Fingerspelling and phonics
Some phonics programmes, while brilliant in their original aim to teach phonics with a kinaesthetic approach, are still not always suitable for those with SpLD dyslexia, or anyone with word recall issues. For example, in one popular programme the movement for ‘y’ / ‘yogurt involves the miming of eating. Children with dyslexia find it hard to recall what the letter sound is. Is it E E eating? To get round this confusion it is best to let the child choose what action they need to remind them of a particular sound. Better suggestions might be ‘yum’ as a sound a young child knows, or a mime for ‘yo-yo’, or the fun option, shouting- ‘y’ ‘y’ ‘yell’ – very loudly.
Another problem is that some sound movements do not transfer across international borders for those learning English. One such letter is ‘o’ with its action of ‘on/off’ as in switching a light on or off. A friend of mine in Hong Kong pointed out the Chinese population use the word ‘pluck’ to switch a light on and off, so the directional use of on & off is better when it is combined with the correct movement.
However language is tricky, and especially so for children with dyslexia where ‘directional’ language can be confusing. For example, ‘sit down’ and ‘sit up’, or even ‘shut up’, which has nothing to do with direction at all. Words can change meaning according to context, or over time like the use of ‘draw’. Other than drawing with a crayon we used to say ‘draw the curtains’, while Granny used to make tea in a teapot and leave it to ‘draw’. She might also have asked you to fetch a spoon from the ‘drawer’ at the same time! Its no wonder spelling is so difficult for many.
It has to be acknowledged that what ever system one chooses to use to learn or teach phonics it will suit most, but not all, children. With this in mind I designed an alternative.
This phonic fingerspelling system is an adapted version of BSL fingerspelling. It is designed to represent lower letter shapes whenever possible. It moves in a left to right direction – like reading and writing- to aid the memory. It’s not perfect, but it has been very effective for many children with dyslexia and/or memory issues. Because it is learned using the child’s own fingers it can travel with them wherever they go. They can check alphabet order surreptitiously under the desk and when they are proficient they can send secret, silent messages to their friends. This ‘code’ is an element that makes it very appealing to boys!
Fingerspelling is easy to learn, even for those with short-term memory or ABC sequencing issues. It takes the average child 10 minutes to grasp the basic idea and two short sessions for a child with mild sequencing issues to master. It’s greatest success to date was in supporting a group of four children with learning difficulties and learning disabilities to play ‘I went shopping and I bought…’. Prior to learning fingerspelling none of the children could move beyond ‘E’ in the alphabet on their own, whereas using fingerspelling as a support strategy they remembered a long list of shopping items all the way to the letter ‘P’. This was an amazing feat as they had been tested and shown to have auditory and visual memories for a maximum of 2 or 3 items.
Getting Started – Teaching Vowels
As with BSL all the fingers on the left hand represent the vowels –a / e / i / o / u.
As a reminder place the left hand (palm up) onto a piece of paper and draw around it. Remove the hand and label – thumb = a, index finger =e, middle = i …etc., You can even add ‘y’ as being a representative of a vowel sound in some words such as ‘fly’ or ‘happy’. Another reminder is to use small sticky labels and stick one on each finger.
1) Using the right hand index finger as a pointer, name a vowel (use the name rather than the sound at this stage) and touch the appropriate finger. Demonstrate each finger in turn – A/E/I/O/U – while the child watches.
2) Then try one letter at a time with them. Get the children to copy you, first by saying the name and then the movement.
Use the letter sound only for now although when talking about letters with children it is important for them to know that each individual letter has both a name and a sound, whereas combinations of letters, such as ‘ch’, only have a sound.
NOTE – children with dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD can have great difficulty in separating actions ie speaking and moving. They will want to move before they have spoken out loud. They, and you, may not be conscious that this is a problem yet. Look elsewhere on this site to find the ‘Jumping Game’ to help resolve this brain/body coordination issue. Be aware that some children may overbalance when playing this game initially and playing the small finger-based version first maybe a safer option.
