Back to Page 1
Alphabetics: Phonemic Awareness Training And Phonics Instruction
The term alphabetics refers to the skills of phonemic awareness and decoding. These word identification skills are the foundation of reading instruction.
What Is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in spoken language, and phonemic awareness is the ability to detect those individual sounds within words. Although most good readers hear and recognize entire words and understand them as wholes when they read, when asked to do so, they can also identify phonemes within those words. That means when they hear or read the word rug they think of the thing that lies on the floor, but they can also can identify the sounds in rug: /r/ /u/ /g/. (NOTE: Letters within slash marks represent the sounds.) And they can manipulate the sounds, for instance, creating a rhyme for rug, by substituting the /b/ sound for the /r/ sound. For most of us these are simple abilities associated with childhood games and songs, and we're not even sure how and why we know how to do this.
However, phonemic awareness is not acquired "naturally" as we learn to speak. Instead it is usually learned through reading and writing an alphabetic language like English or Spanish (Kruidenier, 2002), and many children pick it up easily. Although some adults don't remember learning this skill and don't know they have this capacity, if given training, many good readers can identify and manipulate phonemes with reasonable accuracy (Scarborough, Ehri, Olson, & Fowler, 1998).
But some people (and many poor readers) do not easily acquire phonemic awareness. When struggling with reading or spelling, they may not understand what the teacher means when she asks, "What sound does it begin with?"--or even more difficult--"What vowel sound do you hear in the middle?" They don't understand because they don't perceive the individual sounds. They hear the words, but are not aware of the phonemes. For these learners, the teacher may as well be speaking a foreign language. This quote from an adult learner says it all: "It's not that no one ever taught me how to read before; it's just that they never took me back far enough. They didn't know what I didn't know" (Podhajski, 1998).
Phonemic awareness, decoding, and phonics
Phonemic awareness is related to, but different from, decoding. Phonemic awareness is about speech sounds only. Decoding makes the connection between letters and the sounds they represent. When we talk about phonics instruction we refer to training in the use of letter-sound relationships to identify words in reading or to approximate the spelling of words. Phonics instruction builds decoding skills, which depend to a large extent on phonemic awareness.
Phonological awareness is a broader, more general term that refers to the sounds of speech as distinct from their meanings, in particular an understanding of the ways that oral language can be subdivided. Phonological awareness has been described as a continuum of abilities beginning at the simplest level with rhyme awareness, moving up to an awareness of words within sentences, syllables within words, onsets and rimes (/b/ - /at/, /th/ - /in/), and finally the perception of individual sounds within syllables and words (Chard & Dickson, 1999).
Phonemic awareness, then, is the most refined (or most difficult) level of phonological awareness. Understanding this continuum is important when working with struggling readers. You may discover that most adults have awareness at some level, although phonemes escape them. In fact, individuals with a reading disability may never acquire complete awareness at the phoneme level, although they may eventually learn to manipulate onsets and rimes (Bruck, 1992).
Content of phonemic awareness training
The National Reading Panel identified six phonemic awareness tasks (listed below) for assessment and instruction (NICHD, 2000, p. 2-10). Although they are not necessarily listed in the order in which they should be introduced, common sense suggests that the first couple of tasks are simpler and may be prerequisites for the more difficult ones.
Why Is Phonemic Awareness Important?
Phonemic awareness is a foundational ability, required for developing decoding skills (Chard & Dickson, 1999). English is an alphabetic language, which means that written English uses symbols (letters) that represent the sounds in spoken words. But when "sounding out" a word, we not only must (1) know and be able to produce the sounds the letters represent; we must also be able to (2) blend those individual sounds as we hear them in sequence, and (3) recognize the word. Beginning reading instruction often focuses on step 1, which is the heart of the phonics approach. We teach beginners the sounds of the letters, thinking that is all they need. But for many learners, the process breaks down at steps 2 and 3 because of a lack of phonemic awareness.
Think about the learner quoted earlier who said, "they never took me back far enough" (Podhajski, 1998). It's not enough to memorize the sounds the letters represent if a learner can't make use of that knowledge because he doesn't perceive the individual sounds in a word. How can a struggling reader blend the sounds and recognize the word if his brain doesn't process the individual sounds? For this reader, the string of sounds doesn't automatically translate to a whole word. Similarly, how can a writer sound out a spoken word to guess at its spelling if he doesn't "hear" those sounds? Phonemic awareness allows readers to use phonics to identify words while reading and to spell words as they write.
