Why Phonemic Awareness and Phonemic Proficiency Are Necessary for All Readers

Phonemic awareness, or the ability of students to hear, identify and manipulate the sounds or individual phonemes in the English language, is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictor of students’ reading ability.

In this on-demand webinar from the Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education (CORE), Dr. David Kilpatrick, author of Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, dives deep into phonemic awareness research to explain why building students’ phonemic awareness through various phonemic awareness strategies is so critical to effectively teaching all students to read, from those who struggle to those who learn to read more easily.

In this webinar, you will learn:

  • Common misconceptions around phonemic awareness and reading, including the important difference between phonological awareness skills and phonemic awareness skills
  • The role phonemic skills and phonemic awareness play in reading an alphabet-based writing system
  • Why some students struggle learning to read

Below is a preview of some of the various topics covered in this webinar.

The Relationship Between Phonemic Awareness and the Alphabetic Principle

At its core, alphabetic writing captures the phonemic structures of spoken words and puts them down in print. As a result, English speakers do not write words. According to Dr. Kilpatrick, we instead write phoneme characters in a series that we then blend into words.

Therefore, if students struggle with phonemic awareness, reading an alphabetic language is extremely difficult for them. Phonemic awareness is crucial to students’ ability to not only sound out new words, but also to remember the words they read and develop important sight words.

Why Some Students Struggle with Word-Level Reading

Phonemic awareness research points to the Phonological-Core Deficit as the reason some people struggle with word-level reading. In the webinar, Dr. Kilpatrick describes the five key components of the Phonological-Core Deficit and explains how students who struggle with reading typically have difficulty in one or more of these areas. These areas include:

  1. Phonemic awareness/analysis
  2. Phonemic blending/synthesis
  3. Rapid automatized naming
  4. Phonological working memory
  5. Nonsense word reading and letter-sound knowledge acquisition

The Difference Between Phonemic Tasks and Phonemic Skills

 When teaching students to read, it is important that educators are able to distinguish between phonemic tasks and phonemic skills, according to Dr. Kilpatrick. While there are many phoneme tasks, there are really only two phoneme skills needed for reading. These two phoneme skills are:

  • Phoneme synthesis: Phoneme-level synthesis is also known as blending, or the process of combining letter sounds into words. This skill is important for phonic decoding of unfamiliar words. Phoneme-level synthesis is established in typically developing readers by late first grade.
  • Phoneme analysis: This skill is important for remembering words and is needed for efficient orthographic learning and orthographic mapping, or the ability to move from slowly sounding out words to recognizing and remembering them in writing by sight. Orthographic learning and orthographic mapping are important to building reading proficiency. This skill is typically established in developing readers by late second to late third grade.

Learn Phonemic Awareness Strategies to Apply to Your Teaching

As Dr. Kilpatrick details in this on-demand webinar from CORE, word-level reading ability is based upon students’ phonemic awareness and phonemic skills due to the alphabetic nature of our English writing system. The most skilled readers are good at both reading words through phonic decoding and remembering them through orthographic mapping — and phonemic awareness and phonemic proficiency are critical to being able to do both.

For more insight into phonemic awareness research as well as phonemic awareness examples to help build students’ phonemic proficiency, watch the full, on-demand webinar from CORE.

Video Transcript

David K.: Well, this all makes sense the fact that it’s not visual memory when we understand the Alphabetic Principle. Chinese writing, yes there’s a lot of visual memory involved in Chinese writing because they’re character based. Each character represents a word, or combination of charters represents a word. But, alphabetic writing is different. With Chinese writing, you could speak Cantonese or Mandarin, those are two of the different Chinese languages, and you would have a hard time communicating with each other because they’re verbally different languages. But, you could read some of the same material, like a newspaper. Why? Because the written form of the language is not keyed in to the phoneme level pronunciation of the oral language.

David K.: Alphabetic writing, on the other hand, that’s the whole nature of alphabetic writing. Alphabetic writing captures the phonemic structure of spoken words and puts them down in print. So, as a result, we don’t write words. I know that sounds weird, but really we do not write words in the same way that the sun does not rise and set. We talk about the sun rising and setting, it’s a manner of speaking. But, we don’t write words. They do write words in Chinese, by the way. But, in English and Spanish, and all other alphabetic systems, we write phoneme characters. We write phoneme characters and we create a series of them, and we call that a word. So, if you have poor access to the phonemes in the spoken language, reading an alphabet based writing system is going to be very difficult.

David K.: Now, most people can acknowledge that phoneme skills must be important for sounding out words, but what’s not so obvious is its role in remembering words, and it’s central in remembering words. So, why do some people struggle in word-level reading? 40 years of research has said it’s pretty much the phonological core deficit. Now, in science we never say never, but we just don’t find many alternative situations. First of all, it’s based on the alphabetic nature of writing. Next slide, right? We’ll come into that. There are different ways of dividing this up, but it’s still the same pie. These are five different ways of representing the key features of the phonological core deficit. Children who struggle in reading struggle in one or more of these. We have not found other alternative explanations for poor word reading outside the phonological core deficit. They looked at all kinds of visual explanations and all types of things, and none of them have turned out to be causally related.

