Should we do phoneme awareness activities without letters?

19 Replies

If you subscribe to Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy (DDOLL) emails, you’ll know there’s been a recent storm of professional discussion about whether it’s a waste of time doing phonemic awareness activities without letters.

The strong consensus is that it’s preferable to use letters/spellings when working on phonemic awareness (though it then also becomes a phonics activity). This has been clear for a long time. I recently reread Diane McGuinness’s classic 2004 book Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How To Teach Reading, which says:

One of the most consistent findings in the literature…and evident in the NRP’s meta-analysis, is that when phoneme-awareness training is meshed with teaching letter-sound correspondences, this has a much stronger impact on reading and spelling than training in the auditory mode alone.”

p 166. the NRP is the 2000 US National Reading Panel, which did a huge review of scientific evidence on how to teach reading).

My favourite activity for teaching phonemic awareness is building and changing words/creating word sequences using my moveable alphabet. Here’s how I use it:

However, Diane McGuinness doesn’t say phonemic awareness activities without letters are a complete waste of time, and nor did the NRP.

While waiting outside a hall, pool or at a bus stop, is it worth doing a few oral-only Equipped for Reading Success or Heggerty deletions/manipulations if you have a photocopy of relevant ones in your bag, or a screenshot on your phone? Could you play I Spy Blending, using phoneme strings as clues instead of first letter names, while going for a walk, like this?

I’d love adults and four-year-olds to play I Spy Blending while travelling, waiting, doing mundane housework or otherwise needing something to amuse themselves. The adult would ask all the questions and stick to words with just two or three sounds before introducing longer words. Once a child is proficient at answering (blending), they might like to try asking some questions (segmenting), perhaps on a team with an adult at first.

Imagine if most children arrived at school knowing how to play this game, and could take turns to both ask and answer. That would be a sign that they had already nailed the two most basic phonemic awareness skills: blending and segmenting. They’d be perfectly positioned to learn how sounds in spoken words are written using letters.

It’s important to remember that different approaches can work for different groups. While Diane McGuinness was adamant that there’s no benefit in adding oral phonemic awareness activities to a good linguistic phonics program for mainstream learners, she did see a role for these activities in intervention, using tokens/tiles:

There is, however, a good argument for special training in phoneme awareness in the clinic. Poor readers have extremely maladaptive decoding strategies, guessing whole words from first letters only, assembling little word parts into something like a word, or refusing to read altogether. An ineffective decoding strategy leads to habits that can be hard to break. It is almost a given that these children (or adults) have few or no phoneme-analysis skills. Because print can be aversive, causing anxiety and even panic, initial phoneme-awareness training is more effective in the auditory mode than using blank tiles. A three-step process is necessary: developing phoneme awareness with blank markers, learning phoneme-grapheme correspondences, and reading simple (easily decodable) text.

McGuinness, Diane (2004) Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How To Teach Reading, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, p 328.

More research on this would be very interesting and valuable.


19 responses to “Should we do phoneme awareness activities without letters?”

  1. Louise says:

    So in preschool/ Kindy it would be a mix of single sound and letter linking and blending games? I routinely spend time on blending children’s names -(T-I-m can go to wash his hands) but this looks like a nice idea for a follow up. Thanks for another interesting post.

    • alison says:

      In our current system, where children are expected to know letter names before starting school, it’s a bit hard to do what I’d consider optimal, which is to let preschoolers work on their play, language, social skills etc plus phonemic awareness, and have everyone start learning about letters via a synthetic phonics approach (sounds and their spellings in real words) once they start school. That would create a lot fewer headaches for early years teachers, who currently have to contend with classes in which some children don’t know any letters and others can already read at around a Grade 1 or sometimes 2 level. Foundation teachers are having to teach literacy to multiple levels and that’s when some children fall through the cracks. But yes, in the current system it’s hard not to teach letter recognition in preschool as it’s expected before they start school. I don’t like teaching “letter sounds” in isolation so I wouldn’t enjoy doing it in preschool, but I don’t think preschool teachers have a lot of good options. Alison

    • aJ says:

      I’m really keen to learn more about this. A lot of schools use the LLLL synthetic phonics programme which contains a screening tool for Prep and Year 1 – entirely made up of phonemic awareness tasks based on the phonological awareness continuum. This screener is for general use (ie not particularly for students identity with DLD) and in the case of Prep students it is reasonable to consider as testing skills precursor to a student demonstrating “poor reading” status (because they haven’t yet been sufficiently exposed to phonics etc).

