Whole to Part to Whole

Photo by Robin Kumar Biswal on Pexels.com

Oral language is baked into our brains. We are born to learn to speak.

Similarly, reading our visual surroundings is second nature. Our eyes are neurally attuned to pick out fine-grained distinctions and patterns amidst the noise.

But written language is something we graft onto our existing circuitry. Graphemes get bootstrapped onto our auditory and visual processing neural networks. We need repeated exposure to letters and words and sentences in print to finetune the fluent mapping of letter sequences and syntactical constructions into comprehension. And if our brain’s existing pathways are resistant to these changes—because our prior experiences with oral language do not well align to the written language (we speak a dialect that diverges more in sound from the spelling, or we haven’t had much exposure to the type of vocabulary and syntax more frequently encountered in written language)—than we may need additional explicit instruction and practice to take us to the point that decoding is fluid and effortless.

But unfortunately, children who may need that extra bit of clear and structured practice often do not receive it. Instead, they are allowed to skip over words they can’t read, and passed onto the next grade.

How can we pave the pathway to proficient reading for all our children?

What We Can Hear Is What We Can Read

There is a reciprocal process between learning letter-sounds and reading letter sequences within words.

As we learn more graphemes, we refine our phonemic awareness, and as we refine our phonemic awareness, we further develop our ability to recognize words in print.

Yet whether we should directly and explicitly practice and teach phonemic awareness itself (apart from phonics) is an area of contention amongst reading specialists, it seems. Furthermore, whether we should teach larger units of letter patterns within words (sometimes called ‘word families’ or ‘rime units’ or ‘phonograms’), is another area of contention, which you can see most explicitly in debates about synthetic vs. analytic phonics. There’s also arguments about when to introduce deeper aspects of word study, such as etymology and morphology (some Structured Word Inquiry proponents claim it should start from the very beginning). And an even further area of debate is whether we should teach phonemic awareness to proficiency beyond blending and segmenting to the advanced levels of deletion and substitution of phonemes.

I’ve dipped my toe into some of this debate in posts on my other blog exploring onset-rime (The Magic of the Rime; To Rime or Not to Rime), and since that time I’ve dug quite a bit further into more research and still feel conflicted. From a research perspective, the weight does seem to land primarily on the side of teaching the key aspects of phonemic awareness first and foremost, and not bothering with other phonological skills like onset-rime or advanced phonemic awareness activities (see the last issue of The Reading League Journal and the latest findings on PA for more).

And yet I still resist hardline rigidity against phonological awareness instruction and onset-rime practice. I believe these practices have their place. I should preface this by saying that I’m open to further critique and research that will challenge my suppositions.

Here’s my argument:

What we know about “the reading brain” is that reading is unnatural, and that as I outlined in the narrative at the start of this piece, we are essentially bootstrapping reading onto existing visual and aural brain architecture. For some kids, this process occurs smoothly and implicitly, but for many other students, it doesn’t, and they require not only more practice, but more explicit instruction and practice.

A fluent reader can move almost instantaneously between letter sequences and larger chunks of words (smaller and larger “grain sizes”), depending on the context of the sentence. For students that do not have such fluency, their cognitive energy is taxed by disentangling the sounds and meaning for each word.

Furthermore, for students who are learning English as a new language alongside of learning to read, or for students who speak an English dialect that has greater differences from the written form of English, their brains are doing additional work. For such students, it seems to me that providing more opportunities to gain fluency and move from phonemes to larger grain sizes and back would support the formation of their written English brain. For example, consider a second grade student who speaks Spanish as his first language who just arrived in the U.S. and is learning to both read and speak in English. Spanish is a primarily syllabic language, and phonemes map more directly onto spellings. Providing this student with more opportunities to practice hearing, speaking, and mapping phonemes, onsets, rimes, and morphemes into written words will support his reading development and his language development.

So I argue that the progression and practice of our word-level instruction should move recursively from a hearing a word as a whole, to hearing and seeing its chunks (by “chunks” I mean rime units and roots/affixes), to seeing and hearing its individual letters and sounds, to seeing its chunks, to seeing the word as a whole. Through this recursive movement, we can support the neural connections that need to form in the fluent reading brain.

Honestly, I find the rigidity of some against phonological awareness instruction and onset-rime unit practice misplaced. We’re not talking significant instructional time here. A systematic program for phonological awareness, such as Heggerty, for example, is 10-15 minutes a day. That’s a small investment for a potentially huge payoff in prevention of later reading difficulty for the kids who need it the most.

Graphic from Is It Ever Too Late to Teach an Older Struggling Reader? Using Diagnostic Assessment to Determine Appropriate Intervention by Carrie Thomas Beck

On the trajectory of beginning reading skills, onset-rime practice may possibly provide an onramp, though this is contested and some (I think convincingly) argue that focusing on phonemic awareness first and foremost is better bang for the buck. But after phonics instruction has begun and students have acquired their letter sounds to proficiency and are learning the various generalizations and irregularities of the English language in print, I believe that rime units have a critical role to play, along with beginning inflectional morphology like the plural ‘s’, past tense, ‘ed’, etc.

Why is this? It’s because as readers develop fluency in decoding unknown words, they also began to develop greater efficiency in moving between smaller and larger grain sizes within words. For example, a 3rd grade reader encountering a new multisyllabic word in an informational text, such as “additional,” will slow themselves down and pay attention to the word parts, using their knowledge of syllabication and morphemes and word families as needed to break it up and recognize its sounds and meaning.

So gaining proficiency in advanced phonemic awareness alongside onset-rime and morphological awareness can potentially boost those students who are showing up in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades as struggling readers, even if they have received systematic phonics instruction K-1.

Here’s a few pieces of research aligning with my claims:

Don’t agree? Fire away! But one thing I want to stress is that you consider the student populations that have been assessed or worked with in your experience or research. Are they historically marginalized and underserved populations? Are they learning English as a new language? Are they struggling with a learning disability? I’m less interested in arguments that center students who typically benefit from the existing methods of instruction.

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