Understanding articulatory gestures to inform phonics teaching practices (for teachers)

April 2019

For the past three days, I have had the privilege of attending the DSF (Dyslexia SPELD Foundation) Language and Literacy Conference in Perth. Many of the world’s leaders in literacy presented, Carol Tolman, Kathy Rastle, Stanislas Dahaene, Pamela Snow, Lorraine Hammond and Alison Clarke to name a few! One of the biggest messages from the conference was the importance of oral language AND systematic explicit phonics instruction for reading success. In the instruction of phonics, Carol Tolman explained the importance of understanding articulatory gestures, and drawing attention to how a sound is produced. This multi-sensory addition to typical synthetic phonics instruction can help students map grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence (or letter-sounds)- particularly in the early stages of phonics instruction. Articulatory gestures and the processes in which sounds are produced is the bread-and-butter of speech pathology, but for teachers, this is something that they may not be familiar with.

When introducing new phoneme-grapheme correspondences, it is important to ensure the students can actually articulate the sound, and hear the differences between similar sounds. This can be difficult for some of our young learners. Before I go into the nature of articulatory gestures (how phonemes are produced), let’s take a look at the developmental norms for when phonemes can be typically articulated by a child.

As you can see, the /th/ sound, represented by the IPA symbols /θ/ (bath) and /ð/ (this), often doesn’t come in until around 7 years old, however we tend to teach this sound much earlier in phonics instruction. So what does this mean for phonics instruction? We need to ensure we are showing the students how to produce the sound during phonics instruction. This even applies for sounds that the students can already articulate independently, as focusing on the articulatory gestures of the sound will assist in their orthographic mapping (sticking the phoneme to the grapheme in their brains!). As Carol Tolman explained, drawing attention to how me make a sound and ‘getting our mouths ready/in position’ can act as an anticipatory guide for students.

As any speech pathologist will tell you, sounds (or phonemes) differ in the PLACE and MANNER of articulation. Place of articulation refers to the place in the mouth where the speech sounds are produced. Manner of articulation refers to what articulators (vocal organs including tongue, palate, larynx, lips, teeth, alveolar ridge, etc) are used to produce the sound and how they move. E.g. for the /d/ sound, we use our tongue to quickly touch the roof of the mouth on the alveolar ridge and have a quick release of air. Our larynx is also involved to produce the vocalisation. On a more basic level of manner of articulation, consonant sounds can also be classified as either continuants (where there is continuous airflow) or stop sounds (the flow of air is stopped completely for a short time- you cannot hold the sound in isolation without distorting it).

Continuant sounds:Stop sounds:
/f/, /v/, /θ/ (bath), /ð/ (this), /s/, /z/, /ʃ/ (fish), /ʒ/ (measure),
/m/, /n/, /ŋ/ (sung) * Technically stops as the mouth is closed which stops the passage of air, but for teaching purposes, these nasals should be thought of as continuants (Louisa Moats, 2019).
/b/, /p/, /d/, /t/, /g/, /k/, /tʃ/ (chin), /dʒ/ (gin), /h/, /l/, /r/, /w/ (witch), /y/, /ʍ/ (which)

For those of you who have a particular interest in phonology, here is a more complex categorisation of speech sounds by Carolyn Bowen, using the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).

Sounds can also differ based on whether you use your vocal cords or not. They are classified as either voiced or voiceless sounds. Voiced sounds include /d/, /m/, /r/, /z/ and voiceless sounds include /t/, /p/, /ʃ/ (fish) and /h/. If you are unsure if a sound is voiced or voiceless, hold your fingers over your larynx (or voice box) when you produce the sound. If you feel a vibration, the sound is most likely a voiced sound. A nice contrast is between /d/ and /t/ – each of these sounds has exactly the same place and manner of articulation. The only difference is that the /d/ is voiced and the /t/ is voiceless. The same can be said for the pairs /z/ and /s/; /g/ and /k/; /v/ and /f/; /ʒ/ (measure) and /ʃ/ (fish). The first sound of the pair is voiced, the second is voiceless, but in every other way- they are the same. Remember that ‘th’ can be voiced /ð/ (such as in the word that) or voiceless θ (such as in the word moth).

So how do we incorporate articulatory gestures into phonics instruction in the classroom (or clinic) for a multi-sensory approach?

  • Using visuals of mouths positions which show what the lips, tongue and teeth look like at the beginning of a sound being produced (acting as an anticipatory guide). PLD letter-sound cards make use of this strategy.
  • Use of mnemonics which highlight how the sound is produced. I really like the set of Pelican Talk resources, where the mnemonics relate to how the sound is produced. These are examples of the Pelican Talk mnemonics- look how the mouths of each character reflect how the sound is produced.
  • When introducing a new phoneme-grapheme representation, model how the sound is produced and draw the students attention to your articulators. Alison Clarke from SPELFABET has created extremely useful short-clips of each speech sound being produced. You can use these when showing your students. Cued articulation resources can also be used.
  • Use of mirrors- have students produce the sound (with modelling) in front of a mirror so they can see what their articulators look like. This is an extremely effective tool to use with all students, particularly those with speech errors or delays. Small mirrors can usually be purchased from Kmart for under $5!
  • Although it’s not necessary for children to be able to explain the difference between continuents vs. stop sounds, you can show them how to feel the difference by feeling the air that is coming out of the mouth with the palm of their hand. Stop sounds (like /b/, /p/) will have a short-burst of air.

If you found this post interesting, I highly recommend the text Speech to Print- Language Essentials for Teachers (3rd edition) by Louisa Moats. It gives educators a foundation of language and speech essentials to deliver successful structured literacy instruction. You can also order the workbook, which is essentially a study guide for teachers.

I hope this inspires some educators to incorporate phonetics into phonics for a multi-sensory approach to structured synthetic phonics- particularly in the very early stages of phonics instruction.

2 thoughts on “Understanding articulatory gestures to inform phonics teaching practices (for teachers)”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I can also recommend the initial chapters in Love and Reilly’s book “A Sound Way” which focuses on “how” a sound is produced as part of their phonological awareness program.


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