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Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

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The phonemic awareness concept has had a significant influence on understanding reading and its acquisition. Students with it tend to become better readers than those without it. This feature has led to interest in teaching it prior to reading instruction. However, this focus raises several issues about phonemic awareness that are as yet not fully resolved. Is phonemic awareness causal to reading acquisition? Consequential? Or is there a mediating variable between it and reading? Is the confusion due to differences in the chosen assessment methods? Can and should it be taught independent of graphemes? If it is to be taught, which activities are important? Rhyming and alliteration? Onsets and rimes? Elision? Blending and segmenting? All of the above?

Let’s take a step back: Background on teaching reading

With the invention of the printing press, and later, with the access of an increasing percentage of the population to literacy, methods of teaching reading became important. The phonic technique of teaching component alphabetic skills, and then combining those skills was the norm until the mid-nineteenth century (Adams, 1990). It followed a sequence of teaching upper-case and lower-case letter names, two-letter and three-letter combinations, monosyllabic words, multi-syllabic words, phrases, sentences, and finally, stories. The phonics approach to teaching reading aims to sensitize children to the relationships of the spelling patterns of our written language to the sound patterns of our oral language.

However, 1828 Samuel Worcester produced a primer that borrowed a European idea of teaching children to recognise whole words without sounding them out. Support for this view came from James Cattell in 1885 in his assertion that whole word reading was more economical (Davis, 1988); and later, from the Gestaltists who considered that the overall shape of the word (rather than the summation of the sound-parts) should provide the pre-eminent clue for young readers. An assumption behind this approach was that beginning readers should be taught to read in the way skilled readers were thought to do. Given the belief that skilled readers associated meaning directly onto the orthographic image, it follows that there would be time saved by showing beginners how this was achieved.

Until the first two decades of the 20th century there was little interest in educational research. The development of formal reading tests, and the recognition that education was a fertile ground for research, gradually led to investigations into such topics as remedial approaches, individual differences in development, test development, silent reading vs oral reading, and reading-readiness.

Although this research was in its infancy, these early findings (often unsubstantiated by other research) were quickly adopted by book publishers keen to exploit the new markets that mass education provided. A number of texts based on whole-word teaching were published, and the method became very influential throughout the 1930s and 1940s. It appeared to offer a curriculum sensitive to the developmental needs of students, and one that would be both more attractive to teachers than phonics drill, and more interesting to the rapidly increasing numbers of students attending school beyond the primary level.

In the 1950s, the first real challenge to the whole word approach was initiated by Rudolph Flesch, who, in an emotion-charged attack, wrote: “It seems to me a plain fact that the word method consists essentially of treating children as if they were dogs. It is not a method of teaching at all; it is clearly a method of animal training. It’s the most inhuman, mean, stupid way of foisting something on a child’s mind” (Flesch, 1955, p. 126). Flesch fomented much discussion about the value of phonics.

In 1967, Chall’s contribution Learning to read: The great debate was also influential in renewing interest in phonics, and in stimulating both subsequent research and dissent. At about the same time, in the Bond and Dykstra USOE 1967 study, the meaning-oriented approach (out of which evolved ‘language-experience’ and ‘Whole Language’) did as well as basal (without phonic-emphasis) programs with high-readiness students, but less well with low-readiness students.

After that time, there arose the Whole Language approach that, for the following 20-30 years dominated educational policy making, particularly in literacy. It was a product of its time - a humanism-based philosophy rather than a curriculum. It offered teachers freedom to develop their own approaches, rather than being constrained by what was seen as rigid curriculum. It espoused democracy in the classroom, a student-centred rather than teacher-centred place. Whole Language training decried teacher-centred classrooms and phonics as outdated, rigid, Skinnerian, behaviourist, drill and kill, creativity sapping, rote learning places that belonged in an earlier age – not in this new enlightenment age. Further, the purported soul destroying drudgery of teaching skills to students could be avoided by the Whole Language edict that meaning is the focus, and students determine meaning – not texts. Teachers should trust the students’ natural learning capacity. What’s not to like?

During this period, educational research continued to grow, but relatively few studies were considered of high quality, and their influence on literacy instruction was minimal. This was despite the increasing number of studies questioning the fundamental assumptions and practices of Whole Language. For a more detailed analysis, see http://nifdi.org/news/hempenstall-blog/396-a-history-of-disputes-about-reading-instruction

Then along came phonemic awareness.

It should be remembered that before the emergence of phonology as it relates to reading, there wasn’t a strong evidence-base for what promotes reading progress and what is happening when progress isn’t occurring. There was little well-designed research, and the most common perspective was that failure to learn to read was primarily a visual-perceptual issue (Allington, 1982), though there were numerous other targets.

“Dyslexia has most often been attributed to deficiencies in visual, linguistic, and low level sensory functions … specific reading disability has been variously attributed to deficiencies in selective attention (Douglas, 1972), associative learning (Brewer, 1967; Gascon & Goodglass, 1970), cross-modal transfer (Birch, 1962), serial-order processing (Bakker, 1972), and both pattern analysis and rule learning (Morrison & Manis, 1982)” (Vellutino, Fletcher, Snowling, & Scanlon, 2004, p.7).

The explanation from the whole language advocates for failure to learn to read was that insufficient attention was being paid to comprehension and too much attention to word attack (Smith, 1986).

The most significant early impetus for this new attention to phonology arguably arose at the Haskins Laboratories in the 1960’s, and particularly with the work of the Libermans and Don Shankweiler.

Shankweiler in locating metalinguistics centrally in the reading process writes:

“From linguistics we learn that phonemes function as elementary building blocks of spoken words, acquiring meaning only through combination. All words of a language are created from combinations drawn from a few dozen phonemes, with exact numbers and identity of phonemes differing across languages. Since vast numbers of combinations can be created from the set of phonemes available, the number of meanings that can be transmitted is virtually unlimited. A central function of phonemic structure, then, is to make large vocabularies possible (A.M. Liberman, 1999). An alphabetic orthography places this structural feature of spoken language at the disposal of a reader-writer. Anyone who knows the alphabetic code need not rely on rote memory to recognize written words. Capitalizing on the phonemic basis of word construction, alphabetic systems employ only two dozen letters (give or take a few) to write the myriad words of the language. Phoneme awareness, the discovery that the words of the language come apart into sequences of recurring phoneme segments, was the critical insight that made invention and use of alphabetic writing possible (Mattingly, 1992)” (Shankweiler & Fowler, 2004, p.3-4).

“The work of Shankweiler and his colleagues has been on the leading edge of this ascendency of phonology. The time has come to take a step back and appreciate the scope of this achievement, both as a scientific breakthrough and as a salubrious injection of scientific results into reading pedagogy and remediation” (Perfetti, 2011, p. 167).

Numerous studies of increasing sophistication over the last 30 years period have cemented phonemic awareness as central to reading development, and gradually the teaching profession began to take an interest. However, many of the studies were correlational, and the question of whether the relationship is causal has been difficult to resolve even in training studies. There is invariably an opportunity cost when time is devoted to any new focus incorporated into the school day, so it is crucial that any instructional initiative must have evidence that it has a beneficial effect. More on the causality question later.

Correlational Studies

The interest in phonology is unsurprising when one considers that phonological abilities (of which phonemic awareness is a subset) are recognised as the most powerful predictors of reading success. A number of researchers have noted that the predictive power of measured phonological abilities exceeds that of more general cognitive abilities such as intelligence, vocabulary, and listening comprehension (Adams, 1990; Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Juel, 1988; Wagner & Torgesen, 1987; Yopp, 1988). However, see Blomert and Willems (2010) for a contrary finding. The predictive quality has been reported not only for the English language but also for Swedish, Spanish, French, Italian, and Russian (Adams, 1990) and even Chinese (Perfetti & Zhang, 1995). Indeed, Frost (2005) argued that skilled reading, even in shallow orthographies, requires the use of phonological skills.

The many correlational studies (see Wagner & Torgesen, 1987 for a review) that support this link cannot, however, provide evidence of causality. It is known, for example, that knowledge of letter names prior to reading instruction is a strong predictor of success (Melby-Lervåg, Lyster, & Hulme (2012). Yet for children who do not know their letter names, solely teaching such names does not, of itself, improve their reading prognosis (Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1994). The early letter name knowledge is merely a marker for other individual differences such as IQ, attention span, or early literacy experience. However, Walsh, Price and Gillingham (1988) provide a more optimistic view of the value of teaching letter names to the stage of automaticity. It is also recognised that letter/sound and (perhaps) letter/name are necessary for the development of the alphabetic principle during reading development.

