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Phonemes are the smallest units composing spoken language. For example, the words “go” and “she” each consist of two sounds or phonemes. Phonemes are different from letters that represent phonemes in the spellings of words. Instruction in phonemic awareness (PA) involves teaching children to focus on and manipulate phonemes in spoken syllables and words.

PA instruction is frequently confused with phonics instruction, which entails teaching students how to use letter-sound relations to read or spell words. PA instruction qualifies as phonics instruction when it involves teaching children to blend or segment the sounds in words using letters.

However, children may be taught to manipulate sounds in speech without any letters as well; this does not qualify as phonics instruction. PA is also frequently confused with auditory discrimination, which refers to the ability to recognize whether two spoken words are the same or different.

There are several reasons why the NRP selected PA instruction for review and analysis.

  • First, correlational studies have identified PA and letter knowledge as the two best school-entry predictors of how well children will learn to read during the first 2 years of instruction. Such evidence suggests the potential importance of PA training in the development of reading skills.
  • Second, many experimental studies have been carried out to evaluate the effectiveness of PA training in facilitating reading acquisition.
  • Third, there is currently much interest in PA training programs among teachers, principals, parents, and publishers because of claims about their value in improving children’s ability to learn to read.

The initial literature search for studies relevant to PA instruction and training identified 1,962 citations. Following initial review, the Panel identified and further reviewed 78 studies that met the general NRP research methodology criteria. However, on detailed examination, only 52 studies satisfied the more specific NRP research methodology criteria. From these 52 studies, 96 comparisons of treatment and control groups were derived. Data from these comparisons were then entered into a meta-analysis to determine treatment effect sizes.

Findings and Determinations

The results of the meta-analysis were impressive. Overall, the findings showed that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective under a variety of teaching conditions with a variety of learners across a range of grade and age levels and that teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading more than instruction that lacks any attention to PA.

Specifically, the results of the experimental studies led the Panel to conclude that PA training was the cause of improvement in students’ phonemic awareness, reading, and spelling following training. The findings were replicated repeatedly across multiple experiments and thus provide converging evidence for causal claims. While PA training exerted strong and significant effects on reading and spelling development, it did not have an impact on children’s performance on math tests. This indicates that halo/Hawthorne (novelty) effects did not explain the findings and that indeed the training effects were directly connected with and limited to the targeted domain under study.

Importantly, the effects of PA instruction on reading lasted well beyond the end of training. Children of varying abilities improved their PA and their reading skills as a function of PA training.

PA instruction also helped normally achieving children learn to spell, and the effects lasted well beyond the end of training. However, the instruction was not effective for improving spelling in disabled readers. This is consistent with other research showing that disabled readers have difficulty learning how to spell.

Programs in all of the studies provided explicit instruction in phonemic awareness. Specifically, the characteristics of PA training found to be most effective in enhancing PA, reading, and spelling skills included explicitly and systematically teaching children to manipulate phonemes with letters, focusing the instruction on one or two types of phoneme manipulations rather than multiple types, and teaching children in small groups.

PA instruction is ready for implementation in the classroom, but teachers should keep in mind several cautions.

First, PA training does not constitute a complete reading program. Rather, it provides children with essential foundational knowledge in the alphabetic system. It is one necessary instructional component within a complete and integrated reading program. Several additional competencies must be acquired as well to ensure that children will learn to read and write.

Second, there are many ways to teach PA effectively. In implementing PA instruction, teachers need to evaluate the methods they use against measured success in their own students.

Third, the motivation of both students and their teachers is a critical ingredient of success. Research has not specifically focused on this.


Excerpted from: National Reading Panel. (April, 2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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