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.