Letters in Phonemic Awareness Instruction or the Reciprocal Nature of Learning to Read

  • phonemic awareness alphabet
  • 10 October, 2020

Teachers’ question:

I’m confused. I’ve heard you say that we should teach phonemic awareness and letters simultaneously. Other “experts” say that phonemic awareness is strictly an auditory skill and that including letters slows children’s learning. Help!

I have some children who, no matter what, don’t seem to be making any progress with phonemic awareness. These three are the only ones who have not progressed to phonics instruction. What should I do?

Shanahan’s response:

This is one of those, “Do we follow theory or data” questions. I’m a data man, myself.

Many educators tout the idea that phonemic awareness (PA) is an auditory skill and that it, therefore, must be learned auditorilly. And, indeed, there are many people who see learning to read as a rigidly sequential exercise… progressing unerringly from phonemic awareness to decoding to text reading fluency to reading comprehension to writing – accomplish one and then you’re prepared to take on the next.

All that makes sense.

Or, it does, at least, until you start teaching 5- and 6-year-old children and see how their learning actually progresses. That’s why studies of reading suggest more complicated lines of development.

The reason I say that it makes more sense to teach phonemic awareness with letters than without is because research shows that instructional routines that do that end up with greater success (NICHD, 2000). It is also true that studies find that when young children engage in activities like invented spelling their phonemic awareness tends to improve. That’s weird, from a theoretical view, since invented spelling depends upon children’s knowledge of letters, a supposedly later developing skill. (David Kilpatrick says that the instruction in those PA studies didn’t start with letters – they used counters and such —but over time they replaced these with letters. That replacement appears to matter.)

Studies of preschoolers and kindergartners have even found efforts that integrate phonemic awareness and phonics instruction to be effective (NELP, 2000).

How can we teach higher level or later developing skills and facilitate foundational or earlier developing ones?

Several years ago, I raised these questions myself with Linnea Ehri, one of our true experts in beginning reading development. Her thoughtful response is in close accord with data:

“Rather than a line [between PA and decoding], I would draw a recycling circle (like a slinky?) by adopting a developmental perspective. Auditory PA that involves teaching children to analyze syllables and initial sounds including articulatory gestures in words begins the process that paves the way for entry into benefiting from phonics instruction and letter name/sound learning. Auditory PA helps children detect the critical sounds in letter names and in pronunciations of words when they practice using letters to represent sounds in words in invented spelling tasks. Practice at inventing spellings improves their PA and their movement into word reading and spelling and ability to benefit from phonics instruction. Learning grapheme-phoneme mapping skill to read and spell in turn improves their PA. So PA and phonics skills and instruction are reciprocally intertwined as children acquire PA, spelling, sight word reading and decoding skills.”

Foundational skills help readers to progress with higher level ones. That means phonemic awareness facilitates decoding and spelling. However, trying to apply phonemic awareness within decoding and spelling refines and extends that ability. The payoff might be greater in one direction (from the simpler to the more elaborate skills), but it definitely goes both ways.

The esteemed Dr. Ehri isn’t the only scientist to recognize the reciprocal nature of reading skill development. Charles Perfetti, Isabel Beck, Steve Graham, Charles Hulme, S. Jay Samuels, Sally Shaywitz, Julie Washington and many others have all written about it. Perfetti and Beck’s, “Phonemic knowledge and learning to read are reciprocal” is an oft-cited example.

Studies have revealed the impact of decoding, spelling, and word reading on phonemic awareness; the impact of morphology and oral reading fluency on decoding ability; and the impact of writing on reading comprehension. This reciprocity has been found in longitudinal correlational studies and in instructional studies.

In the case of phonemic awareness, trying to perceive the sounds within words can be difficult. If you have any doubt about this, you should listen to a foreign language; try to count the words. Good luck!

Having a visual representation can help, however. Eventually you need to perceive the sounds by ear alone, but the support of the eye can help facilitate the accomplishment of that.

I suspect it’s the same with the other well-known examples of reciprocity. The higher skill somehow supports the lower one. For instance, morphology may help with decoding because it tips the learners off to some of the meaning-bearing structures within words. Fluency may contribute to decoding through greater development of the automaticity required to do more than decode lists of words. And, when someone tries to write a story, they use what they’ve learned from reading to do that. But that effort to construct a story could sensitize them to more subtle aspects of structure that enhances their reading comprehension.

So, include letters in phonemic awareness work, but remember that students have to get to the point where they can perceive those phonemes by ear alone.

Even more importantly, don’t fall for the idea that the literacy components are learned one at a time in sequence. Good literacy instruction in the early grades is going to focus on decoding (both phonemic awareness and phonics), oral reading fluency (and, initially, things like finger point reading), reading/listening comprehension (including vocabulary), and writing (including spelling). Not one at a time, but all of them in every kindergarten, first and second grade classrooms.

