Sound Walls and Letter Sound Articulation Training
Within the context of sound walls there is debate over whether or not we should use sound walls based on pictures to help students remember sounds (think “van” for “v”), just letters, or mouth articulation pictures. Tangentially, there is also a looming disagreement between word walls and sound walls, within the greater context of the Reading Wars debate. I have to admit, I was initially biased towards letters only sound walls. Personally, I started off my career as a high school teacher and truthfully, I think this has left me biased against anything that seems “cute”. Admittedly, my own classroom is often quite Spartan and I have never used either a word wall or a sound wall myself (I know blasphemy!)
That being said I have found the articulation pictures especially hard to believe in, because they seem so removed from reading instruction. Biases disclosed, these mouth articulation pictures have recently become very popular to use with sound walls. However, I believe they likely originated from speech and language pathologists teaching students with speech difficulties and slowly made their way into the circulation for dyslexic students. Indeed, some of the older tutoring programs for dyslexic students, heavily feature mouth articulation videos. As I researched this issue, I reflected with many friends and colleagues in the industry and many of them assured me that my bias was incorrect.
As I dove into the research. I started off by checking what Dr. Shanahan had to say on the issue, because truthfully, while I don’t always agree with everything he says, I do believe he is the leading authority in the world on the Science of Reading. He wrote an article on the topic of sound walls vs word walls in April of 2022 and he appeared to come to the conclusion that there had been no meaningful research conducted on the topic, writing “Research is mute on this issue.” He also seemed to believe that neither sound walls or word walls were particularly helpful. While his commentary was interesting, it did not necessarily directly answer my own questions.
I went to the Education Source and Scholars Portal databases and searched for experimental research on “sound walls”, “word walls”, and “mouth articulation and reading instruction”. I also put a call out on social media looking for experimental papers on the topic. I found no experimental papers on the topic of specifically sound walls or word walls. On the topic of articulation instruction, there were about 2 dozen papers, most were theoretical but three were experimental. To my pleasant surprise, two of the experimental papers were conducted by Dr. Linnea Ehri, et al, for whose work I have immense respect.
The most recent study was an RCT conducted in 2011. It was conducted on pre-k students in a wealthy American private school. The students were divided into three equated groups. In one group, the students received phonemic awareness instruction with letters and sound articulation pictures. In the second group the students received phonemic awareness instruction with letters. And in the third group the students received their business as usual instruction. (This is a phenomenal experimental design by the way!)
The experiment conducted standarized tests, immediately after the intervention and again, 7 days afterwards. The original authors found a mean effect size of 1.25 for the letter picture articulation group and a mean effect size of .38 for phonemic awareness instruction, with just letters. However, I wanted to compare the effect of PA instruction combined with articulation training and just PA instruction to see if the letter articulation training added any benefits. I recalculated the effect sizes using a Hedge’s g calculation, with the combined group as the treatment group and the PA only group as the control group. To ensure accuracy, I had a second author review and independently recalculate all effect sizes, in the case of a disagreement, bother authors re-did their calculations and discussed to find consensus. I have summarized the results, in the below chart. Please note, I did not include the delayed results.
The original authors showed that providing students with phonemic awareness training with letters vs providing no phonemic awareness training, clearly demonstrated vastly superior results. However, the above results show that providing phonemic awareness training that included letter articulation instruction showed even greater effects. Indeed the letter picture articulation group outperformed the letter only group by a statistically high amount.
Results aside, the authors also provided a fairly convincing argument for the use of articulation instruction. To paraphrase, the authors theorized that this type of instruction helped to reinforce to students that letters and graphemes were not just arbitrary visual representations, but rather meaningful representations of units of sound (phonemes).
The next most recent paper was conducted by Maria Castiglioni-Spalten and Linnea Ehri in 2003. This paper used the same RCT design as the 2011 paper. The authors concluded that “Results revealed that both types of phonemic awareness instruction were effective in teaching phonemic segmentation and in enhancing children’s ability to spell the sounds in words even though letters were not used during training. However, only articulator instruction enhanced processes that enabled children to read words.”
This study included 45 students from urban low socio-economic kindergarten classes, which did not normally include any reading instruction. The study was extremely high quality. The treatment and control groups were randomly equated, fidelity was tracked, and the same instructor taught all three groups to ensure results were related to the treatment. Each student received 3-6 training sessions lasting 20-30 minutes each. The authors calculated a mean effect size of 1.01 compared to the business as usual group for mouth articulation instruction and a mean effect size of .80 for phonemic awareness instruction that did not include mouth articulation training. This suggested a statistically significant improvement for using mouth articulation training. However, in the previous study, I calculated the effects for phonemic awareness instruction with mouth articulation vs phonemic awareness instruction without mouth articulation training. To standardize my results between studies, I re-calculated the results, by comparing the two training groups instead of against the business as usual control group, which received no phonemic awareness instruction. To ensure accuracy, I had a second author review and independently recalculate all effect sizes, in the case of a disagreement, bother authors re-did their calculations and discussed to find consensus. The results can be seen in the below graph.
