Research on Phonemic Awareness Training

summarized by

Margaret Moustafa

California State University Los Angeles


Children who have not yet learned to read have difficulty consciously analyzing spoken words into their constituent phonemes. For example, children who have not yet learned to read hear the phonemes /p/ and /l/ in the word play as a single sound /pl/ (Bruce, 1964; Ehri & Wilce, 1980; Liberman, Shankweiler, Fischer, and Carter, 1974; Mann, 1986; Rosner, 1974; Treiman, 1983, 1985, 1986; Treiman and Baron, 1981; Tunmer & Nesdale, 1985).


Some (e.g., Adams, 1990; Lyon, 1997; Stanovich, 1986) would address this difficulty by teaching phonemic awareness, that is, teaching children to perceive the sound /pl/ as /p/ and /l/. Once children can analyze spoken language into phonemes, they would then teach them letter-phoneme correspondences, e.g., the letter p represents the sound /p/, the letter l represents the sound /l/ and the letters ay represent the sound /a/. They point to a large body of research which shows a strong correlation between children’s ability to read and their ability to consciously analyze spoken words into phonemes. They say phonemic awareness predicts reading ability.


The problem is, correlation does not establish causation. There is a strong correlation between, for example, being in a hospital bed and being sick, but being in a hospital bed doesn’t cause sickness, at least not the sickness that brought about the initial hospitalization. The word predicts is a statistical term which means there is a very strong correlation between two phenomena. Prediction does not mean causation.


Research does not support phonemic awareness training. Bus & van Ijzendoorn (1999) found that phonemic awareness in kindergarten accounts for 0.6 % of the total variance in reading achievement in the later primary years. Troia (1999) reviewed 39 phonemic awareness training studies and found no evidence to support phonemic awareness training in classroom instruction. Krashen (1990a, 1999b) conducted similar reviews and had similar findings. Taylor (1998) points out that phonemic awareness research is based on the false assumption that children’s early cognitive functions work from abstract exercises to meaningful activity, rather than vice-versa, as in other learning.


In fact, rather than phonemic awareness being a pre-requisite to literacy, literacy contributes to phonemic awareness (Scholes, 1998; Treiman, 1983, 1985). We use our knowledge of how words are spelled to figure out how many phonemes are in a word. We are less competent in analyzing spoken words into phonemes when individual phonemes do not have a one-to-one correspondence with letters. For example, most literate adults do not realize that there are four phonemes—not three—in the word box. Phonemic awareness training is a cart-before-the-horse approach to teaching reading.







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