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Phonics 'shouldn't be overlooked'

Phonics 'shouldn't be overlooked' (Thinkstock)

As a parent, teacher or guardian, you're bound to be familiar with helping a child learn to read. For most children, it's normal to encounter some difficulties when new words and sounds are first approached. But for those who have a learning disability, such as dyslexia, learning to read can be even more of a struggle.

There are various approaches one can take to ease the reading process for children with learning difficulties. For example, by reading aloud or using images alongside the text.

But latest research has revealed that phonics - a method of learning to read using knowledge of word sounds - shouldn't be overlooked and can help to improve the treatment and diagnosis of reading difficulties like dyslexia.

In order to better understand the use of phonics in reading, Chris McNorgan - a psychologist at the University of Buffalo - conducted a study that used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to analyse how the brain responds to audio and visual word cues.

The neuroimaging study, entitled 'Skill dependent audiovisual integration in the fusiform induces repetition suppression', looked for a top-down influence of auditory knowledge in the visual word form area. In other words, Mr McNorgan hoped to find evidence that the knowledge of word sounds enters the flow of visual recognition during the reading process.

Mr McNorgan presented participants who were aged between eight and 13 with a series of word pairs. The reading abilities of the subjects varied.

Each participant was then asked to decide whether or not the words in each pair rhymed, while an MRI scanner monitored their brain activity.

The word pairs were presented in three sets of conditions: participants first read the word pairs (visual only); then they listened to the word pairs (auditory only); and finally the subjects heard the first word and read the second (audio-visual).

During this process, the MRI scanner highlighted the areas of the brain that were most active in each condition by displaying a 3D representation of the brain that was made up of a series of cubes called voxels.

"Each cube has a measurement of activation strength that allows us to understand what's happening in each area under all three of the conditions.

"Looking at the voxels in a particular brain area, if the signal strengths associated with two different conditions differ, then you have some evidence that the brain area processes information about the two conditions differently," Mr McNorgan explained. 

It was revealed that listening to the sounds of letter combinations helps to recognise them as parts of words, allowing the brain to process the whole word quicker.

Therefore, thinking more about the sounds of words when beginning to read from an early age may be more effective than simply using a whole-language approach that focuses on visually memorising word patterns.

For children with dyslexia, assistive technologies can be used to support the reading process. For example, the Nessy Hairy Phonics CD can help to develop an understanding of different words through a series of fun games that involve breaking words down into sizeable chunks.