Girl listening with hand to ear

As a phonics instructor, I learned two important things:

  • How to design and teach a science-based phonics program
  • How deficient vision skills get in the way of learning to read

What I didn't learn, because I didn't run into anyone in over 200 clients who fit the description, is how lacking certain auditory skills would prevent someone from learning to read. More on that in a bit.

There are three basic purely auditory skills that a good reader must possess and all are easily trainable. They are blending, segmenting, and phoneme manipulation. I never had a client who tested at less than 100% in all three skills at the end of the course of instruction.

Blending Skill

If you're going to read a phonics code, which English is, by observing that code, you need to be able to both know the sounds represented by each piece of code and put them together. The putting together part is called blending. As I said, it's a purely auditory behavior.

The putting together part is called blending. It's a purely auditory behavior.

If you tell a person to blend /m/.../a/.../n/, putting a space between each sound (and saying sounds not letter names, of course) and he then says "man", he can blend.

Then it's just a matter of teaching him to blend better and better, so that he can blend difficult word beginnings like the str in stripe and difficult endings like the umped (umpt) in lumped. And so that he can eventually blend a bunch of chunks like cir...cum...fer...ence to say circumference.

Blending, being a skill, must be learned like all skills and, like most skills, it can be effectively taught.

Segmenting Skill

In order to learn to decode a phonics code, you need to know what the individual sounds in a word are. That is, you have to learn that a word like knock has just three sounds, /n/, /o/, and /k/. You have to be able to take it apart, sound by sound, the opposite of blending.

Segmenting a word is taking it apart, sound by sound, the opposite of blending.

Without that skill, it would be difficult to figure out how the pieces of code relate to each sound in the word, which in the case of knock is kn=/n/, o=/o/, and ck=/k/.

For example, if a child thinks ock is just one sound, he will have trouble isolating either of the two spellings, o and ck.

Again, I never had a child who failed to get 100% on a segmenting test after the course was completed, and most of the time it was after just a few lessons. However, it does need to be taught; it's a learned skill. And again, it's completely an auditory skill. Say the word, then say the sounds.

Phoneme Manipulation Skill

This one is a bit tricker to explain, and to understand its necessity. It's also the most challenging of the three skills to train, but eventually every single client did score 100% on the test.

The best way to explain the skill itself is with an example or two. Say map, but change the /m/ sound to /c/. If a child can come up with cap, he's succeeded in manipulating an initial sound in a word. Now, say map, but change the /o/ sound to /a/ (as in cat). If he says mop, he's successfully manipulated a vowel phoneme in the middle of a word. And that's about it.

Why is it a needed skill to read a phonics code like English? Because in the English phonics code a single letter or digraph can often represent two, three, or even four different sounds, like the letter a in cap, table, and want, or the letter u in cut, unit, flu, and push.

In the English phonics code a single letter or digraph can often represent two, three, or even four different sounds

So, if a person is decoding (reading) an unfamiliar word, he must not only know his options for a spelling, but he must be capable of testing them "on the fly" so to speak. As adults, we do this, for example, when reading a fancy new name for a prescription drug, trying to see if we recognize the sound of the name.

What About Those Other Auditory Skills Though?

What other skills, you ask? Well, take the ability to hear at all. If you can't, you will have difficulty learning a phonics code based on relating sound to print. You will even have trouble learning to speak correctly because you can't hear the sounds.

For decades reading researchers have claimed that people who've failed to learn to read in a phonics program have auditory processing problems.

But that's pretty obvious, right? And yet, for decades reading researchers have claimed that people who've failed to learn to read even after having been taught using a science-based reading program must have some sort of auditory processing problem.

So various diagnoses were formulated, and some programs were developed to train those presumably deficient auditory skills. Here's my problem with that: I never saw one of those kids in nearly 200 clients.

But I Did See Plenty of Kids Needing Vision Therapy

I did. I would say at least half of that 200 exhibited clear signs of the sort of visual issues that vision therapy is designed to address. And, once addressed, those clients went from being hard clients to easy clients.

Now, I didn't see a hundred kids who needed vision therapy actually get it and then work with them again. But I did see a dozen or so over the years, and I worked with a lot of kids who had struggled to learn to read in school, and then had vision therapy before seeing me. And they were almost always easy clients who picked up what I was teaching them quickly, despite their earlier experiences. By the way, not all of the hard cases then went through vision therapy. They just remained tough cases and progressed more slowly.

But Vision Therapy Doesn't Address Auditory Skills, Does It?

Those same researchers never mentioned the possibility that deficient vision skills might be the reason they struggled.

No, but there's a reason I bring it up. Those same researchers who seemed to find underlying auditory issues in those kids who failed to absorb phonics instruction never, and I do mean never, mentioned the possibility that deficient vision skills might be the reason they struggled. It was all auditory, auditory, auditory in study after study. If vision skills were mentioned, it was to disparage the very idea that they were suspect and should be addressed.

But I had first hand experience working with many clients who struggled with reading before seeing me, went through vision therapy, and became relatively easy client afterwards. That experience makes me question the research that blames most reading failure on some presumed auditory issues.

In Short

If your child, or student, is having difficulty learning to read, first make sure to try a science-based phonics program. If that fails, or if progress is agonizingly slow, investigate vision therapy and consider getting, or recommending, an evaluation by a developmental optometrist before assuming he just can't get phonics. Deficient vision skills can really inhibit phonics instruction, in my experience.