Phonology: How it Relates to Language and Literacy

The Simple View of Reading

I posted something on Twitter the other day (as I am wont to do far more frequently than write anything of deeper substance, alas) worrying that because the Simple View of Reading is a predominant model of reading (and may be therefore the basis from which some educators who are aware of it may primarily conceptualize language), phonology may be somewhat misunderstood as a result.

The Simple View of Reading, to review, is a well-researched theoretical model of reading that delineates two primary components that are interrelated but substantively distinct: decoding and language comprehension. It positions phonology as a sub-component under the umbrella of decoding.

Yet phonology is by nature also a component of language comprehension. It is purely the sounds of words, and clearly, the sounds of words are critical to an understanding of language. Such sounds include all the components necessary to clearly articulate and hear a word: its syllables, intonation, vowels, consonants, and all the myriad of other terms Louisa Moats outlines in Speech to Print that I seem to never be able to retain.

To be fair to the Simple View of Reading, it is obviously focused on reading, and the strand of language comprehension noted there is specific to the language of written text, so any misapplication or misunderstandings remains in the mind of someone who generalizes it beyond that. Yet I felt the need to express this because I could feel such a fuzziness occurring within my own mind. Because I focus primarily on reading, it gains an outsize focus, even though I also know that language is foundational and interwoven with reading at every step of the way.

Reading success is a primary goal of education, of course. I concur with many others that the ability to record and transmit our language in written form is the most incredible technology invented by humankind. So of course we will orient our educational focus and our goals on what is most important to successful reading. Yet I feel like the more I learn about learning to read and write, the more I see the importance in a concurrent and ongoing stress on language development.

So let’s bring this back to phonology. The abstraction that we have invented that allows us to translate spoken language into print is the ability to parse a stream of sounds within words into individual units called phonemes. These phonemes translate into letters and letter sequences (graphemes) that are the word in its written form. So the ability to hear and speak phonemes (phonemic awareness) is fundamental to learning to read and write.

There is a a debate within the science of reading nerd community about whether phonemic awareness should be taught as a scope of sequence that moves from syllable, to onset/rime, to phonemic awareness, as well as about whether phonemic awareness should be taught and practiced outside of connected letters in print. Emerging evidence seems to indicate that explicit phonemic awareness instruction is the key differentiator in reading outcomes.

It can be hard to make sweeping statements about what is happening in the field, given the incoherence and local nature of American school systems, but it seems that there may be a lot of phonology practice (onset-rime, syllables) happening out there without adequate phonemic awareness in Kindergarten and 1st grade. Furthermore, there also may not be a whole lot of systematic phonics instruction at all. Due to this, some are rightfully pushing to try and make it clear that phonemic awareness instruction should be the main driver leading into systematic phonics instruction.

Yet I worry that we may also end up oversimplifying phonology and losing sight of the forest for the trees in this drive to clarify for the field. I reread Susan Brady’s article in the Sep/Oct Reading League Journal updating research findings on phoneme awareness and phonics, and noted that while she stresses the need for phonemic awareness in K-1, she does not suggest that activities promoting phonological sensitivity are not important — she instead suggests that instruction there should be relegated to PreK, rather than Kindergarten. Furthermore, she notes that “analytic and synthetic methods do not have to be an either/or choice, but a question of when and for what purpose,” and that work with word families may be useful after 1st grade.

All of that I agree with. Phonemic awareness is a key to decoding and encoding, and we should focus on this as we begin reading instruction. Yet remember also that phonology writ large remains a central component of oral language, and our ability to hear and speak words does not solely pertain to print.

We tend to not dwell on this oral language side of things, however, both because it is harder to measure and consists of skills that are far less constrained than those involved in decoding, as well as because it is largely implicit and innate to learn, at least within our first language. But not all kids learn oral language well, either. Some struggle to articulate and stress the parts of a word, to apply syntactic forms, to develop a diverse pool of vocabulary, or to understand the structure of discourse. Just as with reading, students benefit from a strong core instructional program that provides them with explicit instruction and practice with key aspects of oral language from the onset of schooling– of which phonology is one part.

