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.
I really need a clear, specific, short if possible, explanation of "ORTHOGRAPHIC MAPPING", please ! Thank you. I greatly appreciate your Blog. I teach continuing education to teachings, using totally online, asynchronous methods.
The belief that phoneme awareness causally follows a progression from larger chunks of sound to smaller is one we nearly all subscribed to in the 70s, 80s, and for years after that. However, it is time for wide recognition that awareness of the larger units very young children can sometimes recognize are not necessary stepping stones for attaining phoneme awareness. Thus, the field needs to move forward: domains of science and our understanding of science often evolve over time, and that is the case for phoneme awareness.
As Kathleen Brown said, "what do we do about vendors pushing PA instruction without letters?" Similarly, what do we do about programs needlessly spending valuable time in kindergarten and first grade on the larger sound structures in words prior to focusing on phoneme awareness? Or about erroneous standards requiring this sequence. Or about mandates from state departments of education to use one of the faulty programs? Or about updating current faculty who are preparing future teachers and specialists about what is actually important. There is much to be done by many. Ideally, accepting and implementing the needed changes will happen because of a sense of responsibility to adopt best evidence-based practices.
The buzzword claims by program developers that their phonological and phoneme awareness programs are based on the science of reading are too often overstated and out-of-date, no doubt confusing educators, administrators, and others. This needs to be corrected - and as noted earlier - would be helped by dropping broad instruction on phonological awareness and instead targeting phoneme awareness, by integrating with letters and handwriting, and by doing so in a systematic sequence that explicitly builds phoneme awareness, spelling and reading skills. In turn, knowledge of the straight-forward sequence of awareness of the phonemes in different positions in one-syllable words would clarify and simplify phoneme awareness assessment and instruction. The term 'phoneme proficiency' could either be dropped or modified to be 'phoneme awareness proficiency' with a clear statement that awareness of the internal consonants in words with consonant blends (a.k.a. consonant clusters) is the final accomplishment in the development of phoneme awareness skill. This would help teachers know how to gauge their students' progress in phoneme awareness from awareness of initial phonemes to this endpoint.
Recommending a change from phonological awareness instruction in kindergarten to a focus on phoneme awareness isn't just a fussy technical objection; doing so is an important component for effectively launching children - all children - to be successful readers.
In terms of the size of phonological unit, I'm still persuaded that for young children there is a benefit to working on those larger units. The data that the National Early Literacy Panel analyzed found benefits from that with preschoolers and kindergartners.
In terms of the size of phonological unit, I'm still persuaded that for young children there is a benefit to working on those larger units. The data that the National Early Literacy Panel analyzed found benefits from that with preschoolers and kindergartners.
Different perspectives have been expressed in this blog. I’d like to add one more point to consider: that the individual strengths or weaknesses in underlying phonological abilities that children have has an impact on all tasks with phonological processing demands whether awareness measures or more basic speech perception, lexical, or verbal memory tasks. Several lines of research are compatible with this proposal. Here are some examples:
- Infants in Finland who have a family history of dyslexia are less able to distinguish certain phonemes in Finnish than infants without a family history of dyslexia (Richardson, Leppäneen, Leiwo, & Lyytinen, 2003).
- In a vocabulary learning task, children who are poor readers do as well as good readers at learning the semantic features of new words, but perform less well at remembering how to pronounce the words (Aguiar & Brady, 1991). Similar difficulties with correctly pronouncing words have been reported for adult poor readers (Dietrich & Brady,2001).
- The frequently noted association of weaknesses in verbal short term memory with reading ability is another example (e.g., NELP, 2008).
These kinds of findings have led me to think that the underlying phonological weaknesses of children at risk for dyslexia may make various phonological awareness tasks more challenging for those youngsters (as well as orthographic tasks). In terms of the logic of correlation and causality, it would be stated that a third variable, Z (underlying phonological abilities) influences performance on both X (syllable awareness tasks) and Y (phoneme awareness tasks). This would produce a correlation between the scores on X and Y, and the appearance of a sequential relationship, although the underlying phonological abilities could be the actual causal factor for each. The fact that phoneme awareness can be attained by children who don’t have syllable awareness (e.g., Cary & Verhaege, 1994) argues against a causal link between acquiring earlier levels of awareness and subsequently being able to acquire phoneme awareness.
A hypothetical analogy might be helpful: Preschoolers vary in terms of their eye-hand coordination and other motor skills. Let’s say that in Town A young children are typically introduced to T-ball as their first sport. A year or so later, intro soccer is added as an option for the youngsters. The kids who were better at T-ball turn out to be better at soccer…. not because T-ball is a necessary prerequisite for learning to play soccer, but because those who had stronger athletic ability were better able to acquire the skills pertinent to each sport. (Yes, I recognize that there might be transfer of some skills across sports, but perhaps not for T-ball and soccer. If you can think of a better analogy, let me know!).
Let's talk about 'morphological' awareness;
Great article! I admit, I was one of the ones thinking you were an idiot or whole language devotee (not really, but when you first started making waves about advanced PA, I really questioned or even doubted). After listening to you on the reading league podcast, I wanted to re-approach it with a more open, dare I say scientific mind. This article was really clear and well done.
I do wonder if there have been studies on advanced PA and any relation to encoding, as a few other commenters have noted. Do you have any research or articles you could point me to to dig deeper into that?
Simply amazing…don’t know what we do without your levelheaded, directness…
What about students who seem to read by sight, but cannot segment enough to get to efficient orthographic mapping in writing? I’ve seen huge gaps in some students in their ability to take words off the page but then cannot encode because of severe delays in their phonemic awareness.
Might be useful for readers to separate out the benefits of advanced phonemic awareness skills from the role of instruction. Is the ability to isolate, segment, blend, manipulate etc evident in effective readers and spellers? Yes. Was it explicitly taught to them - probably not. Do students with limited PA struggle? Yes, especially when spelling. So they need more instruction? Yes - but how to do this is up for debate.
Should all kids be taught PA in the same way at the same time? That’s what seems to be happening (see how many have adopted one certain program, with little regard to starting points or attempts to differentiate) No. Great teaching means giving each individual what they need, when they need it. Programs that must be followed to the letter remove this differentiation.
So advanced phonemic awareness is something that can’t hurt anyone - but masses of unnecessary instruction (which also means less time on other stuff) without any real understanding of whether it will benefit the individuals, no.
Thank you for the article and the comments! I am reading with great interest as I am presenting a workshop to Montessorians on phonemic awareness, revised to "Phonemic Awareness and Montessori" from "Montessori and Advanced Phonemic Awareness"--a workshop that I gave with confidence last July.
Appreciating the discussion very much.
No, there really are no studies of this... it is a hypothesis and an interesting one, but there is just no evidence about how to teach this or whether teaching it accomplishes what David hopes it will. One possibility is that engaging kids in those tasks that would not be directly functional in reading (like deleting phonemes or engaging in complex mental manipulations of them) could lead to the appropriate level of strength with phonological processing that David hopes for... but it is also possible that additional instruction in explicit decoding and encoding would accomplish this more quickly (the latter is my guess -- but that studies of that outcome with those kinds of instruction have not been carried out either). In other words, an interesting idea that should be tested, but not something ready for widespread use -- though, unfortunately, there are people mandating that because of their misunderstandings of what constitutes a science of reading.
Thank you for this thorough explanation of the research that led to Kilpatrick's hypothesis. As a follow up question, would there be any benefit of doing addition, deletion, or substitution tasks to directly support phonics instruction? (So not just skill drill on these practices for the sake of the practice itself, but rather as an entry point for print learning.) For example, would it help students to do a few warm up addition tasks orally first in preparation for a lesson on blends (so they hear that pattern of moving from a CVC word to a CCVC or CVCC word)? Similarly, would it be helpful to warm up with a few medial substitution tasks as students are first learning the VCe pattern (so they can hear the distinction between the closed syllable short vowel sound and the long vowel sound in the VCe pattern)? Thanks for sharing your expertise!