Who Needs Phonemic Awareness Training?
Research tells us that adult nonreaders have almost no phonemic awareness and adult beginning readers also have phonemic awareness deficiencies (Kruidenier, 2002). Even intermediate ABE readers may have somewhat limited phonemic awareness (Read, 1988). Research also suggests that adults at the lowest literacy levels may profit from direct instruction to build phonemic awareness (Kruidenier, 2000). Learners at the next level—those with some independent reading ability—may also benefit.
On the other hand, the research on phonemic awareness deficiencies may not apply to ESOL adults who can't read English. You shouldn't assume that these "nonreaders" have phonemic awareness deficiencies. Other factors, including a limited English vocabulary, are more likely.
How Can We Assess Phonemic Awareness?
Not all adults need phonemic awareness assessment and instruction. If you are working with beginning literacy learners, you should be using a structured curriculum that includes initial assessments. However, you may want a test to make referral decisions or a diagnostic measure (for example) for a mid-level learner with poor decoding skills, to get more information about the nature of the problem. For these purposes, you may use tests or alternative measures.
Alternative assessments may be useful for both initial identification of strengths and needs and progress monitoring. Assess skills informally by asking learners to perform one or more of the tasks identified by the National Reading Panel: phoneme isolation, phoneme identity, phoneme categorization, phoneme blending, phoneme segmentation, and phoneme deletion (NICHD, 2000, p. 2-10).
You may check on these abilities by scheduling one-to-one time with a learner and asking her/him to perform samples of these oral tasks. You may also incorporate informal "check-ups" in your regular lessons:
You should include a sampling of several types of tasks because abilities vary and some tasks are more difficult than others. Research suggests that segmenting and blending may be the most useful skills (NICHD, 2000), p. 2-4), but isolating sounds may be a good place to start for assessment.
Although informal assessment may give you a sense of the learner's abilities, you should be aware that your choice of tasks may not be a good sample. Assessment may be more complete and consistent if you use a test for placement, referral, or initial planning decisions.
Tests of phonemic awareness include samples of one or more of the six tasks described earlier. Because of the nature of the skill, these are oral, individually administered tests. A test may begin with simpler tasks that assess the ability to perceive larger phonological units, syllables, for instance, instead of phonemes.
Syllable deletion: Say remember. Now say it again but don't say /re/. (member)
Phoneme deletion: Say bake. Now say it again but don't say /b/. (ake)
Phoneme segmentation: Break each word apart and say each sound in order--so (/s/-/o/); man (/m/-/a/-/n/)
Phoneme blending: Listen as I say the sounds in a word slowly. Then tell me what the word is--/f/ - /it/ (fit), /p/ - /op/ (pop), /s/ - /a/ - /d/ (sad)
A Phonemic Awareness Assessment Plan
What Kind of Phonemic Awareness Training Is Most Effective?
Developing phonemic awareness is a step toward the goal of learning to read with understanding or improving reading ability. It is not an end in itself. We teach phonemic awareness when and for as long as necessary, and then move on when learners have enough ability to manipulate the sounds to enable them to use phonics in reading and spelling. And we teach phonemic awareness in combination with phonics instruction and other reading skills because the skills reinforce each other. In fact, research with children has shown that using letters to teach phonemic awareness is more effective than oral practice alone. This approach to phonemic awareness actually qualifies as phonics instruction, but if the primary focus of activities is on manipulating the sounds, they may also be understood as building phonemic awareness (NICHD, 2000, p. 2-34; Kruidenier, 2002).
Suggestions based on the research with children
Since blending is required to sound out a word and segmenting is what we do when we're trying to spell a word, it makes sense to teach these. However, you should use assessment to see where to start.
Taking a systematic approach. Learners with very weak phonemic awareness need a systematic introduction to and practice of the various types of tasks over several days or weeks. For adult nonreaders and beginning readers, an idea from the children's research suggests that it may be most effective to provide phonemic awareness instruction immediately (Kruidenier, 2002, p.53).
Fortunately, you don't have to develop your own training program. Instead you can take advantage of the phonemic awareness activities that are built into a structured phonics curriculum. In fact, to work with beginning readers, you could consider learning more about one of the evidence-based reading programs.
