The nature of phonological representations in young children Dr Julia Carroll and Joanne Myers Report on main findings This project has been funded by ESRC Overview During 2005 – 2006 we have worked with over 125 children aged 3 – 4 years old from several Warwickshire nurseries and reception classes. Children were very keen to work with us and completed a series of established tests and activities that we have designed. The activities concentrated on children’s language skills and asked them to think about phonology – sounds which make up words. This PowerPoint will give you a brief overview of the results of the activities forming the main findings of our research. We hope that you will find this interesting and useful. Background Currently there is much interest in “phonics”; in schools, in the media and in academia. In education the focus is now on teaching children that words are made of sounds (rather than teaching whole words) so that they can transfer this knowledge to other words and to spelling. A lot of teachers will agree that children find learning about sounds very difficult. One possible reason behind this difficultly has been proposed in psychology. It is thought that young children are not able to think about the sound units that make up words. Therefore the concept that sounds make up words is abstract to them when teaching begins. When learning new words children need to “store” this information in their minds – this is referred to as being “represented”. There are several ways of storing words. For example cat could be stored in a large chunk as “cat” or could be broken down into its phonemes - /k/ /a/ t/. These are two of several possible representations. Background Understanding how children represent words is important as it is thought that the quality of representations predicts how well children learn to read. It is believed that children with speech and language problems have weak phonological representations. However not much is known about the nature of representations in children who are developing typically. We have therefore adapted several activities which ask children to compare, remember and produce words. This is to allow us to see which sound units children may be able to think about (initial or final sounds) and which sounds they think sound the same in order to understand their classification system of sounds within words. This will help us to understand the nature of representations of words in typically developing children before and as they learn to read. We also took basic measures of children’s expressive vocabulary and their sound/letter knowledge. “m” Articulation This project is based on the way in which we all articulate - say sounds. There are several elements (phonetic features) as to how we create a sound. In order to understand some of the key terms of this research please look at these activities: MANNER Say the sound /m/ and try to make it last for a few seconds. Now say the sound /p/ and do the same. Can you make it last as long? The path of airflow used to produce sounds like /p/ and /t/ is different and doesn’t allow for a continuous sound whereas sounds like /m/ and /n/ can be said continuously. PLACE Also say the sounds /p/, /t/ and /k/ and you will notice that your tongue and lips move to different places to produce the sounds. The theory The different combinations of manner – airflow used to produce sounds and place – where you position your mouth leads to a classification system where each sound can be classified in this way. Some sounds share the same manner or place of articulation. Please see the next slide. This research was aiming to find out whether children use this same classification system for storing - “representing” their information about sounds within words. Very young children struggle to work with specific sounds within words (“what sound is at the start of cat?”) but have shown that they can work with sections of words. So it is possible that they are breaking words down into units of some kind in their representations, but not right down into each specific sound. A broader classification, being initially more efficient for the child, could be based on the manner and place classification systems. This means that children may think about words in terms of the way that they say them. The classification system Place Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal Manner Plosive p b t d k g Nasal m n Fricative f v th ð s z sh ʒ ng h Approxim r j ant Lateral l Activities Forced Choice/ Sound Families These activities asked children which words sounded a little bit the same using friendly characters and their “favourite” words. The sounds within the words here were being compared to each other. Children showed us the words sounded “a little bit the same” by giving it to the character or sounded different by putting the word in the bin. tug “tough” “bus” “mum” Memory Confusions This task used nonsense words as this is a purer measure of children’s memory ability for different sounds. Children were given the nonsense Christian names of animals and they had to remember them. The errors that the children made were analysed. Children could make errors based on the initial sounds of words or based on manner/place of articulation. “mern” “moab” “vit” Activities Priming Children were shown pictures and had to quickly tell us what they were. However beforehand they heard a word being spoken which did not match the picture. The word was either matched on manner or place (or were unrelated) to investigate which would have more of an effect on the time for the children to name the picture. These words could have either helped or distracted the child. “feet” “seek” Word Production Here children were asked to listen to a word and then say as many words as they could that sounded a little bit the same as it, using puppets. They could make up nonsense words too. “nut” Results Background measures Both the nursery and reception classes scored average to slightly above average in the expressive vocabulary tests. As expected the nursery children showed low letter/sound knowledge, with approximately half being