Nobody really knows. It is clear that analysis (segmenting) and synthesis (blending) have functional roles to play in reading and spelling. The idea that engaging in skills like deletion and manipulation is meant to help those kids who have phonological deficits to develop them -- in other words, practicing with something harder that might stimulate the kinds of skills the other kids are picking up. I guess that means such additional practice could be helpful to a small percentage of your students -- and then, again, since it hasn't been tested, it could just be a waste of time (and a waste that would reduce the amount of decoding instruction you could be providing). If I were you, I would wait until the idea has been evaluated OR test it out in your own class to find out if you can see any difference in student progress (in other words, if you try it, try it with a grain of salt).
I do believe there is a middle school study about to be published on this topic. David Paige is the researcher.
Ripping on advanced phonemic aweness activities ameliorates some of my unhappiness with the time spent on phonemic awareness activities in the schools. But despite recommendations from research that phonemic awareness is most effective when imparted in the context of letters (Bus & van IJzendoorn, 1999; National Reading Panel, (2000), I have seen many, too many, purely auditory phonemic awareness activities in the early grade.
About 30 years ago I was influenced by a study in which adult illiterates who did not have any phonemic awareness, gained it when taught to read (Morais, Cary, Alegria, & Bertelson, 1979). Relatedly, the results of a study by McCandliss, Beck, Sandak, & Perfetti (2003) with children who had at least completed first grade, but demonstrated reading difficulties were randomly assigned to an experimental group or a wait-list control group.
Students in the experimental group participated in a summer intervention with Word Building (Beck, 2003), which directed attention to each grapheme in a word through a procedure of progressively minimal pairing of words that differed by one grapheme. Children built and read words from letter cards as directed to insert, deleted or exchange a letter card and read the ensuing word e.g. “change the t in sat to p, what’s the new word” sap…tap…top,…stop…top.
The intervention did not include any phonemic awareness activities. But results on two of the hardest phoneme awareness activities, blending non words and the Elision task showed that the experimental groups’ improvements were significantly larger than the control group’s. (Btw, I’m not recommending the Elision task..
Let’s go back to the recommendation that phonemic awareness is most effective in the context of letters. Something said orally disappears; but print is permanent. I remember my first encounter with Elkonen Boxes and my thought that rather than pushing chips into the boxes, why not push letters. The development of an alphabet was among the greatest human accomplishments.
Let’s use it. And keep in mind that there is evidence that decoding instruction supports phonemic awareness., let alone reading.
Shocked at Linda’s response, spoke to her by e mail about it 3 months ago.
She shared there was no research to date supporting it.
You realize he supports segmenting without letters and doing the exercises with tokens without letters.
Susan Brady who has research says that’s a no no.
Do I read from this that he’s doing the exercises with sounds now?
If so, it’s very powerful.
Exercises with letters and Linnea
Auto correct errors
Linnea hasn't changed her mind. She has a very open mind. She sees this as a possibly useful theory or hypothesis, but one that requires scientific test. She can provide a very cogent explanation of why it might be right and the kind of study that would be needed to evaluate it.
David is saying that some kids might need more explicit PA instruction than other kids (that for some reason they get to the point of full segmentation without it enabling orthographic mapping). For those kids, he hypothesizes that additional explicit PA instruction may be beneficial -- and for that work those more demanding PA tasks may do the trick (though his real interest, he says, is in the ability that kids need to develop rather than on the activities that might be useful to make that happen. And he admits it is an untested hypothesis.
My take on untested hypotheses when it comes to teaching?
Such ideas should not be promoted and if they are... the promoters should honestly admit uncertainty and caution... whenever we put belief above data it puts children at risk (no matter how strongly they believe in what they are promoting). This is true both when it comes to those who label unproven ideas as scientific and those who vilify anyone who dares report research findings that they may not like.
I'm happy David is going to test his ideas and then we can all see how well they work -- either way, we'll learn something. Until then, I would stand down when it comes to "advanced phonemic awareness" and feel bad about those places that have mandated it because of its supposed place in the science of reading. Better to use instructional time towards activities that we know to be beneficial than with activities that could be better (but that may be worse).
Thanks, Tim, for sharing your discussions with David Kilpatrick and Linneah Ehri. In my work in districts across the country I am seeing too many schools that have jumped in heads first with purchasing and requiring teachers to use phonological instruction programs that have students spending, in my opinion, too much precious reading instruction time doing activities related to syllable awareness, phoneme segmentation and blending, and what you are describing as "advanced phoneme awareness" activities simply because these activities are in the lesson plans of the purchased program. This is especially problematic when these activities are being done in isolation, without the connection to letters, with students in late kindergarten, grade 1 and even grade 2 who have already learned to decode! While there are many pre-school and beginning kindergarten children who need this instruction, as well as students beyond those grades who have phonological processing disabilities, this instruction should not continue to be given if the students have already developed more advanced word reading skills.
Part of the problem is that too many primary teachers never received pre-service or in-service professional development about evidence-based practices for teaching beginning reading. As a result, they are not able to determine on their own how to best incorporate phonemic awareness into their lessons, including the role it plays in mastering the alphabetic principle. Unfortunately, many administrators making the decisions about purchasing such programs also do not have the background knowledge to make an informed decision. It is not the fault of these educators that they only have minimal awareness of what phonemic awareness means, when it's appropriate to teach it, and that as they teach beginning phonics and decoding/encoding, phonemic awareness continues to grow. The concept of the orthographic mapping process in particular is vexing to many educators. I recently posted a free archived webinar I did that attempts to provide a practical explanation of the orthographic mapping process, including the role that proficient phonemic awareness plays in supporting that process. Here's a link to the archived webinar: https://vimeo.com/642494306
I jumped on the Kilpatrick bandwagon early and was all in. I had worked with too many students who couldn't get to the orthographic mapping/automaticity stage and seemed trapped in a cycle of endlessly sounding out words. To me, this was the missing link that would bridge the gap from laborious reading to fluent reading. Indeed, my disfluent readers also couldn't manipulate sounds past a very basic stage on the PAST test.
Here's where I stand several years later. Some of my disfluent kids were trained to complete these tasks to automaticity and their ability to read fluently barely budged. Other students showed improvement in both fluent reading and PA skills, but was it a chicken-and-egg scenario? Meaning that as orthographic mapping improved for them so did their ability to manipulate sounds organically? (I'll add to this that my students who continue to struggle with automaticity eventually "lose" the trained PA skills over time).
I've been on the fence about the how much the "one-minute exercise" portion of Kilpatrick's manual really improved reading ability. Could it be that training "advanced phonemic awareness" is similar to the idea of training kids in RAN tasks? Meaning they might get better at manipulating sounds or naming objects quickly, but the underlying processes aren't actually remediated? I hope those much more knowledgeable about these things can figure it out!
Do the research before you sell the program Dr Kilpatrick.
That's why it is useful to follow the research. You are obviously a caring teacher, trying diligently to solve kids' problems. But interesting ideas, caring teachers, and diligent efforts are often not enough to make a difference. I don't feel uncomfortable that an individual teacher would take such an idea and run with it -- who knows maybe your results would have been more positive and that would increase interest in the original hypothesis? But for those who mandate such practices on a school, district, or statewide basis, and berate and bully folks over Twitter to get them to adopt such practices, I can only say, shame on you. We need data prior to adoption -- not after it.
This is a great discussion.
Laura, Joan,Karen and Tim, thanks.
I really hate that this was sold before research but it won’t be the first and it won’t be the last.
Reading League needs to do an apology.
Thanks for taking the time to clear this up, Tim, and for approaching the issue with generosity and an open mind. I look forward to seeing the research.
The difference between words such as bat, bet, bit, bait, beet, and boot is clearly in the vowel sound/spelling. As a veteran of k-2 teaching, my goal for beginning readers was to develop student ability to at least distinguish (if not swap) vowel sounds in spoken words, in order that we could group words for study according to vowel spelling patterns. (Remember, the brain likes patterns and clear organization for memory purposes.) I found it most helpful (and usually fun/engaging) for beginning readers to be able to substitute the /uh/ in cup for an /ah/ to make 'cap' as the essence of word meaning and pronunciation is in the vowel. Once accomplished, it is easy to show them the many words that have that same spelling pattern. For example, studying 'ou' sounds (as in 'bout' to continue the above examples), enables students to grasp the orthographic mapping in similar words: ouch, south, pound, around, scout, etc. once they understand the phonemic component.
