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Is It Time To Retire Oral Only Phonemic Awareness Instruction?

In the year 2000, the National Reading Panel conducted a meta-analysis of 52 phonemic awareness experimental and or quasi-experimental studies and determined that “Teaching children to manipulate phonemes using letters produced bigger effects than teaching without letters.” (NRP, 22). Indeed they found studies on PA studies with letters on average showed an effect size for reading outcomes, of .68 compared to .38 without letters. Similarly, PA instruction with letters showed a mean effect size of .61 for spelling outcomes, compared to .34. Even more shocking, PA instruction with letters showed a mean effect size of .89, for PA outcomes compared to .81, without letters. PA instruction with letters outperformed PA instruction without letters in all conditions. Moreover, these differences were almost double for spelling and reading. 

PA Taught with Letters.png
PA Taught Without Letters.png

This finding has long been contentious, as many popular phonemic awareness programs teach phonemic awareness without letters. Indeed, some even claim that there are advantages to such programs not captured by previous research. 


Over the years, many very prominent scholars have commented in regard to this discrepancy. Indeed both Dr. Shanahan and Dr. Ehri (two of the leading researchers in the world on literacy instruction) have publicly stated that they believe PA should be taught with letters and not in isolation, as can be seen in this article by Dr. Shanahan. ( 


Indeed on the subject, Dr. Ehri stated: ““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.”


A new meta-analysis came out in 2022, by Rehfeld et al. Their meta-analysis looked at 133 experimental /and/or quasi-experimental studies on PA instruction. They found twice the outcomes for PA taught with letters, compared to without letters, similarly to the NRP meta-analysis, despite including almost three times the studies, 20 years later. I have included some of the other results that I thought were most relevant to teachers in the below chart. 

Phonemic Awareness Meta Analysis Results.png

And now in 2024, yet another meta-analysis has come out demonstrating the same thing; oral only phonemic awareness instruction is inferior to phonemic awareness instruction that includes letters. Florina Erbelia, Marianne Rice, Ying Xu, Megan E. Bishop, Icon & J. Marc Goodrich conducted a non-linear meta-analysis to examine the impact of dose on oral only phonemic awareness instruction versus phonemic awareness instruction with letters. They examined sixteen experimental and quasi-experimental primary studies that reported cumulative dosage data. Findings showed that phonemic awareness taught without letters quickly showed diminishing returns after just 10 hours, whereas phonemic awareness with letters actually continued to show increased returns, even after 16 hours of instruction. As can be seen in the below graphic, effect sizes became negative for studies that taught phonemic awareness oral only, and lasted longer than 30 hours. Comparatively, phonemic awareness studies that used letters, never showed effect sizes below .41. Not only does this meta-analysis provide even more evidence for teaching phonemic awareness with letters, it suggests that too much phonemic awareness instruction, without letters, can actually cause negative outcomes when compared to a control group. 

Erbelia 2024.png

Source: Erbelia, 2024: *Note, red line was added to demonstrate when effect sizes became negative. 


With three meta-analyses showing the same thing, it seems pretty clear that the research supports phonemic awareness taught with letters, over phonemic awareness taught without letters. However, in the past, when I have pointed this out, I have often gotten the following responses in favour of oral only phonemic awareness: 


  1. “I thought once you added letters to phonemic awareness, it ceases to be phonemic awareness and becomes phonics.”

  2. It’s not developmentally appropriate to teach with letters in early kindergarten. 


Let's examine each of these claims:


Is phonemic awareness with letters just phonics?

Personally, I tend to disagree with this statement. As phonemic awareness instruction is usually defined as instruction that helps students to isolate or manipulate sounds in words. Whereas phonics is usually defined as instruction on phoneme-grapheme correspondences. To me, PA seems like a categorically different type of instruction, regardless of whether or not students can see the letters. 


Previously I was unsure on this issue and reached out to Dr. Holly Lane the creator of UFLI to get her insights on the matter and she wrote: 


“Phonemic awareness is the mental capacity to attend to and manipulate phonemes or the sounds of spoken language. ANY instruction that develops this mental capacity is phonemic awareness instruction. If it happens to include letters, then it's also phonics instruction.


