Not long ago, I dared question the evidence supporting the teaching of “advanced phonemic awareness.” That elicited negative reactions from some educators who found my assertions threatening. Their notion was that if I raised doubts about this, then balanced literacy, whole language, cueing systems and the fall of the Republic would be manifest upon the land.
I’m not saying that there aren’t balanced literacy fanatics who cheer when I tell the truth about something like that (I wish they were as happy when I explain why it’s a bad idea to teach kids to guess words from context in place of reading).
Okay. I say there is no evidence for teaching advanced phonemic awareness and some readers are ticked off and dismissive and others are chanting, “Hooray for our side.”
But this hypothesis– that we may need to teach advanced PA – is too important to leave in this fog of virtue signaling and side choosing.
This idea of advanced phonemic awareness was popularized by David A. Kilpatrick, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Cortland. David has had a long career in school psychology and academia and may be the best-read scholar when it comes to things alphabetic.
How better to evaluate this idea than to turn to the source himself? He, more than anyone, knows from whence it came and the evidence, if any, that supports it. We recently spent a couple hours exploring these issues, and I reread the relevant portions of his landmark, 2015, book. Essential of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties.
David thought a major clarification was needed. In his 2015 book, he used the terms “phonemic proficiency” and “advanced phonemic awareness” interchangeably to refer to a cognitive or linguistic skill. He never used these terms to refer to any specific instructional activities. Nevertheless, many educators have conflated advanced phonemic awareness with the notion that certain teaching activities, namely phoneme deletion and substitution, were required. That notion came from some readers of his book, not from David. He never claimed that all kids needed to be engaged in deletion or substitution tasks.
This misunderstanding has led David to abandon the term “advanced phonemic awareness” altogether. He still refers to the underlying ability that all students must develop as phonemic proficiency. When suggesting relevant instructional activities, he describes them specifically (e.g., blending, segmentation, deletion, substitution). The point is to distinguish the ability that students must learn from the instructional activities we use to promote that ability.
More interesting are his insights regarding phonemic proficiency.
He begins with Linnea Ehri’s theory of orthographic mapping. That theory “explains how children learn to read words by sight, to spell words from memory, and to acquire vocabulary words from print” (Ehri, 2014, p. 5). Basically, young readers need to develop sufficient knowledge of the letters and phonemes so that printed words and spelling patterns can be connected with phonological representations in the mind. It is these phonemic representations that are the anchors that secure that information in memory.
Readers only briefly and occasionally “sound out” words when they read. That would be too slow and laborious (a fact that troubles balanced literacy proponents). Orthographic mapping, like any kind of fast mapping (the concept was drawn from the language learning literature) is about getting information into memory quickly and effortlessly.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Ehri champions teaching letter names, spelling, and phonemic awareness so that students can fully segment (analysis) and blend (synthesis) the sounds. This means they could separate words into their phonemic parts proficiently and reassemble them. Those abilities play an obvious functional role in orthographic mapping. As the National Reading Panel reported, teaching PA improves reading achievement (NICHD, 2000).
That’s where most of us leave it and why I dared question claims that students may require more PA than that. And, that’s where it gets interesting…
You see, David isn’t like most of us. He didn’t see that research as complete. Oh, he bought into the idea that kids needed explicit instruction in PA, he just wondered if that was sufficient for everyone.
No idle wondering was this.
It led him back through a plethora of studies to see what was going on with kids who didn’t succeed and why some word-reading interventions ended up with better results than others.
He concluded that some kids with core phonological processing deficiencies needed more help developing these phonemic anchors. Meeting typical early learning criteria (e.g., knowing letter names and sounds, segmenting words phonemically) simply were not getting these children far enough.
Studies have reported that older students demonstrate much greater phonemic proficiency than younger students. That means the ability continues to grow beyond the period of explicit teaching that is now often provided in grades K-1. We have long known that PA and reading are reciprocal – PA development improves early reading and reading practice extends PA.
Kilpatrick’s hypothesis is that for most kids, developing PA to the point where they can fully segment words is all that is needed to get things rolling—the PA automaticity that supports orthographic mapping naturally develops from there. He concludes that “business as usual” reading and spelling instruction and reading and writing practice are all that are needed to keep PA proficiency developing. Except…
Except for those kids with core phonological deficits . . . the ones who simply don’t get enough PA support from usual reading experience. They would, he hypothesizes, benefit from from more extended PA instruction to promote the phonemic proficiency displayed by typical readers. The point of this isn’t to engage kids in particular kinds of practice (e.g., deleting phonemes, adding phonemes, reversing phonemes), though engaging in some of them may be part of such practice – David thinks that could be beneficial. No, the purpose is to enable orthographic mapping.