The good news is that there is a natural vehicle for this work with oral language that pairs reading instruction alongside of it known as interactive read-alouds. Interactive read-alouds are when the focus is on comprehension, rather than the work of print (as contrasted with shared reading, which is when the focus is on gaining fluency). Interactive read-alouds provide a venue for the sophisticated and complex language of written discourse to be transmitted solely in spoken form, and for students to engage in dialogic questioning and responses to the events and ideas in the text.

I would argue that an underutilized practice when conducting an interactive read-aloud is to pause and note specific words not only for their meaning, but also to highlight their sounds — to practice hearing and speaking those sounds (also on highlighting syntactic forms, but that’s another conversation).

But it’s not only in interactive read-alouds and shared reading that phonology can have a place — I am a fan of phonological practice K-2 (Heggerty is a great example, also Achieve the Core’s Sounds First program) that is conducted 10-15 minutes daily alongside of a strong core phonics program. Why? If phonemic awareness is the coin of the realm for learning to decode, why waste any time with all those other sounds outside of a phonics program?

My argument is that phonology has a role to play both before, during, and beyond the immediate target of breaking the written code. Before decoding instruction formally begins in Kindergarten, playing with the sounds within words is well-suited to pre-K. And as decoding instruction begins in Kindergarten and continues in 1st and (hopefully) 2nd grades, doing additional phonological practice can support linguistic flexibility — a flexibility that will become especially crucial beyond 1st grade, as words seen in print grow increasingly complex, and students must learn to navigate within word parts based on both morphology and phonology, as well as words of increasing multi-syllabic length. And for those students who–despite a strong core phonics instruction–continue to struggle to learn to decode, additional opportunities to identify within word patterns through a word study program can be critical, especially at that 2nd grade/3rd grade transition.

Finally, for students struggling to learn language outside of print, additional practice with hearing and speaking the sounds in words and sentences can ground the development of their vocabulary and comprehension. So while we must certainly stress the importance of phonemic awareness in learning to read and spell and the importance of a strong core phonics program, we also can’t lose sight of the importance of oral language development and the role that phonology beyond phonemic awareness can play in that.

The Riches of ASHA

In my last post, I wrote about the riches of Speech-Language Pathology and what this domain of research and practice has to offer for all educators.

I’d also like to highlight that relatedly, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and it’s publications has a lot to offer to those of us getting into the Science of Reading.

Let me just give you a recent example: the “JSLHR Research Symposium Forum: Advances in Specific Language Impairment Research and Intervention” offers some really interesting and useful open access research. Here’s some tidbits:

“Considering the frequent comorbidity of dyslexia and SLI, all school-aged children who are identified with word reading problems should receive a thorough language evaluation.”

Suzanne Adlof
  • Spaced retrieval practice has gotten a lot of attention from ResearchEd type folks over the last few years (as it should), and so this piece on its benefits to word learning for students with SLI will be further reaffirming.
  • I found this one by Pamela Hadley on “Exploring Sentence Diversity at the Boundary of Typical and Impaired Language Abilities” especially useful, as while I am fully invested in explicit sentence-level instruction, I sometimes struggle to know exactly what to investigate and unpack in a sentence beyond the basics. In this paper, Hadley provides a neat way to think of linguistic development at the sentence-level: “…as a series of four developmental steps: words, verbs, childlike sentences, and adult sentences.” What she also highlights is how important verbs are as a developmental stage, given the complexity of the function of verbs in a sentence: “Verbs carry information about the number of participants in an event and the semantic roles of those participants.” And much more in there to think about!

The Riches of Speech-Language Pathology

When I was a special education teacher, I also coordinated the IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) for my school, and served as the district representative at our IEP meetings, meaning that I had some part in most of the IEPs written in my building, whether I coordinated the gathering of information or facilitated the meeting with parents.

We served some children identified with speech language impairment (SLI), and I worked pretty closely with the speech-language pathologist in my school in the sense that I always ensured that IEPs were written with her review and meaningful input, and she was invited to IEP meetings for the children she worked with. We talked when we could about the children we serviced, and I solicited her advice on many occasions.

Yet I don’t know if I ever fully understood what she really did in speech-language therapy sessions. She did her thing, and I did my thing as a co-teacher in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade ELA classrooms. We were both pretty busy.

