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.


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!

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.