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Is the use of diacritics and sound buttons necessary?

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 11, 2016 9:21 am    Post subject: Is the use of diacritics and sound buttons necessary? Reply with quote

I am enormously respectful of the work of Siegfried Engelmann with regard to 'Direct Instruction' but I also have concerns about the use of diacritics and sound buttons - are they really necessary?

I left a response to Alison Clarke's review via her excellent Spelfabet blog and she, too, has some thoughts about this. We both question why teach something you have to unteach or children have to unlearn?
Debbie Hepplewhite

Last edited by debbie on Tue Oct 11, 2016 9:27 am; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 11, 2016 9:23 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Do check out the link above first to see the video footage in question.

This is the 'reader's comment' that I left and below is Alison's reply:

Hi Alison,

I’m fully aware of the type of results that have been achieved by Direct Instruction guru Siegfried Engelmann but I think we ought to be looking at why this might be.

Explicit teaching (‘direct’ instruction) of phonics which teaches letters and letter groups as ‘code’ and which teaches the skill of blending will work across various phonics programmes.

But, the example in the video you flag up is in danger of being misleading of just what is possible for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the child in the video is really struggling with blending. This would be an example of a child perhaps with reading difficulties as his blending skill is looking like he is struggling.

If he is struggling, that might also explain why it takes him mother some time to get his attention and he starts off by being a bit wriggly and disinterested. His mother has to keep up a lot of encouragement and praise to keep him on task.

The hole in my own provision to inform parents and teachers about ‘just what we can achieve through good phonics provision’ is video footage and I’m working on that now – as are others with different phonics programmes but we understand ‘just what is possible and likely’ and it is beyond what we see on this video clip you have flagged up.

Although the use of diacritics (marks added to letters) and ‘sound buttons’ are part of the Direct Instruction practice which is shown by statistics to be successful, I suggest that we can achieve remarkable success with children without diacritics. Again, I need to flag this up with video footage to demonstrate this.

We also, I suggest, do not need ‘sound buttons’ in order to get children decoding well and fluently. The letters and letter groups, taught ‘discretely’ (separately) ARE, in effect, the ‘sound buttons’. You point under the letter or letter group, and say the sound – teach children to recognise letters and letter groups in words before they are asked to ‘sound out’.

In the footage, I note that double consonant letters such as ss have two dots beneath – this would not be a feature of a number of good phonics programmes even if they do use the added ‘sound buttons’. They would put one dot, or a line, under the double ss.

Further, I note that instead of treating the letter group ee as code for the sound /ee/ as in ‘tree’, again, there are two dots beneath and the diacritic lines – one above each letter e. So, the child is being taught to look for, or depend on, the lines above each single vowel letter to indicate the need to say the sound /ee/ rather than teaching the child to ‘note’ the letter group ee and then say the sound /ee/ in response.

So, what happens when the diacritic marks are no longer supporting the child? And what happens when the child is presented with ordinary text without diacritic marks?

I am sure many, perhaps most, children find no difficulty in the transition from saying sounds supported by diacritic marks to saying sounds in response to ordinary text – but I really raise the question as to whether such marks are necessary in the first place – and whether, in some cases, it necessitates transition that is an extra step to ‘unlearn’?

At no time am I questioning the results achieved by Direct Instruction, but I am questioning whether equal results (and perhaps better still) can be achieved through features in common with Direct Instruction (such as the explicit teaching, the scripting to support the adult, the sheer fact it is ‘phonics’ and applying the phonics skill of sounding out through the word – the ‘blending’ or ‘synthesising’ skill).

With your linguistic phonics background and knowledge, I wouldn’t be surprised if you, too, think along similar lines to me.

Right then, the onus is on me, and others, to provide footage to inform parents and teachers of what can be achieved without diacritic support!

Best wishes,


Alison wrote:

Yes, I think the advice from Diane McGuinness to not teach anything that you’ll discard later is spot on. I have dots separating syllables in my multisyllable workbooks but I’m planning to take them out in the next version, kids have to learn to “see” syllable boundaries without such assistance.

I think it is important that we don't keep inventing lesser programmes, or less effective programmes, than those that exist already - but, we can also investigate whether we can find modifications or better ways still to get excellent results.
Debbie Hepplewhite
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