As I’ve been learning much more about reading, literacy, and language, I’ve increasingly become drawn into the research and expertise of the speech-language pathology realm (SLP) (we do love our tripartite acronyms in ed, don’t we), and discovered a wealth of knowledge that I really wish I had understood more of when I was in the classroom and coordinating the development of IEPs.

Also, as I’ve been struggling to bridge what I’ve been learning about the “science of reading” with my new focus on English learners, I’ve found SLPs to be an incredibly useful resource to building that bridge.

You see, if you know all about the Simple View of Reading framework (SVR), you then know that language comprehension, alongside of decoding and word-level recognition, is a huge component of reading ability.

And Speech Language Pathology is all about understanding language comprehension, from explicit training in the articulation of speech sounds, to explicit intervention to target needed language skills, such as knowledge of story grammar, making inferences, or the talk moves that are needed to have discourse about a text.

It was only recently that I became aware of the term Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), and discovered that there’s a wealth of developing knowledge about DLD that can inform our assessment, instruction, and intervention. (And hey, last Friday, October 16, was also Developmental Disorder Awareness day!)

If we refer back to the SVR, we can think of three main patterns of students who are having trouble learning to read: students who have difficulty with language comprehension, students who have difficulty decoding, or students have difficulty with both:

A graphic showing the equation of Language Comprehension X Decoding = Reading Comprehension, with a struggle in LC as DLD, and a struggle in Decoding as Dyslexia.
Students may have difficulty reading due to either language comprehension, decoding, or both.

Awareness of dyslexic patterns have grown quite a bit, to the point that legislation addressing it has arisen in multiple states. But awareness of patterns of DLD remains low in comparison.

It may seem strange that I present DLD and dyslexia as defining student profiles to guide overall education assessment and instruction — but as someone who comes from a SPED stance, I’ve always seen the way we typically think of instruction in schools as backward. As a cornerstone, we should center our focus on the students who struggle with language and literacy the most (our ELLs and our SWDs) and plan forward from there, rather than as an afterthought. We would then be able to improve outcomes for many more children who may not struggle as significantly, yet who also require more explicit support or more opportunities for practice. Instead, we design schools to center students who already have academic language and literacy skills in place, and we widen inequitable outcomes.

So with that in mind, speech-language pathology is an undervalued domain that has much to offer in considering the language needs of our students and what we need to do to screen, diagnose, and intervene to address those needs. Rather than relegating speech-language pathologists to the people who do that esoteric intervention thing in the room over there 3x a week with some children, we should be elevating their expertise and knowledge and seeking to disseminate that knowledge to general education teachers, most especially in earlier grades, so that we can seek to prevent language issues from arising.

I feel fortunate to have discovered many SLPs and researchers are active on Twitter, and though I hesitate to call any out by name because I know I will be missing way too many in any listing I give, just a few to get you started in your own journey of learning on language:

  • Tiffany Hogan: check out her co-authored paper with Suzanne Adlof on the intersections of dyslexia and DLD, and she has a podcast! A great list of ones on DLD related issues here
  • Trina Spencer: one of the co-authors of the CUBED assessments, which is now one of my go-to recommendations for a screener/diagnostic for listening comprehension. If you’re wondering what SLP might be able to offer in our teaching of narratives, check out her co-authored paper on narrative interventions. Also check out her website with a ton of resources for language instruction and intervention.
  • Habla Lab: understanding the intersections of bilingual and multilingualism with DLD is a critical area of need. HABLA Lab is a group of researchers exploring these intersections – check out their blog! I learned a lot about the concept of “dynamic assessment” from them. This is a research space to watch.
  • Lakeisha Johnson: How does the African American English Vernacular differ from Mainstream English, and in what way does AAE get entangled and intersect with dyslexia and developmental language disorder? I’m becoming increasingly fascinated by this question, and Dr. Johnson is on the forefront of this line of research.
  • Oh geez. There’s so many more resourceful people I need to list here, and I just realized I could spend all night going through my Twitter feed to gather them…

So instead, just to illustrate what a wealth of knowledge is there, as well as to provide you with more great people and references to get you started, I posed the following question on Twitter and got a whole line of research and links to other SLPs and researchers that got me jumpstarted into all of this:

Dig in! Speech-language pathology has a lot to offer those of us who are just beginning on our journeys to understanding language and literacy.