Lack of automaticity is one factor that makes many things difficult for those with dyslexia. For example, they are often unaware that both a name and a sound belongs to both the uppercase & lowercase letters. This leads to bizarre spelling errors for example ‘bumbleBee’, ‘LEphant or ‘KN pepper’, and accounts for the some of the random uppercase letters seen in the writing of children with dyslexia. Another common error is the use of B or D, and this comes about when a child is struggling to choose the correct orientation of ‘b’ or ‘d’. To eliminate mistakes they chose to use B/d.
3) Going back to the vowels now ask the child to sound the letter sound – a /e/ i /o /u. When you are confident they can sound and point correctly ask them to say all five letters over and over.
The child’s mouth should move in a different way for each letter. Altogether it makes a circular motion, similar to the movement of the wheels on a steam train:
a = small mouth, e = bigger mouth, i = bigger still like a smile, o= makes an o shape, and at ‘u’ = the mouth moves up. Keep going, faster and faster, making sure they are still pointing at the correct finger after they make each sound.
Knowing the vowels, and also that the letter ‘y’ can stand in for a vowel sound, is very important for later spelling. Every syllable in every word needs a vowel. Try clapping your own name – Kim, Tra-cy, Em-i-ly – and then try this with the child.
Learning the consonants
The consonants are mostly sequential from each vowel finger i.e. a/b/c/d , e/f/g/h, or i/j/k/l/m/n, o/p, with the exception of q/r/s/t. I am open to suggestions if anyone can come up with a better solution or better placement for these four letters.
In BSL the movement that takes place for the letter ‘h’ is utilised here to highlight the later digraphs – ch, ph, sh, wh & th and helps to show these are separate sounds in their own right, and two phonemes that need to be blended together -like ‘st’ or ‘br’.
4) Refer to the online photos or drawings to see each consonant letter shape. These pages can be printed for personal or in-school use, but not used for profit.
Each letter, when formed can also be paired with an action to help ‘fix’ the phonic aspect. Let the child choose the action they prefer. They might find a better one!
a = ant Make you right hand fingers walk along the left hand thumb.
b= bat & ball Shape that is made
or b=bend as you move index finger towards the thumb to make correct shape
c=catch Catch an imaginary fly.
Then say ‘c’ turns into ‘d’ as the ‘c’ shape moves towards the right hand palm.
d=drum Beat the ‘c’ finger shape onto the right hand palm
e= egg Shape ‘e’ then join both thumbs together to make an egg (& crack it)
f= fingers Wiggle the 2 fingers use to make ‘f’ shape.
If a child has f/v pronunciation problems- feel own face – NO vibrations.
g=gone Make the fisted ‘g’ shape and open the hands – gone!
h= hot Breathe on left palm like on a window h-h-h and wipe it clean (‘h’ sign)
j=jump Make ‘j’ shape and jump off the thumb.
k=kick Make ‘k’ shape and then flick right index finger on left middle finger -kick
l= lick Lick right hand index finger like a lolly
m= mouth Place 3 fingers from ‘m’ shape onto the mouth & feel sound made
n=nose Fly 2 fingers ‘n’ shape onto the nose like a plane & feel the sound
o= on/off Repeat ‘o’ action – on/off, on/off – and move appropriately.
p=pinch Make the ‘p’ shape and pinch the ‘o’ finger
q= quack Make ‘q’ shape and wiggle 3 fingers on right hand (looks like a duck)
r= rub Rub ‘r’ shape on the right hand.
s= snake Make slithery snake movements with the ‘s’ shape
t= tick tock Move ‘t’ sign backwards and forwards like a pendulum
u=up Make ‘u’ shape. Leave the index finger in place & move hands up together
v= van Drive the ‘v’ shape down the arm and up to the chin to feel vibrations.
w=wiggle Wiggle the fingers that are making the ‘w’ shape.
x = kiss x is recognisable as a ‘kiss’. Kiss is the sound found at the end of ‘box/fox’
y= yell Increase the volume as you say ‘y’ ‘y’ ’ ‘yeeell!’
z = zip. Slide right hand fingers up ‘u’ finger, flop over to make ‘z’ & ‘zip’ together.