I think I was wrong about Phonemic Awareness

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 on Twitter.

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!

Note: This piece has since been updated with research and published on Nomanis:


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