Showing posts with label Phonics and Phonological Awareness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Phonics and Phonological Awareness. Show all posts

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Why Letter of the Week May Not Be Such a Good Idea

Teacher question:
Our district is trying to determine the proper pacing for introducing letter names/sounds in kindergarten. One letter per week seems too slow; 2 seems a bit fast. Most teachers are frustrated by 2 per week.

We are thinking about going with 1 for the first 9 weeks, then doubling up. This would have all letter names/sounds introduce by February. Can you offer some advise? How much is too much?

Shanahan response:
            This seems like a reasonable straightforward, simple question. And, it is, if you are a teacher, principal, or curriculum designer trying to plan a year of instruction. However, it is not the type of question that research takes on, so I can give you an answer, but it has to be one constructed on my understanding of the teaching of reading (research-based, but not research proven).

            The problem is that I could give a very specific answer like, teach one letter per week during kindergarten (and let’s face it, “Letter of the Week” is very popular). However, if I answered it in that way, I’d be ignoring some really important issues, like whether we want that much focus on individual letters and what is it that we want kids to know about letters.

            So let’s start with a really basic question:  What should a kindergartner know about this aspect of literacy by the end of the year? 

           In my opinion, kindergartners should know the names of all 52 upper and lower case letters. That means they should be able to name the letters presented to them in random order. They should also be familiar with one of the sounds associated with each of those letters—and it would be great if they knew both the “long” and “short” vowel sounds (so if I named or showed them a letter they could produce its sound, and if I made the sound, they could tell me the letter). Kindergartners should be able to sound out some one-syllable words or nonsense words using the letters they have learned. They should be able to fully segment single syllable words easily, and perhaps even be able to manipulate some of these sounds (adding them, deleting them, reversing them). And they should be able to print each of these letters and their names without having a visual model in front of them (and print their names).

            That description would be really easy to accomplish in some communities, where kids come to school already knowing letter names and some of the sounds, and it will be tougher in others. However, it would send kids off to Grade 1 ready to really become readers (especially if other aspects of literacy and language are being taught too).

            In any event, to accomplish all of this I would devote 30-45 minutes per day to these decoding issues—including the teaching of the letters (that's for full-day kindergarten--I would cut this in half in half-day situations). However, that does not mean you should sit kids down for 30-minute letter learning lessons—you might work on letters 2 or 3 times per day, for anywhere from 5- to 20-minutes per sitting.

            I think a combination of 1-2 letters per week is reasonable, but I wouldn't teach new letters every week. Remember letter naming or even letter sounding isn’t all that we want them to learn.

            For example, let’s say that on Week 1 I teach the “m” and “t” (letter names and sounds, upper and lower case), on week 2, the “p” and “h,” and on a third week, I teach only the letter “o” and its short sound. Then, on Week 4, there would be no new letters introduced. We would focus on using the 5 letters already taught. That means all of my decoding minutes would be spent on phonological awareness exercises focused on those specific sounds, blending various combinations of those letters (op, ot, om, top, tot, Tom, pop, pot, pom, hot, hop, etc.) into syllables, decoding and trying to spell syllables/words on the basis of the sounds alone. 

            If you gave each vowel its own week, and taught many, but not all, of the consonants in pairs, you could easily introduce all the letters over a single semester of kindergarten—and the students would have had at least 45 hours of practice with those letters; meaning a reasonably high degree of mastery should be accomplished by most kids.

            That means that those “non-letter introduction weeks”—like week 4 above—would be available 18 times during the year--fully half the year. You’d be spending as many weeks introducing letters as not introducing them. Those weeks would allow substantial amounts of phonemic awareness practice with those sounds, decoding work with those letters and sounds, invented spelling work and word construction with those letters and sounds, and ongoing review of all of that to ensure that the learning is really mastered.

            I would not save up those combination weeks until the second semester. I would salt them throughout the year to make sure that the learning was substantial and deep (meaning that kids would not just “know” those letters, but would be able to do something with them). Again, staying with my example above… 3 weeks of letter introduction, and then a week of consolidation might be followed by another week or two of letter introduction, and then back to consolidation with all the letters taught to that time, and that kind of a scheme could go on most of the year. Of course, if you noticed that your kids weren't retaining some of that, there would even be times that you could add in extra days or weeks of consolidation work as needed.


