Many researchers proclaim that grade-school children who are not able to read are also lacking essential phonemic awareness, which is defined generally as the ability to recognize that words are made up of smaller segments, or sounds. More specifically, it refers to one's conscious ability to recognize and manipulate sound segments within words. Because there seems to be such an irrefutable body of evidence supporting the essential connection between reading and phonemic awareness, it has been suggested that educators identify phonemically unaware students as soon as possible, even as they cross the threshold into kindergarten, thereupon beginning a formal regimen of phonemic awareness training. This early intervention via formal lessons in sound segmentation promises to transform children into good, or even great, readers. And so begins life in the fast lane, at age five.
In order to determine the general thinking among researchers regarding phonemic awareness training as a prerequisite for reading, I did an Internet search, first using a standard search engine with keywords phonemic awareness, then using the ERIC database, with keyword literacy and subject words phonemic awareness. I pulled twelve articles at random and read through all of them. Eleven of the twelve articles praised the merits of phonemic awareness instruction while sounding a warning against the evils of nonintervention. The only dissenting voice was that of Stephen Krashen. What follows is a summary of three of those articles, including Krashen’s. Subsequent to the summary, for which I have made a Herculean effort not to reveal my concerns, I explain my personal and professional reactions to the papers’ findings. Finally, I offer my own suggestions for guiding children to a love and understanding of reading without daily phoneme injections.
Kerry Hempenstall “Phonemic Awareness: What Does it Mean?”
Hempenstall’s article, which is written for fellow linguists, purports to define phonemic awareness and the role it should play in teaching beginning and dyslexic learners how to read. The article begins with a brief explanation of the differences in meaning between phonemic, phonological, and phonetic awareness; whereupon the author lists eleven stages of phonological awareness, none of which define phonemic awareness. Hempenstall then examines some ways other linguists define phonemic awareness. To this end, he discusses researchers Blachman and Stanovich who have worked to streamline a description that might be acceptable to all researchers. Alas, Stanovich rejects the word awareness because he deems it impossible to define adequately; thus, quashing Hempenstall’s own attempts to define the term.
Although Hempenstall never actually defines phonemic awareness, he does discuss some aspects of it. First, he notes that phonemic awareness has nothing to do with meaning and everything to do with the structure of words; and, for this reason, it is important that learners understand the existence of a “spelling-to-sound” correspondence in English. Second, learners must recognize that words can be broken down, or decomposed, into individual sounds that are not necessarily syllables. This brings him to a discussion of rhyme and alliteration in which he cites evidence to support the hypothesis that children who have been exposed to rhyme by age three will prove to be good readers by age six. The same holds true, he claims, for children who can identify alliterative pairs or series of words. Hempenstall then examines the possibility of teaching onset-rime distinction as a more efficacious way to teach reading; however, he quickly dismisses the approach as too difficult for young children.
At last, under the subheading Phoneme Awareness, the author discusses “two requirements of beginning reading … phonemic analysis and phonemic synthesis” (3). He notes that children are usually able to blend sounds into words before they can analyze them; which is why they can recognize the word cat before they can describe the sounds involved in producing the word.
The conclusion of his paper laments the lack of valid testing to measure the stages of reading development in at-risk and so-called normal children. He leaves readers to consider the possibility that children might develop phonemic awareness as a result of having learned how to read; it is not necessarily a separate and requisite learning task that leads to proficient reading.
Stephen E. Krashen “Phonemic Awareness Training for Prelinguistic Children: Do We Need Prenatal PA?”
Krashen’s tongue-in-cheek article lambastes researchers whose studies of phonemic awareness have led to California’s education legislation, which seems determined to suck the joy from reading. In that state, says Krashen, lawmakers have sought to boost children’s reading scores by screening for “phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling and grammar” (167). He cites Chaney, who claims that educators can predict preschoolers’ future reading ability by measuring their phonemic awareness skills (cf also Gough, Larson, and Yopp 1). He notes that preschoolers who receive formal training in phonemic awareness will become better readers than preschoolers who don’t receive such training. Krashen suggests that, given the desperate need for higher reading scores, such training should begin at birth. He bemoans the terrible disadvantages “PA-poor” toddlers will have when they enter preschool.