A major problem for the outcomes of correlational studies is their facility for predicting good reading outcomes, but inability to shed light on just which children will not make progress (Felton, 1992). Thus, she reiterates Mann's (1984, cited in Felton, 1992) finding with a heterogeneous population in which a combination of phonological tasks: naming speed, phonetic recoding in working memory, and phonological awareness, assessed in the first year of school, accounted for 74% of the reading variance a year later. In contrast, for an at-risk sample, Felton and Brown (1990) found the same series of tests accounted for 43% of the reading variance a year later. The extent of the variance explained is impressive in either case, but also indicates that much variance remains unexplained.

Training studies

In addition to the correlational evidence indicating that phonemic awareness is strongly predictive of reading attainment, there have accumulated a number of longitudinal training studies suggesting that the relationship between phonemic awareness and reading progress is indeed causal. This second finding is of great significance, for without it one could argue that phonemic awareness is purely a consequence of reading development, or alternatively merely related to a third variable (the true cause) such as intelligence, or social class.

In 1983, Bradley and Bryant’s seminal paper described a longitudinal study that appeared to convincingly argue for a causal role:

“It was described by Coltheart (1983) as the “first clear evidence of the mental procedures important in the early stages of learning to read” (p. 421). The authors were interested in whether high levels of phonemic sensitivity were associated with later reading success, and low levels associated with reading difficulty over the following four years. They were able to demonstrate high correlations between the original sound categorisation scores and students’ reading and spelling more than 3 years later. Selecting 65 of the students with low phonemic awareness scores, Bradley and Bryant randomly assigned them to either a training group, or a non-training group. The first group was taught (in 40 sessions over two years) to attend to the sound structure of words, while the second was taught to categorise words in terms of their meaning. The children received normal reading instruction in school, and at the end of the project were re-assessed. The training group had made significantly more progress in reading, an effect specific to reading, as the two groups were similar in a standardised mathematics test. Bradley (1990) retested the original experimental and control groups 5 years after the training was completed, and the differences were still present in all four reading and spelling tests.

Subsequent intervention studies (Ball & Blachman, 1988, 1991; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1995; Cunningham, 1990; Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994; Lundberg, Frost, & Petersen, 1988; Tangel & Blackman, 1992) obtained similar results, and those that employed follow-up have noted the endurance of the effects” (Hempenstall, 1997, p. 205).

In her highly influential 1990 book, Beginning to read: Thinking & learning about print, Marilyn Adams introduced many educators to the phonemic awareness concept for the first time. In a subsequent article, she described the findings as “ … the single most powerful advance in the science and pedagogy of reading this century” (Adams, 1991, p. 392).

The arrival of phonemic awareness acted as something of a circuit breaker to the acrimonious battles between Whole Language and phonics approaches. Educators who were unwilling to contemplate phonics teaching (perhaps because it had attracted the negative connotations described earlier) saw phonemic awareness as a less rigid, more friendly literacy option – sort of game-like, without drill or worksheets.

Over the past four decades, but particularly in the last 30 years, there has been an increasing acceptance that phonemic awareness plays an important role in beginning reading success, and also in specific reading disability or dyslexia (Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994; Melby-Lervåg, Lyster, & Hulme, 2012; National Reading Panel, 2000; Nelson, Lindstrom, Lindstrom, & Denis, 2012; Share, 1995; Stanovich, 1986). However, there remains the niggling concern that the relationship has not yet been definitively determined as causal. More on that later.

So, what is phonemic awareness?

Various terms have been employed to describe phonemic awareness: such as, phonological awareness, acoustic awareness, phonetic awareness, auditory analysis, sound categorisation, phonemic segmentation, phonological sensitivity, and phonemic analysis. Most authors such as Goswami and Bryant (1990) reserve the term phonemic awareness to imply awareness of individual phonemes; whereas, phonological awareness is considered a more global term that includes the earlier developing aspects, such as rhyme and syllable awareness (Melby-Lervåg, Lyster, & Hulme, 2012).

There has also been much discussion about how best to define phonemic awareness. Ball and Blachman (1991) refer to the ability to recognise that a spoken word consists of a sequence of individual sounds. Stanovich (1986) initially defined it as the "conscious access to the phonemic level of the speech stream and some ability to cognitively manipulate representations at this level" (p. 362). Later, he suggested (1992, 1993) that the terms "conscious" and "awareness" themselves have no acceptable definitions, and he subsequently recommended phonological sensitivity as a generic term to encompass a continuum from shallow to deep sensitivity. This term acknowledges the wide range of tasks used to assess levels of sensitivity. Read (1991) too was concerned about the term awareness, but because it implies a dichotomy rather than a continuum. He preferred the expression access to phonological structure. As these alternatives have not gained currency, phonemic awareness will continue to be used here as implying both the knowledge of, and the capacity to manipulate, phonemes - acknowledging that the definition continues to have limitations. It is argued that both synthesis (also known as blending or telescoping) and analysis (also known as phoneme segmentation) are important elements of phonemic awareness – with synthesis usually preceding segmentation (Ouellette & Haley, 2013).

What is clear is that phonemic awareness concerns the structure of spoken words rather than their meaning. To understand the construction of our written code, readers need to be able to reflect upon the spelling-to-sound correspondences. To understand that the written word is composed of graphemes that correspond to phonemes (the alphabetic principle), beginning readers must have or quickly develop some understanding that spoken words are composed of individual sounds (phonemic awareness), rather than their conceiving of each word as a single indivisible sound stream. This awareness appears not to be a discrete state, but rather a sequence of development ranging from simple to complex, or as Stanovich (1992, 1993b) would prefer - from shallow to deep.

A problem arising from differing definitions is that the tasks used to assess phonological or phonemic awareness also differ significantly. This problem of no common metric makes it difficult to compare study outcomes, and obtain a high degree of consensus concerning causality.

Does development follow a sequence?

Although some authors suggest variations in the sequence (Ehri et al., 2001), the levels of phonological development from shallow to deep phonemic awareness have been delineated as below.

  • Recognition that sentences are made up of words.
  • Recognition that words can rhyme - then production thereof.
  • Recognition that words can be broken down into syllables - then production thereof.
  • Recognition that words can be broken down into onsets and rimes - then production thereof.
  • Recognition that words can begin with the same sound - then production of such words.
  • Recognition that words can end with the same sound -then production of such words.
  • Recognition that words can have the same medial sound(s) -then production of such words.
  • Recognition that words can be broken down into individual phonemes - then production thereof.
  • Recognition that sounds can be deleted from words to make new words - then production thereof.
  • Ability to blend sounds to make words.
  • Ability to segment words into constituent sounds.

It has been argued that these skills are hierarchical, and it’s true that the correlations with reading increase as the complexity of the tasks increases – from low level skills such as syllable recognition to high level skills such as blending sounds (Manolitsis & Tafa, 2011). It may also be that the sequence is at least partly dependent on the experiences of individual students. The more focussed and structured the experience (either instructional or self taught), the more likely a student will have progressed to higher levels compared with same-age peers (Samuelsson et al., 2008). Additionally, there may be genetic effects that influence the ease with which individual students make phonological progress (Soden-Hensler, Taylor, & Schatschneider, 2012).

Research has not yet provided a clear picture of developmental progression, partly because of the dearth of longitudinal studies and the lack of adequate assessment tools that can be administered to young children (Braze, McRoberts, & McDonough, 2011).

Some even argue that the mooted progression may not be the typical experience:

“Therefore, to conclude, the outcome of our study suggests that it is no longer helpful to characterise phonological development in terms of a fixed sequence because this type of generalisation obscures important variation that occurs in response to the demands of the assessment task, the type of instruction taking place in the classroom and the nature of the spoken and written languages under investigation” (Duncan et al., 2013, p.417).

Phonemic awareness is clearly more complex than auditory discrimination, which is the ability to perceive, for example, that cat and mat are different speech productions or words. To be able to describe how they are similar but different, however, implies some level of phonemic awareness. Auditory discrimination entails hearing a difference; whereas, phonemic awareness entails a level of analysis of the constituent sounds. Young children are not normally called upon to consider words at a level other than their meaning, although experience with rhymes may be the first indication for children that they can play with the structure of words.

Prior to these finer intra-word discriminations, children need to appreciate that spoken sentences (a rather continuous stream of sound without clear pauses) are separable into discrete words (Liberman & Liberman, 1990). It seems surprising that such an obvious distinction may elude children; however, Adams (1990) and Blachman (1984) pointed out that word consciousness (the awareness that spoken language is composed of words) should not be assumed even in children with several years schooling. Fortunately, they report evidence that it may be taught easily enough, even at a pre-school level. That school age children can lack such fundamental knowledge may be difficult for adults to accept, but it highlights the need in education to assume little, and assess pre-requisite skills carefully. Their warning also challenged the view, held by some Whole Language advocates (Goodman, 1979, 1986; Smith, 1975, 1992), that speaking and reading involve equivalent "natural" processes for all children. The implications of the Whole Language view are that the same environmental conditions that occur during the development of speech are those best provided for children learning to read. Liberman and Liberman (1990) among others (Gough & Hillinger, 1980; Hirsch, 2001; Liberman, 1997) have provided a forceful rebuttal of this equivalence perspective, and the equivalence view has few supporters today.

