Is there an educational role for phonological processes other than phonemic awareness?
Published: Thursday, 23 March 2017 21:57
Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.
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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.
One highlighted area is phonemic awareness – sensitivity to the sound structure of the words we use in speech (Hempenstall, 1997). Its significance as a predictor of reading success and as a possibly causal element in reading development has been recognised in the empirical literature for some time (Adams, 1990; Badian, 1993; Cornwall, 1992; Crowder & Wagner, 1992; Felton & Brown, 1990; Torgesen, 1993; Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994; Wagner & Torgesen, 1987, Wagner, Torgesen, Laughon, Simmons, & Rashotte, 1993; Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1994). Marilyn Adams, arguably the most influential researcher over the past thirty years, wrote “To my mind, the discovery and documentation of the importance of phonemic awareness ... is the single most powerful advance in the science and pedagogy of reading this century” (Adams, 1991, p. 392). Whether phonemic awareness is a direct influence on reading, or indirectly so in its role as aiding phonics instruction, or indeed a consequence of learning to read - remains a question yet to be entirely resolved.
“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).
“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).
“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).
The phonological basis of our spoken language enables the production and recognition of an enormous number of words through a process of the combination of a few meaningless segments known as consonants and vowels (Liberman, 1997). Similarly, the alphabetic nature of our written language provides a staggering generativity - from a relatively small number of symbols can be produced an extraordinary number of words. This efficiency is only possible because of the language’s phonological underpinnings, and it must be appreciated by every successful beginning reader. Phonemic awareness is a fundamental component of the reader’s comprehension of the alphabetic principle.
The past 20 years have seen a plethora of articles, books and curricula designed to assist teachers to implement the practices emanating from the empirical research on phonemic awareness. However, the impact at the classroom level only gradually became widespread following the strong support in the Report of the National Reading Panel (2000) and the equally strong recommendation in the No Child Left Behind Act, 2001 (US Department of Education, 2002). In Britain, the National Literacy Strategy (1998) first mandated phonemic awareness (and phonics) instruction to all primary schools as a crucial element in reading instruction, and subsequently this support became stronger (Rose, 2006). In Australia, similar findings were announced in the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2005).
So, phonemic awareness has become mainstream. Indeed, a Google web search in 2004 produced more than 47,000 hits. In 2017, that figure has increased to around 2.4 million hits.
However, there are also other phonological processes – what are educators to make of them?
Phonemic awareness is only one member of a class of phonological processing skills, important in learning to read, that involve the sound-structure of oral language. A second skill implicated in reading progress is speed of lexical retrieval, also known as phonological recoding in lexical access, and less formally, as naming speed. It is usually assessed through tasks that measure the speed with which one can name familiar stimuli, such as colours, letters, numbers or objects grouped together - usually on paper. The task is not one of knowledge assessment – the individual must be able to name the stimuli already. It is a speed test, and is theoretically relevant to reading because it indicates how readily children can gain access to their stores of sounds, sound-sequences, and word meanings (Bowers & Swanson, 1991; Cornwall, 1992; Davis & Spring, 1990). Initial interest was sparked by studies employing the Rapid Automatized Naming test (Denckla & Rudel, 1974, 1976). They noted a correlation between the extent and stability of any naming deficit and the degree of a reading disability. They had discovered a relationship that had the potential to increase knowledge of the fundamentals of the reading process.
Only in the past 20 years has the seminal research of Denckla and Rudel provoke the degree of interest among the educational fraternity that the phonemic awareness research had done - perhaps because it was not clear what the implications might be for the classroom intervention. That deficits in the area of naming speed might present a separate obstacle to reading progress (beyond that resulting from phonological insensitivity) is based partly upon the similarity between the processes involved in the naming tasks and those involved in reading. Both naming speed and sight word reading depend on automatic, rapid symbol retrieval, and Wolf (1991) and Wolf and Bowers (1999) have established a connection between naming speed for letters/numbers and fluent word recognition. Thus, here is a link of apparent significance.
What is involved in speed of naming?
Wolf et al. (2000) consider naming speed to be the culmination of basic perceptual, attentional, articulatory, and lexical-retrieval processes integrated with sophisticated cognitive and linguistic processes. They consider basic processing speed to be a central influence on the efficiency of each of these lower and higher order processes. When reading, one must employ these basic processes to convert print into one of two forms. The first entails a phonological representation constructed through reading-out-loud or through sub-vocalization. The decoding process allows appropriate selection of the word's meaning through access to the phonologically coded lexicon, the brain’s store of meanings that has been developed initially through oral language experience.
In the second option, a visual representation of the printed word enables direct access to the lexicon. This faster system represents the most common strategy employed by skilled readers, but is developed only if the earlier phonologically-based system has been practised sufficiently to enable routine automatic recognition of most words (Adams, 1990). An analogy might be the difference in the recognition speed of a rare stamp among a page of mundane stamps by a novice and an experienced philatelist. The novice must laboriously pore over the stamps, systematically absorbing each feature before accepting or rejecting it. To the expert, the rare stamp appears to leap into visual prominence as the discrimination process proceeds without conscious attention or effort. The critical question involves how a student attains this orthographic stage, and the role of the phonological decoding stage in its attainment (Compton, 2002).
A further option is that both phonological and lexical processing occurs simultaneously in skilled reading, a concept known as PDP (parallel distributed processing):
“According to this model, word reading occurs in three steps: (i) phonological recoding, (ii) visual perception and (iii) semantic representation from the mental lexicon (54). Early in the reading acquisition process, the young reader relies more heavily on the ability to translate letters into corresponding sounds (phonological recoding) and to a lesser extent on the direct orthographic route to derive a meaningful representation of a given word. With practice, the young reader develops a wider lexicon consisting of a ‘bank’ of words that are recognised holistically via the orthographic processor, with phonological recoding reserved for unfamiliar, low frequency or more complicated words. Words that cannot be recoded must be learned via the semantic route (sight words). Thus, the decoding process becomes more automatic (fluent) and accurate, with fewer errors (55). … Neuroimaging support for the PDP model is increasing, illustrating synchronous activation of brain regions related to phonology, orthography and semantics during reading.” (Horowitz-Kraus, & Hutton, 2015, p. 648-9).
It is common in the earliest stages of reading for a student to be partially reliant upon a non-alphabetic visual strategy to identify words. Thus dog may be remembered because of its “tail”, and look by virtue of its “eyes”. However, the student needs to find a unique visual cue for each new word - a strategy doomed to failure as the vocabulary requirements become overwhelming, particularly later in primary school (Freebody & Byrne, 1988; Tunmer & Hoover, 1993). This primitive visual-dominant strategy does not take advantage of the alphabetic principle, and should not be confused with the sophisticated orthographic processing mentioned above. Unfortunately, the teaching technique of basing instruction largely on word frequency rather than word construction (as in initially emphasising memorisation of the 100/200 most common words) may inadvertently promote this moribund strategy (Gaskins, Ehri, Cress, O’Hara, & Donnelly, 1996), especially among struggling students. Another symptom of such processing can be observed when a student correctly reads a word in singular form, but is nonplussed when confronted by its plural. The use of such strategies is associated not only with difficulties in reading, but also with negative reading-related self-perceptions, as early as in Year 1 (Chapman & Tunmer, 2003).