Citing well-known researchers such as Yopp, who suggests that teachers select children’s stories based, not on content, interest, or intelligence, but, on their repetitions of particular sounds, Krashen agrees that this is an excellent way to teach children to read. Indeed, he expands the notion, suggesting that we eliminate all real words from children’s books, replacing them with syllables. He praises Yopp’s idea that teachers — or PA trainers as he prefers to call them — teach their students songs that emphasize particular sounds. For example, “P-p-p-pop goes the weasel.” Indeed, he thinks children would learn even more if teachers encouraged “deliberate stuttering all day long” (168).
Krashen also commends the 1971 study by Eimas et al.., which discovered that three-day-old babies will suck if they hear a new phoneme. After a while, however, they get bored and stop sucking; but, upon hearing another new phoneme, they will resume sucking activity. Since babies are so inspired by phonemes, says Krashen, perhaps PA training should begin while babies are still in the womb. (Ah, yes, the sweet chimes of Swiftian humor.)
Finally, Krashen mentions an alternative to phonemic-awareness training; that is, leave children to learn it on their own. When children listen to interesting books, they become interested in reading; thus, they become readers. What’s more, early training in phonemic awareness does not make better readers or life-long readers. Instead of training children in phonemic awareness, give them access to good libraries and helpful librarians.
Gary L. Shaffer, Patricia Campbell, Sondra Rakes: “Investigating the Status and Perceived Importance of Explicit Phonic Instruction in Elementary Classrooms”
Shaffer, Campbell, and Rakes explain the procedure and results of their survey of 208 elementary school teachers to determine their attitudes toward phonics and phonemic awareness instruction. Most teachers were female [no surprise, since most teachers are female] and held at least a master’s degree [no surprise here either]. Teachers reported an average teaching experience of about eight years.
The researchers determined that teachers as a group agree that children who receive phonics and phonemic awareness instruction become good readers. The researchers concede that a small minority of dissenting teachers considers such instruction “the enemy.” However, they offer no explanation of possible reasons for the opinions of these dissenters. Most teachers who answered the survey reported that programs to promote phonemic awareness were only “moderately developed” in their schools. They also stated that their own third- and fourth-grade students were not yet prepared to understand the intricacies of phonics and phonemic study. Finally, the respondents lamented that their undergraduate pedagogy classes did not adequately prepare them for teaching phonics and phonemic awareness.
Shaffer et al. conclude that teachers are overwhelmingly in favor of preparing students for a lifetime of independent reading by teaching them the principles of phonemic awareness. Furthermore, they claim that the most important finding of their study underscores the need for schools to offer more in-service programs to teach teachers how to teach phonemic awareness and phonics.
A Few Observations about the Articles
Phonemic awareness as a panacea for the creation of good readers presents some problems. Indeed, all approaches that promise too much, too soon leave me suspect, as well they should. Although I was happy to find Krashen’s article, both for its Swiftian humor and its good sense, it also elucidated and supported my own uneasiness with daily lessons in phonemic awareness. In fact, after praising the virtues of phonemic awareness instruction, even Hempenstall finally concedes that reading and phonemic awareness might occur concurrently after all. But, the concession seems gratuitous, a covering of her tracks in case popular opinion swings in Krashen’s direction. She is among the majority of researchers, who purport that phonemic awareness, no matter how one defines the term, is essential to early reading. Whether this assumption is correct or not, researchers fail to answer many questions regarding research methods and the goals and objectives of phonemic awareness instruction.
Is it necessary to teach phonemic awareness separately from reading? Researchers whose studies support PA instruction also support the idea that children who read early become academic successes. There is, however, no literature supporting such a claim. In addition, they equate academic success with a child’s ability to pass standardized reading tests, with or without understanding or appreciating content. Indeed, phonemic awareness seems to be a natural outgrowth of the latest test-taking madness now dominating school curricula — a shortcut of sorts to the nirvana of academic success.
If some studies have in fact proven the effectiveness of phonemic awareness instruction, what long-term difference does it make? We have no idea whether six-year-olds who have been taught phonemic awareness will, in the long run, be better readers than those who have not undergone such training. We can look to Europe, where children begin reading instruction around age seven, without special training in phonemic awareness. If it were possible to give the same reading test to high-school students in the United States and those in European countries, it is unlikely that US students would score higher than European students.