“The preschool child’s rapid mastery of the spoken language does not automatically confer the awareness of phonemic structure necessary to penetrate the written language code (Liberman, Shankweiler, & Liberman, 1989; Rayner et al., 2001). But every new learner who would grasp the alphabetic principle must somehow make the discovery that words come apart into phoneme units. Difficulty in attaining phoneme awareness is arguably the price we pay for having evolved to speak (and understand speech) rather than to write and read” (Shankweiler & Fowler, 2003, p.4)

“Increasing evidence on the acquisition of reading network can be synthesized by the “neuronal recycling hypothesis,” which proposed that “cultural inventions invade evolutionarily older brain circuits and inherit many of their structural constraints” (Dehaene & Cohen, 2007, p. 384). Reading, which evolved around 5,000 years ago, is a creation of human society. Thus, it is unlikely that humans developed a specific neural basis for reading to respond to the pressure of natural selection. In line with this hypothesis, neuroimaging studies suggest that reading does not have its own devoted network but instead recruits areas (e.g., left FG) from multiple instantiated systems (e.g., the language, visual, and attention networks; Dehaene, Cohen, Morais, & Kolinsky, 2015; Vogel et al., 2013).” (Black, Xia, & Hoeft, 2017, p.6)

Having discovered that sentences are composed of words, the next logical unit of analysis is intra-word, at the syllable level. However, syllables can be represented by any number of letters from one to eight. The word understand has three syllables, each of a different number of letters. Un has two, der has three, and stand has five letters. This variability makes the syllable unit of limited value in analysing the reading task (Bradley, 1990), and the catch is that one needs to have awareness at the level of the phoneme in order to determine where best to decide the syllable junctions. So, syllable awareness may have limited value as an early curriculum focus.

Rhyme and Alliteration

A recognition of rhyme may be the entry point for many children to phonemic awareness development (Bryant, 1990). To be aware that words can have a similar end-sound implies a critical step in metalinguistic understanding - that of ignoring the meaning of a word in order to attend to its internal structure. This leads to a new classification system, one in which words can be classified according to end-sound rather than meaning. Bryant (1990) points to the considerable amount of evidence indicating that children as young as three or four years can make judgments such as when words rhyme, and when they begin with the same sound (alliteration). Other studies, such as by Braze, McRoberts, and McDonough (2011) report rhyme sensitivity prior to age two years.

Bryant argues that sensitivity to rhyme makes both a direct and indirect contribution to reading. Directly, it helps students appreciate that words that share common sounds usually also share common letter sequences. The child's subsequent sensitivity to common letter sequences then makes a significant contribution to reading strategy development. Indirectly, the recognition of rhyme promotes the refining of word analysis from larger intra-word segments (such as rhyme) to analysis at the level of the phoneme (the critical requirement for reading).

Studies by Bryant, Bradley, McLean, and Crossland (1989) showed a very strong relationship between rhyming ability at age three years and performance at reading and spelling three years later. A number of such studies suggested there may be value in such early exposure to rhyming games (e.g., Kirtley, Bryant, Maclean, & Bradley, 1989). That rhyming and phoneme awareness may be related (through their common characteristic of requiring listening for sound similarities and differences) was supported by the results of a study by Lamb and Gregory (1993). They showed that children who were capable of good discrimination of musical pitch also scored highly on tests of phonemic awareness. Since pitch change is an important source of information in the speech signal (Liberman, Cooper, Shankweiler, & Studdert-Kennedy, 1967), it may be that sensitivity to small frequency changes, such as is involved in phoneme recognition, plays a part in successful initial reading. Lamb and Gregory (1993) raise the interesting possibility that musical training may represent one of those pre-reading, home-based experiences that contribute to the marked individual differences in phonemic awareness with which children commence school.

There is some evidence that rhyme contributes to the prediction of subsequent reading problems (Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Bryant et al., 1989; Savage & Frederickson, 2006; Wood, 2000), but others (Castles & Coltheart, 2004; Rathvon, 2004) consider its independent role is minimal, and its apparent significance in some studies is better subsumed under phonological awareness. Additionally, confirmatory studies have been criticised for methodological problems, such as ceiling effects on measures, and also the low reliability of the oddity tests employed. Unsurprisingly, whether an instructional emphasis on rhyme is beneficial has been questioned in several studies (Wood, 2000).

Further research may also enable the prediction of future at-risk readers through the use of auditory preference procedures to assess rhyme sensitivity some years prior to reading instruction. If this can be achieved reliably, then early intervention may make a significant difference to those so identified.

This is not to suggest that rhyming activities are to be avoided, as they are enjoyable literacy activities. Engaging in rhyming activities with stories may have strong motivational influences on children's attitudes to books and reading. The point is that such oral activities cannot be expected to transfer to reading text without the relationship between phonological skills and text reading being made apparent.

Onsets & Rimes

Treiman (1991) suggested a further level in the sequence culminating in phoneme awareness - the intra-syllabic units of onset and rime. The onset of a syllable is its initial consonant(s), and the rime is its vowel and any subsequent consonants in the syllable. Thus, in the syllables sip-slip, the onsets are s and sl, and the common rime is ip. Treiman argued for a stage between syllable awareness and phoneme awareness in which children are much more sensitive to the onset-rime distinction than the phoneme distinction. It was asserted that this research held promise for programs of educational intervention in reading disability because of the greater regularity of onset-rimes over individual letters (Felton, 1993). Thus, rime phonograms such as ing, ight, ain have much more regularity than the letters that form them. Knowing that strain and drain rhyme, may allow for reading main and brain by analogy.

This apparently generative strategy led some researchers (Bowey, Cain, & Ryan, 1992; Hulme & Snowling, 1992) to suggest that an emphasis on onset-rime may be an especially valuable approach to teaching students with dyslexia, as they tend to have relatively undeveloped phonological skills. Further, Bowey and Francis (1991) considered onset and rime the most effective focus for phonological activities intended to promote beginning reading and spelling for all children. They noted that since most onsets in English are single consonants, an early emphasis on the intra-syllabic onset/rime distinction in the study of word structure was likely to hasten the development of awareness at the more difficult phoneme level.

Treiman (1991) believed that the onset/rime division is a natural one. Bradley (1990) agreed, and considered that it is because rhymes correspond to rimes that most children develop such facility with them at a relatively early age. The awareness of these larger sublexical skills were viewed by Bruck (1992), Goswami and Bryant (1990), and by Tunmer and Hoover (1993) as prerequisites to initial reading acquisition, their difficulty level lying between that of syllable awareness and phoneme awareness (Bowey et al., 1992; Bowey & Francis, 1991; Bruck & Treiman, 1990; Kirtley et al., 1989). Spector (1995) perceived onset/rime as a potentially useful stage in the development of oral segmentation skills. She recommended the strategy of breaking such words into onset/rime as an intermediate step towards phonemic segmentation for children who have difficulty in segmenting complex syllables.

Thus, there are suggestions of a typical developmental sequence for phonological awareness. It begins with awareness of words as a unit of analysis; then proceeds to the awareness that words can share certain ending properties that we call rhyme, to an awareness that words can be decomposed into syllables, then (possibly though not definitely) more finely into sub-syllabic units called onsets and rimes, to beginning, final, and medial properties, and then (and most importantly for reading) into awareness of individual phonemes, the smallest unit of sound analysis. Phonemic awareness is thus considered the pinnacle of the phonological awareness continuum. Phonemic awareness itself is viewed as a continuum, involving the movement from a recognition of such properties to a capacity to produce examples of them. Thus, at one level one can nominate which pairs of words rhyme when presented orally; at a higher level one can produce examples. It should be noted that the description of the process as developmental does not imply spontaneous development - for many students it needs to be taught (Lindamood, 1994).

The issue of putting ages to levels is problematic partly because of the great variation in the experience of children. Some children play with word structure for several years before school, some have had no experience. The degree of emphasis placed on phonemic awareness in preschool and school adds additional variation, whilst the quality and explicitness of the instruction also make significant contributions (National Reading Panel, 2000). There appears also to be genetic predisposition toward ease or difficulty of acquisition among children (Olson, Wise, Conners, Rack, & Fulker, 1989; Rack, Hulme, & Snowling, 1993; Soden-Hensler, Taylor, & Schatschneider, 2012).

Thus, these levels may be better considered as markers on the road to skilled reading, rather than as a natural developmental sequence, and as susceptible to environmental manipulation, such as early experiences and instruction. Similarly, the rate with which students progress through the levels may vary, and some levels may even appear to be skipped. A more recent characterisation is the waves rather than stages may more accurately describe development.

