I think I was wrong about Phonemic Awareness

Please feed me letters!

When I began this journey into learning more about literacy and language development (not too long ago), one of the first areas where I began sensing a tension in the field was around phonological awareness and the notion of instruction related to different “grain sizes.”

We know that phonological awareness develops in a manner that moves from large grain sizes (syllable, onset-rime) to small grain sizes (phonemes). Furthermore, we also know that phonemes are at a greater level of abstraction — they are harder to hear and speak — then something like a syllable, which is relatively easy to hear. So it certainly makes sense that instruction would follow the same trajectory in order to support that progression towards greater abstraction. It’s a compelling idea that unfortunately does not appear to be backed up by anything other than anecdotal evidence.

I know it’s compelling, because that’s what I believed. There’s a lot of romanticism in our field, and–like many others–I have a tendency to fall for ideas that sound right. One of them is the idea that learning must always progress from concrete to abstract, from easier to harder. Furthermore, like so many others, I am easily taken up by the idea that learning progresses in stages, in which each stage must be mastered in order to progress to the next. These ideas certainly do pan out for learning in some specific concepts or tasks, but are not universal. We can see this point more clearly when we consider phonological awareness instruction.

Instead of teaching first the syllable level, and then the onset-rime level, and then the phonemic awareness level, the instruction that appears to be most effective starts with the smallest grain size, at the phoneme level, and then moves to larger grain sizes from there. Why would this be?? It could be that our priors (learning moves from concrete to abstract and progresses in stages) mislead us. Sometimes, it may be that aiming first for what is more difficult and complex can be what enables us to develop underlying skills.

And there’s yet another facet where I will hereby admit I seem to be mistaken: that phonological awareness practice without graphemes is a valuable activity. I’ve argued that a phonological awareness program, such as Heggerty, could be beneficial, and I argued this because I thought that 1) it won’t do harm, and 2) it may be of potential benefit to students who are struggling to hear and speak the sounds, thus facilitating phonological sensitivity. So in a school that has a large number of students struggling to learn to read, it seemed like a win-win — short amount of instructional time (10-15 minutes daily), an easily deliverable set of routines and lessons that required little planning nor training, and a potentially large payoff for students who need it the most.

But it seems my priors again misled me. I assumed that phonology = important to reading and language, and extra practice = good, so therefore: extra phonological practice is a net positive.

I recently posted this tweet where I made the point that we need to fight our tendency to add more and instead pare down to focus on what is most critical. And as I waded into some of the great phonological awareness debates on social media, I found myself defending the idea that adding more would be the right thing! I was also getting my assumptions about PA challenged by reading stalwarts like Tiffany Peltier, Miriam Fein, Callie Lowenstein, Jo-anne Gross, Stephen Parker, and others.

I haven’t been the only one having my assumptions challenged as of late– a mini-controversy erupted over a virtual session with researchers Susan Brady, Mark Seidenberg, and Molly Farry-Thorn in which the Heggerty Program and David Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success were explicitly challenged based on their promotion of phonological practice without letters. Many took issue with some of the criticisms and on some inaccurate portrayals of Kilpatrick’s program — most especially practitioners in the field who have seen results using guidance from either. The video of the session was not released, and Seidenberg and Farry-Thorn instead released a follow-up discussion as well as a statement apologizing for muddying the waters, (and Seidenberg revealed that he had never heard of Elkonin boxes (!)). Susan Brady also released a statement clarifying some points she made about Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success program.

I agree that online forums may not be the best venue to critique specific programs or sling mud against other people who are dedicated to improving literacy outcomes. What needs to happen is to let the science speak, and gather empirical data to revise inaccurate assertions and theories — and this needs to happen on all sides. I’d posit, for example, that both David Kilpatrick and his critics have some revision of their theories to do.

I recently listened to a podcast interview of Julia Galef, in which she discusses her concept of a “scout mindset” vs. a “soldier mindset.” I found this distinction useful, because we have quite a number of soldier mindsets when it comes to talking about reading, and I find myself falling into that mindset when I am challenged in my own thinking. But by consciously adopting a scout mindset, an attitude of curiosity and an openness to revising my thinking, I can ward off my tendency to dig my heels in.

