Language & Literacy


Ontogenesis model

A recent paper caught my eye, Ontogenesis Model of the L2 Lexical Representation, and despite the immediate mind glazing effect of the word “ontogenesis,” I found the model well worth digging into and sharing here—and it may bear relevance to conversations on orthographic mapping.

How we learn words and all their phonological, morphological, orthographic, and semantic characteristics is a fascinating topic of research—most especially in the areas of written word recognition and in the learning of a new language.


Here is my Yule time gift to my fellow reading nerds:

I am honored that a version of my blog post about my shift in thinking on phonemic awareness has been published in the latest Nomanis. Do check out this newer version for the research goods. And a big thank you to Tiffany Peltier for pushing my thinking on the matter and sharing much of the research that I cite in that piece. Check out her blog for sound guidance on phonemic awareness instruction.

Along with this criticism against phonological awareness practice without letters, two recent pieces have addressed critiques against David Kilpatrick’s “phonemic proficiency hypothesis” and against advanced phonemic awareness in general as well:

  • Tim Shanahan’s blog post, “RIP to Advanced Phonemic Awareness,” in which he lays out the state of research alongside of a conversation directly with David Kilpatrick, and two important takeaways emerge: 1) Kilpatrick no longer uses the terminology “advanced phonemic awareness” himself, and instead uses “phonemic proficiency”; and 2) Kilpatrick’s “phonemic proficiency” hypothesis remains just that, and still needs to actually be tested. Oh, and also, read the comments on this post. A number of researchers add their thoughts on this, and Kilpatrick himself jumps in to address some of their points.
  • In addition to that post, a pre-print pushes the conversation yet further in “They Say You Can Do Phonemic Awareness Instruction “In the Dark”, But Should You? A Critical Evaluation of the Trend Toward Advanced Phonemic Awareness Training.” In this piece, the “empirical and theoretical basis for advanced phonemic awareness training” is evaluated and they find that “at present, there is no evidence that targeting phonemic awareness separate from print differentially benefits reading skills over integrating phonemic awareness activities with letters.”
  • UPDATE 2/10/22: David Kilpatrick, Louisa Moats, and others posted a response to the Clemen’s et al. pre-print and gave some pretty poignant critiques that tell us we should wait to read the peer-reviewed version before drawing any firm conclusions. Main takeaway: phonemic proficiency is about orthographic mapping, not decoding.
  • UPDATE 2/25/22: Clemen's et al. posted a rebuttal to Kilpatrick et al.'s response
  • UPDATE 10/1/23: I think it's important to highlight that the Clemens et al. remains a pre-print and has not yet been published after peer review, to my knowledge. This further suggests the pre-print should be taken with a strong grain of salt. If and when it does make it through peer review, please let me know so I can update it here.

To continue on the phonological tip, David Share, most well known for his “self-teaching” hypothesis of reading, also has a recent piece, Common Misconceptions about the Phonological Deficit Theory of Dyslexia that provides some further food for thought on the relation of phonology to print and to dyslexia. There’s a lot of interesting tidbits in this paper — one of the takeaways I had was the insight that dylexia only becomes “‘visible’ in literate societies.” In a pre-literate world, we didn’t need to recall “addresses, telephone numbers, the days of the week or months of the year, foreign names and places,” for example, so spoken-language phonological weaknesses may have existed, but don’t surface until the sub-lexical work needed for print. In other words, the “phonemic awareness” problem children with dyslexia have isn’t just about phonemic awareness, it is related to a phonological issue that only becomes most evident in the demands of phonemic awareness required for reading with an alphabetic system.