The mean effect of this experiment did not suggest a statistically meaningful benefit for including letter articulation training with phonemic awareness instruction. There was also seemingly no benefit for articulation training on phonemic awareness skills. However, there was a strong benefit for actual reading outcomes.
The last study I found was conducted by Wise, Et, al in 1999. This study was an RCT study of 122 struggling readers between the grades of 2 and 5. The experiment included 5 months of training sessions, with students receiving 60 30 minute long training sessions. In this study design the authors compared providing letter articulation training with phonemic awareness instruction to providing only phonemic awareness instruction and only letter articulation instruction. This study was the only study with a sample size above 50 and a duration longer than 1 week. However, the study also looked at a dramatically different demographic, by focusing on tier 2/3 instruction for older students; whereas the previous studies looked at core instruction for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. I calculated the effect sizes for the letter articulation and PA group vs PA only and articulation only group, in comparison to the control groups, using a Cohen’s d calculation. To ensure accuracy, I had a second author review and independently recalculate all effect sizes, in the case of a disagreement, bother authors re-did their calculations and discussed to find consensus.. The results can be seen on the next page.
The above results suggested no meaningful difference between providing both letter articulation as well as phonemic awareness instruction and only phonemic awareness instruction. The results also suggested a small benefit for including phonemic awareness instruction opposed to only letter articulation instruction.
In terms of finding the efficacy for letter sound articulation training, there are three different ways we can really analyze the above results. You could take a mean of the three studies, which would result in a mean effect size of .25, suggesting a small but statistically significant benefit. You could also say that we have three studies, with three very different results. One study showed really positive outcomes. One study showed a small but statistically significant benefit. And one study showed a statistically insignificant, but negative outcome. You could interpret these results to say there is too much variability in the results to be meaningful. However, I would argue that what we are actually likely seeing is different results for different demographics. The study on pre-k students showed very significant results, the study on kindergarten students showed positive but small results, and the study on older struggling readers showed no benefit. I would look at these results and hypothesize that mouth articulation might be beneficial only for very young readers or students with very specific needs.
That being said, in science, we should be looking for replicated results, before we call something an established fact. As best as I can tell there really is not yet enough research on this issue.
So Should I Use a Picture Sound Wall, Letter Sound Wall, or a Mouth Articulation Sound Wall? Or a Word Wall?
In order to answer this question properly we would need experimental evidence directly studying it. IE, a study that compared the use of picture sound walls, mouth articulation sound walls, letter sound walls, and word walls. To the best of my knowledge no such studies exist. However, we do have strong indirect evidence for sound walls as a phonics tool, given the immense number of studies on phonics, showing strong efficacy. With this in mind, I think it’s fair to say using any type of sound wall is a research based strategy. That being said, At the beginning of this article, I acknowledged that I was somewhat biased against sound walls and specifically mouth articulation instruction. Having looked at this research, Dr. Ehri has once again convinced me that I am wrong and that there is a potential benefit to articulation training.
While, we do not have any direct evidence for or against word walls. It is a whole language strategy, which we know generally speaking shows low results. That being said, I think considering that we do not have any research directly on word walls, it may actually be too early to tell people that they must be taken down in favor of sound walls. As I would personally like to be able to point to direct research to support my position.
Written by Nathaniel Hansford & Joshua King
Last Edited 2022-08-31
Wise, B. W., Ring, J., & Olson, R. K. (1999). Training Phonological Awareness with and without Explicit Attention to Articulation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 72(4), 271–304. https://doi.org/10.1006/jecp.1999.2490
Castiglioni-Spalten, M. L., & Ehri, L. C. (2003). Phonemic Awareness Instruction: Contribution of Articulatory Segmentation to Novice Beginners’ Reading and Spelling. Scientific Studies of Reading, 7(1), 25–52. https://doi.org/10.1207/S1532799XSSR0701_03
Boyer, N., & Ehri, L. C. (2011). Contribution of phonemic segmentation instruction with letters and articulation pictures to word reading and spelling in beginners. Scientific Studies of Reading, 15(5), 440–470. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2010.520778
Sanahan, t. (2022). Should We Build a (Word) Wall or Not? Shanahan On Literacy. Retrieved from <https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/should-we-build-a-word-wall-or-not#sthash.1YJ2Ni2f.dpbs>. Should We Build a (Word) Wall or Not?