Beginning readers are better served by the sounding-out option rather than by neglecting it in the erroneous anticipation of better progress through attention to alternative (contextual) cues or through a visual memorisation strategy (Compton, 2002; Hempenstall, 2002a; National Reading Panel, 2000). The strategy does require that strong letter-sound associations have been formed, and can be rapidly and effortlessly recalled. Students with slow naming speed may also be slow in identifying the sound of each letter in a written word. If so, they may be unable to maintain the sounds sufficiently long for blending into a known word to occur, and for the consequent gradual establishment of orthographic representations. Without such formation, subsequent reading fluency will be drastically compromised, as thereby will be comprehension (Bowers, Sunseth, & Golden, 1999; Manis, Doi, & Bhadha, 2000). Additionally, their comprehension of that which they have read may be compromised by the extended time taken to complete the sentence.
“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). ” (p.180). … Some have categorized rapid automatized naming as a phonological processing ability because it is hypothesized to require accessing of phonological codes (de Jong & van der Leij, 1999; Wagner & Torgesen, 1987; Wagner et al., 1993, 1999b). Wolf, Bowers, and Biddle (2001) argued that rapid automatized naming is too complex to be classified as a phonological processing ability” (p.182). … rapid automatized naming has been shown to account for more variance in text reading fluency (Cornwall, 1992; Young & Bowers, 1995) and reading comprehension (Sprugevica & Hoien, 2004) than has phonological awareness, whereas phonological awareness has been found to account for more variance in word reading than has rapid automatized naming (Wagner et al., 1997)” (Nelson, Lindstrom, Lindstrom, & Denis, 2012, p.192).
There has been some debate about the relationship between phonemic awareness and naming speed. Whereas, Wagner and Torgesen (1987) considered them both a reflection of a unitary phonological process, other research has suggested that each of phonemic awareness and naming speed contributed uniquely to reading development (Badian, 1993; Blachman, 1984; Bowers, 1995; Cornwall, 1992; Felton & Brown, 1990; McBride-Chang & Manis, 1996; Manis et al., 2000; Wolf, Bowers, & Biddle, 2000).
Studies by Torgesen, Wagner and colleagues (Torgesen et al., 1994; Wagner et al., 1993; Wagner et al., 1994) employed multiple measures across a range of phonological processing tasks in their longitudinal and cross-sectional studies. Multiple measures of each construct allow latent variables (representing the common variance among the measures) that are purer, through reduced task specific variance and error variance. Their confirmatory factor analysis revealed five distinct but correlated phonological processing abilities. There were two components of phonemic awareness (phonological analysis and phonological synthesis), phonetic recoding in working memory, and two components of phonological recoding in lexical access.
The two barely correlated abilities comprising phonological recoding in lexical access arose from the type of naming speed tasks employed. The ability involved depended upon whether the presentation was in a serial-trial format or isolated-trial format, that is, whether response-time was to digits (or letters) flashed serially onto a screen, or the time required to name each of a group of digits (or letters) presented together on a card.
The relative significance of the two abilities remains unclear; however, their overall results are consistent with other findings highlighting, at the least, a predictive capacity of naming speed tasks for later reading ability (Al Otaiba, 2001; Bowers, 1995; Bowers & Swanson, 1991; Catts, 1991; Cornwall, 1992; Davis & Spring, 1990; Felton, 1992; Speece, Mills, Ritchey, & Hillman, 2003; Tunmer & Hoover, 1993). For example, the Bowers (1995) study reported that naming speed displayed a strong predictive relationship with reading, and thus could become a useful component of an early identification screening battery. Speece et al. demonstrated how a letter-fluency task in kindergarten was able to reduce the number of false positive cases of predicted problems that occur when solely phonemic awareness screening was performed. Al Otaiba (2001) found that slow letter naming and poor phonological memory were each child characteristics predictive of unresponsiveness to intervention, and hence useful elements in determining the level of support needed by different students at a very early stage of their education.
Given the now well-recognised importance of catching children before they fall (Torgesen, 1998), efforts to predict future membership of the cohort of low progress readers before they have experienced failure has become a major area of investigation. Any variable that can assist in prediction is worthy of further investigation. The identification of those students at greatest risk during their first school year would enable existing and future high quality interventions to be appropriately and accurately targeted, conceivably enabling three out of four of the currently failing 20-30% of students to achieve reading success (Australian Government House of Representatives Enquiry, 1993; Lyon, 2000, cited in Landauer, 2000; Marks & Ainley, 1997).
The interest in naming speed was further piqued through suggestions that it may have causal as well as predictive implications, just as phonemic awareness has been thought to do. Wimmer, Mayringer, and Landerl (2000) found that early slowness in naming was related to subsequently under-developed reading fluency. A further study (Wimmer & Mayringer, 2002) noted that slow naming speed alone (assessed at the commencement of schooling) was associated with subsequent dysfluency in reading, though not with spelling problems. They also noted that students’ spelling weakness followed simultaneous deficits in more than one phonological process. However, these studies did not employ a design capable of demonstrating a causal link.
“Taken together, these findings suggest that what is unique to RAN [rapid autonomic naming] is more important for the prediction of reading fluency than what it shares with either speed of processing, phonological processing, or orthographic processing.” (Georgiou, Parrila, & Papadopoulos, 2016, p.868).
The suggestion of cumulative effects on reading, resulting from phonological weaknesses, has been investigated by Bowers and Wolf (Bowers & Wolf, 1993a; Wolf & Bowers, 1999). They proposed a Double-Deficit hypothesis to account for a role of naming speed deficits, either solely or in concert with phonemic awareness, in hindering reading progress. They consider that these two phonological processes (naming and awareness) are independent, and propose that the two may be responsible for discernibly different symptoms. Some students have difficulty only in phonemic awareness, some only in naming-speed, whereas a third group may display a double-deficit. This third group is considered to comprise the most instructionally resistant students (Wolf et al., 2000), because they are left with fewer compensatory resources than the former groups. In the study by Stage, Abbott, Jenkins, and Berninger (2003) this prediction was clearly supported. All three groups are likely to display comprehension deficits (Bowers & Wolf, 1993b). In Bowers’ (1995) study, the double-deficit group was the most impaired on reading fluency and accuracy in both word and nonsense word reading. A similar finding for second grade students was observed by Manis et al. (2000) and also in a large study by Lovett, Steinbach, and Frijters (2000). Additionally, written expression was identified by Lovett et al. as area of concern for the double-deficit group. However, when intensive phonologically-based instruction was implemented, even the Double Deficit students made progress commensurate with their less disabled single deficit peers. Without such carefully planned intervention, they tend to be the most severely disabled readers, and their difficulties are not relieved by maturation (Lovett et al., 2000; Wiig, Zureich, & Chan, 2000).
