Operating Principles Across Written Languages

My daughter imbibing the spoken form of written language

In the course of skimming research articles, every now and then something surfaces that is comprehensive, clarifying, and just flat out fun to read because it brings illumination to something I’ve been grappling with.

One I want to make sure to bring to your attention, just in case you haven’t yet read it, is this open access piece from Verhoeven and Perfetti, Universals in Learning to Read Across Languages and Writing Systems. As I’ve been learning a lot more about learning how to read and write in English, as well as about the process of language development in general, I sometimes worry that not everything I learn may generalize well, especially to languages whose writing and phonological systems differ quite substantially from English. Here’s where the paper comes in as a great resource, because the authors offer—as noted in the title—some universal principles across a number of languages, and highlight some key differences.

They highlight, for example, the extreme difficulty of English spelling among alphabetic writing systems due to its “syllabic complexity” and lack of consistent and transparent mapping of phonology. But the difficulty of learning any alphabetic writing system is nothing compared to the complexity of Chinese, which blows all other writing systems out of the water.

They also have a lovely table that compares some of the major writing and language systems to one another descriptively, which I know is a resource I will return to in the future.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10888438.2021.1938575?scroll=top&needAccess=true

In the course of this high-level examination, the authors also do us another service, which is to render intricate and complex ideas from various studies on reading into short, clear sentences.

For example, I’ve recently written about the transformation of my own thinking around phonemic awareness, and here’s Verhoeven and Perfetti succinctly stating the current state of PA research:

“Evidence in alphabetic languages for the late association between phonemic awareness and literacy suggests that phonemic awareness and learning to read alphabetically can develop reciprocally. This means that phonemic awareness is an enabler rather than a prerequisite for alphabetic reading.”

Or the need for spelling practice — something we increasingly neglect or dismiss in the U.S.:

“An important cross-linguistic finding is that spelling practice helps children internalize orthographic structures.”

There are also some interesting critiques of the Simple View of Reading in the section on comprehension:

“[the] simple view is incomplete in accounting for development of reading skill because reading itself brings about the learning of vocabulary and experience with a wider variety of grammatical structures and text types that are not experienced in typical spoken language (outside of academic lectures). Reading also increases the general knowledge that is needed to support comprehension.”

At the center of this critique is the role of vocabulary, which spans across linguistic and conceptual knowledge:

“Because so much of vocabulary is acquired following beginning reading, it is not simply a store of language knowledge waiting to be unlocked by decoding. Word meanings are continuously being retrieved, learned, and fine-tuned by reading itself. Both the quality of specific word knowledge (lexical quality) and the quantity of known words are important in supporting comprehension (Perfetti, 2007; Perfetti & Hart, 2001). It might seem convenient to subsume vocabulary under spoken language comprehension and thereby have a two-factor model of reading comprehension. However, this would fail to capture some observations about word meanings. For example, vocabulary knowledge directly supports identification of words that have exceptional spellings (Ricketts, Nation, & Bishop, 2007). A model that allows a more direct influence of knowledge of word meanings on reading comprehension may be more appropriate across languages (see Verhoeven & van Leeuwe, 2008). Beyond beginning reading, where only spoken language vocabulary is available, word meanings are not intrinsically part of spoken language more than written language. In both cases, they are the central connection point between coded input and comprehension, as much a component of a reading system as a language system (Perfetti & Stafura, 2014).”

I thought this was interesting in a couple of ways. First, because this resonates with my own experience as someone who read quite a lot in my formative years, and thus a large amount of the vocabulary I possess is purely in the written form — I can read it and write it, but may not have had much exposure to it in spoken language nor use it in my own speech. Second, because it brought me back to a similar critique that Mark Seidenberg made against the SVR in some endnotes to Reading at the Speed of Light, in which he states, “The main weakness in Gough’s theory is that it did not make sufficient room for the ways that the components influence each other. Vocabulary, for example, is jointly determined by spoken language and reading. Vocabulary can also be considered a component of both basic skills and comprehension.”

More to say on this additional variance for sure, but I’ll save it for another post! In the meantime, read this paper by Verhoeven and Perfetti with a pen in hand so you can mark it up yourself! I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. There’s a ton of gems in there to examine more in depth. Do share here in the comments or on Twitter!

Our Brains Were Not Born to Read…Right?

As I began my great awakening to the relatively extensive body of research on reading, one of the claims of reading research proponents that I’ve picked up on and carried with me is the idea that reading is unnatural and our brains were not born to read. And this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, given that oral language has been around for a very long time (though we don’t know, of course, exactly when it showed up), while writing systems only showed up roughly 5,000 years ago.

This claim is useful as a device for grounding an argument against the unfortunate “whole language” theories that have dominated education, which gave teachers the inaccurate belief that acquiring reading happens organically via exposure to read-alouds and engaging literature. We know that there are indeed many children who are able to break the cipher of writing systems on their own, but also that there are just as many who do not without explicit and systematic instruction. Furthermore, there are a subset of those children who will struggle to decode even with explicit instruction which we label dyslexia.

By claiming that our brains were not born to read, we give a strong logic for explicit decoding instruction. Furthermore, it gives us a narrative that makes sense of the complexity and interconnectedness of the brain activity of skilled readers in comparison to those who struggle to decode. As I’ve narrated in other posts, this is the story of “bootstrapping” reading onto our preexisting visual and aural and motor networks, and a further explanation of why sufficient opportunity for structured, guided practice must be provided alongside explicit instruction: so that those interconnections and pathways between disparate parts of the brain can be made and decoding can be done with accuracy and automaticity.