Teaching phonemic awareness to adults
Some of the activities you will use in building phonemic awareness may seem childish. However, as explained above, they are vitally important for some learners. How do you deal with this sticky situation?
Experience with adult learners suggests that you will want to be careful when using materials developed for children (although you may be able to adapt them) and sensitive to the need for privacy if adults with minimal literacy skills are members of a class with varied skill levels. You should also remember to explain carefully why such activities are important to the achievement of reading goals that matter to the learners. Sometimes the connection between an instructional activity and a long-term goal is not obvious. Adults with learning disabilities, for instance, will likely need a clear "map" of the road to reading and frequent reminders of where they are on the journey. Understanding the relationship between daily lessons and the long-term goal may make phonemic awareness activities more palatable for you and the learners.
Also, remember that you should not expect adults to acquire perfect phonemic awareness as a prerequisite for beginning work on decoding skills. Research suggests that some disabled readers may never become capable of the most sophisticated kinds of phoneme manipulation, but may learn to use onsets and rimes (Bruck, 1992). Be aware of phonemic awareness limitations and choose strategies carefully, but don't put off phonics instruction waiting for perfection.
Finally, keep in mind that even for beginners, phonemic awareness activities and decoding practice are not the only focuses of instruction. To maintain an emphasis on meaningful, goal-related reading, try using simplified texts on adult-interest subjects, learner-dictated stories, taped readings and other assisted-reading strategies to build vocabulary and improve comprehension.
What Does Phonemic Awareness Training Look Like?
If you are working with beginning readers you should use a structured curriculum that ensures systematic instruction and provides a framework for learning activities and lessons. These programs include phonemic awareness training. The sample on the next page is just an example of the type of activity often used to develop phonemic awareness. It does not represent any particular approach or program and is not intended as a model for instruction.
Sample activity: Recognizing the /s/ sound
Phonemic awareness is taught along with other reading skills. Learners should be developing decoding skills and beginning to read as they continue to develop phonemic awareness. As they progress, you'll find numerous opportunities for quick phonemic practice activities, perhaps integrated with oral reading or spelling tasks.
This activity might be used with non-readers or beginning readers as one of the first steps in building phonemic awareness. The activity is limited in focus:
Summary: Phonemic Awareness Tips in a Nutshell
What Is Decoding?
Decoding is a word identification skill that involves using letter-sound correspondences to recognize words in print. Beginning learners use decoding to identify words when reading and to approximate the spelling of words when writing.
Phonics is an instructional strategy for teaching decoding that enables beginning readers to read words independently and accurately. And, of course, word reading is necessary for comprehension, the larger goal of reading instruction. But decoding skills don't work alone: they support other language-related processes at work in reading. The reader uses spelling, sound, meaning, and context clues in the process of identifying words (Adams, 1990).
The process works something like this:
Why Is Decoding Important?
Research and experience tell us that unless children and adults acquire the ability to identify words independently and rapidly, they will not be able to read fluently enough to read with understanding. Because English uses letters to represent the sounds in spoken words, written language is a sort of code. Beginning readers must learn to break that code (hence the term "decoding") by matching letters with the sounds they represent. Without this ability, new readers must memorize thousands of words by sight in order to read even fairly simple adult texts--a very inefficient approach. In addition, they have limited strategies for identifying words not already in their sight vocabularies.
Who Needs Phonics Instruction?
Adult nonreaders and beginning readers almost certainly need to learn to recognize and use the letter sounds and common spelling patterns in our language. They will use decoding primarily as a tool for recognizing/decoding words whose meanings they already know. (They also use it to generate pronunciations for words whose meanings they don't know, but they encounter such words infrequently because beginning readers usually are reading simple texts.)
This description highlights a distinction between skilled and beginning readers. Beginning readers are focused on "getting the words off the page." Recognizing the word is their primary task and frequently their most pressing problem. New readers confront unknown words all the time, even in fairly simple texts. But most of these unknown words are in their speaking vocabularies, and if they can decode them, their problem is solved. Skilled readers also encounter unfamiliar words, but the problem for them is not decoding. A word is unfamiliar if they don't know what it means. Skilled readers generate a pronunciation fairly automatically and then use other strategies to arrive at the meaning: using context clues or consulting a dictionary.