Is this a goofy theory? I didn’t think so, but who am I? I, again, went to the source. Who would have better insight into the value of this hypothesis than Linnea Ehri?
She has a somewhat different conception of the form that this advanced development may take but she agreed with many (most) of his predictions of what would work and with whom and why it would matter. So, not a crazy idea at all. (Maybe those people who claimed me to be an idiot might be onto something.)
Remember, however, my complaint about “advanced PA” wasn’t about its potential accuracy or its value as a hypothesis that could help advance our understanding. No, my problem was with folks who were extending PA instruction in the classroom for everyone, states adopting more extended or rigorous PA standards for all, and the like. Kilpatrick agreed with this concern. He said most students should not require this degree of PA training. He wasn’t abandoning the idea that students needed phonemic proficiency that exceeded the abilities to segment and blend, just acknowledging that those extended levels of proficiency develop naturally in most students. (Remember, his 2015 book was focused on struggling readers.)
What of all of that?
David did look at a lot of studies and his ideas did emerge from the patterns he noticed in the word-reading intervention literature. To many that would seem to make his claims research-based and scientific. But a direct study that compared the efficacy of different kinds of PA instruction would be needed to convince the scientific community. David believes that the patterns he identified in existing studies provide valuable clues about best practices, not this is a “fully established scientific finding.”
For instance, Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize winning physicist wrote: “When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.”
That just means that you need to test those patterns that you think you saw in the original data. In this case, if you taught PA to the point that some kids could do those more complex phonemic manipulations while staying to segmentation and blending with the others, you’d find out whether that kind of teaching was advantageous. It might be, but until such studies are done, we won’t know.
I wondered how Linnea Ehri felt about that. One could understand she might choose to embrace David’s hypothesis as a way of advancing her own theory.
“David’s hypotheses need to be tested directly with controlled studies that examine whether training improves phonemic proficiency, the involvement of grapho-phonemic proficiency, and whether this facilitates sight word learning in typically developing readers and struggling readers.”
Nothing self-serving there. Just a scientist frankly evaluating the science.
Oh, and, perhaps more on point, is David Kilpatrick’s own take on the matter:
“We completely agree that a study is needed in which the only difference between groups is the nature and extent to which phonemic skills are developed. Indeed, that was supposed to happen last year with 200 severely reading disabled students. But due to COVID-19, that got scrapped.”
Maybe, I’m not the idiot or whole language devotee some of you presumed.
Where does that leave us?
1. Kilpatrick, Ehri, and Shanahan agree that there is substantial evidence showing a clear benefit from explicitly teaching young readers to perceive the sounds (phonemes) within spoken words and to link these sounds with letters and spelling patterns. Getting kids to the point of full segmentation in PA is a reasonable goal for regular classroom instruction.
2. We agree that the engine of learning words is not rote memorization but a deep knowledge and proficiency of phonemes and letters in words.
3. We also agree that there are some students who manage to accomplish those levels or degrees of PA efficiency but for some reason still fail to accomplish orthographic mapping.
4. We all agree that more needs to be done for those kids, but here there are some variations in our thoughts about what is needed.
5. Kilpatrick has a cool theory that suggests that instruction could profitably automatize phonemic analysis skills – enabling orthographic mapping. That instruction would not be for all students but only for those who don’t get to that point of “sight word” reading. We all agree that his idea may be correct.
6. We also all agree that this idea is worth testing and that until it is tested, it has the status of a sensible data-based hypothesis, but that it is not a proven method for improving reading achievement. Until there is such evidence, “advanced PA mandates” and the like is the work of politicians and salesmen rather than scientists and educators.
Oh, and given the unfortunate misuse of the term “advanced phonemic awareness,” let’s join David and abandon its use. Rest in peace, advanced phonemic awareness.
Thanks, David and Linnea. Your generosity in helping me with this blog entry is deeply appreciated. Your integrity and deep devotion to a true science of reading is laudable. Of course, if I’ve gotten anything wrong here, that’s on me – not you.
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