So you can see why the claim–that reading is unnatural–is compelling. It equips us to argue for more effective instruction, it explains dyslexia, and it synthesizes brain research with an evolutionary explanation. Experts such as Maryanne Wolf, Mark Seidenberg, and Stanislas Dehaene have made this argument, with plentiful reference to research of course, in their respective books on reading. For a really short and to the point argument on why reading is unnatural, check out G. Reid Lyon’s piece in ASCD, “Why Reading Is Not a Natural Process.”

Yet I’ve begun wondering recently if the overall claim is just a little too neat and tidy.

In my last post, I realized that some of the neat and tidy stories I had about learning and phonology prevented me from understanding the state of the research on effective PA instruction more clearly, and I think that realization made me more attuned to the danger of the mini-stories we tell that we can stick confirmatory evidence to.

It’s not that the claim is wrong, mind you. It’s that it may be oversimplifying something just a tad more nuanced. Let’s unpack it a little.

If oral language is considered “biologically primary,” while reading is “biologically secondary,” then that helps to explain why some kids really struggle to decode, and the existence of dyslexia. Except that there is a similarly significant subset of the population that struggles with language! Not only that, but many of the same kids who struggle with decoding ALSO struggle with language, and vice versa. Hmm. Why would some kids struggle to develop such a biologically primary ability? Isn’t it the WRITTEN word that is so “unnatural”?

It may be that language itself is just complex, no matter how intimately tied to our evolutionary past it may be, nor how swiftly and organically acquired by most. And as with reading, language develops our brains beyond whatever capacity they may have had in its absence. In fact, it may be that language rich interactions and environments accelerates the development of our brains, an idea supported by comparison to those who have suffered extreme isolation, abandonment, or neglect in early childhood. In this sense, then, language is a social and cultural artifact, in addition to an evolutionary biological adaptation. And because of the great variability in human development and the complexity of language, some still struggle to gain the nuanced and inferential chains of sounds, verbal forms, syntax, and meaning.

And what kind of language are we talking about when we say it is acquired “naturally,” anyway? Sure, everyday language is picked up swiftly by most, but it is the language that is more specific to academic domains and written texts, typically called academic language, that is the language that proves more difficult for some to acquire.

Writing is a more recent social and cultural development, but interestingly, it may have arisen spontaneously in three or four disparate locations at time periods not too far distant from one another. If this is so, it suggests that this technology addressed a common problem that our species needed to solve for, and hence it was adopted and scaled just as pottery and roads were across civilizations.

Are water jugs and other tools a biologically primary part of our brains? It almost seems silly to ask. No, opposable thumbs are biologically primary, and quite useful, but the tools we have developed and expanded and iterated upon in each generation are such interwoven extensions of our existence and culture that we wouldn’t normally pause to consider it.

So this invention of writing systems and hence the ability to read is a social and cultural extension of our capabilities that has accelerated our collective efficacy. And just as with oral language, developing this ability as an individual is complex, determined by our social, cultural, and environmental circumstances, and layers upon whatever biological equipment we’ve evolved for.

There is even initial brain research that complicates the narrative that our brains were “not born to read.” A 2020 study “provides the earliest possible evidence in humans that the cortical tissue that will likely later develop sensitivity to visual words has a connectivity pattern at birth that makes it a fertile ground for such development—even before any exposure to words [bold added].

We may be overselling the idea that our brains were not born to read, and that learning to read and write are so very difficult. Instead, let’s focus on how our brains are enriched and enhanced by learning to speak, read, and write language that is more abstract and complex. Learning written language expands our minds and our horizons.

But let me be clear, my caveats have nothing to do with picking things up “organically”! In fact, what I am arguing is that not only must we teach decoding explicitly and systematically, but that we must further teach academic language explicitly and systematically, because neither of these forms of language are “natural.” Yet our species and our civilizations have invented and scaled and sustained them because they bring us great power that is far beyond what we would have without them. And hence, why it is so critical that we attempt to provide this power of written and academic language to every child in our world.

So yes, we need to acknowledge the barriers that prevent children from gaining these powers, and tackle them headfirst. But these barriers are not barriers because reading is some alien thing being superimposed upon their delicate and fragile brain — they are barriers because of a lack of sufficient and coherent instructional opportunity.

So what is the new mini-story I’ve crafted here? I agree that learning to read must be taught explicitly! But I don’t think it’s fully accurate to say that our brains were not born to read. I would say instead that it is our birthright to learn to read and to speak and write and think in the language that allows us to transport our minds and hearts into worlds far beyond that of our everyday lives. And it is therefore incumbent on those of us responsible for teaching our children this language to ensure that all of them will be equipped and empowered to do so.

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!

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.

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.

Provide Our Students with Textual Feasts

In a webinar, Dr. Alfred Tatum discussed the need to provide our students with “textual feasts” to build their intellect, and the phrase and concept has stuck with me ever since.

It resonated with me because there’s a very strong tendency, when serving our students who struggle with academic text (such as students learning English, or students with disabilities, or students living in situations with acute and chronic stressors), to provide less frequent opportunities to engage with written texts that are intellectually and linguistically demanding. Because it’s assumed that they can’t handle it.

So students are given lower level texts. Less texts. Less discussion. Less writing about texts. Watered down tasks.

Why do we assume our children are so fragile and so incapable of intellectual delight?

Instead of giving them less, what if we gave them more? What if we hosted a textual and linguistic feast? What if we read aloud above grade-level texts to them, and students read and re-read and discussed grade-level passages with one another, and read a variety of texts at different levels of accessibility to build knowledge and language? What if we scaled across such a multiplicity of texts like this every single day?