Wagner et al. (1997) reported that any influence of naming speed might be age-limited. They argued that rapid naming was a valuable contributor to reading up to about third grade, but not beyond. That finding could be due to the greater importance assigned to comprehension, rather than decoding, in assessed reading progress from about fourth grade. Lovett and Steinbach (1997) argued that phonological intervention should remain the intervention of choice at least up until sixth grade. Several studies (McCray, Vaughn, & Neal, 2001; Shankweiler, Lundquist, Dreyer, & Dickinson, 1996; Shaywitz et al., 1999) extended the influence of phonological processes through adolescence, while still others note that unresolved phonological deficits remain evident in adulthood, and should therefore remain an intervention focus (Greenberg, 1998; Greenberg, Ehri, & Perin, 1997). The relative contributions of naming speed and phonemic awareness to various aspects of reading was investigated by Pennington, Cardoso-Martins, Green, and Lefly (2001). They noted that the contribution of naming was significant, but moderate when compared with that of phonemic awareness. Further, the effect was mostly evident in relation to fluency; whereas, the effects of phonemic awareness were directed towards facility with decoding.
The question of a causal role for naming speed remains open, as the traditional means of establishing causality, through experimental rather than correlational studies, has not been definitively explored. Whether rapid naming capacity is directly amenable to treatment is unclear (Lovett et al., 2000). Though it is an intuitively attractive notion, simply because naming speed deficits appear to compromise reading progress does not necessarily imply that one can improve reading by, for example, providing lots of practice at naming various items quickly. Analogously, knowledge of letter names is highly predictive of future reading progress, yet an emphasis on solely teaching letter names (as opposed to letter sounds) to students at risk has not been shown to be of great benefit to the target students’ reading progress. Letter name knowledge is most likely only a marker, indicative of a range of helpful literacy experiences that a child with such letter name knowledge has already experienced. Learning letter names at school, while helpful, does not replicate all the additional experiences that may comprise the real determinants of a student’s progress. Additionally, a focus on "underlying process variables" (Blachman, 1994) in attempts to resolve reading difficulties has not been very fruitful in the past (Arter & Jenkins, 1979).
Some researchers have argued that rapid naming may not be amenable to intervention (Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994). Even in studies of successful phonologically based intervention, during which students with a double deficit make excellent progress in reading, naming speed may remain low (Miller & Felton, 2001). Others, however, have noted naming speed increases. In a small study involving both good and poor readers, teaching phonemic awareness skills effectively to all the third grade children simultaneously improved their naming ability (Rubin, Rotella, Schwartz, & Bernstein, 1991). Though this study has no direct implications for improved reading, it does support the view of Wagner, Torgesen and colleagues (Torgesen, 1998; Torgesen et al., 1994; Wagner et al., 1993; Wagner et al., 1994) that the five phonological processing variables are related. Some subsequent phonologically-based intervention studies have noted similar naming speed improvements (Hempenstall, 2002b), and this broader issue of obliquely addressing naming speed deficits is considered later. Of course, it is possible that there is a causal link between reading progress and naming speed, but that naming speed is a consequence of improved automaticity wrought by successful reading intervention.
Might there be a deeper, generalised extra-phonological cause that hinders phonological processes such as phonemic awareness and rapid naming? The subservience of several reading-related features, such as naming speed, to speed of general underlying processing is intuitively attractive in a reductionist sense. So, the search for an understanding of general processing speed has attracted interest from researchers (Tallal, 2000). For example, in describing the rationale for the program known as Fast ForWord (Scientific Learning Corporation, 1996), Tallal asserted that some children display difficulties in the processing of any rapidly changing sequential information. In this view, phonological problems are the outward manifestation of an underlying problem (temporal perception) that will also affect other processes, such as in the visual domain. To ameliorate this problem for reading-affected students, she employed acoustically modified (slowed) speech, believing that such speech signal manipulations will ultimately enable the brain to be reconfigured for more rapid processing. The intended outcome is that students will process temporal aspects of speech (such as sound order, gaps between sounds, speech rhythm) more effectively, thereby improving speech perception and language comprehension.
The approach is controversial and the results were at best equivocal. Breznitz and Share (2002) raise doubts about the replicability and interpretations made in the supportive research. In reviewing a number studies on Fast ForWard, Gillam, Frome Loeb, and Friel-Patti (2001) concluded that the reported language improvements for participants were similar to those noted in other more traditional language intervention programs. However, changes in temporal processing did not appear to be an outcome of the program’s intensive application. Further, in their longitudinal study, Share, Jorm, Maclean and Mathews (2002) found that any auditory temporal deficits noted among reading disabled students should not be assigned causal status, a view offered support in an investigation by Chiappe, Stringer, Siegel, and Stanovich (2002). In the Chiappe et al. study, reading-disabled adults did not differ in temporal processing from their normal-reading age peers. When compared with reading-level matched children, they displayed the typical phonological and pseudo-word reading deficits, yet were able to manage the timing tasks more successfully than the children. Finally, they noted that naming speed deficits were not the result of temporal processing deficits – the timing measures contributing nothing to the variance in rapid naming.
In more recent times, few studies found beneficial effects in reading development:
“Results: Meta-analyses indicated that there was no significant effect of Fast ForWord on any outcome measure in comparison to active or untreated control groups. Conclusions: There is no evidence from the analysis carried out that Fast ForWord is effective as a treatment for children’s oral language or reading difficulties” (Strong, Torgerson, Torgerson, & Hulme, 2010, p.224).
"Fast ForWord Language, the intervention that provided modified speech to address a hypothesized underlying auditory processing deficit, was not more effective at improving general language skills or temporal processing skills than a nonspecific comparison treatment (AE) or specific language intervention comparison treatments (CALI and ILI) that did not contain modified speech stimuli. These findings call into question the temporal processing hypothesis of language impairment and the hypothesized benefits of using acoustically modified speech to improve language skills. The finding that children in the 3 treatment conditions and the active comparison condition made clinically relevant gains on measures of language and temporal auditory processing informs our understanding of the variety of intervention activities that can facilitate development.” (Gillam et al., 2008, p.97)
Perhaps, the more appropriate quest may not involve attempts to directly or indirectly improve naming speed per se, but rather, to focus on instruction designed to improve the reading of children who have problems in rapidly accessing phonological information from their mental lexicon.
Another phonological processing variable: Working memory
Working memory is a short-term holding system that enables the storage and manipulation of small amounts of information needed to complete a task (Baddeley, 1995). Phonetic recoding in working memory has been described as a phonological ability. The beginning reader has to be able to decode a series of graphemes, and temporarily order them in a sound-based store in order to carry out the cognitively expensive task of blending. That capacity is also required to perform blending in a purely oral task. The efficiency with which the storage is performed optimises or diminishes the attentional capacity available for blending and subsequent word-pronunciation, word-comprehension, and sentence-comprehension tasks.
“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). (Nelson, Lindstrom, Lindstrom, & Denis, 2012, p. 180)
Gathercole, Willis, and Baddeley (1991) argue that the efficiency of the short-term phonological store is the major determinant of the ease or otherwise of retrieval of a sound sequence from long-term memory. Their study also replicated a previous finding (Gathercole & Baddeley, 1989) that phonological memory skills were significantly associated with vocabulary knowledge in reading. In related vein, the Wagner et al. (1994) longitudinal study found that the rate of development of phonological memory paralleled that of vocabulary development in the first three years of schooling. Thus, it appears to have wide-ranging and extended influence on development. Indeed, Shankweiler and his colleagues (Shankweiler et al., 1995) have proposed that phonological processing limitations can subvert higher order language abilities. As the executive element of working memory relays information through the cognitive system, any lower-order limitations can hinder the growth of syntactic abilities, vocabulary, phonological awareness, reading, and language comprehension.