He also has a great passage on learning the “infrastructure of the orthography”:

“In addition to learning the specific symbol-sound mappings of the orthography being learned, the learner must “get inside words”, go below the level of meaning and penetrate their sound structure. This phonological analysis or “meta-linguistic” awareness is an inescapable pre-requisite for literacy learning enabling the learner to exploit the combinatoriality of writing, decipher novel letter strings, match up spellings and pronunciations, and begin the process of building the orthographic lexicon by unitizing or chunking sub-lexical symbols into higher-order meaning units—the key to rapid automatic word recognition. It follows that any difficulties that a novice reader may have in processing speech sounds (e.g., hearing loss) or difficulties (in the absence of hearing impairment)) in processing the nuances of phonology (speech sound disorder, dyslexia) will almost invariably impair learning to read. Here, the evidence is incontrovertible and goes well beyond phonological awareness to early pre-literate spoken language competencies in processing (receptive and expressive) the sounds of speech as discussed earlier. Phonology, therefore, is necessarily a major source of variability in reading ability and hence a core deficit (or at least one core deficit) among struggling readers whether dyslexic or non-dyslexic.” [bold added]

There’s much more to say on phonemic awareness — David Share has another recent piece in ILA, Is the Science of Reading Just the Science of Reading English? well worth unpacking, but I’ll leave that for a separate post.

Also worth spending your time investigating — I highly recommend watching all three of Mark Seidenberg and Molly Farry-Thorn’s Miniseries on Phonemes and Phoneme Awareness. I found the first two especially enlightening and clarifying.

Enjoy geeking out in between some grog, coquitos, and COVID minimal family time, and wishing you a most restful and restorative break.

#phonology #phonemicawareness #research #dyslexia #Kilpatrick


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 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


NOTE: Since writing this post, I have revised my thinking. You can see my updated thinking here.

Oral language is baked into our brains. We are born to learn to speak.

Similarly, reading our visual surroundings is second nature. Our eyes are neurally attuned to pick out fine-grained distinctions and patterns amidst the noise.

But written language is something we graft onto our existing circuitry. Graphemes get bootstrapped onto our auditory and visual processing neural networks. We need repeated exposure to letters and words and sentences in print to finetune the fluent mapping of letter sequences and syntactical constructions into comprehension. And if our brain’s existing pathways are resistant to these changes—because our prior experiences with oral language do not well align to the written language (we speak a dialect that diverges more in sound from the spelling, or we haven’t had much exposure to the type of vocabulary and syntax more frequently encountered in written language)—than we may need additional explicit instruction and practice to take us to the point that decoding is fluid and effortless.

But unfortunately, children who may need that extra bit of clear and structured practice often do not receive it. Instead, they are allowed to skip over words they can’t read, and passed onto the next grade.

How can we pave the pathway to proficient reading for all our children?

What We Can Hear Is What We Can Read

There is a reciprocal process between learning letter-sounds and reading letter sequences within words.

As we learn more graphemes, we refine our phonemic awareness, and as we refine our phonemic awareness, we further develop our ability to recognize words in print.

Yet whether we should directly and explicitly practice and teach phonemic awareness itself (apart from phonics) is an area of contention amongst reading specialists, it seems. Furthermore, whether we should teach larger units of letter patterns within words (sometimes called ‘word families’ or ‘rime units’ or ‘phonograms’), is another area of contention, which you can see most explicitly in debates about synthetic vs. analytic phonics. There’s also arguments about when to introduce deeper aspects of word study, such as etymology and morphology (some Structured Word Inquiry proponents claim it should start from the very beginning). And an even further area of debate is whether we should teach phonemic awareness to proficiency beyond blending and segmenting to the advanced levels of deletion and substitution of phonemes.

Since beginning my journey into reading research, I’d come across these debates, and dug quite a bit further into more research and still feel conflicted. From a research perspective, the weight does seem to land primarily on the side of teaching the key aspects of phonemic awareness first and foremost, and not bothering with other phonological skills like onset-rime or advanced phonemic awareness activities (see the last issue of The Reading League Journal and the latest findings on PA for more).

And yet I still resist hardline rigidity against phonological awareness instruction and onset-rime practice. I believe these practices have their place. I should preface this by saying that I’m open to further critique and research that will challenge my suppositions.

