Representation

A speech-processing model developed by Stackhouse and Wells (1997) proposed that when a child hears a new word, he forms a “phonological representation” of the word.  That is, he stores in his long-term memory how the word is supposed to sound, and perhaps even how the word looks on the lips as one speaks it.

To become a reader, a child must learn to decode unfamiliar printed words and match them to his phonological representations of words he knows.

Speech Impaired Children at Risk for Reading Skills

Recent research has shown that children with speech impairments typically have problems with phonological representations.  Preschool children with moderate to severe speech impairments are at risk for long-term difficulties in effectively using phonological (speech sound) information when reading and spelling.  Even after their speech difficulties have been resolved, they continue to be at risk because of poor phonological representations of words stored in their memories.  I worked with a child who insisted the Star Wars character was “Hand Solo,” even though he could say “Han.”  He had an incorrect phonemic representation of the character’s name stored in his memory.

Phonemic Awareness + Learning Letters + Speech Therapy = Enhanced Early Reading Skills

Research has shown that teaching phonemic awareness and letter knowledge in combination with speech therapy will assist the child in developing his early reading skills (1), as well as his phonemic representations of words.  Parents typically work on letter knowledge with their children at an early age.  Letter knowledge activities include:

  • Singing the alphabet
  • Putting the letters in order
  • Identifying letters when named
  • Having the child name the letters both in and out of (alphabetical) order

What can parents of children with speech sound disorders do to set their children on the path to reading?

Speech Therapy: The Speech-Reading Connection

The first and most obvious order of business for a child with a speech disorder is speech therapy!  Speech therapy works directly on a child’s speech intelligibility.  Make sure that the speech-language pathologist you choose to work with your preschooler is knowledgeable about the speech-reading connection and is prepared to help you and your child with early literacy intervention.  It is perfectly possible, and advantageous, for her to help your child attain intelligible speech at the same time that she works on spoken (and written) speech sound knowledge (phonemic awareness).

What IS Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness involves the ability to:

  • Hear the sounds (phonemes) that make up words
  • Recognize differences between sounds
  • Find relationships between sounds
  • Be aware of the positions of sounds within words
  • Change and rearrange sounds to make new words

Phonemic awareness is not something we are born with—it is something that we must acquire.  The goal of phonemic awareness training is to help children develop an ear for language—to hear specific sounds, identify sound sequences, and understand the role phonemes play in word formation.  The knowledge develops sequentially, beginning with awareness of spoken words, then of syllables, then of rhymes, and finally to individual sounds within words.

Young children in the early stages of language development have difficulty sequencing sounds.  They may hear a word as just one big sound rather than the sum of its parts.  In order to learn to read, it is necessary for the child to be able to hear and recognize that there are individual sounds within words before he can identify the letters that stand for those particular sounds.  Once the child can identify individual sounds, he can break words into separate phonemic elements and manipulate them, generating an infinite number of new words.

How Do We Teach Phonemic Awareness?

We teach phonemic awareness through talking and listening.  Children acquire phonemic awareness through experiences with nursery rhymes and other stories, poems, songs, and finger plays with rhyme and/or alliteration, and through specific interactive games and activities.  During the preschool years, we must teach:

  • Letter names and sounds (What sound does this particular letter make?)
  • Rhyming
  • Initial phoneme segmentation (What is the first sound in the word?  Sound—not letter!)
  • Final phoneme segmentation (What is the last sound you hear in the word?)
  • Syllable and word segmentation (number of syllables and number of sounds in a word)
  • Blending (putting individual sounds and syllables together to form words)
  • Listening – What do you hear?

Whose job is it to work on phonemic awareness skills?  Parents are a child’s first teachers, so turn off the TV and the other electronics.  Read to your child, talk, and play words games!  Help him know how words are supposed to sound.  Do not forget Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss…and do not be late for speech therapy!  This is how you can help your child become a reader.


1) Gillon, G.T (2000) The Gillon Phonological Awareness Training Programme: An intervention programme for children at risk for reading disorder, University of Canterbury.

2) Stackhouse, J., & Wells, B. (1997). [easyazon_link asin=”1861560303″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”speciism0f-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Children’s Speech and Literacy Difficulties: A Psycholinguistic Framework[/easyazon_link] London:Whurr.