Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Prerequisite Skills

 Prerequisite skills are often discussed in education, especially special education. They can be used appropriately, to help guide a child's learning, but they can also be used inappropriately.

Firstly, many prerequisite skills are stated as absolutes when they really aren't. For example, this Orton-Gillingham training manual states that:

Word recognition is possible only after students develop three foundational skills.

o Phonological awareness: recognition of words within sentences, counting syllables, etc.

o Phonemic awareness: manipulating individual sounds by isolating, segmenting, blending, etc.

o Print concepts: tracking text, words vs. letters, etc.

But what about a profoundly, prelingually deaf child? There are people who learn to read and write before gaining fluency with any spoken language, and indeed without having even ever heard the language spoken at all. I doubt those learners are capable of counting how many syllables a word has or isolating, segmenting and blending individual sounds in a word. Instead, they have learned written English (or whichever language they've been taught in) as a language of its own.

And this isn't just true of Deaf people. There are autistic kids who can read fluently at ages where they struggle with basic verbal communication. This is often dismissed as a meaningless skill, and the children are assumed not to comprehend the text they can read and write, but many cases I've heard have demonstrated reading comprehension and the ability to communicate via text, meanwhile they are nonverbal and inconsistent in response to verbal commands. In addition, this hyperlexia seems to be a positive sign for future development, with most of these children eventually catching up in spoken language, while remaining skilled in written language.

And, of course, not every language has a phonemic writing system. The processes for teaching a logosyllabic system like pinyin, for example, would be very different from the usual learning process for an alphabetic or syllabic system.

In addition, sometimes it's hard to assess prerequisite skills. For example, imagine a child who has significant dysarthria and limited hand use. How would you attempt to determine if this child can isolate, segment and blend sounds? And yet, with appropriate assistive equipment, such as a scanning system and switch, many children with these impairments have been able to communicate through text.

Prerequisite skills have a place. If you're reading that Orton-Gillingham manual because your seven year old dyslexic student isn't able to read and you're looking for a way to teach them, knowing that most kids learn to isolate, segment and blend sounds before they learn to read is useful. You can assess phonological manipulation skills in your student, and if they're impaired, there's a decent chance that remediation of those skills will help your student learn to read.

But don't let this hold you back. If your student isn't making progress in phonological manipulation, or if based on their other disabilities you can tell this isn't a meaningful skill to assess, they can still learn to read. If they could feasibly have phonological manipulation skills but can't demonstrate them, maybe run through some activities with modification, such as telling them to say it in their head because you know they can't say it aloud. If phonological manipulation skills are probably going to be more difficult than reading, meanwhile, maybe focus on more of a whole word approach. Maybe even borrow ideas from instructors who teach reading in other writing systems.

And don't discount skills a child is demonstrating just because your theoretical framework for learning those skills wouldn't predict that they'd be capable of doing such things. Theories can always be proven wrong, and a child's learning prospects are more important than your theory.


Blogger KateGladstone said...

“ a logosyllabic system like pinyin”
Though Chinese characters are indeed logographic, pinyin isn’t Chinese characters. Pinyin is an alphabetic representation (using the letters “a” through “z”) of the pronunciation of Chinese words. See

7:06 PM  

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