I do not usually write a preamble to the Research Digest, but am doing so on this occasion because the topic on which I am focusing is rather complex and gives rise to differences of opinion even among people who are otherwise like-minded about the importance of phonics teaching. The topic is phonemic awareness. This term has sometimes been used interchangeably with ‘phonological awareness’, particularly in studies dating back more than a decade, but most researchers now use ‘phonological awareness’ to mean awareness of large as well as small units of sound within words (syllables and rhymes as well as phonemes) and ‘phonemic awareness’ to mean awareness specifically of the smallest units – phonemes.
Everyone agrees that conscious awareness of phonemes in spoken words is strongly related to reading ability, but opinion is much more divided on the exact nature of this relationship. In particular, there has been almost equal support for two rather different views: one is that children need to be aware of phonemes in spoken words before they will have much ability to understand and apply the alphabetic code in reading, and the other is that this awareness develops most easily and efficiently as they learn to read.
The ‘before’ view, which is quite common in the USA, is encapsulated in the opening sentence of the 1998 book Phonemic Awareness in Young Children by Adams, Foorman, Lundberg and Beeler: ‘Before children can make sense of the alphabetic principle, they must understand that those sounds that are paired with the letters are one and the same as the sounds of speech’. The ‘classroom curriculum’ contained in this book consists of aural/oral exercises on phonological and phonemic awareness which, when used with USA kindergartners (children aged five-plus), continue for most of the school year before the sounds are paired with letters. This leaves no doubt about the ‘before-ness’. Similarly, research carried out by the USA National Institute of Child Health and Development has been reported as concluding that ‘developing a conscious awareness of the smaller sounds in words was essential to mastering the next step in learning to read, phonics’, with ‘phonics’ being defined as ‘the ability to match spoken phonemes to the individual letters of the alphabet that represent them’ (www.educationnews.org, 21 April 2004). Of course not all USA programmes provide such lengthy prior auditory training as the Adams et al. programme: PhonoGraphix, for example, claims to start with sounds but introduces each letter within seconds of introducing the sound, which means that ‘before-ness’ is not strongly emphasised in practice. There are also shades of opinion about the extent to which phonemic awareness is essential, as distinct from merely desirable, before children are taught the alphabetic code. Where ‘before-ness’ is emphasised, there is nevertheless reasonable agreement that phonemic awareness plays something of a causal role in reading acquisition: good prior phonemic awareness is seen as causing or at least helping children to understand the alphabetic code easily, and poor prior phonemic awareness is seen as causing them to struggle.
This contrasts with UK and European synthetic phonics thinking, which emphasises phonemic awareness not before but as children learn to read. Synthetic phonics teachers find, in practice, that children start to realise that spoken words are made up of phonemes as they start learning letters and take their first steps in reading words by sounding out and blending. This embryonic awareness then boosts further understanding of the alphabetic code. We might have expected this type of synthetic phonics thinking to influence Progression in Phonics (PiPs), which was an attempt to strengthen the phonics teaching in the National Literacy Strategy (NLS), but the authors were apparently more influenced by the phonemic-awareness-should-come-first view, as is evident from their use of the words ‘first’ and ‘then’ in the following statement from page 3 of PiPs: ‘The most effective phonics instruction teaches children to identify phonemes in spoken language first, then to understand how these are represented by letters and letter combinations (graphemes)’. By contrast, ‘teaching the sounds that match letters and letter combinations’ is said to be ‘inefficient and often confusing’. PiPs does not say that it is essential for children to be able to identify phonemes in spoken words as a first step (just that it is ‘better’) and does not spend nearly as long on teaching this skill as the Adams et al. programme does, but, as Diane McGuinness pointed out in RRF Newsletter 51, its logic on letters and sounds is confused. No wonder NLS results are not nearly as good as synthetic phonics results.
The statements in PiPs about the approaches regarded as ‘most effective’ on the one hand and as ‘inefficient’ and ‘confusing’ on the other are juxtaposed with a side-heading and introductory paragraph referring in a general way to ‘evidence’ and ‘research’. When I first read PiPs in 1999, I took this to mean that research support was being claimed for the statements. The research which I myself knew of at the time did not strike me as supporting the NLS position as strongly as PiPs seemed to be suggesting. I therefore wrote asking for references so that I could read the research for myself. The first reply I received did not supply any references. I wrote again, reiterating my request for references. I then received a reply stating that the NLS was ‘not claiming research evidence in making the point you are querying’. In that case, what was the basis for the PiPs statements, and why did they appear in a context which suggested that they were research-based?
This may all seem rather convoluted, but I believe that it is important because PiPs, the official guide on phonics teaching, is arguably wrong. Even before it was published, opinion among researchers was fairly evenly divided, as indicated above, and it would have been better if PiPs had reflected this rather than stating that the ‘before’ type of teaching was definitely ‘the most effective phonics instruction’. Since its publication, however, several studies (for example those dealt with in the Research Digest below) have cast doubt on the validity of the ‘before’ view and have offered strong support for the ‘as’ view, where phonemic awareness is regarded as developing most easily and effectively alongside letter knowledge. The effectiveness is maximised if a systematic sounding-out-and-blending approach is used for beginning reading, but the Blaiklock study (see below) shows that even when a whole-language approach is used, some children begin to be aware of phonemes once they know most letter-names and can read some words.
The role of letter knowledge in promoting phonemic awareness was referred to by one of our own RRF committee members, Dr Bonnie Macmillan, in an article in Journal of Research in Reading, Vol. 25 No. 1, February 2002 (see also Newsletter 48, April 2002, p. 23). Her article is cited with approval in the first two research studies summarised in this Research Digest. The third study also provides support for the view that alphabet knowledge is a crucial factor in developing phonemic awareness, as does the work of Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson in Scotland .
Teachers should not go on being given the impression that a certain way of teaching phonics is ‘the most effective’ if it is not. The NLS approach, which ‘teaches children to identify phonemes in spoken language first, then to understand how these are represented by letters and letter combinations’ has failed to meet government targets. True synthetic phonics introduces letters and sounds together: this approach has good support from research, and schools teaching this way have for years met, and indeed exceeded, government targets. When will the authorities take note of this?