Obviously, then, for beginning readers phonics instruction is very important. Intermediate readers may also benefit. If their decoding skills are less than automatic, phonics review and practice may lead to more accurate word identification, and hence increased reading speed and fluency.
How Can We Assess Decoding Skills?
Again, not all learners will need this kind of assessment and instruction. A structured curriculum is recommended for beginners, and these programs include assessments. For mid-level learners with gaps in their decoding skills, a test will identify which phonics elements should be taught or reviewed.
Tests of decoding skills/word recognition
These tests are oral, individually administered instruments. They typically require learners to identify words presented in isolation. However, because simple words may be in the reader's sight vocabulary (words recognized by sight without conscious decoding), tests often include pseudo-words, like sek, tob, and gled. The same objective may be accomplished by using real, but uncommon words, like tad and hag.
Once again, we can't be sure about the use of these instruments for ESOL adults. Research does not offer specific assessment guidelines for these learners.
Tests usually include samples of words with several vowel and consonant sounds; consonant digraphs, like sh and th; common rimes, like at (in bat and cat) and an (in man and ran); and at higher levels, multi-syllabic words. Analysis of test results reveals which sounds and patterns the reader knows and which need to be taught.
Some tests also assess word recognition with graded lists of high-frequency words. This type of measure identifies the words a reader recognizes on sight.
Some Informal Reading Inventories (IRIs) also include decoding measures. (See fluency tests in Chapter 5 for details on IRIs.)
A Decoding Assessment Plan
What Kind of Phonics Instruction Is Most Effective?
Research indicates that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is most effective for beginning readers (Kruidenier, 2002, p. 49; NICHD, 2000, 2-94). This approach is in contrast to instruction that addresses phonics skills incidentally, as the need arises.
For example, a teacher who takes the incidental approach might use the occasion of a problem word encountered in class as an opportunity for phonics instruction. So when learners need to spell a word or when they encounter an unfamiliar word in their classroom reading, the teacher might decide at that point to teach the relevant phonics principle. In explicit, systematic phonics instruction, a body of phonics content--letter-sound correspondences and common word patterns--is identified, logically sequenced, and directly taught. Taking this approach does not mean that phonics is the main focus of the reading lesson in such classrooms, just that it is a focus, not an occasional activity. Phonics instruction is a means to an end; the end is reading comprehension.
Taking a systematic approach
The research identifies different approaches to systematic phonics instruction that have been used with children, but doesn't suggest that any one approach is more effective than the others (NICHD, 2000, p. 2-89 & 2-93).
Many of the studies reviewed by the National Reading Panel used one or more of these, sometimes in combination. While the literature on the efficacy of these approaches is inconclusive, synthentic phonics is more commonly used.
Textbooks and other programs. Phonics-based textbook series and other packaged programs may provide structure for you and the learners and simplify decision making about content and sequence. Contact a reading specialist in your school district, reading faculty members at local colleges or universities, or adult education staff development providers for recommendations of a scientifically based phonics curriculum or basic reading series.
Using proven programs of instruction. For adults with extremely limited decoding skills, you may need training in a program especially designed for such learners. Several highly structured programs have been proven to be effective in teaching people who have reading disabilities. Since many adult beginning readers have the characteristics of a reading disability (Chall, as cited in Kruidenier, 2002), one of these programs may be what they need.
Content and sequence. If you plan to adopt a textbook series or other program to form the basis of your phonics curriculum, the content and sequence will be determined for you. A brief sketch of the content for early phonics instruction is listed in Appendix B.
Problem-solving strategies for decoding. Because decoding isn't always enough, teach learners how to use other strategies in concert with phonics. For example, a beginning reader could learn this sequence for identifying an unknown word:
Matching instruction to assessed needs
Not every learner needs a comprehensive introduction to phonics. Some adults may need only to brush-up on skills or fill in specific gaps in phonics knowledge, e.g., work on long-vowel sounds and diphthongs (au, aw, ou, ow, etc.). Still others may have little difficulty with short words, but don't know how to approach multi-syllabic words. If you do initial assessment of (at least) all beginning readers, you will get an idea of what each individual needs to work on.
Practice-text materials for beginning readers. No matter which approach to systematic instruction you take and no matter which sequence you follow, practice is important. It takes immediate and plentiful practice to get decoding skills and knowledge into long-term memory and enable learners to apply what they've learned rapidly and automatically.