            With a plan like that, by summer, your kids would know their letters. But more importantly, they’d be able to perceive the sounds within words, and to engage in simple decoding and spelling using those letters and sounds. Outcomes not common in "letter of the week" teaching environments.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Is rhyming ability in important in reading?

Our district is wrestling with how much emphasis to give rhyming as an early literacy skill. We had previously downplayed rhyming as a necessary focus but the new CA ELA/ELD Framework and CCSS where rhyming is specifically called out has resurfaced old questions.  

Our struggle is this.... with our very high (87%) English Learner population, rhyming is one of the later skills acquired for these students in Preschool through grade 1.  Reading research seems to support the idea of rhyming as a pre-requisite to reading; exposure to this kind of play with words and "word families" gives children another pathway to reading. However, students who are not native to English miss this early exposure and much of their cognitive energy seems to be taken up with meaning-making. Often in our classrooms it seems we are successful at teaching the students to decode and then have to go back and teach them to identify and produce rhyming words.  Doesn't this defeat the purpose for using rhyming as a building block for reading?

This is not to say that our teachers aren't talking about rhyming words as they are encountered in text or pointing out word families but our question, as we decide where to put our educational dollar, is will an emphasis on rhyming give us a reading payout?

When I was a young reading specialist (a very long time ago), I wondered about this myself—though I certainly wasn’t aware of any research on it. I noticed that some of my low readers were surprisingly thick when it came to rhyme. Rhyme had always seemed automatic to me, and it made me wonder about its role in reading. As a result, I started to check out the rhyming ability of my students (grade 2-6). Just as I suspected, poor rhyming appeared to be an important marker of low reading ability.

What I had informally noticed as a teacher, the research community noticed as well. In the 1980s (and especially the 1990s--though it continues today), rhyming as a precursor to reading became a big issue. It made sense: many low readers struggled with rhyming, the research community was increasingly interested in how kids perceive language sounds, and phonological awareness (PA) became a big deal. It is rare that one sees a list of those early PA skills that doesn’t include rhyming.

There was so much research on this that the National Early Literacy Panel (2008) was able to meta-analyze it. Here is what we concluded:

1.     Rhyming ability is predictive of later reading achievement, but it had the weakest correlation of any of the phonemic awareness skills. Being able to segment words into single phonemes or to blend phonemes together into words, were significantly better predictors of decoding. (There were no significant differences in these predictors with regard to later reading comprehension growth).
2.     With regard to the teaching of PA, it was concluded that there were few instructional interventions that used rhyming activities as a primary teaching approach, but that the teaching of letters and sounds had a significant impact on student learning.

What do I conclude from this? First, rhyming ability is a predictor of later reading development, but it isn’t as accurate or sensitive as other skills (like letter naming or phonemic awareness—children’s ability to distinguish or segment single sounds in words). If I noticed a youngster was having trouble with rhymes, I would pay attention to it, but if I was setting up a screening program to identify potential problems, rhyming wouldn’t be the way that I would go.

Given that there are no studies showing that teaching rhyming improves reading achievement (or even makes kids more amenable to and successful with phonemic awareness instruction), I wouldn’t want to spend much time teaching it. There are some recent studies that suggest that as students learn to read, their ability to rhyme improves (McNorgan, Awati, Desroches, & Booth, 2014). Thus, instead of better rhyming leading to better reading, the knowledge of words and letters and sounds allows students to gain access to this somewhat separate skill. 

That may be why your second language students do better with rhyming once they can read; they would have greater knowledge of vocabulary and the language in general once they were reading--and these skills are evidently important in rhyming. That is also probably why rhyming has a more similar relationship to reading comprehension as the other phonological skills: These skills have little or no functional relationship in reading comprehension, but they do serve as markers of language proficiency or sophistication. The better one is with language, the better one will be with comprehension. But since rhyming plays little or no functional role in decoding, it is less predictive of decoding skills. 

