This article is adapted from Lindamood-Bell’s Seeing Stars program. The program helps struggling readers bridge the gap to become global readers who “use quick and accurate word recognition with context clues to read words”. This is the first blog in the Helping Kids Who Struggle With Reading and Math blog series, sponsored by Lindamood-Bell.

What are the three keys that students need to have in place to become global readers? The answer might surprise you: phonemic awareness, symbol imagery and concept imagery. Sure, we’ve all been teaching phonemic awareness for years. But symbol imagery and concept imagery may be new. Phonemic awareness is the ability to auditorily perceive the identity, number and sequences of sounds in words. Symbol imagery is the ability to create mental representations for the sounds and letters within words. Concept imagery is the ability to create an imaged gestalt (big picture) for language and thought. Once kids have developed all three of these skills, they become successful global readers.

Why do symbol imagery and concept imagery matter? Well, in their work with struggling readers, the Lindamood-Bell team found that while students often made strong gains in word-attack skills after they’d worked on developing phonemic awareness, those same students didn’t necessarily make gains in word recognition and contextual reading. Many students were better at sounding out words in isolation but were still not able to read fluently on the page. They realized that while phonological processing was an important part of the reading process, it alone was not enough to develop global readers. So they began to explore ways to develop students’ symbol imagery skills and concept imagery skills. Here is an overview of some of the strategies.

1. Use Air Writing

As a part of their learning process, ask students to write the letters or words they are learning in the air with their finger. Having the students write letters in the air is important because it helps them learn to see the letter shape in their imagination. It helps them to “image” the letter.Do your air writing in lowercase letters as that is what your students (and the rest of us) see most often! It is not often that we read capital letters or cursive writing. Since we normally see words in lowercase, it is likely that we store them in that form.

Ask students to write their words like Goldilocks said, “Just right.” Remind them that their letters and words shouldn’t be too big or to small. (Isn’t it funny how beginning writers get such a kick out of writing huge letters and teeny tiny letters?) Also, help your students remember not to write too slow or too fast.

Third, it seems preferable that the letters be written up in the air. Though writing on a table may be effective, experience in developing symbol imagery indicates that having students write up is initially more productive.

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2. Create Images to Match Letters and Sounds

Try to start with the smallest unit of language: a letter. This is a simple but helpful step for students of all ages because it lays the base for imaging sounds and letters within syllables. Sound and letter imagery is developed from seeing letter(s) and also from hearing the letter(s) sounded out. One way to practice this kind of skill is to walk students through the process of creating an image to go with the letter and its sound. When you do this with students, the process often goes something like this:Teacher: “I am going to show you a letter, and after I take it away, I want you to write it in the air and tell me the letter name and sound. This is the first step in helping you visualize letters.”

Student: “OK …”

Teacher: “This is the letter K, and it says /k/.” (Showing him the letter card.) “Trace the letter with your finger while you repeat the letter name and sound … and take a picture of the letter for your imagination.”

Student: “K, /k/.” (Tracing the letter with his finger on the card.)

Teacher: “Good. After I take the card away, write the letter in the air and say its name and sound.” (Taking the card away.)

Student: “K, /k/.” (Saying and air writing the letter K.)

You can work through this process and variations on this process for all of the letters with all of your students
Trace the letter

3. Specifically Practice Decoding

This is probably one of those times when your students will need some good old-fashioned practice. It’s not always fun, but practicing basic decoding skills can significantly improve word-attack and word-recognition skills. Once students have solid symbol imagery in place, they are ready to move on to practice with word lists. Here are six steps to try when you’re working one-on-one with students to practice decoding.A. Identify the vowel.
Try to have your student identify the vowel before he reads the word. This is especially helpful for young readers or those with very weak decoding skills.

B. Track student responses.
Score your students’ decoding so that you can track progress from lesson to lesson.

C. Make some errors of your own to help your students catch errors.
Kids love it when their teachers make mistakes, even if they are “on-purpose” mistakes. Read the word incorrectly and ask the student if you got it right. Then ask the student to help you correct your mistake.

D. Practice.
Do some symbol imagery practice (like strategy no. 2 above) on some of the words.

E. Diagnose.
Observe your student as he or she reads. Watch for speed and accuracy and jot down the types of errors made.

F. Teach how to handle errors.
Teach your student how to self-correct when they make errors. When you make those errors in step C, you can also model how to correct your own errors.

4. Attach Images to Sight Words

Sight words are the next step. The instant recognition of sight words is crucial when it comes to helping kids become proficient global readers. Just as with letters and syllables, it is also important for students to create images for words when they are developing their sight-word vocabulary. Try using a sight-word list that orders words by both frequency and syllable complexity.
Star Words

You can help students attach images to all of the sight words on the list using the three-step process outlined below: Capture, Categorize and Memorize.

A. Capture.
Ask your students to “capture” or collect the words they cannot instantly read. Write the words on 3-by-5-inch cards to create a personal deck of practice cards.

B. Categorize.
Work with students to sort words into slow, medium and fast piles based on how quickly students are able to read the words.

C. Memorize and practice.
Do symbol imagery exercises to help students remember the words and increase their word-recognition speed. Students can move words from slow to fast piles until all of the words are memorized for instant recognition.

5. Weave In Spelling Practice.

Spelling is a partner to reading and a significant other to expressive written language. As with reading, spelling is an integration of sensory-cognitive functions. When children develop phonemic awareness and symbol imagery, they have what they need to learn to spell. A Visual Spelling Chart can help you work through words with your students. Work through a four-step process: Ask students to Analyze, Visualize, Write and Track their words.Visual Spelling Chart
Analyze: Your students can study the word to identify syllables and other unique features.

Visualize: Have kids practice saying and air writing the word.

Write: Write the word on paper while saying it.

Track: Check to see if your students can use the word correctly five times in a row.

Want to learn more about how a full understanding of symbol imagery can help your students master decoding skills? The full 360-page version of Seeing Stars: Symbol Imagery for Phonological and Orthographic Processing in Reading and Spelling is available here.

Decoding Skills