Yes, vowels are more difficult for children to isolate (perhaps because they are made in the throat, unlike consonants which use teeth, tongue, lips which a child can manipulate) but nonetheless, the vowel is what controls the word meaning/pronunciation so the ability to recognize (isolate) it greatly speeds up student understanding of the relationship between speech and print (and thereby reading). It is not so much advanced PA (substitute vowel sounds) as an activity in itself, but rather it's potential to be used as a 'pattern generator' in learning to write (then read) words. To group "ee" words (today, class, all words we study/write will have this sound ("eeee") and are written with "ee") allows students to quickly remember the words studied, as well as decode new words with same patterns. So studying "keep, steel, week, sleep, sheet, feed, ..." enables students to apply their orthographic understanding to unfamiliar words such as sleet, screech and so on.
Thus, it seems to me that the ability to isolate all phonemes within a word is key to understanding the relationship between speaking and writing, out of which reading results. Whether this is considered 'advanced PA' seems of little consequence because without grasping this connection between sounds and mapped symbols, many students will struggle to make sense of a system that is logically constructed based on encoding phonemes via the alphabet. In my experience, including many English Language Learners, the ability to at least repeat the medial sound (in isolation) is vital to a quick start to their grasping of how reading 'works' so that we can then move on to the actual teaching of reading and vocabulary.
The trouble is that most US teachers have little knowledge of the efficacy of teaching the extended sounds and common digraph equivalents of the English language. After prioritizing teaching the letter names, instead of sounds, they turn to the sounds of the alphabet, hopefully alongside how to blend these to read words. Painfully slowly, the consonant digraphs follow, but vowel digraphs maybe not at all. I see no evidence of your accepting this current state of affairs. I regret its minimal presence in the NRP report which was to be so influential, and then its death warrant in mismanaged Reading First.
At that time, as the lone synthetic phonics teacher in my school, I was horrified that the one thing the curriculum director fixated on was 'phonemic awareness' - but with no awareness that this needed to be immediately attached to graphemes. Another generation of children have
Worse, for another 20 years educators of pre-service teachers have resisted the scientific evidence, balanced reading has reigned and the phonetic approach, slowly initiated, is weak.
Word is slowly spreading, but American teachers, by and large, do not know the efficacy and satisfaction that comes from teaching early readers using synthetic phonics. They do not know how to teach all their children to read, including those needing more time and support from the start.
I have always regretted your hesitancy to promote the efficacy of synthetic phonics. I hope the movement you have shown over the years, (and in this latest blog) in your understanding of its worth continue.
Thank you for the clarifying post. I’m so glad that you got Dr. Ehri and Dr. Kilpatrick directly into the conversation. I have accepted that Kilpatrick’s theory is still a theory, but an interesting and productive theory. It’s got me going back to the NRP report and trying to parse exactly what the conclusions were about phonological and phonemic awareness instruction. Perhaps you/they can help.
1. The NRP report states in a number of places that studies showed that phonemic awareness activities that involved letters at some point, in some way, led to faster acquisition of reading skills. Most of the studies involved young children, who were perhaps still learning letter-sound correspondences. Did using letters with PA activities improve students’ sound-symbol knowledge, and thus improve there reading development, or did the letters clarify what phonemes are and help students to grasp the concept of phonemes? Both? Perhaps students with good sound-symbol knowledge don’t need to use letters to become better at phonemic awareness. Many of Kilpatrick’s One Minute Activities, which my students enjoy, are very difficult to do if letters are involved, because of the different spellings of rimes. Does the NRP report advise against doing phonemic awareness activities with sounds only with students who already know their ABCs?
2. The NRP report also repeats that doing a few phonemic awareness activities was better than doing many. What’s unclear is whether this means working on only a few types of activities in each session, or teaching only a few activities through the whole program. Kilpatrick’s program calls for teachers to focus on only two levels of activities in one session, one at the near-proficient level and another at a near-accurate level. Another popular phonological awareness program calls for teachers to present up to 10 different activities in one session (without letters, by the way). Do the findings of the NRP report support either approach? Or advise against them? The NRP mentions two activities in particular, segmenting and blending. Are these the only activities that are recommended? Or is this recommendation only for beginning students in K and 1?
Perhaps these could be two ideas for future conversations.
See Susan Brady's comment. I couldn't answer your question any better than she has. Indeed, there are --as is mentioned in the blog but not explored--other ideas on what should be taught to these struggling readers. Dr. Brady's suggestions are more closely aligned with how Linnea Ehri, herself, approaches the problem (me, too).
If you want to improve kids' reading, it would be wise to focus on their reading skills. Maybe in the future I will find myself recommending those 1 minute lessons, but until there is research showing that kind of work to be beneficial I would recommend that you focus on the kinds of things that Susan Brady includes in her comment here. Teaching kids to link letters/spellings and sounds/pronunciations through explicit phonics and spelling, engaging kids in invented spelling activities with feedback, and the like are what have so far proven to provide the most likely success. I believe that it is best to go with the tried and true (true in this case meaning it has been studied directly with positive results).
I love that you take the stance that you do. That there needs to be more research. I am neither a Whole Language devotee, nor and I a Science of Reading devotee. I am a teaching people to read devotee. I do not like the main arguments made in either side and I think they both miss the mark. They fail to really point out the inadequacies in both stances, and look over the parts of the theories that are good. I feel like I can always count on you to be the reasonable one. My favorite take away is your 6th point. Seems like all the arguments made for polarizing reading instruction come from those who benefit monetarily. Thank you for your expertise and commentary Mr. Shanahan.
Neither Tim Shanahan, Linnea Ehri, nor I would suggest withholding the teaching phoneme/grapheme connections until a student can do phonemic awareness. Both of those skills should be taught early on.
Thanks Tim, I agree with a number of points here particularly about the lack of evidence. A significant problem that must be acknowledged is that David has repeatedly framed his recommendations as being evidence-based. For example, from Kilpatrick & O'Brien (2019): "Yet when students receive more challenging phonemic awareness training, particularly using phoneme manipulation activities (phoneme deletion and substitution of phonemes within various positions within words), a greater degree of phonemic proficiency develops. This presumably allows students to more easily remember the words they read, resulting in the largest standard score point gains found in the intervention literature (e.g., Alexander et al., 1991; McGuinness et al., 1996; Simos et al., 2002; Torgesen et al., 1999, 2001, 2010; Truch, 1994)" (p. 203).
Just a cursory look at these citations reveals that none offer a basis for causal inference, nor were the studies even designed to test the hypothesis in the first place. Misrepresentations of the evidence base like this have been relayed to thousands of educators.
Thanks Tim for your blog. I think it went a long way in terms of clarifying this issue. I really appreciate that.
I would, however, like to address something. You mention in one of your responses the idea about putting "belief above data." To be clear, that's not what is going on here. Quite the contrary, actually. My view on this issue emerged by complete surprise. I wasn't looking for it but noticed it when sifting through the data in the intervention research literature (i.e., struggling readers) and considering standard score gains on nationally normed word identification tests reported in those studies. The data from the intervention studies induced the "belief." Is it a hard scientific finding? No. Is it a demonstrably clear pattern in the scientific literature? Yes. It’s more than just a nice idea.
You and I both agree that a direct study of this phenomenon is needed, in which two groups of struggling readers get identical phonics instruction but the only difference between groups is the nature of the PA instruction. Where we seem to disagree is in what manner the existing intervention research should guide our efforts with struggling readers.
Studies that use phonics with no additional oral phonemic awareness typically show a benefit compared to a control group (usually of a whole language intervention). However, improvements on nationally normed tests of word identification in those studies are consistently modest, usually 3 or 4 standard score point gains. Even though national norms are far from a perfect point of reference, they let us know if a student is actually "gaining" on his or her peers.