There is no question that all of these various phonological awareness skills—awareness of the sound separation between words, the ability to separate syllables within words, the ability to segment onsets (first sounds) from rimes (b/ig), the ability to rhyme, the ability to segment or blend phonemes are all correlated with each other. But it is the segmenting and blending of phonemes that has functional value in reading.


I would not put a lot of emphasis on the teaching of rhyme. It sounds to me like your teachers are approaching this appropriately and the policy is, perhaps unintentionally, steering them in the wrong direction.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Teaching My Daughters to Read -- Part III, Phonics

And what about phonics?

So far, I have explained the literacy environment, print awareness, and sight word teaching that were part of teaching my daughters to read, but phonics also played an important role.

I have explained that my children were remembering words from their language experience stories. My teacher preparation students at the university asked me how many words my daughters would need to know before they could read; a very interesting question. In fact, there is no set number. Memorizing some words is always part of beginning reading, but reading is more than memorizing words.

Phonics both reduces students’ reliance on word memorization and makes such memorization easier. It accomplishes the former, by allowing students to sound out words that are yet unknown. Phonics allows the young reader to approximate the pronunciation of a word from nothing but the letters on the page, a liberating tool.

But phonics instruction also sets students off on trying to figure out and use the spelling patterns in text. Those patterns are not usually used to “sound out” words in any obvious way (except initially), but learning them does seem to increase how quickly and easily students come to “remember” words. Initially, children struggle to remember words, but as they learn the spelling patterns and sound-symbol relations the words get stickier—they seem to stay in memory with much less work.

Our girls received their systematic explicit decoding instruction from cheap workbooks purchased at the grocery store. These workbooks were neither thorough nor especially well constructed, but they gave my daughters practice auditory discrimination (hearing the phonemic contrasts) and sound-symbol correspondences.

We didn’t’ just assign pages to them to do independently, but usually we did these pages with them—these sessions ran for as little as a few minutes (when they weren’t interested) to several minutes at a time when they were engaged. Believe it or not, lots of kids enjoy workbook pages. It is a kind of playing school that can be profitable.

I never set particular amounts of phonics to accomplish (such as 3-pages a day). But we worked on these several times a week and both girls were able to go through them pretty quickly.

Through these kinds of materials (including alphabet blocks and magnet letters on the refrigerator), they learned all the letters and sounds. E., with her special strengths in language, caught on pretty quickly and could do all the pages with minimal adult instruction; M. needed more explicit support to complete them, and the work went a bit slower. They both managed to learn all of the letter names (lower case and capitals), and all of the single consonant sounds and beginning consonant digraphs (sh, ch, th, wh) before they could really read. Just as reading is not the mastery of some number of words, it is also not the mastery of some number of sound-symbol relations.

By the time they knew their letters and sounds, the dictation work had started to disappear, replaced by their own writing. Both could do simple writing before they could actually read. They knew how to use the sounds to produce letters and could represent words they wanted to write. (I would make a big deal out of how wonderful this was and would print the words in standard spelling on the back).

At this point, they knew all the letters and many of the letter sounds, could recognize some words, understood how print worked (that the words told the story, the direction that print ran), and were surrounded with reading and writing in their environment. All of the raw materials of reading were in place, but what about reading?


In the next entry in this space, I’ll explain how they finally crossed the boundary and entered into the land of literacy.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

More on High School Phonics--From Marilyn Jager Adams

Usually, posts to this site just sit at the bottom of my blog entries. If you click on the title of one of my entries you can see what someone might have said about my thoughts.

However, today, I was pleased to accept the entry of someone who I deeply admire, so I wanted to highlight it a bit. Marilyn Jager Adams weighed in on my high school phonics blog and argues for why technology might get us out of the unfortunate quandry that I described. As I say, normally, I do not tout the responses and that is especially true if I feel like the responder has something to sell. I usually don't push such products here (even the ones that I have developed--and I have received some complaints about that, believe it or not), but I think Marilyn raises an important point and one I want to highlight.