I realized as I defended some of my positions on phonological awareness recetly that I was taking on a soldier’s mindset.

At some point, we need to look to the evidence and acknowledge when it is substantive enough to challenge the neat theories we hold about learning.

So here’s where I’m revising my thinking: phonological awareness practice without pairing sounds to spelling is inefficient and unsubstantiated by research. Instead, research points to the greater robustness of pairing sounds to print from the beginning of reading instruction. This then, in turn, leads to greater phonological awareness.

The more I have learned, the more I have realized that almost every source of expertise on matters of literacy holds ideas that must be questioned in light of the evidence. That’s all part of the journey of knowledge, man. No one person holds all the pieces of the puzzle.

Phonology is important. It’s important to both language and to literacy. And it’s that reciprocal relationship between print and speech that develops skilled reading.

So let me state my revised thinking as clearly as I can: we should focus our classroom instruction in the earliest grades — and in spaces of intervention in later grades — on supporting students in connecting sounds to letters in print, and core instructional time should not be spent practicing sounds without print.

Time and money will be best spent on enhancing a core school-wide systematic phonics program through training and re-training, and providing ongoing coaching supports and peer feedback, oriented around ensuring that speech sounds are connected to spelling in every lesson, with sufficient opportunities to practice in reading and writing.

I still think there is a place for phonological practice outside of letters, but only when wielded by a knowledgeable practitioner or interventionist, who uses it when it is evident that it would benefit specific students as a bridge back to application with letters. Otherwise, pending any research that shows it is effective as a core instructional move, it appears to be a waste of time.

I admit I was wrong — or at least, I seem to be as of now, pending any further studies. 😉

In terms of the language piece, which I stressed in my last post on phonology — I still think it’s critically important. But what I realized is that the place to do that kind of work is in interactive read-alouds, rather than isolated phonological practice. In other words, as we read text aloud to students, we can pause and amplify the sounds of words and sentences, ask students to repeat them after you like an echo, choral read them together, and savor their sounds, prosody, and meaning. Embedding phonological sensitivity practice in the course of authentic reading experiences will be more powerful — and most importantly — will not take time away from core instruction.

And if any of this is wrong, please tell me where so I can revise my thinking!

By manderson

I live in NYC.

20 comments

      1. Love that you’re admitting a change in thinking and encouraging us to do so as well! This type of approach could help us move past the “Reading Wars.”

        While I’ve long been a champion of beginning reading instruction by linking phonemes and graphemes, I’m intrigued to know what evidence made you change your mind. And why do you feel confident about your position now?

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  1. It’s so gratifying to hear teachers slowly making the switch from print to speech to speech to print. I taught speech to print in my classroom 30 years ago and found myself standing quite alone. Congratulations on your progress.

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  2. I absolutely love the scout soldier analogy!
    Would it be possible to cite this research? “Instead, research points to the greater robustness of pairing sounds to print from the beginning of reading instruction. “

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  3. Good for you to notice what works. I’ve found that letter-cards work better than out-of-the air ear-speech exercises because they involve eyes and hands as well as ear and speech. The letters have to be a few at a time because the whole alphabet can be overwhelming. For this reason, we are indeed dealing with phonemes rather than larger chunks, as you noted. I think the theoreticians drifted away from using actual letters because sound-symbol association can be difficult for some children, especially the ones who most need phoneme-awareness training because the process isn’t making sense. Anything that makes the memorizing of letter-sounds easier helps a child to grasp the reciprocal relationship between isolated sounds and words. Ehri, Deffner, and Wilce, 1984, supported the use of key-word pictures embedded in the shapes of the letters, a practice which opens the door for children who have trouble memorizing their letters, especially if they aren’t required to memorize the names of the letters as well. Most learn the names easily, but progress shouldn’t be delayed if they can’t. My own research supported the idea of spelling with letter cards. With non-reading kindergarten children, the children made significantly fewer errors in their first encounters with CVC words when they spelled the words with letter-cards than they did when attempting conventional visual-to-speech decoding. Sounding out is the next step, of course, but the relatively errorless spelling (an auditory-to-visual, multiple-choice process) for first encounters made sense to them and allowed the teacher (me) to do less talking. Also, they made significantly fewer errors when reading back the words they had just spelled.

