health and dyslexia: phono-graphix

article about the ‘Phono-Graphixi®’ system

by Dr Diane McGuiness

About The Phono-Graphix® Reading and Spelling Method

Phono-Graphix was developed in 1992 and 1993 by Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness, an American and an Englishman. The research into the efficacy of the programme was published in the Orton Annals of Dyslexia in 1996 (C. McGuinness, et al, 46. 73-96), with a how to book titled ‘Reading Reflex’ to follow (Free Press, 1998; Penguin, 1999). The theoretical underpinnings of Phono-Graphix are remarkably straightforward and sensible, no doubt encouraging its rapid spread and popularity among teachers, literacy specialists and parents.
Phono-Graphix is based simply on the nature of the English code, the three skills needed to access that code, and teaching these in keeping with the way children learn.

The method is the first to have laid out what the authors call the ‘Nature of the Code’ and bases all lessons upon this as well as the nature of the child as a ‘learner of the code’

The first concept of the nature of the code is that letters are pictures of sounds, In the word please for instance, there are four sounds and each is represented by a sound picture. In designing lessons the Phono-Graphix developers assumed that children can understand this perfectly well drawing examples of the remarkable ability of quite young children to assess visual figures.

The second concept is that sound pictures can be made up of one or more letters So please has four sounds, and four sound pictures p l ea se, two of which are made up of more than one letter. Again the developers of Phono-Graphix fell back on child development research that shows that children reuse figures in the world around them every day, pointing out that no rule is needed to recognize a triangle and a square, or that a triangle on a square is a house, so why would they need a rule to recognize oa as a way to show the sound ‘oe’?

The third concept of the nature of the code according to Phono-Graphix is that it contains variation—most of the sounds can be shown with more than one sound picture such as the various ways to show the sound ‘oe’ in the words boat, slow, most, toe, note, and though. To test their theory that very young children could understand that the code contains variation, Phono-Graphix developers conducted a study in which they showed forty children a picture of a daisy, a lilac and a rose, and when they asked what each was in turn the children quite easily and naturally identified all three as ‘flower’.

Finally, the fourth concept of the nature of the code is that it contains considerable overlap—some of the sound pictures are used to represent more than one sound, such as the ow in the words show and frown. Again the developers of Phono-Graphix devised a test of children’s ability to understand this concept by showing them a picture of a circle and asking them, “What is this?”
and then, “Can you think of anything else it could be?” All of the children easily named two or three things such as: a ball, a circle, the moon, the sun, a dot.

The Phono-Graphix authors did not stop at the nature of the code, but went on to identify three skills that are needed to read and spell a code of this nature.

To use a sound picture code one must be able to access independent sounds within words, to break the word apart into discreet sound units, to ‘segment’ them. Phono-Graphix was the first method to use spatial markers as indicators of ‘where’ to listen for sounds in sequence, rather than temporal directions such as first sound, middle sound, last sound. A specially designed white board is used. The teachers says the word as he slowly brings his finger across the markers indicating where the word will be built. Then he points to the first marker and says, “Listen and tell me what you hear here”.

To use a sound picture code children must be able to push sounds together into words, to ‘blend’ them.

To use a code that contains overlap children must be able to slide sounds in and out of words that contain overlap spellings such as the in ‘brown’ trying sounds on so to speak to see, or ‘hear’ what makes sense. They must be able to do what the Phono-Graphix authors call ‘phoneme manipulation’. Although similar exercises had been used by other methods such as Lindamood-Bell; the authors of Phono-Graphix where the first to carefully lay out for the teacher why we teach this skill, and to devise lessons embedded in the context of why and how we manipulate phonemes when we read.

The Phono-Graphix method has been something of a rebel among traditional p phonics proponents, steering away from sound drills and so called ‘decodable readers’ claiming that children learn best In context and through active discovery.
An example of contextual learning in this method is that the sound to symbol relationship is taught in words rather than in isolation. So when the Phono-Graphix teacher lays out the letters or ‘sound pictures’ c, a, t, runs her fingers across the spatial markers and says, “What sound do you hear here?” the child is expected to identify the sound, not the letter. Only after the sound has been identified or ‘segmented’, does the teacher say, “And do you know which of these is ‘c’? It is through this trial and error, or ‘discovery’ that the code is learned. An example active discovery is the Directed Reading and Mapping Lesson in which children read list of words and create a chart of which words are spelt with one way to show the sound, versus another and another. In this way, the code is ‘discovered’ by the child as he constructs the variation within the code and notices where the code overlaps.

A critical component of this method is ‘error correction’. The authors forward the idea that all new learning takes place in the context of errors, and that when errors don’t occur the child is only practising previously learned material. In each lesson the authors lay out specific error corrections for every possible error that might occur.

Since it’s first mention on the front pages of the Daily Telegraph, Phono-Graphix has been heavily implemented in Britain, with over 8,000 certified teachers, and 40,000 copies of ‘Reading Reflex’ in print. The BBC and Channel 4 have both done segments on the method, and some twenty news articles have helped spread the programmes popularity. What’s on the horizon for Phono-Graphix in Britain? In June of 2005, at a Phono-Graphix international conference in London, the developers launched their BLUEPRINT for Literacy scheme, which makes the method available to LEAs who would wish to devise a school owned programme based on Phono-Graphix. The BLUEPRINT also offers a vehicle for teachers who wish to publish Phono-Graphix based games, stories and workbooks. Released in July of 2005 is a DVD and parent book for teaching reading to babies. That’s right, babies! ‘Imagine Baby Reading’ is a book and DVD for parents who choose not to leave their child’s literacy in the hands of the schools, but opt instead for a very early start. Later this year the Phono-Graphix team is releasing a manual for improving the reading and writing performance of foreign speakers. This will be published with directions in Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish. Those interested in learning more about Phono-Graphix can visit the website at