How much phonemic awareness is enough?

While phonological awareness is a continuum of skills that occur at the word, syllable, onset & rime, and phoneme level. It is phonemic awareness (PA) that has been found to play a causal role in early reading development (Melby-Lervag et al., 2012). One reason PA is so important is because powerful it helps children better benefit from explicit phonics instruction. But PA also plays another, critical role – it anchors word pronunciations in the reader’s lexical memory (Ehri, 2014). When words are encountered on the page, our reading brain takes the word orthography and connects it to its associated phonology in the brain. Almost instantly, the word pronunciation is released along with its meaning.

Along with two colleagues (Dr. Grant Smith and William Rupley), we published empirical research showing that the deeper a student’s phonemic awareness, the better their reading. In fact, this study analyzed students in the fifth- through eighth-grade. I recently spent a year working in two elementary schools as the teachers learned to implement an explicit, linguistic-based phonics program called Jolly Phonics. Both were schools serving a population at-risk for reading difficulties. I wanted to know what predicted pseudo-word reading in first- and second-grade students. While I don’t recommend teaching pseudo-word reading, when done under a time constraint it is a great measure showing the student’s ability to quickly apply what they know about decoding words. My research results showed that two skills predicted pseudo-word reading:

  1. Phonemic awareness as measured by the ability to isolate and replace the sounds within words at the beginning, middle, and ending positions in words, and the ability to split consonant blends, particularly in the initial position of words.
  2. Developmental spelling: students who better understood letter features in the letter naming stage were better at reading words.

Phonemic awareness and developmental spelling are closely connected skills. Students who can hear the phonemes within words are better spellers and decoders but they must receive explicit phonemic awareness instruction. Also, with curricula such as Jolly Phonics that focus on the sounds made by letters and their connection to letters and letter combinations, children develop a sensitivity to the sounds of the English language.

So how much phonemic awareness is enough? Children who can isolate, delete, and replace the sounds within words, including initial consonant blends, are most likely to have the necessary phonemic awareness to benefit from instruction. BUT, there is a caveat, they must possess automatic phonemic awareness skills (Kilpatrick, 2015). In other words, when a word is encountered in print, the letters that are anchored by their associated phonemes must be instantly unlocked to form a pronunciation. It is this automatic recognition of phonemes that allows students to read four to five words a second with the accuracy to correctly distinguish /wear/ from /were/.