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    1. This isn’t a reply. It’s a P.S. to the previous paragraph. You were speculating about going from large to small versus going from small to large, syllables and words being easier than letter-sounds, Actually, I’ve found that children have an easier time segmenting sounds than they do blending sounds. For this reason, a spelling approach is very helpful because it goes from larger to smaller because it proceeds from whole, unfragmented words, words which make sense in their unsegmented form, rather than meaningless word fragments (letter-sounds). Since retrieval is what’s difficult about spelling, the letter-choices have to be visual, to allow for the way recognition is easier and swifter than retrieval.

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  4. I think there needs to be a conversation about the theoretical model regarding who should receive phonological interventions without letters. The more this is defined, the more convincing the argument will be to include letters on most interventions. For example, I have had students who were learning English and seemed to need articulation and phonological practice without letters because they had received interventions paired with letters for quite sometime with no progress. My guess was that they needed more practice hearing and feeling for sounds in their mouth and become more proficient in those skills to benefit from pairing it with letters. I would like to see some sort of short term memory studies and how fluency on phonological processing influences that.

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  5. I think we need to be cautious about over generalizing since one size doesn’t always fit all.

    Who needs what? Under what conditions? When? For how long? So many unanswered questions.

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    1. For sure! I think Dylan Wiliam is the one who said something like, “Everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere.”

      As I noted in the post, I think there is a place for this in the interventionists and knowledgeable practitioner’s toolkit, but I think the major shift is in how we think of “core” instruction and where the priority should be placed

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  6. You should check out Kilpatrick’s latest talk with AUSPELD. He responds to critics and also points out how the NRP metanalysis doesn’t actually define exactly what “with letters” means – giving the example of Road to the Code, which is a program that primarily works with blank tokens and that was considered as “with letters”, perhaps because they introduce about 4 letters at the end of the whole program.

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      1. That’s what you would think, but according to Kilpatrick after going through the individual studies, the NRP confounded some of these things in their metanalysis.

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  7. Jeffrey Bowers also lamented that the NRP meta analysis was wrong and in his view morphology got put on the back burner.
    As I need to believe in something I’ll stick with NRP bc ever since I did, I have succeeded with my students both in Reading and Spelling, turns out according to Dr.Ehri it is the accurate pronunciation and Spelling of words that creates the bond and leads to OM, effortless reading.

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  8. For Orton-Gillingam teachers, I was trained by Sally Childs, Anna Gillingham’s associate. Gillingham and Childs never advocated out-of-the-air phoneme-awareness training. Instead they advocated thorough training in letter sounds and in applying them to words. I’ve gone a step further and used spelling-with-clues (the clues being visual letters with and without embedded picture key words). This approach circumvents blending and makes sequencing and retrieval easier. I’m shortly going to add a summary of my research on the subject to my website, Tutoring With Training Wheels. http://www.mnemonicpictures.com

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  9. Can you please point me in the direction of articles, research, etc that helped change your thinking? I have “experts” advising teachers on my teams to ONLH remediate PA and not phonics at all until PA is mastered. I need something in my hands to help guide the conversation as to why you can and should do both.

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    1. Yes, there is quite a bit to reference on this! Mark Seidenberg just did a really nice series on phonological awareness and phonemic awareness that are worth watching, you can also find references accompanying the first two you’ll find relevant: https://seidenbergreading.net/zoom/ Another good place to start is this Susan Brady article: https://www.thereadingleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Brady-Expanded-Version-of-Alphabetics-TRLJ.pdf

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