I really doubt that our system has the resolve to invest very heavily in the education of kids who are 7-8 years behind, so technology could be a real hope. But, my experience is that most people don't have the resolve to hang in there with a computer. They love the privacy, they love the individualization, but they get lonely. Products like the one Marilyn describes need to be studied, but even if they work, what does it take to make them work well enough?

My first introduction to Read 180 wasn't a good one. It involved a dispute between parents and school district. The district had taken a learning disabled child and stuck him into Read 180 for two years. At the end of that time, he had regressed. The school didn't feel obligated to invest as heavily as they probably needed to in that student's learning, so technology was a good out. The boy actually liked Read 180, but only for the first few months, and then he felt detached, alone, rejected. That isn't the fault of technology (I don't think, in that case, a better program would have made a difference, though if the Read 180 curriculum had been followed-- not just the tech part, it might have gone better for everyone.

So by all means, Marilyn, continue to try to improve such programs over time, that will likely help. But for teachers and parents, as good a piece of software may be, remember that learning is social. Sometimes we want to be protected from others and sometime we want to be connected with them (counter or drive thru window today?). Good software can both teach and protect the fragile ego of a neglected learner who is so far behind it is embarrassing. Good software usually does not make a student feel more connected and accepted by others (and being low in literacy can be an isolating event).

If you want to read Marilyn's fine input, please click on the title of my High School Phonics blog and it will be there. Happy reading, and thanks for the contribution Marilyn. I was proud to accept it.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Phonics for High Schoolers

Recently, I received a query from some high school teachers at a charter school. They had been using Read 180 with their "remedial readers" and were generally happy with it, except for the really low kids--high school students reading below the third grade level and they wanted to know if there were better choices for those kids.

I don't have a lot of experience with high school phonics, but what do you do if a student is 7-9 years behind in their reading skills. Ignoring the decoding problems does not make much sense, but what works?

So, when confronted with a question that I know not the answer of, I went to some one with greater expertise on that issue, in this case, Don Deshler of the University of Kansas. To my surprise, he punted, too.

But soon he got back with an answer from the members of his team who deal the most with those kinds of readers. Their response was that overall, the best choice for that situation is Wilson Reading or something like it (they've had "outstanding results with the kinds of kids you are describing").

However, Don pointed out that to be successful it has to be taught 1 on 1 or in very small groups, for about two years.

They also indicated good results with Corrective Reading (SRA), which can be delivered to larger groups, and which is easier to learn and faster to implement than Wilson.

My question is, how many high schools are willing to provide multiple years of remedial instruction, even to moderate sized groups? And how much progress are these kids likely to make? I could imagine a wildly successful program moving kids two years for 1 year instruction, and if you maintained that over a two-year period you would have moved these students to a... fifth grade reading level... Ethically, that is exactly what we should be doing, but tactically, it is a losing proposition for the school (too few kids getting too many resources to make gains that aren't sufficient for needs).

The point of this blog entry is two fold: first, there are some high schoolers who are going to need very basic, phonics oriented interventions and there are programs like Wilson and Corrective Reading that make sense for such populations; second, the odds against that delivering the outcomes we need are virtually insurmountable--we simply cannot allow kids to reach high school that far behind. Much more needs to be done in upper elementary schools and middle schools.

Some other important points: Don stressed the importance of keeping this kind of instruction upbeat and fast-paced (which makes great sense). He also stressed the inadequacy of computer-based approaches with this kind of instruction (which also registers with me). And, I would add, that while the decoding problems are being addressed, a lot of listening comprehension and vocabulary work needs to be done (so these students don't stagnate intellectually).

Sunday, November 29, 2009

On Sequences of Instuction

This weekend I received an interesting question from a third grade teacher in Frankfort, KY. She writes, “In my district we do not have a specific scope and sequence for teaching vocabulary, nor phonics. I have tried to find something that I feel is research-based and comprehensive. I want to help my strugglers and my above-level students. Can you help?”

Those are two pretty important questions: What should the sequence of instruction be in phonics and vocabulary? And do you need a prescribed sequence to be successful?

