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Is there an educational role for phonological processes other than phonemic awareness?

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

My blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at


Education is frequently criticised for remaining insufficiently attentive to the results of scientific research into teaching and learning (Bair & Enomoto, 2013; Carnine, 1995, 2000; Cook et al., 2014; Hempenstall, 1996; National Research Council, 2002: Stanovich & Stanovich, 2003). A defence, raised by some in the profession, has been that it is not immediately evident how the results of experimental studies can be transposed successfully to the classroom, or indeed whether empirical research is even helpful (Fister & Kemp, 1993; Spencer, Detrich, & Slocum, 2012; Weaver, Patterson, Ellis, Zinke, Eastman, & Moustafa, 1997; Zemelman, Daniels, & Bizar, 1999). Besides, the argument continues, there are rarely definitive answers supplied in such research papers. Seemingly, for every study that points one way is another indicating the opposite. However, in recent decades, several high status committees were established in the literacy field by the National Research Council (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), and by the USA Congress (National Reading Panel, 2000). Recommendations were explicit, based upon a confluence of research findings. Systematically and explicitly teach children to break apart and manipulate the sounds in words (phonemic awareness). These sounds are represented by alphabet letters which can be blended together to form words (phonics). Practise what is learned by reading aloud with feedback (guided oral reading for fluency). Teach reading comprehension strategies (including vocabulary) to guide and improve reading comprehension. This was not an approach strongly evident during the previous period dominated by the Whole Language movement (Hempenstall, 1996; Lyon, 2005).


 Subsequent reviews produced similar findings. For example: USA: National Early Literacy Panel (2008) - Developing early literacy; Australia: Teaching reading: National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2005); Great Britain: Rose report Independent review of the teaching of early reading (2006); NZ: Literacy Learning Progressions (2007). Some other similarities include the assumptions: All children can learn - neither biology nor SES determines destiny; the effects of teaching vary from powerful to negligible depending on their features; low progress students are more dependent on effective teaching to achieve benchmarks than are other students; and early detection and intervention is possible, morally imperative, and cheaper.

Partly driven by the impact of unsatisfactory results arising from state and national testing, parent pressure has provoked governments to seek accountability from the education profession for these student outcomes. The resultant reports have had a dramatic, if controversial, effect on the direction of literacy instruction.

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