That means get those kiddies who are still lagging in PA into a good phonics program; it’s time.

Here is a short list of studies illustrating the reciprocity described in this posting. It is meant to show how common such findings are, but it is not anywhere near a comprehensive list.

Partial Listing of Studies that have identified reciprocity in learning to read:

Conrad, N.J., Harris, N., & Williams, J. (2013). Individual differences in children’s literacy development: The contribution of orthographic knowledge. Reading & Writing, 26, 1223-1239.

DOI 10.1007/s11145-012-9415-2

Deacon, S. H., Benere, J., & Pasquarella, A. (2013). Reciprocal relationship: Children's morphological awareness and their reading accuracy across grades 2 to 3. Developmental Psychology, 49(6), 1113-1126.

Hulme, C., Zhou, L., Tong, X., Lervåg, A., & Burgoyne, K. (2019). Learning to read in Chinese: Evidence for reciprocal relationships between word reading and oral language skills. Developmental Science, 22(1), 1-11.

Martins, M.A., & Silva, C. The impact of invented spelling on phonemic awareness. Learning and Instruction, 16, 41-56.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. Washington, DC: National Institute of Literacy.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

O’Leary, R., & Ehri, L.C. (2019). Orthography facilitates memory for proper names in emergent readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(1), 75-93.

Perfetti, C. A., Beck, I., Bell, L. C., & Hughes, C. (1987). Phonemic knowledge and learning to read are reciprocal: A longitudinal study of first grade children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 33(3), 283-319.

Puranik, C., Branum-Martin, L., & Washington, J.A. (2019). The relation between dialect density and the codevelopment of writing and reading in African American children. Child Development, 91(4), 866-882.

Schaars, M.M.H., Segers, E., & Verhoeven, L. (2017). Predicting the integrated development of word reading and spelling in the early primary grades. Learning and Individual Differences, 59, 127-140.

Sparks, R.L., Patton, J., & Murdoch, A. (2014). Early reading success and its relationship to reading achievement and reading volume: Replication of ’10 years later’. Reading and Writing, 27, 189-211.

Tong, X., & McBride, C. (2017). A reciprocal relationship between syntactic awareness and reading comprehension. Learning and Individual Differences, 57, 33-44.

Wadsworth, S.J., DeFries, J.C., Fulker, D.W., Olson, R.K., & Pennington, B.F. (1995). Reading performance and verbal short-term memory: A twin study of reciprocal causation. Intelligence, 20, 145-167.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sam Bommarito Oct 10, 2020 04:56 PM

Thanks Dr. Shanahan for giving a research based common sense answer to this important question. I'm starting to run out of space on my office walls for posts of yours that I keep on my office walls to remind me to consider all points of view. Guess I'm going to need a bigger office! Anyway, this one is another home run. Thanks!

Bridget Vaughan Oct 10, 2020 05:54 PM

Makes perfect sense to me. Dubbed the language arts in later grade levels, all of these reading, writing, listening and speaking skills need to be intertwined and practiced during those foundational years.

Timothy Shanahan Oct 10, 2020 09:50 PM


It is difficult for learners to keep track of the phonemes when they are trying to figure them out. Which is why manipulatives, counters, letters, etc. serve as such useful placeholders. The benefit of letters of course is that it starts to move you into decoding (which is part of the reason why including letters is more beneficial than more neutral counters. But indeed if you are working with two or three syllable (those words with internal consonants), it makes great sense to provide some kind of manipulative to help the students to keep track.


Donna Johnson Oct 10, 2020 07:55 PM

That is why I love orthographic mapping. It combines so many reading skills in one simple activity. And if you are teaching PA with good phonics, fluency with comprehension the end result will be a child that learns read, write, spell and discuss so much more. It is also why I love to incorporate orthographic mapping across the curriculum. What a better way to teach a difficult word like equation in math, neighborhood in social studies, or phenomenon in science than breaking up the word into syllables and sounds. Then as the students hear the sounds attach the letters that match. Morphology comes out, vocabulary is learned and reading is the outcome. Thanks for encouraging me to be a better teacher with amazing articles.

Jesse Steif Oct 10, 2020 08:59 PM

I'd love to hear your thoughts about using letters to teach more advanced phonemic skills like manipulations. Specifically, manipulations of internal phonemes in consonant blends presents a challenge as that will often change spelling in pretty significant ways (i.e. changing roast to roped). Those types of purely phonemic manipulations often appear in programs that yield significant gains in students with phonological and decoding difficulties, although those programs do also systematically teach graphemes as well as how they change when phonemes change so perhaps I've answered my own question! I appreciate all the work you do, Dr. Shanahan. It should go without saying that your voice has been a steady and reasonable guide for educators around the country.