Let me answer the easier of the two questions, first. Yes, I think it is important to have a clearly established sequence of instruction in both phonics and vocabulary. In phonics, the question has been tested directly in several research studies, and always with the same result: teachers who were teaching a pre-established regimen of phonics were more successful than those who were winging it. I know of no direct tests of the question in the vocabulary literature, but all of the studies where success was accomplished in improving reading comprehension had a clear plan for the teacher.

So, what is the research-based comprehensive curriculum that teachers need to follow? Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t know. When I look at phonics and vocabulary studies, it is clear that pretty much all sequences work. For example, the National Reading Panel looked at 38 studies on the teaching of phonics, and though those differed greatly in the inclusion and ordering of skills, all the approaches seemed to confer an advantage. The same is true for vocabulary.

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. Perhaps direct tests of different sequences could sort out some learning differences. What I think it really means is that most of the schemes tested in research are pretty reasonable. Most try to teach the most important or largest skills first, or have some kind of logic to their plan. Most don’t emphasize minor or later developing skills. But all provide sufficient coverage and structure to make sure the kids have a chance of succeeding.

Yes, indeed, your school or district should have a systematic plan for what is to be taught in each grade level so that teachers will have a clear idea of what to do. Without such a plan, important words or spelling patterns may not be taught, and some things may be covered over and over. The most successful kids may be able to make progress anyway, but it is a disaster for the strugglers.

That there isn’t a single research-proven sequence gives your district some latitude. They could buy one of the many commercial programs out there aimed at supporting systematic instruction, or they could convene a group of teachers from the district to make some local decisions. Apparently, within reason, it doesn’t matter that much what the exact plan is, just that there be one and that teachers follow it. When such a plan exists, you usually see more teaching happen than when it is left up to each teacher to work out; and that is a big benefit for kids. Of course, if there is a plan, a teacher can tell how a child is doing—the instructional sequence becomes a point of comparison for determining who is not doing well.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Why It Sometimes Looks Like Teaching Does Harm

I was speaking with a teacher who was not a big fan of phonics instruction. It was not that she was totally against it, in fact her concerns had arisen from observing the children who she was teaching phonics to. She was concerned because, often, when she introduced new skills, the kids seemed more awkward and more confused than when she started.

Of course, it could be that she was just a bad teacher and was just doing a bad job of explaining and modeling the decoding skills. Bad teaching can certainly confuse more than it clarifies. However, she didn’t seem like a bad teacher—too smart, too serious, too caring for that to be likely.

Maybe she was just a poor observer… but I doubt that was the case, as research has often found that new instruction can hurt performance—at least in the short run, and my own recent experiences with trying to learn ballroom dancing has been consistent with this, too.

I've worked hard to learn to dance and have been a real challenge to my teacher (she is often even more frustrated than me). She teaches some new step or styling and I struggle to get it. I go home and my wife helps me practice and we spend long hours mastering the new step. I eventually get it, and am thrilled when I go back to show Jelena, my teacher, what I’ve accomplished.

Her response is always the same: “Great. Now let’s try something new.” In other words, my reward for learning was to be taught something else. If I know how to do a basic step, she would add a turn… and I would struggle again… not just with the turn, but with the basic step that I already could do. The problem is that the new turn would overload my circuits. I could do the basic step, but not while I was anticipating the turn. Of course, as we would practice together initially, it tended to get worse—my brain would get more and more confused.

The introduction of a new skill can pull down the performance on other skills—temporarily. New information changes the context, and it can be hard to apply any new skill in a new context. To reduce this impact, try teaching skills more thoroughly (with applications in a lot of different contexts—including some in which cognitive overload or distraction will occur). Also, don’t let the seeming temporary reduction success throw you or throw your students: stay with it, and provide a lot of encouragement. Teaching can lower skills, but it gets better over time.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

How To Observe Reading Instruction

It is important that principals know what to watch for in a reading lesson. What makes it effective? It is important for coaches to, if they are to give teachers any kind of supportive guidance. And, let's face it, good teachers are likely to do much more self evaluation than being observed by others.