Wagner and Torgesen (1987), in their review of research, argued that the major memory problem for poor readers is in the coding of items phonetically. For these researchers, the deficit is a specific auditory working memory problem not a general one (Smith-Spark, Fisk, Fawcett, & Nicolson, 2003). Whether encoding or retrieval is the issue, the view that phonetic recoding in working memory is an important element of early reading success has been strongly supported (Catts, 1991; Felton, 1992; Hurford et al., 1993; Lindamood, Bell, & Lindamood, 1992; Shapiro, Nix, & Foster, 1990; Shaywitz, 2003; Webster & Plante, 1992).
The studies of Wagner, Torgesen and colleagues (Wagner et al., 1993; Wagner et al., 1994; Torgesen et al., 1994) used digit span (oral and visual), sentence memory, and a distractor memory task to assess this ability. In contrast, Gathercole et al. (1991) suggest that non-word repetition may be a purer measure of working memory, as it avoids the possibility of using lexical and semantic cues to assist recall. Indeed, the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1999) employs both in their composite working memory score.
As with phonological coding in lexical access (naming speed), it is not yet apparent how, if at all, weaknesses in this area might be addressed directly. Wagner and colleagues concluded that attempts to improve this skill through memory training or mnemonic strategies have not been fruitful, and are unlikely ever to be so. They raised the interesting possibility that phonetic recoding in working memory may improve in concert with general reading skill improvement. Their longitudinal study (Wagner et al., 1994) failed to find such a trend, although some intervention studies (Bowey, 1996; Hempenstall, 2002b) noted such an outcome. Wagner et al. reported that the rates of development across the phonological processing abilities were somewhat uneven over the first three years of schooling, phonological memory being the slowest of them. There was considerable stability across all the variables over the three years - lending support to the view that the phonological processes are causal to beginning reading, and not ephemeral individual differences soon submerged under the effects of schooling. This is not to argue that reading itself plays no role in enhancing phonological processing - only that it is not a unidirectional role (Wagner et al., 1993).
The other two phonological abilities (those most strongly related to later reading skill) can be considered as special cases of phonemic awareness. They are phonological analysis (or segmentation), and phonological synthesis (or blending). In an explicit phonics approach, the processes of blending (What word do these sounds make when we put them together mmm-aaa-nnn?”), and segmenting (“Sound out this word for me”) are directly taught. It is of little value knowing what are the building blocks of our language’s structure if one does not know how to put those blocks together appropriately to allow the commencement of written communication, or know how to separate the blocks to enable decoding of a letter grouping.
“Phonemic awareness can also be categorised on the basis of how it is being used. Specifically, explicit awareness at the level of the phoneme includes both analytic and synthetic skills (Morais, 1991; Perfetti, Beck, Bell & Hughes, 1987). Analytic skills include phoneme segmentation or the ability to break a word down into constituent sounds. Phoneme synthesis refers to blending or combining sounds together to make a larger segment such as a syllable or word. Importantly, these different phonemic awareness skills may play different causal roles in learning to read (Perfetti et al., 1987; Wagner, Torgesen & Rashotte, 1994). Yet, these skills are seldom considered separately in studies examining the emergence of phonemic awareness, often due to statistical modelling that suggests they load on a unified phonological awareness or processing latent variable (Anthony & Lonigan, 2004; Lonigan et al., 2009; but see Wagner et al., 1994, 1997). It is important to note that, even within such a unified conceptualisation, analytic and synthetic skills are seen to develop along different trajectories, with blending skills developing before segmenting (Anthony et al., 2003; Lonigan et al., 2009)” (Ouellette & Haley, 2013, p.30).
Thus, there is evidence (Torgesen et al., 1992; Yopp, 1992) that synthesis develops earlier than analytic skills. Solomons (1992) and Caravolas and Bruck (1993) consider segmentation quite difficult for children younger than 5 or 6 years, and Bryen and Gerber (1987) suggest that only by age 6 years can 70% of children succeed in phonemic segmentation tasks. Certainly in the Torgesen et al. comparison of two phonemic awareness training programs, blending skills (What word is this: /k/ /a/ /t/?) were more readily taught to first year students than were segmentation skills (Which of these three words begins the same as cat?). Their intervention study highlighted the need to teach both skills given that promotion of decoding is the objective. A further feature of most successful reading programs is their emphasis on directly teaching both blending and segmenting skills within the context of letters (Gustafson, Samuelsson, & Ronnberg, 2000; Spector, 1995). The importance of segmenting and blending as a major instructional focus is made clear in the Ehri et al. (2001) summary of the National Reading Panel’s reading research meta-analysis. Similar findings emanate from the Scottish Clackmannanshire study (Johnston, McGeown, & Watson, 2012; Watson & Johnston, 1998). The Dixon, Stuart, and Masterson (2002) study noted that the capacity to develop detailed orthographic representations (a hallmark of skilled reading) was strongly dependent on students’ first developing strong segmentation skills.
“In learning to read, two main processes are described: phonological recoding and word recognition. Phonological recoding enables activation of phonological representations of orally known words from effortful sequential grapheme-phoneme conversion. When written words are familiar, phonological recoding is replaced by the process of word recognition, which is usually described as a rapid and automatic activation of orthographic lexical representations from the parallel processing of letters. Numerous studies with expert readers have provided evidence that the phonological code continues to play a role during word recognition. In contrast, the nature of this phonological activation is different: it is rapid and automatic (Ferrand & Grainger, 1992, 1993; Lukatela, Frost, & Turvey, 1998). An interesting question arises when children read familiar written words; do they activate the phonological code rapidly and automatically during the word recognition process like in expert reading? … Our results do not support this proposition and suggest that the slow and serial phonological recoding is rapidly replaced by an automatic phonological process that enables the rapid and automatic activation of sublexical phonological representations from letters. In contrast, the automatic orthographic process, enabling access to the orthographic lexicon, seems to develop more slowly and to become effective later.” (Sauval, Perre, & Casalis, 2017, p.52, 61).
Perfetti (1991, 1992), supported by Elbro (1996), has argued that low scores on tests of phonological processing reflect problems with the clarity of the representation of spoken words in the reader’s lexicon. This has become known as the phonological distinctness model. When representations of words are unstable (or stable but ill-defined), matching a stimulus word with the correct phonemically stored counterpart is likely to be a slow and error prone process as the child rejects competing phonemically similar, but semantically nonsensical, responses. In normal circumstances, children’s accumulating experience with words leads the representations to become increasingly segmented – finer grained. Initially, the words are stored as undetailed, single-unit representations requiring storage space for each. Experience enables a more economical storage in which words sharing the same sound part can be partly assembled from the shared re-usable components. Gradually, the child becomes more analytic, refining the phonological representation from that of whole words to intra-word parts, such as syllables and eventually, phonemes. A slightly different interpretation of the effect is described by Metsala and Walley (1998) within the lexical restructuring model, although the differences may not have instructional consequences.
These phonological representations of the written word are acquired through phonemic mappings to letters but some degree of awareness that words are constructed of manipulable, meaningless speech segments needs to be present or quickly acquired. If the level of awareness remains shallow and does not penetrate down to the smallest segment (the phoneme), then the representations will not be precisely delineated.
