Watch Those Inferences

  • Phonological awareness
  • 29 October, 2008

Recently, I received a note from someone who was agitated about their 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 that were recommending the program was upset, the vendor was upset, and because of my work on the National Reading Panel I was being asked to weigh in.

  Of course, I wanted to know what led the state board to think that phonics and phonemic awareness had to be taught separately. The answer was that these skills were laid out separately in the state standards.

  This reminds 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 our work came from and he showed me… the topics were handled in separate chapters in that order so he “naturally” inferred that’s what we meant. Wow!

  With regard to the phonics-phonemic awareness question:

The National Reading Panel reviewed research on the teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics for the U.S. government. To ensure that both of these skills areas required instructional attention, we reviewed studies where only phonemic awareness or phonics was being taught. In other words, if a study was testing the combined effects of phonemic awareness and phonics, we didn’t include it in our review.

  In both instances, we found that instruction in that specific skill area provided kids with some learning benefit. In other words, phonemic awareness instruction was beneficial and phonics instruction was beneficial. Given the nature of the studies that we examined, we didn’t draw what I would consider to the erroneous inference that these skills need to be taught separately. In fact, to the contrary, we 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, and concluded that phonemic awareness and phonics both needed to be taught and that they could and should clearly be connected.

  Later, when the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth did its review, there were so few studies of the teaching of these skills to English learners that we examined all of such studies (even if phonemic awareness and phonics were combined). Whether the study focused on combinations of these skills or these skills separately, the results were the same: young English learners benefited from this kind of teaching.

  A new report to be released soon from the National Early Literacy Panel that has examined the research on teaching literacy to preschoolers and kindergartners, also found phonological awareness and phonics to be good things to teach, but they made no claims for the need to separate these.

  State or district standards tend to specify skills without regard to how they are to be taught in the classroom. There certainly is nothing in the California state learning standards or the research that would argue for separating phonemic awareness from phonics, as long as both skills are clearly, explicitly, and thoroughly addressed. A program that claims to combine such skills, but really just elides over one of them, doesn’t fit that bill. But a program that tries to teach both of these together could do a very good job of supporting effective teaching.

Awhile back I heard about a similar concern from another email. This one was concerned that a combined phonemic awareness/phonics program was not doing it right. What they meant was that their conception of how to combine this instruction was that a teacher would spend several weeks teaching young kids to hear the separable sounds and then once that was accomplished, they would turn their attention to teaching sound-symbol relationships. There is nothing wrong with that conception, and I would not be averse to such a plan as either a teacher or a researcher.

  What was throwing this person was that the program she was reviewing didn’t teach it in this way. That is, they worked on phonemic awareness for particular letters and letter combinations, and when kids could hear these particular sounds, the program immediately linked these to letters. This is a very different conception of the relationship of PA to phonics, and it recognizes that kids become sensitive to some sounds earlier and easier than others, and therefore instead of trying to teach PA in its entirety it is connected to the letters as the kids develop.

Although this is a very different approach, it, too, is sensible and, again, as a researcher or a teacher, I would have no trouble with this plan either.

  I believe that the federal research reviews and state learning standards have been valuable, but I’m concerned about the inferences some readers draw from these, that may be more linked to their own beliefs than to anything in the documents. Good readers not only draw inferences, they are aware of their inferences and the sources for them.


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Watch Those Inferences


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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