Blast from the Past: This entry posted on October 29, 2008 and was revisited on August 20, 2022. When originally issued, educators were concerned about properly adhering to the intent of various federal and state documents – which raised questions about whether phonemic awareness and phonics were to be separated. By 2022, these concerns were being raised by researchers and theorists about the proper role that letters should play in phonemic awareness instruction. This blog explains the value of combining PA and phonics instruction. The point of phonemic awareness teaching is to help students to perceive the individual language sounds within words; without which developing a proper grasp of decoding would be impossible. However, PA does not simply precede decoding as that description seems to imply. Efforts to connect letters and sounds helps many children to understand and gain facility with phonemic awareness. It can help at times to keep letters out of the process so that students can fully focus on phonemes (without visual cues), and at others it is beneficial to use letters in PA teaching. PA and phonics instruction should concur, overlap, and synchronize.
Recently, I received a note from a teacher agitated about her state school board. It seems the board wanted to reject the purchase of an instructional program because it didn’t teach phonemic awareness separately from phonics. The committee of teachers who had selected the program were upset; the vendor was upset. Because of my work on the National Reading Panel, I was being asked to weigh in on the criterion the state was using.
I wanted to know what had led the state board to conclude that phonics and phonemic awareness should be taught separately. I found out that it was because these skills had been listed separately in the state standards.
This reminded me of the Congressional aide who very patiently explained to me that, “Of course, the National Reading Panel was saying that you had to teach phonemic awareness before you could teach phonics, and you had to teach phonics before you could teach fluency, and you had to teach fluency before you could get to reading comprehension.” I wondered where this insight into the National Reading Panel work had come from. He explained that was the order that the topics had been presented. He inferred that ordering of topics was meant to imply a sequence of instruction; something that dumbfounded me since the panelists had never discussed such a sequence and the research reviews never contemplated it.
To respond specifically to the question about the specific sequencing of phonemic awareness and phonics:
The National Reading Panel conducted two separate research reviews on the teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics for the U.S. government. To ensure that both components received adequate instructional attention, we reviewed studies in which phonemic awareness OR phonics were taught – ignoring studies that combined their instruction. If a study evaluated their combined teaching, we didn’t include it in our review.
We found that instruction in each provided a learning benefit to children. Phonemic awareness instruction was beneficial and phonics instruction was also beneficial. We did not conclude that such instruction should necessarily be separated… in fact, Dr. Linnea Ehri who led these particular reviews strongly believes the benefits of these two areas of teaching to be reciprocal… the teaching of PA enhances the decoding skills taught in phonics, and the phonics instruction helps students to develop the phonemic sensitivity children need to gain.
It would be erroneous to conclude that these skills need be taught separately.
In fact, the Panel noted that phonemic awareness programs that included letters (the connection of sounds and letters being the beginnings of phonics) did better than those programs that did not include letters.
A new report to be released soon from the National Early Literacy Panel has examined the research on teaching literacy to preschoolers and kindergartners, has not separated the effects. It has examined studies of combined phonological awareness and phonics and found them to be good things to teach, either separately or combined (much as did the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth in its review).
State or district learning standards usually specify the skills that are to be accomplished, without any regard to how they should be taught. There is nothing in the California state learning standards that would argue for separating phonemic awareness from phonics – just that both phonemic awareness and decoding ability were to be achieved. An instructional program aimed at both sets of skills fits the bill.
Awhile back I received a similar concern. This one concerned that a combined phonemic awareness/phonics program was teaching those skills appropriately. This program developed phonemic awareness for each phoneme, following up that instruction immediately with letter recognition, letter naming, letter sounding, and letter writing instruction. The teacher who contacted me thought that students should receive several months of PA instruction, followed by 2-3 years of decoding. Her plan might be acceptable, but like Linnea Ehri, I suspect it would be better to move back and forth between PA and phonics. Personally, I kind of liked the idea of focusing so thoroughly on each phonemic element rather than trying to accomplish all PA and then all decoding (especially if there is some ongoing review – so that phonemes and letter-sound relations are revisited frequently).
Federal research reviews and state learning standards have been valuable. I’m just concerned about the inferences some educators and policymakers have drawn from them. Good readers not only draw inferences, they are aware of their inferences and recognized where they came from.
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