Here’s my argument:

What we know about “the reading brain” is that reading is unnatural, and that as I outlined in the narrative at the start of this piece, we are essentially bootstrapping reading onto existing visual and aural brain architecture. For some kids, this process occurs smoothly and implicitly, but for many other students, it doesn’t, and they require not only more practice, but more explicit instruction and practice.

A fluent reader can move almost instantaneously between letter sequences and larger chunks of words (smaller and larger “grain sizes”), depending on the context of the sentence. For students that do not have such fluency, their cognitive energy is taxed by disentangling the sounds and meaning for each word.

Furthermore, for students who are learning English as a new language alongside of learning to read, or for students who speak an English dialect that has greater differences from the written form of English, their brains are doing additional work. For such students, it seems to me that providing more opportunities to gain fluency and move from phonemes to larger grain sizes and back would support the formation of their written English brain. For example, consider a second grade student who speaks Spanish as his first language who just arrived in the U.S. and is learning to both read and speak in English. Spanish is a primarily syllabic language, and phonemes map more directly onto spellings. Providing this student with more opportunities to practice hearing, speaking, and mapping phonemes, onsets, rimes, and morphemes into written words will support his reading development and his language development.

So I argue that the progression and practice of our word-level instruction should move recursively from a hearing a word as a whole, to hearing and seeing its chunks (by “chunks” I mean rime units and roots/affixes), to seeing and hearing its individual letters and sounds, to seeing its chunks, to seeing the word as a whole. Through this recursive movement, we can support the neural connections that need to form in the fluent reading brain.

Honestly, I find the rigidity of some against phonological awareness instruction and onset-rime unit practice misplaced. We’re not talking significant instructional time here. A systematic program for phonological awareness, such as Heggerty, for example, is 10-15 minutes a day. That’s a small investment for a potentially huge payoff in prevention of later reading difficulty for the kids who need it the most.

Since writing this, I have changed and revised my thinking about the teaching of phonemic awareness and of the practice of phonology that is not connected to letters. Read more here

Graphic from Is It Ever Too Late to Teach an Older Struggling Reader? Using Diagnostic Assessment to Determine Appropriate Intervention by Carrie Thomas Beck Graphic from Is It Ever Too Late to Teach an Older Struggling Reader? Using Diagnostic Assessment to Determine Appropriate Intervention by Carrie Thomas Beck

On the trajectory of beginning reading skills, onset-rime practice may possibly provide an onramp, though this is contested and some (I think convincingly) argue that focusing on phonemic awareness first and foremost is better bang for the buck. But after phonics instruction has begun and students have acquired their letter sounds to proficiency and are learning the various generalizations and irregularities of the English language in print, I believe that rime units have a critical role to play, along with beginning inflectional morphology like the plural ‘s’, past tense, ‘ed’, etc.

Why is this? It’s because as readers develop fluency in decoding unknown words, they also began to develop greater efficiency in moving between smaller and larger grain sizes within words. For example, a 3rd grade reader encountering a new multisyllabic word in an informational text, such as “additional,” will slow themselves down and pay attention to the word parts, using their knowledge of syllabication and morphemes and word families as needed to break it up and recognize its sounds and meaning.

So gaining proficiency in advanced phonemic awareness alongside onset-rime and morphological awareness can potentially boost those students who are showing up in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades as struggling readers, even if they have received systematic phonics instruction K-1.

Here’s a few pieces of research aligning with my claims:

Don’t agree? Fire away! But one thing I want to stress is that you consider the student populations that have been assessed or worked with in your experience or research. Are they historically marginalized and underserved populations? Are they learning English as a new language? Are they struggling with a learning disability? I’m less interested in arguments that center students who typically benefit from the existing methods of instruction.

Since writing this, I have changed and revised my thinking about the teaching of phonemic awareness and of the practice of phonology that is not connected to letters. Read more here

#phonemicawareness #phonology #sounds #speech #reading #literacy #language #neuroscience #research