Early Literacy Skills Overview, Reading Skills Overview, Phonological Awareness, Phonemic Awareness

Sounds Before Print

In this video, Dr. Mary Dahlgren, President of Tools for Reading and a national literacy consultant, goes over the 18 vowel sounds that students should learn before moving onto spelling and print. She describes why teaching sounds is a crucial first step in early literacy instruction.
Sounds Before Print
Walsh University Literacy Initiative
October 26, 2022
Sounds Before Print

Why is it important to teach vowel sounds?

  • When we learn/teach vowels, we typically represent them with the letter name (“A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y”) and we forget to think about the sounds that are represented by them.
  • There are voiced and unvoiced sounds. All vowel sounds are voiced, and every syllable has to have a vowel sound.

When should students learn these sounds?

  • Dr. Dahlgren recommends teaching these sounds at the very beginning of kindergarten.
  • It is important to create that awareness of the sounds so that when teachers do exercises, such as tapping and zapping, segmenting, and blending, the students learn more effectively.

Why is it important to teach sound first?

  • Knowing the sounds and being aware of them makes it much easier to read, spell, and write.
  • English is speech to print. We learn how to speak first and then move on to reading and writing.
  • Once you teach a sound, you can then learn the many ways to spell that sound. Teaching sounds first creates a template for instructional purposes. It allows the student to store the information in a systematic way so you can more easily begin adding print to the sounds.

What is Dr. Dahlgren’s recommended method of teaching sounds?

  • Dr. Dahlgren uses a sound wall to teach the 18 different vowel sounds, with each sound accompanied by a picture of the mouth to show the physical movement needed to create it.
  • She arranged her board so each sound flows nicely from the previous one, with the most open sound towards the middle and the most closed sounds near the ends.
  • She has her students hold their hand under their chins so they can experience what each of the sounds feel like.

What are some of the “irregular” vowel sounds that Dr. Dahlgren demonstrates?

  • Diphthong sounds - these are sounds that require two mouth movements. These include “oi” and “ou”/”ow”. - These can be elusive to children because the two movements can feel like two sounds (when they really are only one).
  • Vowel-R’s - the “r” distorts the sound of the vowel. These include “ir,” “ar,” and “or.”
  • Schwa - /ə/ - unstressed central vowel. This sound can be written using any of the vowel letters. It is the most common vowel sound in the English language. Dr. Dahlgren recommends teaching this sound very early on because it appears very often. - Example: “banana”


Original Sources:
Walsh University Literacy Initiative, "Dr. Mary Dahlgren ‘Sound Walls and Phonemes’": https://youtu.be/Wws8Ghj0IJ0

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