Harriett Oct 10, 2020 09:12 PM

I agree that this topic of cycling through "rehearsal" and "retrieval" of PA skills is so important as explained in chapter six of David Kilpatrick's Equipped for Reading Success, which provides activities for promoting orthographic mapping, as well as Linnea Ehris' 2014 article, Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning, which shows how these PA skills can be applied to vocabulary acquisition in fifth graders. Thanks so much, Tim, for bringing this all together in such a comprehensive way.

Donald Potter Oct 10, 2020 11:09 PM

Here are two quotes from Marilyn J. Adams 2013 ABC Foundations for Young Children: A Classroom Curriculum

"Children need to know the alphabet. To use phonemic awareness for reading, children need to know which letter represents which phoneme. In turn, learning letter-sound correspondences requires that children not only be able to discern each letter but also to identify each letter by shape, confidently and securely. To use their phonemic awareness to write, children must also be able to form the letters with legible accuracy and reasonable ease. For much of their classroom instruction on reading and spelling, they must be able not only to recognize each letter, but also to seek, recall, or even image the letter given only its name or sound." (2).

"Even so, the issue is deeper than that, for children’s letter knowledge is a good predictor of their responsiveness to phonemic training. … It may well be, as several have argued, that gaining phonemics awareness depends on prior letter knowledge." (2)

Judy Ayers Oct 10, 2020 11:35 PM

After 25 years of teaching first graders to read, this confirms my understanding of why some kiddos “write to read.”

kate Collins-Carney Oct 11, 2020 01:19 AM

I am desperate for best practices for teaching high school age ESOL students without L1 literacy. Do we start with phonics? How can we teach phonics before language acquisition? Do we skip phonics?

Tim Shanahan Oct 11, 2020 02:15 AM

Kate— you need to develop English language. You don’t. Enticing whether students are literate in their home language already and it matters which language. Phonics definitely should be taught but very little if a student lis able to read a language like Spanish.


Dr. Gwen Lavert Oct 11, 2020 11:35 AM

When I think of teaching students to read, I first think of Phonological Awareness: Hearing It / Print Awareness and Associating it (phonics). African Americans come from an Oral History. So,their hearing of sounds before letters has to be developed along with wonderful rich stories and poems. Jumping to quickly into phonics which is the association of phonemes and graphemes can be damaging to their reading in the long run. I have used and found success with the Dechant Model when working with students from high poverty Urban Schools.

Lise L'Heureux Oct 11, 2020 05:27 PM

Bonjour Dr. Shanahan,

Are there shown benefits to teaching phonemic awareness to preschool children before sound-letter associations are introduced? If so, which studies have shown this to be so?

Thank you! Lise

Lisawj Oct 11, 2020 08:55 PM

I believe you are describing, SLIFE, students of limited/interrupted formal education, a subpopulation of El's. If a student comes in able to decode/read in their native language, you do comparative "phonics", for example, the short vowels are different in Spanish than in English, or minimal pairs, and meaning pen/pin etc. You have to teach our letters etc if the student comes from a different alphabet.
However, if a student comes in without literacy, you need to teach as if you are teaching basic adult literacy. The phonetic code must be mastered, and even a focus on reading from right to left, etc There is help for this, https://www.teachabcenglish.com/ is a one site. On TPT there is "Phonics Advantage " among other programs.

Timothy Shanahan Oct 12, 2020 09:21 PM

Yes, it makes sense to begin with phonemic awareness (but to include letters within the teaching of that) and then to move into decoding work. I would suggest that you look at chapter 3 of the National Early Literacy Panel report https://lincs.ed.gov/publications/pdf/NELPReport09.pdf


Jo-Anne Gross Oct 13, 2020 03:46 PM

Your best post ever!
Thank You so much.

Greg Oct 26, 2020 04:52 PM

A question somewhat tangential perhaps to this discussion: I have come across students who successfully "decode" simple CVC syllables (e.g., rat), albeit very slowly. However, when they have to re-blend the word, they are lost (sometimes using the last sound heard as an anchor for a wild guess at what the word is: tack). I have thought of this as a difficulty in accessing the phonemic structure of the target word. In such cases, I would weight the intervention towards phonemic blending/segmenting/manipulating to shore up what seems to be poor phonemic awareness. Now, I'm not too sure. What are your thoughts? Thanks,

Christi Nov 29, 2020 05:32 PM

What would you consider the best phonics programs?

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Letters in Phonemic Awareness Instruction or the Reciprocal Nature of Learning to Read


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.