One way to get practice is to read and reread words on lists and flash cards. Learners may read on their own or aloud with a partner, noting the words or sounds they know and the ones they need to work on.
But they won't often read words in isolation outside of the classroom, so even beginners need practice reading words in context. The most efficient way to do this is to use controlled-vocabulary texts, which include many examples of words that exemplify the elements previously taught and no unfamiliar words that the learners can't decode with their current skills.
For example, a basal reading series might introduce ten consonant sounds, three vowel sounds, and 15 common sight words in the first three lessons. The stories in lesson three, then, would use only words previously introduced or words that contain those ten consonants and three vowels. Obviously, these restrictions seriously limit the early sentences and stories! If you are not using a basal reading series, you may compose these simple texts yourself or make a list of decodable words and ask the learners to create sentences and stories using them.
Simple, controlled-vocabulary texts may appear childish and you may reasonably question whether adults can possibly find this material interesting and worth reading. However, as long as you show that you respect them as adults, keep their records confidential, provide privacy when necessary, and demonstrate that you are sensitive to their individual reading goals, you may find your concerns are unfounded, especially if you also explain how these texts will help to reinforce their growing reading skills.
Beginners know they need basic instruction and most often are willing to do whatever it takes to become functional readers. They need to experience success so they can feel confident about their ability to learn, and controlled texts increase the likelihood that they will read accurately--perhaps for the first time in their lives. And of course, as they acquire a larger body of phonics knowledge and sight words, they read more interesting materials. As long as they can feel successful and see progress, they are likely to accept the instructional materials you use.
Finally, no one is suggesting that these controlled texts are the only materials that adults will use in your classroom. Authentic materials related to individuals' goals, life needs, and interests should also be an important part of reading lessons. (See page 46 for ideas on accessing adult-interest materials.)
Adolescents and very young adults who are poor readers may be particularly sensitive about their skill deficiencies and unwilling to be singled out from their peers for special instruction, perhaps because they had plenty of experience with that sort of treatment when they were in school. They may not respond well to some activities that work with more mature learners, so you might need a different approach. In addition, you might consider getting access to their school records to learn about services they have received and still may be entitled to receive. For information on a program for adolescents, get the book, When Adolescents Can't Read: Methods and Materials That Work (Curtis & Longo, 1999).
What Does Phonics Instruction Look Like?
If you are working with beginning readers you should use a structured curriculum that ensures systematic instruction and provides a clear framework for learning activities and lessons. These programs include phonemic awareness training.
The sample on the next page is just an example of the type of activity often used to develop phonemic awareness. It does not represent any particular approach or program and is not intended as a model for instruction.
Sample activity on initial r-blends
The remaining r-blends (br, cr, dr, etc.) would be taught at another time, to be followed perhaps by the l-blends (bl, cl, fl, etc.) and the blends that begin with s (sc, sk, sp, st, etc.),
How Can We Address Adults' Reading Goals If They Need Phonics Instruction?
Since the adults in ABE and family literacy classrooms often have varied skills, you will need to use assessments to identify those who need a complete, systematic phonics introduction, those who might need a brush-up and/or practice with multi-syllabic words, and those who don't need direct phonics instruction at all.
However, skills assessment is not your only guide in working with adults. You also must consider individual goals and interests if you want to maintain their motivation to learn and participate in your program. Here are some suggestions--based on the accumulated experience of adult educators--for providing research-based instruction and addressing real-life needs.
Meeting immediate needs
You might need to find quick ways to help weak readers gain access to print they can't read independently, but need to understand to help their children or to be successful at work, for instance. Adults' real-life needs often can't be put aside completely while they develop reading skills. Options for these learners (many of whom have learning disabilities or other special learning needs) should also include other strategies. If these immediate needs arise, you might (for example) read the material aloud to a learner, tape record it for her later reference, or help with filling out forms.
Accessing adult-interest materials. Encourage and enable all adults in the program to read meaningful stories and articles that appeal to their interests. Remember that the components skills reinforce each other; they don't develop in a strictly linear fashion. You don't have to put off "real reading" until the learners have all the background skills. In fact they may learn new word meanings through exposure to more difficult material.
But what about the words they can't read independently? You can't control the vocabulary in high-interest materials, so how can you meet the real needs of adult beginning readers?
Summary: Phonics Instruction Tips in a Nutshell