The Surprising Importance of Phonological Awareness for Reading

teacher and student reading activity
Beth Melton

Recently, Dr. David Kilpatrick has been taking the reading world by storm. As an educational psychologist, Kilpatrick set out to help other educational psychologists understand the research on reading assessment, instruction, and intervention. In compiling this information, he came across a few very important things. First, he discovered that it was not only educational psychologists that needed help digesting the reading research - teachers and other reading practitioners need this information as well! Second, he found that there is a large body of evidence which identifies phonological awareness as the single most important factor in differentiating struggling from successful readers and in differentiating between effective and ineffective interventions. So, as teachers of reading, we need to understand that a reader who struggles with phonics, decoding, or fluency is in need of explicit, systematic support with phonological awareness. Dr. Kilpatrick laid this all out in a keynote address at Reading in the Rockies in 2017.

Here are the key takeaways from his research:

1) Without exception, good readers have good phonological awareness. If a child or adult struggles with phonological awareness, they will struggle with reading. 

In order to read and spell, we have to be able to map the sounds of language to the symbols that represent them (letters). In order to do this, we have to have proficiency with the sounds. This means we have to be able to isolate them in words, pull them apart (segment), and put them together (blend). All of these skills are critical to reading. Some people learn these skills easily and others struggle to learn them. But, without exception, strong readers have these skills (whether they were learned implicitly or explicitly). This article gives more information about the different types of phonological awareness.

2) There are varying degrees of difficulty with phonological awareness. This affects the success of an intervention.

A student that has no difficulty with phonological awareness may never need explicit instruction in order to develop phonics skills. The top two-thirds of students are in this category. That means we have about one-third of our students who do need some degree of phonological awareness support in order to be successful readers. Children may have mild, moderate or severe phonological issues. A child with mild phonological issues will develop phonics skills with a phonics-based approach like Orton-Gillingham. This is because they are able to learn the phonological skills implicitly through phonics instruction. A child with moderate phonological issues will see an improvement with a phonics-based approach - they will develop the ability to sound out words, but they will not be good at remembering the words they read and will continue to read slowly without explicit support in phonological skills. The children with the most severe phonological issues will struggle to master phonics without intensive, systematic phonological awareness training. From this, we should conclude that students should all receive some phonological awareness training and that those students who appear to be "treatment resistors" (i.e., their reading does not improve with intensive intervention) need to receive more intensive support of their phonological awareness skills. This article discusses what the role of an SLP might be in supporting phonological awareness.

3) Manipulation tasks are the best way to assess phonological awareness.

Research has shown that phoneme segmenting and blending are the two phonological skills most predictive of reading success. Often, that means we focus on these two skills for instruction and assessment. However, Kilpatrick makes a compelling argument for using manipulation tasks to assess because they require a student to be not just familiar, but proficient and automatic with segmenting and blending. It is the difference between asking a knowledge-level question versus an application-level question to assess understanding. For example, if I ask a student to say slap and then delete the /l/ sound, a child had to first break the sounds of the word apart (segment), then remove a sound (delete), then put the new sounds back together (blend). Going through these 3 tasks to produce sap with automaticity requires much stronger segmenting and blending skills than an isolated segmenting or blending task alone, and therefore is a much stronger assessment. If you're interested in checking out Kilpatrick's research, here's an article.


What does it look like?

So, now that we understand why phonological awareness is so important, how do we teach it? A few principles and some examples:

1) ALL students in kindergarten through 2nd grade should practice phonological awareness skills every day.

2) Phonological awareness practice should come in short bursts of 1-10 minutes about 4-5 times throughout the day.

3) In addition to practice time, students should receive explicit instruction in the form of 5-10 minute mini-lessons that teach them the skills required for phonological manipulation tasks.

Here are a few great resources that show what these tasks look like. NOTE: Some of these examples also integrate phonics skills. Phonological awareness is the ability to discriminate and manipulate the sounds of words. Phonological awareness skills are done without letters attached. Once we attach letters, we are working on phonics skills. When we do mapping activities that require students to first manipulate the sounds and then add letters, we practice both phonological and phonics skills in turn - this kind of practice is good and should be done as a part of a complete program that also includes some pure phonological practice (without letters).

Change My Word

Orton Gillingham lesson: Phonemic awareness

Phonemic Awareness with R-Controlled Vowels