Then, when we look at phonics intervention studies that add oral PA (or PA with non-lettered tokens) but only train to the point where students can segment and blend, the results range between 6 and 9 standard score points on normed word identification tests. But in studies that used phonics instruction and more rigorous phonemic awareness intervention (orally and with non-lettered tokens), usually involving deleting and substituting phonemes, standard score gains hover around 14-17 points on normed word identification tests. Some of these studies had control groups, some did not. But control group or not, we have to ask why one type of instruction consistently yielded substantially higher standard scores on the same type of word identification measure. We simply don’t see such strong gains using the less rigorous PA interventions.
These findings cut ACROSS studies, rather than represent the results from WITHIN a given study. So where we differ has to do with whether we put any stock in the fairly consistent pattern of standard score point outcomes on word identification tests.
I'm not suggesting that this pattern in the intervention research is a hard finding like the results of a random-control-trial (RCT) experiment. But given that teachers are looking for best practice, I'm suggesting it might be a good idea to emulate the studies with the strongest word identification outcomes rather than emulate the studies that consistently display lesser results. That seems reasonable to do while we await further research that may settle the issue.
I’m talking about struggling readers, not Tier 1 instruction.
Anyway, I wanted to be clear that we are not talking about beliefs or hunches or ideas untethered to data, but rather something that emerges from the data. We differ only on where to set the “best practice” bar. True, there is no RCT, but there is a clear pattern of empirical findings. I think emulating the studies with the strongest outcomes until further notice is a reasonable way to conceptualize best practice.
Again, I appreciate you clarifying the relationship between phonemic proficiency and orthographic mapping and explaining to folks that the term “advanced phonemic awareness” is a confusing phrase in need retirement.
Indeed, PA and reading are reciprocal. PA work facilitates children's progress with decoding, but decoding, spelling, and reading activities facilitate growth in PA as well. David K. stressed this as well. Although he hypothesizes that some children with a phonological deficit may need more extensive support in mastering PA than what the National Reading Panel reported, he believes that existing data show that kids without a phonological deficit continue to improve in PA without instruction specifically due to the types of educational experiences that you describe and from reading and spelling themselves. That's why it is so crazy that there are now states mandating phonemic awareness instruction into the upper grades. Not only is there no specific research showing that to be beneficial, even the person who suggested that more PA instruction may help doesn't endorse such universal teaching beyond grades K-1.
I've never suggested those studies you cited in that quote were intended to test the hypothesis of the rigor of PA intervention, so I'm not clear on your concern here.
Interestingly, Torgesen et al., (1999; J. of Ed. Psy.) more or less did test that, although I’ve never called attention to that fact in anything I've written. They made that contrast explicit and had two experimental and two control conditions. Also, Torgesen et al. (2010; Annals of Dys.), which is another study cited in the quote you provided, had a control group as well. There are other studies in this category of strong outcomes using more rigorous PA training that weren't cited in the quote you provided which also had control groups. It would inaccurate to suggest that that none of the studies displaying these strong outcomes had control groups.
Back to Torgesen et al. (1999). One experimental group in that study used phonemic manipulation and the other trained phonemic segmentation. They concluded "In the present study the most important instructional contrast involved the degree of explicitness of instruction in phonological awareness and phonemic reading skills as well as the extent of decontextualized, focused practice on these skills" (p. 580). But aside from this one, none of the other studies directly tested that hypothesis of the relative outcomes of instruction using segmentation vs. using deletion and/or substitution activities. But again, I've never suggested that any of these studies were testing that hypothesis. That has never been my point in citing those studies. My point has always been that these are the studies with the highest standard score gains on normed word identification tests and, perhaps not coincidentally, the nature of their PA intervention was more rigorous than studies with lesser results that used less rigorous PA instruction.
I may have misunderstood your post, but it seems you are suggesting I've claimed something I have never claimed.
My point in referring to the pattern in the intervention literature, as you can see from the other post, is to help establish best practice based upon available evidence. We don't see those strong outcomes across all types of phonics intervention, nor across all types of PA intervention. The challenge is to ask why we see this pattern in the first place. The ostensible answer, though not established by an RCT (though the design used in Torgesen et al.  was getting close), is there were differences in instruction. Until further notice, it seems we should allow our interventions to be informed by studies with stronger outcomes rather than studies with weaker outcomes. That's all I'm saying and I don't think there's anything wrong with that notion.
I'm also not clear what you mean by saying I'm misrepresenting the evidence base. Can you clarify what you feel is being misrepresented?
Regarding Kilpatrick's claims for evidence supporting advanced phonemic awareness activities like substitution and deletion, I heard David speak in 2017 and agreed with just about everything he said up until that point. When he made the claim that many struggling readers had profited as readers from such tasks and directly advocated such tasks as part of intervention, my head almost exploded. I knew there were no data to support such a recommendation. Fast forward to SSSR sometime later and in a personal conversation, David told me that there were 17 studies that backed up such a claim. I read his Essentials text and was unable to find such evidence.
Moving onto Kilpatrick and O'Brian (2019), I was shocked to see the following, "Yet when students receive more challenging phonemic awareness training, particularly using phoneme manipulation activities (phoneme deletion and substitution of phonemes within various positions within words), a greater degree of phonemic proficiency develops. This presumably allows students to more easily remember the words they read, resulting in the largest standard score point gains found in the intervention literature (e.g., Alexander et al., 1991; McGuinness et al., 1996; Simos et al., 2002; Torgesen et al., 1999, 2001, 2010; Truch, 1994)" (p. 203). None of those studies made such leaps. I heard Joe Torgesen speak several times about those studies, and he never drew such conclusions about his team's work--even by using the word "presumably." Rather, he and Donna Scanlon pointed toward the comprehensive nature of the interventions.
When I think about written statements like the above, along with David's many, many presentations to educators and administrators around the country like the one I attended, I am not surprised that state offices of education and school district personnel have walked away mandating these activities in classrooms. For those of us who work with teachers and who KNOW there are no data to support such practices, it is disconcerting to hear those practicitioners invoke David and suggest that we "get with the science of reading" and include them in our instructional models.
Of course, vendors have piled on with aplomb in bringing about the current woeful state of PA instruction. That said, David's work also has played a role, and I respectfully ask him to address this issue directly in his future speaking engagements and written work. Please: tell your audiences that there are no data to support phonemic deletion and substitution tasks, even with struggling students, let alone normally-achieving students. If you state this directly, unequivocally, there will be no chance for misinterpretation on their parts, and it will do everyone--especially students--a valuable service.
Hi, Dr. Kilpatrick and Shanahan!
Dave, you state, “Is it a hard scientific finding? No. Is it a demonstrably clear pattern in the scientific literature? Yes. It’s more than just a nice idea.”
However… there are no systematic literature reviews or meta analyses published in a reviewed journal that I know of on this topic of advanced or oral only PA’s effect on reading. Do you know of any published? We would at least need to systematically review the literature to ensure that theory is an accurate one, don’t you agree?
Thank you for this very important discussion, especially for those of us working with struggling students. I use 'word building' exercises as described in the study by McCandliss, Beck, Sandak and Perfetti (Focusing attention on decoding for children with poor reading skills: Design and preliminary tests of the word building intervention) which "directed attention to each grapheme position within a word through a procedure of progressive minimal pairing of words that differed by one grapheme." I have found that the substitutions and deletions in these activities help students with oral substitutions when they incorrectly read a word and need to 'try a different sound'. If they read 'find' with the short i sound, they need to be able to make an appropriate substitution in order to change it to the long vowel, so practicing these minimal contrasts helps students manipulate the sounds in misread words. Looking forward to further research!