David K.: Kids with dyslexia may have certain little features we don’t find often in the general population, but they have nothing to do with why they’re not reading. Or, little or nothing that we can say. Again, we never say never but at this state in our knowledge after 40 years, we’ve found no good alternative to the phonological core deficit. It makes sense when you consider the alphabetic nature of writing and the phonemic nature of our writing system. So, actually I apologize. It says next slide. It should have said previous slide. We have to distinguish, and this is a bit of a problem of applying the research, and there’s so much of it, applying the research to teaching kids. We have to distinguish between phonemic tasks and phonemic skills. Phonemic tasks. To show you what a boring guy I am, I sat down one night and I made up a list on a blank piece of paper of how many different phoneme analysis … That’s pulling words apart in some way … how many phoneme analysis tasks are in the research literature. I came up with 24 out of the top of my head. There probably are more.

David K.: However, the other type of phonological skill, or phoneme skill, which is phoneme synthesis, like blending. So, instead of pulling words apart, you’re taking individual parts and blending them together to activate a word. We pretty much only have one task, not 24. In almost all research studies and all training, we do a blending task. You say to a child, “What word am I saying? D-esk”, and the kid says, “Desk.” Well, how’s that different than if he saw the four letters and sounded it out? It’s really not different. The task and the skill are one in the same when it comes to phoneme synthesis. They are not one in the same when it comes to phoneme analysis. There are multiple tasks, there’s at least 25 that I’ve come up with because of the 24 plus the blending and maybe more, but there’s only two skills we need for reading. Synthesis and analysis, and the play different roles in reading.

David K.: Phoneme blending, we need to sound out unfamiliar words. We’ve all had kids that sound out a word and they go, “ha-it, ha-it. What’s the word?” You’re like, “What’s the word? You just sounded it out.” That child has a problem blending. They have the letter sound knowledge, but they’re not good at lending. Phoneme analysis is needed for remembering words. As I said, the common synthesis task is blending 95-99% of the time in a research study, that’s what they use, a blending task. So, the two are the same and that lulls into thinking that skill and task are equal when it comes to phoneme analysis, but that is not the case. So, these are different categories of tasks, and under each of these there are multiple variations, between two and six variations out of these. That’s how we get up to 24 different tasks.

David K.: What are they all telling us? Well, the answer is they’re telling us the exact same thing. And, what is that? They’re telling us how good you are at pulling apart a spoken word into its individual sounds, and some of these are doing a better job of that than others. There’s really only one skill that underlies all these tasks. So, task and skill are not the same thing when it comes to phoneme analysis. As I said, there’s only two types of skills and the blending is needed for phonic decoding, and for even many struggling children, they develop that either through phonics instructions or otherwise. So, you have even struggling readers that will do it. Most kids, by the way, by the end of first grade can segment and blend just about anything you put in front of them.

David K.: But, phoneme analysis proficiency is where I’m headed with this. That is what drives orthographic learning. That is what allows us to remember words for reasons we will see that will continue to unfold. By late second to third grade is when most children that are on target for learning to read develop the phoneme analysis proficiency, which I just shortened up to say phoneme proficiency. What is phoneme proficiency? As you will see coming up, it is the ability to access the phonemes in a spoken word so fast you don’t even think about it. Unconsciously. So, there is a lag, as you see one of the bullets there. There’s a lag in the benefit. The phoneme analysis skill is not kicking in its full form until maybe late second to third grade, and guess what? That’s when we see the sight-word explosion. That’s where we see kids are now, as some researchers call it, the sponge-like acquisition of new reading vocabulary.

David K.: But, earlier on, they have those phoneme analysis skills. They’re just not instant and automatic and proficient, so words are being added to the sight vocabulary during first and second grade, but at a slower pace. Kids with dyslexia, they don’t develop phoneme proficiency. They might develop the blending if they’re taught with a good phonic program, but that doesn’t automatically lead to phoneme proficiency because they have the phonological core deficit. So, lest you think this is some crazy Dave Kilpatrick thing, this is really what the reading panel said back in 2000, “The skill of blending is needed to decode unfamiliar words.” Isn’t that what I said? See, I didn’t come up with this.

David K.: Segmenting, now they use the word segmenting … We have to be careful as you’ll see. We have to separate task from skill. They’re talking about a skill here, not the segmentation task. Phonemic segmentation helps children remember how to read and spell words. I’ve emphasized remember because most people wouldn’t even think that. Again, they’re talking about a segmentation skill, and that segmentation skill, as we will see, has to be so highly proficient we do it without even thinking about it.