“We suggest Seigler’s (2005) overlapping waves model may be more applicable to reading and spelling development than models based on notions of ‘stage’. In the overlapping waves model children make use of a variety of strategies to cope with a variety of cognitive tasks rather than moving sequentially from one strategy to another depending on stage.” (Devonshire, Morris, & Fluck, 2013, p. 92)

If the levels represent a typical sequence, then approaches to teaching might benefit from taking it into account. There may be some theoretical justification for an interest in onset-rime, but it requires support from intervention research before becoming a suitable component of the curriculum. So, is an emphasis on teaching students to recognise onset-rime distinctions (rather than at the phoneme level) more productive in initial (and, perhaps, remedial) reading instruction than is teaching directly at the phoneme level. A computer program developed by Wise, Olson and Treiman (1990) focussed on onset-rimes in teaching beginning reading skills to normally-developing readers and children with dyslexia. In this and the Olson and Wise (1992) studies, the authors noted an advantage for the children taught in this manner over an approach that segmented words after the vowel. The effect however was ephemeral, and least pronounced in the more disabled students. Ehri and Robbins (1992) findings were similar in that the poorer readers did not use sub-syllabic units larger than the grapheme. This led them to suggest that the onset-rime distinction is really the province of the more skilled reader, and hence not a candidate for instruction prior to that at the phoneme level.

Goswami's research (Goswami & Bryant, 1990) had suggested that, for young children, words that share rimes are more readily decoded by analogy than are words that share onsets or vowels. Bruck and Treiman (1992) provided some support for that view, but as in the Wise et al. study, the measured advantage was lost within a day. In fact, a day later the rime group demonstrated poorer performance than the group taught onsets, and poorer than the group for which vowel analogy was emphasised.

A number of researchers now have questioned whether an onset-rime emphasis has any useful role to play in beginning reading instruction. Nation and Hulme (1997) express concern that such tasks are not predictive of reading and spelling success. McMillan (2002) argues that it is alphabet knowledge rather than rhyming ability that underpins any causal link to reading ability. Further, Nation, Allen, and Hulme (2001) have questioned the benefit of emphasising analogy as a worthwhile early strategy for reading unfamiliar words. The intent of analogy reading is to allow children to decode an unfamiliar printed word by observing that its spelling is similar to that of a known word. In their study, however, children were not able to see such orthographic similarities at all, leading to a conclusion that the analogy technique is only able to be employed by those readers who already have attained more advanced phonemic awareness (Wood, 2000).

Thus, the results of research suggest caution regarding calls for introducing an initial emphasis on onset-rime distinctions for beginning readers. It would be judicious to ensure that beginners (and disabled readers) have, or develop, a grounding in grapheme-phoneme relationships, either before (or simultaneous with), such onset-rime emphasis (Munro, 1995). It is still unclear whether the generally accepted developmental sequence necessarily provides the optimum guidance for instruction. This question should be answered empirically, and a number of researchers have attempted more fine-grained analysis to assist in providing clearer instructional direction.

Wise and Olson (1995) reported a study indicating that adequate phonemic awareness skill was necessary if children were to benefit from onset-rime instruction. When readers with dyslexia were provided with phonemic awareness training through Auditory Discrimination in Depth (Lindamood & Lindamood, 1969) simultaneously with onset-rime computer-based training, reading results were markedly improved by this addition of instruction at the level of the phoneme. The ADD program emphasises phonemic awareness through a variety of oral/aural tasks, and by teaching students awareness of kinaesthetic cues (mouth, tongue, lip position, breath usage). In the Duncan, Seymour, and Hill (1997) study five-year-old children could more readily identify a single phoneme (e.g., face –food) than when it constituted the rime (e.g., lace – face).

Nation and Hulme (1997) and Hulme et al. (2002) also argue that it is likely to be more profitable to emphasise phoneme awareness even from the beginning reading stages.

As is often the case, when several options are available and the evidence is not adequate to clearly support one or the other, the emphasis is most judiciously placed on the alternative that is most closely related to the reading process. Thus, studies up to this stage have raised more questions than answers about the instructional usefulness of onset-rime as a means of gently approaching the difficult phoneme concept.

Phoneme Awareness

Awareness at the level of the phoneme has particular significance for the acquisition of reading because of its role in the development of the alphabetic principle - that the written word is simply a means of codifying the sound properties of the spoken word. In order to decode the written word, the child needs to appreciate the logic of the writing system and, as a prerequisite, the logic of oral word production.

There are two requirements of beginning reading for which phonemic awareness becomes immediately relevant: phonemic analysis (segmentation) and phonemic synthesis (blending). For most children, the ability to produce the finer discrimination of phonemes begins in about Year 1 of their schooling (Ball, 1993). Individual phonemes are more difficult to specify because their acoustic values vary with the phonemes that precede and follow them in a word (a phenomenon called co-articulation); whereas, syllables have relatively constant values in a word and hence should be more readily recognised. The fact that consonants are "folded" into vowels can be understood by noting the different tongue positions for the beginning /d/ sound when it is followed by /oo/ and by /i/.

In most children the ability to synthesise (blend) sounds into words occurs earlier than analytic (segmentation) skills (Bryen & Gerber, 1987; Caravolas & Bruck, 1993; Solomons, 1992; Torgesen et al., 1992; Yopp, 1992). Thus, it is easier to respond with the word cat when presented with the sounds c - at or c-a-t , than it is to supply c-a-t when asked to tell what sounds you hear in cat.

Tasks used to assess beginning (or shallow) phonemic awareness tend to emphasise sensitivity to rhyme and alliteration; for example, finding a word that begins or ends with the same sound as the stimulus word. A more complex task would involve the manipulation, or separation of sounds in a word, for example, What is the first sound you hear in cat ? What word is left if you remove the /t/ from "stand?" (Torgesen et al., 1994). Other tasks used for assessment may include counting the sounds in words, adding, deleting or manipulating sounds, and categorising sounds at the beginning, middle, or end of words. The deletion task while it has good reliability (Lervåg et al., 2009), also has a strong working memory element.

There are now numerous normed and unnormed tests available. Some are available from publishers, such as the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP) (Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1999) whilst some are free from the Net, such as Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) (University of Oregon, 2002a) or the Abecedarian Reading Assessment (Wren & Watts, 2002). There is also the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) test online. PALS is the state-provided screening tool for Virginia’s Early Intervention Reading Initiative (EIRI). A useful resource in making decisions about which test to employ is an extensive and thorough review by Kame'enui (2002).

As indicated above, deeper levels of awareness (i.e., at the phoneme level) tend to develop during first grade upon exposure to reading instruction. Some have argued then that phonemic awareness may be a consequence of learning to read rather than a causal factor in its development (Morais et al., 1987; Morais, 1991). There is increasing consensus that the data are best explained by considering the relationship between phonemic awareness and reading development as a reciprocal one (Duncan et al., 2013; Stanovich, 1992).

Might phonemic awareness be a consequence of reading development?

If that were the case, is there a purpose to attempting to teach it prior to reading instruction? If it were strictly true, then it should not be possible to teach phoneme awareness without recourse to letters. Yet, there are numerous studies showing that it can be taught as a purely oral skill. There is some confusion here as some studies use the term phonological awareness as synonymous with phoneme awareness, while others confine the meaning of phoneme awareness to the higher order processes such as blending and segmenting. Additionally, many different tools have been employed to measure progress, some formal normed tests, and others experimenter designed curriculum-based measures. So, perhaps the best position for now is to assume the reciprocality assertion (Duncan et al., 2013; Stanovich, 1992).

“Among researchers there are those who claim that phonological awareness is a byproduct of alphabetic literacy learning (Castles & Coltheart, 2004; Morais, Bertelson, Cary, & Alegria, 1986; Read, Zhang, Nie, & Ding, 1986), and those who claim that phonological awareness precedes reading and writing (e.g., Lundberg, Frost, & Peterson, 1988; Muter, Hulme, Snowling, & Stevenson, 2004; Tunmer et al., 1988). The implications of these two opposing views are very important for the teaching methods of reading and writing. However, there are findings which support an intermediate view: that phonological awareness and alphabetic literacy learning influence each other reciprocally (Burgess & Lonigan, 1998; Lonigan, Burgess, & Anthony, 2000; Wagner et al., 1994)” (Manolitsis & Tafa, 2011, p.30-31).

