Phonemic Proficiency: A Hypothesis to be Tested

There’s been a kerfuffle in the reading nerd sphere for a while now about Dr. David Kilpatrick’s theories of orthographic mapping and the advanced phonemic awareness activities promoted by his Equipped for Reading Success program.

At issue have been the following:

  • Are phonemic awareness activities without letters time well spent for Tier 1 instruction?
  • Are phonemic awareness activities of substitution and deletion time well spent for struggling readers?

I stepped into this debate when I came to realize that the bulk of the research currently does not support an affirmative for either of those questions, and rather suggests that pairing sounds <-> spelling <-> meaning are the critical levers to word recognition. I wrote about this in a previous post, I think I was wrong about phonemic awareness, as well as in an updated version for Nomanis.

Since then there’s been a number of clarifying arguments around Kilpatrick’s theories:

I’ve read all of these back and forths amongst academics and researchers with great interest, as Dr. Kilpatrick’s work has been highly influential to my own learning, as well as many others. His Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties is an impressive work and was my first bible in learning about the reading research, and I’ve marked up nearly every page in that book. That led me to Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success program, which also has an introduction that lays out the concept of orthographic mapping in a concrete and digestible way, and the PAST phonemic awareness assessment tool, which is free.

Even as I began steeping myself in the reading research, I heard some questions of the Equipped approach around the onset-rime aspects, but I determined that in the absence of knowledge, I needed to pick something to anchor myself in, and I chose Kilpatrick. I studied Essentials and Equipped on the bus to and from schools across the Bronx, and would have epiphanies like the following:

I began wielding the PAST assessment in the schools I supported, and had revelations such as the following with an 8th grade student in a 12:1 class: he not only couldn’t recognize phonemes in any words with more than 2 syllables, he had trouble repeating those words. He needed intensive remediation in phonology. Administering the PAST also taught me how to accurately pronounce discrete phonemes. This may seem to be a basic skill, but like many other teachers, I had never been taught to do so and realized that it can be surprisingly difficult for some phonemes — and in order to administer the PAST effectively, I (and the teachers I brought the tool to) needed to be able to swiftly and precisely articulate the individual phonemes.

As I engaged in this work, I found myself butting against the wall about what to do next — and reached out to Dr. Kilpatrick to discuss some of what I was encountering (students in middle schools far behind in basic reading skills). He is a kind and talkative person, and spent an hour with me on the phone talking it through.

I bring all of this up to say that I am, personally and professionally, greatly indebted to the work of Dr. Kilpatrick, as I know so many others are. His writing and his program have provided me with a deep insight into foundational reading development that I did not have previously.

Yet as I have learned more and branched out from Kilpatrick’s work, I’ve also began questioning specific aspects of it. Do kids need work on onset-rime awareness before phonemic awareness, as the Equipped program and PAST tool suggest? Is the PAST assessment valid and reliable? Do other researchers agree with Kilpatrick’s summary of the patterns he has identified in various studies that led him to his phonemic proficiency hypothesis? Are phonemic awareness activities without letters, as the Heggerty program also outlines them, worth doing as a Tier 1 activity (i.e. for all students)?

The back and forths I listed above, therefore, have been enlightening to questions like these. No, there has not yet been a meta-analysis that confirms Kilpatrick’s own understanding of the patterns he extrapolated from them. No, the PAST assessment has not been independently demonstrated to be valid and reliable (though this is unclear to a non-researcher such as myself — there are what appear to be pre-prints on this, but I don’t find anything on Google Scholar.) No, there have not yet been any direct empirical studies published that validate nor refute the phonemic proficiency hypothesis. And no — doing advanced phonemic awareness activities without letters, Kilpatrick has clarified, is not a Tier 1 activity for all students — it is only for struggling readers.

No one person holds all the pieces of knowledge we need to serve every student learning to read to the fullest. And science is all about confirming and refuting theories. Having debates like the one currently ongoing are healthy and essential to the advancement of all of our understanding.

So where does all of this leave us?

  • Let’s see how the final paper from Clemens et al. turns out when it makes it through the peer review process. The critique from Kilpatrick et al. pointed to problems with specific citations, as well as that the phonemic proficiency hypothesis relates only to orthographic mapping, not decoding.
  • Yet it is that very understanding of orthographic mapping that is also up for question. Stephen Parker makes distinctions between Ehri’s and Kilpatrick’s concept of orthographic mapping in his post here. You can also read up further on Kilpatrick’s idea of phonemic proficiency in one of his many online presentations, such as here.
  • For states that have rushed to put into place Science of Reading legislation and explicitly embedded theories or tools that have not yet been tested — take a step back.
  • For those doing this work everyday with kids: while I argue that doing Heggerty or Equipped PA activities isn’t the best use of time in Tier 1 (for all kids), they most certainly have a place in the arsenal of an interventionist for kids who may benefit from additional phonological training. Kilpatrick’s hypothesis, after all, may well be right — we just don’t have enough evidence confirming or refuting it. I suspect that there are indeed a small subset of struggling readers for whom training phonemic awareness to proficiency will be of great benefit. However, I also suspect that there are another subset of struggling readers for whom training orthographic knowledge and ability to proficiency will be of benefit. And furthermore, there may be another subset for whom training morphological and semantic knowledge will be of benefit. In other words, I suspect Kilpatrick’s theory is relevant to a small subset of kids, and not necessarily inclusive of all the needs of a given student struggling to read. But hey — that’s just my theory!
  • The highest leverage for all kids will be ensuring that awareness and oral articulation of phonemes are developed directly alongside of their orthographic forms, their letters and letter-sequences (spelling) from the very beginning of formal instruction. Sounds (hearing and speaking) that are associated with their spelling will help to bond them into memory, even when irregular. Furthermore, the meaning of words — their word parts (morphemes) and examples/non-examples and definitions and related words — and how they show up in sentences (the frequency of other words that show up around them) — also needs to be provided alongside of those sounds and spelling through the reading of connected text and through daily interactive read-alouds.

The bottom line: science is awesome, and thank you to all of those who are pushing our knowledge and understanding further through informed debate. This debate is pushing us to the frontiers of unpacking what it takes to internalize the cipher. In the meantime, we’re going to ensure that all our kids have structured, systematic, explicit Tier 1 phonics instruction, and units of instruction that build thematic and topical knowledge through shared reading and interactive read-alouds.


4 responses to “Phonemic Proficiency: A Hypothesis to be Tested”

  1. Very well researched post. I like your inquiring mind. Only the inquiring mind solves problems.
    If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers.
    Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Please read the book “Why our children can’t read and what we can do about it” by Diane McGuiness . It really opened my eyes to the science of reading and helped me to help the children I was teaching to read and write . Diane was my hero. She recently passed away .


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