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“The lack of phonemic awareness is the most powerful determinant of the likelihood of failure to read.” (Adams, 1990)

For me, this is one of the most powerful quotes in regard to reading instruction. While the quote is from 1990, what you will find is that this is, unfortunately, still true today. There is a plethora of research noting that “Phonological awareness difficulties represent the most common source of word-level reading difficulties.” (Hulme, Bowyer-Crane, Carroll, Duff, & Snowling, 2012; Melby-Lervag, Hulme, & Halaas Lyster, 2012; Vellutino et al., 2004)

When I share or read this research, I can’t help but to think of my first year teaching, when phonemic awareness was not something that was on my radar. I started my teaching career as a 6th grade reading and language arts teacher on the Southside of Chicago. It didn’t take me long to realize that undergrad had not prepared me very well.  I had many students that were struggling to read proficiently and I had no clue how to support them. 

My sole purpose in becoming an educator was to support the neediest students and do my best to allow them access to the same opportunities their more privileged peers had. I am sure many educators can relate to the feelings I felt that first year. I was unprepared and felt inadequate. What I was not aware of at the time, was that many of my students were lacking the foundational literacy skill of phonemic awareness.

I applied for grad school right away and started my Master’s program during my second year of teaching. I was introduced to the findings of The National Reading Panel’s (NRP) report from 2000 in my first class. I graduated college in 2002 and had never heard of this research. There are still many educators today that have not had access to these findings. This means that research that is 20+ years old has still not made its way into many classrooms. 

You may be aware that the NRP identified 5 critical components of literacy instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Furthermore, the research revealed that phoneme manipulation instruction was highly effective in a variety of learners across grades/age levels. The NRP found that teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks any attention to phonemic awareness. 

Oftentimes we consider phonemic awareness instruction to be for early learners only and you often see it cease to be taught and assessed after 1st grade. However, it is essential that all students receive systematic instruction in phonemic awareness. 

Contrary to what may seem intuitive, reading is not a visual process. While we see letters to read, those letters are representing sounds. To a proficient reader, one must understand that words are made up of individual sounds, or phonemes (phonemic awareness). However, it is important for us to understand that an awareness of phonemes is not enough. We need students to become proficient in working with phonemes. Can they isolate, blend, segment and manipulate phonemes? If students did not receive explicit and systematic instruction in Pre-K, Kinder and 1st grade, we may find that they cannot do this work. Additionally, we know that “Phonological awareness continues to develop in typical readers beyond first grade.” (Kilpatrick, 2012a; Lipka et al. 2006, Wagner, Rogesen, Rashotte, & Pearson, 2013)  

The National Institute of Health (NIH) estimates that only 5% of children have cognitive impairments that would make becoming a proficient reader extremely difficult.  That means 95% can become proficient readers. 95% percent! In our nation, we currently have just 35% of 4th graders and 34% of 8th graders reading at a proficient level (NAEP 2019). Clearly, we need to revisit our reading instruction. Learning to read is complex and the majority of students need explicit literacy instruction. You can read more about the many strands of reading in this Reading Rope blog.

Proficient readers are not missing any of the individual strands you see in  Scarborough’s Reading Rope. The strands woven together in “Word Recognition” are not optional skills. They are essential to creating a fluent and proficient reader. If older students are lacking these skills, they must be taught. 

As we consider struggling readers and how to support their needs,  I often hear, “Well, we all learn to read in different ways.”  While that sounds like it would make sense, it is simply not true. The process of learning to read is the same for all of us. The difference is, about 5% of us will learn to read without any instruction and 35% will learn with just a little instruction. 

The majority of students benefit from explicit and systematic instruction in the many strands of reading. This doesn’t mean we learn to read a different way, it just means that some of us learn without being explicitly taught. Just as us parents know, there are many things our children may learn but we definitely didn’t teach them! Proficient and fluent readers have strong phonological awareness, whether they were directly taught or not. Nancy Young’s Ladder of Reading does an excellent job showing us that all students can benefit from explicit literacy instruction.

What does this mean for instruction? It means that if students are not proficient in phonemic awareness, we need to provide that explicit instruction for them. No matter how old they are. 

“Every point in a child’s development of word-level reading is substantially affected by phonological awareness, from learning letter names all the way up to efficiently adding new, multi-syllabic words to the sight vocabulary.”

David Kilpatrick, 2015

As we revisit the foundational skills in the reading rope, we may recognize a need for a shift in core instruction. When we identify most students in a classroom, school, or district are lacking phonemic awareness, Tier I, whole group instruction is necessary. All students need access to instruction that teaches them to identify, blend, segment and manipulate phonemes. 

