How do I select an effective phonemic awareness program?

  • 10 November, 2008

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 slower 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 a small group, then it is important that the program provides 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 for 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.


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How do I select an effective phonemic awareness program?


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