Improving Phonological Awareness and Decoding Skills of High School Students From Diverse Backgrounds

By McQuiston, Kathleen O’Shea, Doris; McCollin, Michelle

HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS FROM culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds frequently struggle with the literacy demands of middle and high school curricula. Many students with severe impairments do not have basic phonological awareness and decoding skills. To improve the reading achievement of these students and promote their success in content-area classes, teachers must apply best practices supported by reading research to help these students close the gap between themselves and their normally achieving peers. Teachers who use direct and explicit instructional strategies that are both developmentally appropriate and culturally and linguistically responsive are most likely to be effective with students of diverse backgrounds. It is critical that the intervention match the student’s level of reading development. Opportunities to improve phonological awareness and decoding skills will assist these students in building reading fluency, developing vocabulary knowledge, and enhancing comprehension. Phonological awareness refers to an individual’s ability to hear and manipulate the sound structure of language. It involves both an understanding of syllable and rhyme and sensitivity to the individual sounds of language, or phonemes (McCollin & O’Shea, 2005). Students with reading problems frequently struggle with these skills and can benefit from instruction in this area. In concert with direct and explicit instruction in phonological awareness skills, teachers of very poor readers will need to teach them decoding and word-attack skills.

Research has demonstrated both cognitive and affective benefits of learning contexts that are responsive to students’ familiar home and community experiences (Ball, 2000; Godina, 2003; Ladson- Billings, 1995). Effective practices include affirmation of ethnic identity, curricular emphasis on students’ cultural heritage, and classroom structures that promote peer-to-peer interaction and sharing of knowledge (Boykin & Bailey, 2000; Foster, Lewis, & Onafowora, 2003; Lee, 2001). One way for educators to place diverse students, their histories, and their experiences at the center of the learning process is to use culturally relevant materials, including multicultural literature and content-area texts with multicultural themes and applications. Another way is to give students opportunities to view themselves as sources of knowledge and valued members of the learning community. Last, a climate of respect for cultural and linguistic diversity provides a motivating context for literacy learning (Cummins, 1986). Culturally responsive instruction is not merely a matter of focusing on holidays or ethnic foods. Rather, it is instruction integrated into the daily activities of the classroom (McCollin & O’Shea, 2005).

Improving Phonological Awareness

For students who lack phonological awareness, teachers should provide explicit instruction, focusing on only one or two phonemic awareness skills, such as segmenting and blending, at a time. After beginning with auditory phonemic activities, teachers can link sounds to letters and provide opportunities for students to apply their phonological awareness when reading and writing. As with other students who display difficulties with phonological awareness, students from culturally and liguistically diverse backgrounds can benefit from systematic instruction in identifying and manipulating the sounds of spoken language (Vaughn, Bos, & Schumm, 2005). Effective instructional strategies that target phonological awareness can improve literacy learning. In addition, by using culturally relevant materials and approaches that build on students’ cultural funds of knowledge, educators can increase student learning and engagement.

Develop Students’ Facility With the Sounds of Language Through Hip-Hop Music

Hip-hop music developed from an oral tradition and is therefore an ideal medium through which students can exercise auditory discrimination skills. Hip-hop uses alliteration, rhyme, and near rhyme-all of which educators can use in teaching students to discriminate and manipulate phonemes. Hip-hop is a vital part of youth culture, particularly for students of diverse ethnic heritage. Although educators have sometimes perceived hip-hop music as inappropriate for instruction, it offers unique opportunities. (However, teachers should preview lyrics before playing music in their classes; some hip-hop songs contain language or messages that may be offensive.) For example, in one activity, teachers and students can examine the study of rhyme and near rhyme in popular hip-hop lyrics. Then, teachers can ask each student to write two poems or raps: one that only uses perfect rhyme and one that uses at least four instances of near rhyme. Students can share the poems or raps in class the next day, comparing the effects of perfect and near rhyme.

Play Word Games With Culturally Specific Language

Students can create alliteration, rhymes, and other wordplay with language that is familiar to them. For example, students can use sociorelevant vocabulary: “Miguel misses mangoes Monday.” Teachers can easily incorporate these activities into daily routines. For example, when students are ready to be dismissed, the teacher may ask that all students whose names end in “t” close their books and prepare to leave. Or the teacher might start a game by designating a starting sound (e.g., “b”), having the class decide where they would like to go (e.g., Trinidad), and saying, for example, “I’m going on a trip to Trinidad, and I’m going to take [an item that begins with the starting sound “b”] a ball.” Each student has to repeat the sentence, with its growing list of items that have been named, and must modify the sentence by adding an item beginning with the starting sound. For example, a student may recite, “I’m going on a trip to Trinidad, and I’m going to take a ball, a bat, a burrito, and a banjo.” Students will naturally think of items that are culturally familiar to them.

