Our education system seems to be abuzz with discussion of the importance of phonological awareness, which is excellent. Most difficulties with reading and spelling English words can be traced back to poor awareness of the sounds in words.
However, I’m worrying that valuable lesson time is being wasted teaching school-aged children awareness of large, salient phonological features like syllables and rhyme, instead of focussing on individual phonemes, the smaller, harder-to-discern sound units represented in our writing system.
Various versions of the above phonological awareness continuum diagram, minus the circles I’ve added, have been floating around our education system for years, and probably helped foster the common misconception that awareness of syllables and rhyme are prerequisites for developing phonemic awareness. Yes, preschool rhyming skills tend to correlate pretty well with later reading skill, but correlation is not causation.
The Reading League in the US last year published a review of current research on phonemic awareness and phonics by University of Rhode Island Emeritus Prof Susan Brady, which concludes it’s not necessary to devote time and effort to fostering awareness of syllables and rhyme/onset-rime before children can acquire phonemic awareness. You can read the long version here, or a briefer version in their journal. Prof Brady uses the term “phonological sensitivity” for larger-chunks phonological awareness (everything except phonemic awareness).
Phonological sensitivity is evident across cultures, and acts as a mnemonic
Prof Brady writes that, “In cultures not having the benefits of literacy, phonological sensitivity skills have been documented, but not full awareness of phonemes, even by adulthood” (p6, and she refers to this old but interesting study, I guess there now aren’t many non-literate cultures available to study).
Ancient poems, chants and songs from predominantly oral traditions often have strong metrical structure, rhyme and/or alliteration. These are still features of poetry and song around the world, though admittedly my research on this has only been via travel, our excellent local Boite World Music events, WOMADelaide, and reading internet articles with titles like “9 Countries Whose Traditional Forms of Poetry You Didn’t Know About”.
As well as being integral to art forms, these phonological features make information easier to remember and transmit verbatim. The Iliad might have been lost to an ancient game of Biddelonian Whispers without its strict metrical structure. Beowulf might have drifted and dissolved into diverse dreadful dramas, and I doubt we’d remember the words of our favourite songs so exactly if they were written in free verse.
Phonemes are more difficult to discern, but are also powerful mnemonics
Phonemes are invisible and transient, and blur together when we speak in a process called coarticulation, making them hard to separate out. There’s no reason to be aware of phonemes unless you’re learning an alphabetic writing system.
Dr Linnea Ehri chaired the US National Reading Panel’s investigation of phonological awareness 20 years ago, and has been a leading researcher on phonemic awareness since then. I love her analogy of the phonemes in spoken words holding the “glue” needed to hold written words in memory. When children become aware of phonemes, they activate the glue. You can hear Dr Ehri talk about this from the 60 minute mark of this Reading League podcast, I’m sure you’ll then want to listen to the whole thing.
Dr Ehri explains that teaching children to say words slowly, listening for their sounds, and thinking about their mouth movements, builds phonemic awareness. It’s highly effective to use letters to represent sounds in phonemic awareness activities, as this makes the relevance/purpose of the activity clear and transferable, but representing sounds with tokens (buttons, shells, gemstones, banana chips, whatever) is also effective, for example with children who don’t yet know letters. Dr Ehri doesn’t talk about handwriting in this podcast, but I’m sure she would agree that saying words’ sounds while writing their spellings is also a powerful word-glue-activating activity.
This phonemic awareness continuum is seriously underspecified
If you look at the phonemic awareness steps in a typical phonological awareness continuum diagram, they’re not very informative. For a start, there aren’t many of them for such a complex and difficult process. Blending usually appears before segmenting, though these are reciprocal processes, and should be taught and learnt as such.
There’s also no useful detail on word types, though it’s obviously easier to blend and segment a word with three sounds, like ‘cat’, than it is to blend and segment a word with seven sounds, like ‘scripts’. It’s easier to delete or manipulate a single initial phoneme, like the ‘c’ in ‘cat’, than it is to delete or manipulate the ‘c’ in ‘scripts’. I’d also expect the average six-year-old to find it harder to blend/segment the word ‘scripts’ than to delete/manipulate the first sound in ‘cat’, so deletion/substitution aren’t always the hardest phonemic awareness activities. It all depends on phoneme identity, order and number.
If we represent vowels with V and consonants with C, then list all the possible combinations of these in single syllable words in English, putting example words in brackets, the list goes something like this: V (eye/I), VC (up), CV (go), CVC (hot), VCC (elf), CCV (stay), CVCC (help), CCVC (stop), CCVCC (crust), VCCC (ends), CCCV (spree), CVCCC (tents), CCCVC (strayed), CCVCCC (frosts), CCCVCC (splint), CCCVCCC (sprints) and CVCCCC (texts). These should be represented on the phonemic awareness continuum.
In general, it’s easiest to discern the first sound in a word, then the last sound, and then sounds that are in the middle. Internal consonants are especially hard to discern, which is why young children often write ‘stop’ without the ‘t’ and ‘help’ without the ‘l’. They blur into the sounds around them and get a bit lost. Sound type can also make a difference, for example the sounds /r/ and /l/ have vowel-like qualities, so sometimes children consider them part of the vowel.
I’d like to propose the above as an interim replacement for the less-helpful phonological awareness continuum diagrams currently floating around our education system. I’m sure people smarter than me (perhaps you?) can and will improve on it.
Nothing against syllables and rhyme for preschoolers, in fact I am planning to enjoy lots of them with my three preschool neighbours when our COVID Lockdown 6.0 finally lifts. But school-aged children need to activate their remembering-written-words glue by focussing on phonemes.