I just love reading your articles and totally respect your work as well as David’s! Thank you for bringing light to this. We are just getting off the Lucy train and diving into the science of reading. My school has been doing advanced phonics drills with all students, regardless of reading levels, grades k-5, using only PAST data. So, say a student doesn’t pass level J. They are out in an intensive phonemic awareness group for 20 min a day, even if their reading level far exceeds their grade level, focusing only on level J. Once they pass level J, they move on until they pass level M 2(for 4th and 5th grade). I’m really interested to hear both of your thoughts on this. Instruction time is so important and we try to hang onto every second. I feel like this may not be the best use of our time. I feel like we have become so hyper focused on phonics instruction for every student that we are putting comprehension strategies on the back burner. Am I wrong for thinking that phonics instruction should be an intervention in the upper grades for students who truly need it? Thanks for any input!
This is a really good question. Of course, anyone can do any study that they want to. But there are benefits to be derived from not chasing chimera. Meta-analysis is often used by scientists to make sure the patterns or correlations that they think they are seeing are actually there. Human beings are good at seeing patterns, whether there or not. To my knowledge, beyond David's own look at this literature, no one else has noted this pattern. I like the idea of a careful peer reviewed analysis of these studies to make sure that an experimental study would be worth the candle (or worth the children's time). Of course, the latter becomes an ethical question to be settled by vigilant IRB committees. -- This question underlines my earlier concerns about a science of reading that proceeds on the basis of opinion rather than analysis of data appropriate to the question.
This theory was proposed by David Kilpatrick and as he makes clear above, a typical second grade reader would not need any kind of "advance PA" work. Not only hasn't it been studied, that hasn't even been proposed. That kind of explicit PA work is only needed by those students who suffer from a core phonological processing deficit. If you were to follow the existing research, unless the students were unable to segment words proficiently, you would stop the PA instruction and focus that time on decoding skills. If you were to follow David's yet untested theory, you would do the same.
I'm concerned about the issue that Nathan raises below. He isn't saying that you went out looking for this pattern, but he is saying that he is skeptical about whether that pattern exists at all. Tiffany raises a real similar question. My original concern is that the idea of "advanced PA" and the associated activities that were presumed to teach it hadn't yet been evaluated in classrooms and that I didn't think that was good for kids. You appeared to share some of those concerns -- believing people had conflated instructional activities with the cognitive changes you were trying to elicit and by generalizing something intended only for struggling readers to the whole population.
But these folks are questioning the pattern itself it seems to me. I very much like the suggestion that your next step should be to try to nail down the construct by conducting an appropriate meta-analysis to see if there is such a pattern, how reliable it is, how strong it is, etc. The nice thing about that suggestion is that it wouldn't require a long wait for schools to be willing to be studied again due to COVID. Those data exist, you'e reviewed those thoroughly to your satisfaction and now you could put the idea up to scientific scrutiny at this point. I didn't think of that myself but given how egregious some of the misinterpretations have been so far, I think it would either reassure some of those who have bought into those ideas (thinking them to have been nailed down) or it might do away with the issue altogether if Nate is correct about the pattern itself. Cool and helpful idea, I think.
The National Reading Panel found that phonemic awareness instruction in Grades K-1 and with older remedial readers with deficits in phonemic awareness benefited from explicit PA instruction. The instructional benefits were biggest for the normal range of K-1 students, they were somewhat smaller for at risk K-1 students, and with the least payoff for those older kids.The studies provided between 1-99 hours of PA instruction in these studies, with the best learning response from those who received between 14-18 hours of it. That would be comparable to 15 mins per day for a semester. The panel did not conclude that to be the right amount as it was recognized that some kids would not reach those blending and segmenting benchmarks and should receive more (and for kids who could do those things proficiently, the time could be less). The studies did not favor any specific lessons or lessons focused on specific PA skills -- though getting kids to the level at which they could blend and segment was the target (perhaps some of those more complicated activities could stimulate kids to segment better, etc.). However, it was found that the instruction should stay simple (focusing on only 1-2 skills at a time to avoid confusion). PA worked best when it was combined with letter instruction, so no, it would make no sense to either wait for ABC knowledge to be there or to hold off on ABCs. Many people think of PA as being a kind of readiness step for explicit decoding, but that moving back and forth between PA and decoding appears to be better (I think the same can be said about the research conducted with preschoolers and kindergartners reviewed by NELP). I know the idea of including letters or in combining PA and phonics in those ways upsets some folks, but in the 51 studies that we reviewed that was best for children's learning.
Research since NRP and NELP hasn't really challenged those findings and until it does, I think those features of PA instruction are the best bet. David's theories certainly suggest some other possibilities and when those are evaluated, it is possible that we may need to adjust our thinking.
Tim, thank you so much for answering my question. I have no issue with including letters with phonemic awareness work -- I have found it to be especially effective and efficient with my K-1 tutoring atudents. Spelling activities are a great way to incorporate both.
As for PA work without letters for older students (2nd gr and up, who have sound-symbol knowledge), it appears direct research is required, and I hope it will happen. Anecdotally, I will share that working on PA without letters but with tokens, and eventually with sounds only, has benefitted my older students who haven't grasped that words are sequences of sounds, rather than jumbles of letters. Many who have been taught to guess based on a few letters don't understand letters as representations of sounds, which means that orthographic mapping isn't happening, and they have small sight word vocabularies. This is what I surmise is going on.
Dave and Tim, thanks for your responses.
Dave, I agree that a systematic review of the literature would be a valuable thing to do before we can say this pattern you are proposing is actually a part of the science of reading.
I've seen states mandate some of these hypotheses you have made about phonemic proficiency, "advanced PA," oral PA instruction, the PAST assessment etc., as part of *law* under the term "Science of Reading" (such as Oklahoma and Arkansas) which seems very problematic. I hope states read this and begin to shift their practices back to what we know from peer-reviewed studies.
I agree with Dr. Brady that some of the recommendations to teachers over the past couple of years have been problematic too, not only because a systematic review hasn't been done, but also because the recommendations from the patterns you posit are contradictory to the research we have directly comparing instruction and intervention for students in PreK, K, or at-risk for reading difficulties. It would be great to be able to see all of the studies together to be analyzed in a systematic way.
Great conversation. Thanks for the blog!
So if typically learning students don't need "advanced phonemic awareness" activities (deletion and substitution), what about kids who are struggling in reading? Should we continue to do Kilpatrick's one minute activities in our intervention small groups where they have deficits? Will this help them advance their reading skills?
The discussion above has addressed what is not known about the efficacy of the Kilpatrick program – that the necessary research studies have not been conducted as yet. But, at this point, we can focus on what IS currently known about phoneme awareness development and this, with no disrespect for Dave Kilpatrick, supports a different approach than the one he advocates (or that used in the Heggerty program, also commonly in use).
First, awareness of the larger chunks of sound (rhyme, syllable, onset-rime) does not turn out to be a prerequisite for acquiring phoneme awareness, the relevant level of awareness for learning to read. Indeed, focusing on these larger elements in kindergarten is not necessary, and may interfere with acquiring phoneme awareness.
Second, phoneme awareness develops in terms of the position of the phoneme in the spoken word. Children typically have an easier time with the initial phoneme in a word, followed by the final position, and then by the medial vowel in a simple syllable (that is, one that doesn't have any consonant blends (e.g., meat, wish, boat)): this constitutes a productive sequence for early phoneme awareness in kindergarten. Helping children acquire phoneme awareness - and build their orthographic skills - is definitely facilitated by linking instruction in phoneme awareness and letter skills (including handwriting). In other words, one should integrate fostering awareness of phonemes with teaching the letters that represent those phonemes. The next positions mastered in phoneme awareness development are the internal consonants in consonant blends: first in words with a single consonant blend (e.g., skip, pond, cry), then moving on to words with two consonant blends or a triple consonant blend (e.g., stamp, brisk, splash).
Studies of spelling errors by children correspond with the sequence described for development of phoneme awareness: when one or more phonemes are not represented in the spelling, this is an indication that the child may lack awareness of that phoneme in the spoken word (Examples of early spelling errors: B for butterfly, bd for bed; Examples of later spelling errors: pan for plan; jup for jump, pinsos for princess.)
