Phonological Awareness

by William Ellis

Reprinted with permission from the NICHCY News Digest 25—July 1997
National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities
P.O. Box 1492, Washington, DC 20013

Reading is a complex activity.  It sends our brains into a frenzy of electrical impulses that zig and zag through matter in ways we still do not totally understand.  It organizes sights and sounds in designs that ultimately connect us to the broad vistas of life’s many landscapes.  Reading gives us the opportunity to appreciate those landscapes in all their variety.  It is remarkable that, whatever approach, method, or ideology is used to teach reading, most students become proficient at it.  For many students, successful reading is assimilated into their experience quickly and with seeming smoothness.  Fortunate the students for whom reading comes easily!

For perhaps as many as 20% of students, however, reading is not an automatic skill.  Patterns of understanding have to be systematically instilled so that the reader has the opportunity to crack the alphabetic code.  More and more, what we have learned is that connecting these alphabetic symbols to specific sounds in order to create meaningful words arid phrases is a significant aspect of reading.  There is considerable longitudinal research to support that we all employ this skill every time we read.  Without this connection between the basic unit of sound and the alphabetic symbol, reading does not occur for any of us (Liberman & Liberman, 1990).

These basic units of sounds contained within each word are called phonemes.  Research has shown that understanding of these phonemic units, more than any other factor, is a critical part of successful reading.  Phonemic awareness involves analyzing and combining the smallest units of discernable sound (phonemes) in a variety of ways, in order to connect the symbols (letters) which represent them, to specific meanings.  The word “bat,” for example, has three phonemes.  The phonic approach would involve helping the student discover the word produced when the /b/ /a/ and /t/ sounds are put together.

“Phonological awareness has the potential to unravel the mysteries of reading to countless thousands of individuals….”

Throughout the history of the teaching of reading, there has been a great debate between those who advocate teaching reading through structured language approaches involving phonics, and those ‘ho suggest that it is sufficient to grasp the relation of a whole word to its meaning derived from some larger context (Chall, 1989).  In the example used above, the word “bat” might be learned through its placement in a sentence such as, “We use a bat in baseball.”  For many years, the trend in school systems has been to use this method, called the “whole language” approach.

Unfortunately, in schools where the whole language approach is used to teach reading, simultaneous teaching of explicit phonics is not always considered useful or necessary.  Whether the phonemic or the whole language approach is used, always we find that there is a block of children who still do not learn to read.  This suggests that school systems have no systematic way for determining a satisfactory match between the way which an individual child learns to read and the teaching approaches used.  In her book Beginning to Read, commentator Marilyn Adams (1990) suggests that the phonemic and whole language approaches do not have to be mutually exclusive but can complement each other’s strengths to the betterment of all readers.  Recently, it appears that there is a movement to follow her sage advice.  Also, long-term research is being conducted through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) grants to determine how to match different types of learners and effective teaching approaches.  Several of these approaches directly reflect our knowledge of phonemic awareness.

The validity of the phonemic approach is supported by considerable empirical data spanning more than 20 years.  Much of the research has been sponsored by NICHD through projects such as the Dyslexia Program Projects in the late 1970s and the Learning Disability Research Centers in the late 1980s.  Working independently and on different projects, these centers have achieved convergent results that are extremely compelling (Moats & Lyon, 1993).  In fact, the importance of phonological awareness in learning to read is one of the few aspects of reading supported by such substantial, long-term research.  This research has demonstrated that a significant number of children (15 to 20%) do not learn to read successfully unless they receive direct instruction in phonological awareness.  Therefore, it is imperative that, whatever approach is used to teach reading skills, the needs of this population must not be ignored.

We do not know precisely why acquisition of phonemic awareness is delayed in some students.  We do know that certain kinds of language activities for the pre-academic child make a substantial difference.  For example, rhyming games can have an important effect (Bradley & Bryant, 1985).  Children who have difficulty with rhyming often seem to have difficulty learning to read.  Therefore, utilizing rhyming games and songs with young children can assist in identifying those children who may have difficulty reading later, so that useful interventions can be made to strengthen their skills.  Keith Stanovitçh (1993) outlines several activities that enhance phonemic awareness:
  • Phonemic deletion: What word would be left if the /k/sound were taken away from cat?
  • Word-to-word matching: Do pen and pipe begin with the same sound?Blending: What word would we have if we put these sounds together: /s/  /a/  /t/ ?
  • Sound isolation: What is the first sound in rose?
  • Phoneme segmentation: What sounds do you hear in the word “hot”?
  • Phoneme counting: How many sounds do you hear in the word “cake”?
  • Deleted phoneme: What sound do you hear in “meet” that is missing in “eat”?
  • Odd word out: What word starts with a different sound:  bag, nine, beach, bike?
  • Sound-to-word matching: Is there a /k/ in bike?

Activities of this kind can be fun and interesting to all children.  To those for whom increased phonemic awareness is essential, they are a godsend.  Nevertheless, even if we were to achieve a perfect record of teaching phonemic awareness, there will still be a significant number of individuals who will have difficulty with reading and other language tasks.  Researchers in the medical and educational fields are pursuing avenues for understanding the root causes of these problems.  It is hoped that such understanding will bring about some additional ways of presenting reading, so that yet another subset of poor readers can be helped.

With phonological awareness, we have the opportunity to establish modes of teaching that are based on solid research.  Annual data supplied by the U.S. Department of Education (1995) show that more than 50% of school-age youngsters being provided special education services have learning disabilities and that, of these, more than 80% manifest their difficulties in reading and language.  It is clear that a major effort in teaching phonological awareness at the earliest possible opportunity will have a significant impact on reducing the number of individuals who will require special services.

A major impediment to implementing a phonemic approach is the poor level of phonemic awareness among teachers who teach reading and among teachers in general.  This lack of awareness is reported in a major survey by Louisa Moats (1994), who found that teachers often were aware of their lack of knowledge and earnestly sought greater understanding, but they had received little training.  Moats’ findings suggest that shifting our approach to teaching reading means training teachers in phonological awareness.  Teachers who do not understand the structural basis of language will have little success in teaching it or in perceiving the difficulties with language that some children have.

Anderson et al. (1985), in their seminal report Becoming a Nation of Readers, alerted the nation to the need for explicit phonic teaching.  As early as 1985, they had observed a decline in reading scores among selected groups of children.  The report, perhaps overshadowed by other more startling calls for school reform, never received the attention it merited.  In the intervening years, little has changed, and test scores continue to decline.  The nation has poured millions of tax dollars into research that supports phonological approaches, yet little has changed in the school systems.  Emphasizing phonological awareness in teaching reading is an approach that appears to match the method to our body of knowledge.  Phonological awareness has the potential to unravel the mysteries of reading to countless thousands of individuals, and to protect their well-being as well as that of the nation.  The phonemic approach to reading is an area where we actually have well-documented tools.  We need to use them.

About the Author…

As an educator and advocate, William Ellis contributed a great deal to the learning disabilities field.  During his career, Mr. Ellis chaired numerous national symposia, edited several books, and published many articles on reading and learning.  Prior to his death in 1995, he served as the Director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities and as Executive Editor of  Their World, an annual publication of NCLD.  Most of all, he was a man of tremendous compassion.

Bill wrote this article for NICHCY in the last months of his life.  We at NICHCY are proud to offer this work to the field.

NICHCY News Digest 25—July 1997                NICHCY: 1-800-695-0285


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