Liberman (1997) argued for the presence of a specialised phonological module in which the clarity of phonological representations determines a child's ability to comprehend and apply the alphabetic principle. In Liberman’s view, an unconscious phonetic module acts upon articulatory gestures rather than upon acoustics. In this perspective, it is the articulatory feedback from the formation and production of sounds, rather than a sensitivity to the sonic value of the sounds themselves that builds links between words and their constituent phonemes. An alternative explanation - that poor performance on phonological tasks is caused by inadequate auditory discrimination of speech sounds has not received strong research support (Cornelissen, Hansen, Bradley, & Stein, 1996; Gibbs, 1996).
If these phonological representations, whether purely sounds-based or kinaesthetic, are imprecise then tasks such as phonological recoding in lexical access and phonological recoding in working memory may also present problems for such students, and there is ample evidence that they do (Gang & Siegel, 2002; Rubin et al., 1991). For example, if the phonological representation of "dog" is poorly encoded or unreliable then the association between the spoken name of the animal and its meaning will be vague. A picture of a dog may quickly evoke its meaning but the phonologically assembled label is slowed because other similar labels (e.g., god, dock, bog) may need to be rejected. Scrolling through a range of possibilities requires more time than accessing a clear uniquely described form, and hence task performance will be slower than for a student with a clear phonological representation.
There remains debate whether the fundamental problem resides in the inaccurate initial encoding of speech or whether the phonological representations for words stored in the lexicon lack adequate aural resolution (Brady, 1997). The use of modern brain imaging techniques helps shed some light upon conflicting foci upon a metalinguistic deficit and its relationship to the phonological module proposed by Liberman (1997) as opposed to a temporal processing deficit in the auditory system, such as that emphasised by Tallal and colleagues (Tallal et al., 1996). Studdert-Kennedy and Mody (1995) and Studdert-Kennedy (2002) argued that the phonological representation explanation better accounts for observed problems than does Tallal’s temporal processing deficits. They consider that for the disabled reader, it is not the temporal order of the tonal stimuli that presents the difficulty, but rather a problem in discriminating between highly similar auditory stimuli. See Eden and Moats (2002) for an early review of this topical area.
However, more recent studies have failed to find beneficial effects of the intervention (Fast ForWord) based upon the temporal deficit model:
“Metaanalyses indicated that there was no significant effect of Fast ForWord on any outcome measure in comparison to active or untreated control groups. Conclusions: There is no evidence from the analysis carried out that Fast ForWord is effective as a treatment for children’s oral language or reading difficulties” (Strong, Torgerson, Torgerson, & Hulme, 2010, p.224).
“Phonological representations are the sound-based codes stored in the lexicon for each word (Anthony et al., 2010; Gillon, 2002). It is generally accepted that phonological representations are initially a holistic articulatory gesture associated with the meaning of a word (Maillart et al., 2004; Snowling and Hulme, 1994). The lexical restructuring (Metsala & Walley, 1998) and segmentation (Fowler, 1991) hypotheses suggest that with the rapid increase in vocabulary during the pre-school years, more finely grained phonological representations are developed and stored. As vocabulary continues to develop, so phonological representations become more specific, with lexical items segmented into increasingly smaller units. Precise, well-defined phonological representations are important for distinguishing between similar sounding lexical items, retrieving words and performing phonological awareness tasks (Fowler, 1991). It has been suggested that it may be more difficult to segment and manipulate low quality phonological representations (Elbro et al., 1998). Phonological representations are of interest to both clinicians and researchers alike, as there is evidence to suggest that the establishment of precise and well-defined phonological representations is vital for achieving language competence and later for literacy acquisition (Bishop and Snowling, 2004).” (Claessen & Leitão, 2012, p. 212-214)
Tasks involving short term auditory memory may be difficult for some because the orally presented stimuli are not effortlessly and instantly encoded as unique phonological forms, or alternatively because of deficits in phonological rehearsal capacity (Gang & Siegel, 2002). The process of storage and retrieval is then inefficient, reflected in lower performance. Not every test may be equally able to detect this quality. In digit span forward tests, continuous oral or silent rehearsal may partly compensate for a memory deficit. In a digit span reversed test, this strategy is unavailable and this test format may better reflect the deleterious effects of phonologically inadequate representations. Lindamood (1994) described "comparator function" as a critical variable in reading skill, one in which (for example, in blending) a stimulus or sequence must be retained in working memory whilst part of it is manipulated. Phoneme deletion (one of the most complex of phonological awareness tasks) also requires just this capacity, at least in non-spellers. Those adept at spelling are able to bypass the phonological demands by first visualising the letters and then mentally subtracting a letter or letter grouping. Another form of assessment requires the repetition of orally presented pseudowords. Such tests either have increasing numbers of syllables, for example, burloogugendaplo (Wagner et al., 1999), or increasing numbers of single syllable pseudowords presented in a stream (Gathercole & Adams, 1993).
Ehri (1994) suggests that when alphabetic readers practise reading specific words by phonologically recoding the words, they form access routes for those words into memory. Readers gradually build these access routes by using their knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences to amalgamate letters-in-spellings to phonemes-in-pronunciations of the words. The letters are processed as visual symbols for the phonemes and the sequence of letters is retained in memory as an alphabetic, phonological representation of the word. Empirical support for this view can be found in the Dixon et al. (2002) study in which phoneme segmentation ability was strongly associated with the construction of accurate orthographic representations. Shaywitz (2003) employs the term neural model to describe the inner representation. Neural models may correspond with printed words to a greater or lesser extent; however, after students have read the word accurately a number of times, their neural model forms an exact correspondence with the printed word.
The relatively effortless, automatic, rapid response to text that is the hallmark of skilled reading requires an orthographic lexicon at once comprehensive, and instantly and accurately accessible. Perfetti (1991, 1992) also argued that the development of the orthographic lexicon in reading has its basis in phonological representations, rather than in a visual store of whole words. If one accepts this view, establishing and cementing the connections between word spellings and these phonological representations become crucial instructional elements in orthographic knowledge development.
It is therefore unsurprising that spelling has sometimes been used as a proxy for the quality of phonological representations (Perfetti, 1992). Lindamood (1994) also noted that children who have difficulty in appreciating the sound structure of words tend to be poor spellers. Landerl, Frith, and Wimmer (1996) noted that, in normal readers, coactivation of orthographic knowledge occurs in phonological tasks (that is, knowledge of a word’s spelling is used to make judgements about the sounds in a word), whereas for disabled readers this coactivation is much less evident. They argue that there is only a weak link between the phonological and orthographic representations in reading-disabled students such that hearing a word does not evoke its spelling, and seeing a word fails to bring forth its sound segments. An inability to establish such reliable links has dire consequences for skilled reading and spelling, and may be due to the imprecision with which sounds are encoded in the phonological representation store.
