The Sound and the Fury of Phonemes and Reading

Here is my Yule time gift to my fellow reading nerds:

I am honored that a version of my blog post about my shift in thinking on phonemic awareness has been published in the latest Nomanis. Do check out this newer version for the research goods. And a big thank you to Tiffany Peltier for pushing my thinking on the matter and sharing much of the research that I cite in that piece. Check out her blog for sound guidance on phonemic awareness instruction.

Along with this criticism against phonological awareness practice without letters, two recent pieces have addressed critiques against David Kilpatrick’s “phonemic proficiency hypothesis” and against advanced phonemic awareness in general as well:

  • Tim Shanahan’s blog post, “RIP to Advanced Phonemic Awareness,” in which he lays out the state of research alongside of a conversation directly with David Kilpatrick, and two important takeaways emerge: 1) Kilpatrick no longer uses the terminology “advanced phonemic awareness” himself, and instead uses “phonemic proficiency”; and 2) Kilpatrick’s “phonemic proficiency” hypothesis remains just that, and still needs to actually be tested. Oh, and also, read the comments on this post. A number of researchers add their thoughts on this, and Kilpatrick himself jumps in to address some of their points.

To continue on the phonological tip, David Share, most well known for his “self-teaching” hypothesis of reading, also has a recent piece, “Common Misconceptions about the Phonological Deficit Theory of Dyslexia” that provides some further food for thought on the relation of phonology to print and to dyslexia. There’s a lot of interesting tidbits in this paper — one of the takeaways I had was the insight that dylexia only becomes “‘visible’ in literate societies.” In a pre-literate world, we didn’t need to recall “addresses, telephone numbers, the days of the week or months of the year, foreign names and places,” for example, so spoken-language phonological weaknesses may have existed, but don’t surface until the sub-lexical work needed for print. In other words, the “phonemic awareness” problem children with dyslexia have isn’t just about phonemic awareness, it is related to a phonological issue that only becomes most evident in the demands of phonemic awareness required for reading with an alphabetic system.

He also has a great passage on learning the “infrastructure of the orthography”:

“In addition to learning the specific symbol-sound mappings of the orthography being learned, the learner must “get inside words”, go below the level of meaning and penetrate their sound structure. This phonological analysis or “meta-linguistic” awareness is an inescapable pre-requisite for literacy learning enabling the learner to exploit the combinatoriality of writing, decipher novel letter strings, match up spellings and pronunciations, and begin the process of building the orthographic lexicon by unitizing or chunking sub-lexical symbols into higher-order meaning units—the key to rapid automatic word recognition. It follows that any difficulties that a novice reader may have in processing speech sounds (e.g., hearing loss) or difficulties (in the absence of hearing impairment)) in processing the nuances of phonology (speech sound disorder, dyslexia) will almost invariably impair learning to read. Here, the evidence is incontrovertible and goes well beyond phonological awareness to early pre-literate spoken language competencies in processing (receptive and expressive) the sounds of speech as discussed earlier. Phonology, therefore, is necessarily a major source of variability in reading ability and hence a core deficit (or at least one core deficit) among struggling readers whether dyslexic or non-dyslexic.

There’s much more to say on phonemic awareness — David Share has another recent piece in ILA, “Is the Science of Reading Just the Science of Reading English?” well worth unpacking, but I’ll leave that for a separate post.

Also worth spending your time investigating — I highly recommend watching all three of Mark Seidenberg and Molly Farry-Thorn’s Miniseries on Phonemes and Phoneme Awareness. I found the first two especially enlightening and clarifying.

Enjoy geeking out in between some grog, coquitos, and COVID minimal family time, and wishing you a most restful and restorative break.


4 responses to “The Sound and the Fury of Phonemes and Reading”

  1. Those who learn to read and spell relatively easily don’t need to learn as much about how the English writing system works to be academically successful as dyslexic students need to learn. However, it does benefit all students! Advanced phonological awareness tasks are indeed not necessary to learn to read and spell but they do develop when using Structured Word Inquiry. When meaning and structure is primary, the phonology is learned as well. Morphology and etymology govern phonology.


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