“Some findings indicate that phoneme awareness may develop as a consequence of exposure to reading and writing. Especially persuasive is research showing that adult illiterates and readers of a nonalphabetic script lack awareness of phonemes (Lukatela, Carello, Shankweiler & Liberman, 1995; Morais et al., 1979, 1991; Read et al., 1986). These findings have helped to cement the link between awareness and reading in an alphabetic system, but seemed to call into question the presumption that the chief direction of causal influence is from awareness to reading rather than the reverse (Morais, 1991). However, viewing the larger body evidence makes it clear that causation runs in both directions: there is reciprocity in the relation between phoneme awareness and reading. For most children, rudimentary partial awareness of phonological segments helps children grasp the alphabetic principle, and, in turn, experience with spellings gained in reading and writing strengthens and refines awareness (Ehri, 1992; Perfetti, Beck, Bell & Hughes, 1987)” (Shankweiler & Fowler, 2003, p.8).

A threshold phonemic awareness level may be beneficial (though not sufficient) for beginning reading development, but as reading develops - increasingly the student becomes more sensitive and better able to manipulate sounds at the phoneme level. Additionally, as orthographic skills develop, some phonemic awareness tasks may be completed without recourse to phonology at all (Castles & Coltheart, 2004; Duncan et al., 2013).

“Such findings favour the idea of reciprocal causation whereby phoneme awareness, letter knowledge, and reading skills interact in the process of learning to read and phoneme awareness develops rapidly in readers who primarily encounter consistent grapheme–phoneme relationships” (Nag & Snowling, 2012, p.405).

The acquisition of phonemic awareness is not guaranteed simply through maturation; in fact, about a third of students require varying degrees of assistance to promote its development (Adams, 1990). If they don’t receive this help, many will employ less effective strategies, such as attempting to remember every word as a unique picture, or by various guessing strategies.

“The special case of English: A perfect storm?

Note that the processes I have been outlining would in principle apply to any alphabetic writing system – they all code phonemes, and they are all morphological as well as phonological. But I propose that English creates special problems. The apparently unruly nature of the orthography, the existence of many words that do not follow straightforward one-to-one mapping of letter onto phoneme, may undermine the resolve of teachers to teach reading as if it were an exercise in alphabetic decoding. And teachers may not have such a resolve in the first place. We know that some do not because they have been trained to avoid explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle (Goodman, 1986; Shankweiler & Fowler, 2004). This in turn has been in part based on the conviction that reading cannot be done this way anyway, precisely because of the existence of irregular words like the, once, one, was, were, there … .So, we may have the beginnings of a perfect storm – children ill equipped to discover, all by themselves, the alphabetic nature of English writing, the same children well equipped, all by themselves, to discover its morphemic nature, and a teacher who advertently or inadvertently fosters the morphemic hypothesis and obscures the phonemic one, leading to children trapped in an initially successful strategy but one that will eventually leave them floundering (Byrne, Freebody, & Gates, 1992)” (Byrne, 2011, p. 182).

So, if you consider that phoneme awareness needs to be taught separately what do you teach?

Do you purchase one of the many available texts such as the classroom curriculum by Adams, Foorman, Lundberg, and Beeler (1998) and work your way through the oral activities or do you contrive your own? That depends upon your own phonological ability along with a capacity to create effective and efficient instruction, and the tools to continuously assess the results of your intervention. Such activity should not be inordinately long, as literacy time is too valuable to spend on marginal issues (so, maybe 20 hours).

There are also many resources provided by education departments and other organisations online, such as at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/instruction/virginia_tiered_system_supports/resources/ideas_activities_develop_phonological.pdf, http://www.phonologicalawareness.org/, http://www.readingresource.net/, http://www.starfall.com, http://pbskids.org/games/index.html

There are also various free or cheap apps that would suit either home-based or school-based phoneme awareness development, such as at http://www.loveandreilly.com.au, http://pbskids.org/apps/, https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/profs-phonics-1/id511712292?mt=8, https://sites.google.com/site/faveapps/reading/phonemic-awareness

When is the optimal time for such instruction?

It has been argued that some level of simple phonological awareness, such as rhyming and alliteration may develop around the ages of two to four years, though, of course, there will be individual variation depending on a child’s capacity, experience, and interest (Maclean, Bryant, & Bradley, 1987; Moats & Tolman, 2009; Nithart et al., 2011). Some argue for initial experiences being in the home or in child care, others in pre-school, and others see it as corresponding to the time of initial reading instruction.

Is the suggested developmental sequence important?

Should you gently guide students through the sequence, using only activities related to that level, or can you provide students with a wider range of activities at any one time? Should you focus directly on phoneme awareness (rather than on less sophisticated phonological processes like rhymes) from the beginning (Foorman et al., 2003)?

Should you include letters (graphemes) in your otherwise oral phonemic awareness curriculum (Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1993; Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994; National Reading Panel, 2000)?


This issue was raised some time ago.

"Thus phonological training that is integrated with phonics training may be as effective as phonological training conducted separately from phonics training" (Hart, Berninger, & Abbott, 1997, p.279).

“Stimulation of phonological awareness should never be considered an isolated instructional end in itself. It will be most useful as part of the reading curriculum if it is blended seamlessly with instruction and experiences using letter-sound correspondences to read and spell words” (Torgesen & Mathes, 1998, p. 9).

A question often asked about phoneme awareness training that precedes reading instruction is the degree to which the phonological skills will transfer to the reading task. Will students have forgotten such oral skills by the time reading instruction commences? Will they remember them, but not perceive the benefits in making use of them? Will they remember them, and appreciate the potential benefits in making use of them, but can’t see how to incorporate the oral skills into the decoding task? Presumably, one role for a beginning reading teacher is to make salient to the reading task those phoneme awareness skills previously developed. If this is to be part of the teacher’s curriculum, then a closer knit between the phoneme awareness training and the beginning reading instruction is advisable. Certainly, if the teacher’s initial instruction is meaning-dominated or has an initial whole word emphasis, then students are unlikely to notice that phonological skills can be helpful.

“Overall, the data suggest that there is little value in training pre-schoolers in either letter forms or sounds in isolation in advance of providing instruction on the links between the two” (Castles, Coltheart, Wilson, Valpied, & Wedgwood, 2009, p.68).

So, perhaps one should bypass the oral phonemic awareness activities, and move directly to the phonic processes of segmenting and blending (including letters not solely sounds) because they are activities more directly salient to reading? Additionally, it has been argued that letter-sound knowledge enhances phonemic awareness skills (Carroll, 2004), so a link between letter-sound associations and phoneme awareness may have several benefits.

Engelmann’s take is that phonemic awareness has no purpose other than to assist decoding, and hence any attention to it should be tied closely to decoding. Hence, he recommends treating the proximal rather than distal proposed causes:

“The demonstration that phonological manipulations are precise components of a beginning word reading operation can be seen by constructing a task that is as similar as possible to a beginning decoding task but that does not refer to any symbols. It is a verbal skeleton of the task.

In the following example, the teacher will say the word ran slowly, holding each sound for about 2 or 3 seconds and not pausing between the sounds. The responses the children make (saying the segmented word and then saying it fast) are the same responses the children make when decoding the word ran. The only difference is that when they decode the word, they refer to written symbols to initiate the segmented word.

The principal goal of the pre-decoding activities in DISTAR Reading Mastery is make children sufficiently facile with the verbal components of decoding that they will successfully coordinate these with the symbol-identification component during the introduction of the first decoding words. Even with this practice, children sometimes make mistakes because they become overwhelmed with the coordination of saying the sounds, remembering the sequence, and trying to concentrate on the symbols so they identify them appropriately.

Because children are facile with the verbal components, however, the teacher has a very effective correction procedure that does not involve telling children the word, but that shows them how to use what they already know to figure out the word. The correction procedure simply removes the symbol component of the task, presenting only the skeleton of the task that involves sounds.

Here’s an example of the word-reading procedure the teacher script specifies, a typical error and the correction. Note that this example comes from very early in the program, after children have been decoding written words only a few lessons. One or two children say nothing or say eee. The correction: The teacher immediately puts down the display book and says, Listen: mmmeee. Say it with me. mmmeee. All by yourself: Children: mmmeee. Teacher: Say it fast. Children: me. Teacher quickly holds up display book and touches ball of the arrow for me. Teacher: Now do it here. Say the sounds. Get ready. Teacher touches under me as children say mmmeee. Teacher: Say it fast. Children: me.

The correction is effective because the teacher doesn’t have to tell the children the word. The correction also implies what children are required to be proficient in before they are introduced to the decoding of written words. If they do not have the basic verbal skills that are required to respond to the skeleton example presented in the correction, they lack skills needed to decode words. Conversely, if they have the verbal skills, they have at least part of what they need to be successful” (Engelmann, 1999, p. 43-4).

This perspective really involves a return to the initial teaching of phonics, which was the norm for code-oriented teachers prior to the phonemic awareness revolution. Prior to the introduction of pre-reading phonemic awareness, blending and segmenting were a normal part of phonics instruction (although without the name phonemic awareness).