Elbro et al. (1994) suggest that inadequate phonological representations impede the development of sophisticated phonemic awareness and further that it is at the individual phoneme level that this failure of differentiation may occur. Perhaps the most refractory to phonemic awareness training and to phonics instruction are those to whom Elbro et al. refer. If that is so, some argue, then specialised and intensive phoneme awareness instruction may be beneficial. For example, in the Lindamood (1969) program considerable emphasis is devoted to kinaesthetic (in addition to auditory) cues to assist the recognition of and discrimination between phonemes. Hence, children are taught lip and tongue positions and how the breath is used - the purpose being to increase the salience of the sonic differentiation. This is a strategy offered theoretical support by Liberman (1997) through the emphasis on the role of articulatory gesture. There may be students who require such specialised intervention, although as yet there is doubt as to how to identify them. Parsimony suggests that, at least for students beyond beginner age, systematic, synthetic phonics programs should first be attempted (Wagner et al., 1999), with the caveat that close and continuous monitoring of progress occurs. In a large-scale study, a combination of alphabetic instruction combined with phonemic awareness training was more beneficial than either alone (Foorman et al., 2003).
Snowling, Goulandis, and Defty (1996) also argue that slowness in reading development of reading disabled students is due to delayed development of clear phonological representations at the beginning reading stage. Others (e.g., Bruck, 1990, 1992; Shankweiler et al., 1996) have noted that delay may be an inappropriate description, as untreated, such problems remain in evidence through to adulthood. In the self-teaching hypothesis described by Share (1995) and Share & Stanovich (1995), rapid, whole word reading (enabled through direct lexical access) develops through the effects of practice, benefits accumulating each time the phonological coding of words occurs. This sequence (of reliable phonological representations allowing phonological decoding, a skill further promoting direct lexical access) provides both an explanation and an intervention focus to overcome the limits placed on children’s reading development by problems at the level of phonology. This position finds significant support (Apel & Swank, 1999; Ehri, 1995, 1998; Gaskins et al., 1996; Williams, 1991). A study by Monaghan and Ellis (2002) adds weight to the crucial role of clear phonological representations. They noted that forging strong grapheme-phoneme linkages derives from multiple practice opportunities. Strong connections allow effortless translation of written words to meaningful language. The unclear representations hinder the development of these links leading to hesitancy and a failure to appreciate the alphabetic principle.
Recent neuroscience work has suggested an alternative to the classical representational clarity explanation:
“For most researchers in this area, the most parsimonious hypothesis is that dyslexics’ phonological representations are somewhat degraded (i.e., less precise, less well specified, less categorical, and/or noisier). … A new study (Boets et al., 2013) reports that activations of superior temporal regions for speech are normal in dyslexia, although being less well connected to downstream frontal regions. These findings support the hypothesis of a deficit in the access to phonological representations rather than in the representations themselves. … Of course, the most crucial finding, that of normal activations for phonological representations, is a null result and will need to be replicated”. (Ramus, 2014, p. 274-275)
In summary, the theory of phonological representation implies that phonological processes are dependent upon the clarity or accessibility of such representations. If phonological processes improve during an intervention program, is it because of better clarity of representations? Several studies have noted improvements in other phonological processes when phonemic awareness development approaches are adopted.
Lovett et al. (1994) noted improved phonological processing skills (both speech and print based) in reading disabled children following an intervention program adapted partly from Direct Instruction phonics programs. The improvements were noted in measures of blending, segmenting, reading and spelling. Foorman, Francis, Beeler, Winikates, and Fletcher (1997) reported a study that compared such a Direct Instruction model to both an incidental phonics method and a Whole Language approach. The students in the Direct Instruction group demonstrated significantly greater gains in word reading, phonological processing and spelling than did either of the other two groups.
Torgesen et al. (1994) studied 244 students from kindergarten through to the second grade, and noted that there were reciprocal effects between letter-sound knowledge and subsequent phonological development of their students. That is, the two areas were mutually supportive. The authors noted the effects of such knowledge were strongest on phonemic awareness, moderate on rapid naming and no discernible effects were observed for phonological memory.
The most common interpretation of such findings is that instructional emphasis on the structure of spoken words increases the quality or accessibility of phonological representations, and such change is represented in improved performance on the other phonological variables. If, as they relate to reading, naming and working memory are reflective of an underlying variable (representation), there may be little value in attempting to influence these two variables through direct training of them.
If these two phonological processes are simply marker variables for representation, their usefulness is not markedly diminished, as they are likely to play an important role in increasing the precision with which prediction of students at-risk can be achieved (Badian, 1994; Hurford, Schauf, Bunce, Blaich, & Moore, 1994). Already, combinations of tests emphasising phonological processes, given prior to reading instruction, have been at least moderately successful in predicting reading progress (Badian; Hurford et al.; Majsterek & Ellenwood, 1995; Scarborough, 1998; Spector, 1992; Stuart, 1995; Torgesen, 1998).
Phonological representations and short term auditory memory
When phoneme oddity is assessed with such tasks as in the Test of Phonological Awareness (TOPA) (Torgesen & Bryant, 1994), memory load is reduced through the provision of pictures to remind students of each of the four words presented. Nevertheless, in order to note which two words (in the end-sound-same subtest) or three words (end-sound-different subtest) share the same final phoneme they must be able to keep the representations active in working memory for sufficient time to note and compare the final phonemes. Hence, it seems likely that phonological working memory plays at least some part in successfully completing the TOPA, and additionally, in the tasks of sequencing and blending important in decoding unfamiliar words, or pseudo-words (Troia, Roth, & Yeni-Komshien, 1996). Swanson and Alexander (1997) in their study of learning disabled readers reported that working memory contributed only 4% to pseudo-word decoding.
Brady (1991) pondered whether there is a threshold phonological working memory capacity necessary for success at such tasks. For children who struggle with tasks requiring phonological awareness, blending, and sequencing, and who also perform poorly on short term memory tasks, the question remains as to the optimum foci for intervention. If it were true that phonological working memory underpins the other tasks, then it could be an intervention target in its own right. During the 1960’s and 1970’s the approach known as the ability training model espoused training memory (along with other presumed underlying processes such as visual perception and motor skills). Despite much research energy expended in this field, results were disappointing (Arter & Jenkins, 1979). Whilst performance on those specifically taught tasks did improve, there was little or no transfer to the reading task.
On the other hand, the literature is replete with examples in which training in phoneme awareness subsequently aided skills crucial for literacy. For example, Gillam and Van Kleeck (1996) reported a study in which pre-school aged children with speech and language disorders improved both in phonemic awareness and phonological working memory following a phonemic awareness training program. Further, they noted that children with poor initial phonological working memory were as responsive to the intervention as were those with better phonological working memory.
These findings provide support for the notion that a better understanding of the structure of words (perhaps producing improved representational clarity or access) has a positive impact across the range of phonological processes. It also suggests that students with an under-developed phonological working memory should not be precluded from participating in phonemic awareness programs or phonics-based instruction. There have been those who have argued for a whole word, visual recognition approach on the faulty assumption that students with limited short term auditory memory are unable to derive benefit from a sounds-based approach. A study by Gang and Siegel (2002) found that sound-symbol association training with primary school reading-disabled students led to improvements in reading and also in phonological memory, effects similarly evident in normally progressing readers. If one accepts the relatively small direct contribution of phonological recoding in working memory (Swanson & Alexander, 1997) towards developing word attack skills, compared with that of phonemic awareness (Bowey, 1996), then instructional emphasis on directly stimulating phonemic awareness, and thereby the clarity of phonological representation, may present a more productive target than attempting to address working memory directly.