It's important for educators to know the positional sequence so that they can know what skills to assess, that the sequence sets successive goals for instruction, and that it is necessary to continue building students' phoneme awareness development across grades until the student has successfully mastered the endpoint: awareness of the internal consonants in spoken words with consonant clusters. With a kindergarten curriculum in place that targets awareness of the early levels of phoneme awareness, the first grade curriculum can reinforce those concepts and work on the later levels of phoneme awareness, again incorporating letter name, letter sound, and letter formation skills.
Third, it is now understood that the kinds of manipulation tasks that were long viewed as the hallmark of skilled phoneme awareness – namely deletion, substitution, and addition tasks (e.g., what is stink without the /t/) – are not just a measure of phoneme awareness for readers. When readers hear a word, it has been documented that knowledge of how the word is spelled is automatically activated. In other words, what has been interpreted on manipulation tasks as evidence of student’s phoneme awareness by good readers also is a consequence of their superior orthographic knowledge. For students with less orthographic and phoneme awareness expertise, doing these kinds of tasks with letters helps reinforces letter-sound knowledge, supports memory for these concepts, and builds awareness of phonemes.
The implications of the above findings can make for informed use of the kindergarten and first-grade years with a focus on the requisite foundation skills and beneficial use of instructional time.
In terms of abandoning terms, I don't think we need to stop using the term 'advanced phoneme awareness', but the use of the concept needs to be shifted and clarified: It is the level at which the student is working on or has attained awareness of the internal consonants in consonant blends, as described above, and letter skills should be incorporated in the activities. (A recent blog post by me on the Learning Ally website (learningally.org) discusses these topics more.)
A term we could avoid using is phonological awareness. It is true that this term encompasses explicit awareness of larger and smaller sound structures in spoken word and is a legitimate label. However, because it gets used loosely to refer either to phoneme awareness or to the larger units (elements of phonological sensitivity), it contributes to confusion about what is or should be being taught. What is important for reading is phoneme awareness, and as mentioned earlier, attaining phoneme awareness does not require mastery of larger phonological structures first. Therefore, it would be preferable to refer to phoneme awareness and to concentrate on the development of this meta-level skill and associated orthographic knowledge.
A fairly recent study by Gillon et al. (2019) with first-year students in New Zealand obtained exciting results using the kind of methods highlighted here. FYI, here is the reference:
Gillon, G., McNeil, B., Scott, A., Denston, A., Wilson, L., Carson, K., & Macfarlane, A.H. (2019). A better start to literacy learning: findings from a teacher-implemented intervention in children’s first year at school. Reading and Writing, 32, 1989-2012.
Apologies to Carol Rashotte whom I confused with Donna Scanlon. Good company, certainly, but not accurate!
Tiffany and Tim,
Yes, of course a meta-analysis would be most useful here, which is why I've been working on one.
Back in 2013, I started doing a review of intervention studies for students with word-level reading difficulties. I was following the lead of Joseph Torgesen whose 2005 research synthesis that appeared as a chapter in Hulme & Snowling's "Science of Reading" volume was, I believe, the only synthesis/review of word-reading intervention based upon standard score gains rather than effect sizes. It was in the course of working on that paper that I noticed the pattern I described above. I have assumed the reason this pattern had not previously been noticed was because all other reviews used effect sizes. Effect sizes do not represent a stable point of reference across studies and stronger or weaker performances by experimental groups can be minimized or exaggerated depending on the performance of the control group. Although the idea of using standard scores as the outcome variable has its own issues, it does not share this major drawback displayed by effect sizes. Given that no one looked at the research from this vantage point before (other than Torgesen), it should be at least somewhat unsurprising that something was noticed that previously had not been noticed. Torgesen did not notice this pattern because he did consider differences in the nature of the interventions but rather focused on testing out the metric of number of standard score points per hour of intervention across studies. While I was working on this project, I was invited to write a book that took up the better part of two years. The review did not get completed, but I summarized what I had found in that 2015 book. Earlier this year I resumed working on it. Given concerns voiced here, I'm happy to bump up that project on my priority list.
Are you familiar with Ashlock? My district uses this for phonics instruction. It is totally passive on the students' part and requires rote memorization of high frequency words. They are adding Heggerty to it. They do NOT screen for dyslexia. I teach at a Title 1 school, they assume ALL my students need extra practice because they are Title 1 kids.
I have not seen that program. I took a quick look at what it claims to teach and it doesn't sound like its focus is on memorizing sight words, but on phonics. But, again, I haven't seen it. Heggerty has a lot of popularity right now despite the fact that it emphasizes practices not supported by the research. They are an example of a program that took David Kilpatrick's untested hypothesis for a small number of disabled learners and turned it into a regular classroom program for all kids.
The use of those more complex or demanding phonemic awareness items in assessments can be okay -- it can be okay, that is, if the people who give those tests recognize that their items cannot be used diagnostically like that. Test-makers will often include items in any test that are more demanding than whatever it is they are trying to predict. For a test to do a really good job, the items have to create a distribution of those taking the tests. The more the results pile up near the ceiling or floor, the less the test will correlate with other measures. So, if I want my handy-dandy PA assessment to have a higher correlation with later reading, then I might add some of those items to differentiate a bit between those boys and girls who come out near the ceiling of the test. They might have all the PA skills needed to learn to read, but my test statistics will be better if I can get those kids separated. The harder items do that. But if a teacher were to then go in to teach the skills that those items evaluate, then kids would not be expected to do any better in reading (it would be a waste of time).
"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."
This makes me wonder about an assessment (uses include universal screening and screening for dyslexia) that has established a grade level expectation that by middle of first grade, students should be able to add, delete, and substitute phonemes. If by middle of the year first grade students are able to blend and segment phonemes, they are considered as approaching expectations. Is this grade level expectation of phoneme addition, deletion, and substitution by mid-year first grade supported by reading research? I can't seem to find any support, and my understanding is that phoneme segmentation is key for most typically developing students.
I have read the comments, and I am at best frustrated. If I were looking for direction, I found none here. What I found was many different paths and many different methods for traveling any given path. The path that troubles me most is the one that is not "there;" it is the unseen path that might be a good path, even better than all the others, but I don't know, and neither does anyone else. Now I find myself feeling a little bit like J. Alfred Prufrock, so I thought I'd share some words that I think convey my perspective regarding not only the ideas discussed in this blog, but the ideas, theories, and practices that are always under scrutiny (as they should be if we are to learn) as we strive to teach children to read. To challenge a theory, a pedagogical approach, an idea; to question the results of research, the findings, the design; seem somehow heretical to some, even many. Hence, my frustration: What DO I DO?
an excerpt from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Elliot, 1911
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
...“That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
Great article and I appreciate you looking into this for those of us working on reading with kids! Now, what say you on not teaching phoneme/grapheme matching until after kids are able to isolate phonemes? Is there research one way or the other? This is part of our district’s current reading program.
I feel irritated by Dr.Kilpatrick,Canada where I live has pretty well bought into your untested theory and you most certainly presented your lectures as the latest thing.
Teachers and Speech pathologists are coaching teachers to develop “phonemic practices “ no letters.
They truly believe they are following cutting edge confirmed research.
Also, how can you with a straight face use the expression that Dr.Ehri coined as your own when she specifically stated that Spelling pronunciation is the bond that causes O.M.
Everyone is giving you respect, I most certainly am not because my work is strictly Tier 2 small group for kids at risk.
The last thing the children and their teachers need is a non founded theory.