There's nothing wrong with oral-only instruction.  That does improve PA.  However, the goal of phonemic awareness instruction is not to blend and segment phonemes for the sake of blending and segmenting phonemes. The purpose is (a) to help children blend phonemes so they can read words and (b) to help them segment phonemes so they can spell words. Phonemic awareness instruction that includes letters accomplishes these goals more effectively and efficiently than phonemic awareness instruction without letters. Yes, it's phonics instruction, but it's also more effective phonemic awareness instruction.”


Is teaching kindergarten students developmentally appropriate?

Of course, this language actually comes from the DAP movement, which was very popular for Balanced Literacy scholars when I first started my teaching career. Indeed, it is a claim I often see Balanced Literacy scholars make against phonics in general. However, as I discussed with Dr. Shanahan in my interview with him, there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim. 



Moreover, there are multiple meta-analyses looking at phonics instruction in kindergarten, most notably, the (NRP, 2000), which found positive effects. The results of which can be seen in the below graph. 

So where does this leave us? 

I know many teachers have purchased scripted oral-only PA programs. They are extremely popular in part because they are both very easy to implement and fun for students. Personally, I think there are some fairly easy solutions. You could write the words you are planning to do PA drills with on the board, before the lesson. You could have students spell the words after each drill (I particularly like this idea paired with elkonin boxes.) I have also seen Dr. Holly Lane suggest, teachers have students manipulate sounds during PA drills with magnetic letters and elkonin box whiteboards. Truthfully, there are a multitude of ways you can integrate letters into your PA lesson and doing so, is highly likely to increase the benefit. The important thing is that we are establishing there is a connection between letters and sounds. 


Where do we need more research?

One question, I personally have remaining, is what if we teach PA and phonics separately, but in the same lesson? IE 10 minutes of oral-only PA drills followed by a regular phonics lesson. Would that provide the same benefit as doing PA with letters? From my own research into this issue, I have not found this question adequately addressed, by meta-analysis and therefore, do not feel I have a good answer. I would assume this would work far better than teaching oral-only PA and phonics, completely separately. However, I don’t know if it would be equivalent, better, or worse than teaching PA with letters, followed up by regular phonics instruction. As it currently stands, I believe the most evidence-based choice would be to teach phonics and PA with letters. \

Written by Nathaniel Hansford

Last Edited 2024/01/25



Florina Erbeli, Marianne Rice, Ying Xu, Megan E. Bishop & J. Marc Goodrich (2024) A Meta-Analysis on the Optimal Cumulative Dosage of Early Phonemic Awareness Instruction, Scientific Studies of Reading, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2024.2309386


Graham, Steve & Hebert, Michael. (2011). Writing to Read: A Meta-Analysis of the Impact of Writing and Writing Instruction on Reading. Harvard Educational Review. 81. 710-744. 10.17763/haer.81.4.t2k0m13756113566. 


Hall, C., Dahl-Leonard, K., Cho, E., Solari, E.J., Capin, P., Conner, C.L., Henry, A.R., Cook, L., Hayes, L., Vargas, I., Richmond, C.L. and Kehoe, K.F. (2022), Forty Years of Reading Intervention Research for Elementary Students with or at Risk for Dyslexia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Read Res Q.


NRP. (2000). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence Based Assessment of the Scientific Literature on Reading Instruction. United States Government. <>.  


Shanahan, Timothy. (2020). Letters in Phonemic Awareness Instruction or the Reciprocal Nature of Learning to Read. Reading Rockets. Retrieved from <>.  


Shanahan, Timothy. (2020). Interview with Dr. Shanahan: The topic of DAP and Dyslexia - Episode 38. Pedagogy Non Grata. Retrieved from <>. 


Parker, Stephen. (2022). The Essential Linnea Ehri. Parker Phonics. Retrieved from <>. 


Rehfeld DM, Kirkpatrick M, O'Guinn N, Renbarger R. A Meta-Analysis of Phonemic Awareness Instruction Provided to Children Suspected of Having a Reading Disability. Lang Speech Hear Serv Sch. 2022 Oct 6;53(4):1177-1201. doi: 10.1044/2022_LSHSS-21-00160. Epub 2022 Jul 13. PMID: 35858272.

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