In addition, tongue twisters may present to students an enjoyable challenge. This one is particularly difficult: “The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.” The teacher may divide the class into small groups that can create their own tongue twisters, which they present to the class. Spoonerisms can also be fun. For example, students could correct phrases such as “pweet sotato” (sweet potato), “chilled grease” (grilled cheese), and “chish and fips” (fish and chips). Teachers can use sentences, too: “You’re hitting on my sat” (You’re sitting on my hat). Again, teachers can encourage students to use culturally familiar examples.

Use the Power of the Arts: Music, Visual Arts, Drama, Dance, Movement

Teachers can make segmentation of phonemes more fun by using the rhythm of a particular ethnic instrument or beat. For example, teachers can ask students to tap an African drum for each sound in the word “dragon.” Teachers can also incorporate movement activities, each representing a phoneme, whereby students perform the material in some way, reinforcing learning through multisensory approaches.

Use Multicultural Poetry to Teach Phonological Awareness

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems “The Bean Eaters” and “The Pool Players” appeal to young adults and contain various literary devices that support phonological-awareness learning (Brooks, 2006). Playing an audio recording of the author reading the poems would be a unique way to present this material. Students could invent their own poems that are similar to those. Also, teachers could introduce students to counting syllables through the reading and writing of haiku.

The explicit understanding of a word’s sound structure is critical for the efficient decoding of printed words and the ability to form connections between sounds and letters when spelling. Students need solid phonological awareness for decoding instruction to be effective.

Improving Decoding and Word Identification Skills

Some secondary students may need extensive decoding instruction. For these students, the teacher must begin with the basic phonetic rules of English. The use of decodable books is an effective way for students to gain practice decoding words in text. When culturally relevant decodable texts are not available, it may be necessary for the teacher to encourage students to discuss ways in which they can relate the decodable text to their own experiences. For example, when a student reads “a cat sat on the mat,” he might relate it to the Spanish folk song “El senor don Gato .” Another student might be able to relate it to the Korean folk tale “The Dog and the Cat.” For some students, more challenging word and sentence study-including study of rimes, roots, affixes, and sentence construction-would be appropriate. Teachers can engage more capable readers by providing instruction in strategic word-attack skills, including syllabication and morphemic analysis of words. Whenever possible, teachers should emphasize culturally relevant reading material to practice word- attack skills.

Mapping Phonemes to Graphemes

Students’ mapping phonemes to graphemes on a chart is excellent practice in building decoding skills (Grace, 2005; Moats, 2005). Diagramming the sound-letter relationship is an effective method for helping students to understand the often-confusing relations between phonemes (the sounds that we hear in a word) and graphemes (the letters that represent those sounds). Students who are unable to transfer their phonological awareness to print can learn to map words while diagramming the sound-letter relationship. Using Onset and Rime

Goswami and Bryant (1990) suggested that the linguistic units of onset and rime may be crucial in explaining the link between rhyming and reading. Onset is the word’s initial consonant or consonant clusters, and rime is the vowel of a syllable plus any consonants that might follow. For example, in the word “pat,” p is the onset and at is the rime. In the word “splat,” spl is the onset and at is the rime. Children who recognize onsets and rimes can learn to make analogies between spelling patterns in words to help them read new words. For example, a child who can read table can more easily learn to read stable, cable, gable, and fable . Adams (1990) concluded that teachers’ use of analogy is an effective method for teaching students to decode.

Teaching Strategies for Decoding Multisyllabic Words

As they move through the grades, students are confronted by multisyllabic words, such as polymorphous, habitat, and undesirable. Secondary students need to develop the ability to read orthographic chunks to help them decode these words. Teachers can model and do think-alouds to support students in blending practice to improve their ability to read longer words. Lenz and Hughes (1990) offered the mnemonic DISSECT to help secondary-level students decode unknown words. The steps are:

Discover the context.

Isolate the prefix.

Separate the suffix.

Say the stem.

Examine the stem.

Check with someone.

Try the dictionary.

Educators can teach students this strategy, and students can practice it while reading culturally relevant texts at their instructional level.