“At the current state of knowledge, it is adequate to conclude that the systematic instruction of lettersound- correspondences and decoding strategies, and the application of these skills in reading and writing activities, is the most effective method for improving literacy skills of children and adolescents with reading disabilities. … The present results demonstrate that when phonemic awareness interventions are provided to schoolaged children and adolescents with reading difficulties, they do not have a significant effect on a child’s reading or spelling performance. This indicates that phonemic awareness and reading fluency trainings alone are not sufficient to achieve substantial improvements. However, the combination of these two treatment approaches, represented by phonics instruction, has the potential to increase the reading and spelling performance of children and adolescents with reading disabilities (GaluschkaIse, Krick, & Schulte-Körn, 2014, p.9).


Do you include only letter sounds, or do you also teach letter names?

This question remains contentious. Some advocate only letter sounds, as attempting to introduce both may be unnecessarily confusing - especially to vulnerable learners. This position is held more strongly in Great Britain; whereas, in the USA letter names are more frequently introduced first (Melby-Lervåg, Lyster, & Hulme, 2012). Each method correlates with reading development. However, at least as far as spelling development in concerned, neither approach alone appears superior. Typically, students arrive at school with a larger store of uppercase letter names, presumably due to their pre-school experiences in which the alphabet is usually printed in upper case and the alphabet song involves letter names (Manolitsis & Tafa, 2011).

“The practice of referring to letters by their sounds was motivated by the idea that letter sounds are more useful than letter names in learning to read and spell (e.g., Feitelson, 1988). However, letter names may be worth learning because most of them, in English as in other languages, contain a phoneme that the letter symbolizes (Treiman & Kessler, 2003). Children who are familiar with the names of letters take advantage of this fact (Ellefson et al., 2009; McBride-Chang, 1999; Treiman et al., 1998). A further benefit of conventional letter names is that they follow the same phonological patterns as other words of the language. Some sound-based labels, such as /æ/ for a, do not; normal English words never end with short vowels. Informal and formal instruction that stresses letter names as opposed to sounds leads to different patterns of performance and different types of errors for young learners of English. However, one set of practices does not make mastering this complex writing system markedly easier than the other” (Treiman, Stothard, & Snowling, 2013, p.485-6).

The Piasta, Purpura, and Wagner (2010) study compared the effects of teaching to pre-schoolers only letter-sounds with teaching combined letter names and sounds. They found improved (moderate effect size) letter-sound and letter-name knowledge under the combined system, having controlled for differences in print exposure, instructional time, and instructional intensity in the study design. Similar results were reported by Treiman, Pennington, Shriberg, and Boada (2008):

“These results suggest that using what one knows to help learn something new – using letters’ names to help learn letters’ sounds, in this case – characterizes a wide range of children” (Treiman, Pennington, Shriberg, & Boada, 2008, p.1335).

Further, they noted:

“Many researchers have suggested that children need phonological awareness in order to use letters’ names to help learn the letters’ sounds (e.g., Bowey, 2005; Foulin, 2005; Share, 2004; Treiman et al., 1998). However, our results suggest that phonological awareness, as commonly measured, is not required in order to benefit from letter names in the learning of letter sounds” (Treiman, Pennington, Shriberg, & Boada, 2008, p.1336).

Also relevant to instruction is the finding that students usually arrive at school with a larger store of uppercase than lowercase letter names, presumably due to their pre-school experiences in which the alphabet is usually printed in upper case and the alphabet song involves letter names (Manolitsis & Tafa, 2011). On the other hand, when considering at-risk students, it is not clear whether the dual introduction of sounds and names may evoke confusion among this subgroup.


And what about the student who is resistant to the activity-based curriculum? 

Some may have other phonological problems such as slow naming speed (Al Otaiba & Fuchs, 2002) or issues with phonologicalmemory (Wagner & Torgesen, 1987)?

The former difficulty has been referred to as the Double-Deficit Hypothesis (Wolf & Bowers, 1999), in which students with both phonemic awareness and naming speed deficits are especially resistant to intervention. Should you, for these students, routinely introduce formal direct instruction procedures, and perhaps for over an extended period of time as recommended by Lyon (2001), and Wright and Jacobs (2003)?

“Results showed that the Double Deficit group exhibited greater dysfunction in reading and orthographic processing compared to the single-deficit and no deficit groups. Also, although the three deficit groups were not easily differentiated in kindergarten, their differences were maximized in Grade 1 and retained in Grade 2. The type and severity of reading deficits found in the Naming Deficit group were mostly associated with naming speed at both the word- and text-reading levels, deficits that persisted across development. The Phonological Deficit group showed mostly deficient orthographic and poor decoding skills that improved across development” (Papadopoulos, Georgiou, & Kendeou, 2009, p.528).

“The results of this study suggest, as do those by Kuhn and others (2006), that the critical factor for oral reading development in children with reading disabilities, including those with naming-speed deficits, is time-on-text, meaning simply that students from this population must spend significant time engaged in structured, monitored reading in order to develop the necessary automaticity in phonological and word identification sub-processes that are required for proficient reading” (Paige, 2011, p. 307).

Cronin (2013) also noted a predictive role for naming speed, and recommends assessment with an object naming task in conjunction with a phonemic awareness task prior to reading instruction to help identify those students likely to struggle with beginning literacy.

As to phonological memory issues:

“Phonological memory refers to the ability to maintain phonological information in working memory (Wagner & Torgesen, 1987). It consists of the phonological loop, a two-part storage system of auditory information (Baddeley, 1992). These two parts of the phonological loop work together, with the first part “recording” the last two seconds of phonological information and the second part providing articulatory input and refreshing the information in phonological storage to permit longer retention (Wagner et al., 1999b; see Baddeley, 2007 for a discussion of the phonological loop). An efficient phonological memory system facilitates reading by allowing the allocation of cognitive resources to blending the sounds together to make words rather than needing to employ a strategy to remember the sounds (Baddeley, 1982). Rapid automatized naming refers to the ability to retrieve phonological information from long-term memory (Wagner et al., 1987). When readers decode words, they unconsciously engage in a variety of cognitive processes that are influenced by rapid automatized naming. They must quickly retrieve the phonological codes for the letters from long-term memory, blend the codes together, and search their long-term memory’s internal dictionary in order to make meaning of the combined codes (Wagner et al., 1987)” (Nelson, Lindstrom, Lindstrom, & Denis, 2012, p.180).

The National Reading Panel Report (2000) indicated that large effect sizes were possible when instruction was directed systematically and explicitly at one or two types of phonemic awareness activities provided to small groups, and involved associating phonemes with letters (such as segmenting and blending).

“At the current state of knowledge, it is adequate to conclude that the systematic instruction of lettersound- correspondences and decoding strategies, and the application of these skills in reading and writing activities, is the most effective method for improving literacy skills of children and adolescents with reading disabilities. … interventions with higher amounts of treatment or longer durations of treatment seem to be more effective in improving literacy skills than therapies with small amounts of treatment or short-time interventions.” (Galuschka, Ise, Krick, & Schulte-Körne, 2014, p.9, 10).

Additional research based recommendations on appropriate interventions:

“It should be noted that the interventions that produced large and positive effects on children’s code-related skills and conventional literacy skills were usually conducted as one-on-one or small-group instructional activities. These activities tended to be teacher-directed and focused on helping children learn skills by engaging in the use of those skills. Almost all of the code-focused interventions included some form of PA intervention. These PA activities generally required children to detect or manipulate (e.g., delete or blend) small units of sounds in words. Few of the interventions used rhyming activities as the primary teaching approach. Teaching children about the alphabet (e.g., letter names or letter sounds) or simple phonics tasks (e.g., blending letter sounds to make words) seemed to enhance the effects of PA training” (Lonigan & Shanahan, 2008, p. x).

“Research evidence indicates strongest gains in PA skills are observed when no more than one to two PA skills are taught at any one time (Ehri, Nunes, Willows et al., 2001), emphasising phoneme segmenting and blending sounds in spoken words as key foundation literacy skills. Furthermore, PA training is most effective in facilitating early PA skill and accelerating early word reading, when combined with letter knowledge training (Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1991; Ehri, Nunes, Stahl et al., 2001; Ehri, Nunes, Willows et al. 2001; Hatcher et al., 1994, 2006), and when instruction includes exercises to teach the application of PA in reading (words and connected text) and writing tasks (Cunningham, 1990; Hatcher et al., 1994, 2006)” (Griffiths & Stuart, 2013, p.99).