One thing that complicates reading instruction is there are lots of different kinds of lessons, and each of these lesson types has its own requirements. Basically, reading is both a skilled activity that requires a lot of precision performance without much conscious awareness (like recognizing high frequency words or common spelling patterns). But, it also requires actions that are synonymous with thinking and these require a lot of reflection and depth of thought. That means that a comprehension lesson ought to look pretty different from a phonics lesson; not just in content, but in the kinds of cognitive action the lesson leads kids to engage.

So, if you need to do observations -- including self observations -- you might find the following document to be useful. It tells the kinds of things I would watch for in various reading lessons.

http://timothyshanahan8.googlepages.com/howtoobservereadinginstruction

Monday, November 10, 2008

How do I select an effective phonemic awareness program?

Is there really such a thing as an effective program? Your question would be like asking a plumber, “How do I select an effective wrench?” It’s not the wrench that’s effective, it’s the plumber with a wrench, and it is the same idea with teachers and instructional programs.

However, I get your point. You aren’t looking for an “effective program,” as much as for a program that has the potential of being effective if used properly by a teacher who knows her stuff. The National Reading Panel (NRP) reviewed 52 studies that showed that explicit teaching of phonemic awareness to kindergartners and first-graders helped them in learning to read. The idea is that if young children can hear the separable sounds within words, they will make a faster start in learning to decode. Phonemic awareness instruction should teach kids to hear the sounds, and phonics instruction then builds on that knowledge. These days most core programs try to include phonemic awareness teaching.

The purpose of teaching phonemic awareness is to ensure children can hear all separable sounds within words, and that they be able to hold these sounds in memory and do things with them (like separate them or delete them). If a student can fully segment words with proficiency (that is, he or she can break words into all of their separate sounds with ease), then everything that need be accomplished with a phonemic awareness program has been accomplished and you can move on. The issue in evaluating and selecting a program is will it provide enough quality support that students should be able to master that set of skills.

Towards that end, one thing I would look for in a phonemic awareness program would be the inclusion of phonological awareness instruction. Phonemic awareness is part of a larger collection of auditory skills dealing with language sounds (phonological awareness). Phonemic awareness, the awareness of the individual phonemes or the smallest meaningful sounds in the language, is the most sophisticated of these skills. Before children develop these sophisticated phonemic skills, they go through a continuum of skills development that allows them to first to isolate or separate words, syllables, rhymes and simple beginning sounds (onsets). Some young children struggle to learn to hear individual sounds; a program that includes instruction in these precursor skills, can allow these kids to make faster progress (and teachers can skip this part of the program for kids who have already learned these earlier developing skills). The inclusion of lessons aimed at these grosser and earlier-developing skills is a good fall-back position.

Furthermore, I would look for a program that provides about 18 hours of explicit, systematic teaching of phonemic awareness (approximately 64 15-minute lessons, for example—but this can be organized lots of different ways). Programs may provide more than this amount of teaching, but not less. The reason I say this is because the NRP review found that about 14-18 hours of instruction led to optimum amounts of learning; some kids needed more than this, of course, and some needed less. It is essential to have a program that will provide at least enough support that the average student will be able to accomplish the instructional goals by going through all of the activities (and you might need additional support for students who make slowere progress).

The sequence of instruction of an effective program should be (1) separation of words and syllables, (2) rhyming, (3) separation of onsets and rimes (e.g., b-ig, c-an); (4) the segmentation and blending of the individual sounds. Letter names should be taught throughout this sequence, and it is reasonable to mix phonemic awareness with phonics by teaching students the sounds associated with the various letters.

A sound program will offer both whole class lessons and small group instruction (groups of three work very well for this). This small group instruction is for the kids who don’t make sufficient progress in the large group and it should increase these children’s interaction with the teacher (making it easier to see the teacher’s mouth and to hear the sounds and to respond more frequently). Of course, if teachers are going to adjust instruction successfully, by giving some kids extra help in small group, then it is important that the program provide a sound assessment, so teachers can gauge the children’s progress.

