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Phonemic awareness instruction: What's the evidence?

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness is a component of phonological awareness. "Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to focus on and manipulate phonemes in spoken words" (NRP, p. 2-1)

Phonemic awareness skills include phoneme isolation, identification, categorisation, blending, segmenting, and deletion.

What does the research evidence tell us?

While oral-only phonemic awareness instruction can positively affect word-level reading and spelling abilities, phonemic awareness instruction using letters is far more effective. These findings come from the The National Reading Panel report (NRP, 2000) as well as a recent meta-analysis by Gersten et al (2020). There are many other relevant papers.

It is clear that modelling and practising how phonemic awareness skills apply to reading and spelling (i.e. by using letters/via phonics instruction) is far more effective than the oral-only alternative. Chapter 2 of the NRP report was titled 'Alphabetics' and under that chapter heading sat Phonemic Awareness and Phonics respectively. They belong together. Here is what the NRP (2000) report has to say about the impact of phonemic awareness (PA) instruction:

"The overall effect size on PA outcomes was large, 0.86. The overall effect size on reading outcomes was moderate, 0.53. The overall effect on spelling was also moderate, 0.59. Effects were significant on followup tests given several months after training ended. Effects were significant on measures of children’s ability to read words and pseudowords as well as their reading comprehension. Effects were significant on standardized tests as well as experimenter-devised tests. These findings show that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective across all the literacy domains and outcomes."

Here is a summary of what I think are the most important findings of the NRP (2000) literature review when it comes to planning instruction (see p.2-3 and 2-4):

  • Some PA instruction conditions are more effective than others

  • Effect sizes are larger when children receive focused and explicit instruction on one or two PA skills rather than a combination of three or more PA skills (e.g., blending and segmenting together for the biggest impact)

  • Instruction that teaches phoneme manipulation with letters helps normally developing readers and at-risk readers acquire PA better than PA instruction without letters.

  • Teaching children to manipulate phonemes with letters exerted a much larger impact on spelling than teaching children without letters.

  • While allocating time for phonemic awareness instruction is important, instruction was found to be effective regardless of the amount of time dedicated, and effect sizes were greatest when twenty or less hours were allocated.

  • "Although all levels of readers acquired PA successfully, effect sizes were greater for children who were beginning readers at risk for reading failure and normally progressing readers than for older disabled readers."

  • "Students in the lower grades, preschool, and kindergarten, showed larger effect sizes in acquiring PA than children in 1st grade and above."

  • "Children learning to read in English showed larger effects than children learning to read in other alphabetic languages."

  • " ... SES level exerted no impact on effect size, indicating that low and mid-tohigh SES children benefited similarly from PA training in acquiring phonemic awareness"

"Teaching with letters is important because this helps children apply their PA skills to reading and writing. Teaching children to blend phonemes with letters helps them decode. Teaching children phonemic segmentation with letters helps them spell. If children have not yet learned letters, it is important to teach them letter shapes, names, and sounds so that they can use letters to acquire PA. PA instruction is more effective when it makes explicit how children are to apply PA skills in reading and writing tasks. PA instruction does not need to consume long periods of time to be effective." (NRP, p. 2-6)

Time and impact

Do we want to use our instructional time in the most effective and efficient ways? Do we want to be as impactful as possible as educators? 5 minutes per day of oral-only phonemic awareness instruction may not sound like a lot, but it equates to 1000 instructional minutes per year. 10 minutes per day is 2000 instructional minutes per year. Given we know that phonemic awareness instruction using letters, as part of phonics instruction, is far more impactful, and by dropping oral-only instruction we can reclaim at least 3000 more minutes of instruction (maybe a lot more) in the first three years of school, why wouldn't we?

Evidence from one school

In my setting (a brand new primary school) we are teaching phonemic awareness within phonics lessons. Phonemic awareness is not a separate lesson component, and it is not oral only. Students in F-2 have 30 minutes of explicit phonics instruction daily. Blending and segmenting using letters are the main focus of these lessons. For example, a super quick sequence like the one below (2 minutes maximum) using one word has many opportunities to identify, blend, and/or segment:

Teacher: The word we will read and spell next is 'scratch'. What is the first sound we hear when we say 'scratch'?

Students: /s/

Teacher: Yes, /s/ is the first sound. Emina, come to the board to help me. Find the letter for /s/.

Student: [chooses the letter 's' from the letters available on the board]

Teacher: Great, Emina. What do we hear next in 'scratch'?

Student: /k/

Teacher: Yes, find the letter for /k/ and put it after /s/.

[ repeat for all sounds until the word is written ]

Teacher: Emina, tell me each sound, then blend them to read the word.

Student: /s/, /k/, /r/, /ae/, /ch/, 'scratch'

Teacher: Great, let's do it as a whole class to practice.

Students: /s/, /k/, /r/, /ae/, /ch/, 'scratch'

Teacher: Great, now everyone write the word 'scratch' on your whiteboards. Sound it out.

Students: /s/, /k/, /r/, /ae/, /ch/ [ while writing ]

Teacher: Together, read each sound to me, then read the whole word.

Students: /s/, /k/, /r/, /ae/, /ch/, 'scratch'

Reviewing our Middle (June) DIBELS benchmark data, after nearly two terms of phonics instruction (albeit disrupted by lockdowns) with our Foundation cohort, our Phoneme Segmentation Fluency (PSF) data is far lower than our Nonsense Word Fluency (NWF) data. But, why wouldn't it be? PSF is an oral-only assessment, and we have not been focusing on oral-only skills with our students. There is growth, but it's not significant. Meanwhile, our Nonsense Word Fluency data (Correct Letter Sounds and Words Read Correctly) data is great with obvious growth between Beginning and Middle benchmarks, and when you're in the business of early reading instruction, that's what matters, isn't it?

Through phonemic awareness instruction within phonics lesson, 69% of our Foundation students at at or above (Core or Core+) the expected level on Correct Letter Sounds (aiming for 80+% by the End benchmark), and 82% are at or above the expected level for Words Read Correctly (aiming for 90+% by the End benchmark).

To lift PSF scores, we could spend less time on the daily phonics lesson, in order to teach oral-only skills, but what would that do to our NWF data and growth? Do we need our students to be expert in oral-only PA tasks as measured by PSF, when the reading data shows they're doing well when it comes to applying these skill in print? I don't think we do.

As an aside, a huge shoutout to our Foundation teachers who are all new to our

phonics instruction approach this year! They are doing such an amazing job!

Closing comments

Phonemic awareness instruction positively affects word-level reading and spelling abilities and it should be included in early reading instruction. Less is more in that a focus on one or two phonemic awareness skills (e.g., blending and segmenting) will be more effective than focusing on a suite of three or more skills. Phonemic awareness instruction with letters is far more effective for both reading and spelling development than oral-only instruction. We do not need to teach phonemic awareness and phonics separately, and high quality phonics instruction will include frequent and significant opportunities to map speech to print through blending and segmenting practice. Conflating assessment and instruction (Brown et al, 2021) is a real risk. Just because we are assessing a pure skill does not mean we need to teach that pure skill (e.g. DIBELS Phoneme Segmentation Fluency), especially if teaching it in isolated ways will not have the same impact it could have in applied ways.

Making the abstract concrete (e.g., dual-coding) is an effective teaching practice generally, and viewing the phoneme-grapheme connection in this way can really benefit our students.

PS: Read Emeritus Professor Susan Brady's article, 'A 2020 Perspective on Research Findings on Alphabetics (Phoneme Awareness and Phonics): Implications for Instruction (Expanded Version' for a detailed research update and rich explanations.

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