Are You Wondering about Your Understanding of Phonological Awareness?
By Dr. Lucy Hart Paulson, Ed.D., CCC-SLP.
How are you feeling about your understanding of phonological and phonemic awareness?
As a practitioner and a researcher, I thought I felt pretty certain about my understanding related to the developmental sequences, assessment strategies, what skills need to be taught and to whom. Recent posts and conversations have questioned some of my understandings.
Should you teach syllables or not? Should alphabet letters be included in PA instruction? If children are reading, do they even need phonemic awareness instruction? What about phonemic awareness instruction for older students who struggle with literacy development? Well, as I pondered these questions, here are some thoughts.
First of all, what is the relationship between phonological and phonemic awareness? Phonological awareness is the ability to consciously play with and manipulate word parts including syllable awareness, phoneme awareness, and rhyme awareness. The term phonological sensitivity has been used to describe syllable awareness. A better connection to this term is related to infant and toddler speech-sound development as they become sensitive to the phonemes and syllable patterns of the language in which they are loved. They begin to babble those sounds and combine them to say their first words. As babies’ language continues to develop, they learn to say more speech sounds as their vocabulary grows.
So, does syllable awareness ever need to be taught? A strong body of research describes the early sequences of phonological awareness development in the toddler and preschool years. Young children learn to play with syllables in words before they are able to isolate and identify phonemes. Beyond preschool, phoneme awareness is needed to read and spell words, which is an instructional focus in kindergarten and first grade. If students in the earliest grades have not yet developed phoneme awareness, starting with syllable awareness helps them become “metaphonologically” aware, intentionally thinking about the structures of words, to make a more successful transition to phoneme awareness development.
Should letters be used in PA instruction? Letter knowledge and phoneme awareness are foundations for learning to decode and spell words. They are discrete skills, or ingredients of a sort, that come together for successful early literacy learning. Teaching routines that include a bit of PA instruction tuning into speech sounds, followed by instruction connecting sounds to letters, then connecting how those sounds and letters work together to read and spell words is recommended to ensure students are developing these important foundation skills.
What about the query of the need to even teach phoneme awareness? Some young students will implicitly develop PA skills, without the need for direct instruction, as they learn to read and write in the early grades. Others will not. ALL young students benefit from PA instruction. Many children require it. These students need guidance learning PA skills to support their literacy learning. However, Tier 1 instruction in the early grades should only require a few minutes daily until these skills are established. At Tier 2 or 3 levels, students need systematic, sequential, and explicit intervention to help them establish these vital foundation skills.
What about PA instruction for older students who struggle with literacy learning? There are a couple of layers to this query. First, as young students learn to read and write, their developing literacy learning and orthographic awareness supports and facilitates more advanced phoneme awareness ability. For example, if a reader is asked to delete a sound from a CCVC word like “slip,” their brain “visualizes” the word’s spelling, often at a subconscious level, to assist in the phonemic manipulation. Their written language competency facilitates more complex phoneme awareness skill development. On the other hand, students having difficulty learning to read and write most often have underdeveloped phonological processing skills, which may interfere with their ability to make accurate and fluent sound/symbol connections. As a result, they often have weak phoneme awareness which contributes to weak sound/symbol associations, which then doesn’t support continued phoneme awareness skill development. Helping these students intentionally develop their phoneme awareness skills helps to facilitate their sound/symbol connections and their literacy learning.
Considering all that we have learned during many decades of research and application of the findings, are syllables important? Yes. Should letters be used with PA instruction? Yes, at some point. Should phonemic awareness be taught? Absolutely! Do older students need phonemic awareness instruction? Yes, when these skills have not developed to a point of supporting their literacy learning. My own understanding is back to a solid understanding again.
Want more? A valuable resource is available to educators in the “Teaching Phoneme Awareness in 2023: A Guide for Educators”. This dynamic guide was compiled by experts in the field with a broad range of perspectives and expertise, including Dr. Lucy Paulson.
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