Remember, this teaching is for 5- and 6-year-olds and it is important that it be appropriate to young children. This means simple language in the explanations, attractive illustrations, varied activities, and brief, but frequent, lessons tailored to the short attention spans of youngsters in this age group. Programs should only try to teach one or two skills at a time (don’t overwhelm the children). These lessons should be fun, and can incorporate singing, clapping, stomping, and other movements. It is important to have children use concrete representations of the letter sounds (i.e., clapping, markers, letter cards). Take a hard look at a program to determine if teachers could use it easily and if children would understand both what they are supposed to do in the various activities and what they are supposed to learn from them.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Watch Those Inferences

Recently, I received a note from someone who was agitated about their state school board. It seems the board wanted to reject the purchase of an instructional program because it didn’t teach phonemic awareness separately from phonics. The committee of teachers that were recommending the program were upset, the vendor was upset, and because of my work on the National Reading Panel I was being asked to weigh in.

Of course, I wanted to know what led the state board to think that phonics and phonemic awareness had to be taught separately. The answer was that these skills were laid out separately in the state standards.

This reminds me of the Congressional aide who very patiently explained to me that, “Of course, the National Reading Panel was saying that you had to teach phonemic awareness before you could teach phonics, and you had to teach phonics before you could teach fluency, and you had to teach fluency before you could get to reading comprehension.” I wondered where this insight into our work came from and he showed me… the topics were handled in separate chapters in that order so he “naturally” inferred that’s what we meant. Wow!

With regard to the phonics-phonemic awareness question:
The National Reading Panel reviewed research on the teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics for the U.S. government. To ensure that both of these skills areas required instructional attention, we reviewed studies where only phonemic awareness or phonics was being taught. In other words, if a study was testing the combined effects of phonemic awareness and phonics, we didn’t include it in our review.

In both instances, we found that instruction in that specific skill area provided kids with some learning benefit. In other words, phonemic awareness instruction was beneficial and phonics instruction was beneficial. Given the nature of the studies that we examined, we didn’t draw what I would consider to the erroneous inference that these skills need to be taught separately. In fact, to the contrary, we noted that phonemic awareness programs that included letters (the connection of sounds and letters being the beginnings of phonics) did better than those programs that did not include letters, and concluded that phonemic awareness and phonics both needed to be taught and that they could and should clearly be connected.

Later, when the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth did its review, there were so few studies of the teaching of these skills to English learners that we examined all of such studies (even if phonemic awareness and phonics were combined). Whether the study focused on combinations of these skills or these skills separately, the results were the same: young English learners benefited from this kind of teaching.

A new report to be released soon from the National Early Literacy Panel that has examined the research on teaching literacy to preschoolers and kindergartners, also found phonological awareness and phonics to be good things to teach, but they made no claims for the need to separate these.

State or district standards tend to specify skills without regard to how they are to be taught in the classroom. There certainly is nothing in the California state learning standards or the research that would argue for separating phonemic awareness from phonics, as long as both skills are clearly, explicitly, and thoroughly addressed. A program that claims to combine such skills, but really just elides over one of them, doesn’t fit that bill. But a program that tries to teach both of these together could do a very good job of supporting effective teaching.
Awhile back I heard about a similar concern from another email. This one was concerned that a combined phonemic awareness/phonics program was not doing it right. What they meant was that their conception of how to combine this instruction was that a teacher would spend several weeks teaching young kids to hear the separable sounds and then once that was accomplished, they would turn their attention to teaching sound symbol relationships. There is nothing wrong with that conception, and I would not be averse to such a plan as either a teacher or a researcher.

What was throwing this person was that the program she was reviewing didn’t teach it in this way. That is, they worked on phonemic awareness for particular letters and letter combinations, and when kids could hear these particular sounds, the program immediately linked these to letters. This is a very different conception of the relationship of PA to phonics, and it recognizes that kids become sensitive to some sounds earlier and easier than others, and therefore instead of trying to teach PA in its entirety it is connected to the letters as the kids develop.
Although this is a very different approach, it, too, is sensible and, again, as a researcher or a teacher, I would have no trouble with this plan either.

I believe that the federal research reviews and state learning standards have been valuable, but I’m concerned about the inferences some readers draw from these, that may be more linked to their own beliefs than to anything in the documents. Good readers not only draw inferences, they are aware of their inferences and the sources for them.