Expert Connection : January 01

Phonological Skills: Which Ones Really Matter the Most?—Paige Pullen


I've heard a lot about how important phonological skills are in early reading, but there seem to be so many of them. There's rhyming, deletion, segmenting, blending, substitution, and on and on. My question is, "Do I really need to teach all of these skills? Which ones are most important? What are good ways for me to teach them?" Trina, Boise, ID.

Additional Info:

Expert Response:

Editors' Note: For help with this timely question, we asked a member of our advisory board, Paige Pullen, to prepare an answer. Along the way, board member Benita Blachman provided some suggestions about the topic, too. Paige's answer follows. We greatly appreciate the time Paige and Benita took from their busy schedules to help TeachingLD.org. The reference for this article is:
Pullen, P. C. (2002, October 1). Expert connection: Phonological awareness. TeachingLD.org. Retrieved from http://TeachingLD.org/expert_connection/phonological.html.

Your questions are good ones. Phonological awareness and its relationship to beginning reading have garnered enormous attention in the professional and practical literature in recent years, so there has been a lot said about it recently. Researchers are still seeking answers for important questions about which phonological skills should be taught, but a wealth of studies has provided valuable information about phonological awareness and which skills are most closely associated with later success in reading. Before discussing specific phonological skills, it is important to define phonological awareness.

What is Phonological Awareness?

Phonological awareness is the understanding that speech can be broken into smaller units of sound such as words, syllables, onsets and rimes, and phonemes. Your comment about there being many different phonological skills is correct. Researchers have assessed young children's facility with these skills in all of the ways shown in Table 1.

Children progressively become aware of the phonological structure of spoken language, with awareness moving from larger to smaller units of sound--from words to phonemes. The most advanced level of phonological awareness is the ability to manipulate oral language at the phoneme level. However, to become good readers they do not necessarily have to be taught each and every one of the skills shown in Table 1.

Which Phonological Awareness Skills Should be Taught?

Phonological awareness is considered necessary, yet insufficient for the acquisition of skilled decoding. To make full use of the alphabetic principle, children must be able to blend and segment the sounds of language. Thus, activities that help children develop the ability to blend and segment at the phoneme level will be most useful in their acquisition of decoding skills. However, young children may not be ready to manipulate individual sounds in words and should engage in tasks at intermediary levels of phonological awareness.

Blending and segmenting can be taught as verbal activities--without reference to letters--during the early stages of instruction. Many popular materials for promoting early reading skills (see notes) begin teaching blending and segmenting with easier tasks such as blending familiar compound words. Gradually, instruction progresses through intermediate tasks (syllables) to the level of individual phonemes. See Table 2 for an illustration of teacher questions at each step in the progression.

To have the greatest benefit on reading, however, phonological awareness instruction has to be combined with work on how letters represent sounds in speech. The National Reading Panel reported that phonemic awareness activities that are combined with letters are especially effective. In particular, students should have opportunities to manipulate phonemes while working with letters. For example, choose a target word, such as bug, and have children make new words by manipulating the phonemes (change bug to rug, change rug to run, change run to ran). Begin with manipulations of the initial phoneme and then move to more difficult alterations in the final and medial phonemes. Manipulating phonemes with letters provides an excellent opportunity to make the application of phonological awareness explicit to children, another important characteristic of effective phonological awareness instruction.

Another important attribute of effective phonological awareness instruction is that the use of one or two types of skills results in greater gains in reading than multiple types of skills. Because blending and segmenting at the level of the phoneme are the phonological skills used most often in decoding and spelling, they are the best candidates for teaching.

What about Students with LD?

Table 2: Easy-to-Hard Progression
Teacher Questions &
Student Answers
T: I'll say a word broken up. You say it normally. "Hot---dog."
Ss: "Hotdog!"
T: I'll say a word broken up. You say it normally. "Sis---ter."
Ss: "Sister!"
T: I'll say a word broken up. You say it normally. "Mmm---eee."
Ss: "Me!"

Many of the studies about phonological awareness have actually been conducted with young children with learning disabilities, so this topic is particularly relevant for the readers of TeachingLD.org. One important conclusion is that teaching phonological awareness is especially important for learners who have low initial phonological awareness skills, including many children at risk of developing learning disabilities.

Some of the points reiterated by most experts (e.g., the National Reading Panel) on phonological awareness will be familiar to teachers of students with LD:

  • Small-group lessons are the most effective format for teaching phonological awareness;
  • Explicit rather than discovery instruction is more effective; and
  • Teaching phonological awareness will also help students acquire spelling skills.

For more about phonological awareness instruction, please consult the resources provided at the end of this report.

Resources for Further Help

Several consensus documents are now available that provide descriptions of research that has been completed on phonological awareness and beginning reading. This section provides both references to professional literature and other sources for further information about phonological awareness.

Burns, M. S., Griffin, P., & Snow, C. E. (Eds.). (1999). Starting out right: A guide to promoting children's reading success. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Armbruster, B. A., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2001). Putting reading first: The research building blocks for teaching children to read. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Improving Early Reading Achievement.

Blachman, B. A. (2000). Phonological awareness. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (vol. III; pp. 483-502). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Lane, H. B., Pullen, P. C., Eisele, M. R., & Jordan, L. (2002). Preventing reading failure: Phonological awareness assessment and instruction. Preventing School Failure, 46, 101-111.

Lonigan, C. J., Burgess, S. R., & Anthony, J. L. (2000). Development of emergent literacy and early reading skills: Evidence from a latent-variable longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 36, 596-613.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implication for reading instruction. Washington, D C: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


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