      Based on the thesis that phonemic awareness is in fact not foundation to good reading and spelling proficiency (which as a side note, is still being cited in quite a lot of research and literature), I am curious why LLLL recommend and include a phonological awareness screener without inclusion of phonics, to identify students likely to be risk for literacy (reading and spelling and therefore writing) difficulties.

      Keen to hear others’ thoughts!

      • Annie says:

        I think it’s important here to differentiate between assessment and instruction. Children who have difficulty on phonemic awareness tests are at a higher risk of literacy difficulties and so identifying those children through a screener is extremely helpful. But that doesn’t mean that teachers should ‘teach the test’ following the screener.
        Compare it to the beep test. The beep test measures general fitness by having people run backwards and forwards over a short distance, but that doesn’t mean that the best way to improve your fitness is to practise running backwards and forwards over a short distance.
        Phonemic awareness is most definitely a foundation to reading, just like fitness is a foundation to playing football; assessing phonemic awareness can help teachers just like assessing fitness can help coaches. But for the vast majority of children, the best way to build phon awareness skills is to incorporate them into phonics teaching, just the same way that someone’s fitness, and therefore their beep test will go up after a season’s worth of footy training, without hearing a single beep.

        • alison says:

          Indeed, well said, and I like the beep test analogy, though I really have no idea what it is (fitness? What is fitness??!)

        • AJ says:

          This is a really interesting analogy. Though if I could be bold an use an OT analogy to describe the opposing perspective, vis a vis test versus skill, we often complete a screen called the visual motor integration test on Kinder – year 3 students to ascertain their ability to write. The test contains no graphemes at all, only shapes. However the test is incredibly reliable as a means of testing capacity to write. Despite this kids need many hundred of hours to acquire handwriting skills, to produce legible and fluent writing. Where kids can’t write we do go back to practicing the test. The test has very good internal validity for handwriting on this case.
          It’s interesting to me that poor writing fluency is often associated with difficulties acquiring aspects of literacy, from an OT POV. Such a fascinating area.

          • alison says:

            So interesting, from the speech pathology perspective (as you know) the motor patterns (saying and writing) help anchor the spellings in the relevant sounds, so handwriting is incredibly important, and too often under-taught. Learning to write shapes is a THING that’s not natural, so requires practice, whereas saying sounds is natural, so kids just need to become aware of them to link them to the letters. I’ve just been working with a group of children who are finding reading/spelling hard, and we’ve had to do a lot of work on letter formation and placement with them, and finding pencil grips and making sure they are sitting in a stable position. All OT stuff, I know! We really need to hire an OT as soon as this crazy pandemic makes expanding our staff possible. Alison

  2. Harriett Janetos says:

    I love that book! Thank you for such sensible recommendations for teachers/practitioners while we await more research.

  3. Candice Bray says:

    Yes, we should mesh the letters with the sounds ONCE sound awareness has been developed. If we always do “phoneme awareness” with letters, most often the phoneme awareness does not develop and our brains depend on the letters and don’t process the sounds. Once PA is developed then the phoneme grapheme mapping is important. Doing it all with print is not okay just as doing it always just orally is not.