There are also questions regarding the research implementation. Aside from their short-term parameters, researchers don’t include a variety of subjects in their studies. Students in groups of ten or twenty or even fifty can provide some research data, but they certainly don’t represent the majority. To be sure, most studies are conducted in schools within the same school district. Furthermore, as every teacher (and actor) knows, group dynamics change enormously with the addition or subtraction of even one element. We have no idea, for instance, how effectively researchers instruct their subjects. Neither do we know how the individual subjects respond to authority in general. For these reasons, before jumping on the phonemic awareness bandwagon, educators must consider their own and their colleagues’ real-world teaching experiences.
Another dynamic missing from the research is a description of subjects’ background and experience. Although researchers easily label particular groups of children “at risk,” they fail to explain how they arrive at such conclusions. Are they referring to children whose parents are poor or who have non-mainstream last names? In short, how valid are these studies? Eimas et al.. seem to be reaching when they inform readers about an important study that “discovered” children’s ability to blend sounds before they can explain how to blend them. It almost rivals their aforementioned study about the power of phonemes to inspire sucking behavior. Any mother could have provided the information, thereby saving researchers the trouble of conducting an elaborate study.
Finally, the problem with the survey by Shaffer et al. is that it tells us nothing we couldn’t already have guessed. Yes, the majority of teachers agree that phonemic awareness helps children read — i.e., the majority of the teachers in the survey. The study didn’t ask teachers why they agreed. Teachers sometimes agree with techniques and methodologies simply because that’s the way they learned how to teach in their university pedagogy classes. This is indicated by yet another survey, which also included an interview with teachers of English as a foreign language. Borg (1999) wanted to find out whether teachers had pedagogical reasons for incorporating formal grammar lessons into their curriculum; specifically, did they believe students benefited from grammar instruction? In all cases, teachers admitted they did not believe grammar instruction had any positive effect on students; nonetheless, they continued to teach it because they had been taught to teach it in their pedagogy classes in undergraduate school. It’s no secret that teachers often take a particular pedagogical tact, even if it has proven less than effective, simply because they have been trained in that particular pedagogy. Teachers also take pedagogical roads that have been decreed by their administrators, some of whom have spent no more than three years in a classroom. Education falls prey to trendy panaceas, just as most professions do; and phonemic awareness training seems to be resting in this unhappy category.
A few years ago, I had a five-year-old kindergarten student from Russia, who had come to the United States without knowing a word of English. In a matter of four months, his English, though still heavily accented, would have scored proficient on any assessment exam. When I read to the students, he would sit enrapt; and more often than not, he had already heard the story in Russian. “Oh, I have this one from my mother. I know this!” One day, I asked him what he had been doing before coming to my class. He replied, “I did drawing, I was so playing outside, I have snack, so good, and then I have phonemic awareness.” When I mentioned this to his classroom teacher, she said she taught a half-hour phonemic awareness lesson every day, and she was also aware that Zhenya was already reading with understanding, excelling beyond his native-speaker-of-English classmates. Clearly, since he was also reading Russian, having mastered its heavily declined verb system and Cyrillic alphabet, he was not further enriched by daily instruction in phonemic awareness.
One might argue that this student was an exception, and other students will benefit from such intervention. Nonetheless, phonemic awareness instruction had begun in this particular school district some six or seven years before Zhenya toddled off the airplane in the USA. If the PA-intervention program was so beneficial, it would follow that all, or most, students would be reading at or above grade level throughout their primary and elementary school years. But, this is not the case. Quite the contrary: it is apparent that phonemic awareness training is not producing better readers.
Children whose home environments are rich with reading material and whose parents read both to themselves and to their offspring love to read because somewhere along the line, they learned that reading was enjoyable. The proponents of PA training, however, suggest that children who come from print-poor homes and non-reading parents are automatically disadvantaged, and the only way to help them catch up is to teach them to become aware of the sounds of word segments. From a purely academic viewpoint, I might agree with the first generalization; but I have yet to find an unflawed study that proves formal training in phonemic awareness is the true road to reading success.
I had another five-year-old student. Carlitos never missed an opportunity to proclaim his dislike of reading. “I hate reading. It’s borrrrring, borrrrring, borrrrring.” When I asked him why, if he hated reading so much, he liked listening to the stories I read to the class every day, he laughed: “That’s not reading; that’s stories.” So, thanks to his daily dose of phonemic awareness, Carlitos equated reading with sounding out letters and tapping out sound segments. Unbeknownst to his well-meaning classroom teacher, he and other children like him are cultivating a dislike for reading without knowing what reading is. You can only tap out so many sound segments before the thrill is gone.