“ … evidence from a recent intervention study with children identified as having weak oral language skills at school entry showed that an intervention involving daily phonemic awareness and letter–sound training was effective in boosting early reading and spelling skills (Bowyer-Crane et al., 2008). These results, coupled with the results from the present meta-analyses, suggest that training letter–sound knowledge and early phonemic skills may be particularly valuable foundations for the teaching of early reading skills. It is also the case that training phonemic manipulation skills and training letter–sound knowledge may very naturally be done together in the early reading curriculum in schools. Our meta-analyses clearly show that children with dyslexia show a large deficit on phonemic awareness tasks, suggesting that such children will require direct instruction to target this area of difficulty in order to help them to learn to read. There is now evidence from several randomized trials showing that training in phonemic awareness in the context of high-quality phonically based reading instruction is effective in helping to ameliorate children’s word-level reading difficulties (Bowyer-Crane et al., 2008; Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994; Hatcher et al., 2006; National Institute for Literacy, 2008; Torgesen et al., 2001, 1999)” (Melby-Lervåg, Lyster, & Hulme, 2012, p.21).

“Consistent with prior research [9,11,12,14,45], this analysis demonstrated that severe reading and spelling difficulties can be ameliorated with appropriate treatment. The need for evidence-based interventions is obvious given the emotional and academic consequences for children with persistent reading disorders [6]. To increase the informative value of studies, research in this domain should improve its methodological quality. Studies were often excluded from this analysis because of the absence of randomized allocation concealment” (Galuschka, Ise, Krick, & Schulte-Körne, 2014, p.10).

As to who might require more intensive and extended assistance, Torgesen (1998) recommends an identification procedure involving administration of a test of knowledge of letter names or sounds and a measure of phonemic awareness. Students who do not do well on these tests are likely to struggle with reading unless additional support is provided. The National Reading Panel’s view was that this focus was so important that all students should have the opportunity to benefit from phonemic awareness activities in their first year of school. Those studies that provided activities for less than a half hour per day to a total of about 20 hours were likely to be effective and efficient.

The issue of when best to introduce phonemic awareness activities/instruction has also been investigated. Byrne, Fielding-Barnsley, and Ashley (2000) report that it is not only the attainment of phonemic awareness that is important in learning to read, but also its speed of acquisition. In a longitudinal study, they noted that poor readers in fifth grade were those who, though they eventually achieved reasonable levels of phonemic awareness, were slow to grasp it. These students tended to be those whose initial language and literacy levels were also low at school entry. Perhaps there is a window of opportunity when phonological processes can become a driving force for initial reading development. In the Griffiths and Stuart (2013) study, subsequent reading fluency improvement from phonologically based interventions was significantly better in younger students than in older students.

So, the indications are for programs to commence on school entry, following screening for pre-existing phonemic awareness and letter sound knowledge. In a Response to Intervention model, Tier 1 instruction would involve a well-designed, systematic and explicit program that integrates blending, segmenting and letter-sounds/letter names. Whether this is presented as whole class or in smaller groupings depends upon the results of the screening. There will be some children who continue to struggle even with this evidence-based regimen, and small group and individual instruction of greater intensity and longer duration is likely (Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions):

“This finding is also consistent with the response to intervention research, which has reported that vocabulary skills and home environment factors such as poverty and parental education are among variables that play a role in children's ability tolearn, even from well-implemented interventions (Al Otaiba & Fuchs, 2002; Torgesen, 2000; Torgesen et al., 1999). Lonigan (2003) has also reported that preschoolers from low socioeconomic backgrounds who have significantly less well-developed phonological sensitivity generally experience significantly less growth in phonological skills even in the face of high quality preschool instruction” (Al Otaiba et al., 2008, p.308).

If reading development is not phonologically informed then students may adopt less viable strategies, such as guessing and memorisation of shapes. If that occurs, phonemic awareness may subsequently develop, but will not necessarily be employed by the student whose alternative, less effective, strategies have become entrenched. Perhaps this is the reason why it can take four times as much intervention to improve a child's reading skills if help is delayed until the fourth grade than if it is begun in the first year of school (Hall & Moats, 1999).

The role of oral reading fluency in promoting reading comprehension was brought to the attention of many because of its status in the report of the National Reading Panel (2000). Less well known is an increasing interest in promoting fluency across a range of basic skill areas (Binder, Haughton, & Bateman, 2002; Lindsley, 1996). Binder et al. suggest that while mastery is important, real expertise in phonemic awareness skills is not present until students can effortlessly and quickly perform the tasks. Thus, they suggest teachers should aim to have students able to blend sounds to form words at a minimum of 10 per minute, segment words into sounds by moving coloured blocks to indicate the sounds at a rate of at least 40 per minute, and construct new words through substituting one phoneme for another at a minimum rate of 15 per minute. This suggestion certainly offers another dimension for teachers wishing to ensure all their students develop a strong phonological basis for literacy.

How is the teaching to be organised?

Of course, a classroom emphasis on phonological processes assumes that teachers already have the necessary deep understanding of phonemic awareness required to teach it effectively. This assumption may not be warranted, as research has indicated that many teachers do not themselves have a solid foundation in their own phonemic awareness, and few have received the level of training that produces the supra-skill level important in awakening children's fine-grained sensitivity to the sound structure of words (Lindamood, 1994; Mather, Bos, & Babur, 2001; Moats, 1994). For example, in one study (Mather et al.) only 2% of teachers-in-training and 19% of working teachers knew that the word box is constructed from four speech sounds.

“Research has consistently demonstrated the importance of a well-prepared teacher to profoundly influence student reading achievement (Darling-Hammond, 2004, 2006; Rowan, Correnti, & Miller, 2002; Sanders & Horn, 1994). Therefore, training highly effective and competent reading teachers is of utmost importance. Currently, almost 50% of all public school teachers in the United States are inexperienced, novice teachers (National Education Association, 2003), with limited knowledge and expertise regarding topics such as phonics and word study (Mather, Bos, & Babur, 2001), thus entering the profession with knowledge limitations about how to provide effective evidence-based literacy instruction. Furthermore, beginning teachers are teaching a more diverse group of students than ever before and are likely at some point in their careers to spend time teaching in high-poverty and lowachieving schools (Valencia, Place, Martin, & Grossman, 2006). Professional teaching is a field plagued with unrelenting public criticism regarding its effectiveness (Walsh, Glaser, & Dunne-Wilcox, 2006;Wold, Young, & Risko, 2011), is pressured by federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind and more recently the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI, 2010), and divided by a history about how teachers should teach young children to read (Pearson, 2004). As a consequence, educating highly proficient reading teachers is an increasingly challenging and complex endeavour” (Clark, Jones, Reutzel, & Andreasen, 2013, p.87).

“Similarly, teachers in Australia demonstrated a poor knowledge of the role of metalinguistics in the process of learning to read (Fielding-Barnsley & Purdie, 2005). Further, even though there were some differences in the patterns of understanding between the two populations, teacher candidates from both the United States and England demonstrated an insufficient understanding of English phonology, phonics, and morphology needed to effectively teach early reading skills (Binks, Joshi, & Washburn, 2009). Furthermore, Washburn, Joshi, and Binks-Cantrell (2011a, 2011b) found that a majority of teacher candidates and inservice teachers reported misconceptions about dyslexia in conjunction with weak explicit knowledge about phonology, phonetics, and morphology” (Binks-Cantrell, Washburn, Joshi, & Hougen, 2012, p.527-8).

Additionally, it is not easy for adults to ignore entrenched spelling patterns when confronted with phonemic tasks (Labov, 2003). The consequence can be attempting to teach students one method for completing phonological tasks while making use of a different strategy oneself. Confusion is highly likely. Students whose teacher themselves have phonological deficiencies display lower levels of reading skills as a consequence (Lindamood, 1994). In many teacher-training facilities, pre-service instruction in these areas is not among the priorities in developing a teacher education curriculum on literacy. Hence, many teachers are likely to need retraining if the results of phonological process research into beginning reading are to be put into practice successfully.

It is not only knowledge of content that is important for teachers in combatting the vulnerability of at-risk students. There are also the methods-of-teaching variables, such as academic learning time:

“The purpose of this study was to examine the opportunities for academic responding during teacher-facilitated instruction for kindergarten students at-risk for reading difficulties during classroom, Tier I reading instruction. Our first aim was to document the amount of time individual students were academically responding during teacher-facilitated reading instruction. We found students at-risk for reading difficulties were academically responding to reading-related tasks for small amounts of time (approximately 3–4% of the instructional block). Even less time was spent academically responding by reading print (approximately 1% of the instructional block). These data suggest that, on average, students in our sample who were at-risk for reading difficulties spent the majority of their time in passive learning tasks (e.g., listening to the teacher or peers) and/or independent tasks without teacher assistance during Tier I instruction” (Wanzek, Roberts, & Al Otaiba, 2014, p.69).

So, where does that leave the significance of phonological processing in learning to read?

Differing perspectives: 

“A strong argument has been made for a causal relationship between reading and phoneme awareness” (Melby-Lervåg, 2012, p. 101)

“During the past four decades many explanations of reading disorders have been put forward … visual processing, auditory discrimination, cross-modal transfer, eye movements, serial memory, attention, association learning, or rule learning. Most of these were eventually rejected due to a lack of supportive evidence … In contrast, the phonological deficit hypothesis has clearly stood the test of time … ” (Tunmer, 2011, p. x).

