Short a, sounds simple, right?
Introducing short a is so much more than just short a. When a student is learning to read and spell so many skills are being developed. It goes beyond memorizing words. Students who have not absorbed the English language, as those we refer to as reading naturally, need to be taught to read. It isn't enough to present them with word lists and memorize the words. They need direct explicit instruction. These are the students who benefit from working with an Orton Gillingham practitioner. So what is it about teaching short a that is so important?
The English language has 5 always vowels, y presents as both a vowel and a consonant and w can be found in vowel pairs. So with all those choices why do we, seemingly across the board, teach a first? The obvious answer would be because it is the first letter in the alphabet, however, that isn’t the actual reason. Short a in one syllable words appears as /ă/ approximately 98 % of the time. In addition, the occasions that /ă/ occurs in other spellings is rare Other vowels don't come close to that percentage. Perhaps this is why.
Now that we have established why we teach short a first let’s look at how we should do that. We should never assume a student understands the structure of a word. Teaching a student to read involves so much more than showing them a word and having them read it. They need to know all letters have sounds, the letters make words, the words make sentences and unlike the way they hear language, sentences contain spaces. Students need to know each word contains a vowel. We begin with cvc words. Starting with word families such as -at or -an. As you do this, you will teach your student to trace words to decode and isolate sounds with techniques such as fingerspelling to encode.
As I mentioned before so much more is happening than “reading or spelling”. The student at this young age is thinking metacognitively. In both reading and spelling she is learning to make the grapheme/phoneme connection needed to sound out or spell the word. The process of blending is happening. She is learning new patterns and seeing rimes for the first time. She now can see and hear why cat and mat rhyme. In addition to blending, she is segmenting sounds to spell out the word. As Orton Gillingham practitioners we teach to automaticity. The student for the first time is solidifying sounds in words, not just short a, but all the consonants too. You may limit the consonants you work with, leaving out b, d, y, w and x to set your student up for success. We never move forward until they fluently read the word list; they need to be able to snap the sounds together. Your student will work at their own pace.
A colleague of mine, Karen Sonday, and I have lectured several times on the benefits of being thorough with short a introduction. We titled it “1001 Ways to Short a”. Frankly, you can grow weary looking for more things to do! From that need came Hal, Sal, Val and The Way to Short a activity booklet to add to our tool kit!
So the next time you start with a student, don’t assume. Be certain they are solid with short a. Don’t rush the process. Solidifying short a will contribute to a solid foundation for your student.