What can teachers do?
As many educators, including Vacca and Vacca, point out, the most efficacious way to introduce a subject is to stimulate students’ prior knowledge. All hearing students, whether they're phonemic-awareness handicapped or not, have an awareness of sound. Just as teachers use techniques to stimulate students’ curiosity about a reading passage, they can do the same for sound. Young children learn about sound segments, especially alliteration and rhyme, through poetry and through songs. It's the educator's job to make sure children are exposed to a wealth of materials in these and other genres, such as short stories and theatrical pieces.
Guided imagery is an excellent way to make children aware of the phonemic makeup of words. Try xeroxing and cutting out pictures of animals from stories such as "How the Rabbit Got its Short Tail." After reading the story a few times, give each student a cutout and ask her/him to describe the animal. Then ask the class to mimic the sound the animal makes when it talks. Write the sound graphemes on the board, and give students time to play with the sounds. Point to the graphemes and have the class call out the sounds in unison. Then, please forget about it. This should be a game for young children, not a formal lesson in the relationship between sound segments and their graphemic counterparts.
Another way to enrich students’ phonemic awareness is to ask one student to make an animal sound and ask students to draw a picture of the animal associated with the sound. For example, you might model the activity with ssssssssssssssssss or baaa-baaa, and draw a picture of a snake or a sheep.
Children love to rhyme, especially when they get to rhyme their own name, their teacher’s name, the principal’s name, their town’s name, anything that touches them personally. Again, this is another way to stimulate prior knowledge. Encourage rhyming in your classroom by reading lots of rhyme verse and by allowing children to play with sound. In these ways, children learn to love sound; so, manipulating sounds within sentences and words will be an enjoyable game rather than a daily trudge into the dry sands of the PA desert.
For older students, formal lessons in phonemic awareness are not so simple. A teacher’s decision as to how to make students phonemically aware often depends on the cultural and academic backgrounds of the students. Some insist on learning every aspect of a foreign language; others are discouraged by a concentration on detail and want to start speaking right away. The answer is to find a balance. One way to do this is to have phonemic warm-up exercises for the first five minutes of each class. I often include a linguistic warm-up exercise that is not unlike the tuning up of an orchestra in the moments before a concert. It’s loud, it’s cacophonic, but students enjoy loosening up their linguistic muscles and tuning up their phonemic stings before the start of class.
Although I don’t dispute the connection between phonemic awareness and reading, I question the efficacy of teaching it formally. When researchers such as Smith state, “The better a young child is at segmenting words into their individual sounds, the better they are likely to read, and the faster the reading process (20), I get worried. In no article has a researcher defined reading or the purpose of reading. If the purpose of early reading is to win an academic race without enjoying or understanding the run, I wish to dissent. When researchers such as Allor et al. refer to toddlers “with and without lexical retrieval weaknesses,” I cringe. There was a time in this country when kindergarten was a gentle introduction to formal education. Now, any child entering kindergarten without an academic curriculum vitae — or shall I say, academic pedigree? — is at risk. At risk for what? Does this child risk becoming a literary loser unless s/he is trained in the joys of phonemic awareness? Or perhaps it is just possible that even phonemically challenged children can learn to read with understanding and enjoyment. I must agree with Krashen that children who are exposed to reading — or stories, as Pauly calls it — will learn to read and, in the process, learn to be phonetically aware. The two processes cannot and should not be separated. Yes, some researchers contend that students who are taught the intricacies of the phonemic maze at age three will be better readers at age six. Whether they will enjoy reading at age six is another matter. Whether they will bother picking up a book at age ten or twenty remains to be seen.
Joy Turner, a Montessori teacher, suggests that teachers employ word-play games, rime books, and reading that “combines a rich pre-reading background with manageable and multisensory alphabetic instruction […] the best of all worlds in terms of preparing the child to read” (37). Flet and Condman list twenty ways to promote phonemic awareness. Among their suggestions: teach nursery rhymes and simple poems, read stories containing rhymes, play words games, talk about sounds and what they do, play all sorts of games with sounds. In other words, allow children to explore the wonders of sound, read them exciting stories, play lots of music, and encourage the natural curiosity that is inherent in everyone. This is the magical road that leads children to a genuine love and understanding of reading. Researchers will continue to conduct studies, and educators will do well to keep abreast of those studies. But, we must not allow methodological trends to mislead us into believing there is one answer to all our teaching challenges.
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