“For most children, rudimentary partial awareness of phonological segments helps children grasp the alphabetic principle, and, in turn, experience with spellings gained in reading and writing strengthens and refines awareness (Ehri, 1992; Perfetti, Beck, Bell & Hughes, 1987). Instruction in letter-sound relations does not automatically promote phoneme awareness (Ball & Blachman, 1991). As discussed earlier, many children will achieve awareness only after instruction explicitly directs their attention to the internal structure of spoken words (Blachman, 2000; Brady, Fowler, Stone & Winbury, 1994; Byrne, 1998; Fowler, Conway Palumbo, Swainson & Gavalis, 2001; Seymour & Elder, 1986). Although phoneme awareness is probably most often acquired in the course of instruction in reading, it can also be fostered by language play outside the context of reading and writing, by games such as “I spy” (Mann, 1991)” Liberman & Fowler, 2004, p. 8-9).

“In conclusion, then, our contention is as follows: while it is possible to design and carry out a study which could provide unequivocal evidence that there is a causal link from competence in phonological awareness to success in reading and spelling acquisition, we do not think that such a study exists in the literature. We hope that this review will provide the stimulus for just such a study” (Castles & Coltheart, 2004, p.105).

“The results revealed no support for the theory that a preceding phonological awareness deficit caused the reading deficit in the risk children, since only a very small proportion of the risk children exhibited phonological awareness problems in kindergarten and only part of these children developed a reading deficit” (Blomert & Willems, 2010, p.312).

“Our results suggest that phonological awareness as measured by widely used tests is not as important for early literacy learning as many researchers and educators believe (e.g., Adams, 1990; Ehri et al., 2001; Lundberg, 1991). … Current phonological awareness tests, it appears, demand more phonological skills than certain aspects of literacy learning do. … We think that children need some phonological skills to learn about the sounds that letters represent and to learn how to combine letters to read and spell words. Like several other researchers (Castles & Coltheart, 2004; Snowling & Hulme, 1994), though, we conclude that phonological awareness as currently assessed is not a good measure of the phonological skills that are needed to learn to learn about letters and reading” (Treiman, Pennington, Shriberg, & Boada, 2008, p.1336).

“There is now a large, complex, and sometimes seemingly contradictory literature on the associations between different phonological skills and learning to read. This meta-analytic review substantially clarifies the patterns in this literature. It appears that phonemic skills measured in children at the earliest stages of learning to read are closely related to the early growth in children’s word reading skills. We have argued that converging evidence from longitudinal and training studies suggests that this relationship may be a causal one, such that adequate phonemic skills may be one prerequisite for learning to read effectively. These effects seem to be essentially universal across the different alphabetic languages that have been studied. In contrast, the two other skills considered here (rime awareness and verbal short-term memory) are less closely correlated with individual differences in learning to read, and their relationships with reading seem to be explicable in terms of shared variance with phonemic skills. These findings have important applied implications” (Melby-Lervåg, Lyster, & Hulme, 2012, p.21).

“Individual differences in phonological awareness are closely related, concurrently and longitudinally, to variations in reading achievement (e.g., Lonigan, Burgess, & Anthony, 2000; Muter, Hulme, Snowling, & Stevenson, 2004; Wagner et al., 1997). Evidence supporting a causal role of phonological awareness in reading development comes from studies showing that training phonological awareness improves reading (e.g., Lundberg, Frost, & Petersen, 1988; Schneider, Küspert, Roth, Visé, & Marx, 1997; but see also Castles & Coltheart, 2004; Hulme, Snowling, Caravolas, & Carroll, 2005)” (Duff & Hulme, 2012, p.505).

“Given that the story is incomplete, and given all of the independent evidence about phonological factors in literacy growth, they will, and ought to, continue to be an important focus in the broad research agenda to understand how all children learn to read and why some find it a more challenging assignment than others” (Byrne, 2011, p.191).

“The present study demonstrated that the training provided by phonics instruction, rather than learning to read per se, appeared sufficient to trigger excellent explicit sensitivity to phonemes across languages by the end of the first school year” (Duncan et al., 2013, p.415).

Finally, it is clear from the research that purely code-based interventions, as important as they are, do not constitute a complete reading program. The Big Five variables highlighted in the report of the National Reading Panel (2000) include fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension instruction. Instruction in these variables produces symbiotic effects – each skill enhancing the other. For example, vocabulary instruction and comprehension instruction have been found to increase phonemic awareness beyond that achieved solely by phonemic awareness training (Al Otaiba et al., 2008; Ouellette & Haley, 2013)

There are obstacles to the incorporation of evidence-based practices into mainstream education, as I’ve commented previously (http://nifdi.org/news/hempenstall-blog/387-first-blog-evidence-based-practice), and Seidenberg’s concerns are salient:

“Here I want to briefly examine some basic considerations, from the perspective of a scientist who studies how reading works, which suggest that how reading is taught is indeed a significant part of the literacy problem in the United States and other countries. There are three main points: (a) Contemporary reading science has had little impact on educational practice mainly because of a two-culture problem separating science and education; (b) This disconnection has been harmful. Current practices rest on outdated assumptions about reading and development that make learning to read harder than it needs to be, a sure way to leave many children behind; (c) Connecting the science to educational practice would be beneficial but is extremely difficult to achieve. The current environment limits the amount of collaborative work at the all-important translational interface. In the United States, the conflicting and often strongly entrenched interests of various stakeholders—educators, politicians, scientists, taxpayers, labor organizations, parent groups—make it hard to achieve meaningful change within the existing institutional structure of public education” (Seidenberg, 2013, p.340-1).

Confused? So, what’s the conclusion re phonology?

Encourage families to include word structure activities in their young children’s games, such as nursery rhymes, Sesame St, Playschool, I Spy, Pig Latin (junk becomes unkjay), Spoonerisms (letters or syllables are swapped, so "a well-boiled icicle" for "a well-oiled bicycle"), tongue twisters (Bill and Betty baked brown bread for Barbara's baby), palindromes (sentence reads similarly whether read left to right or v.v. - Do geese see God?), creating words with magnetic fridge letters. They can also encourage aspects of print awareness by showing how print differs from pictures (Robins, Treiman, Rosales, & Otake, 2012).

Whether these activities will have a measurable priming effect for children when they begin to address the literacy challenge is not yet solidly research-grounded. However, in the absence of a clear consensus and accepting that the activities are not harmful (and may be fun), it is a worthwhile enterprise.

In school, assess all students on arrival using a combination of phonemic awareness and letter-sounds/names fluency measures (and possibly include a naming speed task). Assume that those students who struggle with these tasks will require intensive intervention from the beginning. Adopt a Response to Intervention model to ensure these students are not left to languish. Plan for extended oversight and intervention for this cohort. While the debate on a causal role for phonemic awareness continues, assume there is such a relationship. Include phonemic awareness activities, initially on blending and segmenting - introducing letters at this time or before to assist integration of the skills. Explicitly tie phonemic awareness activities into your initial phonics program. For any students who struggle with blending and segmenting, first increase practice opportunities by increasing allocated time. If this is ineffective, consider introducing simpler phonological activities, such as rhyming and alliteration before returning to blending and segmenting. Maintain a regimen of continuous evaluation. Teach all relevant skills to fluency. Encourage parental participation with regular teacher-parent contact and shared programming to increase engaged literacy time. Provide additional training in content and method to those teachers in need. Anticipate initial teacher resistance, but develop an evidence-based culture in the school that values data. Expect that it will be a long, but worthwhile endeavour. Bear in mind, too, that phonology ain't everything. Due attention must also be paid to other important aspects of literacy, such as comprehension, reading fluency, and oral language, including vocabulary.


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Implementing Direct Instruction Successfully

When implemented fully, Direct Instruction (DI) is unparalleled in its ability to improve student performance and enhance students’ self-esteem. In order to implement DI effectively, much more is required than simply purchasing instructional materials. The following two-part tutorial guides administrators, teachers, and coaches through the key features of a successful DI implementation. Part I provides an overview of the steps schools need to take in preparation for a DI implementation before school starts, while Part II provides an overview of the steps schools need to take after school has started.

IMPORTANT: This tutorial is an intensive video series comprised of 18 segments, each followed by a series of questions. Users should allow approximately three hours to watch the videos and complete the questions. NIFDI recognizes the high demand for time placed on school officials and, for this reason, has structured the tutorial so users may stop at any time and later resume where they left off.

Enroll in the tutorial here

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New to Direct Instruction? Watch the Introduction to Direct Instruction Video Series before taking the online tutorial.

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