How best and most efficiently to stimulate phonemic awareness in all students has been a major question. Some students have no difficulty at all - sometimes arriving at school with such skills already well developed through home-based activities and a ready proclivity. Some, without early experiences but with an ear, quickly discover the logic in spoken and (later) written word construction - whether the rationale is explained or not. Their attention to written word-parts can transfer to word-part exploration in oral language, and you may hear them playing word-construction games, such as Spoonerisms or Pig Latin. Others have their phonological awareness readily stimulated by even the minimal attention to word parts offered in implicit phonics reading programs. Still others have their phonemic awareness stimulated only by the more explicit and systematic phonemic awareness activities often included in synthetic phonics programs (National Reading Panel, 2000).
There are also those who argue that phonemic awareness is not, of itself, the important issue. Their assertion is that learning letter-sounds and the capacity to blend the sounds associated with those letters– embodies all the important phonological skills necessary to initiate successful decoding. “ … if training in phonological awareness is essential for young children learning to read, the analytic phonics programme with phonological awareness training should be more effective than the other two programmes [analytic phonics and synthetic phonics]” (Johnston and Watson, 2004). Within the approach developed for the Clackmannanshire studies, both blending and segmentation are taught simultaneously as the latter plays a strong role in spelling progress, and each of decoding and spelling provide reciprocal support to the other.
The longitudinal studies in Clackmannanshire have provided supporting evidence for this perspective - that synthetic phonics is a superior approach to phonics, and that, for most children, it stimulates phonemic awareness development without the need for a dedicated phonemic awareness program (Johnston & Watson, 2003; Johnston, McGeown, & Watson, 2012).
Note that the interaction of the teacher and curriculum become of increasing importance to student progress when the student’s contribution to phonemic awareness development is minimal. At the most extreme level are those students who do not bring phonemic awareness to the reading task, and who also appear resistant to developing such awareness even when provided with appropriately designed and presented phonics activities. It is those students for whom a dedicated phonemic awareness program, carefully structured and systematically presented, may be particularly beneficial as a precursor or concomitant to intensive and probably extended synthetics phonics teaching. Even then, it seems that to promote generalisation to the reading task, relating the sounds in spoken words to their letter correspondences is important (Foorman et al., 2003; Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994, 1995; Schneider, Roth, & Ennemoser, 2000). The National Reading Panel’s phonemic awareness research meta-analysis (National Reading Panel, 2000) noted that a focus on segmenting and blending phonemes produced stronger effects on students’ subsequent reading progress than did teaching three or more phonemic awareness skills. In support, a recent large scale intervention study of almost 5000 kindergarten students in high poverty schools noted the advantages for these students when phonemic awareness instruction is carefully integrated with phonics instruction (Foorman et al., 2003). “What seems to matter are activities where phonemes are blended and segmented in speech, then connected explicitly and systematically to graphemes in print, through phonics instruction” (Foorman et al., p. 317).
Studies employing sophisticated brain imaging tools (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, proton echo-planar spectroscopic imaging) have added to the knowledge about what actually occurs at the cellular level during successful intervention (Barquero, Davis, Cutting, 2014; Richards et al., 1999, 2000; Simos et al., 2007; Waldie, Haigh, Badzakova-Trajkov, & Kirk, 2013). It has been noted that struggling readers tend to have a significant amount of brain activity in Broca's area (an area important for speech) and also within the brain's right hemisphere (Waldie, Haigh, Badzakova-Trajkov, & Kirk, 2013). This is indicative of using less appropriate brain structures for the task – structures better suited to visualisation tasks. The consequence (Richards et al., 1999) is that the poorer readers may expend four to five times as much energy to complete a reading task when compared to good readers. Facile readers display vigorous activity in both the left temporo-parietal and left temporo-occipital areas of the brain (Fletcher et al., 2000). This area enables the association of sounds to words and word parts – the phonological centre. The conversion of print to sound involves the angular gyrus (visual association) linking with the superior temporal gyrus (area for language). Pugh et al. (2002) asserted that the temporo-parietal region is initially crucial in integrating the phonological and orthographic features of text; whereas, the occipito-temporal system becomes important in enabling the effortless fluent word recognition in skilled readers. Subsequent brain research supports this view (Glezera et al., 2016). Some brain function differences are also evident in orally presented phonological tasks, prior to any contact with print, and eventually imaging (should it become simpler, quicker, and cheaper) may be employed as a means of predicting potential reading problems prior to instruction.
Importantly, when the struggling students were taught phonological processing skills (for example, over a 15 two-hour sessions), the brain energy expenditure levels and the locations of relevant brain activities came to resemble those of good readers (Richards et al., 2000). Lyon and Fletcher (2001) reported similar neuro-imaging changes when a 10-year-old student with severe reading disabilities was provided with 60 hours of intensive phonics instruction that also elevated his word-reading ability into the average range.
In a case study involving a student with phonemic awareness and rapid naming difficulties, Miller and Felton (2001) noted strong reading gains when they provided instruction in phonemic awareness, decoding and encoding of single-syllable and multi-syllabic words, automatic recognition of irregular sight words, and fluency in reading decodable text. Of course, these are also among the foci that are helpful in fomenting early reading growth in all students (National Reading Panel, 2000). A valuable aspect of the Miller and Felton study was the recognition that intervention with an older student (seventh grade) may demand high levels of intensity and extended duration (even up to four years duration) to ensure adequate progress.
Unfortunately, efforts too often are prematurely discontinued for those students in greatest need (Torgesen, 1998). Progress may be slow and hard earned, but attention to detail in instruction and vastly increased opportunities for practice can make a great difference to the prognosis. The lesson to be learned from assessment of student’s phonological processing is not simply about identifying learner characteristics to account for lack of progress, but rather to assist the discerning of which students demand of us our cutting-edge best interventions and for how long.
Are there any implications for students whose phonemic awareness is adequate, and who present with only naming speed deficits? Deeney, Wolf, and Goldberg O'Rourke (2001) recommend a focus on phonology, automaticity, and fluency. Wolf, Miller, and Donnelly (2000) have developed a program known as RAVE-O (Retrieval, Automaticity, Vocabulary Elaboration, Orthography) that attempts to address the needs of second and third grade students identified as having phonological processing deficits, in particular, naming speed. The program emphasises the rapid and integrated use of phonological, orthographic and semantic information about words, thereby evoking sufficient fluency in word recognition to support comprehension. The approach is intended to accompany a phonological analysis program - grounding it by tying the phonological analysis to our print conventions. Sound to print is a linkage acknowledged as enabling the strongest gains in reading following phonological programs (Hatcher et al., 1994). Most fluency programs address the issue at the lexical level, through variations of repeated reading activities, wide reading and multiple practice opportunities with text, and these approaches do have research support (Bowers & Newby-Clark, 2002; National Reading Panel, 2000). RAVE-O adds to this word-level emphasis an additional focus on underlying (sublexical) process skills such as speed of left-to-right visual scanning, letter recognition, orthographic pattern recognition and phoneme identification (Wolf et al., 2000).