Teaching Syllabication

Teaching syllabication begins with teachers’ helping students to recognize what a syllable is and how to count the syllables in words. Students can learn the six common syllable-spelling patterns in order from the simplest patterns (closed syllables and open syllables) to more difficult patterns (e.g., r-controlled diagraphs, vowel diagraphs). For each syllable type, students can look for examples in culturally relevant texts. In another activity, the teacher can divide words that were selected from upcoming reading texts into syllables, write each syllable on a note card, and display the syllables in jumbled order. Students would work in pairs to arrange the syllables to form the word. Another variation would have the teacher write 20 multisyllabic words from an upcoming story. Students would work with a partner to draw an arc under each syllable as they read aloud each word. Last, students would code each syllable type; alternatively, students could code a specific syllable type. For example, they could circle all the consonant- plus-le syllables or underline all closed syllables. Teachers can use stories with multicultural themes and topics to motivate students.

Providing Instruction in Patterns of Morphologic Elements

Students can learn and practice morphology, which explains word origins and development in terms of roots, prefixes, and word families, in both reading and writing. For example, students can keep a word family notebook with entries such as suggest, suggestibility, suggested, suggestion , suggestible, and suggestive. English language learners could be encouraged to relate English morphological elements to those in their native language through cognates.


Students who have failed to read well are capable of learning to read when teachers offer them (a) sufficient time and intensity for interventions and (b) appropriate instructional practices. When secondary students of diverse backgrounds struggle with reading, teachers need to provide systematic and explicit instruction in foundational skills with sensitivity to the cultural and linguistic experiences of those students. Teachers can create classroom structures that provide more socially interactive environments that tap into the cultural and linguistic resources within students’ communities to connect school literacy practices with the students’ own histories and experiences. Use of culturally relevant materials and methods is one way of engaging students of diverse backgrounds, motivating them to continue the hard work necessary to close the gap between themselves and their normally achieving peers.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ball, A. (2000). Empowering pedagogies that enhance the learning of multicultural students. Teachers College Record, 102, 1006-1034.

Boykin, A. W., & Bailey, C. (2000). The role of cultural factors in school relevant cognitive functioning: Synthesis of findings on cultural contexts, cultural orientations and individual differences (Report No. 42). Washington, DC: Howard University, Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk.

Brooks, G. (2006). Essential Brooks [CD]. New York: Caedmon.

Cummins, J. (1986). Empowering minority students: A framework for intervention. Harvard Educational Review, 56, 18-36.

Foster, M., Lewis, J., & Onafowora, L. (2003). Anthropology, culture, and research on teaching and learning: Applying what we have learned to improve practice. Teachers College Record, 105, 261- 277.

Godina, H. (2003). Mesocentrism and students of Mexican background: A community intervention for culturally relevant instruction. Journal of Latinos and Education, 2, 141-157.

Goswami, U., & Bryant, P. E. (1990). Phonological skills and learning to read. London: Erlbaum.

Grace, K. (2005). Phonics and spelling through phoneme-grapheme mapping. Longmont, CO: Sopris West Educational Services.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory Into Practice, 34, 159- 165.

Lee, C. (2001). Is October Brown Chinese? A cultural modeling activity system for underachieving students. American Educational Research Journal, 38, 97-142.

Lenz, B. K., & Hughes, C. A. (1990). A word identification strategy for adolescents with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23, 149-163.

McCollin, M., & O’Shea, D. J. (2005). Increasing reading achievement of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Preventing School Failure, 50(1), 41-44.

Moats, L. C. (2005). Language essentials for teachers of reading and spelling (LETRS). Longmont, CO: Sopris West Educational Services.

Vaughn, S., Bos, C. S., & Schumm, J. S. (2005). Teaching exceptional, diverse, and at-risk students in the general education classroom (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Kathleen McQuiston is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Instruction and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests are struggling readers, culturally relevant instruction for students with disabilities, and bilingual special education. Doris O’Shea is a professor in the Department of Special Education at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests are instructional strategies, legal issues in special education, and teachers’ work with diverse families. Michelle McCollin is a professor in the Department of Special Education at Slippery Rock University. Her research interests are culturally relevant instruction and reading strategies. Bob Algozzine, column editor, is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and is director of the Behavior and Reading Improvement Center at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research interests are effective teaching, schoolwide positive behavior support, and improving basic early literacy skills. Copyright (c) 2008 Heldref Publications

Copyright Heldref Publications Winter 2008

(c) 2008 Preventing School Failure. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.