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

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?