When we see a gap in older learners’ proficiency, we want to teach with urgency and close that gap as quickly as possible. This means focusing our phonemic awareness instruction on the skills that are most powerful.  “Focusing early phonemic awareness instruction on blending, segmenting, and manipulating phonemes has been shown to produce greater improvements in phonemic awareness and future reading achievement in young children than time spent on rhyming and alliteration.”  (Reutzel, 2015)

When identifying which phonemic awareness skills to focus on with students, consider three parts:

  1. Phoneme isolation (identifying) 
  2. Blending and segmenting 
  3. Manipulating

“Of all the phonological skills, the ability to identify, manipulate and remember strings of speech sounds accounts for a significant portion of the difference between good readers and poor readers.”

Louisa Moats, 2010

Phonemic awareness instruction in older learners should be targeted and specific, and is just one component of a literacy intervention. Phonemic awareness is used as an oral and auditory warm up and allows students to hear and anchor sounds in words. Many struggling readers tend to rely on visual memorization of words as whole units or guess words rather than attending to the phonemes in the words. Creating an opportunity for students to hear and manipulate phonemes in words prior to engaging with print builds a strong anchor for students. 

While phonemic awareness is the foundation of literacy instruction or intervention, it is essential to connect these skills to print. Effective literacy instruction and intervention should have three components:

  1. Target phonemic awareness instruction, with the goal of getting students to advanced levels of phoneme manipulation.
  2. Explicit phonics or word study instruction.
  3. Application to controlled text and opportunities for transfer to writing.

Example Intervention Plan

1. Phonemic Awareness (oral warm-up) 2-4 PA Skills

2. Phonics

  • I DO: Whole group word building with letter cards, magnetic letters, pocket chart       
  • We DO: Small group work with the concept
  • YOU DO: Student application of the concept using dry erase board, letter cards or a word study notebook (Exit slip)

3. Application to Connected Text Reading & Writing

These  three components allow the strands we see in the bottom half of the reading rope to be woven together allowing our students to become fluent readers. All three components are essential and when one strand is missing, students will struggle to become proficient readers. As we work with students, we want to ensure that we are providing access to all of these skills. While phonemic awareness instruction is just one small piece of a literacy intervention, it is often the missing piece for our struggling readers. 

“Phonological awareness difficulties represent the most common source of word-level reading difficulties.”

Hulme, Bowyer-Crane, Carroll, Duff & Snowling, 2012; Melby-Lervag, Hulme, & Halaas Lyster, 2012; Vellutino et al., 2004

We want to provide access to these skills for all students, especially older learners still struggling with word reading. When working with older learners, it can be challenging to find resources and materials that meet their needs and are age appropriate or interesting to read. Additionally, as educators we may not have an awareness of the phonics rules/patterns. I am sharing some excellent resources, some I used as a reading specialist when planning support for grades 3-5 and others are newer resources that have recently become available.

Phonemic Awareness Resources:

Bridge the Gap: Phonemic Awareness Intervention Lessons by Alisa VanHekken & Marjorie Bottari 

Equipped for Reading Success by David Kilpatrick, Ph.D.

Word Study Resources:

Working as a 6th grade teacher my first year out of undergrad, I had no idea how to teach phonics! As a reading specialist, I saw tremendous growth in my students using Rewards. Students learned to decode multisyllabic words while building fluency and vocabulary. Rewards Intermediate by Anita L. Archer, Ph.D.; Mary M. Gleason, Ph.D.; Vicky Vachon, Ph.D.

When creating word study for intervention groups, Wiley always comes in handy! He has excellent resources for young learners, but didn’t forget about the older learners! His book Teaching Phonics & Word Study in the Intermediate Grades by Wiley Blevins is a staple in my library along with Speech to Print by Louisa Moats.

Decodable/Controlled Text:

Working with older learners, it was often a challenge to find decodable text that met student instructional needs as was engaging at the same time. Heggerty has recognized the need to have access to more authentic decodable text for older learners. We are excited to launch our very first set this summer. You can download samples here.  You can also find some great options on the list of decodable readers that The Reading League has compiled.

Poetry is a great way to focus on specific spelling patterns/features with students. I often used Phonics Through Poetry for both word work and the opportunity for application and fluency practice. 

Phonics Through Poetry by Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

More Phonics Through Poetry by Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz

We work extremely hard as educators. We give an endless amount of energy to our students needs – both academic and social/emotional. Becoming a proficient reader impacts both of those needs for our students. While undergrad may have not prepared us well, each and every day I see teachers going above and beyond and to learn more and do more for their students. The ever changing landscape of education can be hard to navigate. What we do know is phonemic proficiency and the other skills embedded in the reading rope are not optional skills. All students need access to these skills.  As we continue on our  journey, I hope we can all continue to work together for all of our students, and let the Know Better, Do Better motto lead the way.

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