“Systematically introduced game-like activities stress both accuracy and speed in each reading outcome and in each underlying component skill, such as letter and letter-pattern recognition, auditory discrimination of phonemes, lexical retrieval, and vocabulary growth. Within the component skills, orthographic pattern recognition is particularly emphasized through a specially designed computer game called Speed Wizards (Wolf & Goodman, 1996). ...The RAVE-O program represents one-half of our intervention package, which moves daily from a phonological analysis and blending program based on Lovett's findings (Lovett et al., 1994) to emphases on automaticity in the underlying processes. The major, theoretically based objective is to help children more automatically activate phonological, orthographic, and semantic information about words in order to facilitate fluency in word recognition and comprehension”. (Deeney et al., 2001, p.147)
The embedded beginning reading program is one of the Direct Instruction programs - Reading Mastery I/II Fast Cycle (Engelmann & Bruner, 1988). It is presented for a half hour per day, followed by the RAVE-O activities for a similar period. Early evaluations of the 70-hour program are promising, though additional independent studies are required. The contribution made by the emphasis on processing speed, as opposed to that by the word level focus, has yet to established.
It is well recognised that reading fluency is a vital element in skilled reading (National Reading Panel, 2000). It appears that fluency in the underpinnings, such as phonological processing, may be also significant. "Fluency as represented by accuracy and rate pervades all levels of processing involved in reading, and that fluency on early foundational skills can be used to predict proficiency on subsequent skills in reading" (Good, Simmons, & Kame'enui, 2001, p. 264). They may also represent an important intervention focus – in particular for those students resistant to even well-designed and targeted instruction (Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1997).
Binder, Haughton, and Bateman (2002) make the general point that expertise involves unhesitatingly accurate performance not simply accuracy alone. In the Precision Teaching model (Binder, 1988; Binder & Watkins, 1990), teachers schedule daily fluency practice (words correct per minute) and assessment across a range of educational skills, with rate targets being constantly updated. They argue that the overarching benefits from attaining fluency include improved retention and subsequent maintenance of knowledge and skills, improved capacity to focus attention on a task for long periods, and superior capacity to apply that which has been learned to future novel situations. In phonological skills, they suggest targets for blending of 10-12 words per minute; for segmenting, 40-50 sounds /min, and making new words through phoneme substitution 15-20 phonemes per minute. In a similar vein, Kaminski and Good (1998) have established student performance standards to assist in the determination of which students may be at-risk through their DIBELS assessment battery (Good, Kaminski, Laimon, & Johnson, 1992). Among the brief tests are the directly phonological assessments - Phoneme Segmentation Fluency and Phoneme Onset Fluency.
It is worth noting that phonological fluency measures may relate to naming speed measures, but differ in that naming speed measures provide relatively few items (already known to the student) from a given domain that are repeated over and over, usually in a stimulus sheet (for example, six different letters employed in a 50 letter naming task). By contrast, fluency measures usually include more or less completely the whole domain (for example, all the letters of the alphabet). A fluency focus also differs from the sort of intervention established by Tallal and colleagues (Tallal et al., 1996) that attempts to influence auditory processing speed in a general sense.
What are the implications for the education system of these research findings?
The consensus that phonological processes form the cornerstone of initial reading development is well established in the empirical literature, and (in some countries) enshrined in law. However, the impact at the level of the classroom in Australia has not been profound. One can readily gauge the approach to instruction in those schools that provide information to parents such as that below.
School 1: During reading. When your child gets stuck on a word, follow these 4 (sic) steps.
Ask your child to:
1. Guess what the word might be.
2. Look at the picture to help guess what the word might be.
3. Go back to the start of the sentence and re-read it, adding the word you think might make sense.
4. Read to the end of the sentence and check that the word "makes sense".
5. If the word makes sense then check if it "looks right" (could it be that word?).
If the word is still incorrect, tell your child the word and allow him/her to continue reading. It is inappropriate for your child to be directed to "sound out" words, using individual letter sounds, as many words cannot be identified in this manner.
School 2: Teaching your child reading strategies: If your child has difficulty with a word:
Ask your child to look for clues in the pictures
Ask your child to read on or reread the passage and try to fit in a word that makes sense.
Ask your child to look at the first letter to help guess what the word might be.
The problem at a system level is to determine which students require greater or lesser levels of assistance. Assessment of phonological processes can assist in this decision-making. Phonemic awareness screening of young students has been shown to be predictive of future reading success or failure (Badian, 1994; Hurford et al., 1994; Chapman & Tunmer, 2003), at least when standard classroom reading approaches are employed. Not all students who struggle with such tests genuinely require phonemic awareness assistance, but nor are they harmed by it. Besides, the cost of over-inclusiveness is not nearly as serious as that of under-inclusiveness. So, provide phonemic awareness activities in association with letter sounds/names in preschool or kindergarten to all, or at a minimum, to those adjudged as possibly at risk, and be vigilant especially towards those displaying a resistance to skill development. Those few may well require more systematic instruction than that provided by most published phonemic awareness and implicit phonics/balanced reading programs (Snider, 1995). For some design principles, see Chard and Dickson (1999).
It is probably too early to make educational decisions based only upon the research into working memory and naming speed, apart from their potential supporting role in screening assessment. For students who don’t progress quickly under the influence of phonemic awareness activities, or for those with a family history of reading problems, or where other environmental or biological risk factors are evident, there may be value in formal assessment of the other phonological processes. Those students with deficits in more than one area may be more resistant to progress than those with one problem area (Bowers & Wolf, 1993). Such knowledge can sensitise educators to be prepared for intensive systematic assistance (rather than a cursory curriculum addition) over a longer period of time with these students (Torgesen et al., 1994). Torgesen and Burgess (1998) argue that selecting the lowest 20% of students on only phonemic awareness and letter-name knowledge in the first year at school is sufficient to feel confident that all at risk students have been identified. Others have argued that those students with only a deficit in naming speed will not be identified by phonemic awareness screening, yet they are likely to present subsequently with reading fluency and comprehension difficulties if early assistance (both phonological and fluency oriented) is not provided (Deeney et al., 2001; Wolf et al., 2002).
There is some evidence to that working memory assessment may be valuable in predicting early those who may struggle in developing literacy:
“Our results thus clearly reinforce the view that serial order STM plays a key role in the development of decoding abilities. Moreover, they also highlight that the role of this process is not limited to the very beginning of reading instruction, but continues after the first school year and its focus on the basic skills involved in learning to read and spell. This interesting result suggests that although children in the second grade begin to master decoding thanks to improved knowledge of GPC rules, they still rely heavily on order STM when reading nonwords. It also indicates that the measurement of order STM capacity in kindergarten is a consistent predictor of nonword reading ability, which remains robust over this age range. … We observed that order STM capacity assessed in kindergarten was also an independent predictor of nonword spelling abilities 1 and 2 years later, in first and second grade. This result strongly supports the hypothesis that temporary storage of the order of the phonemes is necessary to update the phonological representation as they are successively converted into the respective graphemes in the course of writing (Lervag & Hulme, 2010; Romani et al., 2014).” (Binamé & Poncelet, 2016. p.16)
If there is a common theme throughout the work on phonological processing thus far, it is the centrality of the structure of spoken and written words in the development of literacy for all students. That there may be individual differences in the ease with which children acquire literacy is not new. The research described here, while attempting to locate underlying sources of difficulty, has highlighted the critical role of insistent and well-focussed teaching in precluding and resolving problems in learning to read.
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