The Great Phonemic Awareness Debate

One of the most hotly debated topics within the Science of Reading community has been whether or not we should teach phonemic awareness (PA) skills with letters or without letters. In 2001, the National Reading Panel conducted a meta-analysis of 52 phonemic awareness 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. Indeed, the NRP report was quite clear that PA should be taught with letters. As Stephen Parker points out, the report states “no less than 15 times: phonemic awareness training should consist in blending and segmenting – and both should be done with letters.”

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

That said, PA without letters remains a popular instruction choice. 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. (https://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-literacy/letters-phonemic-awareness-instruction-or-reciprocal-nature-learning-read). 

 

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.”

 

Of course, both Dr. Ehri and Dr. Shanahan were personally involved with the 2001 NRP meta-analysis which found lower results for PA instruction that did not include letters. This might leave some to point out that the NRP meta-analysis is over 20 years old now. However, 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

Personally, I see two possible explanations for this phenomenon. Firstly, teaching students to read with letters is a more specific form of instruction than teaching without. After all, the real point of PA instruction should be to make students better readers and writers, not speech experts. As reading requires letters, so should reading instruction. Secondly, it has been well established within the scientific literature that reading and spelling are inextricably linked and that teaching spelling improves reading outcomes. For example, Graham, et al in 2011, found a mean effect size of .79 for spelling instruction on reading outcomes. This is a higher effect size than the NRP found for phonics instruction and should not be quickly dismissed. Similarly, Colby Hall, et al in 2022 conducted a meta-analysis on interventions for dyslexic students and found some of the highest outcomes for spelling (as well as PA) instruction. 

 

With two high-quality, high-sample meta-analyses on the topic showing that PA with letters is far more effective than teaching it without, it can be understood that the majority of scientific research on the issue clearly shows PA works best with letters. However, there is still a lot of resistance to this idea. When I point this out online, I am usually told ‘but PA with letters is not PA, it’s phonics.’ Personally, I tend to disagree with this statement. As PA 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. 

 

That said, I was not 100% sure that my interpretation was correct, so I reached out to Dr. Holly Lane, a person who I believe to be far more experienced, qualified, and informed than myself. She wrote “Here's my standard explanation:  

 

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.”

 

Apparently, Dr. Holly Lane received this question so many times over the years, that she felt the need to write a standard answer. That said, in my discussions with individuals on this topic, I have also noted people making assertions like ‘but isn’t oral only PA part of a speech to text approach a speech to text approach? Aren’t many science of reading advocates moving towards an S2P or linguistic approach?’ Again, this did not match my understanding of the topic, as I have always understood speech to text, not to mean teaching just phonemes (sounds) for an extended period of time before teaching connection to graphemes; but rather, teaching phonemes first within a phonics lesson. 

 

However, the speech-to-print movement is not something I know very much about qualitatively, as I have never personally used a linguistic phonics program (although, I do think there are theoretical reasons it might be valuable). So I reached out to multiple linguistic phonics instructors to ask them “is oral-only PA a speech-to-text approach”. The answer appeared to be overwhelming, “No”. Most notably, I reached out to Nora Maginity Chahbazi, who told me that “you can’t do speech to text, without text. As you are teaching the connection between sounds and letters.”

 

Another common response I have seen is that “it is not developmentally appropriate to teach students in pre-k or kindergarten with letters”. 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. (https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/interview-with-dr-shanahan-the-topic-of-dap/id1448225801?i=1000459253334

 

Of course, I can understand the confusion. PA is about speech, not letter correspondences. Moreover, if you look at the meta-analyses for PA instruction you typically find a much higher effect size for PA than you do for phonics. PA instruction, unequivocally, has been shown to help students learn how to read. However, that instruction has been shown to be almost twice as effective if you teach PA with letters, as opposed to without. Moreover, the National Reading Panel showed that PA effectiveness declined over a relatively fast period of time (20 hours), possibly suggesting that the benefits of PA instruction can be quickly garnered and should, therefore, be replaced by phonics instruction once those skills have been developed. That said the Rehfeld et al.2022 meta-analysis did not confirm this finding; however, their meta-analysis was focused on dyslexic students. This is an important distinction, as many prominent scholars have theorized that dyslexia in most cases is caused by phonological processing issues and therefore, might benefit from more PA instruction than non-dylexic students. 

 

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 is 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. 

 

While PA instruction done with letters is better than PA instruction without, it is important to point out that research still shows a statistically significant benefit for PA done without letters and that no one has harmed students by teaching PA in this way. Rather, we should recognize that it’s not best practice. I was speaking to my friend Dr. Kathryn Garforth about this matter and she pointed out that there may be some instances, in which oral-only PA does make sense. In particular, she highlighted using these drills during times of that day when working with letters is not easily feasible, such as during line-up times, transition times, breaks, or meals. She also pointed out that these drills might be easier for students at the very beginning of pre-k when they have not actually learned any letters yet. 

 

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 2022-10-16

 

References:

 

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. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.477

 

-NRP. (2001). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence Based Assessment of the Scientific Literature on Reading Instruction. United States Government. Retrieved from <https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf>. 

 

-Shanahan, Timothy. (2020). Letters in Phonemic Awareness Instruction or the Reciprocal Nature of Learning to Read. Reading Rockets. Retrieved from <https://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-literacy/letters-phonemic-awareness-instruction-or-reciprocal-nature-learning-read>. 

 

-Shanahan, Timothy. (2020). Interview with Dr. Shanahan: The topic of DAP and Dyslexia - Episode 38. Pedagogy Non Grata. Retrieved from <https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/interview-with-dr-shanahan-the-topic-of-dap/id1448225801?i=1000459253334>. 

 

-Parker, Stephen. (2022). The Essential Linnea Ehri. Parker Phonics. Retrieved from <https://www.parkerphonics.com/post/the-essential-linnea-ehri>. 


 

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.