unable to recall more than one. As hoped the reception children showed good knowledge with half of the children being able to name at least 24 letter/sounds. General testing conditions We were particularly pleased with the levels of concentration of most of the children. The children were able to work with us and on a computer for up to 15 minutes. This is particularly commendable in the nursery children for whom this would have been their first exposure to sitting down and completing a piece of “work” with an adult. Results Forced Choice/ Sound Families Both tasks produced similar results. Where the consonants within words were matched on manner of articulation children were more likely to rate these words as sounding similar than when matched on place or not at all. This was more likely to happen when the match on manner was made at the ends of words and not at the beginnings. Children were more likely to rate words that started or ended with the same sound as sounding the same as can be seen in the following graph. Results Sound similarities in Forced Choice same" responses out of 2 number of "sounds the 2 1.5 initial 1 final 0.5 0 t e d r ac e ne te ac em ex la an pl on re m un ph Relationship between test and target ("favourite") word and where match occurs Results Memory confusions As adults we are more likely to mix up words that start with the same sound (just think how many times you’ve mixed up the names Joshua, John and Jamie!) However children work differently - they have shown us here that they do not mix up initial sounds particularly. The children were more likely to mix up words that shared manner at both the start and end of words than was expected statistically. Many children showed excellent concentration and memory skills, some remembering all of the nonsense names over 24 hours period! Priming Results Unfortunately our results for priming were disappointing. The effect of words matched to the target word on manner or place did not produce different effects to the words that were not related to the target. We do however plan to make a few changes to the task and hope to see some results after working with more children. Word Production 62% of the words that children produced here rhymed with the target word. This means that when asking a child to produce words that sound the same – they seem to translate this instruction into give words that rhyme. This may be useful for teachers to know when introducing the idea of words sounding the same. Children here performed very well considering some researchers assume that children this young will not be able to perform this task. Most children spoke confidently and rose to the challenge of thinking of words and even making them up. This was a good exercise as it showed they were able to create words that sounded the same. Conclusions As predicted by other research children are more likely to say that words sharing manner (at the ends of words) sound similar compared to words sharing place or words which are unrelated. Additionally, and probably because of this, children make confusions based on the manner of sounds. This therefore suggests that we have found evidence that children do represent words based on the manner in which they are said. This is relevant in that children could be mixing up sounds which share manner when they are having to “sound out words” in spelling. So when sounding out words “mum” and “sun” they could struggle to hear the difference between /m/ and /n/ as they are produced in the same manner. It is useful to be aware of this possibility. Some children are able to hear that words that start with the same sound and end with the same sound (rhyming words) do sound similar. This is how older children and adults think. It is encouraging to know that this ability is developing. It could be as a result of educational activities in nursery and reception that have encouraged this ability. How the information has been used The findings from this study have been presented to various conferences worldwide -including “International Clinical Phonetics and Linguistics Association” (Croatia) -“Child Language Seminar” (UK) - “Society for the Scientific Study of Reading” (Canada). The project will be written up and hopefully published in the following academic journals - Journal of Memory and Language - Journal of Child Language. Where to next? This study has formed the backdrop to a larger study we are about to embark on. This will investigate the relationship between children’s phonological abilities and how well children learn to read. It will concentrate on children with a variety of speech and language difficulties/risks. We will be working with children (aged 4 – 6 years) - in speech and language therapy - who are at a genetic risk of developing dyslexia - from local schools who perform at the lower end on a test measuring their phonological abilities. Where to next? We aim to work with the children and measure a large number of their phonological abilities and the nature of their phonological representations (using some of the same tasks presented here). We will also test reading and spelling ability using standardised measurements. We will follow up the children, being particularly interested in how their reading has progressed over a 6 month period. We will then be able to consider which elements of their phonology profile are contributing to reading and which problematic areas may lead to problems also developing with reading. This study aims to be able to advise Speech and Language therapists which children may go onto need some assistance in learning to read. Would you like to stay involved? If you would like some more information on either project or would like to volunteer for your child to take part in this upcoming research please contact either Dr Julia Carroll J.M.Carroll@warwick.ac.uk (024) 765 23613 or Miss Joanne Myers J.Myers@warwick.ac.uk (024) 765 75527 If you would like to receive a copy of the academic paper that will hopefully be published as a result of this work then please let us know. Thank you for your attention!
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