This is a fascinating dialog that may be of some historical interest to you and your readers since Dave brought up the Torgeson study, relative to the discussion of advanced phonemic processing instruction. The issue, make that the evolution, of whether or not to use "advanced phonemic practices" has been on our plate at LindamoodBell Learning Processes every since the Torgeson study. In sum, one of the outcomes of that study, that I advised on, was using very specific advanced phonemic processing exercises with ALL the experimental children in the Auditory Discrimination in Depth (ADD) Program, to the comparative exclusion of orthographic mapping tasks. Classically, the ADD program uses extensive drilled down advanced phonemic processing tasks with virtually no differentiation all the way through applied tasks in reading. Ultimately we found out that those tasks were actually unnesessary for many students, and in fact detrimental in some cases. Curiously, this was the case in spite of the statistically significant comparative results in that study that so are often cited. That finding, along with our analysis of thousands of other students in the use of the ADD program, now called the Lindamood Phoneme Sequesncing Program (LiPS), and our analysis of much of the original data out of the University of Oregon on DIBELS, where the letter naming fluency subtest was just as powerful diagnostically as a measure of phomemic awareness in predicting word recognition and reading fluency, forced us to change our use of what herein is been referring to as "advanced methods". Interestingly, once we understood this we could not get Torgeson to see the equally important role of orthographic processing and susequently we pulled out of additional funded comparative intervention studies on that premise. For now, Susan Brady is correct in that "we can focus on what IS currently known about phoneme awareness development and this, with no disrespect for Dave Kilpatrick, supports a different approach than the one he advocates". Indeed, that is what we are working on.
Those discoveries led to the development of a different approach, the development of program that we now use which concurrently develops phonetic and orthographic processing skills (in tandem) that is much more successful than any of the research on the LiPS Program, (right, not using one of our own programs), as evidenced in the neuroscientific collaborative NIH and NSF funded research we have done with Georgetown, Wakeforest, MIT, the University of Washington, and now Stanford (in progress).
We have learned to two major things over the las 20 plus years. We have been able to diagnostically discern what individuals do need more advanced phonemic proceesing tasks, speciifically on what phonemes, in isolation or combination with what other sounds and symbols all the way up through multi-syllables. There aren't very many. Secondly, on the intervention side of the equation we have a dose-response process-based pedagogy on how far down to go on both phonological as well as orthographic processing tasks addressing both the developmental and/or remedial needs of students. Dr. Brady is also correct in her stipulation that "helping children acquire phoneme awareness - and build their orthographic skills - is definitely facilitated by linking instruction in phoneme awareness and letter skills (including handwriting). In other words, one should integrate fostering awareness of phonemes with teaching the letters that represent those phonemes." And I would add, what is being advocated here is not what some are referring simply stimulating visual memory to teach reading. The goal is an integration of exactly what the brain needs to integrate and accurately validate that what the brain sees, matching what auditorily what it would sound like if we say the word, with what image we have for what the word means - the holy grail of reading.
So, the solution would be to do a research study on those students struggling with phonological deficits and are working in a particular program for decoding/encoding. If there is a current study testing Dr. Kilpatrick's theory that would be excellent. I would approach my district that currently uses David's one minute drills, phonemic awareness proficiency instruction and inquire whether they would be willing to have control groups. This would help along with other studies to determine the impact of Dr. David Kilpatrick's theory.
I'm not sure who is advocating the notion that PA must be taught and/or established before teaching any letters. In studies displaying successful outcomes of early reading instruction, both are taught, and one is not a prerequisite of the other. However, it seems that notion floats around there and I'm not sure where it comes from.
David, I think the idea that phonological awareness must be established before letters are taught largely comes from the definition that is often used for phonological activities: they can be done in the dark. My understanding is that the notion that "phonological activities can be done in the dark" was not intended as a way of defining PA, but as a way for college-level students to distinguish among the numerous
Speaking of the hierarchy of phonological sensitivities, I have been trying to explore where came from and why it is treated as received wisdom (no one bothers to cite studies anymore). Studies have shown that phoneme-level awareness, along with sound-symbol knowledge, is what is important for the development of proficient reading, not the ability to identify rhyming words or clap out syllables. When the image of the staircase of phonological skills was described to Mark Seidenfeld in one of this web tutorials, he didn't know what they were referring to. Which field came up with this concept, and what did it help to explain? Perhaps differentiating and ordering phonological levels is relevant in studying the development of language skills (I don't know enough about the study of language development to answer), but is it relevant to reading instruction? I appreciate that Susan Brady has been writing about this issue, and I hope that others will, too.
David, In the above blog, Tim indicates your position is that “many educators have conflated advanced phonemic awareness with the notion that certain teaching activities, namely phoneme deletion and substitution, were required ” - and that such a notion comes from some readers of your book, certainly not from you.
But I could cite dozens of excerpts from your books where you DO imply “certain teaching activities, namely phoneme deletion and substitution,” border on indispensable.
Here’s one such excerpt from “Equipped,” p 76:
“Phonological manipulation stands out as the most efficient way to train phonemic awareness because it incorporates segmentation, isolation, and blending. Manipulation training includes deleting and substituting sounds in words. When students respond instantly to a phonemic manipulation task, you are assured that their phoneme segmentation skills are automatic and unconscious. This is because segmentation is the first of four phonological awareness process that occur in one second when phoneme manipulation responses are responded to instantly. Segmentation tasks explicitly involve conscious segmentation (i.e., that is what students are asked to do!). By contrast, when students respond instantly to a phoneme manipulation task, they are not even aware that the first step they performed involved efficient, unconscious segmentation of the target word. As a result, teachers can be assured that segmentation is automatic and unconscious. This represents phonemic proficiency and is the foundation of efficient orthographic mapping. It is for this reading that the Equipped for Reading Success program is based upon phonological manipulation activities. This training provides the assurance of the development of phonemic proficiency.”
If you call manipulation exercises (as you do in this quote) representational of phonemic proficiency, the most efficient way to train PA, the foundation of efficient orthographic mapping, and the assurance that phonemic proficiency has developed, how could ANY reader who takes you seriously NOT conclude “that certain teaching activities, namely phoneme deletion and substitution, were required” in his or her classroom?
This notion doesn’t come “from some readers of your book,” it comes directly from you. Why blame your readers?
Thank you for this blog. It is so helpful. When we talk about teaching phonemic awareness with letters, would an example of that be using letter tiles to build words? Originally I had wondered if programs like Wilson lacked PA, now I’m not as sure. (I know Tim does not name particular programs). I’m pretty new to learning how to teach reading, but I did know David’s book was based on theory. It also seemed reasonable that Tim would call for research to prove it.
This conversation is of great interest to me as it wasn’t until I incorporated 10 minutes of daily phonemic awareness (working on blending, segmenting, isolating, deleting, and substituting) into my practice that my students decoding and encoding skills flourished. I’ve taught phonics using a structured literacy approach for years but something was missing. I read Kilpatricks book in 2016 and since then, have added 10 minutes of PA work into our literacy block daily. I make sure to screen each student so then I focus our PA time on filling in each student’s specific gaps. It’s been magic. I could never go back. This result hasn’t just happened in my classroom. I have shared this with all teachers in my school, in my district. Everyone has jumped in (it’s 10 minutes a day, kids love it) and has seen the gains.
David, get these studies going! The results are undeniable and I’m scared that teachers are going to read these blogs and ditch the practice.
Thanks for the great discussion! As I'm trying to wrap my brain around all these ideas, I'm left wondering, "What will I teach tomorrow?" I currently use a single One Minute Drill with most of my reading groups which range from grades 6-8 and consist of students who struggle with reading fluency and/or accurate decoding but are not on IEPs. Should I continue doing this as an oral exercise only, or should I consider writing the words on the board, providing letter tiles/cards, etc. as a way to facilitate mapping? I have been using one minute drills with my groups since before COVID, and I also anecdotally believe that it has increased students' attention to all the sounds and letters in multisyllabic words, especially medial sounds that they tended to entirely skip or just "make up" based on the first few letters. I would love to hear the opinions of any of the experts or other teachers who work with similar populations. Thanks to everyone who contributes to our learning in a kind, professional way.
A sad legacy of these ‘theories’ is when they are spun as ‘science and evidence’ and programs are written and sold into schools as SOR best practice and, whole classes are made to endure daily routines of direct instructional unnecessary PA routines and activities over a long period.
PA is essential & nonnegotiable, but let’s hope ‘advanced PA’ programs for all are really put to rest and this post is widely shared.
