Phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of a student’s ability to read fluently. This ability to hear speech sounds clearly, and to differentiate them, is what allows us to acquire language easily, and this knowledge of language is key to our understanding of what we read. As cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Paula Tallal explains, “To break the code for reading, a child must become ‘phonologically aware’ that words can be broken down into smaller units of sounds (phonemes) and that it is these sounds that the letters represent.”
A National Reading Panel in-depth review of 52 phonemic awareness articles found that explicitly teaching phonemic awareness has a direct and significant impact on children’s reading, significantly more than instruction that lacks any attention to phonemic awareness. However, this foundational skill is rarely taught systematically.
It wasn’t until after I learned my son was born profoundly deaf, and I made the shift to the field of speech and language, that I saw the evidence for myself that reading difficulties were directly correlated to the inability to differentiate sounds. Through my years of research and teaching hearing-impaired students to read, I learned not only that children need direct, strongly auditory-based instruction in each of the 44 sounds of the English language, but that the order in which sounds are presented to children directly affects how well and quickly they are able to secure their sound system.
I discovered it was critical to begin phonemic awareness instruction with the sounds which are easiest to hear and blend (/m/, /s/, /oo/, /sh/, /ee/, /aw/). These sounds can be lengthened or held, and don’t have any other sound attached to them which allows a student to get a good grasp of the sound before blending it with another. As students gain proficiency with these easier sounds, they’re ready to learn the rest of the 44 sounds, those that are more difficult, such as /d/, /i/, /k/ etc. These sounds are harder to hear in syllables, and they can’t be lengthened or have another sound attached to them when spoken in isolation. This is the path provided to students in grades PreK–2 in the digital foundational reading program I authored, Ooka Island.
Phonemic awareness teaches students to both hear and manipulate sounds, and to understand that spoken words are made up of sequences of speech sounds. Through my research, I learned that students who were able to identify phonemes rapidly were able to read more fluently because of this rapid processing. Those students who took longer to process phonemes struggled with comprehension. It appeared that too much attention was required to decode the words, leaving less for interpreting what was read.
Fluent reading relies on students developing their phonemic awareness to the point of automaticity, freeing up their brain energy to easily comprehend what they’re reading. Without securing their sound system by learning to automatically recall the 44 sounds of the English language, students rely on inefficient decoding methods and coping strategies like memorization. These skills may enable them to begin to read but as texts increase in complexity, students’ comprehension begins to break down, as it becomes too challenging to understand what they are reading when they are focused on laboriously decoding every word. If we want students to gain mastery of the 44 sounds, they need to have repeated auditory exposure to each of the individual sounds and learn how to rapidly recognize each sound amongst other sounds.
National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Reports of the Subgroups. Author. 2.1-2.8
Tallal, P. (2012). Improving neural response to sound improves reading. PNAS. vol. 109, no. 41, 16406–16407