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kindergarten teacher helping students make the sounds in words
Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Letters in Phonemic Awareness Instruction or the Reciprocal Nature of Learning to Read

Teachers’ question: I’m confused. I’ve heard you say that we should teach phonemic awareness and letters simultaneously. Other “experts” say that phonemic awareness is strictly an auditory skill and that including letters slows children’s learning. Help!

I have some children who, no matter what, don’t seem to be making any progress with phonemic awareness. These three are the only ones who have not progressed to phonics instruction. What should I do?

Shanahan’s response:

This is one of those, “Do we follow theory or data” questions. I’m a data man, myself.

Many educators tout the idea that phonemic awareness (PA) is an auditory skill and that it, therefore, must be learned auditorialy. And, indeed, there are many people who see learning to read as a rigidly sequential exercise… progressing unerringly from phonemic awareness to decoding to text reading fluency to reading comprehension to writing — accomplish one and then you’re prepared to take on the next.

All that makes sense.

Or, it does, at least, until you start teaching 5- and 6-year-old children and see how their learning actually progresses. That’s why studies of reading suggest more complicated lines of development.

The reason I say that it makes more sense to teach phonemic awareness with letters than without is because research shows that instructional routines that do that end up with greater success (NICHD, 2000). It is also true that studies find that when young children engage in activities like invented spelling their phonemic awareness tends to improve. That’s weird, from a theoretical view, since invented spelling depends upon children’s knowledge of letters, a supposedly later developing skill. (David Kilpatrick says that the instruction in those PA studies didn’t start with letters — they used counters and such — but over time they replaced these with letters. That replacement appears to matter.)

Studies of preschoolers and kindergartners have even found efforts that integrate phonemic awareness and phonics instruction to be effective (NELP, 2000).

How can we teach higher level or later developing skills and facilitate foundational or earlier developing ones?

Several years ago, I raised these questions myself with Linnea Ehri, one of our true experts in beginning reading development. Her thoughtful response is in close accord with data:

“Rather than a line [between PA and decoding], I would draw a recycling circle (like a slinky?) by adopting a developmental perspective. Auditory PA that involves teaching children to analyze syllables and initial sounds including articulatory gestures in words begins the process that paves the way for entry into benefiting from phonics instruction and letter name/sound learning. Auditory PA helps children detect the critical sounds in letter names and in pronunciations of words when they practice using letters to represent sounds in words in invented spelling tasks. Practice at inventing spellings improves their PA and their movement into word reading and spelling and ability to benefit from phonics instruction. Learning grapheme-phoneme mapping skill to read and spell in turn improves their PA. So PA and phonics skills and instruction are reciprocally intertwined as children acquire PA, spelling, sight word reading and decoding skills.”

Foundational skills help readers to progress with higher level ones. That means phonemic awareness facilitates decoding and spelling. However, trying to apply phonemic awareness within decoding and spelling refines and extends that ability. The payoff might be greater in one direction (from the simpler to the more elaborate skills), but it definitely goes both ways.

The esteemed Dr. Ehri isn’t the only scientist to recognize the reciprocal nature of reading skill development. Charles Perfetti, Isabel Beck, Steve Graham, Charles Hulme, S. Jay Samuels, Sally Shaywitz, Julie Washington and many others have all written about it. Perfetti and Beck’s, “Phonemic knowledge and learning to read are reciprocal” is an oft-cited example.

Studies have revealed the impact of decoding, spelling, and word reading on phonemic awareness; the impact of morphology and oral reading fluency on decoding ability; and the impact of writing on reading comprehension. This reciprocity has been found in longitudinal correlational studies and in instructional studies.

In the case of phonemic awareness, trying to perceive the sounds within words can be difficult. If you have any doubt about this, you should listen to a foreign language; try to count the words. Good luck!

Having a visual representation can help, however. Eventually you need to perceive the sounds by ear alone, but the support of the eye can help facilitate the accomplishment of that.

I suspect it’s the same with the other well-known examples of reciprocity. The higher skill somehow supports the lower one. For instance, morphology may help with decoding because it tips the learners off to some of the meaning-bearing structures within words. Fluency may contribute to decoding through greater development of the automaticity required to do more than decode lists of words. And, when someone tries to write a story, they use what they’ve learned from reading to do that. But that effort to construct a story could sensitize them to more subtle aspects of structure that enhances their reading comprehension.

So, include letters in phonemic awareness work, but remember that students have to get to the point where they can perceive those phonemes by ear alone.

Even more importantly, don’t fall for the idea that the literacy components are learned one at a time in sequence. Good literacy instruction in the early grades is going to focus on decoding (both phonemic awareness and phonics), oral reading fluency (and, initially, things like finger point reading), reading/listening comprehension (including vocabulary), and writing (including spelling). Not one at a time, but all of them in every kindergarten, first and second grade classrooms.

That means get those kiddies who are still lagging in PA into a good phonics program; it’s time.

Here is a short list of studies illustrating the reciprocity described in this posting. It is meant to show how common such findings are, but it is not anywhere near a comprehensive list.

Partial listing of studies that have identified reciprocity in learning to read:

Conrad, N.J., Harris, N., & Williams, J. (2013). Individual differences in children’s literacy development: The contribution of orthographic knowledge. Reading & Writing, 26, 1223-1239. DOI 10.1007/s11145-012-9415-2/

Deacon, S. H., Benere, J., & Pasquarella, A. (2013). Reciprocal relationship: Children’s morphological awareness and their reading accuracy across grades 2 to 3. Developmental Psychology, 49(6), 1113-1126./

Hulme, C., Zhou, L., Tong, X., Lervåg, A., & Burgoyne, K. (2019). Learning to read in Chinese: Evidence for reciprocal relationships between word reading and oral language skills. Developmental Science, 22(1), 1-11./

Martins, M.A., & Silva, C. The impact of invented spelling on phonemic awareness. Learning and Instruction, 16, 41-56.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. Washington, DC: National Institute of Literacy.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

O’Leary, R., & Ehri, L.C. (2019). Orthography facilitates memory for proper names in emergent readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(1), 75-93.

Perfetti, C. A., Beck, I., Bell, L. C., & Hughes, C. (1987). Phonemic knowledge and learning to read are reciprocal: A longitudinal study of first grade children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 33(3), 283-319

Puranik, C., Branum-Martin, L., & Washington, J.A. (2019). The relation between dialect density and the codevelopment of writing and reading in African American children. Child Development, 91(4), 866-882.

Schaars, M.M.H., Segers, E., & Verhoeven, L. (2017). Predicting the integrated development of word reading and spelling in the early primary grades. Learning and Individual Differences, 59, 127-140.

Sparks, R.L., Patton, J., & Murdoch, A. (2014). Early reading success and its relationship to reading achievement and reading volume: Replication of ’10 years later’. Reading and Writing, 27, 189-211.

Tong, X., & McBride, C. (2017). A reciprocal relationship between syntactic awareness and reading comprehension. Learning and Individual Differences, 57, 33-44.

Wadsworth, S.J., DeFries, J.C., Fulker, D.W., Olson, R.K., & Pennington, B.F. (1995). Reading performance and verbal short-term memory: A twin study of reciprocal causation. Intelligence, 20, 145-167.

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About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
October 13, 2020