    • alison says:

      I think ideally children would be taught blending and segmenting sounds in oral-only activities in preschool, but if they are not, there isn’t time to do this when they start school, as they are already being introduced to letters, and I don’t think there is evidence to support the idea that phonemic awareness is a prerequisite for learning letters. Phonemic awareness and letter/spelling knowledge develop together in most kids if they get off to a good start, and aren’t encouraged to do unhelpful things like memorise and guess words, or focus on letter names not sounds. The research is clear that if you have a good synthetic/linguistic phonics program there is no need to delay the introduction of letters, unless you’re working with a learner who has developed a lot of unhelpful strategies. Then we often need to take them right back to the start and get them to actually think about sounds without having any letters in the room, which can trigger the unhelpful behaviours and anxiety. Once they can segment and blend spoken words, I think it’s important to bring letters in as soon as possible, as they make phonemic awareness meaningful.

      • Scott S says:

        “which can trigger the unhelpful behaviours and anxiety”

        My son is blessed with a speechie as a mum and a school psych as a dad 🙂 Yet we deal with these issues every time he has to read or write something due to the literacy approach his school uses (Soundwaves mixed in with whole language). Up until the first half of Prep he was progressing well, then his school ramped up the whole language and his anxiety increased to the point he refuses to read now. He finds it all so confusing and wants to please everyone, which means guessing words at school and decoding them at home. It’s prompted a number of meetings with the school (armed with lots of research) but they still insist on methods that are all show and no go.

        At least they dropped the extra reading intervention after we caught them out (they didn’t ask first). That earned them some extra reading on the ineffectiveness of using levelled readers as an assessment tool too.

        It’s tiring dealing with this as a parent and then having to have the same arguments professionally with all the schools we work in.

        • alison says:

          Hi Scott, so sorry to hear you haven’t YET persuaded the school to adopt literacy-teaching methods that are more consistent with the science (always say ‘yet’, one day they will have to, but maybe too late for your son). He chose his parents well, anyway, and I’m sure the home team will be able to get him going, but wouldn’t it be great if kids like him were not set up to fail in the first place? Alison.

    • AJ says:

      Thanks very much for your elegant summation of my understanding of this area of literacy – which is new in my SP practice. I observed after screening 170 or so students last term that the majority could “name letters”, but a great many could not discriminate phonemes associated with graphemes, or isolate phonemes in
      spoken words. I’m still grappling with the significance of this in terms of their ability to blend, segment, decode and “spell sounds”.

  4. Yes! Absolutely! Sounds first, letters later.
    Sounds, on their own, can be great fun to ‘play’ with.
    Learners of English / any new language need time to “tune in”.
    See my paper on this approach, focused on learners of English:

  5. Ellie Hallett says:

    This is certainly a thought-provoking and valuable topic. There are many variables to consider, and if one is missing, life can be difficult. I am a strong advocate for oracy before letters, my reasons gathered from both personal and professional experience.
    I have listed just a few …
    How much interactive face-to-face conversation happens at home and at school so that every child has a direct line of sight to the parent’s/teacher’s face? Is the everyday speech heard by the child clear, articulate, expressive, friendly and unrushed? Has the child’s hearing been checked? Are the three Vs in place before letters are introduced: visualisation, vocabulary and verbalisation? Does the child feel sufficiently loved and safe at home and at school to be able to speak without fear? Do the adults in the child’s life listen and respond to what the child wants to say by noticing and reading their facial expressions when the words to do so are not yet known?

  6. John Walker says:

    Well said, Alison! Absolutely on point as always
    One thing children in Reception/Kindy/Pre-Prep always enjoy as a warmer is when I start my phonics lesson by asking the children to listen for the name of someone in class when I say the sounds in that name. Obviously, it helps to get this going by choosing names with as few sounds as possible and preferably with a simple CVC structure but almost all children quickly get the idea and become increasingly adept. It can also be easily adapted to something like your iSpy game.
    I do also like very much the point you’ve made about the difference in effect sizes between using letters and not using letters. Not using letters is not entirely without merit but all the research points to the fact that linking letters to sounds is much more effective, despite what some teachers say anecdotally.
    keep up the great work!
    Best, John

  7. Great article Alison. I played a similar game with my daughter as she developed phonemic awareness, called “What am I saying?”. There’s a cute video of her here:

    She does swimmingly with CVC words, but completely trips when it gets to anything longer. Cognitive overload!

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