The Latest Research (and Debate) on Phonological and Phonemic Awareness Instruction

For School Leaders, Phonemic Awareness and Phonics, Text-dependent Instruction

Let’s talk about a recent debate in the science of reading world around phonological and phonemic awareness instruction.

Something that’s really important to us here at The Literacy Architects is making sure our PD and curricular recommendations are tied to research and evidence. Well, a few months ago, an article was published on The Reading League’s website that caught our attention.

In the article, Dr. Susan Brady makes the case that a mastery of lower levels of phonological awareness (i.e., “phonological sensitivity”) doesn’t transfer to phonemic awareness. And, since the awareness of and manipulation of phonemes are the pre-reading skills that are most tied to reading success, it is not clear that teaching larger units of phonological awareness (e.g., onset-rime or syllable segmentation) to students — especially students in kindergarten and above — is necessary.  Basically, the phonological awareness developmental timeline that early childhood educators are familiar with does not equate to an instructional timeline.

Classroom Connection #1 

This is huge! This means that if your kindergarten or 1st grade student can’t tell you how many syllables are in elephant or what rhymes with chair, you don’t need to go back to teach syllable or rhyme awareness. Instead, skip directly to explicitly teaching phonemic awareness. Phonological awareness skills may develop out of order, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s not necessary for students to go back to master earlier skills before progressing to more complex ones.

If your K or 1st grade curriculum spends time on rhyme, syllable, or onset-rime awareness, research supports modifying your instruction to focus a majority of your time on phoneme-level skills.  

Preschool teachers can continue to teach rhyme, syllable, and onset-rime awareness, but they can also move quickly to phonemic awareness as appropriate.

Classroom Connection #2

Another finding from the article emphasized the National Reading Panel’s report from 2000 about using letters to reinforce phonemic awareness instruction. This helps students make the connection between phonemes as units of sounds in spoken words and letters that represent those speech sounds in writing.

If you are using a phonemic awareness curriculum that doesn’t include letters (this is where the “debate” comes in, as many popular phonemic awareness programs do not include the use of letters), see how you can modify it to make the letter-sound connection stronger for students and make the most of your instructional time.

Check out the full article linked above, and keep these points in mind as you plan your reading lessons!