Valerie, Chapter 6 on orthographic mapping in David's book Equipped for Reading Success has a number of excellent activities that unite phonemic awareness with phonics instruction. I believe that one of the reasons phonics fails is because we often ask kids to do phonics activities silently so that orthography is not connected to phonology. Here's one strategy that I have found very helpful:
Introduce Words Orally First
Page 56: “Rather than introduce a word in print first, present it orally. Then, you direct attention to the various sound properties of the oral word (e.g., how many syllables, beginning, middle and ending sounds, etc.). When introducing a new word, whether in a story, a spelling list, or as a vocabulary item, have children concentrate on the oral properties of the word before showing it to them in print. Then when they see the printed form of the word, they are in a much better position to map the oral phonemes of the word onto the written letters used to represent that word.”
This technique is also recommended in Gentry and Ouellette's book, BrainWords: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching where they recommend a similar sequence: 'hear it, say it, write it, read it, use it'.
Thanks to Tim for furthering this important discussion. I agree with the his and Linnea’s conclusion that Kilpatrick’s hypothesis about extended PA instruction facilitating sight word learning in students with core phonological deficits is simply that: a hypothesis. This means that until that hypothesis is tested empirically, the rush to prescribe PA training to these students is premature.
That said, I don’t think it’s wise to abandon the term “advanced phonemic awareness.” Research is clear that even at the phoneme level, some tasks are more difficult, and therefore more advanced, than others. For example, phoneme substitution requires more sophisticated ability than phonemic blending (assuming that we hold the number of phonemes constant across tasks). When we don’t acknowledge these gradations of difficulty, we end up with curriculum that asks teachers to waste time trying to get kindergarteners to say “nest without /s/.” Unless those kids are reading, they can't do it. But, as we've seen, they are REALLY good at hitchhiking on their peers' voices. Your thoughts, Tim?
Next conundrum: what do we do about vendors pushing PA instruction without letters?
I'm much less concerned about the terminology than the second issue you raise. There are states that are mandating advanced PA instruction for all through 4th grade (in the name of the science of reading, but with nary a study supporting that instruction) and, of course, if states are going to require that teachers teach such things, publishers are going to try to respond. It is important that teachers, administrators, and state officials pay attention to the research and not to the opinions. Our kids deserve that.
There has been disagreement about the value of teaching advanced phonemic awareness (PA) by having students delete, add, or substitute phonemes in spoken words. Critics argue that this instruction is of dubious value and that phonemic awareness tasks should be taught with letters. However, it is possible that letters are activated implicitly when students perform these tasks. When students learn to read, graphemes become bonded to phonemes to form one functional unit. When readers decode words by sounding out and blending, the letters automatically activate their phonemes. When students spell words, breaking apart pronunciations into phonemes automatically activates graphemes representing those phonemes. In both tasks, graphemes and phonemes function as single connected units. So when students perform advanced phonemic awareness tasks, they may be operating with grapheme-phoneme units as well. When they are directed to say “smile” but delete /s/, very likely they are deleting a grapheme-phoneme unit rather than simply a phoneme. This suggests that there is value in this type of instruction. It may help to activate and embed grapheme-phoneme units within the pronunciations of words and hence strengthen orthographic mapping. Another way of conducting the instruction might be to have students delete, add, or substitute letters rather than phonemes, for example, say “smile” but delete “ess.” These possibilities invite further research, not only to clarify processing in advanced PA tasks but also to determine whether this instruction facilitates learning to read and spell words.
Dear Dr. Ehri,I read this with anxiety.:)
Without instructing the grapheme phoneme connection first,aren`t you a bit concerned that those unwilling to teach letters to sound-will say,oh,all we have to do is add Heggerty or the DK drills and we`ll be all set and we`ll comply with SOR.
Dr. Reid Lyon spoke of deletion ,substitution and addition in 1995 at a lecture I attended at IDA.
WITH LETTERS..the students love it and it`s definitely helpful to our children at risk.I`ve been doing it ever since.
Without letters it doesn`t support your research on orthographic mapping,DK`s big thing -because they aren`t Spelling.
State of Texas is requiring us to learn this to teach PreK-3 or lose our jobs. About 300 hours of unpaid time!
RH-- I'm always fascinated by those who tout the science of reading, but who don't require any scientific evidence for the schemes that they promote.
I am currently training to be a specialist teacher to help children, young people and adults with dyslexia and/or other barriers to Literacy. I am confused because what kinds of activities and teaching WILL help struggling readers. I read this above: “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.” So how do you enable orthographic mapping? Thank you for any help. Also, am I right in thinking that those counters in boxes which are used to isolate sounds in words won’t be particularly helpful and that it’s better to have the letters in the boxes which make the sounds which will aid decoding and orthographic mapping? I’m acutely aware of how much I have to learn and I really want to understand the key message here and how that might impact my approach to helping struggling readers. thank you for any advice. Tiphanie
Well this has certainly been one of the most interesting blogs and comments, both informative and provocative. I am reminded by a cautionary discussion I had with Linnea about the use of pseudowords in instruction. Sometimes what is done in a specific study does not mean that should lead to it being the way instruction might look. The importance of further replicated studies cannot be overstated. I also know as a former DI teacher that we did not focus on phoneme awareness tasks orally only and certainly not for prolonged periods of time but as the Follow Through studies and the more recent meta- analysis by Jean Stackard at U Orgeon showed it still is more successful than most other programs. One very interesting DI program called Horizons ( not to be confused with Reading Horizons) capitalized on the letter names containing the phonemes. I certainly see the benefit as Susan Brady says of more quickly getting to phonemes rather than prolonged onset rime work for example and linking to the graphemes as soon as practical. My intervention work with high school students reading at about third grade level was with DI Corrective Reading ( formerly known as Distar) and within a few months they were off and running. Of course this wasn't a scientific study but it was based on what Ziggy taught me and represented what Project Follow Through demonstrated. Thank you all for this insightful discussion.
Teaching reading is a complicated job that I have been doing for the past ten years. Most of my work has been with ELL students, and for the past 4 years, I have worked with special education students. The sixth graders I work with come to me reading at a K-1 grade level. I started using Kilpatrick's program in the 2022-23 school year. Six of my seven special education students made expected or more than expected growth on their MAP test as special education and EL students. In a typical year, most students make about half the projected growth give or take. So far this year, all my students have grown considerably on the latest MAP test, and one student increased an entire grade level. In the past, I would push sight words and use close reading. Now I tailor instruction to meet the needs of my students using a structured phonics program, five minutes of phonemic awareness and reading passages connected to phonics skills taught. Since I incorporated Kilpatrick's program ($50 - I don't think he is trying to make money on this!) I have seen considerable growth in my students' reading, memory, writing, and overall engagement in learning.
Sometimes, administrators or law-makers look at information and make decisions. Everything that I have read and heard from Kilpatrick has explained that the research shows that phonemic awareness and phonics show substantial growth. I do not recall reading that he recommended that an average or above-average student should spend time working on phonemic intervention. It is a tier 2 intervention for students struggling with decoding. For the lower elementary grades, give the AIMESWEB Screener and help those students with the foundational skills needed to prevent reading problems. I don't know what is so confusing. If you used Kilpatrick and it didn't work, I would love to hear from you and how you used it.
I am late to the conversation on this but the hostility toward Kilpatrick is surprising to me. If you use his one minute activities and find them helpful then use them. If you don't, then stop. It's truly one minute.
I have found that deletion and substitution is important for struggling readers when they need to perform an error correction. When they read obvious for oblivious or bat for bait, to correct themselves they need to be able to hear the substitutions. The one minute activities can help them become more flexible.
I don't see the harm in doing these whole group if it's fast. I do think 20 minute pull out groups of just PA seem to be an odd use of time.
I do like that we have decided to use PA with graphemes as well to make the connection unlike earlier teachings in LTRS.
More research is good and teachers need to continue to be open to changing and adjusting instruction continually without the hostility.
I think the reason for the hostility is because, without any evidence testing this claim, it is being mandated by some states way beyond what you describe -- remember David's claim is that this is for a subset of young students with dyslexia (some states are requiring this for all students throughout the elementary school). That is also why David suggested the title for this blog.
Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!
Copyright © 2023 Shanahan on Literacy. All rights reserved. Web Development by Dog and Rooster, Inc.
See what others have to say about this topic.