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.